ALLITERATION: A BRIEF ESSAY ON POETRY

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A poem is just an interesting person saying interesting things.

I don’t read Heine and Shakespeare and Keats for phrases of pretty alliteration.

The poets today describe Shelley’s statue—and then tell you what it means.

The image at the end of Ozymandias is not an image, per se; Shelley is saying something.

All purely imagist poetry is nothing but pathetic fallacy, or, if not, then it is pure impressionistic poetry, comprised of images only—which more properly belongs to painting and the eye.

Be a Japanese painter, if this is the kind of poetry you are interested in.

Critics complain of “statement poetry,” as if poetry were not the simple desire to say something—which is all it is.

Shakespeare is great because of what he says—as he adds in his art.

Like rhyme, which is avoided because it becomes sing-songy, if one doesn’t know how to do it, poets avoid statements, or speech, because they are deficient there, too. They have nothing to say.

When Shakespeare, the master, asks “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” he is not making that silly mistake of trying to describe a summer’s day. No poem could.

Keats, in his sonnet, “The House of Mourning,” professes the same sentiment when he rebukes Wordsworth for writing a sonnet “on Dover.”

There Dover sits, Keats is saying, and a poem about Dover is bound to fail, precisely because poets do not exist to say anything about Dover. That task is for a painter, a photographer, or a travel essayist. Nothing at all against Dover.

There are those who think song lyrics have rhyme and therefore poems should not rhyme. And they reason themselves into a corner, unfortunately: if any attempt at sound as a tool is eschewed, what is left?  Describing what we see—but pure seeing cannot be done with poetry.

We’ve seen trees, and therefore, when trees show up in a poem, we think we see them in the poem.

We don’t.

The poet has not, and never will, make us see, with certainty, trees.

The poet, every time, is saying something about trees.

But critics and readers who are sure that poetry is not someone saying something (having convinced themselves that poetry is far more subtle and attenuated) rejoice in the idea that no reader will agree with another—you do not see the same “trees” I see; correct, but instead of seeing this ambiguity as a bad thing, the ‘poetry as seeing’ error is compounded, as poetry of precise and accessible speech is rejected, and a far more insidious error arises—the one which celebrates ambiguity as a good.

Either way, the poet will go about describing Dover, naively thinking Dover (not actually depicted) really is presented—or: implicitly finding the “poetry” in the very fact that there are a million Dovers.

I have heard, countless times, readers celebrate a poem for meaning a different thing to every person, as if this obvious shortcoming were somehow a virtue. They know poetry cannot be seen. And, for this reason, are sure it cannot be understood, either.

Now poetry can see a little bit, but only in the service of poems like “Ozymandias” or “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”

These poems do not attempt to describe Dover. Yet every citizen of Dover, if they can read, will read these two poems—and agree on what they say.

 

 

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POETRY AND FEMALE BEAUTY

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To some, probably to many, if not all, this topic of “poetry and female beauty” might seem just a silly exercise, a vain excuse to draw nonsensical and vain conclusions of the most deluded and pitiful kind.

Can anyone seriously believe that “poetry” and “female beauty” have anything to do with each other?

Haven’t we long advanced past such antiquated notions?

Well, yes.  If by “advanced,” we mean too sophisticated to be interesting to anyone.

This is why poetry is dead.  Not dead to you and me, of course.  But dead to them. The public.

But who can blame them?  They have no idea what poetry is.

And yet, let us not be disheartened.  Follow my reasoning.

There are two ways to look at poetry, and today we champion one, and discard the other.

The one we champion is: poetry is either a certain, linguistic-mathematical, thing-in-itself (a sonnet has 14 lines, etc) or it is a special way of expressing whatever the poet wants to express—some kind of meaning (or non-meaning) in some kind of emotional (or non-emotional) manner.

Lyric or avant-garde, this is the view the vast majority of serious poets and critics champion: a poem has both a “form” on one hand, and a “say whatever you want” content on the other.

The one we discard is this: Life is what creates the poem; the poem itself determines neither its form nor its content—life, as everyone knows it and lives it, does.

In as much as “female beauty” is important to life, “poetry and female beauty” is a more vivid, and more valid, description of what poetry is, or might be, than the term, “poetry.”

One can speak volumes, of course, volumes and volumes, should one choose to describe “poetry.”  And one will have the advantage of describing “poetry” with numerous examples.

This “advantage,” however, has one problem: there will be so many examples, and poetry will be defined in so many ways, that “what a poem actually is” will disappear. On account of it being everything. 

And think about it.  Isn’t this how poetry ends up being described these days?  It can jingle and rhyme. It can be prose. It can be brief. It can be long.  It can be anything.

And what does all this finally mean for “poetry?”

It has no definition. It doesn’t exist.

But once we attach “female beauty” to “poetry,” as completely foolish as this might seem, we are actually bringing poetry back to itself, restoring its definition, placing it back in reality, so that they (the public) have a chance of appreciating it and enjoying it, again.

The idea of “female beauty” is a fertile one.  It is an endlessly interesting topic and generates far more excitement than, well…. “poetry.”

Poetry has always done best for itself when it plays a minor, supporting role, when it surrenders its proud title and makes itself small.  Famous poems and poets become famous not because of the poetry—but always from something else.

Shakespeare: A great poet, maybe the greatest, but not best known for poetry.  One can go right down the line and see what we mean, whether it is Charles Bukowski (bar life) or Homer (war, adventure) or Dante (Hell, Beatrice).  Does anyone describe Bukowski by citing how he used iambic pentameter? Or how Bukowksi wrote about everything under the sun?  No.  Bukowski is completely defined in the public’s mind by the narrow content of his work.  Would anyone care about Dante if all we knew about him were his verse forms?

This, one might object, is only how the crowds see these poets.  Well, yes.  But we can’t forget that.

Secondly, Plato looked at poetry from the standpoint of his ideal Republic, from the standpoint of society: poetry is not some separately defined thing; it is an extension of what humans do, and that includes lying, propaganda, frightening people, and unnecessarily exciting people—stirring up emotions in ways they shouldn’t be stirred up. And this whole approach—which looks upon poetry warily as an aspect of life—belongs to this view that is now discarded.  Why is it discarded?  Because we think Plato was unkind to poetry, so we have discarded Plato—and his whole way of thinking about poetry.  But what have we done, in discarding how Plato felt about poetry? Plato idolized and feared poetry—he was in awe of it; it isn’t just that he didn’t trust it; he was mesmerized by it, the way some of us are mesmerized by female beauty.  By discarding Plato’s view, we are not really in favor of poetry; we are actually rejecting all that makes poetry dangerous, untrustworthy—and fascinating.

The poetry that we mistakenly put in our Republic today is defined so vaguely that it has no teeth, no interest, at all!

For here’s the thing: it isn’t that poetry should be good or bad; it is that there should be passionate feelings on whether it is good or bad.

What are the poet’s prospects today?

To teach poetry in school, which is to politely ill-define it into non-existence.

So the poets themselves are destroying poetry—while an increasingly bored public walks away.

The problem that poetry faces as a popular art form these days is that it is not bad enough to be banned by society, nor good enough to be embraced by society—and for the simple, obvious reason that no one knows what it is.

Now it is true, that we do, of course, hear of poets imprisoned, or even killed, in totalitarian regimes, but in every case we know that it was because of something that was said in the poetry, not because of the poetry.

Poets may take heart in hearing of poets banned and murdered: see! I am important! I am dangerous!

But the truth is, politics gets people killed; politics, not poetry, is always the reason; otherwise, poetry would sell, and attract large audiences and be a volatile, ecstatic essence—but it is not.

Certain kinds of politics and music are traditionally Dionysian, and often banned by society. Poetry may be cool, but, unfortunately, it is not hot.

Poets who practice poetry outside academia strive to make it “cool.” But the poetry of cool tends to finally be like the poetry of school—it is that poetry which aspires to “everything,” and which dilutes audience expectation, so that in the end, it is nothing.

People go to a comedy club to laugh. People watch the news to be informed. People go to a music club to dance.

People go to a poetry reading to…

And in that pause, in that ‘what do they go to a poetry reading for?’ is the entire problem.

And even within that fatal uncertainty of expectation, if people do have a real sense that in poetry there is, or might be, a superior entertainment, they will only be turned off all the more, since nothing makes people more uncomfortable than to be forced to experience what is vaguely superior. It is just as off-putting as a vague feeling of inferiority.

The operating word here is “vague.”

A narrow, defined, superiority is one thing, but a vague, all-inclusive superiority makes one think of a priest and solemn music and the occasional chuckle—perhaps the kind and wise priest has a sense of humor—and now, even here, religion has its attractions of a definite sort, and the key word is priest, who interprets God, and okay, we get it, we know exactly what that is. Religion is what one takes the family to, it is concerned with a philosophy of life: anyone, without feeling strange or self-conscious, can be certain in their mind what a religious ceremony is.

Thus, its popularity.

But if people are truly indifferent to anything, whether it is music or religion or poetry, it is because they are not sure what it is. If they do like a religious ceremony, they like it for a very specific reason: the music, the food, the dressing up, the solemn atmosphere, the chance for family gossip: something very specific and known.

But poetry, because it is so widely and vaguely defined, is, to both commoner and sophisticate alike, absolutely unknown. That is the whole problem.

As we have demonstrated, the poets are responsible for killing poetry, and they are doing so every single day, both inside and outside academia, with every book they publish, with every poem they write, and with every poetry reading they give, because of the scattered and ill-defined nature of poetry’s existence, dilute and invisible and depressing, and, increasingly so. This must stop.

And why are there so many bad poets? And people say they like them out of politeness! The ultimate art form of truth has been shackled to empty politeness!

The micro-issue of so many bad poets is directly related to the macro-issue of the ill-defined and utterly unknown nature of poetry. The writers of poetry are hesitant—of course!—they literally don’t know what they are writing.

But the poets should know what they are writing–in terms of pleasing a public, and a critic.

Poets are un-writing poetry, and poets are further destroying poetry because they fear the Critic, which brings us back to Plato, the greatest Critic, who the poets have fearfully tossed out, and banned. Ban criticism, however, and you ban poetry.

The Critic knows how to humble poetry, and this is crucial; for remember how we said that poetry always succeeds in actual practice when it plays a supporting role?

The solution to poetry’s vagueness is not to fanatically hyper-define a poem as a thing in-itself. We need to deftly add something to poetry, which will give it a new and grounded definition.

So poetry needs to become part of life. It needs ceremony and definition. It needs the equivalent of a flute girl, who is always, reliably there. And if the flute garners more attention than Plato, or the poet, too bad. The poet or the philosopher is simply out of luck.

The audience must absolutely know what to expect, every time. Is this possible?

And now lastly, and thirdly, we come to the whole objection many have for mentioning “female beauty” at all—but this is part of its whole interest.  One could easily object: aren’t men complete idiots in the way they swoon over superficial looks?  This causes a great deal of unhappiness. Why do you want to encourage this?

It is not that we want to encourage this shallow, but prevalent, excitement and interest in female beauty. We want to use it, and refine it in the process. For shouldn’t poetry be able to refine what is crude in life by sweetly and gently embracing it?

Religion must be moral and music must be sensual, and isn’t poetry that which occupies the perfect middle ground between the two? Pardon us if we seem too much like a Critic here, but is this not true?

And again, if the solution of “female beauty” seems silly, it is only because poetry as it is practiced today, both in and outside school, in all its solemn, many-headed seriousness, has become an empty bore to poetry’s potential public.

So in place of all this vagueness, why shouldn’t we introduce “female beauty” to “poetry,” if it will help make poetry popular, and rekindle the opportunity of sweet fame?

Why shouldn’t we introduce this principle:

Every true poet is a muse.

Why should poets remain oppressed and crushed by all that is vague? Better to be defined by what we are, and who we are, truthfully. Poetry needs to escape its abstract blackboard.

Why shouldn’t poetry be this:

Her.

Sad eyes, a humble spirit, devoted to family and friends, a brilliantly inventive but unschooled poet, writing poetry from childhood, not knowing why, with a model’s looks which could equal international renown, but looks greater than a model’s because informed by something sweeter and greater, captured and bound in a rapturous sense of poetry: an unconscious muse, a deeply conscious poet?

Poetry would be better for this.  For what is “poetry?”—word of no meaning!

Let poetry, instead, be the poetry she inspires.

And then we will know what poetry is.

 

 

 

THE POETRY COMMUNITY LOSES ITS MIND

Over the weekend, thanks to Reb Livingston, we became aware of a brewing scandal in the poetry community.

Scarriet feels compelled to respond to the ‘anonymous sexual abuse outing document found in AWP restroom controversy,’ not because we have any special interest in it, per se, but because we believe the scandal currently poisoning po-biz manifests aesthetic attitudes of significant pedagogical importance.

Scarriet is a boutique—a high-end, up-scale, boutique, of what might be called expensive, high-fashion poetry and poetry criticism; we produce clothing and accessories for the soul, and we make no apologies for the beauty, love, truth, good taste and wit that we produce; and nor do we apologize for appealing to an elite class of soul (which has nothing to do with advanced college degrees or any of the credentialing nonsense that characterizes the pyramid scheme of so-called “professional” poetry, with its animal grunting and network stroking). We take poetry seriously, and don’t come around here with that ‘pyramid’ nonsense please. Our readers generally know, and do not.

This controversy has nothing to do with us, of course, because we are free of the odor of po-biz, and merely roll around in poetry. But this scandal affects us because it impacts how the world sees and practices poetry.

Scarriet is a high-end boutique precisely because we live the poetry, and can respond to a controversy like this without passion or self-interest.

Our position is this: poetry, some time around the beginning of the 20th century, was, in a series of adroit political and pedagogical maneuvers by Modernist poets, wealthy individuals, and government officials, coaxed away from its public role and public use to become a playground of pretense and experiment (all in the name of public and pedagogical improvement more accurately reflecting real life, etc).  Seducing poetry away from what it had been turned out to be wildly successful, since the seduction had a democratic appeal: obscure, fragmentary prose became the ‘poet’ standard anyone could reach, and, at the same time, one could ‘learnedly be modern’ and reject the ‘fussily moral’ past. (‘Could’ is not quite accurate; one did—the two necessarily went hand in hand.)

It is important to note here that “what poetry had been” is more accurately what poetry is-–as shown with poetry—by the best poets of the past. Shakespeare set a high standard, Poe set a high standard, Keats and Shelley and Tennyson set a high standard, Whitman and Wordsworth and Barrett set a high standard, not in the sense that professors are required to make us understand their poetry—the standard is a real one, in which accessible music joins accessible rhetoric in a highly skilled manner, clearly conveying things which the public is interested in: chiefly, relations between the sexes; moral philosophy; good taste; refinement; interest in nature and science; philosophical wit; wisdom, fears, loves and hopes common to all.

This high standard—which gave pleasure to a reading public, also took its inevitable place in the schools with the rise of universal public education.

Modernism piggy-backed into the schools as it managed to standardize itself there, and, gradually replacing the ‘old’ poetry with the “Red Wheel Barrow” and “The Waste Land,” used the force of its school-validation in combination with the rise of the Creative Writing Industry (Iowa, Paul Engle and his friends, the highly government-and-think tank connected New Critics, including Robert Lowell) as poet-teachers increasingly joined the piggy-back phenomenon in an orgy of self-interest that cut out the old standards and left no room for Byron. Poetry was no longer a public enjoyment—it was something only professors could teach, and as poetry became more experimental, inaccessible and obscure, the self-interested professor became more prominent in what became essentially a pyramid scheme of teachers/wacko explainers on the inside, and everybody else (including the public) on the outside.

Which brings us back to the scandal: an ugly manifestation of the ugly things which naturally occur whenever favors replace standards.

We don’t need to take sides here; we only need to point out—as we have just done—in the simplest manner possible, a truth, which, despite the brevity, we are certain everyone immediately understands (remember when poetry was like this?).

The accusers, in the current scandal, are accused of slandering the innocent (slander: 1. an important trope in Shakespeare, 2. used to destroy the reputation of America’s great standard-bearer, Edgar Poe).

The truth has yet to come to light. Accusations themselves can murk up the light on their own. We do not know the truth and do not speak of it, obviously. The rage of the accusers does not equal the truth; but their rage could be based on a truth; we are not taking sides. As we pointed out earlier, we have the luxury of not taking sides, since we stay clear of all po-biz insanity, and care for poetry alone.

The accusers open their letter (following a list of the accused names of the men) with a profundity which needs saying and which we agree with:

It has finally come to the attention of the literary “community” that women are abused and experience gendered violence just like women in all other social spheres of the world. The humanities do not save us, the assumed “humaneness” of the poet or writer does not exist. We say “community” in scare quotes because we have no shared actual commonality or trust that forms the bedrock of self-identified communities.

Yes. Poets and poetry need no special protection or defense, and it’s the Modernist (and contemporary) poets and their fans who play this ‘poet immunity’ card the most, even as they trash the reputations of a Poe or a Shelley. The accusers are right to expose this douchebaggery. And no more hiding behind “community,” either, which is code for the Creative Writing Era favoritism douchebaggery which has cynically steamrolled the standards of old.

But the accusers don’t get it entirely right, and come close to spoiling everything, for they go on to summarize:

This is a statement against the straight male cisgender patriarchy that enables this behavior: not only bringing direct harm to women, but those who have knowingly stayed silent while your fellow writers abuse people in positions of lesser power.

So we are to believe that gay men and women cannot, and do not, abuse women? How can one be interested in justice—and be so utterly naive?

The accusers, in their wrath, are strangely divided—they expose douchebaggery and yet they are victims of it, in almost equal amounts.

The reason for this is simple, as well. Since poetry has lost its public, there has been an increasing attempt in some circles to make poetry relevant to a public again by making poetry (poetry!) simply about hot button, political issues. But there are things like the essay which already exist for this. Here, again, we see the whole thing unfolding simply and naturally, due to the original Modernist error.

And now we bring our notice to a close, secure that Scarriet is the only sane, up-scale island left in poetry today. We are happy. We are  proud.

 

 

SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

1. Come live with me, and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dales and field, And all the craggy mountains yield. (Marlowe)

2. Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.  (Blake)

3. Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; And I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. (Dowson)

4. April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (Eliot)

5. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones and trees. (Wordsworth)

6. If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. (Emerson)

7. The sea is calm tonight, The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. (Arnold)

8. When I am dead and over me bright April Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, Though you should lean above me broken-hearted, I shall not care. (Teasdale)

9. The soul selects her own society, Then shuts the door; On her divine majority Obtrude no more. (Dickinson)

10. We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile. (Dunbar)

11. This is the waking landscape Dream after dream walking away through it Invisible invisible invisible (Merwin)

12. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw, And I said I do, I do. (Plath)

13. It is easy to be young. (Everybody is, at first.) It is not easy to be old. It takes time. Youth is given; age is achieved. (May Swenson)

14. There is no disorder but the heart’s. But if love goes leaking outward, if shrubs take up its monstrous stalking, all greenery is spurred, the snapping lips are overgrown, and over oaks red hearts hang like the sun. (Mona Von Duyn)

15. Long life our two resemblances devise, And for a thousand years when we have gone Posterity will find my woe, your beauty Matched, and know my loving you was wise. (Michelangelo)

16. Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form. (Auden)

BRACKET TWO

1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

2. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. (Coleridge)

3. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. (Barrett)

4. Say to the Court, it glows And shines like rotten wood; Say to the Church, it shows What’s good, and doth no good: If Church and Court reply, Then give them both the lie. (Raleigh)

5. Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicaean barks of yore, That gently o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore. (Poe)

6. Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum! (Omar Khayyam)

7. Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made To a green thought in a green shade. (Marvell)

8. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (Gray)

9. O hark, O hear! how thin and clear, And thinner, clearer, farther going! O, sweet and far from cliff and scar The horns of Elfland faintly blowing! Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying, Blow bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying. (Tennyson)

10. I have a rendezvous with Death, At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air. (Seeger)

11. I have put my days and dreams out of mind, Days that are over, dreams that are done. Though we seek life through, we shall surely find There is none of them clear to us now, not one. (Swinburne)

12. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. (Whitman)

13. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing. (Keats)

14. Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. (Frost)

15. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (Stevens)

16. I was, being human, born alone; I am, being a woman, hard beset; I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get. (Wylie)

BRACKET THREE

1. The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way. (Milton)

2. Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a roving By the light of the moon. (Byron)

3. I arise from dreams of thee In the first sweet sleep of night, When the winds are breathing low, And the stars are shining bright. (Shelley)

4. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. (Owen)

5. We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses. What more is there to do, except to stay? And that we cannot do. And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara. (Ashbery)

6. Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives. (Sassoon)

7. Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose. (Parker)

8. The shopgirls leave their work quietly. Machines are still, tables and chairs darken. The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin. (Reznikoff)

9. It’s not my business to describe anything. The only report is the discharge of words called to account for their slurs. A seance of sorts—or transport into that nether that refuses measure. (Bernstein)

10. I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed. (Rich)

11. When I see a couple of kids And guess he’s fucking her and she’s Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives (Larkin)

12. I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. (Millay)

13. Those four black girls blown up in that Alabama church remind me of five hundred middle passage blacks in a net, under water in Charlestown harbor so redcoats wouldn’t find them. Can’t find what you can’t see can you? (Harper)

14. It’s good to be neuter. I want to have meaningless legs. There are things unbearable. One can evade them a long time. Then you die. (Carson).

15. On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall. I looked up into it—late afternoon but bright. Nothing true or false in itself. (Graham)

16. The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. (Lockwood)

BRACKET FOUR

1. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy. (Homer)

2. And following its path, we took no care To rest, but climbed, he first, then I—so far, through a round aperture I saw appear Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Dante)

3. With usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA (Pound)

4. I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g of “becoming.” Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea. (Chin)

5.  Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind. (Sexton)

6. I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew, The jealousy, the shyness—though in vain—Made up a love so tender and so true As God may grant you to be loved again. (Pushkin)

7. We cannot know his legendary head And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze is turned down low, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. (Rilke)

8. So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rain water besides the white chickens. (Williams)

9. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. (Ginsberg)

10. The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so, And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low: And all the little Oysters stood And waited in a row. (Carroll)

11. What dire offense from amorous causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trivial things; Slight is the subject, but not so the praise, If she inspire, and he approve my lays. (Pope)

12. Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere. And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane. Or would you say that I have gone insane? What would you do, then, to even the score? (Mazer)

13. Come, read to me a poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of day. (Longfellow)

14. So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, not to hold him back but to impress this peace on his memory: from this point on, the silence through which you move is my voice pursuing you. (Gluck)

15. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow. (Donne)

16. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (Bishop)

17. Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power will never establish, It is so frail. (Ransom)

FAG HAGS, COCK TEASES, AND RICHARD WAGNER

Richard Wagner. We need infinite patience for love—and Wagner’s exquisite music.

Civilization exists because people grow old—otherwise there would be no civilization at all.

A beautiful woman growing old and losing her looks is the source of all Tragedy.

Nietzsche had the insane idea that Dionysian music was the birth of Tragedy.

We think our Idea makes more sense.  We speak, of course, of “real,” Tragedy, not mere tragedy (misfortune).

In fact, high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow can be defined precisely this way: how each one of them ages.

High-brow, as we might expect, ages gracefully. The high-brows have the best defense against the curse, using elegance and learning and wit and art to fight the good fight.

