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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

IMAGE AND WORD: SHOWING VS. TELLING IN POETRY

“Show Don’t Tell” —Writers Workshop mantra

We nearly always assume showing, or impressionism, is bound to produce finer poetry than telling.

However—and in spite of Poe’s admonition against the didactic—we would be wrong.

Telling has 3 distinct advantages over impressionism.

1) Speech more clearly and forcefully conveys ideas.

2) Speech is more dramatic, since the dramatic arts rely heavily on speech.

3) Speech better represents within poetry’s medium, as impressionistic description more properly belongs to the visual arts while speech more properly belongs to the temporal arts.

Ambiguity, as the 20th century critics of high-brow persuasion emphasized, is a great aid to poetry.

Ambiguity can also be its death.

The vast majority of intelligent poems, passionate poems, poems written by skilled poets that perish, perish due to ambiguity.

A series of words in the impressionistic mode can have literally millions of possible meanings, multiplying with each added line; an added word can hint at whole worlds—such is the nature of language. The poet who sees this ambiguity as the power of a conquering army surely overestimates—-even completely mischaracterizes—the process.

The significance of poetry which is not impressionistic, but uses direct speech, instead, such as this: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is significant precisely because it contains no ambiguity—there can be no mistaking the poem’s intent: Shall [I compare thee to] a [summer’s day]?

Impressionistically, we can say, “but who is the I?” and “who is the thee?”

But the import of the speech’s meaning, as delivered by Shakespeare, is equivalent to the I/thou relationship unfolding in the poem.

The poem’s characters (in their “being”) are literally the poem itself and explain the act and the intent of the poem:  as we all remember, in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #18, the tool of comparison (metaphor, which Aristotle mistakenly calls the key to poetry) fails, as the lover attempts to describe or copy the beloved, and instead “this” (the poem, the speech) gives “life to thee.”

This is made easier by the fact that the poet-genius and the poem’s speaker are one and the same (another advantage to “speech poetry”) whereas with impressionistic poetry, the descriptions are produced by an artist who is removed.

Thus, impressionistic poetry is more estranged from itself.

Think of impressionist and imagist Chinese poetry composed by mid-millenia Chinese bureaucrats—wouldn’t government officials who pass poetry exams as part of the hiring process, be more likely to be poets of estrangement and ambiguity?

Precisely.

The enlightened poets—such as Shakespeare and Pope, Renaissance-inspired poets who freed themselves with nature-observed science from Aristotle’s rules—are not imagists (like the craven Ezra Pound), but speakers.

The “show, don’t tell” mantra of the 20th century Writers Workshop got it wrong.

Better to tell.

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.

JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

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.

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.

SOME RANDOM NEW YEAR’S THOUGHTS BY THE SCARRIET EDITORS

Morrall & Shula: the 1968—1977  Brady & Belichick?

Some things never change: NFL Playoffs begin this weekend with 12 teams’ fans certain this is their super bowl year.  Football is surely the strangest team sport of them all—tons of athletic talent bubbles up from high school and college levels, watched, fanatically boosted, and bred, in a nation-wide industry of bone-jarring frenzy, continually fired up into the highest reaches of life-threatening and extremely well-paid, passionate competition, to arrive at the professional level where dozens of teams collide in a relatively short season (baseball plays 162 games, football, 16) of high-speed Xs and Os, only to have the game dominated for its entire (super bowl era) 45 year history by a handful of quarterbacks and franchises.

Since turnovers (fumble recoveries and interceptions) are more important in football than any other factor by a wide margin, you would think there would be an ‘anything-can-happen’ element in football, not to mention injuries, blitzes, coverage mistakes, tipped balls, missteps, penalties, clock-erros, ball placement-errors, catches that are not really catches, penalites that are not really penalties, to add to the randomness and the confusion.  But, no.  The same small number of franchises succeed.  Whole eras are dominated by one or two quarterbacks, and one or two teams.  How can this be?

One breakout actress in 2011, Rooney Mara, (who looks like a female Elijah Wood on the cover of the January 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly—the shamelessly jackass, fan-dumb, magazine which pretends objectivity in its coverage even though it’s published by Time Warner) has a name that encompasses nearly a quarter of all super bowl victories.

