FEBRUARY POEMS BY BEN MAZER, REVIEWED

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As the shadows lengthen on American poetry in the 21st century, one is naturally prepared to think there was a noisy, sunny noon of poetry with noisy, popular poets.

But there never was such a thing.

We had, in our early days, the British imitators: William Cullen Bryant, (friend to Lincoln) with his “Thanatopsis”; the splendid, dark Poe; dashing in his prose but solemn and brief in his poetry; Emerson and Thoreau asserting nature, not poetry, in due obeisance to the arrogant British idea that her late colony was still a wilderness; Whitman secretly reviewing his own poems, waving a private Emerson letter in the public’s face as way of validation, but Whitman was almost as obscure as Dickinson—no, America has had no sunny noon of poetry; Ben Franklin, the diplomat-scientist-founding father, representing our mighty nation of pragmatists, had little use for the muse.

To put things in historical perspective:

Emily Dickinson caught on with modern critics as a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s.

Billy Collins was born in 1941.

A few years after Billy Collins was born, Ezra Pound—friend to both anglophilic “Waste Land” and haiku-like “Wheel Barrow”—caused a brief stir as a traitor in an Allied cage. The New Critics liked Eliot, Pound, and Williams and gave them critical support, some notice. Otherwise they had probably died. And the canon would be ruled instead by the wild sonneteer, Edna Millay, the Imagist, Amy Lowell, perhaps the cute scribbler E.E. Cummings.

The New Critics, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the Creative Writing Program Era, all began to flower in the late 1930s/early 1940s, around the time Collins was born—and, a few years earlier, you had Frost (discovered in England, not New England, right before the First World War, as Harriet Monroe was starting Poetry with money from Chicago businessmen—and help from foreign editor Ezra Pound) and then another generation back, you have the end of Whitman’s obscure career. And then a couple generations further back, the often disliked, and controversial, Poe, who mocked the somewhat obscure Transcendentalists—including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Unitarian friend, William Greenleaf Eliot,  founder of Washington University in St. Louis, T.S. Eliot’s grandfather.

So not only is there no noisy noon of American poetry, no period when gigantic dinosaurs of American Verse ruled the earth, one could almost argue that we are still in the early morning of our country’s poetic history, way before noon—the noon has not even happened yet, as much as we often posit that American poetry is an abandoned field at sundown, where the 21st century MFA mice are playing.

Even if good poetry abounds in America today, it has no center, no fame, no visible love; Billy Collins, who sells a few books, was a teen when Allen Ginsberg, son of poet Louis Ginsberg, who knew WC Williams, achieved a bit of rock star fame through an obscenity trial. Allen Ginsberg has been dead for 20 years.

What of poets born after 1950?

Who knows them?

Where are the biographies and critical studies?

How can the greatest country on earth have no poets anyone really knows, for two whole generations?

Who is a young poet that we know?

Is the thread broken?  Is the bowl shattered? Will the sun never shine on this doorway again? What has happened to American poetry?

This sobering preface of mine (some might call it too sweeping and hysterical) is written by one who is proud to announce his critical study of the poet Ben Mazer is soon to be published by the noteworthy Pen and Anvil Press.

Who is Ben Mazer?

Born in 1964, he is the best pure poet writing in English today.

We use the word “pure” knowing the term is sometimes abused—Robert Penn Warren ripped Poe and Shelley to pieces in a modern frenzy of “purity” hating: sublime and beautiful may also, complexly, mean “pure.”  The heart has its reasons for loving purity—which all the Robert Penn Warren essays in the world can never understand (the essay we have in mind by Warren is “Pure and Impure Poetry,” Kenyon Review, ed. John Crowe Ransom, 1943—when Billy Collins was two years old).  If “beautiful and sublime” seem too old-fashioned, too “pure” for one’s taste, I assert “purity” as it pertains to Mazer means 1. accessible 2. smooth 3. not tortured.

Mazer has published numerous books of poems.

Mazer is also the editor of a number of important books, including the Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (a neglected, but extremely influential figure)—Mazer’s large book reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYR last year.

February Poems is Mazer’s latest book of poems, following hard upon December Poems. The two are a pair—marking the sudden unraveling of an ideal marriage.

The first poem in “February Poems” goes like this:

The sun burns beauty; spins the world away,
though now you sleep in bed, another day
brisk on the sidewalk, in your camel coat,
in another city, wave goodbye from the boat,
or study in an archival library,
like Beethoven, and thought is prodigy.
Do not consume, like the flowers, time and air
or worm-soil, plantings buried in the spring,
presume over morning coffee I don’t care,
neglect the ethereal life to life you bring.
O I would have you now, in all your glory,
the million-citied, Atlantic liner story
of what we were, would time come to forget
being so rich and passing, and yet not covet.

This poem falls from the first word to the last with a temporal perfection not seen since Milton. One may recognize Robert Lowell, too, who was somewhat besotted with Milton—Mazer’s better than Robert Lowell—who, as a poet and a man, was seldom sane or honest, and was, frankly, a creep. Mazer, I know, will gladly accept the Lowell comparison; but as his critic, I assert Mazer is a more genuine person, and is quite a bit better as a poet.

Look at how in “The Sun Burns Beauty,” every line is packed with sublimity discretely spoken, none the less sublime for the discretion:

“The sun burns beauty.”  Lovely double meaning. Consumes beauty, but also is beautiful. “Burns” quickly gives way to “spins,” as the poem, like a heavenly orb, picks up weighty speed: “another day, brisk on the sidewalk…wave goodbye…” the stunning plea: “Do not consume…presume I don’t care…neglect the ethereal life to life you bring…” and the conclusion, worthy of a sun which is burning beauty: “O I would have you now…of what we were, would time come to forget being so rich and passing, and yet not covet.”  Magnificent.  How long have we waited for poetry like this?   It’s truly timeless in the tradition—a word we can use without any qualification or irony.

We mentioned purity above; another way of getting across what I mean is Mazer’s use of Eliot’s Objective Correlative.

Eliot’s Objective Correlative is not a blackboard term for Mazer; it lives in his poetry. Eliot asked that the poem’s emotion match the object. Eliot’s request is a simple one: the reader doubts the poem’s veracity if the poet is unduly excited by a mundane object.

The poet’s emotions tell him what to say; and it is with our emotions we read the poem.

Much is made in poetry (naturally) of the skill in using words—Mazer clearly has a wonderful vocabulary and all that; yet also, in Mazer’s poetry, fact does match feeling; it’s not a word-game—Mazer’s trajectory isn’t words.  Mazer understands the Objective Correlative.

T.S. Eliot represents the Modernist counter to the perceived hyperbolic imbalance of the Romantics: Wordsworth getting terribly excited by a flower, Byron yawning at the end of the world—it cuts both ways.

Eliot’s objective critical dictum was a correction—and Mazer, who, in many ways, is Romanticism redux, instinctively, now, well into the 21st century, obeys Eliot’s dictum—but flexibly.

We’ve got Wordsworth and his famous dictum from “Lyrical Ballads:” poetry helps us to see the mundane as extraordinary, using plain speech, which goes against Eliot’s rule—and Mazer is not only a Robert Lowell, an Eliot, but a Wordsworth.

Mazer sounds Modern.

As he revives Romanticism.

And, I dare to say, the Enlightenment—when the Metaphysicals provided poetry heft and light.

Revival is always open to the charge of retrograde.

But how many layers of post-modern experimentation are there?

Before the public gets bored?

Oh, yes, that happened about 75 years ago.  When Billy Collins was born. And critics were rising to an appreciation of Emily Dickinson.

John Ashbery, born in 1927, had a head start on Mazer—Ashbery added Romantic verbosity to Modern dryness, irony, archness, in a painterly, foggy mix of not quite making sense. Mazer, if it must be said plainly, is a little better than Ashbery. Mazer does make sense.

The poems in Mazer’s February Poems do not, for the most part, have titles—to the worshiper who would carry around this book of love, like a holy book of some sorts, the page numbers will suffice to identify the great passages within.

These lines which begin the poem on page 7 speak out plainly and passionately but with the greatest mystery:

All grand emotions, balls, and breakfasts,
make little sense, if nothing lasts,
if you should leave the one you love,
inexplicable as Mozart’s star above

This passage at the top of page 8, a new poem, may be a statement for the ages:

The living are angels, if we are the dead in life
and immaculate beauty requires discerning eyes
and to ask incessantly who you are
is both our strength and doubt in faith, to know
what we must appear within ourselves to know:
that we do love each other, that we know who each other is
by putting ourselves in the hands and the eyes of the other,
never questioning the danger that rides on words
if they should misstep and alter a logical truth,
or if they should signify more than they appear to,
whether dull, indifferent, passionate, deeply committed
or merely the embodiment of a passing mood,
some lack of faith in ourselves we attempt to realize
through the other who remains steadfast in all the flexibility of love.

This is stuff which could be read at weddings on top of mountains around the world.

The poem which resides at page 15 goes like this, (and observe how “love” in the first line both is invaded, and invades, the “fiercest passion”—as Mazer has crafted the syntax):

The fiercest passion, uncommon in love,
yearns to be understood, do incalculable good;
must penetrate the beloved’s eyes, give rise
to beauty unmatched anywhere above.

Note the lovely internal rhyming: “understood and good” in line 2, “eyes” and “rise” in line 3, are but two examples.

We’ll continue with the whole poem, “The fiercest passion, uncommon in love:”

Infinite stasis exploring tenderness,
substantially is the basis of all bliss,

“Infinite stasis exploring tenderness” !!

although ethereal, indelible,
not subject to the chronologic fall.
And yet vicissitudes will upset this,
and forces will keep true lovers apart
too many years, breaking the sensitive heart,
that pours its passion in undying letters,
while hope’s alive to break the social fetters,
incalculable agonies poured into great art.
Bribes the organist, locks the door,
unwilling to suffer any more,
must make his grand statement to the world,
all his grief, anger, and love hurled
back at the gods which all his genius spited;
his biography says love was unrequited.
We live in the shadow of his despair,
grief so great, where there is nothing there.

And here it ends. This is not egotistical…”We live in the shadow of his despair” refers to the “shadow” of the poem itself (its inky visage) living to the readers as they read, and the “grief” of the poet is “so great,” the poem disappears (“nothing there”)—the very opposite of egotistical; it is grief conveyed powerfully.

The entire book—February Poems—contains lines such as these—which belong to an expression of love poetry rarely seen.

The poems range from greatest bliss:

The moonlight is incomprehensible.
My lover’s lips are soft and rosy pink.
Who could understand love which transfigures night,
when night itself does the transfiguring?
She sleeps. Awake, I hold her in my arms,
so soft and warm, and night is beautiful.

…In sleep she moans and shifts, embracing me.
I can’t budge from where I lie, but am content.

