HERE’S THE SWEET 16 IN SCARRIET’S 2014 MARCH MADNESS POETRY PHILOSOPHER TOURNAMENT!

Johann Wenzel Peter , Fight of a lion with a tiger , 1809

Here are the Literary Critics worth reading: the Top 16 Who Have Prevailed So Far and Have Made It To the SWEET SIXTEEN!

Every year, Scarriet holds their version of March Madness, with 64 authors competing for the championship.

In 2010, the first year of the tournament, we used every Best American Poetry volume, David Lehman, editor, to determine the field.  Winner: Billy Collins

In 2011, Stephen Berg, David Bonnano, and Arthur Vogelsang’s Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review. Winner: Philip Larkin

In 2012, Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Winner: Ben Mazer

In 2013, casting about for players, we amassed 64 Romantic poets, including modern and contemporary poets fitting the Romantic mold. Winner: Shelley

This year, Scarriet used the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey J. Williams, which has produced a true clash of giants:

Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Marx, Freud, Pater, De Beauvoir, Saussure, T.S. Eliot, etc.

The earth actually shook as the combatants went toe to toe in this year’s March Madness.

The critc-philosophers who made it to the Sweet 16 are:

CLASSICAL

1. PLATO d. Sidney

2. DANTE d. Aristotle

3. POPE d. Aquinas

4. ADDISON d. Maimonides

ROMANTIC

5. WORDSWORTH d. Marx

6. COLERIDGE d. Burke

7. POE d. Peacock

8. SHELLEY d. Emerson

MODERN

9. BAUDELAIRE d. Saussure

10. FREUD d. Benjamin

11. WILDE d. Pater

12. (John Crowe) RANSOM d. T.S. Eliot

POST-MODERN

13. (Edmund) WILSON d. Northrup Frye

14. (J.L.) AUSTIN d. Cixous

15. (Edward) SAID d. De Beauvoir

16. (Harold) BLOOM d. Sartre

Scarriet would ask you not to try this at home: The winners are all white men.

We are really sorry, VIDA.  But when women—or the women presented in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—only write on women, this narrowness itself contributes to a certain amount of self-marginalizing.

This is a universal problem: if the oppressed are thrown in an intellectual hole, how do they dig themselves out—in a truly broad intellectual fashion?

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain dislike for this kind of competition: the best rises to the top, producing an historical unfairness, given what human history has been.

We see the problem.  We make no apologies, however, for our experiment.

VIDA SHOCKER: ARE WOMEN TO BLAME?

It’s idiotic to blame a whole gender, isn’t it?

Well, OK, let’s do it…

Even animals can count.

Humans, one would think, would be a little more savvy at interpreting data.

We’ve seen the latest raw numbers, in which male reviewers far outnumber female reviewers, and this should make a woman’s blood boil.  The whole tribe of women should be deeply offended.

Do you feel it?  As a tribe?

The latest figures:

Males out-number females in book reviewing: Harper’s: 28-3, New Republic: 79-9, London Review: 210-66, Times Literary Supplement: 814-340, Atlantic: 16-4, New Yorker: 138-58, Paris Review: 6-1, New York Review of  Books: 215-40.

Not to make a big deal of this, but these are all liberal/left publications.

So what the hell is going on?

Are left/liberals sexist?

Ingrained sexism exists.  It does.   But to say this doesn’t solve anything.

Should a magazine present content based on gender alone?  Is it feasible for editors to go out looking for women writers—just because they happen to be women?  Is this really going to happen?  We cannot help but think that, in reality, in any sort of consistent manner, it will not.  This is not a solution, and anyone who offers it as one, is being condescending, at best.

We need to move beyond VIDA outrage and take a closer look at  the possible causes of these numbers.

We have a crime, so let’s look at the editors/publishers and cast about for a motive.

Is the following male guilt issue what’s really going on among these liberal/left editors?