Rooney and Mara have something in common: they founded their iconic teams (Steelers, Giants) with gambling winnings.  Art Rooney is U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and I’m sure it won’t be long before the NFL puts someone in the White House, in exchange for one half-time show and two fixed Super Bowls as payment.

Football mirrors politics: Americans know 2 things for sure: 1) Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, despite what Walter Cronkite and CBS told us, and 2) Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III victory over the 3-touchdown favorite Colts was fixed—so the laughing-stock AFL could gain respect, opening the door for billions in revenue with the NFL/AFL merger.  The newly formed AFC in 1970 saw success for the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers (old NFL franchises happy to mingle with the lowly AFL clubs in a new AFC division) and let’s not forget the Miami Dolphins, whose suddenly successful head coach, Don Shula, and his quarterback Earl Morrall, were losers in Super Bowl III’ s fix.  Earl Morrall, who played for both the Giants and Steelers before being traded to the Colts in August of 1968 as a back-up quarterback for Johnny Unitas, proceeded to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1968, leading the Colts to a 13-1 record and two crushing wins in the playoffs before playing a strangely terrible game in Super Bowl III (January, 1969) and losing.  Earl Morrall’s work in Super Bowl III was rewarded, however; after the NFL merger, playing for the now-AFC Colts in Super Bowl V, Morrall earned a Super Bowl ring!  Not only that, Morrall was reunited with his Super Bowl III Colts’ coach, Don Shula, and proceeded to win another Super Bowl ring (along with 1972 NFL Comeback Player of the Year) with the ‘perfect record’ AFC Miami Dolphins in January of 1973.

The NFL is a business first, theater, second, and a sport, a distant third.  Sexy quarterbacks, dynasties, and Joe Six Pack defenses are so important to the first two that the NFL rarely lets the third get in the way.   (There’s only one thing better than a sexy quarterback: a quarterback willing to ‘throw’ a game—see Earl Morrall.)

Athletes are naturally competitive, and intentionally losing goes against their nature, so cases like Earl Morrall are very rare; but fortunately for NFL owners, there are easier ways to fix games: referees, those gentlemen protected from public scrutiny who can change the momentum of a game not only with a call, but with a non-call—calls that cannot be challenged by anyone—are happy to oblige.  Throw as many things at the TV set as you want, the ref can do whatever his bosses tell him to do.

Tom Brady and the Patriots’ cheating scandal is a significant and  interesting piece of corruption inside an already-corrupt game.  A back-up quarterback at Michigan and a head coach (whose father’s job was to spy on other football teams) are the most succcessful NFL quarterback/coach pair of all time.  Their quest for a perfect season, just as it happens, was derailed only after a U.S. senator threatened to investigate New England’s cheating, just before Mara’s team defeated Kraft’s team in the Super Bowl, the same Kraft who, despite all his public charitable giving and untold wealth, is personally pushing for a gambling casino in the sleepy town that contains his football stadium.

We hope “your” team goes all the way this year!

*

Did Carole King get the melody for her “You’ve Got A Friend” (1971) from Burt Bacharach’s “Trains, Boats, and Planes (1966)?”

*

Shakespeare’s book, known as the Sonnets, is not the story of a ‘young man’ and a ‘dark lady;’ these poems are nothing less than the world writing to itself—these poems are “we” writing to “us;” and to believe this work was Shakespeare writing to some particular youth is the height of folly.  We find that dividing the 154 poems into 11 chapters of 14 poems works well for the ‘first chapter,’ since the first 14 have procreation as their theme, and then sonnet 15 introduces the new theme of immortality through poems, plus the so-called ‘dark lady’ sequence which ends the book (if we include that last 2 ‘cupid’ poems) is exactly 28 poems; but we also like the division of 14 chapters of 11 poems each, which fits much better later on—the turn in sonnet # 100, for example (“Where art thou Muse?”).  The universal insistence of calling the first 17 sonnets the ‘procreation’ sequence, reveals how mistaken scholarship is, and has been, regarding this masterpiece.