(excerpt from poem on pg. 16)

To acute despair, not merely told, explained, but in the poetry itself, lived:

The vanishing country roads have vanished.
There, the steep descent into the new, different town.
We are together, and we look around.
What are these flags and trees that grasp and clutch
the infinite progress of our former selves,
of love so great that it must be put away,
not where we left it, but where we can’t reach;
why should eternity itself miss you so much?
The music of a thousand kinds of weather
seep into the trees, sweep into the leaves that brush
your shoulder lightly where I left my heart,
once, long ago, when we first made our start
to drive so many miles to here together.
But where is here? The place we are apart.

(poem, “Vanishing country roads,” pg 64)

To pure sublimity and beauty and joy:

The greatest joy known to mortal man,
shall live beyond us in eternity.
Catching you ice-skating in mid-motion,
cheeks flush, winter pristine in our hearts,
ineffable, permanent, nothing can abolish,
when the deep forest, buried in snow’s white
holds the soul’s eternal solitude,
when, melting coming in, each particular
that stirs the senses, is the flight of man
to unspoken urgencies, garrulous desire
continually fulfilled, the captured stances
that drift like music in the light-laced night,
shared words in murmurs soft as downy sky,
the stars observe with their immortal eye.
Furious, presto-forte homecoming
races into the eyes and fingertips,
confirming and commemorating bells
resounding with our vulnerable desire
in momentary triumph that’s eternal.
Life passes on to life the raging stars,
resonances of undying light.
All years are pressed together in their light.

(“The greatest joy known to mortal man” pg 17)

We wish for a whole generation of young readers to spring up, profoundly and happily in love—following in the footsteps of Mazer, in his growing fame, in his mourning—clinging fast to their torn and re-smoothed copies of February Poems.

 

 

THE AGE OF THE SNOWFLAKE

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Happy individuals know 1. how to get mad.

And then 2. turn the anger off, calm down, and move on.

Unhappy people either 1. never get mad: never muster enough energy to overcome a difficulty, make known a really necessary complaint, assert themselves, break through to the next level

Or, 2. they are constantly mad, and are never really calm, and can never move on.

This can be confusing for the rest of us.

We might temporarily confuse the anger of the constantly angry person with the short-lived, purposeful, anger of the happy individual.

We might not understand the calm of the happy person, confusing it with the indifference and passivity of the unhappy person.

We might completely misread the sudden rare, directed anger of the happy individual, thinking it reflects unreliability, inconsistency, and lack of control. “Weren’t you happy a minute ago?”

We might even admire the constant anger of the unhappy person for its consistency.

We might confuse the blank of the unhappy person for the calm of the happy person.

“Snowflake” is a ubiquitous term today, one I do not use, because I think it is a misnomer, and it is the subject of this essay only because I wish to attempt an analysis along these lines.

A “snowflake” refers pejoratively to the hyper-sensitive person, often on a college campus, who cannot handle information, historical or political, which tramples on delicate feelings and beliefs—concerning those who are strongly and innocently disadvantaged in fundamental ways.

But to care about others, even in a hyper-sensitive manner, is a good thing. Good or bad in social relations turn on delicate feelings and this is to be human and social. Period.

I don’t care a fig about this notion of the “snowflake” who can’t handle this or that. Sensitive and considerate is always good.

I do care, however, about the happy and the unhappy person—the constantly dull, or the constantly angry person is not happy—and is rarely a good thinker. This has nothing to do with being a snowflake, and more with being ignorant, and unhappy.

The cross-dressing, Harvard literary critic, the heir to Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt, begins his recent essay, “Writing About Yeats in the Age of Trump” sounding exactly what everyone might think a “snowflake” sounds like:

“Like many of you, I have spent the days since the election in a combination of frantic distraction; intermittent, flailing activism; attempts to focus on my private and professional life; and fear. The more I read from experts in relevant fields, the more I envision the next four, or eight, or ten years not so much as a Republican administration—enacting policies that will hurt immigrants, people of color, and the poor—but rather as a kleptocratic, potentially authoritarian, generation-long takeover, one that could extend outward and downward from Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue into the federal judiciary, the civil service, and the national security state.

“I have not lost my interest, nor my belief, in the powers of poetry. But my goals for my own poetry, and for the ways I write about poetry, are not what they were before November 8. I used to believe, if not in Walt Whitman’s late-1850s optimism, then in the chastened patriotism, the qualified trust in elections and popular culture, that he found even in the Gilded Age.  I have opposed critics who use, as unconsidered, generic praise, the word ‘revolution,’ on the grounds that few good things are harder to break than to fix. I have argued—and I still believe—that our ways of reading and our ways of hearing poetry, like our ways of eating and our ways of understanding kindness and violence, have roots older than we are, older than the twentieth century, even though they have changed, and will change. And I have aligned my own poetry, most of the time, with incrementalism, with a way of reading that (like W.H. Auden’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s) pays some homage to the deep past.

“I also wanted my poetry to champion the femme, the elaborate, the playful, the serifed, the feathered, the self-consciously involute, the magenta and the chartreuse, even the ornamental: ruffles, dessert. I wanted that poetry, and other contemporary poetry too, to take pleasure in small things, and to push back against a patriarchal, instrumental, coarse, results-first, adult-driven, queer- and transphobic capitalism. I called those goals for poetry ‘nearly Baroque,’ or rococo, and I found its closest modern precedent in Marianne Moore.

“Our president-elect appears to enjoy the rococo, too, but it is the wrong kind of rococo: not delicate craftsmanship as a blow to misogyny, but the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of a wealth he has used to hurt others, as a boastful public spectacle. Trump represents the end of liberalism, the end of self-restraint and public kindness delivered through flawed, long-lived institutions, at least on a national scale. The social contract of Paul Wellstone and Richard Rorty, of A. Phillip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt, and for that matter of Barack Obama, seems all torn up.”

If this isn’t “snowflake,” what is? One of the two traditional parties wins the presidential election in the traditional manner, and Burt feels “fear.”  Burt makes a great, breathless, elaborate, post-election, point about “poetry” as it applies to him—Burt. Totally in earnest, he describe his poetry’s “ruffles” as a blow against “patriarchal capitalism.”

But this only points up what we are trying to say about the “snowflake” label. It’s meaningless. This quotation from Burt is excessive rhetoric bursting forth from a highly successful critic. This is not “snowflake” trepidation. Burt is using ruthless, cunning, rhetoric in highly educated, full attack, mode. Snowflake? This totally kicks ass—in a completely “take-no-prisoners” manner.

Burt feels “fear?” Reading Burt’s reaction to the election, I’m genuinely afraid of Burt.

He’s pushing “snowflake” buttons, but he himself is clearly no “snowflake; “it doesn’t matter how much he claims to prefer “magenta” and “chartreuse.”

Burt’s argument is utterly disconnected and unhinged, in a manner frighteningly black-and-white and uncompromising. “Snowflake” has nothing to do with it.

In speaking of Trump, Burt tosses reason and perspective to the wind. Last time I checked, every law and institution of the United States remains fully intact, going back to the founding of this country in the 18th century, and yet Burt speaks as if Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Rorty, and Barack Obama just a short time ago made this country.

The lack of historical understanding is downright scary: “Whitman’s late 1850s optimism?” I’m not sure why Whitman is mentioned—the American Civil War began in 1861, so “optimism” seems a strange thing to celebrate here—as if “optimism” were the way to describe the world of November 7, 2016—as brought to us by president Obama and secretary state Clinton.

Burt is not being a “snowflake” at all.

He strikes me as someone who is in pain. And angry.

And blind.

And playing with matches.

I would describe him as angry, and unable to let that anger go.

If Burt is a “snowflake,” then I’m a “snowflake.”

I would tell him, accept this hug from another snowflake. Please, go back and read your history, and try to let go of your anger. O isn’t life complicated? You are making me afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRACKET TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRACKET THREE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRACKET FOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

EDMUND WILSON SEEKS TO ADVANCE OVER JUDITH BUTLER IN POST-MODERN BRACKET CLASH

Wilson. Knew everybody: Edna Millay, Hemingway, Nabokov, LBJ; a blue blood Harold Bloom, he called Lord of the Rings “trash.”

WILSON:

 

We are not accustomed, in our quarter of the world, either to having the government attempt to control literature and art or to having literary and artistic movements try to identify themselves with the government. Yet Russia, since the Revolution, has had a whole series of cultural groups which have attempted to dominate literature either with or without the authority of the government; and Trotsky himself, in his official position, even in combating these tendencies, cannot avoid passing censure and pinning ribbons. Sympathizers with the Soviet regime used to assume that this state of affairs was inseparable from the realization of socialism: that its evils would be easily outgrown and that in any case it was a great thing to have the government take so lively an interest in culture. I believe that this view was mistaken.

Under the Tsar, imaginative literature in Russia played a role which was probably different from any role it had ever played in the life of any other nation. Political and social criticism, pursued and driven underground by the censorship, was forced to incorporate itself in the dramatic imagery of fiction. This was certainly one of the principal reasons for the greatness during the nineteenth century of the Russian theater and novel, for the mastery by the Russian writers—from Pushkin’s time to Tolstoy’s—of the art of implication.  The stories of Turgenev, which seem mild enough to us today, were capable of exciting the most passionate controversies—and even, in the case of A Sportsman’s Sketches, causing the dismissal of the censor who had passed it—because each was regarded as a political message. Ever since the Revolution, literature and politics in Russia have remained inextricable.

But after the Revolution, the intelligentsia themselves were in power; and it became plain that in the altered situation the identification of literature and politics was liable to terrible abuses.

Lenin and Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Gorky, worked sincerely to keep literature free; but they had at the same time, from the years of Tsardom, a keen sense of the possibility of art as an instrument of propaganda. Lenin took a special interest in the moving pictures from the propaganda point of view; and the first Soviet films, by Eisenstein and Pudovkin, were masterpieces of implication, as the old novels and plays had been. But Lenin died; Trotsky was exiled; Lunacharsky died.

Friedrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness, warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to ‘remain hidden, the better it is for the work of art,’ says that Balzac, with his reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic ones. (Balzac was one of the great literary admirations of Engels and Marx, the latter of whom had planned to write a book on him.)

The recent damning of the music of  Shostakovich on the ground that the commissars were unable to hum it seems a withdrawal from the liberal position.

The truth is that the talk in Soviet Russia about proletarian literature and art has resulted from the persistence of the same situation which led Tolstoy under the old regime to put on the muzhik’s blouse and to go in for carpentry, cobbling and plowing: the difficulty experienced by an educated minority, who were only about 20 percent of the people, in getting in touch with the illiterate majority. In American the situation is quite different. The percentage of illiterates in this country is only something like 4 percent; and there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups. Our development away from England, and from the old world generally, in this respect—in the direction of the democratization of our idiom—is demonstrated clearly in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language; and if it is a question of either the use for high literature of the language of the people or the expression of the dignity and importance of the ordinary man, the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.

