SCARRIET’S NEW HOT 1OO!!

1. John Ashbery –Still the most respected living U.S. poet
2. Billy Collins    –Still the most entertaining living U.S. poet
3. Kenneth Goldsmith  –Does the avant-garde still exist?
4. Stephen Burt  –Is Criticism respected anymore?
5. Marjorie Perloff   –Has avant-garde criticism any controversies left?
6. Helen Vendler  –the 21st century Pater
7. Harold Bloom  –the 21st century Emerson
8. Frank Bidart  –cooked until raw
9. Sharon Olds  –the honesty of woman
10. Robert Pinsky  –the 21st century Untermeyer
11. Paul Muldoon  –New Yorker poetry editor
12. David Lehman –Best American Poetry editor
13. Don Share  –Poetry magazine editor
14. Al Filreis  –Video Education Guru
15. Garrison Keillor  –Folksy Poetry Lives!
16. William Logan  –Knife Wielding Critic
17. Anne Carson –Brainy School
18. Ron Silliman –avant-fustian, necessary
19. Natasha Trethewey –Second term U.S. Poet Laureate
20. Kay Ryan –Cute School
21. Jorie Graham –Sky-Is-Falling School
22. Mary Oliver –21st century Wordsworth
23. Derek Walcott –21st century Southey
24. W.S. Merwin –21st century W.S. Merwin
25. Tony Hoagland –plain-talking hipster poetry
26. Philip Nikolayev –Fulcrum editor, Russian translation
27. Franz Wright –21st century John Clare
28. D.A. Powell –the quite good gay poet
29. Marilyn Chin –de Stael of Asian chick poetry
30. Charles Bernstein –Langwhich
31. David Orr –NYTimes Poetry reviewer
32. Rita Dove –anthologist who freaked out Vendler and Perloff
33. Erin Belieu –VIDA
34. Michael Robbins –”Where competency ends,” Ange Mlinko “begins”
35. Kevin  Young –Studied with Heaney
36. Ben Mazer  –Studied with Heaney
37. Ron Padget  –LA Times Book Prize
38. Lucie Brock-Broido –rococo
39. Louise Gluck –quiet confessionalism
40. Rosanna Warren  –Robert Penn Warren’s little girl
41. Christopher Ricks –professor at B.U.
42. Anis Shivani  –MFA smasher
43. Amy King –twist and shout
44. John Koethe –a philosopher poet
45. Carl Phillips  –teaches at the college founded by TS Eliot’s grandad.
46. Charles Simic –compares elegant checkmates in chess to elegant endings of poems…
47. Robert Bly –at Harvard with Rich, Koch, O’Hara, Hall, Ashbery…
48. Vanessa Place –avant-garde book of dollar bills
49. Dana Gioia –the essay that shamed us all…
50. Robert Hass –has a book, “20th century pleasures”
51. Simon Armitage –leading Brit
52. Frederick Seidel –controversial, 1962, first book prize
53. Cole Swensen –post-Language school
54. Matthew Dickman –works as a baker
55. James Tate –teaches at Amherst
56. Lyn Hejinian –”it is not imperfect to have died”
57. Eileen Myles –diary poetry
58. Geoffrey Hill –gnarled syntax
59. Paul Hoover –institutional ‘new’
60. Alfred Corn –Harold Bloom called him ‘visionary’
61. Rae Armantrout  –avant-garde, in brief
62. Terrance Hayes –began as a visual artist
63. Henri Cole –a Thom Gunn award winner
64. Seth Abramson –pro-MFA lawyer poet
65. Peter Gizzi –tenuous lyric
66. Mark McGurl –Program Era author
67. Janet Holmes –we can never remember how to spell Ahsahta…
68. George Bilgere –Billy Collins in waiting…
69. Matthew Zapruder –editor of Wave books
70. Ange Mlinko –see #34
71. Cate Marvin –VIDA, too
72. Maya Angelou –remember her?
73. Brenda Hillman –”Allow form.”
74. Galway Kinnell –why don’t these legends write tell-alls?
75. Dorothea Lasky –teaches at Columbia
76. Nikki Finney –”us giving us away”
77. Noah Eli Gordon –#34 called his work “simply dead.”
78. K. Silem Mohammed –was a featured writer for Blog Harriet
79. Ariana Reines –”I know that really beautiful women are never alone.”
80. Richard Wilbur –Old Man Rhyme
81. Rowan Ricardo Phillips –When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness
82. Garrick Davis –editor, Critical Flame
83. Alan Cordle –the foetry revolution!
84. J.D. McClatchy –Yale Review editor
85. Philip Levine –’Whitman of the industrial heartland’
86. Clive James –from down under
87. Robert Archambeau –his blog is Samizdat
88. Matthea Harvey –skittery queen?
89. Laura Kasischke –”not only the hysterical giggling of girls, but the trembling of the elderly”
90. Paul Legault –The Emily Dickinson “translations.”
91. Lynn Xu –Waste Land’s child
92. Laura Jensen –Donald Justice-era Iowa Workshop grad
93. CA Conrad –pop-inflected Bukowski
94. Jynne Martin –”Draw any beast by starting with a circle!”
95. Traci Brimhall –believes in The Next Big Thing
96. Adam Fitzgerald –amour de soi
97. Cyrus Cassells –Lambda Literary award winner
98. Richard Siken –”no one will ever want to sleep with you
99. Naomi Shihab Nye  –fights terrorism & prejudice
100. U.S. Dhuga –Battersea, baby!

 

“YOUR AVANT-GARDE IS NOT AVANT-GARDE” MAZER, ARCHAMBEAU, AND BURT AT THE GROLIER

“In  speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound.” —Edgar Poe

Last Friday evening at the Grolier poetry bookshop, Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, and Ben Mazer each read a paper on ‘Poetry: What’s Next?’ Wise man Henry Gould, up from RI, was in the audience, as was Philip Nikolayev, extraordinary poet and translator. Scarriet, fortunate the Grolier is in our own backyard, attended out of mere curiosity and a certain low motive pertaining to literary friendship.

Archambeau, Burt, and Mazer are powerhouses of Letters: they are scholars and authors we need to know about.

Mazer is a scowler; Archambeau, a smiler; and Burt simply harangues, mouth perpetually open. But do not be fooled by these superficial observations, which we make with affection; all three, when one moves into their personal orbit, are as sweet as can be, civilized by poetry in that conspiracy which outsiders must feel is the purpose of poetry: to strive to make manners and politeness supreme. Those educated by Letters are nice. The poet with low morals belongs to another era, and something tells us the lacking morals part was always a myth. With poets, a handshake is never a handshake; or it may be one, or less of one, or more of one, and one never knows this, and that is the whole point, and the joy, or the despair, of the poet and their poetry. But they do, finally, shake hands like everyone else, even the most philosophical of them.

But to the presentation itself: the three papers stuck to poetry, and thus were not about poetry.

To properly discuss a thing, one must discuss its parts. The parts, however, because they are parts, do not resemble the thing, and discussing parts is to stray from the thing, like being in the ocean away from the island (it can be scary), and none of the speakers, as witty as they were, had the intellectual courage to do this. They were all very much aware that they were to speak on poetry—poetry as it is always generally discussed by their contemporaries, and this is what they did.

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

Archambeau pointed out the post-modern marketing phenomenon of naming an electronic device a Blackberry, saying this was an act of Symbolist Poetry, and here this author and critic, a brilliant man of substance with a shy smile, was, in his cleverness, feeling his way towards the principle.

But alas, the tendency to discuss actual parts, so we might better familiarize ourselves with the actual thing comes up against that which most hinders it: poetry—in this case, Symbolist Poetry, one of many self-contained stars in a modernist firmament with astronomers obsessed with “what’s next?” and leaving “what is it?” to the old-fashioned, like Aristotle, Plato, and Shelley, who knew that “what’s next” cannot be discussed if we don’t wonder “what is it?” and that we should never take the latter for granted.

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

“What’s next?” belongs only to Modernism’s sleight-of-hand.

But back to Blackberry. Archambeau gave us the wonderful counter-example, “Murphy’s Oil,” the old way of naming before Mallarme’s allusiveness fired up the imagination of the market; yet weren’t they calling baseball teams Giants back in the 19th century?

Archambeau also claimed that in the near future poets were going to rhyme like they had never rhymed before. A rhyme would become like a dare-devil “stunt,” Archambeau happily assured us, quoting some Jay-Z, and as we were swept up in this prophecy of euphoria, we still managed to wonder: where were the edifying examples? What makes a good rhyme and a bad rhyme? For to ask, “what is it?” implies the good: What is good poetry? What is good rhyme? We don’t want the bad, whether it’s behind us or before us.

The three gentlemen unconsciously pursued this course, as well: it was assumed all that was coming was good. Mazer, perhaps, escaped this, for he spoke on what poetry should be, in general; his was more an ought than a prophecy: Burt and Archambeau hewed to ‘this is a particular thing that is actually going to happen if it is not sort of happening already,’ predictions without much daring, saying only: we will see more of this already fully developed type of poetry.

None seemed conscious of it, but all three, we were rather pleased to hear, struck a concerted blow against the “what’s next?” trope.

Mazer fought the good fight with his scornful, “your avant-garde is not avant-garde.”

Burt, blurting “if I see one more book on Conceptualism or Flarf, I will…refuse to read it!” was another sign that there is a rebellion brewing against the whole blind, played-out, modernist, “what’s next?” syndrome, and a desire to get off the ‘what’s new’ treadmill for a moment.

But what did they say was coming?

We already mentioned that Archambeau sees a revival of rhyme, together with a counter movement of Symbolist “nuance,” and spent the rest of his twenty minutes naming familiar poetries in recent history: the Fireside Poets, featuring Longfellow, and their poetry of “middle class values” (and thus deserving, we assume, oblivion), Gertrude Stein foregrounding language for its own sake, with a ‘poetry only’ sub-culture of magazines and bookstores growing in the wake of poetry detaching itself from middle class values, giving rise to Vanessa Place and Conceptualism, as poetry against middle class values (and capitalism) replaces poetry for middle class values. And then we come full circle as Archambeau reminds us the modernist Frost is a poet of middle class values and really, so are the current poets of the Ethnic, Gender, Racial, Regional, Disability, micro-communities.

Archambeau ended with the epigrammatic observation that ‘what’s next’ is a revival of the past and it is “hard to predict the past.”

It is even harder to say what the past is, and what poetry is. This we did not get. “Rhyme” and “middle class values” satisfy a superficial hunger; the salted popcorn we eat forever without getting close to what poetry is, exactly.

Burt came next, and Burt, who has read more than anyone else, seemed determined to give us not only the forest and the trees, but a command to protect both: the big thing on the horizon for Burt is a big thing: poems of “area study,” which are “reported facts of a place,” grounding the poet in geographical reality, and one has to admire the ambition and the practicality, not to mention the many neo-classical, Romantic, and Modernist precedents. Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s Gloucester, as Burt quickly concedes, may fail in the “elegance and concision” departments, but what better way to talk about Climate Change?

Burt, a Harvard professor, pays homage, consciously, or not, to his institution’s illustrious poetic tradition: Emerson through Jorie Graham (her recent acute concern for the planet is her expansive-lyric trump card) champion America’s and the World’s Wilderness; this was explicit in Burt’s talk: “Area Study” poetry ought not to be “a cultural center,” Burt warned, like “Brooklyn or San Francisco;” a poet like Ammons should record planetary destruction where the public might not notice.

The other vital development for Burt will be poetry that, unlike “Area Study,” does embrace “ornament,” in poetry that is “uselessly beautiful.” And again, Stephen Burt makes sure his political sensitivity is on display: women are doing this kind of poetry, he tells us.

