WHY POETRY SUCKS NOW PART TWO: IMAGINE THERE’S NO IMAGE

Scarriet’s wildly successful essay, Why Poetry Sucks Now, [May 16, 2013] published almost 3 years ago and with more readers every day, is due for a sequel.

Not because of anything in the news. Poetry still sucks.

The Modernist revolution which destroyed poetry was about one thing: the image.

The modernist poetry movement, “imagism,” got the ball rolling.

The modern art scam overlapped clique-wise, with the poets.

Gertrude Stein (poet and art collector with her brother, Leo) studied with William James.

Poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s lawyer was John Quinn, a modern art collector who made the 1913 Armory Show (introduce the European modern painting to America) happen.

John Dewey was part of the early 20th century buy-low-sell-high modern art scam, explicitly elevating abstract art over representational art in his series of Harvard lectures, Art As Experience, dedicated and written for his friend A.C. Barnes, wealthy modern art collector.

Duchamp arrived in America to party with Walter Arensberg, wealthy modern art collector whose friends included poet W.C. Williams of Red Wheel Barrow fame.

Painting, keeper of the image, destroyed it.

Poetry, the temporal art, embraced it.

The con was two-sided and weirdly related.

Money (gold) versus Wisdom.  And who won?

Art critics and ‘buy low-sell high’ collectors teamed up and built modern art museums to validate the scam.

Modern Poets and modern poetry critics (known as the New Critics—the tweedy, respectable-seeming wing of the revolution) wrote one highly influential textbook, Understanding Poetry.

These poets and critics also began the Writing Program era, which took the study of literature away from literature as literature and put it into the hands of “new” writers teaching “new” writing.

When we despair today at how much poetry sucks, we should turn our eyes to the image, for that one small idea hoodwinked everyone.

Modern poetry began its journey into pretentious mediocrity with an idea:

Poetry which centers on the image is an advance over the old poetry which does not.

What is unbelievable about the influence of this modernist movement (similar to a bowel movement, in that many were pushing it) is the following:

First, the idea is bankrupt.  Old poets didn’t use images?  Really??

Second, it was introduced by a few cranks who put out a few issues of wretched little early 20th century modernist magazines no one read.

This, of course, was Pound, and a few of his friends, in London, leading up to World War One, borrowing from haiku (a recent rage due to the 1905 Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war) and giving their coterie a French moniker: Imagistes.

The whole thing would be laughable.  But it is not.  Because it caught on, far, far beyond what it actually was.  The hoodwinked hoodwinked others and the hoodwinking accelerated, and took on a life of its own.

None will deny the mundane truth of what we are blandly asserting.

The first step in destroying poetry was Pound’s Imagiste circle before WW I.  Then his school chum’s “Red Wheel Barrow,” then a poetry textbook (Understanding Poetry) that was taught in all the schools starting in the 30s, put together by their friends the New Critics, and then Paul Engle (Engle’s Yale Younger was awarded to him by a member of the New Critic circle) began the Writing Program at Iowa– Robert Lowell, the first star Program teacher at Iowa was sent to study with New Critics, Tate and Ransom, by Lowell’s psychiatrist, and—you guessed it—this psychiatrist of the family Lowell was part of the New Critics. It couldn’t be any more bizarre. And successful. The New Critics were good at exploiting academic and federal education ‘money and influence’ connections.

If you look at any educated discussion of poetry today, whatever issues might pertain to it, its history, its practice, its appeal—and we are talking about all poetry—the name Ezra Pound, the term Modernism, the idea of the “image” as something “new” which left behind the “old” poetry of Victorian temporality and rhyme, will either be directly referenced or be the unspoken, underlying trope in 99 cases out of a hundred.

Another mundane point of fact: the New Critic authored textbook Understanding Poetry singles out for high praise Pound’s Petals on a wet black bough imagist poem, his friend WC Williams’ Red Wheel Barrow imagist poem, and uses an Aldous Huxley essay to ridicule the popular poetic rhythm of Edgar Poe. 

Who, and what, Pound and his small circle of friends really were, and what their so-called “idea” actually was, is perhaps 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times less meaningful than what its subsequent influence has become, an influence that has created mass psychosis in poetry.  It is one of those things in human history that cannot be fully comprehended.

But there you have it.

The image, in poetry, has beaten meter (the temporal, rhythmic aspect of old poetry) into submission.

True, there’s been a revolt against the small, tame, “imagist” poem—one thinks of something like “Howl,” the sort of blah blah blah poem which is far more common today than any poem which makes imagery its god.

But the point here is that in the 20th century imagery was the cudgel that crushed all the beauties of sound which once belonged to poems.

And to make your language sound good, you have to be really good at that language.  It goes along with a truly good education.

The ubiquitous charge against the bad, “sing-songy” poem is legitimate.  Writing poems of exquisite rhythm is very difficult to do.  But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Or that we should pretend banal prose has rhythm.

Today one can still hear every learned, respected, inside academic poet and critic talking about how important the image is, how the image is figuratively and literally, the thing, the only thing that really matters. Because the image (and recall the Writing Program and Imagist advocates are the same) “shows instead of tells.”  That’s the Writing Program mantra: Show Don’t Tell. (Like abstract painting: don’t depict, like the old historical painters; just show us shape and color.)