 

BUTLER:

 

Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism.  Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.

I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of a masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically presumed as heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other” suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention—although others surely did.

Power seemed to be more than an exchange between subjects or a relation of constant inversion between subject and an Other; indeed, power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender. I asked, what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire?

Female Trouble is also the title of the John Waters film that features Divine, the hero/heroine of Hairspray as well, whose impersonation of women implicitly suggests that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.

To expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as “genealogy.” A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task of this inquiry is to center on—and decenter—such defining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.

Is “the body” or “the sexed body” the firm foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is “the body” itself shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex?

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of a gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.

Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.

 

It is a truism that in any contest, success depends on unity and cooperation (including “healthy competition”) while division and strife leads to failure.  A whole is comprised of parts, but here’s the question: what are the parts doing to make the whole a healthy one? But how do we know this “whole,” in its context, is a good thing, unless we see it, in turn, as a part behaving to make a larger whole healthy, the health of everything eventually sweeping up all in its global good?  All philosophical investigation must be concerned not with parts, nor with their combination into something greater, but with the largest possible cooperative assemblage: here is where the lone philosophical genius seeks philosophical truth and the philosophical good—everything else is mere power-grabbing, strife and lies.

Edmund Wilson, a Critic more historian than theorist, a Modernist speaking of male Russians, faces off against Judith Butler, a Post-Modernist gender theorist, of French and German influence.  If the differences are profound, profound, perhaps, the match.

Wilson speaks from, and during a time of great American influence and power; confidently he asserts the 96% literary rate of the U.S., how in his country “there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups,” and that “the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.”

Today, the remark about Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn sounds naive; Wilson, the historical critic, is interesting only as a look back into history.

Butler, meanwhile, belongs to those who would change history as she speaks not for “communication between different social groups,” but rather exploding “social groups.”

Gender as a new, fluid identity within the realm of bodily desire is Butler’s focus—politics, history and aesthetics are thus, in Butler, replaced by psychology, a rather narrow psychology—the psychology of the drag queen.  Butler conspicuously fails to mention children as she comes to grips with gender.  The larger world is puzzlingly absent.  If desire is at the heart of heterosexuality, other kinds of desire can never be proven to be anything but a variation of heterosexual desire, and sexual desire can never be proven to be anything but a breeding device, unless we add aesthetics to the equation, and this, too, leads away from Butler.

 

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

 

 

POETRY IS LOVE, NOT MODERNIST BLAH, BLAH BLAH

It is amazing that people will do a thing without any understanding of what that thing is.

Listen to the Romantic poet, S.T. Coleridge: “Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!”

The secular might let out a groan and protest: “There is no God!”

But this is to entirely miss the point.

Coleridge is saying: Learn the reasons why things, including you, were created, designed, made.

To know what a poem is, we must first understand what in fact, it is: why did it come about, in the first place?  The emphasis here is on ‘first.’  Not what it was embellished to be later on, but why did it first come into existence?

The smart-aleck will say, “I can put anything I want into my poem.  I can make it whatever I want, and that’s the point.”

The smart-aleck is in dire need of Coleridge’s admonition.

The smart-aleck’s philosophy lacks art.

The poem is an emotional plea to an absent person.

The above definition is merely a series of words; to better define what a poem is, we should say what it-–as a thing—is: A love letter.

If a love letter is what a poem first was—we cannot, without getting lost in a dark wood, repeal or nullify this as its essential being.

The poet Walt Whitman will come to our aid here:

Sometimes With One I Love

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for
fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay
is certain one way or another,
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was
not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs

We are striving to know the God of the poem.

The absent quality of the reader (“my love was not return’d”) was vital for Whitman, who gained by knowing essentially what a poem was.

Once we understand what a poem is, then—only then—can we expand into a striving to know thy God of thy poem, thus making it unique; we, however, must first know the God of the poem.

There is a first, there is a sequence of understanding a thing.

The absent quality feeds the desire of the poet, and thus defines the poet as a lover.

We don’t say love is the strongest desire, but we say that desire for the absent defines the whole process and its continued definition by the poet is what defines poetry, and is what poetry is, in fact.

GINSBERG V. GINSBERG

Was Allen Ginsberg’s father, published poet, Louis Ginsberg, as good as his famous son?

Scarriet presents father and son: Louis Ginsberg (1885-1976) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).

From Louis Ginsberg’s Collected Poems Northern Lights, 1992:

Defense Against the Dark

Only two small sons and one I love
One night were growing merry there;
I know not what we prattled of,
But suddenly I was aware.

It was as if a magic spell;
It was as if a lurking might,
That hovered there invisible,
Stooped and plucked me to a height.

Below, as ‘mid an ambush spread,
One moment with our lighted room,
The four of us were islanded
In an unfathonmable gloom.

Till now at last, I could behold
What on our solitude we press:
It is our dear ones smile we fold
About our spirits’ loneliness,—

That desolate the soul must mourn;
And seeing this, I wondered why
So lonely is each being born;
And lonely does each being die.

Now light that leaped from every glance
Was gathered, as by lens are rays:
Until I saw, as in a trance,
The room had burst into a blaze.

I saw it all! I saw the room!
I saw the sudden blaze now made
Against the Dark (with lust for Doom)
A flimsy, match-box barricade.

O lips and eyes that kindle glory!
O lovely respite that I’ve won!
O protest that is transitory!
Brief refuge from oblivion!

O little room with little might!
O tiny evanescent spark!
I see you, see you, as my bright,
Final defense against the Dark!

Louis Ginsberg’s vision is both sincere and impassioned; it is equal parts brightness and horror, as the poet and his loved family strangely blaze up against the dark.  The poem’s iambic tetrameter is forceful enough to present the lyric as a dense, burning moment in time.  There is intimacy and genuine feeling, and when the poet says, “I saw it all! I saw the room!” we see it, too, if we read the poem (and hear the lyric) with sympathy.

By contrast—and this is the famous son’s best known short poem—“A Supermarket in California” rejects the vision of the small and intimate family space for a much wider vision that revels in celebrity:

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! — and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Allen Ginsberg’s vision is quite close to his father’s: we have dark and light, family, loneliness and despair.

Louis Ginsberg is alone with his vision, even though he is in the presence of his real family.

Allen Ginsberg has no family, but he is not lonely, for his “father” and companion is the dead, celebrated poet, Walt Whitman.  Ginsberg, the son, has no family and stands apart from the world of “whole families” shopping in the bounty of the California supermarket–and the son’s poem stretches out in the nonchalant pacing of homeless wandering with a much more subtle music; lacking rhyme, it relies on the similarity of multi-syllabic words: “enumerations,” “penumbras,” “families,” “bananas,” “corridors.”  But the supermarket must close, and Whitman’s death is depicted mythologically as the bookish poet (“I touch your book”) finds comfort in bookish phrases: “we will stroll dreaming of the lost America of love…”  Iconography is key to Ginsberg’s poem: Whitman, Lorca, America, Charon.  The “childless, lonely old grubber” has nothing but imagined icons and vague history attached to those icons (“lost America of love”) to comfort him.

Both poems are bursts of pathos and morose feeling, with stark contrasts of light and dark; the father’s poem is a pure lyric, a song from the heart, a vision stark and simple, while the son’s prose meditation, surpassing the father’s in subtle humor and painting, bathes in self-conscious celebrity and bookishness as a stay against the dark.

Let’s look at two more poems.  First, by Allen, the son:

An Asphodel

O dear sweet rosy
unattainable desire
…how sad, no way
to change the mad
cultivated asphodel, the
visible reality…

and skin’s appalling
petals–how inspired
to be so lying in the living
room drunk naked
and dreaming, in the absence
of electricity…
over and over eating the low root
of the asphodel,
gray fate…

rolling in generation
on the flowery couch
as on a bank in Arden–
my only rose tonite’s the treat
of my own nudity.

The poet’s “desire” is contrasted with “the cultivated,” and though “unattained,” the “desire” still finds some consolation in the poet’s “own nudity,” as he lies in the dark, plant-rooted, yet petal-soft.

Louis Ginsberg’s poem is also about flowers, and the protagonist of the poem is also lying down:

The Artist Wins Success

Thus he, whose body Beauty broke,
Possesses now a surer stroke.
His body underneath the dew
Holds brighter palettes than he knew;
For he, who lies beneath this hill,
Faultlessly tints a daffodil;
With bluest sky he painted yet,
He brushes in a violet.
And now, a perfect artist, he
Can flood with green a little tree;
And surely now at last he knows
The perfect shading of a rose.

The conceit is not entirely original, and it might have been executed with more subtlety, perhaps, but this poem has plenty of charm and grace, as the artist “wins success” in death, joining nature in shading the flowers above him.

Father and son often err in ‘telling too much’ in their poems; both poets are morosely brilliant, almost to a hurtful degree, highly passionate and sensual, and they each show the ability to find optimism in suffering.

If we are not too besotted with “the modern” and Allen Ginsberg’s fame, we really ought to appreciate these two poets together—the father, though a little awkward, has stengths that wonderfully compliment the son’s.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS? FRANZ WRIGHT BATTLES JAMES TATE!!!

Franz Wright fans gather excitedly for the big match.

James Tate and Franz Wright, born in the booming, volatile middle of the 20th century, grew in the intellectual climate of the partying 1970s when the Iowa poetry workshop took control of poetry and America went from heroic and expansive to bureaucratic and self-pitying.  Well, America was never heroic and expansive, except when we were fighting the British; since Emerson, American intellectual life has been solidly and politely apologetic and anti-heroic. 

Sometime between the insanity that was WW I and the insanity that was WW II, American poetry became an Africa, and Paul Engle became our Cecil Rhodes. 

The basic elements of literary life are pretty simple when it comes to savvy male poets like Tate and Wright.   Tate and Wright would make great clowns, or fools, in a Shakespeare play: Tate, sarcastic, Wright, sad.  The Romantic poet, or Hamlet—which the modern poet has never escaped—was pathetic/heroic; our contemporaries like Tate and Wright are merely pathetic, and of course I don’t mean pathetic in the modern, slangy sense, but aesthetic pathos.   But pathos is never enough: with Tate, the heroic has been replaced by a rueful humor and Tate’s poetry is wicked, fast, and fun, written on-the-run and off-the-cusp and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t and where’s-the-next-party-anyway?  Franz Wright chooses a different path; the nerdy kid not invited to the party, Franz broods on his poems, he writes them slowly and contemplatively and instead of adding something else to pathos, he’s crazy enough to think that he can keep up the romantic trope and do the pathetic/heroic—in a grand, vengeful, wise-man, nerdy sort of way.

Wright and Tate were only given one poem in Rita Dove’s recent Penguin anthology—which they both triumphed with in Round One, but now their selections must come from elsewhere as they attempt Sweet 16. 