Burt is mad for the Eternal Feminine, embracing the earth in Area Study and, in his counter trend, women’s work that is “elaborate without worrying about the past,” and “not efficient or war-like.” This is the passive, receptive Muse of Shelley; this is Archambeau’s New Rhyme movement, but Burt is completely female, and so no dead white male “revivalist” interest is allowed; he mentions Angie Estes, “not a New Formalist of the 80s” and quotes her in perhaps the best example offered in an evening with few examples: “scent of a sentence which is ready to speak.” Note the absence of rhyme’s muscle, and instead the liquid alliteration.

Burt is ready for the pastoral and the pretty, the rustic and the raw. Burt is the female sprawl to Archambeau’s male all. Burt cannot abide the gallery and its Conceptual, urbane cleverness and really seems to want to leave the past behind; the closest he comes to cultural centrality is a nod to what he sees as a “smarter performance poetry” on the horizon, a “de-centered, tweetable, slam poetry, far from the literary past.” The poets Burt cites in this third movement are women, too: Ariana Reines, Patricia Lockwood, and Daniella Pafunda.

Mazer followed, and he was the rock rising above the fire and the water, rather glum compared to the first two, arguing for abiding truths like “empathic imagination” and “divine oracularity,” quoting early 20th century figures not to signal revolutionary beginnings, but to eulogize trends fizzling out in the “de-radicalization” and ahistorical “creative writing boon” and “awards” obsessed present. Mazer was playing the real poet in the room, intoning a dark warning to the glib critics. He did not mention any contemporary poets. Archambeau pointed to the fire in the sky, Burt showed us the chuckling streams hidden around the mountain. Mazer, by implication, was the mountain.

No one spoke on the anthology; and what possible role that would play in the future of poetry.

There were a few questions from the audience afterwards: Henry Gould wondered about the Balkanization of poetry; obsessed with movements and trends, aren’t we watering down what should be a poetry of the best combination of all possible parts?

Gould is right, of course. If Burt, for instance, is unwilling to clear a space where even Global Warming Deniers can participate, then, rightly or wrongly, the whole thing is finally about Global Warming, not poetry.

Poetry should have one, and only one, political rule: inclusivity.  The inclusivity should be radical; that is, we should all be included right now; a participatory government may say: your candidate lost—work, work, work, and come back in four years; poetry is more inclusive, still.  No subject gets special treatment in poetry. Will certain political beliefs lend themselves better to the poetic enterprisePerhaps. But we need to find out only when the example is before us, and cooly examined.

We have a feeling only Mazer, standing aloof from contemporary clamor, would really judge a new poem solely on its poetic merit. Brilliant Burt and artful Archambeau, immersed as they are in pluralistic poetics, would pigeon-hole first, and then judge. This we feel, even as we confess to being more entertained by Burt and Archambeau’s presentations.

THE GHETTOIZATION OF POETRY

Stephen “Stephanie” Burt, Harvard professor and distinguished poetry critic

There is always an assumption that anthologies and categories of ‘poems about X’ are good for poetry and X.

Why?

Even if our anthology of ‘poems about X’ has nothing but bad poetry, the sentiment supporting X, supporting poetry, and supporting poetry on X, inevitably wins the day.

Why?

We’ve all seen the high-minded, fawning reviews and notices.  The implication is: Some of you out there selfishly write poems which are just…poems.  But here we have something worth cheering about, worth feeling good about…Poems about X!

For instance, Blog Harriet recently wrote:

Hurray! Stephen Burt reviews the TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson edited breakthrough anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics for the Los Angeles Review of Books!

Hurray?

And here’s an excerpt from Stephen “Stephanie” Burt’s review:

I was bored, occasionally, by all too straightforward verse about identities lost and found, verse I would have ignored were its subject almost anything else. But the reading also let me delight in seeing at least one femme author I’d never encountered before, both because she looked great, and because Troubling the Line turns out to be her first national appearance in print. That author is Lilith Latini, of Asheville, North Carolina, a ravishing, raven-haired studio-era femme fatale. (This is the first time I have ever written a sentence for publication about how a poet looked when she read her poems.) Those poems, raw as they could be, spoke to my twinned and antithetical desire for glamor and for solidarity, my wish to stand with others and my wish to stand out. It’s not a wish unique to LGBT people, but it sounds great when Latini finds it in the thoughts of Stonewall queens: “Don’t send me / out of the closet and into the streets alone. / Someone has to help me out of my strappy shoes before I run.”

Poetry can interact with anything, and we have nothing against that.  There’s nothing wrong with “added interest.”

But this ‘Category-first-Poetry-second’ attitude needs a hard look.

Perhaps even Stephanie might want to give a listen.

Once poetry—verse or prose—serves any category outside itself, it is diminished by the ratio of how much it gives itself over to whatever category it exists for.

This may not be apparent to those who view poetry as bi-part:

1. A non-poetic subject

2. Poetic form

At first blush, this makes perfect sense: poetry exists in (poetic) language, and no modern believes there are ‘fit’ poetic subjects, or subjects more fit for poetry than others—love, death, friendship (remember those old poetry anthologies?) are categories that claim many poems only because they are broad categories, not because poems ought to be defined by them.

Today, in high-brow circles, we have poems about queers, blacks, and women.

(It wasn’t all that long ago that the categories were death, love and friendship.)

The categories, in all cases, diminish poetry because they are subjects apart from, subjects not necessary to, poetry.

For the poetry, and the poetry, alone, should, ideally, create the subject.

Ideally, poetic language alone manifests whatever subject comes into existence (at the same moment the poem comes into existence).

If the author is inspired by the subject—or the category—the poetry is merely the means to read about the pre-existing subject, a subject which exists outside of the poem, and thus, by definition, is the “non-poetic” part of the bi-part poem mentioned above.

The poetic genius, however, finds a subject through the poetic exertion, so that the two—the subject and the poetry—arrive as, and exist as, one.   Superficially, one could work backwards and extract a kind of “subject” from the poem.  The “subject,” however, remains (and here is what the New Critics attempted to articulate) unparaphrasable, without apparent authorial intention, without apparent design on the reader, and fully immersed and integrated in the poem qua poem.

The genius begins writing a poem on no subject.  The poetry elevates/determines not only the language, but the thought, of the poet, who composes a subject suitable only to poetry.

The subject proper is not pre-existing (nor is there any pre-existing category) or identified in any way as category or subject—the poetry itself creates a new subject.

The poet may use a germ of a story, like a bit of sand to grow a pearl, or some half-formed motif, or half-conceived method, but the point is for the poetry-making faculty of the poet to discover the subject entirely on its own.

The subject suitable only for the poetry itself is the only true subject for poetry.

There are poets who attempt this and fail: they will write a poem ostensibly about “their father,” for instance, but aware that modern poetry is not bound by old-fashioned anthology categories, their poem is not really about dear old dad.  All well and good.  But here’s what happens: the poet succeeds writing a poem without their dad as the actual subject—and yet, what is the subject?  The poet has not found the “only suitable subject for the poetry,” but merely avoided a subject altogether.

The true subject for the poetry will be one with the poetry—and it will still be a subject, just one newly emerging.  It will just not be a category or subject pre-approved by the editor of a specialist magazine.

This kind of poetry, in which the subject is created by the poetry itself, is rare, because it does take a genius to write it.

So you ask: what is the subject?

One can’t really say.  One has to read the poem and therein, within the poem as a whole, is the subject.

And that subject might be: death, love, friendship, woman, queer, black.  But it could be anything.

The subject is whatever the poem says it is.

It will be a subject not only of the poem, but of the poetry of the poem.

Prime examples of this kind of poetry are “Endymion” by Keats or “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley.

These are long works, major works.

Can a minor work illustrate our point?

We think not.

As an experiment, and just to stir up debate, we’ll see what our readers think of this poem composed by Marcus Bales.

Before we close: In this poem, is it true, and in this poem’s favor, that the poetry and the subject could not possibly exist without the other?

The Free-Verse Anti-Poetry Cartel

What kind of putz would diss the villanelle
And doesn’t like refrain lines interlaced?
The free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They want to kill all other forms as well;
Whatever’s not in prose is toxic waste
To putzes who would diss the villanelle.

They wish they had the power to compel
The rest of us to write in their debased
Old free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They think it makes them sexy to rebel
Against what great-great-great grand-dad embraced,
The putzes who would diss the villanelle.

But some of us prefer that we excel
At poems lineated prose replaced
With a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

A poet writes in meter, raises hell,
And spices up a language long disgraced
By putzes who would diss the villanelle
In a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

—Marcus Bales

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

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

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

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

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

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

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

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

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

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

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

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

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

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

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

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

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

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

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

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

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

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

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

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

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

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

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

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

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

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

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

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

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

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

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

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

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

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

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

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

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

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

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

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

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

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

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

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

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

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

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

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

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

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

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

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

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

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

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

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

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

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

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

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

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

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

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

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

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

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

BURT AND OTHERS PILE ON HARPER’S POETRY COMPLAINT

Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia

We don’t know which is more ridiculous: this fellow Edmundson in HARPER’S honoring Robert Lowell as where poetry—currently lacking public spirit and understanding—ought to be now, or gnats like Stephen Burt whining that contemporary poetry, as obscure as it is, is trying, damnit, and doesn’t Edmundson know that poems are being written today about Gettysburg? And by women about their children?

Who is more useless? Burt, the walking, talking politically correct cliche? Or Edmundson, the Robert Lowell cliche?

The problem is a simple one: everyone in the poetry wars (and yes it is a war) is defending a position in the furious blind manner of trench warfare; none of the arguments are even a little bit above the ground: they are petty and ahistorical.

Burt, for instance, writes

Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better.

But to what “past” is Burt referring? It’s not an actual past–merely one that is jealous of the present.

But yes, alas, the poetry of Philip Larkin looks better than the poetry of Stephen Burt; the former is dead and the latter is at Harvard.

Sigh.

That is a problem, isn’t it?

And further, Larkin couldn’t care less, and Burt is sweating behind flimsy p.c—disguised as scholarship.

Burt has no argument.  But let us turn to Edmundson.

Here’s what Edmundson says.  He asserts an expression of public spirit as an ideal which poetry must follow.

Professor Edmundson could not be more wrong.

Poetry is its own idealized expression which creates its own public following.

Poetry shouldn’t have to trail after public ideals.

Edmundson has it backwards.

Ironically, it is on this very point, where Edmundson is most mistaken, that his critics pay him the most respect. Burt bends over backwards to make the case that contemporary poetry is “about” this or that important national topic,  and Burt quotes fragments from Rich and Bidart sans any particular merit amidst a pointless rant of See? We contemporary poets do watch the news! So there!

A blogger name Elisa praises Edmundson’s public service ideals:

He sets out to do something noble…a manifesto-like call for poetry that’s more engaged…I’m sort of sympathetic to the general idea here and I’ve certainly approached student poetry with this rubric…I’ve encouraged young writers to be more ambitious, to be less afraid of showing effort, of caring.

EdMundson shames the avant-garde snots into at least agreeing with his general premise: Robert Lowell wrote on the Vietnam War, you little brats!