*

J.S. Bach happily followed the advice of the Sonnets, procreating often; Bach’s children, as their daddy’s music fell out of favor in the 18th century, influenced Mozart and the Romantics.  There are moments when I listen to J.S. Bach and think: Bach is music.

*

Changing how we think of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is one of Scarriet’s on-going projects; another one is solving the mystery of Edgar Poe’s murder, whose birthday is only 12 days away.  We have the 12 days of Christmas, followed by the 12 days leading up to Edgar Poe’s birth, and 12 days later we are out of January, and days are not so dark.

The facts that we have to keep in mind is that not only was Poe found in a state of distress, in someone else’s clothes, but he was found in a place many miles off from his itinerary—which, by chance (?) happened to be two blocks from the home of a Mr. Snodgrass, a Baltimore Sun editor.  The Sun was part of the major newspaper network that covered up Poe’s whereabouts as he lay dying.  Furthermore, years earlier, in correspondance between the two that abruptly ended, Poe confessed to Snodgrass his intense dislike for his cousin, Neilson Poe.  Who, by chance (?) happened to come by in the very small window of time in which Snodgrass was alerted by another Sun employee, Joseph Walker, that Poe was suffering in the place where he (Poe) was found?  Neilson Poe!  Who then saw to it that Poe was carted off to a slummy hospital, away from all public notice, where days later he (Poe) mysteriously perished—to then be buried quickly without an autopsy, while the Sun and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (leading the way) made trivial remarks of the author’s passing?  Which two saw this operation through from start to finish?  Joseph Snodgrass and Neilson Poe.

Scarriet is pleased that Poe scholars visit and discuss matters with us, from time to time.

We are looking for more excitement in 2012!

Happy New Year!

DOVE ASKS VENDLER’S FORGIVENESS BY WAY OF SHAKESPEARE

If thou survive my Black Arts Movement day,
When white critics my choices with smears shall cover,
And thou shalt by fortune once more resurvey
The Penguin Anthology of thy dear editor,
Compare it with the bettering of the time,
And though it be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve it for its hate, not for its rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my Dove’s Muse grown with this groaning age,
A dearer birth than this her hate had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage;
But since she died, and poets better rate,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, hers for her hate.’

Amiri Baraka

Shakespeare Sonnet 32

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
   But since he died and poets better prove,
   Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.’

SCARRIET REVEALS MYSTERY OF YOUNG MAN AND DARK LADY IN SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS

W.H. Auden spoke for many when he wrote:

The only semblance of order [in the Sonnets] 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.

Note how Auden’s skepticism regarding the first “heap” (“assuming…there is only one young man…”) does not extend to the second (“are addressed to a dark-haired woman.”)

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare sums up the common view of the ‘Dark Lady’ section:

The next sonnets, 127-152, are known as the ‘Dark Lady’ group, addressed to or concerned with an unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-complexioned mistress. For the most part, these poems reproach her: she is a tyrant, black in deeds as well as in looks, (131) and an adultress (152); she has seduced the poet’s friend (133-4); the poet is foolish to love anyone so obviously unworthy (137, 147-152) and is clearly deceiving himself (138), asking her in one sonnet to confess her infidelity (139) and in the next to say she loves him even though this is not true (140). The poet, aware of the delusions of lust but unable to avoid its trap (129), woos his mistress regardless with a series of sexual puns on the name ‘Will’ (135-6, 143); he is torn between a ‘man right fair’ and a ‘woman colored ill’, suspecting they are lovers (144).  –Stanley Wells

We know all sorts of things about this ‘dark lady.’  She is “unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-complexioned,” she’s “a tyrant,” an “adultress,” she has “seduced the poet’s friend,” and so forth.

Such is the conventional wisdom, and there is even an historical figure, Emilia Bassano Lanier, who is a much-named candidate for this ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets.

Scarriet, however, has solved the puzzle, but in order to do so, we had to 1) actually read the Sonnets and 2) trash the conventional wisdom in the process.

It wasn’t hard.

It will be hard to swallow, though, since so many scholars’ reputations are based on pure trash.

Pity the scholars, because not only is the Dark Lady going to be blown to bits, but the so-called ‘Young Man,’ as well.