Note here how Wright plays the Romantic pathetic/heroic card.  You can see the heroic in the adjective “vast” and in the stunning image of Romantic-era Walt Whitman at the end of the poem.  Sure, the pathetic exists here, too, but Wright is one of the few contemporary poets who goes for the Romantic heroic trope as well.

WHEELING MOTEL

The vast waters flow past its back yard.
You can purchase a six-pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee
 
a block down. It’s twenty-five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours.
The river is like that,
a blind familiar.

The wind will die down when I say so;
the leaden and lessening light on
the current.

Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.

With Tate, we are fully in the 20th century—no Romantic heroism for him.  This poem reminded me of Becket’s Godot,  and note the pathos combined with the rueful humor:

SUCCESS COMES TO COW CREEK

I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is

inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
none. It’s been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he’s the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
coagulations
of shit and vomit,
and I’m sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.

A conductor’s horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
like anesthetized
fleas, ruffling the
ideal locomotive
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
Gerald shouts
terrifically as
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
destination. I
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.

“as fast as my boots will allow; as always, neglecting to drown” captures the whole pathos essence of James Tate and the replacement of the Romantic pathos/heroic with the Modern alternative of pathos/self-deprecating humor.

Here is the origin of Slam poetry—as written poetry evolves into stand-up comedy before a live audience.  

Pure poetry is something that is read by one person alone, and there is no design upon that person except that they enjoy a poetic experience, far removed from everything else, and, hopefully, in some way superior to that ‘everything else.’ 

Slam poetry, which, ironically, truly developed out of the poetry workshop atmosphere, and not the tavern, embraces the ‘everything else,’ stoops to it, revels in it, and the ‘live poetry’ experience is all about one person’s design on another, whether to impress a teacher in a worshop seminar, or to get laid in a bar.  Of course reading poems aloud in bars or in the street might seem like something which has always occured and has nothing to do with academics, but this, I maintain, is a romantic falsehood, and the people who go to bars and walk down the street in bygone days had the good sense to know that poetry does not belong in bars—only drinking songs do.

Wright is obviously infected with Slam (his reference to Tammy Wynette) but the irony here is that his reference to Whitman is Slam pathos, too.  Whitman is not pure poetry.  He, too, has designs on us.  Walt was the first Slam poet, before the horror of Slam existed. Whitman has become a circus in himself, and now represents the same cheap, honky-tonk Slam poetry atmosphere which the schools unconsciously promote.

But Wright’s a smart poet, and his “examining a tear on a dead face” is an attempt to reverse this Slam trend and bring Whitman back to some Romantic semblance of heroicism and feeling.

Tate tells better jokes, the guy with boots who “neglects to drown” is brilliant, and perhaps Wright is just sorry and pathetic, but we need to give Wright points for his brooding insights and sensibility. 

Go, men in black!

Wright 75, Tate 73

WHAT IF MODERN POETRY IS JUST DR. SEUSS WITHOUT THE RHYME?

Theodor-Seuss-Geisel-Postage-Stamp

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
Because I really like myself!
And what I assume you shall assume,
Out-of-doors, or in this room!
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
You are good as I am good—and true as I am true!

I loafe and invite my soul,
Would youl like to share a bowl?
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A little tiny spear, alas!

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same, what do you think of that?
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin—thirty-seven? oh, drat!
Hoping to cease not till death.
When I’m forty, will I have sweet breath?

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Fruits and vegetables, get thee hence!
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
Oh, this paraticular fruit is rotten!
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Whether it be lark or buzzard,
Nature without check with original energy.
(And I’m not just talkng about having to pee!)

*

So much depends,
I told my friends,
On a wheel barrow that’s red
Or white chickens, instead!

*

Petals on a wet black bough
Seem to be faces in the Metro, now.

*

As I sd
to my friend, Fred,
because I am
always talking—Sam,

I sd, which was not
his name (he gets that a lot)—
the darkness sur-
rounds us, what for?

shall we buy
a goddamn big car
hey, or shall I—
or can we drive far?

drive, he sd, for
Christ’s sake look at yr
speedometer!
what u drivin that way for?

*

By the road to
the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the northeast
—a cold wind.  Beyond, the waste
Of broad, muddy fields brown
with dried weeds, standing and fallen down

patches of standing water
the scatter—

ing of tall trees
All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves

I’m really bored,
Oh here’s a brown puddle we can ford—

under them leafless vines—Lifeless
in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world
naked,cold,
uncertain of all
save that they enter.
All about them the cold, familiar

wind—Now the grass, tomor—
row the stiff curl
of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined—It quickens:  clar-
ity, outline of leaf

But now the stark
dignity of entrance–oh, now it’s dark!
Still, the profound change
has come upon them:  rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken—hurray!

*

I saw the best minds—OK, maybe not the best,
a pretty smart guy from Jersey, stoned, who moved out west,
was naked and hysterical, he had failed his driver’s test,
walking down a negro street at dawn
looking for a fix!  he was crazy, man, he was gone!
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry
dynamo
in a coffee shop in Soho
in the machinery of night
Poverty! And jazz! but their skin was mostly white!
I was crazy when I wrote that obscene ode,
but I dig William Blake and I know the guy who wrote On The Road!

PLACES, EVERYONE!

Gertrude Stein posed for this statue (1992) in Paris (1920), but it sits in (William Cullen) Bryant Park in New York City.

Nothing exists but that it also exists elsewhere.  Anyone can pass through a place and be in other places that way, but few can make multiple places seem permanent and their own.  Only two things can do this: empire on a large scale, and the profound soul on the other.

America mostly knows its writers by place—for all of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendent philosophy, we know him by his ‘old manse’ in Concord and Emerson’s plot of New England land is where Thoreau built his cabin by Walden Pond.

Nathaniel Hawthorne rented from Emerson, too, but Hawthorne’s reputation is linked with nearby Salem.

The Longfellow house, where Longfellow raised his children still sits proudly on Brattle street, next to Harvard University where Longfellow was a professor.

Emily Dickinson, the recluse of Amherst, haunts a few rooms that are still standing; when we think of Henry James, we immediately think of a pleasant drawing room in his beloved London, and William Carlos Williams: a home doctor’s office in rural Rutherford, New Jersey, an old wheel barrow glimpsed outside the window.

Wallace Stevens conjures up an insurance office in Hartford, Connecticut; Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Paris; Pound, Italy.

T.S. Eliot?  There he is at Lloyds in London, speaking in hushed tones. Hart Crane?  He’s jumping off a ship into the north Atlantic. The Fugitive poets have Tennessee. Millay is identified with Maine, and Frost occupies a spot close to the Vermont/New Hampshire border. 

As we think of the minor poets in the 20th century, place becomes even more important: Charles Olson roams Gloucester, poetry schools are named after places: the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance; Jack Kerouac may have written On The Road, but his place will always be Lowell, Massachusetts. 

Even the imaginative soul needs a place to haunt, needs a place that is home, a place that says I am here.

There is no American poet known, to any degree, by the public, who isn’t identified by a place.  Three-quarters of American poets attended Harvard, but where you went to college, or where you got your M.F.A is probably not going to make you beloved of the American public.

Walt Whitman is known as our national Bard because in his writing he ranges, vociferously, far and wide—his reputation is not tied to one place—if Whitman were strongly identified with Brooklyn, for instance, he’d be Walter Whitman, a very minor figure.

It is precisely because, in Whitman’s case, that he is not identified with Brooklyn that he enjoys the reputation he does, for, after all, Whitman’s output is minor—a dozen memorable lines, perhaps; three or four anthology pieces: “O Captain! My Captain!’ and excerpts from “Leaves of Grass,” a few other excerpts from longer poems—poems almost no one reads in their entirety, maybe one or two other short poems.  Whitman, the poet, has made it to the top of the heap precisely because he belongs to no one and belongs nowhere—thus he is the token American who resonates with orphic, orphan, lonesome qualities that define a frontier America in transition, a land almost too big for its people, but growing smaller in the human bustle, and Whitman is the representative of that past and that future.  A Whitman statue could be anywhere—one was just unveiled in Moscow by secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Once established, a writer’s place doesn’t change, but a famous writer, like a Walt Whitman, who has no place, can claim new territory.

There is one American writer who, more than any other, seems to have no real place of his own: Edgar Poe.

Poe rejects place, and has no place.  He said the writer ought to belong to the universe, not to any place on earth; he coined the phrase, “out of place, out of time;” he set his most ambitious tales in France; he rarely took the time to describe an American place; he did so only in little-read pieces of journalism, not in the works that made him famous; Poe remains classical and European in most people’s minds, not American. 

Poe has a abstract quality so powerful that it will drag almost any adolescent mind into its vortex—modern American poetry can almost be defined as one great, long escape from it.  Rejecting Poe has been a rite of passage for every American poet who has wanted to be taken seriously by his or her peers.  The anti-Poe club is not just a large one—it is modern poetry: “A poem should be melancholy? Ha ha ha ha!”

But who will have the last laugh? 

Poe’s tentacles are many.  He can reach you in so many ways. You bury his Philosophy of Composition deep in the ground.  That’s right, MFA student, bury it deep, deep…  Now run from his poetry as fast as you can. Be modern! Run, run, run… run faster, faster!  Have you traveled fast enough?  Can’t you run just a little bit faster?

Is this crazy, or what?  Poe is returning to Boston.

The celebrants of Poe’s recent 200th birthday celebration decided it would be fun to have a debate—which place is most Poe’s place: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Boston?  Poe wrote The Raven in New York, his first detective story in Philadelphia, his childhood and early criticism in Richmond, the Poes are from Baltimore (as well as The Ravens football team), and Poe was born in Boston.

In an odd twist, thanks to the research and debating skills of professor Paul Lewis of Boston college, Boston, of all places, won the debate, and now through the efforts of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston and the Boston Art Commission, Edgar Allan Poe will grace downtown Boston—near the frog pond, Poe’s mocking symbol for New England writers—in a large work of public art.  You can learn about the three finalists here.  Statues can be pompous and boring, but Boston Poe gets an added boost, because these look really interesting.

The statues of the Frog Pond authors must be shaking in their boots.

Professor Paul Lewis is a slender, dapper man with a twinkle in his eye.  Last week at the Boston Public Library unveiling of the three Poe finalist works, he pointed out that Poe’s mother—an actress at the Federal Theater near the Boston Common (now gone)—loved Boston and was loved here; Poe’s mother represents that side of Poe who pleases rather than instructs, soaring happily in a puritan place.  Professor Lewis brings to Poe studies a happy spirit of reconciliaton—he is no Harold Bloom saying, “You must love either Emerson or Poe.”