Middle-brow women have a lesser (but strong) defense: feminism.

The only problem with feminism is that its anti-aging strategy is much too self-evident: impugn the (young) beautiful woman and the desire she elicits in order to make older women seem more reasonable and satisfied. This is why feminism is a middle-brow phenomenon: feminism’s strategy is embarrassingly obvious to the high-brow sensibility, but too subtle for the low-brows—who simply don’t understand why it should exist: a man is either chivalrous and attractive, or not—feminism to the low-brow is superfluous.

As for the low-brows, everyone knows the low-brows age horribly, usually in an orgy of boozing and tobacco.

Why is ‘a lovely woman growing old’ the subject of trashy B movies, and not fine art?

Because part of the strategy of growing old is not mentioning it—only middle-brow Hollywood fare starring Betty Davis and Joan Crawford would have the bad taste to revel in the horrible idea, which is better left hidden from sight. This is why Hollywood succumbed to middle-brow and even low-brow kitsch: it dared to treat the Great Tragic Subject directly.

High-brow artists like Wagner and Shakespeare understood that one never treats the Great Tragic Source directly; it is better to hide the True Tragedy (a woman growing old) behind things like the folly of young lovers and adultery.

Comedy (Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor) which presents foolish old lovers is merely the flip side of Tragedy.

The death of beautiful young lovers is beautifully Tragic, and Tragic in a beautiful way because it avoids beauty growing old. The true subject is hidden, but is there, nonetheless, as the impatience of young lovers is simply the understanding that old age is not far off.

The pride of the aging woman is not to be toyed with, and this pride is the key ingredient in Tragedy. It is this understanding which informs high-brow taste and makes high-brow taste the exquisite set of tacit understandings that it is.

In Love in the Western World, Rougemont’s wonderfully subtle treatment of the Tristan and Iseult myth makes it clear that these famous lovers were not simply two attractive people who had the hots for each other—chastity, selfishness, and lack of desire were in the mix, too (as well as a love-potion, royal intrigue, and misunderstandings).  The true object of the two lovers, according to Love in the Western World, was Death.

Death is a valuable idea because it covers up the real truth: why is death welcome? The author of Love in the Western World, a high-brow and scholarly treatment of love, does not say, and does not ask—instinctively in the name of good taste. Death is the default alternative once aging becomes too advanced. Aging is the real Enemy, the real essence of Tragedy, not Death. Once age destroys beauty, death simply becomes preferable—death is never the goal.

Time is directly related to aging, as death is not, for death does not need time, but aging does. It is aging which is real, not death. Time and its sister, Space, are the two aspects of the universe which we experience most directly; the end of time or space (infinity) we do not experience: our death is never real to us. Our aging is.

Feminism, the middle-brow strategy of middle-aged dignity, has taken such a beating from high-brow and low-brow elements in the last 50 years that a new strategy has recently replaced it. Economic difficulty adds a twist—middle-brows either fear, or actually fall, from middle-class status, or aspire to a wealthier status, and so are forced to face other sensibilities. Feminism doesn’t ‘look happy’ among other sensibilities; but the gay lifestyle, because it implicitly involves sex (sexual orientation is how we describe it, after all) has more je ne sais quoi. So we witness the middle-aged woman, fighting against age, not necessarily renouncing her feminism, but announcing she is gay.

Feelings of scornful revenge against the aging beauty (especially if she is a cock-tease) primarily comes from unhappy men. A gay woman, then, escapes this indignity, by running into the arms of female sexuality (or at least female cuddling and affection which excludes short-sighted, greedy male desire).

There is roughly the same nuance to the gay strategy—women running to women to escape the indignity of aging in the eyes of men—as the feminist strategy, making it a mostly middle-brow lifestyle choice.

To make sure the world knows, we often hear the term “openly gay” used to describe the middle-brow individual today. “Openly gay” does not mean the individual has sex in public. Well, how would we know what they really are, otherwise? Of course “openly gay” sex in public would not be civilized. “Openly gay” has a certain implicitly built-in, hidden aspect in a ‘good taste’ sort of way (an aspiration towards the high-brow without quite reaching it is always implicit in every middle-brow strategy). The unseemly, low-brow ‘male gaze’ longs to witness the sex act; the gay, middle-brow, middle-aged woman does not have to answer questions about what happens in the bedroom, anymore than anyone else does, and so the dignity of the strategy is preserved. Low-brow breeding (children) is the only thing which really gives the game away. Children and youthful beauty are the two things which traditionally are not hidden away, the way, let’s say, being gay, can be hidden in its entirety.

To renounce sex is not a bad way to age with a little more dignity. There is nothing more undignified than old-looking people ostentatiously going after sex—even if they get it—for no one believes old-person sex defies the horror of old age. If it doesn’t work as pornography it doesn’t work as immortality.

Baudelaire’s complaint against Nature was Nature’s lack of sympathy for the old; civilization, according to the French poet, keeps the aged alive, while Nature lets them die. But here is more talk of death, when the real agony is getting old itself; we strategize tastefully by making death the issue, and it is no surprise that this is a chief strategy of poets, who belong to high-brow realms of Taste more than other vocations. Did Petrarch let Laura grow old? Did Dante let Beatrice get old? Of course not. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (printed privately) ushers in modernity more than any other work, for the “breeding” portion of this book fearlessly references wrinkling and old age, a poetic, high-brow, Good Taste taboo. The aging trope in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is such an offensive taboo, that it hides for many what the whole book is about, and up to the present day, critics still interpret the Sonnets as a courting manual, auto-biographical confession, or advice to a royal person, (it is not these things) and cannot admit what it really is: a self-consciously age and death-defying boast by a guy (immortal poet) who was starting to look old.

If you are starting to look old, only civilization can save you. An aging population is a kind one, (it has less street crime) but the trouble is, if breeding does not pick up again, the aging population is threatened with extinction. The dignity of homosexuality—all the various strategies of renouncing sex, from the fag hag to the monk to ‘love the planet/squelch the humans’ “liberal” politics—once fertility returns as a civilized necessity, reverts back to an indignity.

In the necessity to re-populate, young beauty is sacrificed to breeding (low-brow) and is renounced as a subject of art (high-brow). The poem turns to cooler subjects: urns with lovers who cannot kiss but remain forever fair. Loveliness that lasts forever is a lofty ideal advanced in the face of the young beautiful mother who quickly ages as she populates a depleted realm. In this case, the aging of a beautiful woman serves a purpose, at least.

The poet of the Sonnets would say to the woman: if you don’t produce children, you will get old and ugly, anyway.

Which gets an imperious slap in the face.

A slap exhibiting the pride which hides beneath all Tragedy and is at the heart of all Civilization.

A slap exhibiting the pride which is crushed daily—by Nature.

 

 

 

 

 

PUBLIC, PRIVATE, PRIVATE, PUBLIC

image

The famous Thomas Brady of Scarriet in a private moment

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Who wouldn’t choose private over public?

One would have to be insane to prefer the public.

Monday morning is public.  Friday night is private.

The public is what finds us out and makes us do things.  In private, we do whatever we want. 

We are forced to act a certain way in public.  In private we can be ourselves.

Here is what is so dreary and ugly about poetry: poetry is all about making something public.

Why in the world would we want to do this?  Why would we want to take Friday night and move it over to Monday morning?

Poetry makes the private public—but for what reason?  To spend all that time and effort getting published?  What kind of fool would do this?

The public is the necessary place where work gets done. To “make a living,” we go to the public, but we go to the public wearily, warily, unhappily.

Even those who win the public’s affection “just want to be alone.”  Fall into the clutches of the public, lose your privacy, and watch what happens.  You go insane, is what happens.  The public is where we go to die.

Those who “want to be liked” take the first foolhardy steps towards their doom. Because “being liked” is usually achieved in the public eye.

Even famous poets rejoice in privacy.  As W.H. Auden put it in his well-known introduction to the Signet Classic edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbors, particularly the ugly ones.  What today passes for scholarly research is an activity no different from that of reading somebody’s private correspondence when he is out of the room.  Most genuine artists would prefer that no biography be written. Shakespeare is in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous.

Even the joy of knowing “ugly secrets” is a private affair.

And yet it’s the public judgment which deems them “ugly.”  Privacy enjoys things in a completely judgment-free zone.

The trick is to protect the private space with a good public wall, or fence.

Auden’s poetry did not reveal his private feelings at all.  The poet, Auden, because he was a good poet, was simply making a public display to keep the public happy and out of his life.

Without further ado, let us ask: Does the public give us any joy at all?

If so much happens in public, if so much matters in public, can we really say it is a miserable, unhappy realm?

How can the infinitely important and consequential (public actions and responses) cause so much unhappiness?

Let us try and find some things which are public and also good.

First, we should ask the obvious: is one possible without the other?

We mentioned Auden, celebrating the private, yet known as a public figure by his public poetry.

Do we all need a public edifice in order to enjoy our private space?

And what is it, exactly that we do, and who exactly are we, in that private place behind our public wall?

We are not just saying you can’t have Friday night without Monday morning—that’s pretty obvious; we are asking more than that: we are asking: what is this privacy that we seek, exactly? And is this privacy something we seek, or something we are?

Can we have a private bedroom without first having a public house on a public street in a public city? Can we build a place to hide (a house) without work done in public to earn that house? Okay, more obvious stuff: we all have to pay the (public) piper; get dirty to enjoy our cleanliness. An interesting reversal of metaphor here? For isn’t private dirty and public clean?

But this apparent metaphoric reversal points to the very thing we are trying to do: fight through the obvious truth, the platitude, the truism, of the private space hiding behind the public wall, to ask: what exactly are these things? Public? Private?

So far we established without much effort, that private is good, public, bad; the private pleasurable, the public, odious, the private, true and genuine, the public, false and tedious.

But let us ask a few more questions and see if this is the actual state of things.

Is the beauty of the sky public or private? Public, certainly; we would not enjoy the beauty of a sunset if the sunset existed privately. The sky, then, is public. Yet all all of us experience the sky in whatever way we choose. We all experience the sky—this very public thing—privately.

Now this is interesting. For all of us to experience the sky privately it is necessary for the sky to be public.

Now what if we were to insist that all private experiences belong to this category: the public experienced privately?

What if we made this radical assertion: What we think is private is really public.

The private is merely a piece of the public—the public is the actual; the private is nothing more than a piece broken off?

The public is the whole thing (the whole sky, the whole universe) or, in terms of time, the eternal—what lasts is the only thing that is true, according to The Big Boys: Socrates, Shakespeare, etc. And thus the private, which we just got done lauding, is only a crumb, a morsel of what is true.

For a small (mortal) mouth, a morsel is perfectly suitable, but here’s the startling truth which is now insinuating itself into this essay: the private is nothing in itself—it is only the public cut down to a practical size.

We flee to our room to dwell in a private place, but we seek that privacy in vain. We cannot escape the eye of God—and another name for God is—the public.

The room we seek is our tomb, the privacy we seek, nothing.

We run to the public restroom for a little privacy; but how much more privacy if we were home in our own bathroom! If we had a thousand bathrooms, would we have more privacy? No! We just need one! Privacy cannot be quantified— it is like the point in geometry. A thousand bathrooms is a public fact, not a private one. (There is no private fact. Privacy is an infinite number of ideal, immaterial points, geometrically speaking.)

Privacy cannot be physically measured—meanwhile ‘the public’ is measurement itself—since privacy has no material existence; privacy is the One Person in the One Private Place—an Ideal, an impossibility, a part torn off from the One Public in vain, for Reality in its true state will not be torn off or broken.

We would have more privacy in our bathroom at home than in a public one; but perhaps not—what if our husband were home and knocked on the bathroom door, and wanted to come in? Or what if we had no husband and lived alone? Alone is the ultimate private existence, and yet the one state we all fear the most: for to be truly alone is to be buried alive; privacy in its true state is death.

The idea of the private is just that: an idea, and has no real existence: every thought coursing through that head of yours belongs to the public; your body is public, your whole existence is public in a manner you can barely comprehend, and so far as you don’t comprehend, you are absolutely ignorant—and this ignorance is nothing more than your pitiful (because nonexistent) privacy.

You have remained too long in the darkness.

Party like it’s Monday morning.

You have nothing to hide, because the hidden is nothing.

Not speaking, you speak.

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

WILDE VERSUS WOOLF

Virginia Woolf: a beauty with an audacious mind. A supreme opponent in Oscar.

WILDE:

 

I should have said that great artists worked unconsciously, that they were “wiser than they knew,” as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere, but it is really not so.

All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does.  A great poet sings because he chooses to sing. It is so now, and it has always been so. We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song. The snow lies thick now upon Olympus, and its steep, scraped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the vale. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century, and the work that seems to us to be the most natural and simple product of its time is always the result of the most self-conscious effort. There is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-consciousness and the critical spirit are one.

The longer one studies life and literature, the more strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the individual, and that it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who creates the age. Indeed, I am inclined to think that each myth and legend that seems to us to spring out of the wonder, or terror, or fancy of tribe and nation, was in its origin the invention of one single mind.

 

WOOLF:

 

It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.

If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.

No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own. The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged.

The blame for all this rests no more upon one sex than upon the other. All seducers and reformers are responsible. All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame, and it is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age, when the writer used both sides of his mind equally. One must turn back to Shakespeare, then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Coleridge. Shelley was perhaps sexless. Milton and Ben Johnson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoy.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn. The writer, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river. And I saw again the current which took the boat and the undergraduate and the dead leaves; and the taxi took the man and the woman who came together across the street, and the current swept them away, as I heard far off the roar of London’s traffic, into that tremendous stream.

 

Modern literature and the sexes; modern life and the sexes; life and the sexes; the sexes.  Rather inescapable, isn’t it?

The unhappy marriage is at the heart of all literature.

Literature is perhaps the invention of the unhappy marriage.

Wilde, in the Madness passage quoted, sounds like he would have admired Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” and it’s perfect, for at the top he rebukes Emerson, the anti-Poe.

Woolf strives towards some aesthetic reconciliation between man and woman: is it doomed to failure?  Is it a mere abstraction, this sexual intercourse of the spirit? We think we know what she means, this hankering after the “androgynous” mind of the genius; it’s an attempt to reconcile all unhappy marriages, and what’s so bad about that?

Woolf wants two sexes for the mind. Wilde wants one mind: the self-conscious, critical artist.  One versus two.

 

WINNER: WILDE

 

DREAMS, FALSE GODS, FAKE THEORIES, AND THE SENSUS COMMUNIS

In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”

THERE IS A RADICAL ERROR

There are two ways to respond to any impressive performance: “Bravo!” or “How did you do that?”  The second response will sometimes unnerve the performer, and of course it’s also the basis of education and pedagogy.

Edgar Poe, before Modernism, before the Writing Era, before Post-Modern Theory, asked in his “Philosophy of Composition,” why poets never recorded how they wrote a poem, and thought “authorial vanity” the chief reason. Poe goes on to illustrate, step-by-step, how he wrote, “The Raven.”  Poe, here, was destroying the Romantic notion that a poem was “organic,” that a poem had to be written because of some fountain of passionate expression in the poet’s soul, that a poem was a mystical, religious experience glimpsed through a burning window. Poe merely said we can put together a poem like a piece of machinery.  The New Critics and T.S. Eliot, with their anti-Romantic, perfunctory, ironic, modern, intelligence, learned it all from this one essay.  Much was made of (and the moderns mocked) Poe’s “Death of a beautiful woman” formula; but this was just Poe (as usual) having it both ways: machinery/tenderly human.  The point Poe was making was that the poem-machinery still needs a human theme to work like a machine: machines work for people, after all.   “The death of a beautiful woman” really wasn’t the point at all.  It was just an example.  His machine, as he tells his readers, was a “popular” poem machine; you need a popular theme for a popular poem to work.

The poet must be a critic of himself even more than the critic needs to be a critic of the poets, for the former produces great poetry; the latter only points out bad poetry.  We can crudely puff ourselves, too, investing in “Bravo!” over “How did you do that?”  This third option is by far the worst.

Poets should be critics, but should they be fiction writers, too?  Or historians, as well?  How much should the genres mingle?  Critically, how much can be surveyed at once?   Is there enough time to become expert in more than one field?

And is it philosophy that should bind all these up—criticism, poetry, fiction, and history?

Any poet will give short, competent answers to these questions in interviews, and every intellectual revels in a certain number of disciplines, but philosophically we’re winging it.  No one really knows very much, beyond a suave, surface nominalism capable of fooling people for an afternoon in front of a classroom.  In our hearts we know we are frauds.  Inspiration may visit.  But not for very long.

The following is merely a good place for this discussion to start because it manages to cover it all: poetry, fiction, history, and criticism.  It is from Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.”

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

The analysis and criticism of literary fiction invariably involves talk of three things: “character,” “point-of-view,” and some “essay topic theme” by which the work is generally characterized and marketed: Man v. Nature, Boomer Romance Comedy, or topical news interest such as immigration, gun control, health control, cyber-bullying.

These things, however: character, p.o.v., and theme, though commonly discussed, are crude markers.  A new vocabulary for discussing fiction is necessary.

The one thing we all want is to know and reflect the truth—if such a thing exists, and let’s assume, for the moment that it does.  So poems, stories, criticism of those poems and stories, history, philosophy should express—in their various ways—truth.  Truth, for the reader of fiction, might be truth of character, a small insight into life, a slice of political truth—it doesn’t have to be truth with a capital “T,” just so we know what we are generally aiming for, here.

Edgar Poe makes the radical assertion that he prefers writing a story without a “thesis” from “history,” or “one suggested by an incident of the day.”  Then he goes on to say that he will select an original and vivid “impression” to affect the “susceptible” reader, using “incident” and “tone” and looking “within” to find the right “combination” of such.

We can hear the howls of protest from those looking for “truth.”  Mr. Poe, by walling himself off from history and life, and starting with the impressionable reader, seems determined to get as far away from the truth as possible, to say nothing of “looking within” for “combinations.”

Poe, are you mad?   Yes, mad like a fox.

Here’s how we imagine Poe would respond: Why insult history, and worse, Truth herself, by saying fiction is true? Why make fiction into a kind of half-history/history lite, incident-of-the-day-illustration, or an essay chock full of half-truths that yet satisfies a blowhard’s opinionated animus in a certain literature-approved direction? A reader’s susceptibility is simply the coin of fiction; why pretend otherwise? If the bad routinely preys on this susceptibility, why not genius, too? As for the ‘walling off’ and ‘looking within,’ charge: removing fiction from history’s realm—where history is merely turned into half-truth by the untrustworthy—we free up fiction to be more itself: combinations of tone and incident fashioned within by the only one worthy to fashion, in a novel manner, these combinations: the author.

“Incident” is just the right word, too, as bland as it might sound to modern ears.  “Incident” refers to both character and plot, neither of which can exist without the other.  We hear lovers of literary fiction go on about “character,” as if mere “plot” belonged to the cruder arcs of genre fiction, “character” distinguishing high-brow productions from their populist kin.  We recall Poe scolding a critic, who, in speaking of Hamlet, the character, wrote of Hamlet as if he were a real person who walked among us, and not simply the coinage of Shakespeare’s brain.  As the religiously superstitious over-anthropomorphize, so the critic of literary fiction inevitably mistakes fictional characters for real persons—they are not.  “Character” is merely a piece of machinery belonging to the fiction, belonging to the “incidents,” and is no more genuine than a plot device—for each part of the machine cannot exist without the other; the “combination” of the “incidents” is all—and the “character” merely a piece existing for those “incidents” and their “tone,” a tone which belongs solely to the author, and if we think the tone has anything to do with “character,” we err in the manner just alluded to in the Hamlet example.

When Poe, the author, constructs a story, obviously “the real” seeps in, but to acknowledge this is only to recognize what the more history-based author makes paramount, anyway.  The issue here is “Who is in charge?”  The author, or the historical incident Both have integrity, and this is precisely why we don’t want to mix them up.

Much is made of “point of view,” also.  But “incident” can cover this, as well.  The author needs to best determine whether first or third person will work better for the nature of the story being told.  Again, this has nothing to with “character,” for instance, or the sorts of topical or historical truths the reader of literary fiction is often on the hunt for: it still boils down to Poe’s simple formula: “combinations” of “incidents” and “tone.”

Poetry is beholden even more rigorously to the same laws.  If one writes a poem about one’s grandmother dying of cancer, the poem will be obliterated by the grandmother, and the cancer.

There are “incidents of the day,” there are historical themes, of which no poem could be the register—and still be a poem.  John Updike, the distinguished fiction writer who dabbled in poetry, published a poem about the poignant death of a family puppy—with tears running down our cheeks we deny not the pup, but the poem.  If gossip-as-art lives, true art dies—this would be the more hysterical type of warning we might give.

The fiction writer might think himself free of the principles set down by the master, Poe, who was determined that the short story be like the poem in its artistic and imaginative rigor.  But these are questions for the critic and the philosopher, if not for the magazine or newspaper reviewer.

The protest will surely sound something like this:  I wrote this story because my puppy died.  How dare you ask me how it was done!

UNDERSTANDING WHAT? THE TEXTBOOK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

In the United States in 1949, every other college student had his college education paid for by the GI Bill.  Government sponsored college loans didn’t happen until 1958 (Sputnik).  During the unprecedented growth of American college education in the middle of the 20th century, one poetry textbook was beamed into the brains of two generations of college professors, teachers and students—Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren; Holt, Rinehart, Winston; 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976.

To know this textbook is to know how you, dear reader—and every living respected poet and critic—thinks about poetry.

Prepare to become acquainted with your soul.

Understanding Poetry was written by two New Critics; what was known as the New Criticism was not just an ideology, but an influential clique of Southern men with an in; New Criticism was the donnish, government-connected, academic arm of Modernism—the 20th century’s one real school of poetry, which replaced Classical and Romantic Verse with something more free, with something entirely different.

The public’s rejection of Modernism can be summed up simply:  “A very large part of human conduct and human life is loathsome, disgusting, and grotesque.  Poetry has traditionally been an antidote to this.  Poetry discovers the beauty and dignity of human life, of human expression.  Poetry, in the name of modern all-inclusiveness, however, revels in the discordant, the ugly, and the disgusting, and this is…creepy.   We don’t like it.”

We are familiar with the world of objection this elicits from the Modernist: “all-inclusiveness” is truthful; you are backwards to censure the truth.

The “truth,” however, is that there are many avenues to the “truth,” and no profession or craft is defined by the whole truth, but rather by the particular way it approaches the truth; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to define that particular craft or profession.  And this is the truth.

Understanding Poetry, influential Modernist document that it is, comes down strongly on one side of the argument outlined above: for all-inclusiveness.

Here is how poetry is clumsily and pessimistically introduced to the student in the first paragraph of the book’s first chapter, “Poetry As a Way of Saying.” The strategy seems to be: let’s concede to all the insensitive lugs why poetry may indeed suck—this “strategy” turns out, in reality, to be the soul of the book itself.

Poetry is a kind of “saying.” It is, however, a kind that many people, until they become well acquainted with it, feel is rather peculiar and even useless. They feel this way for two reasons: the “way of the saying” and the “nature of the said.” As for the “way of the saying,” the strongly marked rhythms, the frequent appearance of rhyme, and the figurative language may seem odd and distracting; and as for the “nature of the said,” it generally contains neither a good, suspenseful story nor obviously useful information. Poetry, in short, may seem both unnatural and irrelevant.