The Modernist, Imagist, Poetry/Modern Art P. R. Machine, for practical, money, power-grab reasons, effectively destroyed, in a couple of years in the 20th century, the wisdom and practice of two millennia—centered on this once-upon-a-time, common-sense notion—one which must seem very strange to the currently brainwashed “poets” and “artists”—Painting belongs to picture and poetry belongs to music.

We’ll say it one more time: Painting belongs to picture and poetry belongs to music. This is the old truth that has been overturned.

Painting is now conceptualist propaganda, as drawing and perspective are dying out, just like great poetry.

Poetry has come to mean bad, chopped-up, prose, and has no real public.

Reality has been flipped: Painting is blah blah blah.  And poetry can’t write a memorable sentence.

Poetry’s latest foray (see Kenneth Goldsmith) is towards conceptualist propaganda (see painting).

Painting’s beauty and truth is spatial in nature, and depicts a moment of reality, using all the wonders and advantages which belong to the eye. Poetry’s beauty and truth is temporal in nature, and depicts moments which unfold, using all the wonders and advantages of the ear.

The tone-deaf, scheming Modernists took one look at the common sense of two millennia and said, “Nah.”

And you wonder why poetry sucks now?

 

 

 

PART TWO — UNDERSTANDING POETRY, IF YOU DARE

Francisco_de_Goya_-_Still_Life_with_Golden_Bream

In Part I,  we did a close reading of the influential poetry textbook Understanding Poetry’s introductory chapter.

We asserted that Understanding Poetry’s editors, New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, claim poetry for everything it isn’t and fail to say what poetry is.

The truism that poetry is ‘how a thing is said,’ rather than ‘the thing said,’ should close the deal for many—except for the confusion attending ‘how the how precisely determines ‘what is said.’

The Modernist editors of Understanding Poetry make certain learned concessions to Old Tradition as they pedantically include gems of Pope and Keats, crowded out by the lesser works of Pound and Williams and other Modernist poems, but their corrupting mission can be best seen in the way they make the thing said obliterate the how. When the ‘what’ rolls over the ‘how,’ we no longer have poetry.

Examples abound, and we will look at four of them:

1) The editors provide a chapter called “The Breakup of Civilization” in which, for instance, Ezra Pound’s ugly and pedantic verse is held up as a model, a correct model simply because  “the breakup of civilization” is its own self-justifying rationale; Pound, however, is a part of the breakup of civilization, and furthers it.

2) The editors make “drama” (aided by Shakespearean poetry gleaned from his plays, old ballads of murder and love’s betrayal, a Frost poem of the death of a child by accident) the centerpiece of poetry, so that a kind of Jerry Springer reality becomes the default interest in poetic fiction, this curiosity-driven trope finally defining the thrust of poetry’s  existence.

3) The authors are anxious to convey their opinion that poetry, as they put it, “inheres” in the “stuff of reality.”

Understanding Poetry systematically denies poetry its ideal quality.

The real merit of the poetic is that it can exist above and beyond reality as no other quality or thing can: morality, knowledge of right and wrong, is often posited as the supreme guide to human behavior—but there is no one who wouldn’t do something if it were guaranteed  that whatever they wanted to do would go unnoticed and unknown—‘not getting caught’ will always be a consideration in the moral universe, even as we ideally view morality in everyone as a virtue: morality, for good or ill, inheres within reality—morality, even as a good, is still a practical matter. Good should have good consequences, but all that is behaviorally good is trapped in reality’s accidents and practical concerns. So even as we think of morality as an ideal virtue, we know, sadly, it is trapped—we as moral beings are trapped—in reality. Morality cannot exist outside of reality—we can only be moral (or not) within reality.

Poetry, however, can exist above and beyond reality, since poetry, unlike our behavior, is not real.  Poetry, unlike morality, can have a truly ideal and universally-based existence outside of reality.  Why, then, even in the name of reality, would we want to reject or mitigate poetry’s ideal faculty?

Poetry can potentially do much in its position outside and above reality—it can be a guiding star; it can participate in ethereal beauty that sweetly lifts us up as moral beings—who are trapped in earthly concerns. Poetry, which escapes reality’s practicality, is the only thing, that, morally, can be besides the point and the point, doing good precisely because it lives only in the ideal.

4) The editors destroy a sensible approach to metrics by making a distinction which does not exist—between what they call “accentual-syllabic verse” and “accentual meter.” They write in their “Metrics” chapter:

In accentual verse, the matter of consequence is the number of stressed syllables; the number of unstressed syllables may vary greatly and their number plays no part in a definition of meter.

There is no such thing as meter in which the “unstressed syllables…play no part in a definition of the meter.”

If we enunciate every syllable, then every syllable will participate in the total effect, whether those syllables are long or short, stressed or unstressed, accented or unaccented.

There is simply no need to distinguish between “accentual-syllabic” verse and “accentual” verse, as the authors do, and the fact that the authors—and many subsequent critics—do so, reveals a complete ignorance of the most important metrical principle: the universal law of duration of sound, the axiom of time, which applies to all music and all verse, whether one happens to be leaning one’s ear towards a metronome, or not.