And now for the time being Elisa and Edmundson agree. But the alliance is fleeting. We quote Elisa, at some length, again:

But the problem with setting up a rigid system that defines what poetry can be and do is that it inevitably gets used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like. Mark Edmundson uses these three vague principles (skill/craft, paraphraseable and relevant content, plus ambition) to justify the poetry he does like and scorn the stuff he doesn’t. The only working poets he does admire, as far as I can tell, are Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel; his agenda does not make room for John Ashbery or Anne Carson. I mean, anyone who’s still pulling “That’s not poetry” on Ashbery, how can you take that seriously? His attempted takedown of Anne Carson is so hopelessly inept I can’t believe it got past the editors at Harper’s:

I cannot do much with the lines that begin “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions” (or many of her other lines, either):

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

The poem is, I think, an attempt to imagine a posthuman identity. And surely it is distinctive in its voice. But it is so obscure, mannered and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.

Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure? Leaving aside the fact that it’s ridiculous to use five lines as a representative slice of contemporary poetry, these lines are far less mannered than the Lowell lines he quotes favorably on the first page (“Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone,” etc.). At this point I can only come to the conclusion that this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary, but he seems to think the quality of poems he favors (such as, improbably, Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons”) is self-evident compared to those he doesn’t – that list again random and improbable.

Elisa is ready to join Edmundson’s noble crusade, but she realizes that all crusades “inevitably get used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like,” but this is an embarrassing adolescent objection on Elisa’s part; she doesn’t seem to understand that it is everyone’s right to “not happen to like” this or that poem—it is her right, in fact, and she would defend that right to anyone who would listen—and the right not to like a poem is just as important as the right to like one.  Elisa is assuming that if someone doesn’t like a poem, they have an agenda, and therefore they are not allowed to not like the poem.  But whether one has an agenda or not, people are not going to like certain poems, and there’s nothing the blogger Elisa can do about it, and her attempt to connect an “agenda” to “not liking a poem” is perhaps more dubious than someone actually having an “agenda” that makes them “happen to not like a poem,” if any such nonsense can be proven.  Do “agendas” influence “personal judgment” or do “personal judgements” influence “agendas?”  And which is more dishonest?  The whole issue seems fraught with unexamined assumptions, as one individual (Elisa) denies another (Edmundson) the right “to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like.”

Edmundson claims the lines from Anne Carson, which begin, “It’s good to be neuter,” are “obscure.”  Elisa objects, “Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure?”

Both critics are right.  The lines are obscure.  And they’re not. 

This is a mighty problem, and one of the reasons why poetry is in such a sad state of affairs these days; the whole controversy is enveloped in a trench-warfare fog.

We need to step back, here, perhaps before the blogger Elisa busts a gut, and look at our assumptions regarding poetry in general.

Stuck In The Middle With You

Rhetoric which passes as poetry today exists on two extremes: on one end of the spectrum, we have the matter-of-fact, and on the other end, philosophical ambiguity.  Intellectuals like to live on the extremes.  That’s where the party always is.  What we have in the middle is that which is neither matter-of-fact, nor philosophically ambiguous; it is merely what might be characterized as the Platonic “good” in words, what the public memory still identifies as poetry: Longfellow, or Emily Dickinson, poetry from “the Past,” but poetry which has an actual historical and rhetorical identity. Robert Lowell, the Frankenstein Monster of the Southern Agrarian New Critics, has an historical identity.  This middle ground occupies not only a rhetorical middle, but an historical one.  It is roughly equivalent to the “golden mean;”  a rhetoric with an existence between two poles.  One of the many reasons it satisfies its readers is because it is neither too matter-of-fact, nor too ambiguous.

The Carson example, as Elisa points out, is not “obscure,” but it is philosophically ambiguous—and, in keeping with self-conscious Modernism, matter-0f-fact at the same time.  The Carson excerpt has its interest, but Edmundson, as blundering as he is, is correct: the interest is not a poetic one.

The test is very simple: Carson posits the “neuter” person with “meaningless legs” as she speculates philosophically  on sexual difference, or the lack thereof.  The “poem,” at least in the excerpt, however, never comes into focus; instead we are offered vague choices—a shelf full of sexual philosophy presents itself to us—is it really good to be “neuter?”  How so?  From whose perspective? Etc, etc?— and words do have the power to do this; but this is speculative philosophy, not poetry.

The ambiguity of speculative philosophy will always trump the softer meanings of poetry—they are not the same, and those who assume (and there are many) that the ambiguity of philosophical speculation is poetry are really lost.

When the frustrated Elisa writes, “this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary,” one can see how absolutely at sea she is, bemoaning “agendas” on one hand, and the “arbitrary” on the other.

Edmundson has blindly stirred up the blind.

RASULA AND CHASAR: HEAD BUTT OVER THE POETRY GLUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loss of standard is acute. 

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

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

Rasula, at the end of the conversation:

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

But it’s not even a good fight. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

Obsession with Capitalism 1, Chasar and Rasula 0.

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

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

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

BORROWED CLOTHES

Stephen Burt: Doesn’t look great in a jacket.  Prefers wearing a blouse.

We were amused to read the recent piece on Stephen Burt in the New York Times with the large color photo of Burt, the cross-dresser, sitting at an outdoor table in Harvard Square.  A cross-dresser?  Really?  I had no idea.

I was also a little puzzled by the Times’ claim that Burt is a “king-maker;” how do these rumors get started?

Helen Vendler, who Burt is slated to replace, is not really a “king-maker.”  Vendler gave some help to Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, and  Burt, himself, but she’s mostly invested herself in Wallace Stevens.  The shadow of High Modernism is a very big shadow.

In the Times article, only one poet was mentioned who Burt had “made,” and she was an obscure one.

I had to laugh at the explanation of how she was “made,” when the Times writer intoned re: an award committee: “Burt was one of the jurors”—as if this had never happened before!

I also chuckled when it was pointed out that Burt was “a science fiction fan” and a member of “Facebook”—as if these were meaningful and unusual things.

Chief, perhaps, to Burt’s claim to fame, and dutifully cited by the Times, are a couple of definitional coinages of Burt’s: “Elliptical Poetry” and “The New Thing.”

There’s a problem with these, however.

Burt’s definitions of “Elliptical Poetry” and the poetry of “The New Thing” are rambling, narrowly topical, and lack epigrammatic focus.  Both definitions do little more than throw around names.  Take a half a cup of Gertrude Stein and add one tablespoon of John Ashbery… 

Even worse for Burt: “Elliptical Poetry,” with a more coherent definition, was actually a term invented by Frederick Pottle and discussed by Robert Penn Warren’s “Pure and Impure Poetry,” a lecture at Princeton and later published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review. (Wikipedia on Elliptical Poetry needs to be fixed.)

Here is Burt’s (twisted) definition of Elliptical Poetry:

Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-’postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.

This is all very vague: “try to manifest,” “verbal gizmos,” “post-avant-gardist,” “low and high diction,” “almost-stories,” and “television.” 

Perhaps the point is to be vague—after all , we’ve come a long way since critics of poetry fretted over “learning versus pleasure” and “prose versus poetry” and “ideas versus music.” 

But is it a “long way” if you’ve run off the dock into the utterly obscure?  Should critics be vague?  For instance, what does Burt mean by “coherent speaking selves?”  Is he talking about a dramatic speaker, like the narrator in Poe’s “Raven?”  Or the speaker in “The Red Wheel Barrow?”  Or the speakers in “The Waste Land?”  Or the narrator of “Howl?”

Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” is post-modern, but it also has clarity and historic reach.  It’s possible to be topical without being attenuated, to allow Sidney’s Defense to discover things in Eliot’s Sacred Wood.  “Post-avant-gardist verbal gizmos” are not everything.

Burt gets published everywhere, but we haven’t figured out yet whether this is a good thing.   His Boston Globe piece on the Foetry website  steered me in that direction many years ago, so I guess that was good.

Unlike Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, Burt is a poet, and his poetry is similar to his criticism: meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse:

OVER CONNECTICUT: EMINENT DOMAIN

Inland, the antique milemarkers spread
themselves out into twentieth-century lanes,

jammed up this afternoon, though built for speed—
sun-harmed, old news, old toys, they bury the lead

of Prudence Crandall’s schoolroom heritage,
her kettle of cider, her wishes traced by hand.

We miss her now. We parcel out her land.
Town halls fade into greenery like spies.

New London’s keeping Groton in its sights;
its drawbridge swings, a military career.

New Haven is old scores and old concrete,
old freeways where the Great Migration stalled;

the Sound turns agate, band by frozen band.
By Haddam, there are only Linens-n-Things

and other things, great mounds, whole civilizations
still glowing in faint spits along Route Nine…

I miss the Great Society with its sense
that we could redraw maps that ailed us, gone

in a mist of real estate and demonstrations,
three or four angry years before I was born.

One is obliged to be impressed by poetry like this, but in one’s heart one is only slightly moved.

Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the Times article, writes:

Burt has few critics — or few critics who, given his influence, will be quoted. An exception is Steve Evans, who teaches at the University of Maine and says that Burt is often late to the party, putting his seal of approval on poets, like Armantrout, who have been important for years. But the more common critique is that Burt is too positive. And while Burt does write negative reviews, he writes so much, and so many of his reviews are songs of praise, that he can seem like a relentless, passionate booster — a fanboy.

The fanboy is, by his nature, an imperfect evangelist. I find Burt’s lucid, insightful explications of poems energizing: they make you want to discover more of that poet’s work. But there is something unnerving about his voracious enthusiasm. It’s the feeling you got hanging out with the kid who had every bootleg by his 100 favorite bands, or with the sci-fi junkie, or the film buff. They are obsessives, completists, and they overwhelm.

Burt is finally curatorial, not imaginative or original; he’s not an inventor.  He makes lists, but not insights.  When the Times revealed his predilection for dressing as a woman, I couldn’t help but recall these combative words by Leonardo Da Vinci as they might pertain to Stephen Burt, the cross-dressing, fan-boy of Letters:

They will say that since I do not have literary learning I cannot possibly express the things I wish to treat, but they do not grasp that my concerns are better handled through experience rather than bookishness. Though I may not know, like them, how to cite from the authors, I will cite something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters. These very people go about inflated and pompous, clothed and adorned not with their own labours but with those of others. If they disparage me as an inventor, how much more they, who never invented anything but are trumpeters and reciters of the works of others, are open to criticism. Moreover those men who are inventors are interpreters of nature, and when those men are compared to the reciters and turmpeters of the works of others, they should be judged and appraised in relation to each other in no other way than the object in front of a mirror may be judged to surpass its reflection, for the former is actually something and the other nothing.  People who are little reliant upon nature are dressed in borrowed clothes, without which I would rank them with the herds of beasts.

NY TIMES POETRY CRITIC DEFENDS ALAN CORDLE

David Orr, a refreshingly smart, honest, and independent critic—and kind of sexy, too.

Scarriet’s Thomas Brady used to be Monday Love on Foetry.com, Alan Cordle’s poetry consumer protection site that warned poets against rigged poetry contests. 

Foetry.com came to my attention in a Boston Globe piece by Stephen Burt in 2005.  Despite Burt’s attempt to discredit Cordle’s site, I knew immediately that Foetry.com was something new and different, and as soon as I began reading the site, Cordle impressed with his honesty and tenacity.  Po-biz corruption obviously meant something to Cordle, and he was doing something about it by ‘naming names.’ 

A few thought it was wrong that Cordle exposed ‘foets’ anonymously—but I thought of Foetry.com’s anonymous nature as similar to an anonymous suggestion box in a workplace: the anonymity of Foetry.com was simply a method to uncover deeply entrenched wrongs: poetry contest cheating. 

Academic poetry contests were important.  Why?  Because a public for poetry no longer existed, academic ‘fame’ was the next best thing, and winning an academic poetry contest was not only the step to academic renown, but contest entry fees paid for the publication of the winning manuscript.  Judges were choosing their friends and their students.  It was easy to find this out, and it was easy to see this wasn’t fair. 