Think of all the glorious ways the editors could have led off.  Instead, we get this utter sheepishness. Of all the definitions of poetry, this is perhaps the dullest we have ever heard: Poetry is a kind of “saying.” 

In their defense, we are sure, that as text book authors, they were attempting the plainest and least adorned definition possible so as not to scare away the plain-speaking person who has no natural inclination to poetry. The danger of this position, however, is that one ends up arguing, and rallying to, the devil’s case: poetry is “useless,” especially if one is not “well acquainted” with it.  Attempting to “be democratic,” the elitist is just more elitist in the end—and this, in a nutshell, is what happened with Modernist poetry and its mass readership, as the art of poetry got lost in the shuffle: elitism was sniffed out, wearing its democratic dress.  The masses left.

The editors attempt an optimistic recovery in the second paragraph, but it’s too little, too late: “Yet poetry…has survived, in one form or another…we may…consider…it does spring from deep human impulses and does fulfill human needs.”

And in the first actual description of poetry, the editors say poetry is primarily “strongly marked by rhythm.”  Those “strongly marked rhythms” which “may seem odd and distracting” from paragraph one?  Yes, those rhythms.

But if the editors of Understanding Poetry are content to play down poetry and weakly define it, the reason is clear: poetry resists definition because to the Modernist critic, poetry, in its modern guise, is an all-inclusive sort of everything, which simultaneously rejects and converts itself into whatever it is, from the old poetry it is leaving behind.

Those “marked rhythms” that identify poetry?  According to our text book’s introduction, these include “seasons…moon…tides…migration of birds…” and those of the “human body…” a “locus of rhythms,” including “hunger and satiety.”  Rhythm includes “all life…all activity” and is “deeply involved in…emotion…”

We are reminded that “rhythm is a natural and not an artificial aspect of emotion…”

The human is at the center of their definition: in the second paragraph we got “human impulses” and “human needs” and then the human body as a “locus of rhythms” and finally, “emotion,” with the caveat that poetry’s “rhythm,” to properly express emotion must be “natural” and not “artificial.”

The real, natural human appears to be what they are after, in their long reach towards poetry.

Having made much of “rhythm,” they make a weak nod to “rhyme” as a “verbal structure” and memory aid, but they quickly re-visit their thesis: “man is a form-making animal.”

Finally, they get language and its origin in their sights.  The editors agree with Emerson (and quote Owen Barfield) in support of the notion that language is “metaphoric” and they say that “slang” is “healthy” for this reason: “Slang is simply the bastard brother of poetry.”

Understanding Poetry invests a great deal in metaphor: “metaphor represents not only the “way of saying” but also the “said.”  Metaphor might be said to be a fancy way of saying something indirectly, of deferring meaning, of creating a kind of fake synthesis, whipping up a comparative “significance” where none exists.  If I say “X is a lot like Y,” it really doesn’t matter whether X and Y resemble each other, or not.  I will find some similarity, and this will make me cleverer, or even a better poet, than you, even though no one is closer to knowing anything about “X” or “Y.”  The labor used in comparing two objects might be better used elsewhere. Comparing two things is usually not the method for knowing a thing.  We have neither the time or the space to conduct a philosophical inquiry into this subject here, but it might be enough to say that great minds have rejected metaphor, even in poetry, as all-important.

They look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”

Shakespeare compares himself rather elaborately to autumn.  But why, the editors ask, doesn’t he just say “I am getting old?”

Because, the editors, say, how he feels about “getting old” is also important.   Poetry, they say, is “attitudes and feelings…as they come specifically into experience…action and ideas.”

And then, by page 6 of their 16 page introduction, the editors finally reveal their hand: “poetry is concerned with the massiveness, the multidimensional quality of experience.”

Poetry is just whatever you, in natural, human terms, feel about anything, and the “verbal structure” of poetry is pretty much there to “frame” this “feeling” you have about whatever piece of the “massiveness” of “experience” triggers your feeling.

I could have just said, “I am getting old,” but in order to make you understand how “I feel” about getting old, I throw in some “yellow leaves.”

As the editors put it, “the realm of practical action and that of attitudes and feelings are not separated.”

When poetry is defined this way: as whatever we feel about whatever, we see, finally how “massive” this definition becomes, and this Modernist definition is, in fact, a definition of Modernist poetry, in its suicidal all-inclusiveness.  It sure as hell isn’t a definition of poetry as composed by the genius Shakespeare.  It is poetry reduced to the level of the lug.

The editors’ introduction briefly compares poetry to science, but reject the latter as that which is merely “precise” and “mathematical.”  Science gives us mere H2O, while poetry gives us “water” and thus “associations of drinking, bathing, boating…adventure on the high seas…” etc  Water’s metaphors do massive work.  Mathematics, which scientifically interprets nature, is told to take a hike.

The stake is driven into the heart of science by a quote from Walker Percy:

The secret is this: Science cannot utter a single word about an individual molecule, thing, or creature in so far as it is an individual but only so far as it is like other individuals. The layman thinks that only science can utter the true word about anything, individuals, included. But the layman is an individual. So science cannot say a single word to him or about him except as he resembles others. It comes to pass then that the denizen of a scientific-technological society finds himself in the strangest of predicaments: he lives in a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.

This is a stunning rebuke—by an influential text book by way of Walker Percy—of science and universal truth. Words, by definition, are universals: poetry, too, then, must live in “dead silence” to the individual reader.  This is interesting, but especially in terms of what the editors are trying to say, nonsense, nonetheless.  The “individual” is a word, which we understand only as much as it “resembles others.”  Walker Percy, and the editors of Understanding Poetry, are stuck in a paradox from which there is no escape.  Their rejection of science and a “scientific-technological society” here is nothing but a deeply crackpot protest, if we are to be honest about it.

After dismissing science, the authors keep after the importance of  subjective”feeling:”

At first glance, the field of feeling and attitudes may seem trivial when thought of in contrast to the great bustling practical business of the world or in contrast to the vast body of organized knowledge which science is and which allows man to master, to a certain degree, nature and his own fate.  The field of feeling and attitude may seem to be “merely personal” and “merely subjective,” and therefore of no general interest. But at second thought, we may realize that all the action and knowledge in the world can be valuable only as these things bring meaning to life—to our particular lives, especially.

…Poetry is concerned with the world as responded to sensorially, emotionally, and intellectually. But—and this fact constitutes another significant characteristic of poetry that cannot be overemphasized—this response always involves all three of these elements: a massive, total response—what we have called earlier the multidimensional quality of experience.

…Poetry enables us to know what it “feels like” to be alive in the world. What does it “feel like,” for instance, to be in love, to hate somebody…

Here we have a classic case of the Emersonian Exaggeration: poetry is ill-defined as something anti-scientific, and subjectively and even trivially emotional, and this very definition leads those defining it as such, to subsequently make utterly irrational and exaggerated claims for it, such as “poetry enables us to know what it feels like to be alive…”

First, the editors establish poetry as trivial, emotional, subjective, and then they heap accolades on it which it cannot possibly support.

According to Understanding Poetry, poetry does not exist objectively as an art; it has no verse-like attributes; in the Modernist spirit, it resembles something like an octopus on your face.

The editors inform us that poetry, in all its aspects, is a response to life—in all its aspects.   Poetry, then, is the same as life.  There’s no difference. That, in fact, is their definition of poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.

To prove this, they point out that, “we may have a child chess champion or musical prodigy, but not a child literary critic or dramatist.”  Well, no wonder.  I wouldn’t let a child of mine near Understanding Poetry.  But we might point out that Poe wrote extraordinary poems as a teenager.  And a child (or an adult) is all the wiser for not comprehending the New Criticism.

To keep their (definition of) poetry from drowning in the sea of life, the editors, sensing a complete loss of identity, suddenly begin singing about “vital unity:”

What is crucial to poetry is that these elements—metaphor, rhythm, and statement—are absorbed into a vital unity. The poem, in its vital unity, is a “formed” thing, a thing existing in itself, and its vital unity, its form, embodies—is—its meaning. Yet paradoxically, by the fact of its being “formed” and having its special identity, it somehow makes us more aware of life outside itself. By its own significance it awakens us to the significance of our experience and of the world.

We see, then, that a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things that are “poetic” in themselves.

…Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements—meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on—put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The total relationship among all the elements in a poem is what is all-important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one that is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the makeup of some physical object, it ought to be not a wall but to something organic like a plant.

The editors are unable to define poetry in practical, common sense, scientific terms; therefore they make it very important whether we say poetry is “like” a wall, or “like” a plant.  Feeling that “metaphor” is vital to poetry, it is perhaps no accident that they reflect this in their hazy attempt at a definition.

Since quotations always help definitions, the authors, who used Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, now turn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Quoting Shakespeare is a good idea.  Instead of this text book, why not Shakespeare’s Works?  Poetry becomes less and less the more the authors write about it.

They quote Macbeth to illustrate  “a lack of…melodious effects…the broken rhythms and the tendency to harshness of sound are essential to the dramatic effect that Shakespeare wished.” When “murder” is involved, poetry becomes broken—and this is a good thing.  We are essentially told that poetry—which the editors still haven’t defined—needs to be mangled for dramatic license.

Perhaps “mangled” isn’t fair.  We’ll quote the Shakespeare passage and a specific observation they make about it:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

…The piling up of the s sounds in the second, third, and fourth lines helps to give the impression of desperate haste and breathless excitement; the effect is of a conspiratorial whisper.  The rhythm and sound effects of the passage, then, are poetic in the only sense that we have seen to be legitimate: they are poetic because they contribute to the total significance of the passage.

This is interesting—even brilliant, and we note again the persistent theme: poetry is nothing in itself except as it mimics life.  We would call this admirable, but we cannot. Are we really to believe that the “s sound” belongs to all poetry evincing “conspiratorial whisper[ing]?”  Is this a rule?  What about the words in that passage which are not sibilant? Should the actor cease to whisper when uttering the word “catch”and “blow” and “time” and “come?”  As much as we like the observation, as much as we admire Shakespeare, we do not think a marvelous hissing sound made by an actor belongs to either the cause or the effect of poetry, except in a very marginal way.

A good actor can make any script sound dramatic in any number of ways.  The truth is, poetry is not, by definition, a script with all sorts of directorial notes hidden within it.  This is to confuse poetry with the dramatic arts; and even Shakespeare is no excuse for this confusion.  The student of poetry, if they listen to Brooks and Warren, will come away believing that bad poetry is really good—because various dramatic situations turn the good to bad which is deemed good.  Not only will the student poet be convinced by his Modernist elders, Brooks and Warren, that his bad poetry is good, he will be convinced his poetry is “dramatic,” as well.

We see the New Critical rationale at work: since ‘the poem’ is considered all, let us really make it all in our definition; let us have life flow in and out of the poem so that they are almost one.  “A situation underlies every poem, and the poem is what the situation provokes.”  The poem is “a little—or sometimes a big—drama.”

The origin and effect of poetry, according to the New Criticism, are largely irrelevant.  The why of a poem’s making and the why of a poem’s impact are thus, irrelevant.

On one hand, for Brooks and Warren, poetry belongs to the “stuff of life,” (making its specific existence vague in the extreme) and at the same time, life is not permitted to ask what poetry is for, exactly, and to what good is it aimed?  Plato asked these larger questions, and is mostly considered rude and inappropriate for doing so.  Aristotle, who focused more on the art itself, influences to a much greater extent, the Modernists. Yet even Aristotle is too precise for them. The Modernist shuns categories, divisions, parts, for the generalized rant:

In an important sense, all poems are fictional, even poems that profess to be autobiographical, for the voice of the poem is inevitably a creation and not a natural and spontaneous outburst.

This contradicts what was said earlier: the authors said a poem’s emotions should be “natural” and not “artificial.”  They said a poem was like “a plant” and not something “mechanical.”  Yet here they insist a poem is never “spontaneous.”  These gentlemen grew up on Romanticism, and are trying to replace it, with all its errors, with something even more replete with error, that they, nor anyone else, understands.

They recommend the “mask” as a dramatic truth-telling device (quoting Yeats, Wilde and Emerson), and point out that Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, was named after Robert E. Lee, began his career in England, and “Yankee-fy’d” his poetic voice “to develop the character that speaks in his poems.”  New Criticism masks the truth, so why shouldn’t it be enamored of the mask?  We can’t deny they make sense when they say, “when we are making an acquaintance with a poem, we must answer these questions: 1) Who is speaking? 2) Why?”  But according to the New Critics, these questions can only be asked of the fiction.  Their brief analysis of Frost, however, would seem to indicate they know how to unmask, when necessary.  One rule for them, one rule for you.

We speak of an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry as an end to be gained. But some people assume that no preparation, no effort, no study, no thought, is necessary for that experience, and that if a poem seems to make such demands it is so much the less poetry.  This assumption is sadly erroneous…

As they wind up their introduction, they are back to asserting the craven pedantry that “an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry” is more important than learning what poetry actually is, and even questioning its very existence.  True learning names what things are, discriminates, narrows, weeds out; an “enlarged capacity” and “demands” is code for: you’ll clean out my stables before I will call you a poet—and that’s only if I like you.

By way of conclusion we must emphasize two related matters of the greatest importance: First, criticism and analysis, as modestly practiced in this book and more grandly elsewhere and by other hands, is ultimately of value only insofar as it can return to the poem itself—return them, that is, better prepared to experience it more immediately, fully, and, shall we say, innocently. The poem is an experience, yes, but it is a deeply significant experience, and criticism aims only at making the reader more aware of the depth and range of the experience. Second, there is no point at which a reader can say, “I am now ready to experience poetry.”

Why should Criticism only “return to the poem itself?”  Why should Criticism only “better prepare [us] to experience [the poem] more immediately, fully…?”

Understanding Poetry makes the amorphous “experience” of poetry the end of the whole process—a process which should be asking:  Why poetry?  What is poetry?  This influential text instead urges on us a kind of endless “experiencing” of the “experience” of a poem that is the “experience” of life’s “experience.”  Plenty of room for nuance, here, sure.  But also plenty of room for crap, pedantic bullying, emotional grandstanding, and ‘office politics’ corruption.

The introduction is reinforced by chapter one,  “Dramatic Situation,” and its foreword:

We have said that the “stuff of poetry” is not something separate from the ordinary business of living, but itself inheres in that business.  We hear someone say that a farm boy has suffered a fatal accident while cutting wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper…

The authors want to shove horrible “accidents” in our face and make this the standard of poetry. Poetry, for Brooks and Warren, becomes journalism, or worse:

[Poetic] interest, as we have indicated, is not scientific or practical, but is simply the general curiosity we feel about people as human beings. Even though the account of a painful accident or a sordid murder seems almost as far removed as possible from poetry, it arouses the kind of interest which poetry attempts to satisfy, and comprises the “stuff of poetry.

The editors then present “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost as the first poem in the book.

WAR AND CRITICISM

Here’s an (ugly?) truth that many of us do not want to face:

Every thought, every action, every conversation, and every human interaction in human life is a dreary, exhausting exercise in fighting, strategizing, gaining power, gaining advantage, and gaining knowledge towards gaining power, for the endlessly strategizing subject.

The world consists only of objects in relation to the strategizing subject. Life is war. When friends and family don’t call you, it’s not because they don’t love you, necessarily, it’s because human interaction, even when we don’t want it to be, is a battle.  Even when affection is involved—and perhaps even more when affection is involved—human interaction simply wears us out.

Yes, war is hell.  But war is all there is. Peace is merely a pause in the action, in order that more fighting can occur, and real, lasting peace (if that is possible!) requires war to give it a chance.

We can’t sleep well unless we’ve fought a good fight. We can’t relax unless we’ve gone to battle.

This is equally true in art as it is in life.  We must struggle to paint the peaceful picture, strain to produce the peaceful poem.

We can leave sports aside, which is quite evidently a battle within agreed-upon parameters, the “agreed-upon” part making this “battle” palatable to many of us on a certain level.

But to the non-athletes or “game nuts” among us, to those of us who refrain from, and disdain, gaming, gambling and the competition of sports, the truth is, the war of everyday life—on every level, whether you are a monk, a bishop, a gardener, or a yoga instructor—is far more fraught, simply because you are a human being, with infinitely complex, non-agreed-upon, make-or-break-whatever-rule-you-want, war maneuvers.  And this is not just an aspect of life—it is the whole of it.  One is either fighting, or resting up from fighting.

Pleasure itself is nothing more than a rejuvenation in order to fight more.

This is not some “realpolitik” rant from a four star general, or a war-gaming adolescent.  Remember, you are reading Scarriet.

It doesn’t matter how “laid-back” one’s personality is, or how “politically peaceful” one is, or whether one is a vegan, or not.  The complex psychological struggle of every human being is vast and endless.  The “game” is on, and it’s always on, whether you are trying to convince your fellow human beings to become a vegan, or whether you are tearing into a cow.

Every single thing you do is judged, whether you’ve written a poem, done (or not done) the dishes, or are just staring into space.  It doesn’t matter whether you are “on stage,” or not.  It doesn’t matter whether an audience is before you, or there is no audience present.  You will judge yourself.  Even if you hate all judgement, all quantifying, all opinion, all truth, or all half-truth, complex judging is going on within you and without you all the time.

Most would acknowledge this reality of what we are outlining here, but many would insist: they are not part of that; that is not them, or (in an unfortunate choice of words) I myself fight against that whole competitive, strategizing, cynical vibe.

Others will go on the offensive without apology: This whole thesis is just an excuse to fight, an excuse to be a jerk!

Yes, but “being a jerk” is not a good strategy.  The point here is not that we must strategize viciously or unfairly or randomly—just that we must always strategize.

So let’s go back to sports and its “agreed-upon” parameters for a moment.  How crucial is the “agreed-upon” aspect of this war—that we call life?    If the two choices are war with no rules and war with rules, obviously the “agreed-upon” aspect is very crucial.

But life is not a game, is it?  How much do “the rules” in life apply?

If strategizing involves knowing which rules to follow, which rules to bend, which rules to ignore, which rules are useful, which rules are not useful, which rules are coming, which rules are going, which rules apply to whom and when, then it is clear that strategizing itself is more important than the rules—which are nothing more, in sum, than a less complex aspect of random reality, and which still reflect the brute forces of reality which we all must continually navigate.

So are we rejecting the rule of law?  That which essentially civilizes us?  Are we naked, then, as we fight this war?

Yes.  Each of us is merely a soldier.  And alone.

But what unites us?  Surely it can’t be all of us against all of us all of the time?

It is.  Because we judge ourselves, we cannot escape judgment, and therefore no one can escape the state we have been busily describing above.

We may seek alliances, and many of us do this in order to mitigate the general lonely horror that is the fact of our war-like state, and this explains why the culture of partnerships and political parties can be acutely acrimonious and emotional.  But the truth is known only by ourselves and determined by ourselves, as much as we may be comforted by the warm, piss-temperature propaganda of the group.  As Da Vinci and Blake have told us, let your own eyes prove the case, not the wind of authority or hearsay.  The group is a lie.  We are alone to the degree that we are human.  The genius is not alone because he is alone; he is alone because he is a genius.

Epicurus suggested the only real escape from this horror: pleasure.  The body seeks pleasure as a means to replenish itself before the next round of war; this is really the epicurean philosophy in a nutshell, the whole philosophy of pleasure, really, as now stated here; it is taking whatever is naturally restful and replenishing to the body, mind, and soul, and isolating it as an end in itself.

Poetry has been described by the Romantics (Coleridge/Poe), Pater, and Helen Vendler, as that which has pleasure as its immediate object.  Poetry is how our brains temporarily relax.

Poetry naturally has two main parts: the vessel and what is contained within it; the vessel (the action of poetry) partakes of pleasure, but the further question is: what is in the vessel, for all language by its very nature is a double entity—signifier and signified.  If seeking pleasure is both the vessel and what is contained within it, we have pleasure for pleasure’s sake, art for art’s sake, the enjoyment of rest for the Epicurean, who desires simplicity and beauty for their own sake.

Criticism belongs to war, and is the opposite of poetry as defined above.

But as we can see, the greater poet will always be a critic first, and a poet second.

We can test our thesis by looking at actual poetry, and Alexander Pope proves our case; one of the greatest poets, Pope’s Poetry and Criticism are often the same thing.  Need a greater poet?  The same is true of Shakespeare, whose plays are Platonic dialogues and whose Sonnets are really Critical essays: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” questions the worth of simile and metaphor.

The best poets put Criticism in the vessel of Poetry, this being naturally more efficient, since in this way, the poet may fight and be at peace, may have their cake and eat it—which is even more than what Epicurus, nibbling on a cake in the meadow, promises.

WHAT IS POETIC VALUE?

The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.

THE TWO ACADEMIES

The Academy, for poet/lawyer Seth Abramson, is unfairly attacked when it comes to poetry. The MFA Creative Writing model is healthy, he insists, a hybrid of association and guidance and leisure that allows a thousand flowers to bloom.

But there are two academies, and the older one is the one Seth Abramson ignores.

We mean the Academy in which to teach the student Greek, you teach the student Homer. We mean the Academy where the best way to teach a student Greek is to teach them Homer. In the First and oldest Academy, Homer is not a piece of ‘creative writing’ or a cinematic spectacle for an idle brain—Homer is the foundation of the language for that society, and the Academy of Homer is the nation of Homer: they are one and the same.

Any genuine critique of Abramson’s academy begins with an awareness of these two academies and the tremendous gulf between them: one is national; the other is local; one is the nation, the other is Joe’s Diner.

There is nothing wrong with Joe’s Diner. It serves very good food (so says reviewer Seth Abramson) and might turn a pretty profit, too.

But let us not fool ourselves that grown men and women writing experimental poems in 21st century America so they might earn a college degree is anything more than a transaction in some actual cafe that happens to exist up the street.

This is not a real academy—this one that sells Writing Degrees—this Academy is an illusory one, a fake one, at best a diner that sells pretty good food, in comparison to the First Academy in which the Greek language, the Greek nation, and Homer were all one.

We all know that new combinations of words can make a kind of odd sense that is novel and pleasing. Even random words can sometimes produce this effect, a default ability of language itself. Poets nudge linguistic frolic in the direction of a more pleasing and human result, even as the poet is under the sway of indifferent, random machinery. Such writing does not reflect reality; the poet attempting to consciously depict an object or incident in front of them cannot go far with this method, in which the playfulness of language makes caprice the rule.

We might kid ourselves in believing this sort of ephemeral writing has real worth beyond its pure novel effect—but in fact it does have real worth, even if it’s a sad one, pathetic in the sense that punning is pathetic, or sad; for, in fact,the impulse to pun is a sad one, and punning is a sign of misery in the speaker, and here we think of the “antic disposition” of pure sport, but in this case the punning is conscious and not random, as we mentioned above; we are now in a whole different universe, one of motive—and add emotion to the mix and we have punning where it is noble, as spoken by the sad and miserable Hamlet, for instance, and now we begin to see poetry fleshed out into heroic action, into drama, into a national literature which transcends ephemera even as it utilizes it, the literature of Homer or Shakespeare which itself defines the Academy and towers over “creative writing” thumb-sucking.