“I reject this view because it is a woman’s view.”  Or, worse:  “I reject this article for the sole reason that it is by a woman.”

We need to embrace this—or not.  Because if we embrace it, (liberal) males are guilty as hell.

Do we embrace it?  In 2013, do we embrace this?

You’re probably wondering when we are going to arrive at the point we made at the top: “Are Women To Blame?”

We will get to that in a minute, but first we wanted to express outrage at the raw numbers and ask the vital VIDA question: is this the primary cause of these numbers:  liberal editors are rejecting work by women because it is women’s work?

Or, is it closer to the truth that less women are reviewing books—and why would this be so?

Could it be…could it be…that there are less women authors in history (because of past injustice) and so naturally less women are reviewed? 

The VIDA numbers demonstrate this: male authors reviewed outnumber female authors reviewed by a similar percentage to male v. female reviewers.

Women, fighting against VIDA prejudice and championing their own, are less likely to review male authors.

Now the horrible truth flashes upon us.  If men are more willing to review women and, at the same time, women are less willing to review men, does not this simple fact alone go a long way towards expressing itself in VIDA’s raw numbers?

Are women, acting in a manner ostensibly benefiting their tribe, in fact, hurting it?

Holy Counter-Intuition, Batman!

We also need to ask, and VIDA should look into this:  What’s the statistical breakdown of  gender in scholarship?  Are women restricted by being less widely represented, expertise-wise, in scholarly subjects, as a larger proportionate chunk of women, for instance, pursue “women’s studies”—thus narrowing their appeal to editors who need to fill out their magazines’ content?

One VIDA lesson might be:  Never take narrow views—even when following the seductive sirens of social justice—because, in the long run, you will only hurt your cause.

Finally, on a different note, has anyone broken down the VIDA numbers in terms of gay v. straight?  What if it turned out the female count was actually higher than the straight male count?  Would this matter at all?  Would this make the numbers a little less outrageous?  Or no?

A WORDY BORDER

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus looms over the Modernist School

A poem is a philosophical song.

The poem’s hub may be mad hilarity or too grim, or secretive, for words, but a poem’s circumferance will always be a wordy border, patrolled by pedants indifferent to its passionate origins, scratching their graying heads, asking, “Is this poem great?  Is it culturally relevant?”

In the year 2000, David Lehman, poet and editor of  the annual Best American Poetry series (1988—present) graciously asked all of his previous guest editors up until that point (13 and all prestigious American poets) to name their top 15 poems of the 20th century—a pretty simple request, and, we think all would agree, an interesting assignment.  The results were published in the back of The Best American Poetry 2000 volume.

Two of the Best American Poetry Guest editors—Louise Gluck and Adrienne Rich—refused to play.

One—Richard Howard—didn’t follow the rule, and listed books instead of poems.

Three—Howard, Mark Strand and Donald Hall—limited themselves to dead poets.

David Lehman added his list as well—so a total of 12 important American poets participated.

We are not here to impugn the results—only to analyze them.  We might as well get this out of the way first: the VIDA score of “The Best American Poetry of the Twentieth Century” (as Lehman titled the section) was abysmal: 16% of the choices were by women, although 30% of the editors originally asked by Lehman were female.  It didn’t help the women that two women editors refused to participate.  And, if you remove Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore from the choices of the best poems of the 20th century by this distinguished panel, the VIDA score drops to 5%  Not one poem by Edna Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Mary Oliver, or Sharon Olds was chosen.

The Best American Poetry editors all seemed to run in fear of the popular poem.  The quality of the choices can be disputed, but there was a glaring sameness about the choices, a definite lock-step approach by the group.  Not only did the individuals within the group select the same authors and the same poems with great frequency, but poems with the same themes. 

According to the nearly 200 poems selected by the group in the category: Best Poem of the 20th Century, the easy winner was: Elizabeth Bishop writing about an animal.  Only Frost got more votes than Bishop.