The proposed Poe public art works—two of the three works feature a life-sized Poe, one with a raven emerging from his trunk, the other with a shrouded female figure at his back—are so wonderful that we couldn’t help but ponder, out of pure fun, some other possibilities.

A statue of Poe on the ground, surrounded by bottles.

A statue of Poe on Emerson’s knee, being spanked.

A statue of Pound, giving a Nazi salute.

A statue of Whitman, naked, with a hard-on.

But enough.

A large-as-life Edgar Allan Poe in the middle of Boston is frightening enough.

Thank you, Boston Poe Foundation!

THE WHITMANS: HELEN V. WALT

f evans

Before Leaves: Walt Whitman was the author of the racist Temperance novel, ‘Franklin Evans.’

“People do not want their daughters trained to become authoresses and poets. We want a race of women…”  —Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Daily Times, 1857

Helen Whitman, prolific essayist, poet, fluent in French, German, & Italian, feminist, abolitionist, nonconformist, ardent defender of Poe’s memory.

Helen Whitman (1803-1878) versus Walt Whitman (1819-1892):

Who was the better poet?

Without further ado:

Remembered Music

Oh, lonely heart! why do thy pulses beat
To the hushed music of a voice so dear,
That all sweet, mournful cadences repeat
Its low, bewildering accents to thine ear.
Why dost thou question the pale stars to know
If that rich music floats upon the air,
In those far realms where, else, their fires would glow
Forever beautiful to thy despair?
Trust thou in God; for, far within the veil,
Where glad hosannas through the empyrean roll,
And chorul anthems of the angel’s hail
With hallelujah’s sweet the enfranchised soul,—
The voice that sang earth’s sorrow through earth’s night,
Shall with glad seraphs sing, in God’s great light.

—Helen Whitman

A Noiseless, Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul.

—Walt Whitman

Both poems are abstracts of hope. Helen Whitman’s conceit seems grandiose next to Walter Whitman’s comparison of soul to spider.  Does hers have too much religious lumber?  At first glance it might seem so, but each poem expresses its truth indirectly; we don’t really believe the soul is a spider, but we must, to enjoy Walt’s poem—especially since the whole poem turns on spider as soul in the declarative urgency of the “O my soul” business.  “Remembered Music” requires even more suspension of disbelief, but like Walt’s, hers succeeds as a poem. 

All poems, because they are poems, whether they are modern or not, have to overcome the challenge of working in reality as an artificial device, of being ideally ideal in terms the real understands.

Between the first (spider) and second (soul) stanzas of “Noiseless Patient Spider” is the empty space where ‘suspension of disbelief’ resides, the space over which the two sides of the poem’s metaphor (literally) seek each other out in the reader’s mind: ‘noiseless spider’ and ‘O my soul.’  Form mimics content.  We throw filaments across the abyss to connect the two sides of the metaphor: spider: soul.

So with Helen Whitman’s: the “hushed music of a voice” is the palpable symbol of the poem, the ‘voice’ both in the poem, and of the poem, pulsing through it, hushed at the beginning, singing at the end.

Let’s call this one a draw; Walt’s lyric has the more singular image, and contains more subtle music; Helen’s sonnet is richer, grander and more melodious.

But given that Helen Whitman is almost unknown, the moral victory goes—to her.

POE AND THE WOMEN

04

Rufus Griswold: an investigation of 19th century women poets must go through him—and Poe.

The female poet was a major literary force in 19th century America, and this happy circumstance lingered in the early 20th century, with poets like Edna Millay and Dorothy Parker, but that dream faded as modern tastes took hold, and men dominated the profession once more.  The names of those 19th century women poets are forgotten and no renaissance of any note has been attempted in America in the name of the female poet.  Influential male writers—Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Mark Twain, to name a few, were not impressed by female versifiers and made it known they thought women poets were silly.  The ‘Pound Era’ wiped out ‘The Poetess’ for good, as even Millay was abused by the Pound clique, and the whole lot of 19th century female poets fell into neglect—most readers today can only name Emily Dickinson.

Modernism wanted nothing to do with the Romantic or Victorian spirit in poetry—and as a direct result, woman’s poetry, one could say, became a casualty of the 20th century, too.

From the introduction to American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, (Rutgers 1992) the editor, Cheryl Walker, writes:

Given the almost total neglect accorded nineteenth-century popular women poets, it is a pleasure to be able to show through an anthology that these writers were neither all alike nor without merit.

The ability to earn significant amounts of money by publishing poetry in the popular media certainly provided an impetus for women to write verse. Until relatively recently, however, it was assumed that women were composing  their poems in isolated cottages or garrets, cut off from the mainstream of literary life. In Literary Women, for instance, Ellen Moers asserted: “Women through most of the nineteenth century were barred from the universities, isolated in their own homes, chaperoned in travel, painfully restricted in friendship. The give-and-take of literary life was closed to them.” The Bronte sisters and Emily Dickinson were taken to be typical of woman’s lot. Today, in contrast, we know that Emily Dickinson was very much the exception among  American women poets. By and large, literary women on this side of the Atlantic were not isolated from each other, secretly composing in the upstairs bedroom, but were actively involved with a world simultaneously social and intellectual. One feature of this world was the literary salon.

As early as 1830, Lydia Sigourney was earning an income by selling her productions to over twenty periodicals.

…literary life in America was an arena distinctly more favorable to women in the late nineteenth century than it had been in its earliest decades. In an 1887 memoir of Lydia Sigourney, John Greenleaf Whittier reflected: “She sang alone, ere womanhood had known/The gift of song that fills the air today.” By the 1870s the many minor poets who found their way into the popular magazines were about equally male and female.

Today it is fashionable to decry market forces, but women poets in the 19th century benefited from the rise of industry and capitalism.  Female poetry grew with America’s growth.  Enlightenment and Romantic ideals helped women, as well.  Henry James and Walt Whitman may not have taken 19th century women poets seriously, but Edgar Allan Poe did.  Poe was also a casualty of 20th modernist criticism, his rich legacy swept aside by the impatience of gum-chewing, jazz age critics.   Little brass poems and ‘let’s wow ’em’ experimental poems rejected the old sublime, which lingered, but by the 1930s was dead, hauled off by a little red wheel barrow.  American poetry became odd, and women poets who had written in the old ways were forgotten.  Radio was the sentimental masterpiece now, not books of poems.  With radio and film, women were pretty and sang, they were dolls to movie tough-guys, not poets anymore.

What’s really odd is how much 19th century women’s poetry and Edgar Poe go hand in hand.  You can’t read an account of 19th century woman poets without running into Poe at every turn; Poe, more than any other figure in the 19th century, reviewed and supported women poets, was worshiped by them at the literary salons.  Not only that, the greatest anthologist of woman poets in the 19th century, a Poe rival for the attention of literary women, but  a man known today only because of Poe—not for his literary efforts on behalf of women—is Rufus Griswold, who almost single-handedly mauled Poe’s reputation, putting into circulation the false rumors of the lonely drug fiend and alcoholic in his obituary in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.  Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, a prominent poet in Cheryl Walker’s anthology, quoted by Herman Melville and married to a famous humorist, wrote now-suppressed magazine articles of how Poe was beaten and murdered.  Fanny Osgood, another well-known American poet of this time, her husband a reputed portrait painter, supposedly had an affair with Poe.  Helen Whitman, still another poet of note in the 19th century, was going to marry Poe until Greeley and Griswold conspired to put an end to it.

Poe’s murder in 1849 coincided with Griswold’s anthology, Female Poets of America, (1849) and we can’t help but feel that this anthology was Griswold’s attempt to woo women away from Poe with the promise of publication and fame.  Important women poets were in a position to defend Poe, and, in the case of at least one (Oakes-Smith), to give evidence on how Poe really died.  Was Griswold’s anthology a way to keep the women silent?  Keep quiet about Poe and Uncle Rufus will make your poetry live forever.

When Poe gave Griswold power over his posthumous works, in the year of his death, 1849, Poe sealed his fate, and the circle closed in around him.

Was 19th century women’s poetry essentially killed by the same forces that killed Poe, and his reputation, and ushered in the rule of the Modernist Men’s club, Pound and Ford Madox Ford and radical, militaristic, fascist, gold-digging, Golden Dawn crazies who hated American democracy?  The virtuous woman, the respected woman of Letters, was a horror to men like Pound, Eliot, and Ford, who used women in various ways.   The proud, independent, 19th century poetess was an ideal that faded away in the gaudy light of modernism.

The trail is pretty clear: the chauvinist Emerson (who despised Poe) , the chauvinist Whitman (inspired by Emerson) Henry James (sneered both at literary women and Poe;  Emerson was a family friend of the James family) and T.S. Eliot (had issues with Poe, Romanticism, and women; Eliot’s grandfather was Unitarian preacher friend of Emerson’s).

The sordid tale is even more bizarre, if that’s possible.  Margaret Fuller, associate of both Emerson and Horace Greeley (Fuller and Greeley were roommates for years) alarmed the literary salon community by getting together a posse of belles to demand at Poe’s cottage door supposed love letters he had from a married woman, causing Poe to subsequently seek to arm himself against enraged men folk. Fuller’s gambit took place in 1847, two years before Poe’s death, and was just the sort of fearful incident that began to make Poe persona non grata in higher literary circles, and easier to push aside as potential allies were scared into silence.  Unfortunately, in any literary network, the rival phenomenon plays an ugly role, as one reputation may eclipse others—one is only a good a writer as rivals permit one to be.   This was especially true in Poe’s day, when Letters was judged by a more universal standard of ‘Western Tradition’ transparency and democratic popularity: there was one mode of excellence and a writer was original, or not, within that mode, even as comic or tragic, domestic or worldly subjects were chosen.  There was no hiding behind experimental differences—there was no way to do that and call oneself an artist in the community’s eyes.  This made literary rivalries especially cut-throat in Poe’s day, and Poe strove to make himself part of the mainstream of American Letters, which included women poets.  Poe was not one of the producers/publishers of literature; he was merely the best of the writers.  The action taken against him by Margaret Fuller must have really shaken Poe’s reputation.  Two years later, Greeley and Griswold finished the job Fuller had begun, as their Tribune obituary hit the streets hours after Poe’s mysterious murder.  1845 saw Poe gain worldwide fame with “The Raven,” and the salon circuit was good to him as late as 1847, but as Poe’s enemies poured on the drunk/sexually immoral slanders, his salon-fame flower faded by 1848.  Poe turned his attention to comosogony (“Eureka”) as his social star fell behind the hills.  Cheryl Walker again:

Women participated in literary salons from the eighteenth century onward, and in several notable cases they supervised these social occasions themselves, holding salons for the great and near great in their homes. One of the most famous was the New York salon run by Anne Lynch (later Botta) which entertained writers such as Poe, Emerson, Frances Osgood, Rufus Griswold, Margaret Fuller, the Cary sisters, and Elizabeth Oakes-Smith. Edith Thomas’s career was launched at one of Botta’s evening entertainments.  Such salons were often inbred and typically thrived on gossip, but they also played a significant role in establishing networks of literary inter-relationships.  In her autobiography, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith gives a fascinating account of one evening at Emma Embury’s during which Frances Osgood sat adoringly at the feet of Poe and guests engaged in witty repartee. She remarks: “I remember Fannie Osgood and Phoebe Cary rather excelled at this small game, but Margaret Fuller looked like an owl at the perpetration of a pun, and I honored her for it.”