This is what Seth Abramson and defenders of the current MFA model must confront—nothing less than building a national literature which includes verse drama as T.S Eliot in his wisest and most selfless Criticism cried out for in his younger and less affected days, national dramatic poetry as opposed to the lolly-pop licking hermetic lyric; a literature worthy to teach language and culture with in order to elevate the literacy of a nation, that excitement  and that Academy and that literature and that language and that poetry all gloriously one and the same, in the most diverse sense imaginable.

The pluralists might object to all this talk of one language and one nation; by “one” we mean all that is required to hold together the necessary diversity—whatever that happens to be. Pluralists need to relax. Pluralism is only truly honored in the attempt to put it somewhere. The genius knows what we mean.

We also understand that the United States is not ancient Athens, but this impacts our argument not one bit. There will always be a Joe’s Diner and there will always be a Seth Abramson working for one. Our argument could not be more relevant.

We are also keen to the complexity of Plato’s critique of Homer and what that means to a nation, to a language, to poetry, and to an Academy.

It does pose a difficulty: how seriously should poets take Plato’s critique? We think the best response to Plato is to concede Plato’s critique is inevitable and enriching—certainly the MFA student could use the challenge to hone their critical thinking.

One cannot be a creative writer without being a critical writer, after all.

Just ask Shakespeare, a treasure for English-speakers, who is Homer plus Plato.

RENAISSANCE VERSUS MODERNISM IN A ROMANTICISM SMACK-DOWN!

Michael Drayton—a metaphysical poet never included with the Metaphysicals—takes on John Crowe Ransom

The sweet flower that was Romanticism (late 18th cent—early 19th cent, Amer Rev, French Rev, Napolean, Beethoven) has its roots in the Renaissance (and its Ancient Greek re-discovery) and throws its shade on 20th century Modernism, cooling many a tortured, modern brow. 

Michael Drayton, a courtly poet and Shakespeare contemporary, who is easily as metaphysical as Donne, drew his love-metaphysics from Dante and Petrarch by way of Plato, and indulged in it so wonderfully, he may have put this type of poetry to rest forever. 

We are not sure why Drayton—born 10 years before Donne—never gets included with the so-called “Metaphysical Poets.”  We are just stupid not to cast a wider net.  T.S. Eliot, with his friend Ezra Pound, in the name of a narrow Modernist agenda, may be to blame.  The Modernists were often not so much critics as gerrymanderers. 

If you want metaphysical paradox, read Michael Drayton.  Then you may talk to us about John Donne.

This is Drayton’s most anthologized poem, and perhaps his least metaphysical one.

THE PARTING—Michael Drayton

SINCE there ‘s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
   –Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
   From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

We have always admired this popular poem: the firm, mono-syllabic “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part—Nay, I have done, you get no more of me; and I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,” dissovling, finally in the hopeful, wavering of “yet recover” is wonderful. 

Great poems, in how they sound and in how they talk, and in how they simultaneously picture things, are like dreams, and this one resembles a dream.

Its Modernist counter is John Crowe Ransom’s, the poem we think is his best; often anthologized, “The Blue Girls.”

THE BLUE GIRLS—John Crowe Ransom
 
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
 
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
 
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
 
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
 
No matter what one thinks of John Crowe Ransom, this poem is a masterpiece—an array of characters is presented: “bluebirds, blue girls, teachers old and contrary,” the poet with “loud lips” who will “publish Beauty, Beauty itself that is “so frail,” and then, when the stage has been filled in a mere 12 lines, the final stanza packs a wallop and unites all in one more character: “a woman with a terrible tongue, blear eyes fallen from blue.” 
 
It is with a beautiful poignance that the poet finally celebrates the “woman” over the “blue girls,” with the magnificent final line,  “Since she was lovelier than any of you.”
 
Ransom moves on, defeating Drayton, 72-69!
 
 
 
 

MORE FIRST ROUND “ROMANTIC” MADNESS IN THE EAST: SHAKESPEARE V. DOWSON

The tragic Ernest Dowson thinking: Can I really win this thing?

Genius finds the singularity that is universally true in that which the ordinary mind thinks is a mere particular. The singularity is usually overlooked not because it is hidden, but because it is so very obvious. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 states the issue immediately with its title phrase, “Chronicle of Wasted Time.”  The all-too-obvious-truth is: All poems, all writing, all memory, is a “chronicle” or record of that which is gone, or “wasted.”  No matter how accurate or “realistic” the record, it can never be reconciled to its subject—which belongs irrevocably to “wasted time.”   And this is not a fact to be considered by the poet; it is the fact to be considered by the poet: the poem records what no longer exists.  

This is bad news and good news, for the poet, and finally, because of the way Shakespeare entertains it, good news.

It is finally good news because Shakespeare’s insight is good news: which is why we recognize Shakespeare as a genius (a genius always means good, not bad)—not to merely use the word, “genius,” because some authority tells us Shakespeare is a genius, but because we ourselves are really impressed with what we read. 

The bad news is that everything articulated belongs to “wasted time;” everything in the past is gone.  Not just partially gone.  Gone.  “Wasted.”  Time has eaten it up.  It is no more. 

The good news is that the “chronicle” is extremely important—because it’s all we’ve got.  The poem may not be much, but it is all.  The “chronicle” (poem) is everything.  The poem is the reality.   And to the poet, that’s got to be thrilling.

Here’s the sonnet, in full:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Shakespeare positions himself in the present by twice saying, “I see” (lines 2, 7). 

The poet is looking at a recorded past: “in the chronicle” at “descriptions of the fairest,” but is quick to remind the reader that the past, because it is “wasted,” does not exist as the past, but, in the poet’s words, (the “chronicle”) in the present: “beauty making beautiful old rhyme.” 

Past and present are collapsed into each other; we have two “chronicles”—the one which Shakespeare sees (the “descriptions” lost to “wasted time”) and the one which is Shakespeare’s (present) sonnet itself. 

Implied, of course, is Shakespeare’s awareness that his sonnet (“chronicle”) records (and is thus a present disappearing into a past) the past “chronicle,” and, in so doing, replaces it as a past “chronicle,” too.  And yet the present tense of line 3, “making” presents for the reader a present presence: “beauty making beautiful old rhyme” which is “beautiful” in the present, even as it refers to “old” rhyme—“rhyme” which cannot be “wasted,” since Shakespeare is rhyming now in his sonnet, and about beauty!  Shakespeare’s sonnet is literally refuting “wasted time” by keeping “beauty” alive with “rhyme” that is both “new” (in his sonnet) and “old” (the past “chronicle” he is looking into). 

Shakespeare uncouples the past from the present, suddenly, right in the middle of the sonnet, lines 7 & 8.   Note how, while introducing, for the first time, “you,” the person in the poem he is praising, Shakespeare wrenches the present from the past:

I see their antique pen would have expressed  
Even such a beauty as you master now.

And Shakespeare continues in this same vein:
 
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring
 
The “chronicle” Shakespeare sees is not merely a record of the “wasted” past;  it “prefigures” the future.
 
With the introduction of “you,” the collapse of past and present now gives way to collapse of past and future, which is a logical and natural progression:
 
First, past takes present into it (Shakespeare’s sonnet becomes the past “chronicle” to which it refers, since we, the present readers, are reading Shakespeare’s sonnet—which now belongs to the past).
Second, past takes the future into it (the past “praise” vaults into the future as “prophecy” which leap-frogs over Shakespeare’s “present” to we, the readers of the “future,” currently/in the future? reading Shakespeare’s sonnet.
 
The reason why “we” (in a present/future now forever blended) “have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” is because “tongues to praise” would merely start the “chronicle” sequence all over again—unnecessary because Shakespeare has sketched out the whole issue already: “eyes to wonder” is the speechless fact that stands apart from all “chronicles” and the “chronicle of praise/prophecy” unites past, present, and future, which would otherwise be “wasted.”  
 
There is both a dead record of death and a dead record of life, but the best, Shakespeare, maintains, is a living record of life: which requires praise that must become prophecy.
 
If we are correct that the past/present trope in Shakesspeare’s Sonnet 56 is crucial to all poetry, we should find it to be true for any poem called on to examine.
 
We do see its importance. 
 
True, time is not Dowson’s conscious subject, as in the Shakespeare, but look how crucial it is: the poem begins, “Last night…” and the key turning is, “when the feast is finished…then falls thy shadow…”
 
NON SUM QUALIS ERAM BONAE SUB REGNO CYNARAE—Ernest Dowson
 
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
 
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
 
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
 
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
 
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
 
The Dowson poem may be sweeter, but the  Shakespeare poem is a glory.
 
Shakespeare wins, 66-63.

STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

SCARRIET:  Poe said poetry should be a passion, not a study. In the classroom it can be both. Among professors and graduate students, we see that it can be a passion and a study. Is to study something passionately, however, precisely the opposite of what Poe meant? Have we in the U.S. become too studious in our poetry?

STEVEN CRAMER:  Philip Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from the study of Auden, Thomas and Hardy.  His intemperate outburst in response seems to me instructive:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

            That’s a wonderful, bracing answer, but it begs the question, because what Larkin describes is passionate study.   Larkin recommends a specialized, utilitarian kind of study, the alert eye of the apprentice, but he’s describing study nonetheless.   Studying poetry passionately doesn’t strike me as oxymoronic, whether or not the reader is a poet or has aspirations to becoming one.

            Robert Pinsky says somewhere, If you want to learn a great deal about a fish, dissection is probably useful.  Hasn’t the act of paying close attention always been as much affective as intellectual?  Falling in love is, literally, eye-opening.  “Study” comes from a Latin root that also meant “eagerness.”

With your fifth book, Clangings, you have emerged as a major poet of the ur-trope, sound & sense. I would eventually like to ask you a few questions on this topic, but I also note that your poetry is acutely aware of all five senses; smell, for instance, is often thematic for you; how conscious are you of giving your readers a feast of the senses, and can you tell us how this writing process developed?

At times in writing Clangings I was very conscious of making sense in the way you describe—that is, appealing to the senses, sound especially, and in a manner that trumped logic but not content—or at least not emotional impulse.  Sometimes sense appeal constituted a challenge I’d deliberately pose for myself—for instance, a poem devoting each of its five stanzas to one of the five senses (“If I think in yellow, I can remember. . .”).  But mostly I proceeded intuitively—doesn’t everybody?—within the parameters of the project I’d set for myself—each of the poem’s sections had to be five quatrains rhyming (with many liberties taken) abba.

            After writing the second or third poem, I realized a voice had surfaced that wasn’t the conventional, quasi-autobiographical lyric “I,” and that opportunities for plot and character presented themselves, opportunities new to me as a poet.

            I like that you use the word “feast.”  The poem’s first detail is of dinner plates, and food imagery recurs often.  I think of this character as both literally and figuratively hungry—to make sense, to make connection.  So, in terms of the book’s psychology—and perhaps here’s a way to regard sense appeal as a “thematic”—I hope the sensory textures dramatize impediments as much as nourishments.  The speaker often laments his multivalent language—“What I meant to vent’s getting/twisted up.”   For a poet, language taking on a life of its own equals freedom.  For my invented speaker, it more often blocks connection, makes him “two rhymes snagged between rhymes,/spun puns, all my blinds up in flames.”

Your observation on the difference between language that either connects or impedes psychologically, and in other ways, is fascinating.

That’s why I used that line from “Prufrock” as the epigraph:  “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”  I was 17 when I first read that line, and it pierced me then and still does.  In some ways, Clangings pays homage to that one line.

Can you sum up Clangings’ character and plot, at least to the degree that it’s not supposed to resist that?

The book’s four parts, I hope, develop in apprehensible if indeterminate ways.  We first get a kind of “census” of the speaker’s mental life, which introduces Dickey but also evokes, prismatically, a history and a range of attitudes on religion, sex, friendship, childhood.  Dickey is the focus, of course—part alter-ego, part imaginary friend, part lover, part, uh, part.  The second section addresses the speaker’s parents (I don’t think there’s any evidence of siblings), an address that’s sometimes quite direct.  The poems in the third section recoil and try to recover from “Dickey’s death feels all over me.”  The last section, I feel, is the most located in an “outside” world, beginning as it does:  “so I left my apartment.”  Without getting too reductively explicit, I believe we can detect locations like a pickup bar; a workplace; commuting; and especially, near the end, a clinical setting where certain interventions take place.

            I’d like to think the book has, in a sense, three endings: the valedictory “Dickey my door, I’m seeing”; then the single quatrain of stripped-down statement—“I feel well, but keep hoping to get well”; and then, after the last section break, the Pessoa adaptation.  In the last four poems of the book, I wanted certain quite simple words to cluster and reverberate:  words, think, feel, well. . . 

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

Second cousins.  Seriously, I thought much about the book’s debt to The Dream Songs, and weclome (humbly) the comparison.  It’s interesting to me how often people misremember “Mr. Bones” as a character in The Dream Songs.  There is an unnamed voice who calls Henry Mr. Bones, but there is no “Mr. Bones” per se.   I’d also maintain that Henry, inarguably, is Berryman; in fact, the lyric “I” in the early Dream Songs often has less relation to John Berryman the poet than does the “he” of Henry.  In any case, the “I” in Clangings is not me in the slightest, at least not in any autobiographical sense.

I’d like to quote the poem “Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark” from Clangings.  

Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark.
I took my shogun out. And the jerk grinned!
Toads marched him to where the marshland
meanders, where woods gave such a bark 

I still get a wince. Open fire, said Dickey.
We loaded him, black hole, in the swamp van.
It was premium cable! I aimed at his midline,
silver blanked into him. He’d been less empty, 

I’d have hit a vital. Roses twined in a scythe,
me and Dickey grieved. “Thou Shalt Not”
and all that smearwort. On the hospice lot,
weeds sprouted tips, like: get a life, take a life

We ditched the van at first intermission,
D. and me, we’d had our glister of venom.
There once was a time I’d have said scram.
This time a guilty sun gilded my stun gun. 

“Hey you, what’d you do with your Dad?”
yelled the groundskeeper mowing—yawn,
at least I’m a living—hospitable grass. Then:
“can’t dig here with that hole in your head.”

It sounds like something rather sinister is happening here.  Or is this more how a certain kind of language and a certain kind of mind interact?  Or, both?” 

I hope it comes across as a kind of phantasmagoric revenge fantasy involving the speaker’s father, with the sense of a plot that can’t be pinned down.  Dickey and the speaker do something to the Dad—shoot him?—but don’t kill him (“He’d been less empty/I’d have hit a vital”—and are in some way interrupted and told, more or less, to play elsewhere.  The tone starts out exuberant—It was premium cable!—but not so much so by the end.

Poetry has been defined by ‘the line.’ Verse is rather obvious in presenting ‘the line’ as its unit, but is poetry of a more sophisticated sort really doing anything different? Isn’t free verse’s ‘line’ still someone dancing—but just with the music taken away? Or is there something more mysterious involved?

I don’t think free verse is inherently more sophisticated than symmetrically metered verse. Nor is one more “formal” than the other.  On the one hand, metrical verse is predicated on a patterns of recurrence—say, five iambic feet per line, alternating four- and three-stress lines, or what have you—but the verse is artful only insofar as those patterns of recurrence are varied, syncopated, even disrupted.  A great example is the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . .

 

Say those lines emphasizing the iambic pentameter, then say them again emphasizing the rhythm—that is, the metrical variations, relative stress, enjambment,  interruptive pauses—and you can’t help hearing how sophisticated is the syncopation between recurrence (meter) and variation (rhythm).

            On the other hand, the formal first principle of free verse is variation, improvisation; but that verse is artful only insofar as those variations and improvisations deploy and benefit from patterning.  As Donald Justice points out in a brilliant essay, “The Invention of Free Verse,” Ezra Pound made up one kind of free verse in 1907, probably in Crawfordville, Indiana:

 

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not
.

 

You can scan those lines—you can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.  What you can hear, I think, is extraordinarily subtle rhythmic patterning that counterpoints free-verse improvisation.  In this case, “dancing free verse” strikes me as a very apt metaphor for how these lines behave, and the lines are ravishingly musical.  But well-made free verse—like well-made metrical verse—needn’t dance or sing; it can murmur, chant, blurt, curse, meditate, rhapsodize, gossip, coo, and so on.

            The language of poetry constitutes a compressed metaphor for how humans (usually it’s one human) speak—to one other, to many others, to a supposed other, or to him- or herself.  That’s as aphoristic as I can get.

I find in contemporary poetry a lot of crowding, and what I mean by that is there seems to be an excess of everything: meaning, language, suggestion, experiment, experience, nuance, feeling, coloring, shadowing, reference and word-play contained in a single poem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? Lamenting there are no more famous poets, ‘where is our Keats?’ we perhaps ‘have no Keats’ precisely because we have ten thousand Keats’ cramming their poems with Keats x 10. In terms of simple composition—and I got this idea from Plato’s ‘Timaeus’—perhaps one needs space for the spaces, a length for one’s lengths, a room sufficient in size to fit all the furniture. Do you think in terms of pure compositional taste and technique, American poets are guilty of overwhelming the lay reader?

I’m skeptical of general descriptions about what contemporary poetry does or doesn’t do.  Some poetry does indeed crowd every rift with a landfill of poetic effects.  I love how Timothy Donnelly does that in The Cloud Corporation.  But there seem to me plenty of poets who compose as much by leaving out as adding in.  Here are a few lines by Jennifer Barber, from her wonderful book Given Away:

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

 There’s a lot going on in these lines—just now I’m noticing the elegant superimposition of symmetries in its stanzas (couplet/tercet/couplet composed of two sentences/one sentence/two sentences)—and between these lines.  But nothing in these lines strikes me as “crammed.”

            John Ashbery captured the dilemma of “compositional taste and technique” (nice phrase) in the first two sentences of Three Poems:  “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.  And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”  That says it all, no?

            Only a few of Keats’s contemporaries knew they “had their Keats” for the brief time they had him.  Most ignored or reviled his work.   We probably have our Keats—or Dickinson or whoever—but we just don’t know it.  It’s also worth recognizing that the ways people who read and write poetry value it have become much more diverse.   I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s harder to define—much less agree upon—what makes a good poem, let alone a great poet.  Readers with different cultural and ethnic experiences read for different reasons, and are aesthetically satisfied by different attributes.  Maybe a century from now, Lord Posterity will have preserved a crowd of Keats’s, for a crowd of different audiences.  That is, if we’re reading at all in a century. 

The Jennifer Barber is a great example of a simple modern lyric, and I agree with you that ‘nothing in these lines strikes [one] as crammed,’ but since there is so much we can take away from this poem (and which might befuddle the lay reader), the rhetorical space outside its lines feels crammed to me, if that makes any sense.

            My only quibble here about the Barber poem involves the word “crammed,” which implies to me a kind of superfluity; as soon as we’re talking about “space,” the mystery seems to inhere in what’s left out, not what’s put in.  I admire that a great deal in Jennifer’s poems, and wish I were better at leaving things out.

Regarding that famous formula, sound & sense: how often do they really become one? We say one is “sacrificed” to the other and so forth, but are they, by nature, interchangeable, or are they really two very different things? Are they similar to light and darkness, where sense is light and darkness the sound that obliterates the light? Or is sound a kind of illumination, too? Is sound always a reflection of what makes the sound? Does the sound of a string of a certain length always cause us to see (or intuit) a string of a certain length? And does sense operate the same way, leading us back to its cause, or is sense (meaning) experienced only as a cause, without any effects? Can a string plucked produce meaning? Can meaning be a string?

Words obviously have sounds when spoken out loud, and those sounds are subject to the variations of pronunciation or dialect; and words obviously have denotations sufficiently stable to allow us to, more or less, communicate with each other.  Of course sound and sense are related.  If they weren’t, you wouldn’t understand this sentence:  “I am content with the content of my poem.”

            In regard to poems, I believe “meaning” describes a relationship—between reader and text—not some dynamic that’s built into a text, absent a reader.  An unread poem means nothing.  That may seem dumbly self-evident, but I’ve had the experience of discussing a poem with others (undergraduates, often)—having a rich, attentive conversation about the poem’s textures and tones and how they affect us.  Afterwards, someone will say, “well, that was fun, but what does the poem mean?” It “means” what we just did!   What that person in fact requires is a summary of some kind that will obviate the need to reread, re-discuss, or re-experience the poem and its meanings. Weirdly, the person who asks that question is often one of the most animated participants in our meaning-making conversation.

Poe said the color, orange, and the sound of a gnat produced the same sensation in him. Scientifically, we understand Poe’s experience as the result of waves or vibrations. A poem read aloud is a vibrating object. A poem read silently does not physically wiggle. Can we say the former is the hum of the gnat, the latter, the color orange? But as someone who loves to both listen and read silently, I swear that poems I love are the same thing, whether I listen to them or read them. Does this prove that sound/sense really is one reality, or the converse: sound and sense are eternally separate, and the poet merely places them side by side?

A poem read silently does not physically wiggle.  That’s terrific.  I find myself noticing simpler—maybe more simplistic—distinctions.  When we read a poem silently, we don’t push our breath against our closed lips, gently popping them open to make the plosives; or shape our mouth cavity to articulate the long and short vowels; or manipulate our tongue, teeth and breath to express the sibilants.   When we read a poem out loud, all of these and other mouth and breath acts take place.  When it’s a very good poem—written by a master orchestrator of the physical properties of words and phrases and sentences—we are “played” by the poem; our body is its instrument.  I suppose one can become a very attentive silent reader, able to “hear” these mouth sounds in the auditory imagination.   I’m not that alert as a silent reader.  To come to an understanding of a poem, I almost always have to read it out loud—not to perform it, but to allow it to perform me.  And I don’t mean listening to the poet read his or her poem out loud (although that can be a pleasure); I’m talking about reading the poem out loud oneself.  I wish I had the patience to read and reread out loud more poems that are new to me.  I’d be much better read if I did so.

Steven, I have to ask you about word-play, since your work is amazing in this regard. You have a line from your latest book, “What, you wander, do I mean?”  Here you place wonder—implied in the punning line—and wander next to each other, two trochaic words of similar sound and meaning. 

            “What do I mean,” you ask, and that’s key. To wonder about something is to wander around looking for the answer, or to behold a great palace—in wonder—is to wander about in that palace: the effect produced by your line is immediate and gratifying—both purely intellectually and in terms of the reader’s word-cognizance. The reader physically wanders through the wonder of space and meaning itself.  The question also carries self-consciousness with it, as the narrator sort of dares the reader to consider what meaning itself is.

            Yet, when we consider this practice in its general use, there is the tendency to feel the pain associated with punning, that clash of colors in clothing, that discord of two adjacent piano keys being struck. The imp who switches the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ will eventually exasperate Apollo.

Punning seems to me language at its most self-conscious, and I was (self) conscious about pushing the envelope, and that I was likely to exasperate some readers. (To exasperate Apollo seems a noble enough aspiration for poetry.  He’s certainly had his share of praise.)

            I very much want readers to experience the speaker’s word-play as, at least at times, painful for him.  He often articulates a wish to communicate simply—“I need to work on my main idea”; “I can’t tell why//I weigh so down when I get this mad.” If the puns unlock meanings he’s unaware of, but we pick up, that’s all to the good.  “Well now, you and I are words apart,” are his last words to Dickey.  I hope that the plays and puns in that simple statement come through very clearly, and that they speak to a more general human condition.