Compiling all the votes, here’s how the Top 15 Greatest Poems of the 20th Century, according to John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck (Didn’t play), A.R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich (Didn’t play), James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and David Lehman:

1.    The Waste Land -TS Eliot 1922
2.   The Bridge -Hart Crane 1930
3.    In Praise of Limestone -W.H. Auden 1948
4.    Little Gidding  -TS Eliot 1941
5.    Book of Ephraim  -James Merrill 1976
6.    Voyages  -Hart Crane 1926
7.    Asphodel, That Greeny Flower  -WC Williams 1962
8.    77 Dream Songs  -John Berryman  1964
9.    After Apple Picking  -Robert Frost  1914
10.    Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost  1923
11.     At The Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop  1955
12.    The Comedian As The Letter C  -Wallace Stevens  1923
13.    Spring and All  -WC Williams  1923
14.    The Auroras of Autumn  -Wallace Stevens  1950
15.    Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror  -John Ashbery  1974

The selections are all permeated by a similar theme and approach: turgid language; a restlessness of philosophical meditation; a singular, yet ever-shifting landscape; rhetoric far more descriptive than emotive; given to lyrical flights of prose, broadly metaphorical, using more frequently the ideas of Heraclitus, famous for his, “no man ever steps in the same river twice—it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man.”

Number eleven on the list, “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, is pure Heraclitus.  Her poem ends:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Auden’s poem, at number three, “In Praise of Limestone,” as you can see from the opening lines, is remarkably similar:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish

“The Comedian As The Letter C” by Wallace Stevens, at no. 12, is self-consciously Heraclitean in its prose-poetry:

gaudy, gusty panoply…

That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last…

Shebang. Exeunt omnes. Here was prose
More exquisite than any tumbling verse…

The bombast of Hart Crane was extremely popular with the voters:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

They say the wind is sucked, not blown.  Most poets and critics, even as they wear the gowns of culture and history, are pulled along by group-think, sucked into judgement without will, trapped by the tuggings of trends and fashions.

All of these choices seem to be driven by the same post-World War I, European Modernist sensibility.  Gloomy meditations on the two world wars belong to T.S. Eliot’s English point of view in “The Waste Land” and “Little Gidding.”   Since Auden was included as an American, it seems poets like Louis Simpson, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Stephen Spender should have been included, especially since the Modernism these Best American Poets so admire is very European.

The last quarter of the 20th century was almost completely neglected.  Poets such as Billy Collins, Donald Justice, Robert Pinsky, and Jack Spicer got no votes at all.  Ginsberg got only one vote—for “Howl” by Rita Dove.

Were the voters seeking to silence their contemporary rivals by focusing on the first half of the twentieth century?

Other poets getting more than one vote for their poems were Pound, Roethke, Robinson, O’Hara, Lowell, Creeley, Schuyler, Wilbur, Warren, Jarrell, and Ammons.

ARE MEN SUPERIOR TO WOMEN? CAN CAROL MUSKE-DUKES GIVE STEPHEN DUNN THE KISS OF DEATH?

The-Kiss-of-Death

Can Carol Muske-Dukes make it three out of four women in Scarriet’s 2011 March Madness APR Final Four?  Does she have what it takes to beat Stephen Dunn?  Both of their poems concern kisses, and maybe this is typical, maybe not—the man’s is a wild desire for one, the woman’s an actual dull one.

Women poets have done extremely well in the Scarriet March Madness Tournament, despite the pool being typically under-represented by women in the APR anthology, The Body Electric.  The split in the APR anthology is about 70/30 in favor of the men—yet 10 women poets reached the Scarriet Sweet Sixteen.

Vida has made headlines in American Letters recently by simply publishing some inescapable statistics: the percentages of women writers published in major literary magazines and anthologies—and the numbers are not good for women, especially in essays, criticism and poetry: women trail men in the Fine Arts of Letters—poetry and essays—by two to one.