In a section of their “Metrics” chapter called “The Music of Verse,” they write:

Musicality of verse does, in itself, give a pleasure, but it is a fundamental error to hold that this particular kind of pleasure (which in itself, is minimal) is the end of poetry. Poetry is not music. It involves a special use of language, and insofar as musicality is one of the potentials of language it may be involved in poetry. The basic fact is, however, that language has a primary function quite distinct from musicality, and musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as, directly, or indirectly, it is related to, or, better still, fused with, the primary function of language. By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions, and in poetry by means of a special refinement of language, we may fuse the musicality with the other dimensions of meaning.  As Alexander Pope puts it in “An Essay on Criticism:”

Tis not enough no harshness gives offense
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.

It is not enough, in fact, to say that musicality is not the end of poetry. Some very powerful poetry, we know, is quite unmusical and may even seem quite difficult or, to some readers, ugly.

The authors protest too much. When they say “musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as…it is fused with the primary function of language…” they simply utter a tautology: poetry “becomes important” when it fuses with the important.  Alexander Pope is not saying the “musical” has nothing to do with this importance—only the authors are.

Poetry, according, to Pope, should be musical (no harshness gives offense) as it conjoins with sense.  It is only Brooks/Warren who try to cut music out entirely (“it may be involved”) and claim that “powerful poetry” can be “unmusical” and “ugly.”  The authors’ error can be seen when they claim: “By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions…”   Music is the “embodying” function of poetry, without which it would not be poetry (sound echoing sense).  “Events, ideas, and emotions” exist abstractly, signifyingly in the poetry, not as something embodied.  This may seem a quibble, but it is crucial—if we don’t know the body of something, how can we say we  know it?  Symbols are abstract.  They do not embody anything.

If I were to go on stage and begin shouting, the only thing I would be “embodying” would be the sounds coming from my mouth; if my shouts were converted to something musical, only then would I be “embodying” poetry. My meaning is not without importance, but neither should the meaning of my words be expected to ” embody” anything, or cancel out, in any way, the musical, which is still the primary embodiment ; nor should my emotional expression be considered any part of the poetic, since when I was merely shouting I may have been displaying plenty of emotion. And if I’m shouting, “The theater’s on fire! Get out of here!” my meaning is indeed significant, but it is not poetic, and not embodied—because a non-English speaker would have no idea what I was talking about.

The authors cherry pick attributes pertaining to the “dramatic:” the “emotional,” the “real,” etc. and apply them to poetry through the back door—even quoting Pope, contra his meaning, in the process.  This is the sly agenda of the Modernist work, Understanding Poetry.

UNDERSTANDING WHAT? THE TEXTBOOK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

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

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

Prepare to become acquainted with your soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDGAR LEE MASTERS AND EDNA MILLAY: THEY SUCK!

Edgar Lee Masters: Not sexy, but wrote prose poetry before WC Williams

Fads are born of flux, yet to their followers they’re as real as steel, or iron.  Tell a member of the hardcore poetry community that Edgar Lee Masters and Edna Vincent Millay are more significant than William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens and watch them gag.  Ron Silliman would gag.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff would gag. Harold Bloom would die.  There is a hiearchy. Flux may seem to  be the modernist mode; it’s not.  It’s iron.

The bookish Helen Vendler has made us love Wallace Stevens, the insurance agent, in his off-white suit; Stevens, like Alexander Pope, put his philosophy in verse (and somehow ended up being called modern for it), but the hardcore poetry community’s adoration of Bill Williams is based on nothing we can ascertain as very interesting.  While he lived, no one liked Williams much—WCW mourned the fact that Auden blew him away at a public reading, but celebrity has made its way through unseen byways in Bill’s favor; it perhaps had something to do with his friendship with the notorious Pound, which led to his being tagged as some kind of “American” (New Jersey?) alternative to Pound and Eliot, or that he “helped” Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg’s poet father Louis ran in the same art circles as Williams), but whatever the reason, WCW has been a bookish fad ever since the New Critics put “Red Wheel Barrow” in their poetry textbook Understanding Poetry and informed their readers his little poem was “lucid” and “fresh.”

The hardcore academic poetry community still somehow believes that sincerity and plain prose go together; perhaps they do, perhaps they are right, and perhaps I should end my essay right here on that note.  Sincerity does go a long way in many people’s eyes, and the more I think on the word sincerity, the more I do feel worthy of punishment and feel I deserve to be accused of bad faith for questioning the worth of William Carlos Williams.  If one squashes an ant, half the world will be indifferent and the other half will feel sorry for the ant; so why would any critic ever want to treat “Red Wheel Barrow” harshly?  Better not go near it; but one keeps seeing it, and that’s the secret of Williams’ fame: one cannot squash the ant.  It keeps going and going…

It is a little quixotic for Williams to complain, as he did, of T.S. Eliot’s foreign allusions: we wonder if Mr. Williams is aware that American implies foreign in its very soul?  How can one poet ever claim that he, more than others, writes for Americans, in subject matter, style, or language?  Isn’t such a claim suspect?  We wonder why Mr. Williams and his supporters get a free pass in making it.

In William Carlos Williams’ first book (Poems, 1909),  his poems are like this:

The Uses of Poetry

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat’s long sway.