We’ll just print one poem from the anthology of 19th century American women poets, a brief lyric by Anne Lynch Botta, the salon hostess mentioned above.  Do 19th century women poets who can write like this deserve to be forgotten?  This poem contains many merits: artistic unity, descriptive power, force of imagery, and a symbolism which is not static, but unfolds as we read the poem:

LINES on an incident observed from the deck of a steamboat on the Mississippi river

Where the dark primeval forests
Rise against the western sky,
And “the Father of the Waters”
In his strength goes rushing by:

There an eagle, flying earthward
From his eyrie far above,
With a serpent of the forest
In a fierce encounter strove.

Now he gains and now he loses,
Now he frees his ruffled wings;
And now on high in air he rises;
But the serpent round him clings.

In the death embrace entwining,
Now they sink and now they rise;
But the serpent wins the battle
With the monarch of the skies.

Yet his wings still struggle upward,
Though that crushing weight they bear;
But more feebly those broad pinions
Strike the waves of upper air.

Down to earth he sinks a captive
In that writhing, living chain;
Never o’er the blue horizon
Will his proud form sweep again.

Never more in lightning flashes
Will his eye of terror gleam
Round the high and rocky eyrie,
Where his lonely eaglets scream.

Oh majestic, royal eagle,
Soaring sunward from thy birth,
Thou hast lost the realm of heaven
For one moment on the earth!

Perhaps this is not a ‘great poem’ to a 21st century professor bent over it in a library, but imagine a 19th century salon, where poems live in a rich, down-to-earth, social atmosphere: one part gossip, one part entertainment, one part noble tradition.  Would this poem not be perfect?

“YOU WHO HEAR THE SOUND, IN SCATTERED RHYMES”

Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.

I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.

Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:

It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.

How many themes relate to Petrarch!   He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere.  Musa, again from the introduction:

In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.

Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.

W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere.  Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”

Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?

I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.

translated A.S. Kline, 2002

Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell.  Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature.  I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch.  Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.

We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:

Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,

than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,

so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.

# 52, trans. Musa

I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion.  Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.

Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time.  The Modernists ignored him.  But look at this poem:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,

and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.

How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?

And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.

#311, trans. Musa

Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.

And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of  the speech:

Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,

and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,

speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.

Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.

Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today.  He is the template for all great lyric poetry.



GINSBERG RUNS ON DICK—RICHARD CECIL SEEKS SWEET SIXTEEN AGAINST THE SAINT OF EAST 12TH STREET

ginsberg

Ginsberg: 3/5 Williams, 2/5 Kvetch.  He once had silken thighs.

Here we go: the penultimate match for Scarriet’s 2011 APR Tournament Sweet Sixteen!

Allen Ginsberg, 3/5 hairy, 2/5 bald, was not a happy old man, writing in his “The Charnel Ground,”

feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus head, anus–
Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye–
High school youth the inside skin of my thighs was silken smooth tho nobody touched me there back then—

Ginsberg has a remarkably expansive mind—it confesses everything, even as it has no ideas.

The ‘having no ideas’ part is precisely what makes Ginsberg the heir of Williams/Aldington H.D./Pound Imagism; just as Whitman was Emerson’s Frankenstein monster, Ginsberg was Williams‘ No-Ideas-But-In-Things monster: Ginsberg’s poetry is things taking over, the dead coming to life, things cluttering up the mind of all poems.

Emerson had ideas, but since in the end they all contradicted each other, all that remained was passionate rhetoric, transcendent rhetoric that wouldn’t be pinned down, and was poetic just for that: you can try it for yourself: take Emerson and put him into lines, and you’ve got Whitman, the run-away train of magnificent observations sans real thought.

One man’s prose really is another man’s poetry.

This phenomena of prose feeding poetry, the essayist as the model for the poet, the poet merely singing the dead philosopher, has always been the story, not a modern one; poetry solidifies into free verse when captured by the fluidity of prior prose.

What happens with modernist poetry, Whitman-Williams-Ginsberg, etc, is that poetry ceases to think; it thinks, but not as a poem would thinkGinsberg does think, he does have thoughts; but his poems don’t think; they are not realized as poems—they are scraps and jottings: American poetry as Emerson’s Diary.  This experiment will even work: Emerson in lines sometimes sounds like Pound and Ginsberg, too.   The hectoring grumble, the admonition to take off your clothes and wave your cock around!  The whole thing is, unfortunately, finally more homogenous than any sentimental Victorian-verse counterpart.

It is the hell of the avant-garde who finally is trapped in the prison of nothing-to-say.  All that rebellious energy, but no poetry; nowhere, finally, to go.

Why does the rebel Blake sound august, and the rebel Ginsberg like a mere downer?

Why do Williams, Pound and Ginsberg taste like watery wine?  Because their wine was their manifesto, the intoxication of their poetry was ‘make it new,’ which unfortunately translated, poetically, into ‘make it dull.’   Good wine, as everyone knows, is not new.  The intoxication that sold what they were doing to the critics, and professors, and sex addicts, and kids who hated their parents, was in the sell, not in the poetry itself.

MARLA MUSE: Devastating.  I can hear the yowls and yawps of protest already coming over the rooftops.  “Strawman” is already forming on someone’s lips.

We are the hollow men, Marla.  Heads filled with straw.  But with young, silken smooth thighs.

MARLA MUSE: Oh, they’re right, Tom!  You are the most entertaining commentator on poetry alive!

O what shall we do?  Bang or whimper?

MARLA MUSE: Is the game starting?

Yes.  But I have to ask one more question:

So how did the shining clarity of the Red Wheel Barrow evolve into the complaint of Howl?

It happened because “So much depends” was not a thing, and even if it were, it would be like a basketball player content with the look of his face or his uniform. You’ve got to play.

And  Ginsberg can play, Marla.  He runs.  He plays the full-court game.

The Red Wheel Barrow, despite the blind who think otherwise, was not a thing.

It was a manifesto.

A manifesto Ginsberg ran with.

The Red Wheel Barrow did come to the public’s attention, like the poem, “The Raven,” for instance, in a daily newspaper, or from a recitation; the Red Wheel Barrow came to the public’s attention in a text book, a text book honoring it and written by a couple of New Critics who approved of the Red Wheel Barrow just as Williams automatically approved of Ginsberg.  The New Critics loved both the “raw” and the “cooked,” which was division of no meaning, since the belief that a poem is “raw” is like the belief that the Red Wheel Barrow is a thing.

Dumb manifestos lead to dull poetry.

Now by the time Ginsberg ran with Williams‘ bad manifesto, Whitman and Pound had reconciled, which meant Emerson/Whitman were back in the game: the sprawling Ginsberg could sprawl without ideas as long as enough things (raw details) ran up and down the court with him.  The tiny false distinction between raw and cooked quickly closed; Emerson the august brick-thrower, the ‘Made-in-the-USA Nietzsche,’ held sway once more, as modernists could eschew cute imagism for something as mindless, but with more heft: say-anything-you-goddamn-please-in-lines-way-out-to-here.  This formula was magical and had much more staying power than Imagism, which died a quick death—no wonder Pound quickly announced, the very  moment Imagism flopped, that he was writing a long poem—it was a desperate effort to save his career; and it worked—because he had enough crazy friends who believed The Cantos was one poem, and not just a string of unrelated scribbles.  What was so magical about ‘Say-anything-you-goddamn-please’ was not that it produced anything that was terribly interesting (in fact most of it was terribly boring) but because it made good poetry that had been written before look like it wasn’t saying everything, that it had something to hide: Ginsberg was grotesque, but he was telling the truth, and therefore, by comparison, the more reticent—because more crafted—poetry of prior eras, was not.

At least this was the unspoken sell of modernist poetry: the whole freeing and breaking down the doors thing.  Jorie Graham claimed that in her latest book (Overlord) she was doing something wonderful—writing simultaneously like Whitman and Williams—long lines and short lines together.  Her experiment proved to be a muddle (and greeted by po-biz with an embarrassed silence) because Graham’s attempt was nothing more than an elaboration of a bankrupt modernist manifesto.  There aren’t short lines and bad lines; there are only good lines.  If your writing is dull, your little lines will blur into long ones and your long ones will be read as a series of little ones.

MARLA MUSE: I see the game is starting!

Cecil tries to make it a half-court game against Ginsberg, but it’s hopeless.  Cecil’s knotty, prosy lyric, as interesting as it is, doesn’t stand a chance.

Ginsberg, 101-70.

Allen Ginsberg is in the Sweet Sixteen.

WALT WHITMAN, VICTORIAN

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the most Victorian of authors, the very opposite of a modernist or imagist.  His poem, “Darest Thou Now O Soul,” for instance:

Darest Thou Now O Soul

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

That we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O  joy, O  fruit of all) them to fulfill O soul.

In Whitman’s poem rhetoric is far more important than image, and the manner and the subject are utterly Victorian, and not in the least modern.  Whitman travels solo, an American vagabond, cut loose from all, and yet his yearning to connect within his profound disconnectedness is what gives him his signature attitude and emotion.

Let us look at another classic Victorian poem, this one by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), born within weeks of Whitman, but in England, and so much more connected to life than Whitman:

When All the World… (from The Water Babies)

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

Now both of these poems are highly expressive and highly emotional; but Whitman’s poem is free of the world and without image of the world; Whitman is completely taken with “O Soul,” but Kingsley is immersed in “the world” and images of “the world” and memories and lessons of “the world,” dragging in trees and swans and lasses; Kingsley is grasping the world with all his might, while Whitman has let go; Whitman is transparent, invisible except for a rhetorical gesture, a desire, a wish, an expression only, an urge. 

Whitman is a Victorian looking backwards at Shelley; Kingsley is a Victorian looking forward to Yeats and 20th century Symbolism and Imagism. 

Kingsley was an early supporter of Darwin’s ideas; no “O Soul” for Kingsley; that’s more for the more sentimental Victorian, Whitman.

Here again is Whitman, and again we see the Victorian morality, the sermon, the speech, the gesture, without any need to be in the world, as such; the world is insignificant, the world is gone, and for Whitman only a  moral and mystical intuition remains:

To A Common Prostitute

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl I appoint with you an appointment, and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then I salute you with a significant look that you do not forget me.