There is no Dark Lady.  There is no Young Man.

How could so many have been so wrong on so famous a work for so long?

So here’s what one finds when one actually reads The Sonnets, all 154 of them, in the sequence, as published, in 1609, and read by millions since then:

The Sonnets are gender-neutral. 

119 of the first 126 sonnets (the so-called Young Man sonnets) do not specify a gender.   Sonnet #7 puns on sun/son and #13’s “You had a father, let your son say so,” but this belongs to Shakespeare’s breeding/increase theme which dominates the first 14 sonnets, a theme which Shakespeare never abandons.

The sequence is gender-neutral until #20, however:

The knotty #20 and its “master mistress” is accompanied by #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse” and “let me truly write and my child is as fair…” and “let them say more that like of hearsay well/I will not praise that purpose not to sell” referring back to #20’s “love’s use:” the commerce of love—procreation and “increase” (#1).

“So it is not with me as with that Muse…” (#21) is just one indication that Shakespeare composed the Sonnets not as a ‘person of interest’ in the scholars’ imagined soap-opera, but from a loftier perspective, as a God participating in the human, not as a human participating with the God-like, or struggling with romance, or other short-lived concerns.  The aim of the Sonnets is much higher than that.  We must not only note the gender and the content of the Sonnets themselves but get the perspective straight: Shakespeare is the Muse in these sonnets, or even the Muse of the Muse of these Sonnets.  The Sonnets are not impressionistic poetry.  Shakespeare, the philosopher, has something to say.

Sonnet #21 refers to “any mother’s child” and #22 features “as tender nurse her babe from faring ill.” The business of progeny, lines of descent, lines of verse, “eternal lines,” (#18) dominates the early sonnets. So when does the famous Young Man enter?  We have to wait until #33: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine/With all triumphant splendor on my brow;/But out alack, he was but one hour mine” to find a specific reference to what is possibly a Young Man or male friend or male lover, yet “sun” has us wondering if “sun” is not “son,” since Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. The “he was but one hour mine” far more likely refers to Shakespeare’s son than it does to a male lover, if we note the words of #33 itself and also note that the child is an important theme in the whole sequence.  Reading #33 in its entirety, the scenario of grief for a lost son jumps out at us, with the couplet stating the poet, even in his grief, will not lose faith “in heaven’s sun” even though “suns of the world may stain.”

It isn’t till sonnets #40, 41, and 42, the ‘friend and mistress betray the poet’ poems, that we finally get some sort of  ‘story’ that involves a ‘male friend’ and the poet’s mistress.  But the mistress is at play here, too, in the first definintive glimpse of the Young Man. We forget that until this point, for the first third of the so-called Young Man sequence, there is no Young Man story whatsoever. Not only that: in #42 Shakespeare informs us that, “my friend and I are one.”  Have the scholars simply made up a story which does not exist?  If we simply read the sonnets as Shakespeare wrote them, we have to say,  yes. 

In the sonnets leading up to the ‘betrayal’ triptych (40-42) we have a lot of platonist mathematics (“we two must be twain although our undivided loves are one” #36) and the parent-child theme is still going strong (“as a decrepit father takes delight to see his active child do deeds of youth”#37) so why the sudden lurid romance of the supposed young man cheating with the poet’s mistress?  Not only does it not make sense in the sequence, it also doesn’t make sense that if a ‘story’ is so vital, it would be confined to just a few poems; discerned through Shakespeare’s teasing and philosophical words, we see that the ‘love triangle’ of #42 is not even that: there are four characters: thou, her, the poet, and a friend (who gets the mistress, not the ‘thou,’) and then the triptych ends: “she loves but me alone!”  So where is this ‘young man sleeping with his mistress’ story?  It doesn’t exist.  It merely lives in the feverish imaginings of a blind pedant (or two).

#54 repeats the theme of Chapter 2 (Chapter 1, the first 14 sonnets are about procreation) in which the poet’s verse (rather than children) makes the youth immortal.