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy’s transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

“Fruits all anguish mend??”  This is dreck—yet it was published when Williams was 26.   It was not until he was in his late 30s and joined the Kreymborg, Arensburg, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Louis Ginsberg, Marcel Duchamp “Dial” clique that the Williams of “The Red Wheel Barrow” emerged.

What most don’t realize, is that well before Williams found both himself and his coterie, Edgar Lee Masters, in his wildly popular “Spoon River Anthology,” already sounded more modern and impure than Williams:

Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win — and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill” —
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

—Edgar Lee Masters

Humble Spoon River, with its poetry in plain prose, was published in 1916, when William Carlos Williams was still trying and failing at rhyme.

In his book, Innovators & Outsiders, American Poetry Since 1950, Eliot Weinberger, who writes in his introduction of the great divide in American poetry: “the ruling party” and the “innovator outsiders,” begins his anthology with WC Williams.  It’s typical Williams: mundane description plus a bit of avant-garde, modern art philosophy.  “The Desert Music” describes a trip with his wife and some friends to a poor Mexican border town while tossing in bon mots such as, “Only the poem. /Only the counted poem, to an exact measure:/to imitate, not to copy nature, not/to copy nature,” daring you to make a connection between this snatch of earnest literary criticism and a trip to a Mexican border town,  just as “The Red Wheel Barrow” dares you to connect “So much depends” with that barrow glazed with rain water.

It’s a rather bland compositional technique: the matter-of-fact imagery makes it ‘modern’ and the pasted-on lecture: only the poem—makes it seem different, mystical.  How innovative and original is this poetaster technique?  We don’t know.

As a reader you must decide between two points of view: ‘what the hell does he mean by only the poem?‘ or: ‘only the poem—of course! only the poem,‘ nodding sagely.  There’s really no in-between: you must choose for yourself: are you smart or are you dumb? It’s a sly trick the sly poets play: because you don’t want to seem dumb.  You do want to be in the crowd that knows the deep mystical zen significance of “so much depends,” don’t you?

Of course we know Williams was part of the modern art scene, and understood the direction things were going: painting was becoming flat: only paint upon the canvas! 

“Only the poem” is a slogan obviously in this spirit—and barking a slogan in a poem about what a poem should be is to “flatten” the poem. “Don’t copy nature.”  We don’t really associate Williams with the New York School, but there it is.  The modernist Paris-moving-to-New York- art clique was small—but still fit the modern poetry clique within it pretty comfortably.

The formula first emerges most forcefully with “The Red Wheel Barrow.”  Poetry, unlike painting, is difficult to flatten,  because how do you get away with “anybody can do that” in language?   The art world makes objects and once a museum owns an object, a certain legitimacy sets in, but with poetry, the stamp of radical approval is harder to get. 

Williams struck on a method, which is pretty simple: First: copy nature in the poem up to a point, presenting an imagery from real life. Second: Add to the imagery some piece of philosophical jargon which does not fit the imagery or enhance it or extend it in any way at all.   Voila!  You have  flattened the poem.   Williams is intentionally boring.  It’s a style, born of modern art.  Present a red wheel barrow.  Then flatten it with “so much depends.”  So much depends on this object which I am objectifying on the flat-surface-object of my poem.  This is the intention.

Here’s a lesser known poem by Williams, but typical; one can clearly see the flattening formula at work:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind —
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested —
the snow
is covered with broken
seed husks
and the wind tempered
with a shrill
piping of plenty.

The imagery is precise and cute: “small,” “cheeping,” “skimming,” and nothing much, but it gets flattened by the wordy additions, “Old age is,” and “But what?”  It’s the same strategy of “Wheel Barrow.”  1) Paint a little scene, 2) attach a declaration of some sort.  Neither one enhances the other, and thus the whole thing is intentionally de-enhanced.  We yawn, and feel mystified at the same time, as when we look at one of those modern art blank canvases at MOMA.  The absurdity is brought mystically to the fore—and we can hear it in the phlegmatic “Old age is…”  Shall I compare “cheeping birds buffeted by a dark wind” to “old age?”   Of course I shall!  It’s perfect!

Now look at this poem by silly old Edna St. Vincent Millay, which no member of the hardcore academic poetry community wants to touch:

Recuerdo

 We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
    But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
    We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
    And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

    We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
    And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
    From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
    And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
    And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

    We were very tired, we were very merry,
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
    And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
    And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
    And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna Millay’s strategy is much different.  Hers is a far more natural evocation of old age than the Williams.  Old age has life in “Recuerdo;” it merely gets a metaphorical snapshot in “To Waken An Old Lady.” The realist mode fell out of favor in the hip artistic circles Williams travelled in during his middle age, but one can see how Millay’s poem succeeds on several levels—by contrast, the Williams, with its “Old age is…,” feels flat, formulaic, and artificial.

THE DAY THE POETRY DIED: TOP TEN DOCUMENTS OF 20th CENTURY MODERNISM

John Ashbery, looking like a funny old Englishman—the last living heir of the Mad Hatter madness known as Modernism

1. Reflections on Verse Libre, 1916

This is where the camel got his nose in the tent.  Eliot’s questionable logic about what poetry is slips past the Gates.