One thinks, of course, of Christ’s forgiveness, the instant understanding that washes away sin, for we all are sinners, all “lusty as Nature,” as Whitman says he is, and therefore as the sun shines on all, so the sun shines on this “common prostitute” and then Whitman implies he is going to come to her after she makes ready and it is intentionally ambiguous what he is going to do: rape her as a Zeus-like figure disguised, or give her wise counsel; as usual with the Victorian Whitman what is clear is the emotional wallop; he is morally equal with her and placid, but at the same time he is morally superior and even morally inferior because he wishes her to remember him almost as if he were a common wooer of her; it is a miraculous attitude as Whitman manages to be Pagan god, Old Testament father, New Testament Christ, and humble lover towards his “girl” all at once—here is the truly protean Whitman able to be/say everything by dint of his complete loving detachment. 

A human being cannot do this, only poetry can.

For the modernists, poetry will become an irony as it reaches what is apparently its limit; the dream of Shelley has invaded all aspects of life, the past, the present, the future; a pagan statue bathed in the holy light of Christ now become the mind of the poet itself and the poem literally bursts with too much soul and what is left is the hard fragments of the imagists or the elusive ironies of the moderns.

The hard ground of common-sense, which Victorian poets like Charles Kingsley walked upon, was rejected by the new poets of the 20th century; but for some reason Whitman, who represented a Romantic/Victorian end, and we can clearly see the ‘traveled as far as one can go’ in Whitman’s prostitute poem—for some reason, Whitman, the culmination of the Romantic/Victorian line, was welcomed by the moderns as a beginning, and, after some initial reluctance, hailed as a true modern.

Why?  Because Whitman used dramatic speech, unencumbered by strict meters? 

Were the moderns simply unable to write good free verse themselves (free verse being one of the modern tenets) and so Whitman, though born in 1819, had to be borrowed, so to speak, for a 20th century job? 

This may be part of it; remember, the chief poet of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, achieved his best results sliding back into retro-meters, and Pound just couldn’t pull off free verse interest like Whitman could. 

OK, Walt, you’re hired. 

But this was a deal with the devil, because you can’t give a Victorian a job in the Modernist factory, and finally the work that had to be done did not get done; ghosts cannot run a modern firm.  Think, too, of another keen modernist theorist: John Crowe Ransom—another rhyming throw-back.  Or Cummings, a Victorian love-poet if there ever was one.  Auden?  A balladeer?  He wasn’t modern enough, either. 

20th century painting looked so different from 19th century painting.  But poetry, trying so hard to be modern, either jingled too much in a 19th century manner, or looked too much like haiku, a form that looked backwards, as well.

This is why Whitman was heavily recruited for awhile, and now we think of him, with Dickinson (b. 1830) as moderns, not Victorians—which is what they are.  This had a tumultuous affect on modernist literature.  No one was supposed to be rhyming, but poets did, so Eliot went for a collage effect, burying his meters in fragments—but this was a deal with the devil, too; you just don’t sacrifice artistic unity out of weakness, and this is what Pound and Eliot did. 

Pound was also unscrupulous in another way; he and his friend Williams wrote haiku—anything to avoid looking Victorian—and re-named their haiku-writing Imagism to pretend they were moderns, doing something new.  But no one was doing anything new: they were re-naming, smashing, and recruiting 19th century poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Baudelaire) and at the same time pretending they were “new”—so desperate were the would-be ‘moderns’ that previous eras were rejected whole cloth, and this made the problem even worse; sources of inspiration continued to dry up as the new writers self-consciously struck their ‘new’ poses, selectively trashing, breaking, rejecting, and recruiting. 

Luckily for the Modernists, most intellectuals just wanted to join the ‘new’ party, whatever it was, whether it was justified or not; looser morals alone was enough to get people onboard the ‘modernist train,’ and painting was doing a pretty good job of looking ‘modern,’ so if Pound wore a beret and the poets hung out with a few painters, all was fine. 

They just had to be careful not to use terms like “O soul.”

MORE OF THE POETRY GAME! READING X’S POETRY IS LIKE…

kids-reading-poetry

WALT WHITMAN

You’re 50.  It’s spring.  You’ve excused yourself from a wedding where you’ve rubbed shoulders and danced with everyone, all strangers, and as you stumble, intoxicated, into a lilac bush, you glimpse a couple kissing just before you black out.

LONGFELLOW

You’re 10.  It’s late summer.  You’re staring at a clean, straight, brick church and you feel a pleasant breeze as you start for the pond with your toy boat.

DICKINSON

You’re 30.  It’s winter.  You’re in a small bed-sitting room with door ajar, nibbling on crumb cake, reading an old romance.  It’s snowing outside and someone your age, who you don’t like, is approaching by a hidden staircase.

HART CRANE

You’re 40.  It’s early summer.  You know you left it somewhere, but where.  It has a long chain that dangles down and a wire that leads up.  You were in the basement cleaning the jars and you spilled a box of shells behind 3 chests piled up, and this reminds you that you have to return a phone call and get to your car, fast.

EDNA MILLAY

You’re 13.  It’s late spring.  You find a statue in a forest.  You circle round it, shading your eyes from the noon sun that slants through the trees.

ROBERT LOWELL

You’re 15.  It’s a warm fall evening.  You are lying on the floor in the family library, among pillows, nearly recovered from a fever, daydreaming over family portraits.

WHAT GOOD IS INFLUENCE IF IT DOESN’T INFLUENCE?

influences.jpg

Famous works of American poetry, admired as they are by critics and public alike, have never been reproduced.  Like a wonder in nature, a mountain or a canyon, or like a giant statue in the Soviet Union, they reign coldly and alone.

Forms like the haiku, the sonnet, the ode, the ballad, quickly became community property, but the masterpiece is admired—after all, is it not a masterpiece?—but it is never imitated.  It breeds not.  It stands aloof.  It does not add its waters to the common spring.

There may be parodies of the acclaimed work, but the masterpiece does not give birth to anything.    Poets die in its flame; generations destroy themselves attempting to match the spirit of the masterpiece, perishing in futile mediocrity.

Is this why originality is so urged?   Is this why “make it new” is such a common cry?

But originality needs a vehicle; nothing is completely original.  The great works do not provide these vehicles—for the very reason that no one can ride in them—their very genius and uniqueness makes this impossible.

So influence tends to happen along lesser lines.

“The Raven,” “Leaves of Grass” and “The Waste Land” are three iconic American works, and all of them escape imitation.   They welcome readers, but they wreck the poet who dares to enter them.

The more iconic, the less influential?

Is this why great poems are so few and far between?

HOW DO WE TEACH POETRY?

Is it just me, or does modernist poetics seem puerile in the extreme?

In my (2003) Norton -Third Edition- of Modern Poetry (including Contemporary vol. 2 which Scarriet will review later) there are 864 pages of poetry and 135 pages of poetics, the latter of which contain nothing that could be called iconic or indispensible, except perhaps T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Walt Whitman is the first entry.  But he had no poetics.  Whitman: “here are the roughs and beards and space…”  Etc.  With Walt we get the rhetoric of Emersonian expanse, which in its good will and windiness, finally cancels itself out.  Poetics?  Pastry.

Next we get a few of Emily Dickinson’s letters to T.W. Higginson—which not only contain no poetics, but do not even show Emily  in a very good light; her wheedling tone is not attractive.

Next, some letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” 

No doubt. 

“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm…it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone…I do not say the idea is altogether new…”

Doh! not new at all.

Then we have W.B. Yeats, and who reads his prose?    Yeats and his friend, Arthur Symons, influenced Ezra Pound and Eliot; Yeats writes, “The Symbolist Movement in Literature [is] a subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been dedicated to me,” and Yeats is right: the book is so subtle that today none care what Symons had to say about “symbolism,” a word used in so many subtle ways since Symons’ day that the word has now returned to its orginal meaning: ‘this stands for that,’ and everyone is happier.

Yeats:  “A poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table,  there is always phantasmagoria.”  And Yeats, again: “Style is always unconscious.  I know what I have tried to do, little what I have done.”

Well, he’s honest.

Next up, T.E. Hulme, expelled from Cambridge U. in 1904, part of Ford Madox Ford & Pound’s Imagism crew, “a critic of pacifism,” WW I casualty : “I object even to the best of the romantics.  I object to the sloppiness…”

Oh, is that what the best poets in English were?  Sloppy?

Now we get a real treat: excerpts from the magazine Blast.  Like most little modernist magazines, it lasted only a few issues, even as some now-forgotten female, an heiress or lady of title, was emptying her bank account for it, just so the world could be honored by the wisdom of Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis and E. Pound:

“BLESS ENGLAND!”

“The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—”

“In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is, ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art.”

“Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.”

“Fairies have disappeared from Ireland (despite foolish attempts to revive them) and the bull-ring languishes in Spain.  But mysticsm on the one hand, gladiatorial instincts, blood and asceticism on the other, will be always actual, and springs of Creation for these two peoples.”

“England is just now the most famous favourable country for the appearance of great art.”

“…our race, the most fundamentally English.”

“We assert that the art for these climates, then, must be a Northern flower.”

“It cannot be said tht the complication of the Jungle, dramatic tropical growth, the vastness of American trees, is not for us.”

“Once the consciousness towards the new possibilities of expression in present life has come, however—it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe…”

I wish I could say BLAST was merely English patriotism, but knowing something about the authors, I have a feeling it is something far worse…

There follows a “Feminist Manifesto” from Mina Loy, which tells women:

“To obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your “virtue” the fictitious value of woman as identified with her physical purity…”

No wonder Loy was one of the few women intellectuals invited into the Modernist men’s club…

After a two very brief prologues (Amy Lowell and Wilfred Owen) E. Pound returns with gems such as:

“Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.
   The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s ‘Drover’: his ‘O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die’: Joyce’s ‘I hear an army’; the lines of Yeats that ring in my head and in the heads of all young men of my time who care for poetry: Braseal and the Fisherman, ‘The fire that stirs about her when she stirs’; the later lines of ‘The Scholars,’ the faces of the Magi; William Carlos Williams’ ‘Postlude,’ Aldington’s version of ‘Athis,’ and ‘H.D.’s” waves like pine tops, and her verse in ‘Des Imagistes’ the first anthology; Hueffer’s [Ford M. Ford] ‘How red your lips are’ in his translation from Von der Vogelweide, his ‘Three Ten,’ the general effect of his ‘On Heaven’; his sense of the prose values or prose qualities in poetry; his ability to write poems that will sing to music…”

E. Pound names “the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head” and they are all his publishing partners and friends!  What a startling coincidence!  Joyce, Yeats, Williams, Aldington, H.D, and Ford Madox Ford!  How uncanny!  What exquisite taste!  What rare and discerning judgment! 

We are now two-thirds done with “Poetics” of the Moderns, which commenced with Whitman.

T.S. Eliot gets 10 pages. 