Pain–’tears of the clown (or punster)’–pertains on many levels to the speaker’s story and his attempt to communicate.  Shakespeare puns in his tragedies.  Why does a pun unsettle us/amuse us/annoy us?  How does it work, both aesthetically and dramatically?  One of the many things Clangings does is help to answer these questions.  Thank you, Steven.

Clangings has a book trailer which you can watch here, and is published by Sarabande Books.

You can learn more about Steven Cramer and his works here.

BURSTING ANOTHER MODERNIST MYTH: THE MUSIC OF POETRY

https://scarriet.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/545fc-orpheus_and_eurydice-1868.jpg?w=458&h=574

We hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.

Since the Modernist revolution and its Creative Writing Progam put Keats in a museum, the absolute worst thing a poem can be, the new masters of poetry say, is “sing-songy.”

One can be called a genius these days just by not being sing-songy.

Formalist verse, no matter how skillfully done, screams Amateur!  The more skillfully done, the more amateurish it seems.

When the success of something condemns it, you know something is afoot.

If poems were washing machines, you could put old ones in a museum—because all the new ones work better.

But John Ashbery and William Carlos Williams don’t wash clothes better than Keats.  They just don’t.

So what the hell is going on here?

We think what’s happening are two things:

First, the cult of “Make It New” has convinced enough influential persons that poems do resemble washing machines.

And secondly, as we said in the beginning of this essay: musical poetry, fashionable in previous centuries, is not considered serious.

Even though it’s unfortunate, the first can’t be helped; the new will always be fashionable for that reason.  But the second is worth looking into.

Is speech that’s musical less serious?

What of this example:

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

This is the most admired and remembered part of a newly elected U.S. president’s speech to the country and the world.  There is no doubt this speech was meant to be taken seriously.  This phrase, with its repetition and symmetry, is catchy as hell Kennedy’s famous phrase is swellingly, swooningly, melodiously and metrinomically musical. And deadly serious.

This example alone is enough to bust the modernist myth that any trace of song betrays a lack of seriousness on the part of the speaker—a myth that was swallowed, and ushered in our present era of flat poems which not a soul remembers.

Now obviously John F. Kennedy would have been a fool to stand before the world on that cold day back in 1961 and speak out limericks.

But only a fool assumes the worst example of a thing is what it is.

The modernist might sputter, “But—but—but…your JFK example isn’t really sing-songy. For, instance it doesn’t rhyme…”

Let’s heed the modernist complaint and see if rhyme can be serious…

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Oh crap!  Rhyme, rhyme, everywhere, and deadly serious.

Even ballad-coughing, melodramatic, hyperbolic, sentimental, self-hating, Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge shows the way to serious art through the music of poetry:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The art is serious; therefore, the sentiment is.

One clearly sees here two things: the whole issue of musical poetry is not bi-part—one is not either “prosey and serious” or “rhyming and not serious.”  The issue is far more complicated than the haters of “sing-songy” would have it.  And, secondly, one can see traces in the Coleridge of how the art of formal verse can be abused, can veer into the sickly and the over-emotional, violating the dictates of good taste and Plato’s Republic.  But let’s not blame the poetry, as the Modernists (in their bathos) did.  It’s not formal verse’s fault.  The Shakespeare is as different from the Coleridge as Coleridge is from Dryden, or Dryden is from Ashbery, or Ashbery is from T.S Eliot, or T.S Eliot is from himself, when the latter used rhyme seriously, or mock-heroically—depending on the occasion.  The laws of verse are not sentimental.  We are—even in our dullest, modern prose.

And now in our final example: who, in 2012, would wish that Emily Dickinson had not rhymed in order to be this serious:

 Heart, We Will Forget Him

Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!

HAPPINESS IS THE STANDARD

Poets know intelligent and reasonably educated people who never read literature and are content in family, career, and home; confronted with the fact of this happiness gives poets, gives those absorbed in Letters, pause: is literature necessary?  Is literature only for the unhappy?  Once happiness is reached, what else is there to say of those things which only aim at happiness, unless poetry, too, be nothing more than a pure record of happiness?  But how can poetry ever be a pure record of happiness unless it be some rapidly understood tom-foolery in rhyme, like a limerick, which insults the taste of every true person of Letters?

It is not a question of making an effort towards happiness, either: the beautiful family is happy in the whole arc of their actions, from the click of the camera to the putting up in the home the beautiful picture of their beautiful family; there is no lesson or trial to go through to acheive happiness; for the beautiful family in question, happiness is here, and all their days and nights are a delight.  Let us swallow our poet’s pride for a minute and ask: Why should they ‘figure out’ the ‘difficult’ poem?  Why should they be educated by poetry?  Why should they read x number of texts, in order that they can understand poetry?

Let us recall Oscar Wilde’s philosophy all we want: to write is more important than to do; the critical spirit,—handed down to us by the Greeks, kept alive by the Romans and later the Germans, the English, the Spanish, and the French–is the basis of all improvement and beauty in human life—let us recall this all we want, and if it’s true, it belongs to the past. And if the acheivements and insights of the past still live—and no doubt they do—it is the very nature of inherited happiness that it needn’t be re-visited and re-worked if it is truly an inherited happiness. Wilde himself would assert the logic: the gift of the Greeks would not be a gift, if the gift had to be created, again, and all those receiving the gift made unhappy by the labor of making the gift, again.  Knowing and doing pale before the god, happiness.

What does a person with a happy and beautiful life, a kind person with beautiful photos of a beautiful family on a beautiful home’s walls, what does such a person require of literature—which revolves around misfortune, and uses words to express the unreal?

Literature that expresses misfortune is obviously more advanced than the person who is merely happy, for we should assume the work of literature—whether its author happens to be happy, or not—expresses the truth that somewhere else others are unhappy—even due to injustice—which may even politically accuse those who are happy.  But as truthful and concerned with justice as certain literature may be, the question remains: why should the happy read it?  And if only the unhappy read it, what is to be gained from the misery expressed within that literature even to them—the unhappy?

The miserable may be comforted in knowing there are those even more miserable than they are.  Therefore the miserable will be drawn to misery in a medium that puts that misery on someone else—thus making them happy; so happiness can spring from misery.  But we are speaking of the happy, who have no need of this misery at all; they will never be attracted to literature that inevitably expresses misery.

This leads to a wider question about literature in general: what good is fictional misery, anyway?

Is the logic of literature this: the misery is acceptable so long as it is, in fact, fictional?  But if the misery is more acceptable if it is fictional, that is, unreal, it follows it would be better still if the misery were erased altogether, and the literature of misery dispensed with entirely.

And here we arrive at the spirit of Plato—whom Oscar Wilde admired most as a critic of art in Wilde’s overall admiration of the Greeks.  Plato was quick to dismiss the unreal as unreal and blithely asserted most famously that happiness and “the good” should always be our goal, never the miserable or the unreal.

Aristotle’s most famous rebuke of Plato is found in Aristotle’s far-reaching Catharsis Theory: misery in literature can purge misery from the mind of the audience; misery can chase out misery—but this sounds suspiciously close to finding happiness in another’s misery, which is not purgative at all. 

A second part to Aristotle’s rather dubious Catharsis Theory is that Tragedy, expressed nobly, can elevate the merely miserable.  But if one is really miserable, why elevate that misery?  Only happiness ought to be elevated.  The only way this Aristotle idea of tragic nobility can work is if it is merely a trick to lure the ‘misery loves company’ audience into refinement and thus, perhaps, towards happiness, and this seems to be what Shakespeare was doing, as he was so careful to mix poetry, comedy and tragedy, or, we might say, misery and happiness, together, so that happiness might have a little to do with that modern audience inevitably drawn, by that period in history, to literary entertainment.

The illogical poison introduced by Aristotle to Plato’s wisdom has done such damage that subsequent genius (Shakespeare, for instance) has been chiefly involved in mitigating the accepted Aristotelian flaw.

But the greatest argument for misery in literature is the one used by U.S. educators: teach war, racism, slavery, holocaust, etc. not only in history, but in literature, so it never happens again.  

The key word here is “happen.”  Since it happened, the subject should be taught–as history.  If our humanities classification is worth anything, literature is not history, and literature differs from history precisely in that it is not tied to what has happened.  History gains strength from its knowledge of what happened, and literature is precisely itself in not having that burden.  We are not sure why else it would be called fiction.

Fiction and poetry ought to be free.  Not free from their authors’ knowledge of history, necessarily—but free from history nonetheless; for literature should be interested in the springs of knowledge which started before nasty circumstance hardened into historical fact.  Happiness and poetry escape the nets of nature, fate, and history: This is how Aristotle came to the conclusion that poetry was more metaphysical, more philosophical, and more scientific than history.  The Catharthis Theory triumphed as psychology, which is why its influence is so universal.

The historian, however, has not ceded science to the poet quite yet—which is a good thing, because there is such a thing, despite Emerson’s plea, as poetry being asked to own too much real estate.  Here we could use a little of Edgar Poe’s narrowing, and since Poe himself concretely demonstrated how fiction could be both modern and sublime—unlike Emerson, who merely prattled in essays—even as Poe ‘dumbed down’ the poem into merely material considerations (beware that ‘merely,’ though) we might listen a little to Poe, who strenuously urged us to consider literature as something distinct from history, to consider poetry as something distinct from truth.

The truth of happiness is the greatest truth; no other truth should interfere.

Taking steps to make sure terrible events are not repeated belongs to science, and crude science at that—(for it is like scar tissue protecting a wound)—it belongs not to poetry or that advanced science which truly presents a cure for any of mankind’s sins to the mind which is always morally at odds with itself—unless it be happy, and thus to a certain extent, blissfully ignorant.

If there is happiness in poetry, it is because that poetry rises above the misery of history, and anyone who escapes the misery of history should enjoy themselves in being a poet—or not.  Anyone lucky enough to escape history might as well enjoy that good fortune, a good fortune that can do no harm, in itself.

There remains the question of the material nature of the happy poem.

A poem cannot possibly be happy, but a poem, to be happy, certainly can be beautiful.

Poe insisted Beauty was the province of the poem (not that other elements could not enter as points of contrast) and Poe was only copying Wilde’s beloved Greeks.  As G. E. Lessing says of Greek art:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, this much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful. Even the vulgarly beautiful, the beauty of inferior types, he copied only incidenally for practice or recreation. The perfection of the subject must charm in his work.

This “perfection,” which aims for the beautiful (from Lessing’s Laocoon), can be found in Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” where, in a much neglected passage, Poe refers to “supremeness:” “Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”

Now looms up before us universal beauty as found in art—it is made manifest through the very concept of supremeness itself, without envy or distraction, keeping always in view what really produces happiness, even more than beauty, which is merely the path, and that is: perfection. 

And of course the only perfection is: happiness.

What makes our beautiful family happy today is the same happiness found somewhere else, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

The rest is vanity, and simply because the vanity belongs to the poet is of no help.

POETRY: HAWKING WITHOUT WARES, OR: IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS

“Sell it for a song” —old saying

The Scarriet editors happened to be reading an old Scarriet post (we’re proud to say they hold up over time) and came upon what we think is the best underlying definition of ‘foetry’ we have ever seen—from Briggs Seekins:

If you are designing ball-bearings and you want people to believe in you, you have to actually do the physics, the testing–all those hours of rigorous intellectual slogging. You’ve obviously got to sell it to investors, but if it is a good product, the potential financial benefits will be strong enough so you can hire a completely different person who is an expert at selling.

We went on (in our old Scarriet post) to more-or-less say:

No poet has such a luxury. The poet, unlike the a maker of ball-bearings, has to be her own salesman, and work at recruiting a network of people who will also sell her–which in turn will mean selling for them. In the absence of verifiable, objective standards for what works, this is the only way anybody can be “successful” as a poet.

The irony Mr. Seekins has highlighted is that poetry is even more of a selling game than the selling game (business) itself, since there’s no ‘ball-bearings-that-work-better’ to sell.   Poetry, unlike a ball-bearing, isn’t supposed to work.  Art that works?  How gauche!

Poetry is selling and nothing more.  This is so strange that most simply cannot believe it: why would, how could there be any selling of what doesn’t exist, of what no one wants or needs?

Precisely.

All the more reason for the selling of poetry to be so intense—because it is nothing else.

We don’t mean poetry is a rhetoric which argues for itself—it has always been that, to some degree; after all, a perfectly round ball-bearing argues for itself; the ugly truth here is much worse: as Seekins says, a ball-bearing is important enough to require an expert salesman; a poem is not important enough to require an expert salesman, and therefore the poet must be a salesman by default, since a poem sells itself even less than a nicely made ball-bearing.

And Seekins is right about a crucial difference between poetry and painting, which we see here: http://www.technology.am/the-30-most-expensive-paintings-of-all-time-141346.html

The 30 most expensive paintings of all time link reveals that in 2006 a Jackson Pollock “spatter painting” sold for 140 million dollars.

By comparison, poetry is not expensive.

A first edition, signed copy of T.S. Eliot’s Poems, 1909—1925 can be had for a mere 9 thousand dollars.

A First Folio Shakespeare (1623) is 5.5 million: worth that much, no doubt because of historical twists and turns, and because Shakespeare plays are still performed on stage, and many have been turned into films.  The poetry part of Shakespeare’s Folio is probably worth in market terms about a nickel.

The most valuable auction piece so far of French literature is a signed edition of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer: $644,000.

We need not belabor the point.  The most expensive rare books are drawings: Da Vinci’s notebooks (30 million) or Audubon’s Birds of America (9 million).  If you don’t count signed editions, poetry is worth nothing compared to paintings.

There are art dealers, but there is no such thing as a poem dealer.

Only poets sell poetry—and this is why poetry is nothing more, nothing less, than selling itself.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”  One might dismiss the cliche’, but one should not dismiss the importance of “the thought;” this “thought” is the chief catalyst of love—something we should never take lightly.

Writing a poem for someone is very charming, indeed, and just because awwwww turns our heads and hearts to mush, we owe ourselves a scientific explanation of this phenomenon.

Modernists, trying to strike a new note and rebelling against the love lyrics of the Romantics and the Brownings, fighting what they thought was the noble fight against the awwwww, wrote self-conscious poems, calling poetry “all this fiddle,”  for instance. If one is touched by a Marianne Moore poem, it will give rise to awwwww, because any poem, even a modern poem  (yea, even yours, Ezra Pound, grizzled, but secretly perfumed) fits into the eternal poetic formula: “it’s the thought that counts.”  But fighting the awwwww has its pitfalls. Does anyone really think “Poetry” by Marianne Moore is a good poem? Let us admit at once it’s a terrible poem and it owes its fame to the vain attempt by a little band of Modernists to remove the awwwww factor from poetry.  Poetry may be a great deal more than awwwww, but to try and take awwwww away from poetry is like removing a person’s heart: you kill the person.  You write terrible poems like Miss Moore’s “Poetry.”  If anyone forgets how bad this poem is, we reprint it here. See how it devolves to lecture.  See how thoroughly unpleasant and arrogant it is:

Poetry —M. Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Ugh.  Miss Moore’s poem is like a toad spitting out a toad.

This is one of the most celebrated poems of Modernism.  For this we got rid of Shelley and Keats?  We killed the nightingale so we could be lectured at by Marianne Moore?

For this we tried to do away with awwwww.

“All this fiddle,” huh?  “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it…”  How did she know?

You can tell the poem was written for the classroom.  Moore was a teacher before she published poetry.

The classroom laboratory kills awwwww quite effectively.

But poetry, whether on the street or in the classroom, sells itself, and this selling is the content, form and criticism of the poem simultaneously.

Underneath it all lies ugly ambition, whose selling point is something like As My Bitches Indicate, Triumph is Obvious Now.

Splitting the poem into poet v. reader, content v. form, narrative v. concept, or into any of the various -isms-split of modernity and the avant-garde, we lose the unified significance of the one true formula which describes poetry: an advertisement which advertises itself as itself to itself and for itself. (Theories that protest they split only to re-unite have actually made a split they can’t take back.)  A poem is its sale, its selling, and all possible elements are in the sale, are being sold, and comprise the seller—the selling of poetry is poetry, such as would make a businessman blush.

Throw in awwwww, and just think what you’ve got.

You have a touching bit of worthlessness—which drives all worth.

And is selling a bad thing?

Only when a sale is tied to a bad product, or demeans a product.

Since poetry is the selling and contains no product, per se, poetry as selling cannot be a bad thing.

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare, in his most esoteric and hermeneutic poem (Sonnnet 21) says, “I will not praise that purpose not to sell.”

Ambition attempts to “find a product” for poetry—a prize, an award, a signed book—but in all contexts we can discover, save for a narrow personal career interest, this turns out to be largely worthless.

Shakespeare links “praise” with “purpose to sell.”

The secret ingredients of poetry are praise, love, and selling.

We shall end by quoting Shakespeare’s sonnet 21:

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

POETRY FOR VALENTINE’S WEEK

Is there a god of love?  If there is, Valentine’s Day should be as important as Christmas. Never look to offend this god. Proud ones!  Kneel, kneel to love!

The following three poems—supplications to Love’s infinite powers—are by Shakespeare, Shelley, and the last is original.

“Then find another god to save you.”   –Pilsus, a Roman senator

“Sometimes it lasts in love.’  –Adelle

SHAKESPEARE SONNET NO. 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

LOVE’S PHILOSOPHY by Shelley

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion:
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle—
Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower would be forgiven
If it disdain’d its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea—
What are all these kissings worth
If thou kiss not me?

SOME SURROUND THEMSELVES WITH LOVE

I

Some surround themselves with love.
They are never alone.
Obeying nature, they shyly greet a mate
And kiss, for the secret to love, it is said,
Is to increase, and so they propagate,
Making children who are beautiful,
Who grow in love, asking for love, until
Love is theirs, gleaming in the starlight,
Or the mist, and when the sun is bright
Love carries the world, refusing to stop,
For love withholds nothing—not one drop.

II

Some surround themselves with care,
They are always alone.
Cautiously, they prepare
A room, a grave, a bed,
With little items they can scrutinize,
Pride burns the embers of their eyes;
They ponder immortality until it dies.
And once, I loved one like this
From afar—for these do not like to kiss—
But I will never forget the day she said:
“Here is a map, with hell stretching far above—
And did you know the world is wrong because of all its love?”

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. image

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.

THE BEWITCHED CRITIC

Helen Vendler suffered a mortal blow to her reputation recently.  The Harvard professor and renowned critic viciously attacked the poet Rita Dove for her Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry (2011): Too many poets, too many black poets, and not enough Wallace Stevens.  It is almost as if Vendler had been set up, had stepped into an ambush; Vendler’s humiliation hurts because it hurts today’s poetry, so well-known in poetry circles is Ms. Vendler.

Vendler seemed secure in her position as Queen Aesthete—no axe to grind; motivated merely by a disinterested love of poetry and its pleasurable complexities; if she seemed the Critic of the Concert Hall and not the Street,  this made her seem  all the more untouchable, like a great concert musician with skills pure and admirable.  Her instrument has always been made of praise; her close-reading insights always elevated the poetic labors of whomever she chose to read; even mechanical skill became a philosophy for every poet she touched, whether it was Seamus Heaney or Jorie Graham, Shakespeare, Keats or Stevens or Yeats.

Every minor poet needs at least one critic like Vendler in order to stay alive; she can make a lyric seem an epic of complexity, a mere quatrain burst with as many stories as a novel.  She is one of those critics who can almost turn a minor poet into a major one. 

There’s only one problem with Vendler, who learned from her New Critic masters to stoke small kindling so it blazes into major conflagrations with the close-reading ironies of the magnifying glass. 

The first rule of Criticism is: Find Fault.  The freshman composition student usually has nothing of interest to say when confronted with a major poem because they are too nice to say anything bad about a major poem.  And if the young student is encouraged not to be intimidated, and to say what’s really on their mind, they will usually blurt out something like: “I would tell Shakespeare (in the Sonnets) not to waste his time with this obsession for the young man!”  And we smile, even if this practical advice might have some merit, on a certain level.

Vendler has no such inhibitions.  Vendler’s jungle of praise can grow anywhere.  Its flowers soar, its vines sing.

Vendler is one of those critics who can easily find in a poem more than even the poet knew; for example, here she is unpacking the third quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet #116:

The third quatrain departs from its function as reinscription of the second in considering the merit of the young man’s view. It begins by keeping up the vehemence of refutation, remaining within the debater’s genre; but suddenly, a new concessive appears as one had earlier—in line 8’s although his heighth be taken. The young man is granted another point. Something in fact, it is true, is removed; something, it is granted, comes into the bending compass of the sickle. The thing that the young man values, that he has in mind with his occluded talk of “alteration” and “removes,” turns out to be physical beauty, rosy lips and cheeks, which, it is conceded, fall to Time’s sickle. The speaker cannot deny the actual truth of those removals, but the concession is a painful one. The young man, even though concealing his motives behind his euphemizing vagueness, has been exposed (by this unpacking-by-reiteration of his very words alters and bends) as a man in thrall to the sensual bloom of youth; when he sees the sickle bend, he must, he has said, bend with it, remove himself when he sees beauty removed, and find another as-yet-unreaped beauty. (The speaker’s tenderness toward the young man forbids his showing narratively, or in prophecy, the destruction of sensual beauty in the young man; he admits here only the general law, that within the compass of the sickle all sensual beauty falls.)

This kind of criticism can run the gamut from brilliant to is this even necessary? 

Note how thoroughly Vendler gets inside “the young man’s” head; the young man is not even hinted at in sonnet #116.  He doesn’t exist.

Shakespeare’s sonnet #116, “Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds” is a major sonnet by a major poet, and major poets, by definition, make an impact directly on the public; they require no Vendler, and if any poet did require a Vendler, that poet surely would not be understood until a Vendler “discovered” them.  Imagine you are a poet, and one of your quatrains, in order to be understood, necessitated a gloss like the one above.  Vendler over-explains Shakespeare, and thus falls short of Shakespeare’s intention, and here is a paradox of Criticism; Vendler covers #116 in superfluity; her appreciative fecundity mars the major impulse even as it caresses its subject with suffocating adoration.  Such “reach” is only necessary to prop up lesser poems. It is a truism that if a poem suceeds, criticism crumbles before it, leading one to cry, “I like it!”  “Beautiful!” “Did you see what that poem did? Yes.”

Even if we grant Vendler’s criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets is useful; how useful?  How much do Shakespeare’s sonnets need Vendler’s criticism?  If we reply that Vendler’s criticism needs Shakespeare more than Shakespeare needs Vendler’s criticism (and I would guess even Vendler couldn’t but agree) it begs the question: is there wretched poetry somewhere Vendler could rescue, so that Vendler would be more valuable to it, than it is to her?

But when should Criticism ever save the poet, except to overturn prior abusive Criticism?   Why should Shakespeare, or Wallace Stevens, or anyone, save Helen Vendler?  What is the relationship between Vendler and her poets?  If the poets don’t need Vendler, why do we need Vendler?  If Vendler—as with Sonnet #116—makes much ado about nothing, perhaps we need to be saved from her?

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.

If Wallace Stevens is untrustworthy as a poet—if he sounds wise, but is not, should we even allow a critic like Vendler to expound on Stevens—that is, if we wish to keep our sanity?

COLE SWENSEN’S LIPS ARE MOVING (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND A THING SHE SAYS)

Cole Swensen Poetry Trading Card

Cole Swensen: learning sans philosophy

Our poetry blog rival John Gallaher has duly noted poet Cole Swensen’s new book of essays from U. Michigan Press, Noise That Stays Noise.