2. Understanding Poetry, eds. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, 1938 (first edition)

The Great Consolidation: the textbook which greeted the GI Bill/Baby Boomer post-war university influx.   Modernist footsoldiers, the New Critics, praise Williams and Pound, bash Poe.

3. The Waste Land, 1922

Publishing scheme launched by Pound & Eliot’s crafty lawyer and Golden Dawn/Aleister Crowley associate & British Intelligence agent, John Quinn.

4. Criticism, Inc., 1938

Essay by John Crowe Ransom launched the idea that Critics in journalism are worthless and must be trained to understand the ‘new writing’ in the universities. It is the New Critcs—the ‘Rhodes Scholar’ American wing of European Modernism—who begin the Creative Writing Program Era in American universites where contemporary poets essentially teach (canonize) themselves.

5. From Poe to Valery by T.S. Eliot, 1949

T.S. Eliot, honoring the memory of his New England, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist grandfather, William Greenleaf, caps off the Long March of Crazy-ism through American Letters, as Eliot, fresh off Nobel Prize Win, delivers a withering attack on Poe, the old enemy of William Greenleaf Eliot’s associate, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

6. How To Read by Ezra Pound,  1929

Leading Crazy-ite Modernist suggests syllabus of Homer, Confucius, Dante, and 19th century French authors for the English-speaking undergraduate student.

7. Poets Without Laurels by John  Crowe Ransom, 1938

 In this brilliant essay, influential New Critic (mentor to Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell) introduces Wallace Stevens to the world, champions Allen Tate, and declares Byron hopelessly old-fashioned in Modernist mop-up operation.

8. North of Boston by Robert Frost, 1915

When Amy Lowell confronted Ezra Pound and cohort Ford Madox Ford (who later meets Allen Tate and teaches in America) in their famous Imagiste contretemps in London in 1914, Frost, also in town, stood aloof, his future success as the New England Wordsworth already in the bag. 

9. The (Pisan) Cantos by Ezra Pound,  1948

A mish-mash by a madman is lauded by New Critics on the award committees after the U.S. arrests the head Modernist honcho for treason.

10. Some Trees by John Ashbery, 1956

T.S. Eliot’s friend, W.H. Auden, part of the Isherwood/Huxley ‘British invasion,’ passes the American academic torch as Yale Younger Poet Prize judge to ‘poetry about nothing,’ in a culmination of a Modernist Take-over of American poetry by a select group of academically-connected friends.

“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


l. to r. Tate, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Davidson.

These guys didn’t start a financial crisis, they merely robbed us of our poetry for most of a hundred years.

The college and HS textbook which introduced Ezra Pound’s brand of poetry to millions of American students, Understanding Poetry, first edition, 1938, was authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, colleagues of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, the American wing of Pound, Ford Madox Ford and T.S.Eliot’s European/Bloomsbury coterie.

Ransom, in an essay published when this ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry, first hit the shelves, asked for an expert-ism developed in the academy to teach the new ‘modern’ poetry—which had not caught on with the public in its 25 years of existence.  Allen Tate founded a poetry writing department at Princeton at this time, and R.P Blackmur, a member of the coterie, would teach there.   The launching of the textbook Understanding Poetry by two old members of Ransom’s Fugitive clique showed  that all cylinders were firing in Modernist Poetry’s  engine.  Paul Engle, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner (judge: Fugitive clique member) was  poised to make Iowa the flagship of the Writing Program Era with his phenomenal fundraising abilities.

In their preface to Understanding Poetry, Brooks & Warren define poetry as “knowledge” and a “process” of “dramatic” expression, as  opposed to a “statement” or a “message.”  “Form” is the vehicle, according to the authors, which bypasses mere “statement” or “message” and carries the poem’s “meaning.”

The problem here is the authors never define “knowledge.”

What if “message” happens to be part of what the authors refer to as “knowledge?”   The authors famoulsly wish to exclude “the paraphrasable” as the important germ of the poem in a kind of Romantic gesture against poetry of mere ornamental prose, but here we see modernism, or more specifically, New Criticism, borrowing a mystical strain which is highly dubious.  No important writer before modernism ever rejected content, or, “the paraphrasable,” as a tool.  In fact, the less ornamental and the more substantive a poem is, the more it can withstand analysis which uses the paraphrase as a descriptive tool.  Brooks and Warren, with their paternal concern that the paraphrase will spoil the poet, spoil him more, since not having the  paraphrase allows for an infinite amount of mischief, while using it is an incentive to go beyond the ornamental— without feeling the need to reject it altogether.

“The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle impact of the  poem as a whole.”   —from the Preface

The “massive” religious and pedantic fervor of the authors is felt at once.   It is nearly Wagnerian.

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

Here is the far less hyperbolic alternative. We peruse the poem, and if we do not immediately and involuntarily feel its pull, the poem has failed, and we need not blame and curse ourselves in a hocus-pocus manner because we did not “submit” to the poem’s “massive” scope. This is the proper and sensual standard of criticism. Brooks & Warren ask for something else; these New Critical priests demand submission to the wishes of the car salesman poet. But the “whole” will move us if the first part of the poem move us, and if the first part fails to interest us, the “whole” fails, too–no matter how “massive” and “subtle” Brooks and Warren tell us the poem is.