The self-righteous, indignant responses made it easy to see that a nerve had been struck.

The art of poetry was never supposed to be about private contests and academic awards.  It was supposed to be about fame and genius.  I had sent my poems to magazines and had some published, I had an advanced degree and had taught, but reading contemporary reviews, criticism and poetry and comparing it to the way poetry used to be, I knew, from a critical point of view, that something was rotten; Alan Cordle’s work—which quickly made him famous in po-biz—made sense to my whole way of thinking.  I knew there were ambitious poets who mailed out more poems to magazines than anybody else, who earned advanced degrees and got to know the right people and were shaping po-biz through personal influence. I knew that I was probably lazier than these people.  But poetry was poetry and truth was the truth.

And the truth, it seemed to me, was this:

1) Poetry was still an important academic credential.  

2) Reaching out to the public (‘selling books’ the old-fashioned way) was no longer possible. 

3) An art form once popular and prestigious was now only prestigious.

4) The game was now controlled by a relatively small number of networking academics.

When opponents of Foetry.com uncovered Alan Cordle’s identity, it turned out the ‘masked crusader’ was a librarian. His wife was the published, contest-winning poet (uneasy in fact, with his crusade, and not signed on to it) and this only confirmed that Foetry.com’s crusade was indeed a chivalrous one.

Complaints against Foetry.com inevitably took three forms:

1. The Witch Hunt Charge.  

Foetry.com’s investigations were mild—they used documents in the public record: who judged a contest, who went to what school,  the contents of a mass-mailed letter to potential contestants in a poetry contest.  Perhaps the guiltiest foet, Jorie Graham, didn’t lose her job at Harvard, or any prestige, really, and she probably gained a few book sales from all the excitement; Bin Ramke stepped down from a Contest Series (that was crooked) but life goes on the same for every foet. Public awareness was raised—and this was important, because of the very issue that made Foetry.com necessary in the first place—poetry has a small public, and so: Alan Cordle’s consciousness-raising and public shaming was huge.  The net amount of ‘pain’ was the moral humiliation of those who were guilty. If the anonymous Foetry.com was the Dark Knight, he was gentle, and performed a much-need service for poetry.

2. With all the wrongs in the world, why focus on pettiness in poetry?

But this question is unfair. If a wealthy, corporate criminal, for instance, gives to charity, are they the moral authority in every other sphere? If a person with little means wishes to do some small good, should this be resented?

3. Haven’t the great poets always networked and helped each other?

Not really. Byron and Shelley were companions, but neither judged the other a winner in a poetry contest, or wrote fawning notices in the press for each other—their pride would have found this abhorrent. Poe and Alexander Pope attacked puffery, mediocrity and self-serving cliques with glee.

Pound, Eliot and their friends at the Dial Magazine, however, did give each other (Cummings, Williams, Moore) annual Dial Prizes of $1,000 (equal to a year’s salary for Tom at Lloyd’s bank).

American poets Edgar Poe, Amy Lowell, and Edna Millay were attacked by the Pound clique, and naked ambition was the cause, even historical revenge, as Eliot’s New England roots trace directly back to the hatred between Poe and “English Traits” EmersonScarriet is the first to investigate this.

Scarriet has moved closer to solving Poe’s probable murder.

Scarriet is Foetry.com with a highly historical and critical perspective.

And Scarriet will not ban or censor or silence anyone for their views.

Foetry.com closed down and was archived in 2007.  One day in September of 2009, without warning, Thomas Brady, Alan Cordle, Desmond Swords and Christopher Woodman were banned from making comments on Blog Harriet.  The always amusing, ‘don’t-get-mad-get-even,’ Alan Cordle set up Scarriet.

So we can’t help but celebrate the publication of Beautiful & Pointless by the NY Times Poetry Critic, David Orr.  From the Slate review (4/14):

So who are these poets, anyway? Orr says they suffer from the fact that “even if most people don’t know what poets do, the average person feels that whatever it is, it must be spectacular.” Orr cuts them down to size, an exercise that turns out to be bracing for all concerned. Poets spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in front of computers typing, or else reading, or else worrying over the fact that they can’t muster the concentration to read or write. When not writing, poets also preoccupy themselves with “sending dozens of envelopes filled with poems to literary magazines read by, at most, a few hundred people,” mostly fellow poets.

No wonder their world is what Orr calls a “chatty, schmoozy, often desperate reality.” There are, as you’d expect, the drunken book parties and the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conventions, which are more like returning to college—or is it high school?—than anyone would like to admit. And Orr reports at length on a full-blown scandal, “the Foetry eEpisode,” capitalizing on the gossip while also issuing a cautionary tale: Inbred cultures beware! Between 2004 and 2007, the Web site Foetry.com, run by a man named Alan Cordle, took aim at corruption in the supposedly anonymous book contests that land many poets their small and university-press-publishing contracts. Orr describes the site “stocked with outraged allegations of favor-trading, creepy insinuations about people’s personal lives, and buckets of name-calling (including my personal favorite, ‘foet,’ which referred to careerist poets).” People got hurt, at least one prize was shut down, and targeted poets like Jorie Graham basically stopped judging contests. It was ugly, often petty, and it made headlines outside of Poetryland. It was enough to make you forget that what poets really are is craftspeople: They make intricate little things out of very carefully chosen words, presumably at least in part for other readers to examine.

Alan Cordle has come a long way since he got mad and decided to do something about it. 

The art of poetry has been treated shabbily by “the  new.”  It sometimes seems the dollar has been replaced by the Pound. But we can always find some good in the new: we have the internet now, and it wasn’t all that long ago that all the news came from sources like Walter Cronkite, or Understanding Poetry by a couple of crotchety old Southern Agrarians turned New Critics.

We celebrate the new, too. 

Thanks, Al!

PURE AND IMPURE POETRY: THE NEW CRITICS’ LAST HURRAH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FAKE IT NEW: BURT DID NOT COIN ELLIPTICAL POETRY

Stephen Burt’s “incoherent self:” doesn’t realize he’s a New Critic

WIKIPEDIA: Elliptical Poetry or ellipticism is a literary-critical term introduced by critic Stephen Burt in a 1998 essay in Boston Review on Susan Wheeler, and expanded upon in an eponymous essay in American Letters & Commentary.

Uh…no.   Robert Penn Warren, (with whom we trust Professor Burt is familiar) in an essay published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, “Pure and Impure Poetry,”  (Spring 1943 issue) writes:

“In a recent book, The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has discussed the question of pure poetry.  He distinguishes another type of pure poetry, in addition to the types already mentioned.  He calls it the “Elliptical,” and would include in it symbolist and metaphysical poetry (old and new) and some work by poets Collins, Blake, and Browning.”

In po-biz, new is the new stupid

The last century of American Letters has witnessed ‘the new’ as the last refuge of the scoundrel poet.  If one doesn’t know anything, trumpet ‘the new’ as much as possible, and with a few pals, equally bereft, on one’s side, anything is possible.

Not only is Burt guilty of outright theft, but the “Elliptical” of Robert Penn Warren’s essay is scientific (no irony intended) compared to Burt’s razzle-dazzle new-speak. 

Burt, unable to cook anything, merely makes a mess in the kitchen, throwing in every ingredient he can find.   Here is Burt in his infamous 1998 essay:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-’postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”

Note professor Burt’s lack of rigor, vaguely wrapping himself around the new:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbo gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.”  —Burt

Is it the speaking or the selves which have their coherence undermined, and why do they have an undermined coherence?   Let Mr. Burt answer at once, since he obviously knows.  And how can one undermine something before it exists?  If one is not skilled enough, in a poem, to produce a coherent speaking self (is it so easy?) how do we know it has been undermined?  Anyone can point to a sociological theory which mourns the vanished self, but the poem is not a theory, unfortunately for Burt’s elliptical poets.

“Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction.  —Burt

Has Burt never read the Roman poets?  They did this constantly.  Come to think of it, the majority of poets, ancient to present, alternate between low and high diction.

“…they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”
—Burt

It’s comforting to know the poets don’t “resemble television”…

Burt’s murky, gizmo-rhetoric would have been laughed out of the pages of the Kenyon Review, when Ransom was editor, and the New Critics were contribuing articles.

In contrast to the gee-whiz rhetoric of Stephen Burt, we have the acumen of Robert Penn Warren:

“Poe would kick out the ideas because the ideas hurt the poetry, and Mr. [Max] Eastman would kick out the ideas because the poetry hurts the ideas.”

The concept is actually interchangeable—Poe also thought, like Eastman, that “poetry hurts the ideas.”  Poe was explicit on this point.  At least with Penn Warren, however, there is a concept.  Burt is babble.  He has no point.  But my point here is not to agree with Penn Warren, but to expose Burt’s blatant theft.

Robert Penn Warren from his 1943 essay again:

“Then Elliptical Poetry is not, as Mr. Pottle say it is, a pure poetry at all if we regard intention; the elliptical poet is elliptical for purposes of inclusion, not exlusion.”

This is no quibble over a word, either.  In his 1943 essay, Penn Warren’s definition of elliptical poetry is exactly the same as Burt’s 1998 review.  Here is Penn Warren:

“Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.  At least, most of them do not want to be too pure.  The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end.  Are we then to conclude that, because neutral or recalcitrant elements appear in poems, even in poems called great, these elements are simply an index to human frailty, that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems which would, then, be perfectly pure?  No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary.  They are not even as pure as they might be in an imperfect world.  They mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, cliches, sterile technical terms, head work and argument, self-contradiction, cleverness, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.” 

And Penn Warren, again:

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

Burt posits a return of a “person” who “speaks the poem” while  simultaneously using  “gizmos, developed over the last few decades,” of “Stein’s heirs” and “language writers:” Burt blindly stumbles back over the same ground to the New Critics, who were, as we see with Robert Penn Warren’s 70-year-old-essay, already allowing the widest possible field to the “speaking” of a “poem.”

 It’s time for Philosophy and History to kick New-Speak off its throne.

[Are we "going after Burt" or just giving Pottle and Penn Warren credit where credit is due?]

TIMOTHY DONNELLY: HART CRANE’S BACK AND HE’S LOOKING FOR YVOR WINTERS

 

Donnelly and his pal, Hart

I hart Timothy Donnelly

But why, with all the Timothy Donnelly buzz, (The New Yorker’s best poetry book of the year, etc) don’t others hart Tim Donnelly?

Donnelly’s first lauded book, Twenty Seven Props for a Production of Das Lebenszeit (Grove Press, 2003), not only blurbed by Jorie Graham and Lucie Brock-Broido, but forwarded by Richard Howard, was compared to Ashbery (by Howard), and sure, one hears Ashbery in the jokey elaboration of the title.  The combinations are endless.  Claire de Lune As Interpreted By Daffy Duck and so on. 

It is easy to sound like Ashbery or Stevens, or anyone, in a title

But to sound like the master in the poetry, without veering into parody, is impossible, and this is precisely why the master is a master. 

Donnelly is not Ashbery, or Stevens, except where these poets mock themselves, as they will do sometimes—but that’s an influence no one wants.   Any poet today would relish being compared to a master, but these sorts of comparisons only belong to the blurb.

The swooning praise for Donnelly’s just-released second book, The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010), surely arises from a feeling that Donnelly’s work has been disciplined into something darker and more politically aware.

The supposedly Ashberean poetry finds a common metaphorical cloud-ship with post-9/11 politics ; the guilt one gets from enjoying apolitical Ashbery has been eliminated; Donnelly offers a concoction two parts Ashbery and one part capitalist-debt-eco despair: not Claire de Lune Contemplated by Daffy Duck so much as Post-9/11 Politics Contemplated by Sponge Bob Square Pants. 