Next, William Carlos Williams, from the prologue to Kora In Hell:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.  To me this is the gist of the whole matter.”

Can anyone tell me what this means.  Or this: 

“The instability of these improvisations would seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention and become particles of a wind that falters.  It would appear to the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly.  It would be these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools.”

Enough of Mr. Williams.  He is too busy fighting off  “fools…”

D.H. Lawrence (a preface to New Poems, U.S. edition) follows:

“Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds.  Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance.”

Yes, by all means!

Langston Hughes makes an appearance:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’  And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Enough of that logic…

Next, Hart Crane defends his ‘At Melville’s Tomb’ in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe.  She found the poem obscure.  It is obscure.  Hopelessly so—Monroe was right.

Wallace Stevens’ turn:

“Poetry is not personal.”

“All poetry is experimental poetry.”

“It is the belief and not the god that counts.”

“Poetry must be irrational.”

“We live in the mind.

“Every man dies his own death.”

“Realism is a corruption of reality.”

And other gems. 

The final 25 pages of “Poetics” finds 3 pages of Robert Frost (The Figure A Poem Makes), 7 pages from a Transatlantic Interview with the crackpot Gertrude Stein, 6 pages of  Marianne Moore (6 too many) and finally, 10 pages of W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

What is wonderful about Mr. Auden is that he is only educated modern poet who does not speak down to his audience.

It is probably  no surprise that modernist poetics is so paltry.  Modern poetry is enjoyed by the few, and with the general public out of the way, the old need to apologize for, or defend, poetry is no longer there.   Small ideas appeal to small audiences, and since the modern poets have turned their backs on the larger public, small has been the rule.

Unfortunately, however, I have the uncomfortable feeling that modern poetics is less than small.  Something about it feels downright silly and childish, or even worse, manifesto-ish.  And still worse: obscure, grumpy, condescending.

I don’t see how one would want to teach Homer without teaching Plato at the same time;  nor would I ever dream of teaching modern poetry without first teaching Homer and Plato, Dante and Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, Shelley and Poe.   I don’t see how what is typically taught as modern poetics can even be called poetics at all, when compared to what came before.

But that’s just me.

EMERSON, HE DO DIFFERENT VOICES

Emerson as Whitman

What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions,
if I live wholly from within?
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this;
the only right is what is after my constitution,
the only wrong what is against it.
A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,
as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names,
to large societies and dead institutions.
Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.
I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.
If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?
I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me.
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.
I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

Emerson as Ginsberg 

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members!

Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater!

The virtue in most request is conformity!

Self-reliance is its aversion!

It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs!

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist!

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind!

Emerson as Ezra Pound

If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These excerpts from “Whitman,” “Ginsberg,” and “Pound” are from the same page of the same essay: “Self-Reliance.”

SCARRIET PRESENTS NATIONAL ‘POETRY BASEBALL’ MONTH

Hell, let’s play a whole season. 

Here are the teams.  They play in little bucolic ballparks.  No DH.

National League

Philadelphia Poe
New York Bryants
Hartford Greenleaf Whittiers
Cambridge Longfellows
Boston Lowells
Concord Emersons
Brooklyn Ashberys
New Jersey Ginsbergs
Tennessee Ransoms
Maine Millays

American League

Brooklyn Whitmans
New England Frost
London Eliots
Rapallo Pound
New Jersey Williams
Hartford Stevens
New York Moores
Cambridge Cummings
Amherst Emily
Iowa City Grahams

Baseball Poetry Commissioner: the honorable Harold Bloom
Player Union Rep:  Camille Paglia

There are still some hold-outs, most notably W.H. Auden from the Ashberys. 

Scouting Report Highlights:

NL

The brawling Philadelphia Poe features Lord Byron in the clean-up spot and Alexander Pope does mound duties as the ace of a pitching staff not afraid to throw inside.

The elegant New York  Bryants have Abraham Lincoln as their chief twirler and the slugging Thomas Cole hitting no. 4 in a highly distinguished lineup.

The Hartford Greenleaf Whittiers bring William Lloyd Garrison as their ace and Charles Dickens just signed up to play centerfield.

The Cambridge Longfellows have Washington Irving roaming center and Dante and Horace as mound aces.

The Boston Lowells field Mark Twain at short, Robert Browning in left, and Charles Eliot Norton and Leigh Hunt as their dominant hurlers.

Beware the Concord EmersonsWilliam James is their ace, Swedenborg bashes from the cleanup spot, and Thoreau tends centerfield.

The Brooklyn Ashberys have Frank O’Hara leading off and Andy Warhol is their ace.   Kenneth Koch and James Tate anchor the infield, while Charles Bernstein is in the bullpen.

The Ginsbergs of New Jersey have William Blake slugging from the No. 4 hole, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan as their double play combination and Mark Van Doren and William Burroughs on the mound.

The Tennessee Ransoms have Allen Tate at catcher and Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, I.A. Richards, and Paul Engle on the hill.

Rounding out the National League, we have the Maine Millays with Edmund Wilson and Philip Sidney pitching, with Sappho out in center.

AL

The Brooklyn Whitmans have Oscar Wilde and F.O. Matthiessen as no. 1 and no. 2 starters, with Lawrence Fernlinghetti, C.K. Williams and William Michael Rossetti providing up-the-middle defense at second, short, and center.

The New England Frost have William Wordsworth in the clean-up spot with Louis Untermeyer as their no. 1 hurler.

The London Eliots have Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell on the mound with Tristan Corbiere at first, Jules LaForgue at third, and Arthur Symons behind the plate.

The Rapallo Pound are stocked, with Benito Mussollini in right, Hugh Kenner on the mound and Ernest Fenollosa at shortstop.  Negotiations are continuing with Joyce, Yeats, and Duchamp.

The New Jersey Williams have Man Ray as their ace and Robert Creeley in the lead-off spot.  They also want Duchamp.

The Hartford Stevens have pitching depth with George Santayana, Helen Vendler, and  John Hollander.  James Merrill is in the clean-up spot.

The New York Moores have Elizabeth Bishop at the top of the lineup and Pater in the bullpen.  Ted Hughes is their big slugger.

The Cambridge Cummings have Picasso batting no. 3 and Scofield Thayer and T.E. Hulme anchoring the pitching staff.

The Amherst Emily has Thomas Wentworth Higginson as their pitching ace with Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett in the outfield.

Finally, the Iowa City Grahams have Bin Ramke and Peter Sacks as key pitchers and James Galvin powering the middle of the lineup.

Stay tuned for complete team rosters.

We’ll give you updates during the season…every trade, every management dispute… individual stats, stat leaders, and team standings as the season progresses.

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten dass ich so traurig bin

Lyric Poetry

Sung to the lyre, it has a certain fascination. American lyrics from Irish ballads to Emily Dickinson to Annie Finch. Whitman, that lyric maelstrom. What about Heine? Could any man write these lyrics now? Is lyric poetry only written by women today? And then there’s Dylan (Bob) with the “lowest form” of lyric: the song lyric.

Most poetry is lyric, isn’t it?

W.F.Kammann

.

………………………………….Harlem

………………………………….What happens to a dream deferred?

………………………………….Does it dry up
………………………………….like a raisin in the sun?
………………………………….Or fester like a sore—
………………………………….And then run?
………………………………….Does it stink like rotten meat?
………………………………….Or crust and sugar over—
………………………………….like a syrupy sweet?

………………………………….Maybe it just sags
………………………………… like a heavy load.

………………………………….Or does it explode?

………………………………………………………………..Langston Hughes

.


“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

VISIONARY VAPORS: WALT WHITMAN’S VISTAS.

 

Walt Whitman.  Prose was not his strength.

Democratic Vistas (1871) has long occupied an uncertain place in  Walt Whitman studies.  Whitman’s two greatest drawbacks are that his poetry sounds too much like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prose and that in the poetry there’s little variety of tone or approach—it takes the same leap at sublime, transcendental individualism every time.

Vistas, the only prose article by the poet that gets any attention, sounds uncomfortably like Whitman’s poetry—only worse.

Whitman’s post-Civil War essay is nothing but an embarrassing and dyspeptic slipping of the visionary poet’s mask in a voice that is unfortunately close to the poet’s, and probably should  not have been published, since its misanthropy doesn’t play well in Whitman Land.

Vistas makes most sense when seen as a link between turgid Transcendentalism and fervid, misanthropic Modernism, a rant slavish to Emerson and pointing to Pound, as it petulantly rejects “foreign” literature while trumpeting vague and hopeful novelty:

“Thus we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank.  But the throes of birth are upon us; and we have something of this advantage in seasons of strong formations, doubts, suspense—for then the afflatus of such themes haply may fall upon us, more or less; and then, hot from surrounding war and revolutions, our speech, though without polish’d coherence, and a failure by the standard called criticism, comes forth, real at least as the lightnings.”   —Democratic Vistas

The blather here is not even high grade blather.

Whitman finds popular literature too cheap, ancient literature too old, Romantic literature belonging to “nightingales,” and Shakespeare “poison” on account of his “feudalism.”   Whitman wants nothing to do with any “foreign” stuff; he ends up condemning it all.    A flood is required, leaving Walt Whitman on a mountaintop in the west, chanting of Kosmos and “perfect Mothers” for New World breeding.

The dilemma facing the author of Vistas is the old one: you promote fresh air against the unhealthy bookworm-ism of fops, but since you are doing so in books, you prove yourself a useless and petulant bookworm at last.

There is no greater example of bookworm-ism than the inanity of DV, with its fop author trumpeting in loud tones a condemnation of fops.

Whitman’s career was picking up steam since “O Captain! My Captain!”  He was no longer 37, however; his self-help, fresh-air, vatic utterances were being out-sold by quaint, Victorian, lady authors on every hand; his reputation was rising in 1871, thanks to recognition by the Pre-Raphaelites in England, but his paralytic stroke was only 2 years away.  He must have felt, as a real Man of Letters, that he needed a worthy piece of prose to his name, but he just wasn’t up to it; he looks to sound a progressive note, but he can’t escape the pull of those “lady” authors and their “fictions,” and so he looks forward to the misogynist aspects of Modernism, which we see in the following paragraph:

“The idea of the women of America (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady) developed, raised to become the robust equals, workers, and it may be, even practical and political deciders with men–greater than man, we may admit, through their divine maternity, always their towering, emblematic attribute—but great, at any rate, as man, in all departments; or, rather capable of being so, soon as they realize it, and can bring themselves to give up toys and fictions, and launch forth as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life.”  —Democratic Vistas

Note the cheap radicalism, the broad political formulation of what women, according to Whitman, should be, and amidst all the hyperbolic praise, note that he manages to fully insult the female race at the same time.  Women are not part of “stormy life???”  Excuse me?

To see how the froth of Emerson becomes the crankiness of Pound, one must wade through the vomit of Democratic Vistas.

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