We follow in Gallaher’s footsteps.

Gallaher, on his blog, dutifully copies the following from Swensen’s title essay with tacit praise, but we—in the Scarriet spirit, running, as usual, against the po-biz grain—bring to the table some analysis of Ms. Swenson’s assumed wisdom.  Here is the Swensen Gallaher quoted:

Both novelty and redundancy have a place in our interpretation of the world around us. Complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s “man without memory,” for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening; complete redundancy, on the other hand, would amount to the heat death of complete homogeneity.

The degree of nonunderstanding in a given piece changes from reader to reader and is often slight; the novel feeling it occasions is part of the pleasure of reading poetry and is the source of the simultaneous suspension and surprise that seems to bypass the cognitive faculties.

This process, which, borrowing a term from the biological sciences, I’m going to refer to as self-organization from noise, is particularly important in considering much recent American poetry, which often contains a lot of what many would consider noise.

Such an approach demands that we consider a literary text solely as an act of communication, as a completely quantifiable message passing through a channel from a sender to a receiver. Though this may strike some as cold, on the contrary, I think it is just such an approach that can elucidate the ways in which literature differs from mechanistic models of communication and can, unlike them, augment the quantifiable with irreducible qualities of human sensation and emotion.

Noise is most simply defined as any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quantity of quality of transmitted information.

[I]n a text, various idiosyncrasies from typographical errors to intentional ambiguities can also be considered noise if they too alter (or augment) the imparted information.

Information, in turn, can be defined in terms of the resolution of uncertainty.

[I]n literature . . . noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

Literary noise . . . is often not a degradation of the message; on the contrary, such noise is often intentional and aimed at preventing the suppression of imagination that complete certainty can cause. . . . This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

The way in which poets define noise strongly influences style . . . .

[T]he reader is crucial here . . .

–from Noise That Stays Noise by Cole Swensen

Swensen’s initial division between novelty and redundancy has philosophical force, but Swensen’s thinking quickly slides into that predictable modernist ploy: speaking in code to the initiated.  Noise is a metaphor for the horrible sort of poetry which the public hates; rather than defend this horrible sort of poetry directly, Swensen chooses to defend noise as  horrible poetry’s stand-in.  If we can just say enough interesting things about noise, Swensen thinks, we can satisfy ourselves that horrible poetry has a purpose.  This is exactly what Swensen is doing, and Gallaher knows it.  Well, this is how intellectuals deceive one other.

You read a poem. You can’t understand it.  You wonder why such things are given a pass.  Then you read,

noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

And then you nod, and go, I seeAs a reader, I have a responsibility to allow this noise to show me possibilities.

Swensen does understand that she better define what she means by noise, and so we get this:

This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

So time-honored strategies such as “juxtaposition” and “unusual syntax” and “neologism,” things which one might associate with the 16th century author, Shakespeare, are what she really means by “noise.”  In that case, “noise” might as well be anything, and it quickly becomes apparent that the term, “noise,” is merely code for the approval of play-pen modernism/post-modernism.

Swensen is practicing shoddy, incoherent criticism and it’s aimed precisely at folks like Gallaher, who are pre-determined not to question it.

As for Swensen’s redundancy/novelty construction, it is interesting how she says “complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s ‘man without memory,’ for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening,” and then says of “nonunderstanding,” that the “novel feeling it occasions…is part of the pleasure of reading poetry.”  Redundancy, for Swenson, is the “heat death of complete homogeneity.”  But how do we go from “incomprehensible and frightening” to “pleasure?”  Is it because “reading poetry” is such a trivial act?  Or is she unwilling to follow through on her own declarations? Is Swenson unwilling to compare the nature of the mind, or the nature of reality, to poetry?

Is this just a sophistical tease?  I am going out on a limb here, and I’ll say yes, it is.  Swensen is practicing swine-like rhetoric.

Without really bothering to discuss the subject, “nonunderstanding” takes on magical powers for Swensen.

Swensen abandons the redundancy/novelty dichotomy at once.  Nothing further needs to be said about the “redundancy” side of the scale.  She’d rather discuss the “pleasures” and “surprises” of “noise.”

But isn’t redundancy largely how we experience reality, whether it’s the movement of the sun and planets in the universe, or all those repetitions that make the world comprehensible, and the sciences, the languages, and the arts, possible?   Is Swensen interested in how things work, or is she only looking to discourse on things she likes?

We might mention Shakespeare’s Sonnet #23 for an interesting treatise on noise, or Millay’s Sonnet, “If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way” (the noise of the subway); and clarity would have no small part in the analysis of these works.  Certainly Swensen’s sophistry is not necessary to make the subject of ‘noise’ lively.

No wonder the creative mind’s ability to make great works of art has been eclipsed by academic dullness.  Swensen’s faint-hearted plays at rhetoric are now the rule.

A tip to Swensen: Learn from your (superior) ancestors, Plato of The Phaedrus, Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Though it drive you mad, strive to find the truth.

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best poems in this volume are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

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

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

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

–Corbiere

to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU WHO HEAR THE SOUND, IN SCATTERED RHYMES”

Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.

I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.

Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:

It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.

How many themes relate to Petrarch!   He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere.  Musa, again from the introduction:

In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.

Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.

W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere.  Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”

Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?

I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.

translated A.S. Kline, 2002

Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell.  Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature.  I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch.  Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.

We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:

Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,

than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,

so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.

# 52, trans. Musa

I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion.  Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.

Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time.  The Modernists ignored him.  But look at this poem:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,

and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.

How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?

And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.

#311, trans. Musa

Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.

And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of  the speech:

Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,

and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,

speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.

Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.

Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today.  He is the template for all great lyric poetry.



THE FORM WAR

JGwithGlobe

Newton’s discovery that the apple which fell at his feet obeyed the same law as all the spheres above only diminishes in that mind which judges post-1911 physics as so counter-intuitive and incoherent, it excuses sloppy and obscure poetry.  The universality of Newton’s laws and the universality of E=MC2 has worth beyond anything that may have fallen and broken in 1911.

Shakespeare’s “light’s flame” in Sonnet #1 is post-Newtonian—science is not the same as history, yet some shallow thoughts on poetry depend on a science which follows a perfect chronological path. The Modernist (as the name implies) replaces nuanced thinking with pure chronology.

The very latest 21st century physics approves of the Big Bang theory as laid out in 1848—by Edgar Poe.  America’s first critic also ought to get more credit for showing, in his Rationale of Verse, how the origins of quantitative poetry and language itself grew up together.

John Gallaher raves on.  We at Scarriet don’t mean to pick on Professor Gallaher (we think he is some kind of poetry professor)—it’s just that his brainwashing is, unfortunately the same as all the rest, and he makes a good example.

Free-versers (I’m quoting Marvin Bell from his Iowa days) cry indignantly, “Form, not forms!”

Gallaher repeats this hoary formula:

One can still profitably teach and study poetry as poetic forms. That’s a great way to talk about poetry up through E.A. Robinson. That’s how I learned poetry in High School and as an undergrad back in the 1980s. But what I feel like I didn’t get was a study in the most interesting things that have been going on since 1911.

The Modernist theorist has won (he thinks) by out-simplifying his formalist opponents: an open-ended interest in form trumps a pedantic interest in forms.

Out-simplifying is the usual way to win any philosophical, or scientific, or metaphysical argument. But the Modernist buffoon has only out-simplified quantitative poetry in his own mind.

An interest in quantitative poetry is not defined by an interest in poetic forms—the quaint designation used by free-versers to mask the real issue.  Every poet worth the name is interested in quantity (and its sub-genre of poetic forms) while the Modernist, free-verse crackpot, wielding the false scepter of alleged post-1911 science—which has supposedly transformed his art—is interested in nothing.

There is always a great deal of high-flown talk from the Modernist of history and science.  We quote liberally from Gallaher:

Furthering the point, I think that the hundred years since the start of Modernism (It started August 15th 1911, by the way), a century of new advances in science and the way we perceive the world around us, calls for a new approach to talking about and teaching poetry.
The intellectual practices of how we talk about and teach the poetry of the last century (and continuing into this one) have not kept up with the changes in the practice of the art. We must change. The free-verse legacy has created a literary question (or questions) that haven’t been answered.
It seems to me sometimes when I’m talking to someone who has had some experience with poetry (almost exclusively prior to the 20th Century), that it’s as difficult to talk about new poetry as if I were trying to explain some aspect of Quantum Theory to someone who has only known Newtonian Physics.
This is not to knock them. Newton is still very important to the history of physics. All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself, that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time. And time demands new approaches. Not just because of the new poetry being written, but because of the people who are studying poetry. They also change over time, as the times change.
Form is not the best opening salvo in a course on poetry, and it’s precisely the wrong one in a contemporary poetry course. It still has a place, a large place, but I don’t believe that place is primary. Contemporary poetry, or a fairly large percentage of it, is outside the conception of what poetry is that reigned before 1911, or even—or especially—the way it was conceptualized as an object of study by the New Criticism.
I think we should be using the more innovative pedagogical strategies we use in teaching theory or fiction when we teach contemporary poetry.
Most people learn poetry through a historical lens, starting with very, very old things. Wonderful things, don’t get me wrong, but old things. I think that’s backwards. Or actually, I think completely different approaches need to be taken after The Romantics, but that’s a different argument.

It is cringe-worthy to hear such thinking boast of its own pedagogy, for such thinking is not pedagogcial, but poison.  Shakespeare and Newton are all very good in their way, but now, according to Gallaher, we’ve got Quantum Physics—and Charles Olson.   Why Charles Olson or John Ashbery or Rae Armantrout are more ‘Quantum Physics’ than Shakespeare is something Gallaher hopes we’ll just take for granted, because, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Rae Armantrout, Quantum Physics! They go hand-in-hand! No, they don’t.

“All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself,” Gallaher writes—and what does this mean?   A language act unique to itself. Is this the reason for poetry?  Is that what poetry strives for, or is that what poetry has been—a “unique act?”—since 1911?  Does poetry shed light on linguistics?  Or is linguistics shedding light on poetry?  And is this true only since 1911?  Because…why?  And it doesn’t help that Gallaher adds, “that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time.”  That’s all well and good, but what exactly happened that was so earth-shattering in 1911, again?  I must have missed that.  There’s a blindness, an hysteria, here.  I’d bet the farm that Gallaher really has no idea what he means by “a language act unique to itself.”

Now listen to Gallaher as he attempts to elucidate the profundity which sets Modernist poetry apart from “old things” which poets like Keats, Milton and Shakespeare used to write:

I would like to redirect the post I made last week a bit. Craft (form, etc) is important to poetry, and to my thinking about and reading poetry. What I was reacting to is the way—tonally maybe—people sometimes, often even, think of poetry as an erector set of formal machines. Poetry does have to get made, and everything made has a form, and a craft to create that form, but I’m more interested in the spirit behind it.

Part of this spirit, or my desire to talk about the spirit of the art object comes from the fact that there are a great many blanks in any art object. I prefer to hang out there. It’s one  of the major flaws of the way poetry is often taught in schools. Blanks can bring terror to teachers. Blanks aren’t testable the way non-blanks are. But the blanks are the very places we go to when we’re talking about the poems we love. The question of just what Wallace Stevens is getting at in “The Idea of Order at key West.” It’s the way things DON’T link up that are more interesting to me than the way they do.

That’s a form and craft issue too, but we tend to avoid those places, because they have the tendency to tie us up in knots, and that is a vulnerability we often don’t want to show to others, especially if we’re supposed to be experts.

Connotation and denotation, in poetry, for example, are part of a fuzzy interdependence. They are never in total control. Things happen there, that open what I’m calling blanks. This movement is an easy way to deconstruction, sure, but it also allows moments co-creation. All art is co-creation in this way, in its context, its situation.

How one handles those moments (as author or as co-creating reader) is more important, or, as important, as the form, the means of control in the poem, the art object. Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them, just as if one is bored or uncomfortable with the more usual formal issues, one still has to participate with them.

“Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them,” Gallaher urges.  But what are these “blanks,” exactly?   Is he speaking of ambiguity?  Ambiguity was not invented in 1911.  Further, Gallaher, by finding so much pleasure in those “fuzzy” and “vulnerable” and “not in control” aspects, and in the “blank,” as opposed to the “non-blank” places, is choosing not to be ambiguous at all.  What we see is a man certain that he prefers uncertainty.

And what happens when one becomes more interested in the ambiguity in poetry than the poetry itself?  We find ourselves exactly in the middle of where the art of poetry finds itself today: lost, confused, and forgotten, crying out, “1911! 1911!”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are loaded with ambiguity, a far more potent mixture of ambiguity than we find in Stevens.  But Gallaher with his post-1911 glasses on, will never see this.

Gallaher, in his modernism, is far more certain about things than any poet or philosopher was before 1911.  Gallaher prefers the “spirit behind the form.”   Gallaher is sure there is a “form” over here and a “spirit” over there.   Is this post-1911 uncertainty?  Really?

Gallaher can’t even fake the ‘ambiguity’ rhetoric well, much less make it convincing.

We begin with Plato, who invented Western Thought.  Plato defined art as measurement.   Not form, but form that can be measured.  You can simplify with, “Form, not forms!” all you want.  But form really misses the point. Poetry is form that can be measured.  Is that simple enough for you?

Gallaher cited Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” as an example of “blank” mastery.  Let’s compare this modern poem by Stevens to a 16th century chestnut,  Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”  Let’s see which poem is more unique, and has more of that mysterious “blank” quality Gallaher loves.  Let’s use actual examples to find out what 1911 hath wrought.

First, the Stevens:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Stevens begins by telling us a “she sang beyond the genius of the sea,” which sounds pretentious, and it seems we are already ‘at sea.’  Then he tell us, “the water” (that would be the sea, or perhaps part of the sea?) “never formed to mind or voice, /Like a body wholly body, fluttering /Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion /Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry, /That was not ours although we understood, /Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.”  We “understood” the “cry” of “the water,” though it lacked “mind” and “voice” and “body, fluttering its empty sleeves.”  OK.

Second stanza: Neither she, nor the sea “was a mask.”  But Stevens invokes the sound of the sea in his poem.  Her song and the sea’s song are nicely tangled up.  Pretty good.

Third stanza: Repeats theme of second stanza: her singing and the “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” which just happens to be near, described.  A “we” is introduced, listening for a “spirit” that “we knew.”  The sky is described, as well.

Fourth stanza: The “she” becomes “artificer” and “maker” and the “sea” becomes her “world” and her “song.”  The “we” also “beheld her striding there alone.”

Fifth stanza: A “Ramon Fernandez” is asked “why, when the singing ended,” the sea was “arranged.”  A town and its lights are described.

Sixth stanza: The ejaculation might as well be quoted in full: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”   “To order words of the sea” might sum up the surface intent of the poem, and this phrase also might be said to represent its depth, which at times earnestly, and at times coyly, is intimated.  “There never was a world for her except the one she sang and, singing, made” sums up the “she,” a figure missing from the final two stanzas, where a “Ramon Fernandez” is addressed. (Ramon is probably a stand-in for Stevens’ influential Harvard professor, the poet and critc, George Santayana.)

The broad theme of Key West: ‘the poem is what the poem sings, the poet’s song is a world of distances and dimensions and enchantment, for an audience poised between Man’s meaning and nature’s murmurings,’ is a pleasant enough one, and Stevens does a nice job of painting his theme with sound.

The Stevens poem reminds me of this song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

When that I was a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

The Twelfth Night song creates the same effect as Key West; the rain replaces Stevens’ sea; yet Stevens seems to have a palpable design upon us; Stevens tells us what his poem means: “the sea, whatever self it had, became the self that was her song,” etc  We’ve all experienced rain every day; “she sang beyond the genius of the sea” and “we beheld her striding there alone” is fantastical and strained, by comparison. The antique song, with its strange folk song simplicity, actually does what Stevens tries to do in Key West, with its “ever-hooded sea,” better.

But now, as we promised, Sonnet #18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, as naturally as can be, starts a simple romantic conversation by demolishing Aristotle’s idea that metaphor is the key to poetry, rejects the world, conquers death, expands the prophecy to include all mankind, and makes it all come true with a “this”—which is his poem.

Did someone say “language act unique to itself?”

Mr. Gallaher?  

You’re welcome.

Without its formal properties, the Sonnet, as magnificent as the thought that went into it is, would fall apart.  The sound-unity which makes it a “this” is both its limit and its law, and the thoughts and ideas, the cause of the sonnet, are limited by law as well.  The ‘form’ is not simply the poem’s skeleton; the form is the whole of it, its divisions and additions—all its parts—are what it is, from idea to final  product, on every level.

We have all the “blank attributes” and mystery we need in Shakespeare’s “this.”  We could ponder for hours on how Shakespeare arrives at that little word.

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.

HOW PSYCHOLOGY KILLED POETRY

Modern poetry, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  Dante’s Vita Nuova  is the vital influence on Shakespeare’s sequence—which ushers in lyric mastery in English;  Shakespeare’s Sonnets are clearly an affirming, but expansive, response to Dante and Petrarch’s love-sick letters to Plato.  Beatrice and Laura are guides to Truth through love and suffering, and the Young Man and the Dark Lady are similar guides.

The Sonnets are too austere for most, Shakespeare as Angelo, as one critic put it, a harsh, moralistic, Platonist pinnacle, and yet the highest around.  Shakespeare’s Book of Sonnets is the scariest cliff-face in Letters.   Prevent the human holocaust by having a child!  Those first fourteen sonnets contain more poetic beauty than probably any poet produced, save Milton and Keats, but what a message! That’s how one must begin the climb into Shakespeare’s lyric masterpiece.

Sonnet One heralds Platonism (beauty’s rose, not rose’s beauty) and advanced physics (light’s flame):

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Just a sampling from Sonnets three, four, five, seven, and eight reveals poetry of the very highest order in every possible criteria:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
    But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
    Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap cheque’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where

And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
    So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
    Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
    Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
    Sings this to thee: ‘thou single wilt prove none.’

The theme of the first fourteen sonnets—immortality through children—transforms into immortality through poetry. You can see it happen, right in Sonnet 15.  Beginning with Sonnet 16, advice to another quickly turns into self-advice, as Shakespeare does not take his responsibility as a poet lightly.

Lovers of poetry know that one could write a book about each of the Sonnets; the journey through the whole magnificent sequence is harrowing and ecstatic.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet sequence sets the standard for all poetry.  There is no peak in English poetry that is higher, and yet from its unforgiving heights fall springs that feed the lush and fertile slopes of the Romantic and Modern lyric, Shelley and Keats and Millay.

Like clouds surrounding a high mountain, the anonymous nature of Shakespeare bedevils every critic and historian explorer.  Of biographical detail there is none, and the lamenting of this fact is endless: why didn’t Shakespeare in these intimate poems tell us more?

Did the master intentionally strive to be anonymous?  It seems so, since there was every opportunity in these privately distributed poems to not be anonymous, or at least leave some biographical clues.

But in these intimate poems there is only poetry and philosophy.

The psychologists rage, because there is only poetry.

The psychological approach doesn’t care for the Young Man and Dark Lady as guides invented by the poet, but seeks to place them in the real world of real character and real motive.

Healthy curiosity (Auden, in defending the Bard’s anonymity, called it vulgar and rude) for who the Young Man and the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet were is no doubt blameless; but unfortunately, the “real” of the psychologist is useless—because Shakespeare did leave clues on this matter: the Sonnets belong to poetry, not to the sort of “reality” the psychologist is after.

The attempt to turn the Sonnets into a Romance is a woeful mangling of the beauty of the Sonnet Sequence, especially when the Sequence is clearly no Romance.  To persist in finding in the first 126 sonnets a ‘Young Man roman a cleff’ has its rewards, but only in the realm of half-truth and unsatisfactory readings.  The problem is that the facade of fiction in Shakespeare’s Sonnets do not cover up reality, so much as a philosophical treatise (boring, sure).  Philosophical Truth gets a very small percentage of the population excited, but did the Young Man (who doesn’t exist) sleep with the Poet’s girlfriend (who doesn’t exist)?  Now that gets people interested.

There’s nothing wrong with psychological insight, but the irony is, there’s a lot more of it in the Sonnets when the reader isn’t trying to follow the movements of the Young Man or the Dark Lady in a story of some sort—a story which doesn’t exist.   It matters how you look for your psychological truth, and, in the case of Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll get more for your buck if you follow Shakespeare’s Platonic philososphy, not rumors about a romance with a Young Man.  How many miss, for instance, the obvious truth which has been stated above in this article, that the sonnets clearly shift in Sonnet 15?

The New Critics put up walls around the text—Auden, in this spirit, celebrated Shakespeare’s anonymity—and Eliot must have seen the danger, too, of prying literalists trampling on the grand tradition.  The Age of Freud was making it all about the poet and his lurking desires, and the dignity of the poetry was in danger of being compromised, or so many literary scholars thought.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets were suffering from a clamor of readers asking, Your poems are very nice, but tell us about these issues you were havin’ with your boyfriend!

This is not to say New Criticism did not suffer from its own excesses.  The New Critics tended to err in the other direction, reading endless “irony” into a given text—that had none.

Will we ever have the majesty of a Shakespeare’s Sonnets again?

Will the poet who writes a work as great have to be anonymous?

IN FINESSE OF FIDDLES FOUND I ECSTACY! ‘REFLECTIONS ON VERS LIBRE’

Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”

“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats.  If  you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?

Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.

“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”  

What was good verse? 

That was easy. 

It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing. 

Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple. 

And chaos?  Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down.  1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good.  Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.

We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist.  Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.”  The poor “lady” does not know what to do.  Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.”  And we are off to the races:

It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that it group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist.  Yea, we’ll get this eventually.

T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print.  Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D.  Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.

The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all.  He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself.  It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding.  Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of “second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.”  Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda  he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.

Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay?  Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.

Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form.  but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.

Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.”  We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.”  In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned)  a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists.  Given the fact that examples  in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?  

This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.” 

What follows is clearly second-rate verse.

First, a complete poem by Hulme:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?  

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy”  “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?”  Comparing the sky to a blanket?  A revolution in poetry is about to happen!   Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!

Can it get any worse?  It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.”  Surprise!  It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:

There shut up in his castle,  Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—

Is this the revolution?  Is this the “new?”  Shut up in his castle?  Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”

No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!

Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions.   Eliot’s logic runs like this:  Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose.  And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…”  well, there you go!  Sold!

Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom.  …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”

But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.

Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?

So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster?  But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?

What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for?  Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too.  Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling.  Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.)  Let’s see:

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.  When Duncan is asleep

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.

To bed, to bed!  There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!

Well, guess what.  Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes  powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.

Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist.  But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse.  Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.

Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.”  The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live.  But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”

But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.”  This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.

Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:

So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:

The boughs of the trees
Are twisted
By many bafflings;
Twisted are
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.

H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of.  We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme.  As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished.  Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton.  What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold?  Or H.D.?

Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.” 

This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker. 

“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child.  If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos.  For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.

Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”

Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.

Don’t blame vers libre.  Blame democracy.

“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”

But, wait.  Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist?  Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed?  Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.

What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway? 

It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.

It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.

A RIGHT TURN STRAIGHT INTO GAY RIGHTS

https://scarriet.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/43eb8-wasshakespearegay.jpg

The pro-breeding Shakespeare: He broke our hearts when Juliet couldn’t have little Romeos.