The “Square” is very much at play in Donnelly’s appreciation of order and tradition, the “Bob” stands for an appreciation of the nameless working class who make everything the privileged use, and “Sponge” refers to the Blob—see Ray McDaniel’s ecstatic Constant Critic review in which the 50′s B-movie horror monster, a metaphor in the 50′s for communism, is for McDaniel an elaboration today of evil corporate assimilation as manifested in Donnelly’s enveloping verse of deferment and complexity. 

The poetry world is now ‘shark-blood-in-the-water’ excited because it senses a 21st century novelty: a poet filled with sorrow, but too smart and steely-eyed to be depressed, boldly articulating our current political ills with a self-assured Ashberean rhetoric—guilt, gone; yet luxurious rhetoric still bathing us pleasurably.  We have our cake and eat it: four layers of poetry filled with organic, not-too-sweet, poetically-flavored politics.  We’re both undulated and understood.

The critics all assure us that  Cloud Corporation never panders to popular taste; Donnelly is a credentialed academic poet, yet Donnelly’s book broods on themes that many regular readers of the New York Times  brood on, as Stephen “Helen Vendler” Burt explains:

He varies, as well, the arguments in his complaints, the reasons he gives for feeling stuck, baffled, oppressed: it’s no fun to feel alienated from everything and everyone, but it’s even more disheartening, and morally worse, to feel bound up in the sort of collective entity (the United States, the Western world) that stands to blame for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, for “what’s// done in my defense, or in/ its name, or in my/ interest or in the image// of the same.”

Short of resigning from Western civilization, short of devoting one’s life (as this poet could not, temperamentally, do) to a possibly fruitless radical activism, what on Earth should we do? Is there nothing to do? “I just feel soporose, so// soporose tonight… You think/ I should be concerned?” So ends his six-page poem about Abu Ghraib, “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris. ”   —Stephen Burt

But most of the passages lovingly quoted are apolitical; the top influence on Donnelly, according to the reviewers, is Wallace Stevens; Ashbery is second; one reviewer insists it’s the stammering Eliot of Prufrock.   But none of these fit.

Since John Crowe Ransom and Paul Engle turned American Letters into one vast English Department, academic poets are the only poets who get respect.   It would be suicidal, therefore, for any poet today to be shrilly political—”fruitless radical activism” the name Stephen Burt gives it. 

Not one reviewer has been astute enough, however, to see that Timothy Donnelly is nothing more than the return of Hart Crane

Only one Cloud Corporation reviewer—Adam Fitzgerald in the Brooklyn Rail—mentions Crane—and only once, and only indirectly. 

No one harts Timothy Donnelly, yet Donnelly in his own words makes it stunningly obvious that Hart Crane, who argued with Harriet Monroe and Yvor Winters on the necessity of poetic obscurity, is Donnelly’s muse. 

But not just Crane. The debate between Winters and Crane is the engine that drives the rhetoric which unfurls in Donnelly’s new book, a rhetoric praised—in a critical fog.

Why?  Criticism (which these days exists in the academy mostly as eloborate blurbing) has been eclipsed by the academic Creative Writing industry; the pearls of poetry win the day, not the critical oyster.  Stevens and Ashbery are poets, and well, so is Donnelly, and there you have it, according to the gnat-reviewers.  And those who write criticism, like the Ashbery-and- Stevens-worshiping Vendler and Harold Bloom, don’t write poetry, so criticsm and poetry don’t really have anything to do with each other.  And there it is.

But of course they do.  They have everything to do with each other.  It is the critical argument that hides beneath the best poetry which gives it that urgency which readers mistake for something else, thinking it’s poetry; but it really isn’t that at all; it’s the critical mind, the argumentative mind organizing the poetry behind-the-scenes which wins the day.

And here it is (how did they all miss it?) in plain sight: “A Match Made In Poetry: Yvor Winters v. Hart Crane,” an essay by Timothy Donnelly right there on Poets.org.

Why do none mention this essay?  I think it’s the desire to think of Donnelly in a mystical way, to think of him as a frenzied, post-9/11 shaman, channeling Wallace Stevens, rather than what he, with all due respect, is: a Modernist academic, wrestling with the subject of his essay: Winters v. Crane (and John Crowe Ransom, who is quoted at length in a footnote).

But this is where we are today: in the middle of Modernism’s argument, in a vast English Department classroom, whether we want to admit it, or not.

Listen to Donnelly, and notice how Winters is quite literally the enemy, and how much Donnelly’s poetry sounds like the Crane he quotes:

Winters found Crane’s poems at times thematically unclear, haphazard and hard to follow; like the frenetic jazz club in “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” Crane’s poems were characteristically “striated with nuances, nervosities”:

O, I have known metallic paradises
Where cuckoos clucked to finches
Above the deft catastrophes of drums.
While titters hailed the groans of death
Beneath gyrating awnings I have seen
The incunablula of the divine grotesque.
This music has a reassuring way.

Timothy Donnelly

Listen how Donnelly closes his essay:

In one corner we have Crane, a devotee of the imagination and its “delirium of jewels,” a seeker of “new thresholds, new anatomies,” a Modern Romantic who strove to refresh the poet’s kinship to the shaman and the seer. In the other corner, Winters, a decrier of unreason, a skeptic of poetic ecstasy and rapture, a moralist who dismissed visionary individualism as potentially dangerous fakery. Poets today probably know who they would have rooted for.

Or do they? Certainly Crane is the more widely admired figure now, in part because the difficulty that his work posed to its first audience has been softened by decades of celebration and study. Yet many of those who would like to imagine themselves cheering valiantly for Cleveland’s Whitmanian rebel regularly accuse their contemporaries of the very deficiencies and extravagances Winters derided in Crane. Winters still has his advocates, of course, including many who don’t realize that that’s what they are.6

Ladies and gentlemen, those among you who demand that the poem be immediately or even ultimately graspable in its entirety by the faculties of reason please stand behind Winters. All those who reject Wittgenstein’s notion that the poem uses the language of information but is not itself used in the language-game of giving information please stand behind Winters. All those who use words like quackery, charlatanry, or folderol in lieu of more scrupulous and responsible explanations for their resistance to innovative and experimental poetries please stand behind Winters. Even those who insist that poetry must always heed an ethical imperative-you know where to go.

Ladies and gentlemen, where do you stand?

Timothy Donnelly

The sympathy he has lurking for Winters, even though Donnelly is clearly on Crane’s side, is what gives Donnelly’s poetry that depth they all love, and no one has been able to put their finger on it—until this review.

STEPHEN BURT IN IVORY TOWER: “I HAVE MADE TELEPHONE CALLS.”

Stephen Burt’s ill-tempered reply to David Biespiel’s call for poets to participate more in life outside the ivory tower is a stark example of how far our faith in poetry has fallen.

Burt is about as far away from Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” as one can get:

“Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general, [Burt writes] to solve public problems risk underemphasizing the power of facts…”

Can you imagine Shelley saying that we “risk underemphasizing the power of facts…”?

But, never mind Shelley, why would anyone indulge in such tepid rhetoric, the limpness of which is downright embarrassing?

First of all, Burt’s reasoning is hopelessly circular: what about the “risk” of “overemphasizing facts” and thus “underemphasizing poetry?”

Secondly, since when did poetry imply a hatred of facts? Why is Burt preaching this red herring?

If Burt is saying not all poets are good enough to bring their sensibilities as poets into other areas of life, he is certainly making a very good case for himself. The art of rhetoric seems to elude him.

A clue to Burt’s wretched pessimism might be gleaned if we examine this again: “Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general…”

Unlike the soaring Shelley, Burt is unable to reconcile “poetry in particular” with “rhetoric in general.”

It’s really no wonder, then, that Burt finally takes Biespiel’s essay personally, and Burt defends himself thus:

“I have made telephone calls or knocked on doors for at least one Democrat in nearly every election (including Congressional midterms and the St. Paul, Minnesota, city council) since 2000.  That volunteer work led me to write poems I would not otherwise have written.  But those poems did not do much to unite America, elect progressive officials, or fight climate change; I hope that they will last because some people like them (though the odds are long).”

Burt can find millions of examples (not just his own) in which “poems” do not “fight climate change.”

But isn’t this precisely what Biespiel is saying:  that we ought to bring poetry in all its aspects more into contact with public life?  Burt is attempting to refute Biespiel’s solution by merely pointing out the problem—which suggests the solution!

Burt assumes writing a poem requires a very narrow set of skills that has very little to do with solving larger problems of life, but this is the sort of thinking which naturally takes root in an ivory tower.  By taking this view, professor Burt, successor to Helen Vendler, can forever ‘prove’ that poetry has little to do with life, and with a certain smug satisfaction, tell Biespiel to be on his way.

We know the qualities shared by some poets and outstanding citizens: wit, imagination, curiosity, boldness, vision, ingenuity, and erudition.  What is wrong with wanting to spread these qualities around?   If Burt is correct, and none of these qualites in the poet pertain anywhere else, we probably ought to ignore Biespiel and, at the same time, stop reading poems.

Biespiel’s exhortation may be quixotic, but only if we submit to a very limited and limiting notion of poetry.   We could, in response to Biespiel’s suggestion—which may come down to: how do we make poetry respectable in the public square again—smile, nod, and agree in a helpless sort of way, but Burt’s bitter attack: where does that come from?  Is it because Burt is saying, in essence, “How dare you try and make poetry respectable!  That’s not its purpose!”    Does Burt really feel there are no Shellean qualites shared by poets and exceptional human beings?   How can one argue, as Burt does, against such an assertion, when Shelley has almost singlehandedly made it a truism?  Does Burt believe that a poet must have a certain cramped, dwarfish nature in order to write poems, and is Burt really making, with eyes wide open, this sweeping and negative assertion against Biespiel’s hopeful, simple and general good?

I hope not.  But it sure looks that way.

PHILOSOPHY IS THE NEW POETRY

Hey, Nick Lantz, can I have a little poetry with that philosophy?

It isn’t even poetry, yet it wants to be philosophy.

Or, should we say, since it isn’t poetry, philosophy is a very fine thing for it to be?

Poetry has been traditionally tangible:  language (a means of communicating) crystallized into art (a means made tangible).

Philosophy is an inquiry, not an art, and yet today it seems the esteemed poets want to be philosophers.

Exceptional critics have always been philosophers on poetry, but in our day it seems critics wait for their philosophical crumbs to fall from the tables of the poets.

Philosophy has shifted from critic to poet as art has fled, ashamed.   In the halls of learning, inquiry has always been respected, while art, the finished product, is viewed with suspicion.  Endless inquiry is the breath of philosophy; the art-piece chokes it.  Wearied by endless speculation, philosophical minds rest awhile in the finite couch of art.  Contemporary poetry, however, has been denuded of its finitude, its art; the poets cast about as philosophers, and the critics, the poets’ fawning philosophically-minded shadows, welcome them as brethren in a shifty enterprise of shadows, bereft of both disinterested inquiry and entertaining art.

As an example (there are so many from which to choose) here’s a very recent “poetry review” from Raintaxi.  It begins with the usual slavering worship of prizes:

Nick Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House are both phenomenal books—the former is the 2009 Bakeless Prize-winner for poetry, the latter the 2010 Felix Pollack Prize-winner. Let’s acknowledge that any writer who won just one of those contests would be worth attention; to win both prizes, and to have the books come out basically simultaneously, is the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run not just in his first at-bat, but off his first pitch.

