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 its 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 in 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 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.”

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.

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?”

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