We’re not talking about construction jobs, or all-time sports heroes, or U.S. presidents, or 19th century composers, or Italian homemakers. We’re talking about U.S. poetry and criticism in 2011: two to one in favor of men.  These numbers are staggering, and should be a wake up call to women everywhere.

The overall author split is 60/40 in favor of men, not too horrible, but in terms of reviewing (or criticism) the ratio is 4/1 in favor of men, and as Vida showed, the ratio of reviewing in The New York Review of Books is 5/1 in favor of men.  As we get more high-brow, as we get more intellectual, as we get more opinionated, as we get more philosophical, the women flounder, in terms of representation.

For every Harold Bloom, there’s a Helen Vendler or a Camille Paglia, for every Billy Collins, there’s a Mary Oliver or a Louise Gluck, for every John Ashbery, there’s a Jorie Graham or a Kay Ryan , for every Seamus Heaney, there’s a Sharon Olds or a Margaret Atwood. 

Generally, women have had great success in writing, and, in numbers of readers, women are surely equal, or very close to men, just in terms of literacy.  Women are well-placed in the readership and marketplace of Fine Letters; there is no craven, muscle-bound machismo element keeping them down.

Why, then, are the women so woeful and backwards in these key areas of poetry and essays and reviewing and criticism?

So, girls, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Criticism is the Head of Letters.  If you’re not reviewing consistently, or writing philosophical essays, or making your opinions known about writers and writing, then what do you expect?

We know you have opinions about nearly everything—why not writing?   You are nearly 50/50 in fiction, and fiction is great, but we all know most fiction is either thinly disguised diary and memoir or vampires having sex with each other. If Criticism is the Head, Fiction is the Rear.  And, in terms of opinions about writing, we don’t mean sweet, supportive blurbs for the sisters—we mean real criticism.

And here’s the thing: if you won’t write essays or reviews or philosophy or criticism, you’ll never change these numbers.

Vida, your numbers are shocking, but what do they really mean?  And how are we going to make those numbers better?

Any ideas, girls?

I recently found myself having an email dialogue, quite by chance, with one of the founders of Vida, whose stated mission is “to explore cultural and critical perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”

The conversation came about because she, the Vida founder, wanted clarification from me concerning gossip linking her to a powerful male poet mentor.  But such talk does not belong in public.  It has that smell which consigns it to the garbage pail. Robert B__ eloping with EB is glorious. Put it on the front page. Professor B__ helping to market EB’s poems?  Eh, not so glorious.

But every consideration, glorious or not, involving men, women and Letters has an impact every day on the cold facts of Vida’s statistics.  Somewhere, between the numbers, and the sorry state of things which those numbers point to, are actual stories involving actual men and women. Do we dare speak these stories and these names? Or do we traffic forever in statistics and polite reactions to them?

We can’t run from theses numbers, but we can run from the truth—of its smelly and corrupt windings—which those numbers signify.

Or, we can follow Ariadne’s thread; we can do the patient, historical work of patiently examining the lives of actual literary men and women, and what it finally means, philosophically.

Here’s an example: Elizabeth Barrett was an extraordinary poet, and better known than the male poet who eventually eclipsed her, Robert Browning.  When Mr. Browning came courting in 1845, Elizabeth was the famous poet, not Robert, and she had already published, to much acclaim, the type of dramatic poem Robert Browning would later glory in.  This is not to diminish the remarkable Mr. Browning, but only to point out how Miss Barrett fell under Browning’s shadow.  Barrett was depicted in the modern era as a rescued recluse known for one poem penned—to Browning, which fit right into the Victorian stereotype.  Who perpetuates such stereotypes?  The critics.  And the critics are men. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fades away, and takes with her a more accurate picture of the Victorian period, a richer selection of poetry, and a powerful example of a powerful woman poet.  All the male critics had to do was refute the Victorian era.  Women are larger-than-life figures—unless they are reduced by abstract critical thinking which rejects, in the name of “modern progress,” the actual life of women in the past.  The “progressives” are then insidiously reactionary.  All ahistoricism is reactionary.  Let us have improvements, but please let’s not pre-suppose that means chucking history.