Reading the daily vitriol of hate (vitriol of hate, I like that) spewing from my educated friends on Facebook, the taunting and name-calling from otherwise civilized folk, I recall the old saying, ‘If you get angry, you lose the argument.’

Why do political opinions make people so angry?  And worse than angry: it turns them into bullies and bigots.  My friends!  My educated, open-minded, progressive friends!  What in the hell is going on?

The vast majority of bigots are only bigots when they are joking, when they have a smirk on their face, and the cowardice of the bigot may just be what the mind settles into as a defensive response to the far more debilitating state of anger.  Fury needs to be avoided at all cost, for fury will lose you your job, your wife, and land you in jail.  Prejudice is the civilized response, the ‘flight’ to the  more primitive and brutal ‘fight,’ which, in its brutality, can’t even be characterized as prejudice, since prejudice requires a little thinking (that dangerous thing) and the ‘fight’ response is instinctive and primal.

Often, however, it is anger which drives us to fight injustice.  Rather than cynicism, indifference, and mild forms of biotry as paths away from an anger which would get our coward into far more trouble, whipping oneself into a frenzy in order to do something about the wrongs in the world—and thus traveling towards anger can be a noble action.

I don’t want to fan the already raging partisan fires by exaggerating the importance of anger in our lives—how we’re all a moment away from fury at all times, how, like fire it’s sometimes useful, but always dangerous.  Like most of us, I’m tired of this red state/blue state divide which is eating away at our social fabric—to use a really mundane cliche—so mundane that it shows I’m not angry, but troubled in a rather dull way.   But to continue: the estrangement of family, friends, and co-workers over mere differences of opinion is a sad thing to see.  Should your Democrat or Republican neighbor be your enemy?  Can’t we be bigger than that?

The folly of our current situation is this: we would rather humiliate our opponents than reason with them. Intellectually, that’s how bad it’s got. Debating in a sneaky, sneering manner has replaced, “Here’s how I see the facts.”  Debating has been replaced by masturbating.

There’s a large element of the population—who presumably don’t know very much—which both sides are pandering to, in an ever-increasing downward cycle of dumb.  This dumb portion of the population must be reached, at all costs, to swing the election.  But to reach this large part of the electorate, reasoning has no effect.  Bush, for instance, won in 2000, only because Bush was a familiar presidential name, and yet that Bush wasn’t dumb; that Bush was CIA, the very opposite of someone going into a voting booth, and knowing so little, that picking a familiar name is all they’ve got, or all they care about, in matters political.

But here’s why I think educated people are getting especially testy.  Underlying elements which contribute to making a certain political position Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative, progressive, or reactionary, are shifting and treacherous—compared to the certainty of our own educated thinking.  Fearful ignorance isn’t just in them; it’s in you, too.  That’s right, smarty-pants. You.

This has always been the case, and it’s the reason why political affiliations continually evolve, over a single generation.  Soviet-Nazi Pact, anyone?

You might have someone who conservatively sticks to their radical position, ignoring radical changes happening all around them.

You might have someone who radically moves towards a conservative position, frantically reacting to superficial events.

You might have a religion-hater who holds onto their own beliefs with a monomaniacal, religious frenzy.

You might have a deeply religious person who holds deep beliefs in a highly superficial manner.

Hot-button issues are hot because they feature believers who are conflicted about what they actually believe, and they are highly defensive, as a result.  It isn’t the issues that are hot, but the deeply conflicted individuals who are hot.

Another source of tremendous enmity springs from the deep philosophical divide of two eternal practical strategies: tough love and tolerance.  The issue itself, whether it’s obesity or the debt, and the facts relating to that particular issue, are overwhelmed by a tough love v. tolerance debate which plays itself out in the minds of those eager to hold political positions which they think ought to define them.

The problem is not in our politics, but in ourselves.

Finally, we come to the fallacy which defines 99% of all political talk: No True Scotsman.  No true Republican would ever raise taxes, but president Reagan did. No true Democrat would ever lower taxes, but president Kennedy did.  And these are not arguments in favor, or against, your party.  This is merely the No True Scotsman fallacy. The Republicans, years ago, sent soldiers to the South to make sure black people voted.  Not long before that, Indians owned slaves.  Republicans, a few generations ago, stood for conservation, the Democrats for jobs and labor. Today, however, green defines the liberal.

Is Same-Sex Marriage, for example, a radical or conservative, belief?  The only reason Same-Sex Marriage is an issue at all is not because of the issue itself, but because there are enough confused, highly defensive, people—who consider themselves  liberal or conservative—to kick up a fuss.

There are two poles to the Same-Sex Marriage issue: On one side, we have the heterosexual, created by nature to breed, and further created by society to celebrate and encourage all that breeding entails, and the heterosexual through history, whether trapped in it, or reveling in it, identifies with it in all sorts of deeply primal and deeply conditioned, ways—psychologically, socially, religiously, and in every sort of way one could imagine, or not imagine.  This, we might say, is the ultimate conservative pole of ‘the issue.’  Whatever opposes this pole, especially in a public manner, is going to feel some push-back: how could it be otherwise?  We see in nature (and in those beautifully-filmed nature shows on TV) how much opposition drives socialization and sexuality in wildlife: fighting for turf is a law among all the animals.  As much as we ‘civilize’ ourselves, we will always be animals, and people who choose religion, or choose to become monks, do so to escape the laws, or the more violent laws, of the jungle, of the animal world, of nature.  Most of us do this to some degree, and we can all relate to it, and we can all see that nature is both radical (sex at all costs!) and conservative (preserve the tribe!), and that the impulse to be religious is also both radical—because it goes against nature—and conservative—because it adds laws in its attempt to go against nature.

So here is one pole: heterosexuality—species in the wild going to extreme lengths to safely breed, and humans in society setting up reverential units and making iconic fictions to safely breed, too.  The other pole: what is it?  Homosexuality merely inhibits the prime directive of breeding, so it’s not really a legitimate other pole; homosexuality would merely be a sub-category to the asexual nanny, or facilitator, of the breeding process. The pacified breeder who, temporarily, or permanently, stripped of his or her breeding nature, and who vigilantly and placidly tends to the upbringing of the offspring, could be homosexual, but more important is their placid, asexual nature.  The asexual—or the homosexual—can participate in the heterosexual quest of breeding by helping to raise children.

But we are looking for the legitimate other pole to this entire breeding process, which includes both natural and civilized aspects.  If homosexuals raise children, even indirectly, they are a part of this breeding process, and in no way opposed to it.

The other pole, it seems to me, is freedom from this entire breeding-and-raising-children-safely agenda.  The other pole is: I will love whomever and whatever I please; I am not in this world to reproduce myself, or share in reproducing the species; I don’t care about the safe upbringing of children, or religion, or icons, or marriage, or any of those ‘breeding’ trappings; I want to be free of nature and all laws, and I want to enjoy myself.

If Same-Sex Marriage belongs to the first pole—and my feeling is that it does, then it is a highly conservative impulse, and it is only a hot button issue because of a confusion regarding the nature of radicalism and conservatism in certain individuals’ minds.

And if Same-Sex Marriage belongs to the second pole, that marriage doesn’t have a chance.

MR. AUDEN AND THE SONNETS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do.

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

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

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

He defends his crazy idea brilliantly, of course:

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

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

But is this true?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So according to Auden, the sonnets have no order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS ORIGINALITY POSSIBLE?

THERE IS NOTHING THAT GOD HATH ESTABLISHED IN A CONSTANT COURSE OF NATURE, AND WHICH THEREFORE IS DONE EVERY DAY, BUT WOULD SEEM A MIRACLE, AND EXERCISE OUR ADMIRATION, IF IT WERE DONE BUT ONCE.   –JOHN DONNE

But we’re bored with nature, John Donne!

Much have we advanced, since you wrote those words in the 17th century, John Donne!  Miracles that are man-made now compete with nature’s miracles, and nature’s apologists are now so numerous and well-funded that, combined with unsettling urban noise and technological advance, unspoiled nature has come to be appreciated as a miracle by the chattering classes, except for Woody Allen, who still prefers New York. There is no need for us to feel the miraculous properties of nature’s God, we are so overwhelmed by it on so many levels.  Many, in  our modern, rat-race, hustle-bustle world, only experience the glories of nature “but once,” so caught up are they in myriad anxieties and responsibilities, John Donne!  Your point is well-taken, but I’m afraid it’s obsolete.  You can’t imagine how Romanticism has undermined your epigraph with its focus on the beauties of nature, children, social outcasts, and the strange.

And if you only knew, John Donne, how Modernism, rejecting the sublime, and fixating on the trivial, has made the obscurity of “but once” it’s religion!

But here’s another question, John Donne: what is the difference between what happens, and what happens to you?  If we knew the answer to this, love and God and the universe would all be explained.

Your “but once,” John Donne, might hold a clue; for we would know the difference between “what happens” and “what happens to you” if it “happened but once.” If it “happened but once,” it would happen to you—otherwise it happens—the hidden miraculous “constant course of nature”—to everybody.

But what is happening “but once?”  The universe, as we know it, our life, as we know it, has unfolded, and is unfolding “but once.”  What part needs to happen “but once” for us to be amazed?  What moment or place needs to be occupied with the “miracle?”  No, John Donne!  You have it all wrong!  It is precisely the never-ending “constant course of nature” which is the miracle!  No “miracle” could occur if it were so far from the context of the “constant course of nature”—that it would happen “but once!”

Originality, then: what is it?

Have we come closer to defining originality, that holy grail of every artist?  If it happens “but once,” is it then yours and it then “seems a miracle” and, hence, it is original, novel, unique?

Or is the very opposite true?  Originality participates in the ongoing “constant course of nature; originality finds its identity in the largest and most fluid possible context in order to exist?

For we must ask, Original what?  What is original?  And, in order to be original, we must ask: how?  How, in a dynamic and far-reaching manner, is it original?  And, most important, how specifically, is it original?

In the same manner, we need to ask what is miraculous?  The sun up in the sky, happening “but once?”  But what is the sun?  Is it in the sky, and what is the sky? What is that bright light?  How do I know it’s miraculous if there’s no context?

Only “in a constant course of nature,” to provide a context, can we have the miraculous, or the original.

The critic, poet, and inventor of detective fiction and science fiction, Edgar Poe, felt that novelty was essential to composition, and  appreciation of novelty was a crucial element of morality.  Insanity obsesses and repeats; originality, like freshness, defines mental health.  Let the body do the same things over and over, the heart beating as steadily as the sun rising every morning.  But let the brain be boiling over with the new!

Many claim originality lacks learning and range.  After all, to the naive, everything seems new.  How do we know if the original is illusory, based entirely on our ignorance? How do we know if something is really new? The original can only be felt by other minds; we’ll never know if a song is new if we only sing it to ourselves alone.  But this all agrees with our former point: originality, to exist, needs learning and range, needs a broad context, needs the “constant course of nature.”

And so originality cannot exist without a public.  The new must come out of the old, since the public—which the original author must appeal to—is both habitual and excitable, old in its very existence, but forever longing for the new.

If the new is healthy, it doesn’t matter if naive members of the public don’t appreciate new forms and ideas as new; the naive merely reap the benefits of that which they are unaware, like a child who eats his greens, not knowing why they are good for him.  The public, by definition, will always be naive to a certain extent, but this shouldn’t stop the artist from seeking to be original in their eyes.

The Modernist avant-garde artist who appeals only to his ‘knowing’ comrades, is, therefore, not original in the highest sense, for if novelty and public mental health (to put it very crudely) are linked, mere license practiced among a few fails to pass the test of true novelty.

As one might expect, the neo-classical age of 18th century England was obsessed with “the original.”

A glance at Edward Young’s “Conjectures on Original Compositions” (1759) quickly finds this comfort: originality can be a matter of degree; the literary accomplishments of the past may overwhelm us so that we moan, “there’s nothing new under the sun!” but being a little original is still meritorious.

Can it be, then, that originality is not the basis of the new work of art, but its adornment?   Then we have a rather wonderful paradox: the original, in art, though crucial, is merely an artificial addition to the fundamental cliche. Further, to strive to be wholly original creates nothing new, but merely chaos.

Kant, it is interesting to note, in his aesthetical focus on ‘the pleasing’ v. ‘the beautiful,’ does not acknowledge the question of originality at all.

Shakespeare’s teeming genius is often attributed to the fact that he didn’t fret over originality, stealing others’ plots for his dramas, for instance.  Following all that fretting about originality in the 18th century, the problem was “solved” in the 19th century—by democracy, as that political idea excited the popular mind.  Even in a delicately, modernist, aesthetic mind like Mallarme’s we see this demonstrated:

A high freedom has been acquired, the newest: I don’t see, and this remains my own intensely felt opinion, that anything that has been beautiful in the past has been eliminated, and I remain convinced that on important occasions we will always conform to the solemn tradition, that owes its prevalence to the fact that it stems from the classical genius; only, when what’s needed is a breath of sentiment or a story, there’s no call to disturb the venerable echoes, so we’ll look to do something else. Every soul is a melody, which needs only to be set in motion; and for that we each have our own flute or viola.

Only a misanthrope would scoff at the idea that every human face is new, and so we embrace Mallarme’s beautiful idea—but perhaps only up to a point, since nature produces a variety of offspring, but in the realm of artifice, some souls are more melodious—or more capable of making melodies—than others.

Originality is one of those profound subjects, like infinity, or the soul, which grows more elusive the more we examine it; yet if we devote ourselves to a certain unhurried speculation on the matter, the result is comfort, both poetic and strange.

FICTION V. POETRY

The poet W.H. Auden once proclaimed, “Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind.  All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbors, especially the ugly ones.”

Those dullards who read novels and short stories, but “can’t understand poetry,” are no better than the stereotypical bon-bon eating housewives watching their soaps. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of poetry which cannot be understood, and many poets today intentionally write their poetry so it cannot be understood.  I refer to the dullards who will always choose fiction over poetry, no matter how good the poetry happens to be.  It’s time to point out an unspoken truth: many fiction readers are driven by what W.H. Auden calls “idle curiosity.”

With the greatest forethought and care do I speak this uncomfortable truth:  Fiction generally has little to do with “art,” and far more to do with “idle curiosity.”  Despite the stamp of legitimacy given to “fiction,” as opposed to, let’s say, “daytime drama,” the educated who lavish attention on “works of fiction” are simply satisfying an urge, a vulgar craving for gossip and “ugly secrets of our neighbors” in a safe, socially legitimate way.

Reading “fiction” is assumed to be healthy, virtuous, and intelligent, and, no doubt, these things do apply on a certain level, but what’s the overriding attraction that makes “fiction” more popular than poetry?

Despite the educated, bookish milieu, the denotation “literary,” the studious pose in the lamplight of quiet women with long hair reading  novels, the intricate artwork on the covers, the authoritative blurbs in distinguished address, the thoughtful reviews in the press, fiction is nothing but vulgar gossip by other means.

True, so-called “literary fiction” has a certain anthropological interest: as we learn the gossip of other lives not our own—the 200 page encapsulations of marriage, divorce, adultery, nervous breakdowns, crime, jealousy, betrayal, and lust—with the more observant authors tossing in second and third hand descriptions of other times and places, “learning,” in a random manner, is taking place.  And we all know that reading an educated author will tend to increase our vocabulary, to some extent.  True.

But is anthropology art?

No, the central feature of reading fiction is that “ineradicable vice” which Auden puts his finger on, when, in his introduction, he dismisses the vulgar who only want to read (and study) Shakespeare’s Sonnets for the “dirt.”

Auden glories in a lucky circumstance of purity: “Shakespeare,” Auden says, “is in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous.”

The other notable position Auden establishes in his famous introduction to The Sonnets is that he makes a distinction between the poet and the “man of action”:

The political interests of a king’s mistress, for example, may influence his decisions on national policy. Consequently, the historian, in his search for truth, is justified in investigating the private life of a man of action to the degree that such discoveries throw light upon the history of his times which he had a share in shaping, even if the victim would prefer such secrets not to be known.

So the historian’s interest in gossip is justified.  Even so, history is not considered art—so why, then, should mere fiction, where interest in gossip is not justified, be considered art?  The historian takes raw life and puts an order to it, but is still not considered an artist; so why should the fiction writer, who does what the historian does, but on a more trivial level, be considered one?

Auden scolds:

It so happens that we know almost nothing about the historical circumstances under which Shakespeare wrote these sonnets…This has not prevented many very learned gentlemen from displaying their scholarship and ingenuity in conjecture.  Though it seems to me rather silly to spend much time upon conjectures which cannot be proven true or false, that is not my real objection to their efforts. What I really object to is their illusion that, if they were successful, if the identity of the Friend, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet, etc, could be established beyond doubt, this would in any way illuminate our understanding of the sonnets themselves.

Their illusion seems to me to betray either a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the relation  between art and life or an attempt to rationalize and justify plain vulgar idle curiosity.

According to Auden, it’s a wonderful thing that we don’t know the biography of the poet.  (Likewise, if we knew nothing about a novelist, it would be less evident that the novelist is merely writing an embellished memoir.) In Shakespeare’s case, there is no chance the Bard will be a “victim” of “idle curiosity,” marring the pure enjoyment of the poetry.

But Auden has forgotten something, hasn’t he?  What if Shakespeare presented himself  in his poems? What if Shakespeare’s “biography” were clearly in the poems?

Fiction, of course, is autobiography, with the occasional, added historical research, or embroidered fantasy.  Fiction is voyeurism, thinly disguised.  The movement known as “Realism” has long been touted as a vital “literary” movement, but “Realism” is nothing more than the moment when the Trojan Horse of Letters broke open to an army of gossip-mongers; 19th century “Realism” saw Idle Curiosity conquer literature; True Art was stabbed by crass democracy in the chest (think soap operas) and snobby elitism in the back. (think Henry James).

According to Auden, knowing the gossip of kings, their mistresses, and other “men of action” is useful because of its political and historical context.

But Auden doesn’t finally resolve his own argument.

1. Shakespeare’s sonnets themselves make the biography of their author irrelevant—Auden implies it’s the other way around: By accident of history, we know almost nothing of Shakespeare; hence we can enjoy Shakespeare’s poems purely, without indulging in “idle curiosity.”

2. Auden’s implication is that without historical or scholarly context, which is produced by the “man of action” who “shapes history,” we getgossip for gossip’s sake; we get what is at heart, idle curiosity.  In other words, fiction.   The literary term “fiction” means two things: First, whatever is not true, but secondly, and just as important, whatever we take to be truthful on some other level, to varying degrees.  “Realism” is essentially saying of “fiction:” oh hell, you know what?  This may be fiction, but it’s true!  Auden, because he is a man of high learning, of classical learning, of exquisite sensibility and good sense, puts it very truthfully: if we spy on the intimate dealings of men of action, we are gathering useful knowledge, but if we spy on the intimate dealilngs of our neighbors, we are vulgar and near-criminal; we are indulging a “vice.”  Depending on the context, then, literary fiction’s apparent strength of being ‘otherwise true,’ is, in fact, nothing but the “vice of idle curiosity.”  Shakespeare’s Sonnets, howeverare not the news or gossip of a king, or a “man of action.”  And secondly, they are not a work of “Realism.”   Yet Shakespeare has “shaped the world” far more than Auden’s “men of action,” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets present a far more intimate story than any work of “Realism.”

Can it be possible that the great Auden is blind to the significance of The Sonnets? 

It really makes one wonder, for in taking great pains to dismiss the “idle curiosity” that would read biography into the poems, Auden allows himself this observation:

So far as the date of their composition is concerned, all we know for certain is that the relation between Shakespeare and the Friend lasted at least three years:

‘Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.

Auden here is doing precisley what he chided everyone else for doing.  Auden is certain (!) there is “a Friend” with whom Shakespeare had a “three year relationship,” based on his reading of one line in one of the poems.  This is even more startling, given the fact that Auden writes:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred fifty- four sonnets as we have them, is that they are not in any kind of planned sequence.

Auden finds no internal order in the sequence of The Sonnets, even though there is quite a substantial one (we shall talk about this later)—but he does find in The Sonnets a Platonic “vision of eros”—which shows Auden is on the right track.  For Auden, Shakespeare’s unerring ear, his confessional writing (permissible, we assume, because of Shakespeare’s fortunate anonymity), and his “vision of eros” combine to make The Sonnets a far greater work of art than any mere story with a chronological plot.

Auden several times falls into the error he condemns, imagining Shakespeare’s relationship with a “young man” and a “dark-haired woman,” and their behavior with each other, over a “three year” period, even as he explains to us that The Sonnets expresses a Platonic vision of life, not a soap opera one.

Auden fails to pin down the essence of Shakespeare’s famous work, but at least gets things generally right.

But then Auden got it somewhat right—because he was a poet.

Like Hawthorne and Poe, the last great American fiction writers before Realism reared its ugly head, Auden, who died in 1973, burned with a certain integrity as American poetry was dwindling into irrelevance.

And so we end with Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 25, as it refers to Auden’s “man of action.”  Here is a drop of honey from Shakespeare, the golden honey bee, a poem worth ten-thousand Realist novels, at least:

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
  Where I may not remove nor be removed.

BILLY COLLINS WINS WHITE HOUSE READING

There’s no crying in poetry criticism.

So why is everyone afraid to actually judge the recent White House poetry reading?

The post-modern school of U.S. poetry is always pushing forward, like commuters on a platform when a train pulls in late, or frantic competitors buying tickets for a plane in the award-winning Amazing Race reality show.

Eager to find the newest way in which the mundane can be declared poetic, the avant-garde scrambles up the next peak of platitude to plant a flag marked ‘poetry.’

The whole modernist/post-modernist history of the avant-garde, from Rimbaud to Apollinaire to Kenneth Goldsmith, is wrapped up in a single concept: the ‘Found Poem Syndrome,’ in which the avant-garde artist, like King Midas, turns everything to poetry-gold with a mere touch.

There is a different tradition.

In this tradition, poetry seeks to connect in a far different manner.  Milton hints at this tradition cunningly, if bombastically, in Book I of his Paradise Lost:

my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

This tradition is typically characterized by the Greek ideal of arete, or excellence, the Romantic sublime, or Shelley’s “scorner of the ground,” but it can be explained in a more humble light: it is simply the reverse of the Found Poem Syndrome.

Instead of trying to make everything poetic, the sublime tradition defers poetic appropriation, and takes the wary, Platonist approach, exploiting the tension between the poetic and the not poetic.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 is a good example of the poet eager to explore the poetic as desire in the Platonist tradition—rather than a ‘found poem,’ we get the tantalizingly lost:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom:
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life saying ‘not you’

We have, then, the ‘Rare’ tradition on one hand, and, on the other, the modernist Found Poem tradition—which asserts the poetic in as many ways as possible.

Both traditons showed up at the May 11 White House poetry reading, but only one poet gave us the arete or sublime, tradition: Billy Collins.

Jack Powers ran a poetry group in Boston called “Stone Soup Poetry,” consisting of misfits on welfare who met in a restaurant until they were banned—for anti-social behavior: being rude to the servers or hogging a table for hours to drink one cup of coffee—only to move on to the next restaurant.   The poetry was awful, but anyone calling themselves a poet had an audience and a scene, and since helping misfits, even while harming restaurants, carries with it a moral lift, Jack, of tall stature, bass voice and plain manner, was a bit of a local hero for decades.  Blowing into town, I noticed the misfits, and being a  young, unpublished poet myself, I swore to myself I would never bring myself to mingle with that crowd, which had the whiff of the mental hospital about it: I said to myself: “These people are not misfits because they are poets.  They are poets because they are misfits.”