This is not to say that surrendering ourselves to the entire length of any particular experience is not without advantage, but such surrendering does not occur because some outside entity has demanded it; the surrender, or the submission, happens without exhortation; a true aesthetic “whole” presumes not on forcing us to wait for its entirety to be understood before part 1 of its introduction please us; any “whole” worth its name would never do so.

If one uses the analogy of the reluctant piano student struggling with his first piece of music, then, yes, we would expect submission on the part of the student in attempting to master a technique or skill in musical interpretation upon an instrument. But where pedantry in this case is expected to push itself for the good of practice in the field of rudimentary learning, the same pedantry is not expected to be used where the student is reading poems. Here there is no instrument to be learned; the poet and the reader are assumed to share whatever technique is required; the poem triumphs on familiar turf with unfamiliar combinations of things that are already grasped. By “submit,” Brooks and Warren do not mean to say, ‘Approach the poem with a large dictionary and be prepared to use it!’ Obviously “submission” is shorthand by Brooks & Warren for: pay attention in the very depth of thy soul! or something similar. I call attention to this figure of speech on their part only because it points up the general tenor of their approach, which is: at all times make thyself subservient to the awesome mysteries of the poem, a pedagogical approach I find dangerous, especially when the poems lauded with such tenacity in Understanding Poetry are untested, experimental, and written by the authors’ friends.

Brooks and Warren have the audacity to say one ought to love this or that, which, as Poe demonstrated a century earlier, is never how we should speak of poetry.

It is not surprising, then, that Poe is much abused in the textbook Understanding Poetry, while experiments in the sort of poetry that hold no delight for the public are earnestly praised in their book for vague and mystical reasons.

In the Introduction to Understanding Poetry, the authors begin by quoting a passage from a Nobel-winning scientist for the purpose of attacking science in a flurry of petulance which ends with Brooks and Warren claiming for their side Jesus Christ, in a revivalist-tent-meeting moment. The following is the passage the authors of “Understanding Poetry” single out for abuse:

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason.

OK, so this passage does sound like the musings of a ‘square’ from the 50s who hasn’t got his jungle groove on. I dig. My point is not to quarrel with the statement, but with Brooks & Warren’s reaction to it. Because this is a piece of prose by a scientist, the authors are keen to point out that the passage is not scientific. They assume that science is “precise” and they know for sure this passage is not “precise” at all.

But here Brooks and Warren make a fatal mistake. They assume science is exact and bare-boned, while poetry is meatier, but this is a naïve and unfair characterization of science, which can, and does, reason in an indirect and poetic manner all the time. Science is more than just arithmos and conversely, poetry is not, as the authors assume, only dramatic, discursive and imprecise.

Brooks & Warren defend pacifism, citing the example of “the pacifism of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” and in attacking the passage by the scientist, they not only remove the issues of war and Christianity from a context we might be able to comprehend, they wind up their assault on the scientist by quoting in full Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:” “You shoot a fellow down…you’d…help to half a crown…” which is odd, because Brooks & Warren have said so far–if they have said anything–that you cannot reduce a poem to a “message,’ which they proceed to do with the Hardy (!) to win a silly argument against someone who was making a pretty simple and reasonable point that pure emotionalism is not reliable.

 Somehow the scientist’s statement offended the former Southern Agrarians’ hippie selves, and they got very emotional, gnashing their teeth and weeping over the ‘Prince of Peace” while violating their most important critical tenet: don’t reduce a poem to its “message.”

At this point, it’s pretty clear the authors are not reliable as critics (or textbook writers) and are probably drinking mint juleps (or good Southern whiskey) while they are writing their book.

As if on cue, the next poem they quote is Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” under the heading ‘message-hunting’ (message-hunting is BAD—although Brooks and Warren have just done it).

The authors posit poetry as something which is not science and then hector their students with unreasonable, emotional pleas which are full of contradictions as they seek to convince their audience of their “definition” of poetry.

Now comes the biggest gamble of their intellectual lives. With solemn demeanor Brooks and Warren now inform their readers that “It is important to remember that poetry is not a thing separate from ordinary life.”

“Ordinary life?” No wonder their meandering commentary wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. This explains it: IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT POETRY IS  NOT A THING SEPARATE FROM ORDINARY LIFE.

Their logic, of course, is irrefutable, as far as it goes: Any reader is “ordinary” in the sense that any reader’s thoughts, being familiar to the reader himself, because they are his own thoughts, will seem “ordinary,” and, since any appreciation of poetry is conveyed to the reader’s thoughts (since “knowledge” is what poetry gives us, according to the authors’ preface) it then follows that poetry needs to be “ordinary” to make an impression on this “ordinary” reader.

“Ordinary life” is finally Brooks & Warren’s trump card; just as revolutionary political theories always assure us that “ordinary folk” are the ones who will benefit. The “ordinary life” trope, at bottom, is what Brooks & Warren are selling: little work is involved, ideality and sensuality will give way to catch-all mysticism, even as it is rough-edged and plain-speaking. “The Red Wheel Barrow” captures all these qualities perfectly, a poem singled out for especial praise by the textbook: Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow” is certainly “ordinary” in what it describes, it is certainly “mystical,” (after all, who knows what the poem means) it is certainly made of “ordinary” speech, and certainly within the grasp of “ordinary” readers who might wish to become poets in this “ordinary” style themselves. And once this sort of poem is invited to the ball, the battle is won; lip service can be spoken to ‘the greats’ of the past, who by proximity serve to raise the value of “The Red Wheel Barrow,” as the authors revel in its contemporariness and ground-breaking “ordinary” qualities. The revolution is over. Brooks and Warren have pandered—and won.