#63 finds a male pronoun again, but in terms of a mistress: “his beauty in these black lines be seen” is the precise theme of the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sequence, which opens, “In the old age black was not counted fair” (#127).  The “his” is not important; Shakespeare is keeping beauty alive with his poetry, repeating the theme of #53, which looks back to #16-18. To think that a genius like Shakespeare is thinking of a brunette is absurd; he’s a bit more clever than that.  The so-called ‘Young Man’ sequence contains more examples of the ‘beauty as black’ theme than references to a young man.

If we didn’t get it the first time, Shakespeare repeats the trope in #65, without the male pronoun—as in 95% of the ‘Young Man’ sequence: “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”

Not that “my love” has to be a woman. Shakespeare intentionally eludes gender and biography and real names in the Sonnets because it’s obviously not his ultimate concern. Shakespeare’s use of the phrase “my love” is tricky; we can never assume he means ‘my  (male) lover.’  He might be referring to a son, or a child.  He might be referring to himself: “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great./It is my love that keeps mine eye awake,/Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,/To play the watchman ever for thy sake.”  (#61)  No male pronoun in this sonnet, either.

In fact, after #67 and 68, which speak of a “him,” but in highly grandiose religious terms, the male pronoun is absent for the rest of the ‘Young Man’ sequence.

The only exception is two rival poet sonnets (#80,86), and the rival poet may be Shakespeare himself, who drops self-reflexive hints everywhere.  He tells the Muse what to do (#100) and explains what his Muse does (#21), for instance.

Shakespeare makes April a male, and flowers, too (#98,99).  In #93 Shakespeare calls himself “husband” and refers to “Eve’s apple.”  In #53 he compares “you” to “Adonis” and “Helen” as one of the ” millions of strange shadows” that “on you tend,” not using the male pronoun in that poem either.  Typically, the “you” is described as a God, not a mortal.

In #108 we get “sweet boy,” but this poem, like #33, sounds like it could very well be an ode to the poet’s son: “like prayers divine,/I must each day say o’er the very same;/Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,/Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.”  “Hallowed thy fair name” certainly implies a baptism, and the sun is “no old thing old” in #76: “Far as the sun is daily new and old, /So is my love still telling what is told.”  And we know Shakespeare loves to pun on son/sun.

There is no male pronoun after #108, except for that last poem (#126) in the ‘Young Man’ sequence, which clearly refers to cupid.

This brings us to the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ group (#127-152), which indulges in the happy pun of black ink, seen already in #27 (“makes black night beauteous”), #63 and #65 as already mentioned, together with the numerous references to day and light v. night and darkness, and there’s also multiple punning on dark “deeds,” documents (with black ink) and actions.

Much is made by scholars of #144, because it seems to explicitly recap the ‘betray’ triptych (#40-42).  In #144, we have a “man right fair” and a “woman colored ill” and “I guess one angel in another’s hell.”

#41, 42, and #144 make up the scholars’ trump card.  Without these three poems, the ‘Poet’s Male Friend Sleeps With Poet’s Mistress!’ story collapses.  To extrapolate a feverish autobiographical tale from The Sonnets’ metaphorically philosophical coolness is a mug’s game.  Shakespeare’s “To win me soon to hell, my female evil/Tempteth my better angel from my side” (#144) is  plainly a calculated morality play, not a sweaty confession.

Scholars err in assuming the “woman colored ill” is the Dark Lady; this is both a misreading and a dumbing down of Shakespeare, the sly master.   First, there’s no “black” in #144.  Secondly, the “hell” in #144 is the same “hell” we see in #129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) .  The “woman colored ill” is the same as #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse,/ Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse” and not the Dark Lady, for look how Shakespeare’s mistress is described in the first of the Dark Lady sonnets (#127):

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
  Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
  That every tongue says beauty should look so.

There is no “hell” of sonnets #129 and #144.  Instead, there is the “mourning” of poetry which exists because of separation and grief, the “black ink” that pathetically strives to keep beauty green—because of death.

And we also get Plato (Shakespeare’s philosophical Muse) right here: “art’s false borrowed face.”

The boy is Shakespeare’s son.

The Rival poet is Shakespeare.

The Black Lady is a pun on black ink.

The Sonnets are witty Platonist philosophy, (see “The Phaedrus”) not the soap-opera scholars make of it.

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.

“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.



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?

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.

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.

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