Of course I was being a snob, and my fear of this crowd may have had much to do with the fact that I was something of a misfit myself.  I certainly did not believe that ‘smooth’ persons were better poets than eccentric ones, nor did I avoid eccentric persons as a matter of course—I did not, and still do not. The oddball can be a fascinating conversationalist and an interesting person, but there’s no guarantee that poetry is in the cards for such a person.  When I did inevitably succumb, and found myself drinking a beer at a Stone Soup reading, the poetry that was read was exactly what I expected: a little bit of it good, some it funny, most of it coarse, self-absorbed, and stupid.

The White House poetry reading felt very Stone Soup.  The poets, except for Billy Collins, were anxious to drape the world in poetry: Rita Dove’s homage to her childhood public library loved every unconnected detail it presented, so the result was smarmy, loose and rambling. Alison Knowles was an artsy-fartsy nightmare, taking off her shoes and dully talking about them. The young Moira Bass read a short poem that had a lot of “aints” in it.  The other HS student, Youssef Biaz, looking somewhat like a young president Obama, recited a Sharon Olds poem that encompassed genocide, vocabulary, pedagogy, sex and so many other subjects, it all blurred together—and it was recited in a smooth, and yet also odd, affected way. Kennth Goldsmith read a found poem. I found him not quite as embarrassing as Alison Knowles, but close. Jill Scott went for perky feminist uplift, the rapper Common, for earnest Martin Luther King, Jr. uplift.  They both had a certain amount of charisma, but in both cases, the poetry itself bordered on annoying.

The assumption is that general interest increases when poetry finds new ways to thump us over the head, and when poetry tackles all sorts of subjects and when poetry keeps ‘finding’ new poetic objects.  President Obama, in his brief introductory remarks, said poetry is “different” for everyone.

But why does poetry as a general interest keep declining?  Because general interest requires us to feel the same about something. General interest is not enhanced by shouting, or by the greatest possible number of small fires burning in idiosyncratic, private, differences.

Obama’s “difference” is a political ideal, not a poetic one.  All our personal differences should be respected.  But poetry doesn’t build general interest by breeding difference.  Obama’s first example, the War of 1812 poem which united people as America’s national anthem, betrays his notion that poetry is about everybody feeling differently.

Billy Collins was funny and entertaining.  He was the only poet I genuinely enjoyed, and you could tell by the laughter that he was the genuine hit of the evening.

Both poems Collins read were the opposite of the artsy-fartsy found poem.

Say what you will about it, “The Lanyard,” read pefectly by Collins, is  quintissentially anti-Kenneth Goldsmith, a direct hit against the found poem, against the avant-garde impulse that would ground everything in poetry.  A hand-crafted lanyard becomes Collins’ humorous sacrifice:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

The other poem Collins read, after some jokes about how “jealous” other poets would be that he was at the White House—good jokes because you weren’t sure if he was kidding or not—was the marvelous “Forgetfulness.”

The first line of “Forgetfulness” is “The name of the author is the first to go.”

Collins’ poem is in the same spirit as Shakespeare’s Sonnet #145.

Billy Collins is an antidote to the artsy-fartsy Found Poem artist who is in a hurry to make all casual objects poetic.

The sublime poets, like Collins and Shakespeare, have a whole different strategy in mind.

GINSBERG, THE LAST NO. 1 SEED STANDING, BATTLES MUSKE IN THE WEST

beach01

Carol Muske’s short poem, “A Former Love, A Lover of Form” will look to topple Ginsberg’s towering “The Charnel Ground.”

Ginsberg’s poem reeks with details of numerous troubled lives in the lower east side of Manhattan, with its climax a litany of Ginsberg’s ills in his old age, followed by a coda of the young Ginsberg and a sustained final chord: a brief scene reminiscent of his glorious Beat-art days:

feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus head, anus-
Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye—
High school youth the inside of my thighs was silken smooth tho nobody touched me there back then—
Across town the velvet poet Darvon N, valium nightly, sleeps all day kicking methadone
between brick walls sixth floor in a room cluttered with collages & gold dot paper scraps covered
with words: “The whole point seems to be the idea of giving away the giver.”

Here is the ‘honest truth’ of modern poetry told in the starkest terms, Allen Ginsberg as the eternal Beat self, old, young, anxious, fearful, truthful, artsy-fartsy, philosophical, farting.

I asked a friend of mine today, a young unmarried male, who is not much interested in poetry what was ‘the poetry’ in his life and he blurt out, jokingly, the ‘sound of farts.’

I chuckled, and poet that I am, I said, ‘No, actually that’s a good answer.  That might be what poetry is.’  Wouldn’t Ginsberg chuckle, and half-agree?  Every fart-sound is a little different, right?  It’s a human sound, it’s a mixture of air (pretention?) and what’s inside of us.

With beautiful faces, wine, gardens,  athletic prowess, the cinema, music recordings, museums, travel, sex, material comfort, Shakespeare plays, children, philosophy, why do we need poetry, anyway?  Why do we need ivory tower belly-aching about how poetry’s no good anymore, or it doesn’t get enough attention anymore?

As Shakespeare said, ever-reminding us, in Platonic fashion, that art is the trap we should avoid, not embrace:

And more, much more, than in my verse can sit—
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.
—sonnet 103

Carol Muske’s poem gets better every time I read it.  This a profound meditation on about a dozen contrary things at once:

A Former Love, a Lover of Form

When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss

she enters her own memory
carrying a wicker basket
of laundry. As the wind lifts,

the clothes wrap themselves
around her: damp sleeves
around her neck, stockings

in her hair. Gone her schoolgirl’s
uniform, the pale braids and body
that weren’t anywhere anonymously.

Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.

Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.

If she puts on lipstick, she’ll lie
forever. But she’s too nearsighted,
you see, she doesn’t spot the wind

approaching in a peach leisure suit—
or the sheer black nightie swaying
from a branch. Is she seducer or seduced?

And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?

She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.

MARLA MUSE: I adore this poem.  It says a lot more than the Ginsberg in far fewer words.

I agree, Marla; it’s anti-romantic, like the Ginsberg, but not quite as blatantly, and yet there’s a despair at the heart of it.  The narrator of Muske’s problem seems troubled by the fact that she is desired, but cannot love.  It reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” empty human beings that have become clothes, and yet there’s a seductive, enchanting aspect to her poem, too, as if the woman’s rueful wit is not ready to surrender everything yet.

MARLA MUSE: It sounds like you’re all mixed up, Tom.  You love the poems most which you half-understand.  Now, don’t cry.

Tom:  Sorry, Marla. Modern poetry is a strange mistress…

MARLA MUSE: OK, ladies and gentlemen…uh…Carol Muske has won! She’s knocked off a no. 1 seed and is going to the Elite Eight!   Muske 90, Ginsberg 87!  Congratulations, Carol Muske!

WHO ARE YOU?

who are you

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.

THE KING’S SPEECH HAS NO SUBSTANCE

I saw this lush, well-filmed film with a theater full of seniors who watched it in quiet respect—tittering at the witty rejoinders by the earthy speech-therapist (unlikely friend to the king), gasping in delight as the king stoops to visit the middle-class family of the speech-therapist (with his two lovely boys who can recite Shakespeare) and thrilling to the king’s climactic speech to the citizens of the British Empire on the eve of war.

The King’s Speech has received the most Oscar nominations and it continues a trend of intense anglophilia in the American entertainment industry which is somewhat remarkable.

Americans are a good, worthy, and compliant people when they bend their heads humbly before noble English rule, and watching The King’s Speech genuinely produces this kind of contented joy.  I felt the palpable good-will breathing in the audience at the cinema where I viewed the film.

The England of this film is clean and beautiful in a misty, sumptuous regal manner.  There is no drama to the story itself whatsoever, almost as if a good story were plebian and unnecessary in the realm of true royalty.

The film’s dramatics (Hitler on the march, Edward VIII abdicating) is exterior, and a mere glimpsed backdrop, to the plot: royal stammerer is cured by psychologically astute amateur who breaks through royal snobbery and repressed anger to effect a cure.  In the very begining of the film, the Duke of York, and future George VI, played by the dour, but cute, Colin Firth, badly flubs a speech due to his impediment and the result is a lot of handsome English folk sadly shaking their heads.  So there it is: right off the bat; the worst that can happen, happens: royal is tongue-tied in public.  The result?  Some people shaking their heads.  Where’s the drama?  What important thing was the Duke going to say, anyway?  And why should we care that this handsome, wealthy man, with his beautiful, caring, understanding wife (played sweetly and dully by a still-sort-of-hot Helena Bonham Carter) has a speech impediment?

This is why we should care: the Duke’s brother, King Edward VIII, a dashing but sensitive man, and loving the finer things in life, falls for a twice-divorced American floozy, Wallis Simpson (the one figure in the  film who is less than gloriously perfect is an American) and gives up the crown (for “love”), and so the next-in-line Duke becomes king—and must rally his people for war, with speeches telling them they must die for their country.

Some may find the sub-textual German-worship funny.   Two examples: Beethoven’s 7th is used as the film’s swelling soundtrack when Colin Firth, as king, majestically stammers out his big ‘we’re-going-to-war’ speech with dapper Geoffrey Rush ‘conducting’ him and beautiful Helena Bonham Carter rooting for him in the audience, and every British subject, looking healthy and sweet, listening gravely and attentively.  Take away the Beethoven, and the whole thing would fall flat, and secondly, as the king watches a newsreel of Hitler on the podium giving ’em hell, he murmurs, with genuine admiration and envy, his desire to be that good.

The entangled fates of the English and the Germans (Churchill as much of a monster as Hitler, the Nazi intrigues of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the British royals actually being German etc etc) is certainly not something this comfortable, Oscar-smelling, anglophilic film could contemplate without biting its stiff upper lip in two, revealing a snarl beneath the velvet: “speech” the arena, here; not substance.

This film features admirable British characters who quote Shakespeare, but The King’s Speech itself, is as far away from the truth and drama of Shakespeare as it is possible to get.

This is not to say the psychological subject of stammering is not a fascinating one, and herein lies the film’s strength, carried admirably forward by the performances of Coin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

I had a good friend in college who was an acute stammerer.  When he was on stage, however, acting in college productions of Shakespeare, his handicap was nowhere to be seen.

There is no cure.  There is only the speech.  And that’s the lesson.

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.

HOW TO FUCKING READ: POUND’S “MODERN SYLLABUS”

Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity (in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anyway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!

WHO ARE THE MODERN MASTERS?

The Garish School?  Yes, Matisse was a laughingstock—until Leo and Gertrude Stein purchased this painting in 1905.

Everyone knows the ‘story’ of modern painting: how brave ‘experimenters’ kept pushing the envelope of color and primitivism and hedonism, how the inevitable ‘movements’ kept moving forward, forward, forward in spite of bourgeois close-mindedness, in spite of Nazi and Soviet Realist opposition, how the cutting-edge manifestos and theories manifested themselves brilliantly in strange and original masterpieces of the new—which to this day only scientific geniuses and the very hip can comprehend.

We all know this ‘story.”  It’s been repeated so often that to question the basic premise of this story would be heresy.

Here’s the theme of the story:

1. Modern art had to develop the way it did, step by step, movement by movement.

2. Moral representation was replaced by painterly hedonism.

This is the all-important theme, and this theme, as much as modern art itself, is part of us, and, by now, even ‘the uncool’ have bought into its coolness, and the rich, based on painting price tags, have, of course, bought it, too.   The iconography has worn us down, simply on account of its being seen enough times, and the icons of modern art have become our vision and our story—whether we are pleased by it, or not.

It is almost as if we have been invaded by the iconography of modern art, and just by having been seen enough, the invaders have won, for this is all iconography asks:

‘I came, I was seen, I conquered.’

Modern art has been converted into coin—the blockbuster prices of Van Goghs and Picassos and Pollocks and Warhols, if nothing else, convince even the doubters: something is here, something is going on.   But what is going on?  What really is ‘the story?’  Is it the one we are told, over and over again?

Shakespeare is performed all the time, all over the world, and no one doubts that this is so because Shakespeare is good: there is depth and truth in Shakespeare’s work. But Shakespeare’s work doesn’t cost a pretty penny; there is no coin to own.  Shakespeare belongs to the people’s hearts and minds; Shakespeare doesn’t belong to iconography in the crude sense of an invading army: the visuals of its armor gleaming in the sun.  The poetry of Shakespeare does not belong to our eyes, but to our souls.  By its very nature, Shakespeare’s poetry cannot be owned by one museum or one man, the way a modern painting, worth millions, can.

Art that we cherish as a society belongs to everyone.

Genius belongs to everyone.

Manifesto belongs to some.

Some art belongs only to a few, the few who can manipulate it and buy it.  But art that interests the few, and belongs to the few: is it really art?  Or is it agenda?  Manifesto?   How do we know what art is really worth?  Does great art really have ‘worth’ in the material sense?

Can we put a price on The Mona Lisa? If DaVinci’s painting went on the market tomorrow and were ‘sold’ for a certain price,  how much would that ‘price’ be based, not on the work itself, but on its iconographic status, on its status as a recognized icon? And how could its ‘worth as art’ possibly be separated from its status as icon?

Wouldn’t the price fetched by The Mona Lisa dwarf what a Pollock or a Warhol goes for these days?  But The Mona Lisa, as well as most old art treasures, would never go on sale, and therefore the ‘art market’ isn’t a real market—it’s very artificial and weighed towards those newer works that do not belong in the category of The Mona Lisa, a painting that will never be ‘for sale.’

It’s not that Andy Warhol could not compete with The Mona Lisa, but that no market can ever tell us what art is worth, (or not worth) to a society.  Art either belongs to society, the way Shakespeare does, or it does not; the rest is merely iconography and market manipulation: artworks facilely converted to coin by private enterprise.

One could certainly invest in works of anti-art, because anti-art does not truly belong to the people—which makes it a great deal for an investor who wants to own something that no ordinary person could, or would, own.   Money, circulated coin, belongs to people, even poor people, occasionally, but the yacht and the painting can only uniquely belong to the wealthy in their desire to display what they own.

Is modern painting anti-art? Is this the very reason why certain elites love it?

Andre Derain is a forgotten modern master, a Fauvist right there with Matisse, better known and more important than Matisse in his day.  Why is this garish colorist and primitivist painter, as garish as Matisse, forgotten by everyone today?  Because Derain doesn’t fit ‘the story.’ The Nazis loved him, and wined and dined him in Germany, in 1941.

We can’t spoil a good story, now can we?  The Nazis supposedly hated modern art.  That’s one of the pillars of ‘the story.’

The modern painters ostensibly stood for freedom, not for reaction, and this ‘story’ must be upheld, even if it makes no sense, even if freedom is only being used as a word, and art is not really free, anyway.  The important thing is how ‘the story’ plays on the street.  That’s the important thing: how it plays.

Another modern master who is never included in ‘the story’ of modern painting is James Whistler.  Why?  Because he, too, doesn’t fit ‘the story.’   Whistler is at the absolute forefront of modern painting, and yet artists like Manet and Monet and Matisse completely overshadow him when modern painting is discussed.

Look at Whistler’s modern art creds:  1. Exhibited at the Salon des Refuses with other icons of modern art, such as Manet.  2. Was involved in a highly public libel case with art critic John Ruskin in which Whistler’s “Art for Art Sake” ideals were put on trial against Ruskin’s Victorian morality.  3.  Was one of the first painters to use color and painterly interest for its own sake.  4.  Was an extremely well-known,  talented, and controversial painter.

Why, then, doesn’t Whistler ‘fit the story?’   How often do you hear  Whistler’s name when the history of Modern Painting is outlined?

Never.

Why?

Because Whistler was his own artist.  Whistler belonged to no movement and Whistler obeyed no manifesto.  He didn’t paint one way, and therefore did not fit into any pedantic directionalism.

Whistler’s painting (1874) which John Ruskin hated.  Whistler worked in many styles.

We tend to assume that every Modernist art movement and manifesto is progressive, when the truth is, Modernist art movements and manifestos are retrograde and reactionary, whirlpools of slick pedantry which kill individualism, common sense, and art.

IN THE SUNLIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or himself?

PEDANTS OF POETRY: THE TOP TEN

~
~

Paul Valery (top), Polonius & T.S. Eliot

The last 100 years have seen more pedantry in poetry than in any other age.

Remember when poetry as a topic brought out the best in thinkers?

Socrates may be a villain to many poets, but Platonic arguments are grand, necessary, and…poetic.

Horace and Aristotle laid groundwork so vital we can overlook their pedantic natures.

Dante’s Vita Nuova is without the pretence of pedantry.

Shakespeare, another enemy of pedantry, made it a popular trope: Rozencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius in one play alone.

Pope and Swift fought pedantry as a natural impulse.

Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Poe were against it in their souls.

Yeats, at his best, displayed a hatred of pedantry: “Old, learned respectable bald heads edit and annotate lines…”

These artists are practically defined by their opposition to pedantry.

Something went wrong in the 20th century, however, as Manifesto-ism became a way to get attention in a field of diminishing returns

Here’s Scarriet’s Top Ten Pedant List:

1. Yvor Winters

Claimed the formal is moral, while convincing himself that Allen Tate’s poetry was better than Shelley’s.

2.  Harold Bloom

A pedant’s pedant’s pedant.   Shakespeare’s great—OK, we get it.

3. Jacques Derrida

One part Nietszche, one part William James, one part Analytic Philosophy, one part New Criticism, one part absinthe.

4. Ezra Pound

“Make it new” is a very old pedantry.

5. Cleanth Brooks

Ransom and Warren kept him around to feel like geniuses by comparison.

6. T.S. Eliot

Hated Hamlet.   Afflicted with Dissociation of Verse Libre.

7. Allen Tate

Modernism’s Red-neck traveling salesman.

8. Helen Vendler

A drab sitting room with a Wallace Stevens poster.

9. Charles Bernstein

“Official Verse Culture” was in his own mind.

10. Paul Valery

Always too correct.  Proves the rule that Poe sounds better in French than modern French poetry sounds in English.

BONUS—11. Charles Olson

Take a deep breath.  And blow.

–T. Brady

GALILEO’S SECRET: Where Do We Look When We Look At The Truth?

John Donne….….
..Look around?.………………..Look in?……………………………..Look out?

A lightly edited version of a real time discussion that took place right at the end of the original ‘watchdog’ website, Foetry.com. ‘Expatriate Poetis Christopher Woodman, the 70 year old poet who lives in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and is active on Scarriet. Although ‘Monday Love’ posing as Scarriet’s ‘Thomas Brady has given permission to reprint his contribution to this dialogue, he prefers to remain (sort of…) anonymous.

Scarriet takes full reponsibility for the obscenity in this article, and understands that there will be many readers who won’t know where to look. We apologize for any offense given.

~

Dear Monday Love,
A few days ago you wrote, “If I want to convey to you right now some truth, I will do everything I can to put the argument before you as nakedly and clearly as I can possibly present it.”

There’s a poem I’ve been working on for some time—or rather, I should say the poem’s been working on me, so much so that when I read what you just wrote I immediately thought of the poem and wanted it to work on you too! Like this:

THE MEANING AND VALUE OF REPRESSION

………..Who’s this naked giant then
………………….peering in at your window

………..with the huge brown phallus
………………….pressed up against the pane,

………..the half-tumescent glans
………………….like some rude Cyclops’s tongue

………..or thick-set paleolithic fruit
………………….in puris naturabilis displayed

………..and mounted on the slippery
………………….slide the shocked members

………..gape at as their meals
………………….get laid upon the table?

………..He has no shame, this sly
………………….weighted thing towering

………..above the high tree tops—
………………….the great trunk of his gnarled

………..sex and trumpet foreskin
………………….making all the cultivated

………..thoughts that dine in private
………………….so much fast-food small-talk.

………..But oh, how the air out there
………………….shines attendant with delight,

………..hiking up those warm kirtled
………………….skirts to reveal Galileo’s secret

………..so profound only such obscene
………………….dimensions ever fathom it!

Posted by EXPATRIATE POET: Sat Feb 24, 2007 12:23 pm
_________________
(…yet still it moves!)

~

“Huge brown phallus pressed up against the pane”

Best image in poetry ever!

Posted by MONDAY LOVE: Sun Feb 25, 2007 9:16 am
_________________
Whisper and eye contact don’t work here.

~

But that’s not even the best image in the poem, so how could it be the best image in poetry ever?

I know I’m a fool, and I always rise to your bait, but now I’m thinking about what you said yesterday about Aimée Nezhukumatathil’s new book, Miracle Fruit.

Aimee N. definitely has it going on. Hot chick w/ erotic poems. Naughty, yet sensitive; sexy, yet learned; chatty, yet profound; worldly, yet academic; with her third-world traditionalist family hitting on her American singleness, freedom and sass. . . You go, girl!

But I predict she’ll get bored with the kind of chatty lyric she’s writing now. She’ll beat a hasty retreat towards more serious forms. The little dog will give way to twelve or thirteen kids, metaphorically speaking.

Dear Monday Love–you do such good work on this site, and we’re all so fortunate to have the chance to read so much of you–which goodness knows is certainly never dull! But much too often it’s your private Big Boy that gets dropped on our threads, and the ashes keep piling and piling up. Well, I’m an old man and I have no reputation at all, and partly for that reason you should listen to me. You can’t step on my toes because I don’t have any, it’s as simple as that, nor can you open my closet living as I do in a place that has none. But I’m serious about poetry all the same, and I can talk to you if you’ll listen.

And I say you not only have an issue with poetry but with girls!

That’s why I posted the poem for you, and not surprisingly you ignored the WOMAN in it altogether and chose rather to celebrate the PHALLUS–just like you poked fun at the girl!

I felt the woman in the poem was so overwhelmingly attractive and uncomplicated that she would have to illuminate you and quicken your being, that she would speak to who you were and where you were going. Now I begin to think you never let poets speak to you at all–even the dwindling handful you regard as o.k.

Because what I’ve never seen you do is listen to what a poem actually says that might be of value to you personally. You read with such disdain and critical detachment, almost as if you were judging a small town dog show that neglected to shovel up its poop. But even a common poem can talk to you, you know–it mustn’t be asked just to stand up on its hind legs and rhumba, or jump through a hoop to please you.

That’s what the little poem might have been trying to tell you, in fact–that like the average scientist you restrict yourself to the empirical evidence before you, as if the universe could tango without the human value that gives meaning to it.

Christopher

Posted by EXPATRIATE POET: Mon Feb 26, 2007 10:41 am
_________________
(…yet still it moves!)

~

Christopher,
I have no toes to step on either.

Do I have an “issue” with “girls?” Perhaps, I do. “Girls” is a big topic.

I loved Aimée’s poem. I summed up her schtick in a few words, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t dig it.

Also empirical evidence is all we have. The rest is speculation.

But I must say, I’m not good at riddles. What specific ‘evidence’ am I missing?

Monday
Posted by MONDAY LOVE: Mon Feb 26, 2007 8:48 pm
_________________
Whisper and eye contact don’t work here.

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