Following the introduction of “Understanding Poetry” are chapters in which ballads are examined for their “suspense” and their “appeal to the reader’s feelings;” all sorts of traditional tropes are dragged out in a pedantic and perfunctory manner. We do not have the space here to examine the dull and uneventful whole of the book, but let’s look briefly at how the authors teach Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Pound.

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

“A man, engaged in conversation with Psyche, his soul, walks through a mysterious landscape.  He and his soul are so preoccupied that they do not notice the setting nor do they even know what month of the year it is…”   Brooks and Warren can hardly keep from yawning as they continue in this manner, paraphrasing the poem in a bored way, violating their own sacred tenet.  The Williams and the Pound poems have no content, thus allowing the authors to escape the awful dilemma: shall I paraphrase, or not?  They are only too eager to paraphrase “Ulalume,” a poem of which, they assure us, they don’t believe a word.

“dank tarns and ghoul-haunted woodlands are stage-sets, we might say, that are merely good for frightening children. We accept them only if we happen to forego our maturity…”   (?!?)   Well, sure.  All poetry and fiction are merely stage-sets, good at frightening our inner child.  Condescending in this manner to Poe only betrays an inflated sense of the critic’s own (ahem) “maturity.”

Brooks & Warren then dare to attack Poe on his own turf: “there is an emphatic beat [horrors!] that becomes monotonous…a lack of variation in the rhythmic effects…”  The authors do not understand music.  Poe’s rhythm is  more pronounced being chiefly anapestic, rather than the more common iambic; to call this rhythm “monotonous” is sheer ignorance.  Even the anapestic rhythm is varied skillfully by Poe, in lines such as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,”  so different from “It was night in the lonesome October.”
.

Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

“…the fact of its [free verse] being set off in lines has some significance.  It is signifcant, for one thing, because it pretends to be significant.  That is, we have to dwell on the line as a unit, even if, by ordinary standards, we can find no unity.”

“…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of it being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly.”

“Now the poem itself is about that puzzling portentousness that an object, even the simplest, like a red wheelbarrow, assumes when we fix attention exclusively upon it.  Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of carboard.  The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness, that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.”

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

“The petals on a wet black bough, the white faces against the dimness—the comparison does embody a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise.  And yet, in the midst of the novelty, we sense that it, too, has a logical basis.  The poet has simply focused upon the significant quality for the comparison, discarding other qualities, more obvious qualities.  And the shock of surprise takes us to the poem’s meaning.”

What do we notice here?

The authors are besotted by “surprise,’ “shock,” “freshness” and “revelation,”  in a Zen revery of “significance.”  Even granting the “significance” of  Pound’s “white petals” and Williams’ “wheel barrow,” which Brooks & Warren enjoy “peering” at, forty years after Noguchi toured the West and made haiku popular, we must ask: How long , in terms of ongoing poetic practice, can this “freshness” from “peering at ordinary objects” last?  We can almost hear the cry of the millions: What about my poem?  Don’t you see the significance of my ordinary object?  Look, I framed it with a pin prick, too!

Can’t we see at once that no repeat of the red wheelbarrow or the white petals as “revelation” is possible?   Such “hovering on the verge of revelation” is a deal with the devil, a short-term gain in “freshness” for an eternity of wandering in obscure hell.  Poe, on the other hand, who comes under such abuse by the professorial authors, presents a recognizable and enchanting skill, there for the taking.  “Ulalume” is a model in a line of significant utterance; if a poet possesses the imagination and skill to make another “Ulalume,” much pleasure will result, since appreciation of music is universal; hundreds of thousands of red wheelbarrows have been tried, and strange to report, not once has “freshness” been used to describe the attempt!  Brooks & Warren gambled on a sun which will never rise again.  Critics who write textbooks  have a responsibility to think of the long-term health of the art, lest the poetic economy collapse.

In “Understanding Poetry,’ poems by friends of the authors—Pound, Williams, Tate, H.D.—spear-head a modernist beach-landing against a defenseless tribe—students.

The public would not come to modernism, so modernism came to the public—in a textbook.

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

Joan Shelley Rubin, author of Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America, said the 1920s belonged as much to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as it did to Thomas Stearns Eliot—and this is true.

The anti-Victorian, Imagism revolution of Bloomsbury, which gradually changed poetry from an art of song to an art of image through the ‘trickle-down’ effort of its elites, gained the overwhelming momentum of  great numbers when its ‘trickle-down’ effort became  normalized and taught in the academy–both in English departments and Creative Writing Workshops–during the second half of the 20th century.

Are there any prominent musicians who bother to set contemporary poetry to music?

The image in poetry became associated with art, while the music of poetry became associated with vulgarity.