In the next paragraph, the reviewer continues to skip the book under review—using his own eyes and ears to impress upon his readers what lies within—and, instead, anxiously consults the latest zeitgeist manifesto:

Lantz’s work could, like a good swath of American poetry presently published, be filed under the heading of Elliptical Poetry. In Stephen Burt’s defining ur-text, a review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes in the Boston Review, he writes “Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” It may be a testament to Burt’s acuity that this exact tension is something of a default setting in contemporary American poetry.

To “manifest a person” echoes Wordsworth’s “men speaking to men” and Aristotle telling us comedy manifests “low” and tragedy “high” persons.   Aristotle’s attempt at category was overturned by the poet Shakespeare and Wordsworth’s philosophy was betrayed by his own poetry.   Literature as action imitating actions of persons has been a philosophical truism for a very long time.  Burt’s “ur-text” is nothing more than a fad splashing in a shallow puddle.

The attempt by poetry critics to venture into the realm of metaphysics  often leaves them looking like William Wordsworth in yellow garters: rather ridiculous.  The “person” as used by Burt and our Raintaxi reviewer is a philosophical inquiry, a “person” in Burt’s words that we “try” to “manifest.”  There is no agreement on how the “person” might be manifested or who the “person” might be, or the reason for the “manifestation;” Burt is not asserting any artistic philosophy or critical dicta; he is merely following the lead of a trend in which “gizmo” is easing off in favor of “personhood” or some such nonsense, as if real poets stick their fingers in the wind to find out whether it is blowing more ‘gizmo’ or more ‘personhood.’  The poetry of Byron and the poetry of Wordsworth reflects the radically different nature of those men.  A critic who lumped Wordsworth and Byron as ‘Romantics’ is blind to their work as poets—and persons.

But neither Byron nor Wordsworth fancied themselves as philosophers first, and poets, second.  A certain philosophical outlook will always inform coherent poetry, but this is not the same thing as philosophy masking itself as incoherent poetry—with poetry critics abetting the cheat.

Here in the next two paragraphs of the review, we are quickly sucked into the quicksand of purely philosophical inquiry:

How this tension plays out in Lantz’s work is not necessarily as “verbal gizmos,” however, and certainly something’s being undermined, but it’s not necessarily “the coherence of speaking selves.” From “Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window” in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know: “Vermeer’s light fools you.” From “The Marian Apparitions” in The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House: “One Thing is not really / the other no matter how badly I wish / it were so.” From “Either Or,” in We Don’t Know: “Naming / everything is a way / of naming nothing.” What’s being undermined is the stability of things—the suitability of the light in a Vermeer to truly illuminate; whether or not the name given to a man will be enough for the man to live within; how things, fundamentally, cannot be what we wish they were.

It’s not for nothing that Lightning begins with a poem titled “The Ship of Theseus,” (which your memory or a Google-search will let you know has to do with the paradox of an object’s objectness if its constituent parts have been replaced); also not for nothing is the fact that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous speech delineating the four types of knowledge (known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown knowns). In both books, in their own ways (and in complementary ways when considered together), Lantz’s poetry examines conceptions of knowing, with Lightning focused on the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood and We Don’t Know focused on the inconsistencies and difficulties inherent in the person trying to do the understanding.

These are legitimate philosophical concerns, “naming everything,” “one thing is not really the other, “”the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood,” “conceptions of knowing,” but one gets the idea that the philosophy is completely eclipsing the poetry.

The Raintaxi reviewer divides his review into three parts.  Part one is called ‘The Things Themselves,’ as if this were some kind of philosophical essay rather than a poetry review.  Then follows part two, “And Who Speaks” where we at last get a glance at the poetry itself:

That last bit, more than anything else, needs attention: the person trying to do the understanding. This is what makes putting Lantz’s work among other Elliptical writers dicey, because Lantz’s poetry is among the most self-less work in contemporary American poetry. To some degree, kudos is in order for that fact—it’s far too common and simple for contemporary poetry to be built upon the shivery, unstable rock of the “I,” and Lantz avoids that tricky trap. However, in its place is a startling lack of narrator, of poetic self. This lack wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that Lantz’s poetry seems, at times, to be trying to make aspects of narrative cohere; for instance, a dead brother haunts both collections; a single father plays a large role; whatever consistent speaker is present is married (a wife is mentioned in both books); and religion, specifically Christianity, plays heavily throughout all of this, as do paintings and myth.

Read just about any contemporary poet working the seam between lyric, narrative, and surrealism —C.D. Wright, Bob Hicok, or Tony Hoagland, for example—and you can’t help but have an understanding of that writer’s writerly self after a handful of poems (or, if the narrator is someone other than the writer, that’s made clear). Lantz, however, seems to be trying to work the magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid from an absence of self. This particular trick is made manifest through Lantz’s use of “you” in his poems, which somehow ends up being massively troubling. For instance, “Thinking Makes it So,” from We Don’t Know We Don’t Know:

Less matter with more art, I say. Don’t
retell the story of your brother and his
seven dogs minus one. How did it go?

The reader’s thrust weirdly into this poem, having to somehow tell a story s/he likely doesn’t know. Stranger still, halfway through the poem come the lines

You first told me this story while we were looking down
into a volcanic crater
filled with a lake so blue the sky was ashamed of itself.

The construction here—the fact that Lantz would make the poem contingent on a “you” to tell/complete the story instead of a “you” who is the listener, the spoken-to—is both a cool shift and a difficult one.

“The magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid” is such a painfully robotic phrase; such language betrays a critic who have given up his autonomy,  trading independence for a mouthing of the trendy cliches of the day.   The quotes from the poetry itself are not food for the poetry critic or the reader of poetry, but pearls to embellish the critic’s fragmented admiration of fragmented philosophizing.

The New Critic Cleanth Brooks published an essay in the Kenyon Review in 1951 and enthusiastically quoted Lionel Trilling’s praise for writers who are “intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.”   Now this is the sort of phrase than an exacting critic would sneer at and not let pass, but it makes moderns stand up and cheer:  ‘Yea.  No florid romanticism for us.  We’re modern.’  Once this phrase—quoted admiringly in 1951 by a poetry critic—is accepted, however, what’s left, really, to distinguish the poet from the philosopher?  True, in the next paragraph Cleanth Brooks raises the idea of poetic form: “tensions,” “symbolic development,” “ironies and their resolutions.”  But this is too little, too late, even in 1951.   Symbolic development? Ironies and their resolutions?  Whatever, pal. I’m intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.

Part three is entitled “How” but this is perhaps a misprint and it was meant to be “And how!”   Since we wish to be fair and print the review in its entirety, here is the final part of the review, also quoted in full:

Lantz offers, despite this unstable and destabilizing “you,” startling imagery and fantastic conjunctions in both books. Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know‘s very first poem, “Ancient Theories”:

Why not believe that the eye throws its own light,
that seeing illuminates
the world?
On the moon,
astronaut David Scott drops a hammer and a falcon feather,
and we learn nothing
we didn’t already know.

Beyond the wordplay and strange conjunctions, however, Lantz is working magic in terms of structure and form. In both books he utilizes an intriguing form, as in Lightning’s “Judith & Holoferenes”:

The brain goes on living, or so they say, for a few
seconds after the head is
severed. The tent stays
shut. The sword rusts down to a feather of iron.

I don’t know if there’s a name for this: the lines essentially form triplets, starting at the left margin, tabbing in one, and then tabbing in severely (the third tabbed-in line varies). The form—malleable, shifting, recognizable—is welcome and interesting, and allows Lantz both the flexibility to whirl through his poetry and dramatize breaks while simultaneously offering the reader the comforts of classicism and formality.

We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is sectioned according to the Rumsfeldian quartet (though the second section, Known Unknowns, is made entirely of the long poem “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”), and a good chunk of the poems feature either a Rumsfeld quotation at their start or, more startling, a passage from Pliny the Elder. Side-by-side, Pliny’s observations about the natural world and how it’s apprehended form a pleasing dialogue with Rumsfeld’s lines about the tricky linguistic horrors of the war in Iraq (though Lantz’s politics don’t color the poetry; dogma is, in fact, absent, and, regardless of how one feels about the war, it’s impossible not to be a little mesmerized by Rumsfeld’s linguistics). Against these two questioning guides, eons apart, the poems probe at ideas of memory and knowledge, returning always to the slipperiness inherent in ever truly knowing anything. The opening lines of “List of Things We Know” acknowledge just how slippery is the slope:

40% of all
births are
accidental.
10% of all
accidents
are births.

The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House is divided into three parts, structured almost as a trip—it starts with the Joyce Carol Oats-ian “Where You Are, Where You’ve Been, Where You’re Going,” heads through “What Land of Milk and Honey,” and ends with “Back to Earth Unharmed.” Rumsfeld and Pliny are gone; in their place are Bible stories, myths, paintings, national parks, newspaper headlines, films of Bigfoot, and Jimi Hendrix. In place of We Don’t Know’s long “Questioner,” there’s “The History of Fire,” a seven-page whopper that establishes that the reader and the world of the poems are within history (and, therefore, inherently obscured):

for hours, the train

glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,

where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

Nick Lantz’s two debut books establish him as a major new poet, and his willingness to challenge form and narrative identity is laudable. Regardless of the occasional haunted feel of certain of his poems, both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.

The reviewer at times becomes besotted with his own glee, writing, “Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts.”

But mostly we find from the reviewer a deep respect for the philosophical inquiry of the poet’s work, even as the lines of the actual poems quoted are not very good.

Next to rhetoric like this

“both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.”

it would be gauche to ask, “Well, are the poems any good?”

I wonder what a philosopher would say?

A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom,
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length and expense of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘modern poetry’ since I started writing it at 50, and have never sat in a modern poetry lecture and rarely attended a reading, have scarcely ever even started to read a contemporary literary-historical text, know no editors and only one poet who just happened to come to my house in Chiang Mai last Christmas. And of course I only got interested in ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 14 precious packets I had sent to Bin Ramke over the years at Georgia probably never even got opened, and that my 8 packets to Tupelo hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter pretending to be a personal critique of my work and suggesting that just $295.00 more might make all the difference. Then Joan Houlihan scolded me in public (P&W, Nov 2006) for my limited understanding of editing and publishing poetry while praising the very editors who had abused me, and I knew modern American poetry was in deep trouble.

And of course, Joan Houlihan was right, too, in a sense, but I’m still nowhere near ready to concede that the situation she regards as normal is ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry. Indeed, for challenging just that  I’ve been banned on-line by P&W, The AoAP, and The Poetry Foundation — not a very promising start to a new career, particularly not at 70, but revealing.

So what should you call me, then, and how can my input be useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a “peasant” in poetry when you compare me with somebody like Stephen Burt or David Lehman, for example — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” (aka censorship) at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed the hell out of people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. Yes, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? [Click here for a fatal example]

What I have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly and successfully educated in literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [a whole decade before David Lehman!], C.S.Lewis, F.R.Leavis, Fellow of Christs, you name it) yet I never got educated in modern poetry, not once. So I go straight from the 30s in which I was born and jump straight to 1992 in which I got published for the very first time by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise.

So I can see a lot — and since I’m much too old for success, and nobody is ever going to hire me what’s more give me a prize, I’m free to burn any bridges I want behind me, which is rare.

A “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on Joan Hoilihan’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-shopper,” or a “noble non-whopper,” or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” — because the irony is that my publishing credits are not bad at all, considering my age and when I started, but I have no position and no reputation to advance or defend.

So “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because the Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the actual hallmark of the verse they despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which celebrated the feeling you got when you sat down at last to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for a long time to come (which is a huge social and educational grey area, of course, and not yet quite out of the bag like what happened to the Native Americans!).

