BURY HIM!

The rebellious Antigone comes to bury her dishonored brother.

The controversy surrounding the remains of the first Marathon Bomber is revealing Boston, Cambridge, and other Massachusetts communities as not quite as enlightened as denizens of that liberal region of the country would like the rest of the world to think: “dust to dust” is time-honored, but officials in Massachusetts are kicking up a lot of it in denying a simple spot to a soul whose fate now belongs to God, not them.

The cowardly bombing attack, it seems, was not an act against reason, America, or humanity, but against Boston, and now the provincial fury has carried over to Boston’s mayor and Cambridge’s top official refusing burial rites, calling to mind Sophocles’ Antigone—Boston dust is too soul-precious to cover the dust of a fled soul.

We understand the tears and anger felt throughout Boston and the Massachusetts Commonwealth.

But we also note tribalism rearing its ugly head.

This debate over dust recalls Rupert Brooke’s famous poem, “The Soldier.”

Rupert Brooke was part of the Dymock Poets in England (with Robert Frost, an unknown poet then visiting England to get known—and it worked) and this marks the 100th anniversary of a group nearly forgotten, perhaps due to Ezra Pound’s over-loud reputation.  The Dymock Poets thought little of Pound and he even less of them. Pound challenged one of them to a duel.

The Imagists, an even smaller clique than the Dymock Poets, prevailed as “true” Modernists, even though Frost—not a joiner, but part of the Dymocks—was making poetry sound more like speech and the Dymocks, like the Imagists, presented themselves as the new thing after the Georgians.

The Dymock Poets lost members to the First World War (the Imagists lost T.E. Hulme) and Frost soon left for America to make it big as a “New” England poet.

But back to dust and tribalism:

Is it tribalism when the tribe is as big as the British Empire?

The Soldier—Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

POEMS OF SCARY DEPTH: BILLY COLLINS SEEKS TO ADVANCE PAST LORD BYRON

Byron: hated by husbands and modern poets. Can Billy Collins match up with him?

The chief objection to the poet from the typical sports watching lay person is that the poet ‘makes shit up.’

Yup, the poet does ‘make shit up’ and this is why philosophers like Plato object to them and why citizens immersed in reality have no time for them.

The world is full of shit, and shit is what most people are busily involved in—it’s the making the poets supposedly do which arouses suspicion and distaste for poets, because first of all, only God and people who work with their hands can ‘make’ something, and secondly, anyone who ‘makes’ something with words has got to be suspicious right from the start.

Common sense keeps words docile and doesn’t let words do anything tricky; poetry, on the other hand, lets words do anything they want; why should someone who maybe doubts their ability to keep all words under control, never mind all word-combinations under control, trust poetry?

It’s not surprising that poetry doesn’t have a lot of fans.

One might object by asking: what of the fabulist, the fictioneer, the novelist, the TV or movie script-writer? They get more love than the poet. Why?  Don’t they make up stuff with words, too?

Unlike the poet, the strict story-teller uses reality’s language, even if fantasy or sci-fi is the genre: words behaving themselves can talk about anything, but poet’s words do not behave. Misbehaving words afflict the mind itself, transforming the reader into something they may not recognize about themselves. This is scary.

The reader needs to feel safe: they prefer moral instruction which keeps their own mind intact as a reality construct, receiving reality’s information. Keeping a ‘made-up story’ at arm’s length is safe. Having your mind invaded by tricky words is something totally different.

The predictability of genre, reviewing, reader feedback and the ‘best seller’ phenomenon is crucial: this is why readers choose books by genre, by reviews, by recommendation, and by what’s on the ‘best-seller’ list.  The moral arc of predictable story-telling comforts the reader. The brains of most readers cannot receive beauty in language; words simply tell them what they can understand, and this is all that reading is for them.

Poets don’t cooperate with this system, because words which don’t obey a certain moral-reality-paradigm literally alter one’s brain and one’s morals.  Not all poets can do this, of course, nor could most readers have their brains altered by what they read even if they tried; but this is the perception in terms of readers generally choosing what they like or do not like.

Two poets who have more fans than most are contemporary poet Billy Collins, and 19th century poet Lord Byron, who had celebrity status from his poetry.

Collins takes great pains to not sound like a traditional poet.

Selling books is like herding bovines. Large house editors and publishers, if they really wanted to, could make Byron’s Don Juan a best-seller again: it would just require a large enough advertising budget and a movie tie-in.