Two brief examples, from last century, will suffice:

First: these lines from J.V. Cunningham, the anti-modernist poet, who is largely forgotten:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

Second:  Bloomsbury author Aldous Huxley’s infamous slam against Poe’s verse as “vulgar.”  The prim Englishman’s distaste for musical Poe was quoted approvingly in Brooks & Penn Warren’s well-placed textbook, Understanding Poetry (first edition, 1938) which also solidified the reputations of Imagist classics, ‘At A Station In the Metro’ (Pound) and ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ (Williams) in its unalloyed praise for these two works.

Could poetry change radically today?  And, if it did, would the public even notice?    The answer to both quesitons is, ‘no,’ and the reason the first answer is ‘no,’ is because the second answer is ‘no.’

How did poetry change so radically in the early part of the 20th century?

First, it did have a public, but not a particularly large or enthusiastic one, and secondly, poetry was understood by the public to have a certain definite identity: it looked like work by Longfellow and Tennyson.

An art whose practioners are disunited, who have no common expertise, will not be seen as an art at all.  Poetry had a common expertise: the ability to compose memorable music with mere words, like Longfellow and Tennsyon.

“Verse is not easy,” Cunningham wrote.    But the skill of verse is no longer a part of poetry; poetry no longer has a specific “skill.”

The Imagists never got beyond a very minor, little magazine existence, but they believed what they were offering would be very popular, like a portable camera; now you can just point and shoot!  Anyone can appreciate images–and put them into simple poems–like haiku.  Poetry for democracy!  Poetry that was selfless and natural!  It will be a phenomenon!  But the public didn’t buy it–they still wanted their Tennyson and their Longfellow with their gadgets and their telephones and their cars.  Imagism, like Futurism, Cubism and 12-Tone Music, failed to inspire anyone except the core of elites who were pushing them.  Imagism was a flop.

Or, was it?

People ‘on the street’ today define poetry as vaguely expressive, and the public’s perception of something, we have learned, should not be underestimated.  ‘Vaguely’ is the chief term here.  No longer does the public think of poetry as Longfellow.  They think of it as vaguely expressive.

100 years ago the American public had a more sharply defined view of poetry.  It was like what those fellows, Mr. Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote.  That was what poetry was.

The zen joke of ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and ‘The women come and go/talking of Michelangelo’ resonated once, but these jokes are no longer funny.  But Longfellow is gone, too.

Image truly belongs to other arts: painting, photography, and film;  further, these arts do not need to look to poetry at all as they wrestle with the image.

Song belongs to songwriters, and songwriters, the good ones, are poets, but they are known to the world as songwriters; poetry’s identity carries on in the sister art of songwriting, and unlike the filmmakers, photographers and painters, songwriters do consult poetry, not contemporary poetry, but old poetry, the art, for inspiration.

Since poetry has given up song for image as its current identity, poetry manifests no contemporary attachment with any other art.  No glory belongs to poetry, or is even reflected back on poetry.  Poetry is in the dark.

Poetry, with no public identity, is stuck: it has nowhere to go.

History affords countless examples of  technical changes which have improved music’s expressive qualities as a whole even as music, the art, remains, in its simplicity, recongizable to everyone.   When the piano replaced the harpsichord, all composers took notice, not just some.

The modernist revolution changed poetry so that everyone took notice,  but unfortunately in a way that made poetry no longer recognizable to everyone.  Nor is it easy to say if expressive qualities have increased–certainly not in the public’s perception.  As far as prose and how it perhaps opens things up, the problem poetry has, is that in prose, one would naturally think poetry could express itself with greater variety, but fiction owns prose, and poetry is expected to do something different than fiction; poetry as art has been developed in different ways than prose.   Yes, poetry should be as good as good prose, and all that, but how does poetry keep from disappearing into it?  And so poetry–sans the music that separates it from prose, as the art which the public knows as poetry–has been at sea for 100 years.

T.S. Eliot, an honorary Bloomsbury member, and the most respected critic of the 20th century, recommended minor poetry 300 years old as superior to major poetry composed  250, 200, 150, 100, and 50 years before his day.  This, in some ways, was counter to the whole modernist revolution.  John Donne?  Andrew Marvell?  Henry King, Bishop of Chichester?  What was Eliot thinking?  Eliot was thinking this: If my friends and I are to effect this modernist revolution of ours, we must not seem like mere brick-throwers; we need erudition, scholarship, appreciation of certain aspects of the past, and if we are to become professors and editors of modernist verse, it will be well to be able to make the past our clay, for revolutions must feed off the past; no revolution lives in the present day; Eliot knew he and Pound were not Bach, the master, at the keyboard, re-inventing music itself; he knew they were merely sullying a grand tradition with a little sleight-of-hand: Goodbye, Milton, Shelley, Poe, Shakespeare, Keats.  Hello, Kyd, King, Corbiere.  Eliot knew that when a revolution happens, the past will not disappear; a certain respect for the past must not only be feigned, but enthusiastically pursued, for every manifesto needs food; actual ‘new’ material (Waste Lands, cantos, wheel barrow haiku,) will run out in a week, so the past has to be transformed.  Every revolution needs a professor; Mary Ann and Ginger alone will not do.

The image is free-standing and pre-verbal; it is not necessary for image to fit, or be coherent–it simply is. Why should such a thing be the essence of poetry?  Ask that Bloomsbury elite.  After a snort and a sigh and a sip of their very expensive wine, they will tell you.

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