A second example: Edna Millay, who wrote sonnets as good as any in the history of literature, was abused in the press by Ezra Pound’s clique: Hugh Kenner and Horace Gregory, to name two. We all know how one well-placed review can harry and destroy. This is the sort of ugly side of Letters which might be characterized as gossip, but we demean Letters by being squemish—so that we brush the ugly side of Letters under the rug. Unfortunately, thugs and bullies exist in “polite literature.”  But the bigger problem is, that because Pound and his group was associated with a certain avant-garde progressivism, “make it new” and all that, critics are not always objective in writing literary history or making critical judgments.  Because there is this excitable and revolutionary assumption that the avant-garde is always liberal and forward-thinking, we are blind to when the opposite is true.

It’s not too late to undo these mistakes, since literature always has a past, and is always being made anew within the context of that past.  But if women are on avant train they think is going in the right direction, but is not, those Vida numbers could get even worse.

One more example: Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) is a marvelous poet, an amazing, crazy, lyrical, predecessor to Plath and Sexton, but like MillayWylie fell off the Parade Float of Modernism.  The better-known American women poets, who were quietly conservative, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, were close to Pound’s clique or Robert Lowell; actually, Moore was Bishop’s mentor, and Robert Lowell fell in quickly with Pound’s group via Tate and Ransom, so it’s all pretty cozy.  Wylie is a strong, but neglected, poet who would appeal to the same audience inspired by Sexton, and it certainly does not diminish a poet like Sexton to comprehend the significance of Wylie as her influence.  (Another neglected poet if we go back futher: Ellen Wheeler Wilcox.) Women in Letters will be hurt if women don’t celebrate good women poets right under their nose, or they only celebrate women poets annointed by men.  When it comes to literature, networking in the present can only go so far. Knowing history is invaluable.

So here’s the advice, so far.  1. Be critical, not timid and polite. 2. Be historical, intensely so; follow historical threads back to motivations, and groups who act clandestinely and corruptly.  These historical phenomena tend to be the rule, not the exception.  If the women say, “Leave the conspiracies to the men,” the women will only suffer accordingly, and the Vida numbers will get worse.

As far as The New York Review of Books, which we now know is 80% male, thanks to Vida, women, I think, would make an important statement if they boycotted that magazine, rather than pleading to be let in. The New York Review stats should not be read as an indication of failure by women, but rather as a failure by the New York Review, a scholarly failure, since the editors are infatuated with the very Modernism school that joyfully throws poets like Barrett, Millay and Wylie under the bus, and they review the same handful of canonized figures over and over again.  The researchers at Vida should analyze a few issues of the New York Review, and discover for everyone not just the numbers, but the faulty philosophy, history and scholarship.  Remember: Criticism, ladies, criticism!  Get in the face of the New York Review!  And enjoy doing it!  Letting the 5/1 ratio just sit there without comment, after the initial gasps, implies that women lack the talent to write for the New York Review and women better get cracking and improve themselves!  Is this the impression Vida wants to give?  No!  Go on the offense!

And speaking of offense, Carol Muske-Dukes, in her poem, “A Former Love, a Lover of Form,” is not particularly nice, which is not necessarily a bad thing:

When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss

She’s trapped by a dull kiss.  She’s a victim.

The following sounds too much like all that bad confessional poetry composed in the 1970s:

Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.

Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.

The poem ends with more puzzlement and complaining:

 Is she seducer or seduced?

And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?

She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.

The Stephen Dunn poem features a narrator questioned by a crowd, and gender is completely hidden.  It also features a mysterious, yearning self-sacrificing love.

What They Wanted

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

Stephen Dunn wins!  Stephen Dunn is in the Final Four!

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