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and mush made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the Gold Coast, and in my American childhood never met an African-American or a Jew and very few Catholics not descendants of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 30s didn’t mix with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter Delia Orlando, the middle name also being mistaken for Italian!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my brothers and I — my younger brother westward to Wyoming, myself eastward to Cambridge, and our older brother just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965.) And I ran, and I kept bees, and I fiddled around with Trungpa, and I sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and now I’m writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the petit bourgeois poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rungs of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “make it new” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry traditin that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think  I’m well-equipped even with just a small “compatty hammer” [click here] in my hand.

Christopher

A DEFENSE OF POETRY…SORT OF.

A great deal of 19th century verse is wretched—exposure to poorly written rhyme will naturally push the educated poetry lover from the vales of tortured song to the stairwells of sober speech.

Verse was abandoned by educated poets in the 20th century because the versifiers fell out of tune—not because poetry evolved into something higher.   

Frazzled, goaded and tuckered out by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, with no more heart for Bret Harte, audiences everywhere cried Geez! and So Long! to George Santayana and the other thousand rhyming and chiming poetasters, tossing the simpering, milk & water verse out the window.   (Santayana was T.S. Eliot’s professor at Harvard).  

Throwing off rhyme was not a revolution. 

It was a revulsion.

The yellowish face of Imagism’s moon was not a sign of mystical glory; it was a sign of illness and disgust.

Music coming from instruments only a little out of tune will soon convince hearers to give up all music.

Imagism was a retreat, not an advance. 

Poetry in the 20th century did not add image—it subtracted music. 

The great poets of verse featured imagery and music, skillfully blended into a natural, pleasing speech so that neither speech, imagery, nor music was perceived as such–the elements were blended and lost in the poetry. 

Lost so that no ‘close reading’ can get it out. 

Criticism finds the elements when they are not blended; if they are, criticism cannot see them, for the work succeeds and doesn’t require criticism

 The close reading of the New Critics was mistaken from the start, since it confused desultory, over-elaborated praise with criticism.  New Criticism finally ends in the Prozac Criticism of the Helen Vendlers and the Stephen Burts.

Too much focus on any part—image, language, irony, etc—is a sure sign poetry is in decline.

We’re not sure why–after the renaissance of verse in English from the 16th century sonnet mastery to the 17th century of Milton, Donne, Marvel, to the 18th of Pope, and then Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, with writers like Poe bringing Baconic science (with a Platonic sheen) to the art, and Tennyson carrying the flame–why the whole art sickened and died sometime during the middle or latter part of the 19th century. 

It may have been for a very simple reason. 

In the 19th century more people began to write and publish poetry.

There was a glut, and gluts will destroy whatever style currently exists.   

Those who complain contemporary poetry is prosy and dull usually champion the 19th century and its rhyme.  

But the issue is not a stylistic one.  It is simpler than that.   A glut destroyed poetry as it currently existed—first in the 19th century, when poetry rhymed, and then in the 20th century, when poetry didn’t.  The Quarterly didn’t kill Keats.  Sidney Lanier did. 

Those who could not write like Keats eventually decided no one should write like Keats—or none should try, because one more Sidney Lanier would be the death of poetry itself.   William Carlos Williams—when he reached middle-age and stopped rhyming—suddenly became vastly preferable to Sidney Lanier, at least among educated readers. 

Poetry–the art–could not handle one more failed Keats.  William Carlos Williams did not conquer Keats.   He was simply a sobering balm to the intoxicating pain of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  The 20th century stopped rhyming, not out of evolution, but from embarrassment. 

Rather than fail at Keats, it was necessary for the pride of the poet in the 20th century to partially succeed at haiku—and the whole history of modernism is nothing but extended haiku: even modern long poems are nothing but haiku patched together and embellished with flotsam and dialogue–breaking haiku’s rules, but not the rules of poetry—in any significant way. 

Our idea is supported by the following:  From the beginnings of poetry in English to the first confirmed glut in the early 19th century, a good poem was never a theoretical specimen; it was good in a way that was socially recognized by everyone: A 16th century Shakespeare song, a 19th century Keats ballad.   Then came the glut, and millions of would-be Shakespeares and Keats’s made rhyme come to seem the playing of an out-of-tune violin.  

The public gradually fled from the poem–not because the novel took them away, but because the public ran from the art of poetry holding its ears.   The modern novel was not an improvement so much as a refuge, and fortunately for that genre, poetry, by mishandling verse, was at that very moment chasing away readers as it had never done before. 

And bad rhyme did not end after Modernism–one can find it in Richard Aldington’s 1941 anthology: Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams’ only poem represented is a rhyming poem; there’s bad rhyme galore.  

Fashions die hard, but when they die, it’s sometimes not the fashion that’s at fault, but the mediocrities practicing it.

THE PROZAC CRITIC

In a recent article, Poetry and Project Runway, on the Poetry Foundation’s Website, Stephen Burt, some guy who attended Oxford and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism)  defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the bad.   Scarriet recently pointed out that this is like telling a philosopher to ignore the bad.  Put this way, Burt’s rosy view appears silly, which is proper.

In this essay, Burt uses the TV show Project Runway as a platform for his pedantry.

“Project Runway,” Burt informs us, “holds lessons for poetry critics,” but first we must learn “how the TV show works.”

Contestants design clothes.

Judges judge.

Enter Stephen Burt with ill-fitting analogy.

Ron Silliman has examined the show at length” and “a poetry blogger from New Zealand” has blogged on the idea of “Poetry Runway,”  so Burt is ready to launch. [click here]

Ruffles, buttons, ribbons, white T-shirt, striped button-down, jacket…ready.

“Poets, like clothes designers, love technical challenges.”

Design a dress made from newspaper.  Write a poem about a red wheel barrow.  OK.

I.A. Richards, Burt informs us, encouraged his students to make “snap judgments” on “unfamiliar poems” in an exercise of “Practical Criticism.”

Judging is Fun.   Alright.   So far, so good.

But now Burt wades into deeper waters.

And is quickly in over his head.

Happily reveling in the fact that TV overlapping poetry is pretty cool, Burt reaches for his drug of choice:

The happy drug, designed by the Lilly pharmaceutical company.

Prozac.

“Aspects of the TV show,” he tells us, make him “uneasy” in terms of “how we judge poems.”

The show, Burt warns, tends to highlight “contestants who flounder.”

Oh, no!

Criticism. Not good in the world of Stephen Burt.

Burt informs us what works on TV–and “rightly so” (Burt doesn’t want to appear as a scold)–are “flagrant failures” and “life stories.”

A TV show, Burt admits, “devoted wholly to winners’ techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me.”

Now Burt gets down to the nitty-gritty:

“Those truths [popular appeal of negative focus and life stories] affect, not only the judging of hurriedly-assembled cocktail dresses on television, but the reading and reviewing of new poems. The broader the audience, or potential audience, the harder it is to talk about technique, and the more tempting it is to fall back on the poet’s life: Keats‘s tuberculosis, or his failed romance with Fanny Brawne; Robert Browning‘s successful romance with Elizabeth; Emily Dickinsons isolation (so often exaggerated); William Carlos Williamss medical practice, and so on.”

Burt’s reasoning is fatally flawed on two counts.

1. Does he really believe reviews of “new poems” are marred by reports of medical ills and romantic intrigues?  When is the last time a review of a new book of poems came down the pike with delicious details of the poet’s love life?  Is this really an issue, today?  Note that all of Burt’s examples are poets born in the 19th century.   Is it really true that poets born in 1980 are aesthetically challenged–because reviewers and critics keep focusing on their romances?

2. Any legitimate historical, philosophical, and cultural view of Keats that flies above mere New Criticism would obviously need to pay attention to a great deal more than Keats’ “turberculosis.”  (Though someone should tell Mr. Burt it was kind of a big deal—it killed him.)  Meet Mr. Burt’s straw man.  Mr. Burt evades the responsibility of the critic who whould investigate more than “getting collars right” by categorizing biography as “failed romance” or “TB.”  Burt, the New Critic, derides biography, and thus historical scholarship, by diminishing its scope—assuming the topic is little more than sordid gossip.

Burt is most troubled, however, by “the dangerous ease of a focus on failure.”  What does this mean?  Why isn’t he worried about a “dangerous ease of a focus on” glib praise?   The latter is far more prevalent than the former, and surely Burt’s prozac approach to poetry has a lot to do with this bland and sorry state of affairs in the first place.   Burt is like someone who complains of a bean bag’s hardness.

Mr. Burt now sheds the playful attitude he had towards the TV show completely, Silliman’s appreciation be damned:

“Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures.”

Shades of Blackwoods!   Say it ‘aint so, Professor!

Unable to face even the idea of failure, Burt, seeking out more serotonin, announces: “But it’s not good for readers and critics to treat poets this way.”

Burt demands nice—or else.

Critics must be nice to poets.

Great.  The prozac is kicking in.

Burt quotes Randall Jarrell, saying we should judge poets by good poems.  Well, sure.  Judge poets accomplished by their good poems.  Sort of obvious, isn’t it?  Pope warned against fastidiously finding fault if the poem triumphs as a whole, and this is more to the point: we should protect ourselves against the pedant—but Burt wants to protect us against the truth.

Because Wordsworth wrote dreck at times and was faulted for it, Burt proclaims, “Wordsworth would have never lasted on Project Runway.”   But he did.  He’s Wordsworth.

Now Burt brings out the heavy artillery:  “Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry should consult, first and last, ourselves.”

A noble sentiment, but what if “ourselves” is a prozac buzz?

Finally, the bow-tied New Critic steps from behind the Reality TV curtain:  What is important, Burt intones, is “whether and how poets can make it work.”

The very phrasing is right off the New Criticism rack: doctrinaire, tweedy, and square-jawed, with a whiff of the musty.

A little tip for Stephen Burt (and Helen Vendler):

1. A criticism is a criticism.

2. Criticism should consider everything–the poet’s mentors, associates, politics, in short, the life.

3. Use tact and taste (this goes without saying).

DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.

Now we know things are really out of hand.

Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:

The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”

But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry?  Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing.   No finding fault with poetry!  Ever!

Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?

The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”

Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely.  Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard.  In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer.   Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”

When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing.   When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it?    Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it?   What does he think we are?   Little kids?

Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’

The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”

But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:

Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”

Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time.  It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.

As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher?  And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”

Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby.  Emerson was a mediocre poet.  Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true.   Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?

Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.

‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’

All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.

Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.

There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it.  Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.

Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose?  It tells us to like it.  So we don’t.

It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

“How American Modernism Came Out:” Tom writes it in a letter.

….

Hi Christopher,……………………………………………………………..10/27/2009
I never had a chance to see your draft before you pulled it. Don’t be too self-critical — I sort of like it when we post a howler. It’s part of our style, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t even know what we’re going to post next ourselves!

I like the ‘LangPo v. Official Verse Culture’ just up because that’s IT in a nutshell for lots of poets these days.  We’ve got to simplify it like that if we’re going to be popular at all.  We’ve got to mine this whole Modernism thing–it’s pertinent, it’s relevant, it’s got legs, it’s known, it’s familiar to many, it’s sexy, and it’s Foetry-city, and it’s horribly sexist, in my opinion, and fascist, to boot, so if we can get people stirred up about it, we’ll have a huge audience.