It is not in the interest of publishers to do so, however, since if the industry can sell millions of books written in the plain style of King or Steele or Grisham, why raise the bar, Byron being so much a better writer?  Why build a cathedral when a wooden church will do?

Byron (beautiful, smart, funny) is dutifully kept in his place by the publishing industry; first of all, to make sure no authors feel they have to write well (like Byron) to sell, and secondly, Byron today occupies a down-trodden, sub-sub-position even within wretched poetry which, since Byron’s death, has morphed into a ‘modern’ product of plain speech and easy-to-grasp morals—as part of fiction’s publishing strategy of ‘most efficient bovine herding.’

Byron doesn’t sell today on account of being one of those tricky poets who ‘make shit up,’ barred from the lay reader’s comprehension.

Not only that, however: Byron is not even respected among poets today as a poet, rejected by them precisely because he is comprehended.

During poetry’s transformation from pretty to plain during WW I—when poets who wrote prettily (Brooke, Thomas, Owen) were literally being slaughtered in the trenches—as poems became plain-spoken to fit in with mass living, a last-minute alteration occured: seeing poetry had nothing now to distinguish it from plain speech, in a calmly calculated effort to keep poetry as the ‘elite’ art form everyone understood poetry to be, poetry labeled itself “difficult,” so that in its new plain state at least it would not completely disappear.

The anglo-american poetry industry made a Faustian bargain: poetry will continue to exist as a “difficult” genre the lay person cannot trust—and this will be poetry’s sole (but vital) distinguishing characteristic. It would attract a small following of the mad, but at least it would still exist as what the mad groupies were sure was “poetry.”

Not everyone in Modernville was happy this happened, but it did. Exceptions, of course, exist. Poets, determined to be understood, have written easily understood poems: on wheel barrows. But once an industry criterion is established, it doesn’t easily go away: a wheel barrow in a poem has deep meaning whether it really does—or not.  This is the iron law.  It has long since been established as poetry’s trade-pamphlet reality: all poems are/ought to be “difficult,” even little ones about wheel barrows. 

Poetry—whether by Byron, or not—is not popular today because not being popular became poetry’s identifying marker when poetry self-consciously became ‘modern’ and jettisoned all its previous charms.

Again, exceptions exist; elements of the public yearn to reverse the Modernist Faustian Bargain, and popular poems do peep through the cement occasionally. But obscenity-trial “Howl” was an ugly flower; the public still mistrusts poetry; “difficulty” lingers on as poetry’s identifying elitist marker.

Byron (past) and Collins (present) are good examples of populist, anti-modernist poetry; they are welcome participants in Scarriet’s 2013 Madness Tournament.

Collins writes plainly; it is the equivalent of one approaching a doe in the woods: “It’s okay! Don’t be afraid! I won’t hurt you!”

“At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats,” is the first line of Collins’ Madness Tournament entry, “Passengers.” 

There is no meter, no rhyme; just one line after another, as if it were prose—but easier.

Gently the doe is offered food: “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.”

PASSENGERS–Billy Collins

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of sky divers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common spot

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It’s just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter’s hair…
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Collins does not ‘make shit up,’ he merely records his quirky ruminations—the charming thing about “Passengers” is that it exists as an actual document of someone thinking about something which he cannot share.

The very people Collins could share it with are not allowed to access his thoughts—and the reason it cannot be shared is the very reason for the poem itself.

The “police” are absent censors until the poem is liberated in front of us—who become the “passengers” of Collins’ poem.

Byron is represented with a random excerpt from his long poem, Don Juan:

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Byron is self-consciously rejecting old poetry with his jokey, “Hail, Muse! et cetera.”  Byron is more modern than many moderns would like to admit. Maybe it’s time to come out and admit that “Modern” is merely a brand. 

Byron, like Collins, also conveys the forbidden: love/sex/marriage advice: highly embarrassing to the public at large, which would prefer Byron to be a character in a novel, not a free-thinking poet speaking out in a poem as a thinly-veiled version of himself.

The chief fault with the Byron is the tone of lecturing, combined with the feeling that too much sweat is spilled for the sake of wit and rhyme that attempts to mitigate that same tone.  Otherwise, it’s just brilliant.

Collins, despite his prose, does use poetic language; note the assonance of: “some spaceless, pillarless Greece.”

One might say Collins and Byron are apples and oranges, but a winner there must be.

Collins 90, Byron 88.

Lord Byron goes down!

HENRY JAMES: WORST WRITER EVER?

Poor Henry James.  He took so long to say something, and when he finally said it, there was nothing there.

With Henry James, there was always something that seemed to want to get out, but somewhow, it couldn’t.

Effort was always present in him: great, even herculean effort, but it was always merely towards a kind of grim self-existence: the loud breathing of one panting because of their own weight.

If Henry James is remembered as a poet, it is precisely because what he was trying to say could never be said.

Henry James was always writing prefaces to his novels, and his prefaces were wonderful—because they teased, even tortured, his readers into such refined impatience: oh do please get on with the novel, already, before I expire!

For instance:

“The Wings of the Dove,” published in 1902, represents to my memory a very old—if I shouldn’t perhaps rather say a very young—motive; I can scarce remember the time when the situation on which this long-drawn fiction mainly rests was not vividly present to me. The idea, reduced to its essence, is that of a young person conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desiring to “put in” before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived. Long had I turned it over, standing off from it, yet coming back to it; convinced of what might be done with it, yet seeing the theme as formidable. The image so figured would be, at best, but half the matter; the rest would be all the picture of the struggle involved, the adventure brought about, the gain recorded or the loss incurred, the precious experience somehow compassed. These things, I had from the first felt, would require much working-out; that indeed was the case with most things worth working at all; yet there are subjects and subjects, and this one seemed particularly to bristle. It was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it—it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a “frank” subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill—a case sure to prove difficult and to require  much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign.

Before reading a Henry James novel, one needs to be carefully informed of how difficult it was for Mr. James to wrestle with how he was going to “work-out” his inescapable theme.  His prefaces are sort of like having one’s brains dashed out—in order to create that proper impressionistic effect which his impeccable, fictional realism requires, as it portrays dashing men—and the thoughtful ladies who love them—sucking their thumbs.

Henry James, the pampered, life-long bachelor who fled rough-and-tumble America for Men’s Club London, was the sort of person most happy when talking about his own novels (and explaining what he was going to do in them), which is why prefaces were so important to his art.

It is no wonder Henry James failed miserably at the theater.  Audience: We’ll give you an hour, or two. Connect with us.  James couldn’t do it.  He was booed and hissed off the stage by his beloved Londoners.

His father, Henry James, Sr., now forgotten, founded Syracuse, was the richest man in America, and most importantly for his son, Henry, knew Emerson—who told young William Dean Howells to publish Henry Jr in The Atlantic Monthly, which was great, because Henry James was not doing much of anything at the time, laying about, feeling guilty for not fighting in the Civil War, and he and Howells were to discover a ‘movement,’ Tea-Cup Realism, which they were very happy with, and Henry now could tell everyone—thanks to papa’s connection to ‘uncle’ Waldo—that he was a published writer.

Henry Sr.’s eldest son, William, experimented with writing things down while on nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, and founded the first psychology department, at Harvard, where he eventually had Gertrude Stein—who was good at automatic writing—as a student.

So the James family gave us the city of Syracuse, Tea Cup Realism, Academic Psychology, and Modernist, experimental literature.  Not bad.

But what shall we do with Henry James’ inflated reputation?  Why, lance it, of course.  If not punctured, the inevitable decay will set in—James has already lost millions of readers to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling, and has a dwindling readership—and that decay will leave a disturbing odor.  Or, perhaps, James’ empty-at-its-core writing will not rot at all, but drift imperceptibly away?  It will be labor lost, then, to make any effort to dismantle James’ rather bulky notoriety—which yet looms over our Letters.

Having said that, we’ll end with a sampling of another of James’ prefaces—not for one of his novels—we won’t torture you further with them—but for someone he loved, a boy he adored: Rupert Brooke, who died in World War I, only a year before Henry James, himself, passed away.  Rupert Brooke is famous for his lines from “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed

Both men, the old novelist and the young poet, adored England.  James met Rupert Brooke a few times in person, and evidently was quite smitten by the lad.  The old novelist wrote the Preface for Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, in honor of the poet’s death. The small book was published by Scribner’s in 1916, the year of Henry James’ death, a short time after Rupert Brooke’s death in the Great War—and Henry James wrote it while the atrocity known as the Great War was still going on.  Has anyone ever written such ugly, tedious, meaningless bombast?  Read for yourself:

Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy; but he is before us as a new, a confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of.  With twenty reasons fixing the interest and the charm that will henceforth abide in his name and constitute, as we may say, his legend, he submits all helplessly to one in particular which is, for appreciation, the least personal to him or inseparable from him, and he does this because, while he is still in the highest degree of the distinguished faculty and quality, we happen to feel him even more markedly and significantly “modern.” This is why I speak of the mixture of his elements as new, feeling that it governs his example, put by it in a light which nothing else could have equally contributed—so that Byron for instance, who startled his contemporaries by taking for granted scarce one of the articles that formed their comfortable faith and by revelling in almost everything that made them idiots if he himself was to figure as a child of truth, looks to us, by any such measure, comparatively plated over with the impenetrable rococo of his own day.  I speak, I hasten to add, not of Byron’s volume, his flood and his fortune, but of his really having quarrelled with the temper and the accent of his age still more where they might have helped him to expression than where he but flew in their face.  He hugged pomp, whereas our unspeakably fortunate young poet of to-day, linked like him also, for consecration of the final romance, with the isles of Greece, took for his own the whole of the poetic consciousness he was born to, and moved about in it as a stripped young swimmer might have kept splashing through blue water and coming up at any point that friendliness and fancy, with every prejudice shed, might determine. Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. How can it therefore not be interesting to see a little what the wondrous modern in him consisted of?

What it first and foremost really comes to, I think, is the fact that at an hour when the civilised peoples are on exhibition, quite finally and sharply on show, to each other and to the world, as they absolutely never in all their long history have been before, the English tradition (both of amenity and of energy, I naturally mean), should have flowered at once into a specimen so beautifully producible.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

THE FOUR WAVES: MODERNISM REVISTED

Image result for rupert brooke

 

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

THE QUESTION: WHAT IS THE MODERN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, just as boldly:

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

And, just as boldly, this as well:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:

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

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

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

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

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

Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.

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

DIE NOW TO LIVE

In his “A Moveable Feast,” the memoir many now consider Hemingway’s best work, about Paris ’20s modernists,  Hemingway remarks there was a WW I poet/survivor in the cafes and some resented him for showing off his missing arm too much. I thought that was telling. The WW I Wounded Poets are not famous at all, the WW I Dead Poets, very famous.  This sort of indicates that there is a time and a way to die that is expected of poets.

Everyone loves a good story—the arc of a poet’s life, from birth to death, either grabs the imagination, or not.  A poet who dies in a war is a good story; one who survives with a missing arm is just depressing. “Can’t he cover that thing up?” People don’t want to be reminded of the unpleasantnesses of life.

When you are young, you have to be a killer to get fame and fortune.  Then when you get it, you can become the beloved elder statesman.  Is that what happened with Pound?

POETIC FAME AND TIME OF DEATH

A RANDOM SAMPLING:

  1. POE                39   MURDER?
  2. BYRON            36  GREEK INDEPENDENCE
  3. KEATS             26  T.B.
  4. SHELLEY          29   DROWNING
  5. PLATH             31   SUICIDE
  6. BROOKE          27   WW I
  7. OWEN             25    WW I
  8. RIMBAUD         37    CANCER
  9. FROST              88   OLD AGE
  10. T.S. ELIOT        76   OLD AGE

The point isn’t really when you die or how you die, but a combination of factors: 

Had Frost or Pound died young, they would probably be unknown. 

Had Sylvia Plath lived a long life, she would most likely be unknown.

The poets’ life arc makes great stories. The more the arc mirrors the poet’s work, the better.

Think before you die, poets.

Dying in WW I did poets’ fame a world of good.  Surviving WW I (does anyone remember that poet with one arm…what’s his name?) did you no good at all.

There are no 1960s poets of  note…that’s hard to believe.  The ’60s poets who get respect are musicians…Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, John Lennon etc  Ginsberg is the closest thing, yet he was more a 50s poet…he was already bald in the 60s, which is so non-60s…  America does not have one iconic ’60s poet.   The ’60s were a bad time to be a poet, period.

Was this because peoples’ lives became their poetry?  Who needs poetry when one is living a hedonistic lifestyle?

Supposedly the New Critics were conservative because they said, ‘the text is all’ and thus moved all consideration away from the poet himself, hedonistic, or not.   But how can there be poetry without the poet?  How can we consider, in a Platonist, philosophical manner, in a true pedagogical manner, the poetry—without the poets?

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