I’m not a ‘knee-jerk’ leftist, Christopher; I like to think I transcend political labels, but right now I’ll do anything to get a discussion going.  People who would otherwise be horrified at the true politics of the Modernists have given it a pass for the sake of ‘experimentalism’ and ‘aesthetic radicalism’ but I want to prove to the next generation of good people that we’ve been ‘had,’ and open up their eyes and tie it all into Foetics and then see where it leads, in a kind of Socratic manner: don’t know where the truth is exactly, but we’re looking for it…

You were at Cambridge, and I want to do an in-depth look at how American Modernism came out of the U.K.  It’s really exciting…Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Apostles and the Aristotelian Society…all the New Critics were Rhodes Scholars, including Paul Engle…I’m sure the Plan was formulated in comfortable, cozy rooms above the green lawns of Cambridge University…some British Empire planner took a moment from his busy schedule of running the world…”Oh, what to do with Poetry?  Well, let’s see…give me a moment…How about this and this and this?…very good, then!…carry on…”

So what was the Plan for Poetry?  What is the Plan for everything?  Consolidate power among elites, and I’m guessing the take-over works this way:

1. First, sow confusion in a ‘crisis’ atmosphere  (Oh gosh what the hell is poetry, what is reality, anyway?)

2. Hand-pick those who are best equipped to respond to the ‘crisis’

3.  Let these hand-picked be of two kinds: conservative and radical and let them feign disagreement while working towards the same end.

4. Stamp the hand-picked crisis-responders as the ‘new thing’ and have hand-picked associates in the press and in academia sound the alarm, but with grudging respect.

5. Relevance established, the ‘new thing’ is crowned savior and becomes the new status quo.

The whole thing ‘works’ precisely because the role of poetry no longer exists as poetry, but has been narrowed down into a kind of ‘movement’ which is ‘managed’ by a subsidized group; it is this ‘narrowing’ which provides the ‘energy’ that gains them advantage; they use poetry, instead of the other way around, they tie it into the current ‘crisis,’ and so the mere passive ‘appreciators of poetry’ don’t stand a chance–they’re slaughtered like cows.

I wanted to make this point to Des in our recent comments exchange on Scarriet.  Destroying culture is like killing people.  It’s serious business.  Our mission to save poetry is not just about one’s individual right to write without criticism–it’s deeper than that

Alan’s got to be happy at how Scarriet is doing.

A poet friend of mine from Canada who I only talk to occasionally just sent me an enthusiastic message re: Scarriet.  I’ll quote a part:

“Hi Tom, the Scarriet is amazing! we need something like this in Canada as its pretty lame here and no one is “kicking against the pricks” (sorry for my rather off colour language but this is an actual phrase that was popular in Canadian literary circles years ago) And I am not someone who can speak up unfortunately due to being shy! So congrats again on your feisty spirit and thats a lot of good work.”

Terreson & Gary are united by their ‘love of the earth’ which is OK, but it’s not finally interesting…eco-awareness has been played as much as it can possibly be played in the mainstream press, and now it’s become a matter of policy and implementation. Poets playing it up seems a little beside the point, like saying education matters…

Tom

LANGPO SLAYS OFFICIAL VERSE CULTURE AS VENDLER GOES OVER TO BERNSTEIN

BAMA PANEL IV:  SURVIVAL OF THE DIMMEST?

The Alabama Panel 25 years ago this month was essentially a high-brow rumble: LangPo taking on Official Verse Culture.

Two heavyweights of LangPo, 53 year old USC Comparative Lit. professor Marjorie Perloff and 34 year old L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E editor Charles Bernstein took on U.K. poet Louis Simpson, 61,  former Nation poetry editor and Black Mountain associated poet, Denise Levertov, 60, David Ignatow, 70, poet and poetry editor of The Nation, Harvard professor Helen Vendler, 51, and Iowa Workshop poet Gerald Stern, 59.

Perloff and Bernstein were on friendly turf, however. 35 year old Hank Lazer, the ‘Bama professor host, was in Bernstein’s camp, as was 30 year old Gregory Jay, punk ‘Bama assistant professor.

Charles Altieri, 41,  professor at U. Washington and recent Fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, ostensibly had a foot in each camp, but you could tell his heart was with Perloff and Bernstein.  The match-up was actually 5-5, so LangPo should have counted itself fortunate.

Also at the table 25 years ago was the elder statesman, Kenneth Burke, 87, a coterie member of the original Modernists–winner of the annual Dial Magazine Award in 1928 (other winners of the Dial Award in the 1920s: T.S. Eliot in 1922 for ‘The Waste Land,’ Ezra Pound, WC Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore.)   Burke, chums with figures such as Malcolm Cowley and Allen Tate, was an editor at The New Republic 1929-1944, a radical Marxist, and a symbolism expert–if such a thing is possible.

The poet Donald Hall had been invited and could not attend–submitting in writing for the conference his famous ‘McPoem’ critque of the Workshop culture.

We already looked at how Gerald Stern embarrassed Bernstein by asking him to ‘name names’ when Bernstein raised the issue at the 25 year old panel discussion of ‘poet policemen’ enforcing the dictates of ‘official verse culture’ and Bernstein only coming up with one name: T.S. Eliot.

Then we looked at Vendler asserting the crucial modernist division between timeless criticism and “abrasive” reviewing–with Simpson retorting this was nothing but a status quo gesture on Vendler’s part, with Vendler weakly replying she was fighting the status quo in working to make Wallace Stevens more appreciated.   Then in Part III of this series, we saw how Levertov roared ‘you parochial fools are ignoring race/unprecedented crisis/human extinction.’

Levertov, taking a no-frills Leftist position, and Simpson, with his no-frills aesthetic of pre-interprative Vision, proved too much for the LangPo gang.

Levertov became incensed with professor Jay’s post-modern argument that human language and interpretation are at the heart of human experience: “Bullshit!” Levertov said.  Levertov and Simpson (with Ignatow) argued for universal feeling as primary.

Levertov argued for universal access as the very nature of language; Perloff countered that a small group of people might find meaning in something else.

Louis Simpson came in for the kill, asking Perloff:

“Suppose you found some people who were using bad money and thought it was good money.  Would you be mistaken to point out then it was all forged?”

The audience roared appreciatively with laughter.

Bernstein, with his training in analyitic philosophy, was shrewder, finally, than Perloff. 

Rather than confront the dinosaur Levertorous head-on, the furry little Bernstith sniffed around and devoured her giant eggs:

Bernstein: “We’re not going to to resolve philosophical & theosophical, religious differences among us.  Religious groups have these same disagreements.  I think the problem I have is not so much understanding that people have a different veiwpoint than I have–believe me, I’ve been told that many times (laughter) and I accept that.”

Here’s the insidious nature of Bernstein’s Cambridge University training–he seeks disagreement as a happy result; he embraces difference as a positive quality in itself.   Bernstein gives up on universals sought by pro and con argument.  Now he continues:

“What I do find a problem is that we say ‘poets’ think this and ‘poets’ think that–because by doing that we tend to exclude the practices of other people in our society of divergence.”

What are these “practices of other people?”  He doesn’t say.  But we can imply that these “practices” are radically different and reconciliation is impossible.    Now Bernstein goes on to make a stunning leap of logic:

“And I think it’s that practice that leads to the very deplorable situation that Denise Levertov raised: the exclusion of the many different types of communities and cultures from our multicultural diverse society, of which there is no encompassing center.  My argument against a common voice is based on my idea that the idea of a common voice seems to me exclusion.”

Bernstein’s Orwellian thesis is that the One does not include the Many; the One is merely a subset of the Many.   Bernstein rejects the universalizing social glue necessary for Levertov’s democratic commonwealth of social justice; Bernstein promotes inclusion while positing inclusion itself as exclusion(!).  Multiculturalism interests Bernstein for its severing qualities–Bernstein wants to break but not build.  Logically and politically, he is unsound, and later on in the discussion–after Vendler breaks from ‘official verse culture’ and goes over to Bernstein’s side (thus giving Langpo a numerical 6-4 victory) with her ‘poetry makes language opaque’ speech–Levertov strikes the following blow:

Bernstein:  My poetry resists the tendencies within the culture as a whole. What poetry can do is make an intervention within our language practice in society.

Levertov:  I disagree.  Language is not your private property. Language has a common life.

HELEN VENDLER AS DR. PHIL: THE CRITICISM OF EMPATHY AND SUCK-UP

Another Interlude at the Bama Conference: Charlie Brown Teaches Poet Lessons.

A second Open Letter to my friend the poet, Gary B. Fitzgerald, who gets so upset when his poems attract Dislike votes on Harriet,

or even when an admirer gives him too much attention!

Charlie Brown_0001

~

Dear Gary,
If you want to know how your poems make the Harriet posters feel, or at least that portion of the Harriet posters who feel compelled to vote ‘Dislike’ for every poem you post, look at Charlie Brown. For Charlie Brown, of course, is a poet, and you can tell that by how strongly he feels about that little red-haired girl. Indeed, that’s the first requirement, to have strong feelings, and the second is to have the courage of your convictions and, of course, get those convictions into words. You have to say what you mean, in other words, and say it loud and clear — even if it means your commitment knocks the little red-haired girl right out of her desk and onto the floor!

Because, of course, that’s the curse of being a poet as well, that if you say it too loud and clear the whole world will laugh and point — which is why most true poets never quite manage to become adults.

And would this set-back discourage Charlie Brown?  You bet it would, and he’d go home and sit down in that big chair and hurt.

And would Charlie Brown not write another poem the next time, and even post it on Harriet again despite all those horrible sophisticates he knows are going to dump Red all over it?

You bet he would — and will.

And would Yvor Winters find himself in the same predicament, or Kenneth Goldsmith, Stephen Burt or Travis Nichols? Never — they’re too smart and know too much, and deal with all poetry affairs circumspectly. They also know the little red haired girl couldn’t care less, and they’re certainly not going to risk their reputations by foolishly writing a poem for her. Because like her they’re cynics, which makes them always safe — and, of course, superficial poets.

Christopher

THE STRANGE CASE OF GARY B. FITZGERALD, POET PREPOSTEROUS on HARRIET

An Interlude at the Bama Conference — performed outside the curtain.

A letter to my friend the poet, Gary B. Fitzgerald, who gets so upset when his poems attract so many Dislike votes on Harriet:

“Your poems are very pure, Gary — indeed they’re unique in that. Because you bring no artifice to them, no stunts, no tricks, no riddles, no performances, no arcana, no complexities of any sort, no contradictions, no obscure references, no quotes, no citations, no buried hints, no deep alchemical or esoteric or psychological knots, no sleights of hand, no fits of madness, no fluff or flarf or fiddling, no lists, no inner flights of foolery, indeed almost no imagery at all, no sacred symbols, confessions or paradoxes, no minimalist self-abnegations, and, most unusual of all, no pretense. Finally, although your poems are almost always philosophical you don’t need to know one thing about Wittgenstein or Rorty, A.J.Ayer, Lyotard or Lao Tzu to understand them.

“All you need is a.) to be a human being,  b.) to know how to read slowly and deeply, with a pure and open heart, and c.) be able to trust something in words without any irritable searching after something even more fashionable to compare it with, or something even wittier, negative or positive, to stump the poem completely.

” You simply don’t give the Harriet readers anything to get their perfect teeth into, Gary — in fact, you make them choke. You make them feel that all that expensive orthodontistry they got done at Iowa or Stanford wasn’t even worth the smile! Because you don’t give them any chat-fat to chew on, and if they actually did read one of your poems, which they don’t, they’d just feel angry, as if you’d tricked them. Because your poems are THE REAL THING in an unwrapped nutshell, and an on-line love-you/hate-you show like the new regime at Harriet can’t deal with poetry that’s humble and, most unnerving of all, doesn’t even try to make it new!

And if you read this as an insult, Gary, or any other poet, you don’t deserve the name or the blessings it could bring you.

Christopher

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