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.

 

 

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NALINI PRIYADARSHNI TANGLES WITH RICHARD WILBUR IN THE SOUTH

Richard Wilbur, back at the end of the 20th century, told Peter Davison, then poetry editor of the Atlantic, “I love Bill Williams’s poems but his critical opinions seem to me to be nonsense. He was forever saying that if you write a sonnet you are making a curtsey to the court of Elizabeth I–”

Well, Dick, in some ways, Bill (WC Williams) was right.

The sonnet, as a form, just has a way of sounding polite and respectful, no matter how many ‘bad words’ you toss in there.

But on the other hand, is this a bad thing?

In a nutshell, this is what went completely wrong with American poetry in the early 20th century—and we still have not recovered.

American poetry split decisively into two camps: and both were dead wrong.

And the fatal error was thinking the choice you had was only between these two.

One camp, let’s call it the WC Williams camp, said: Get rid of the sonnet!

The other camp, let’s call it the Richard Wilbur camp, said, But we can make the sonnet impolite!

The truth is: the sonnet, as a form, is polite, and there’s nothing at all wrong with this.

A form, like the sonnet, which always sounds polite, no matter how selfish and rude the author, is a wonderful invention—a gift to the world.

But it shows nothing but ignorance of form in general to then assume that all forms are like the sonnet.

Just as it is ignorant to insist that poetry should not be beautiful, or romantic, or worshipful, or respectful, if that is, indeed, what certain forms do best.  If you want to slap a person in the face, use your hand.  And yet a curtsey, depending on to whom it is made, or where, or when, can be even more devastating than a slap.

Nalini Priyadarshni, from Punjab, India, enters our 2016 March Madness Tournament with the following:

Denial won’t redeem you or make you less vulnerable. My unwavering love just may.

Poetry once appealed to sentiment and fed on sentiment and grew large and popular on sentiment and quieted crowds with sentiment and gloried in sentiment.

Until one day, poetry was demeaned and shamed with the relatively recent term (early 20th century) that’s entirely pejorative: sentimental. 

One can see Pound in the transition period using the word sentimentical.

This line of Priyadarshni’s (singing with a strong iambic/anapestic rhythm) could defeat armies.

Richard Wilbur, who is 95, and honored with the second seed in the South, very much belongs to that overly-intellectual century (the 20th) in which poetry lost its way, asserting itself in thousands of tragically over-thought strategies.

Here is Wilbur asserting himself, without sentiment, as poets in the American 20th century were wont to do, strongly, forcefully (one can almost hear the fist thumping on the desk: not, not, not!):

not vague, not lonely, not governed by me only

Wilbur was a formalist, and like so many formalists in the 20th century, had to apologize for it in all sorts of unconscious ways, yearning to be serious, but falling into spasms of light verse here and there, almost against his will; writing as delicately as he could with a modesty that signaled to his peers he wanted nothing to do with courts and queens and monuments.

This contest is sentiment—of the most loving and powerful kind: Priyadarshni—against whatever it was respected poets were trying to do in the 20th century: Wilbur.

Who will win?

 

 

WHAT IS POETRY? LISTEN TO ALEXANDER POPE

Pope: No awards or degrees. Self-taught. Banned from higher education in his native England for being a Catholic. World famous.

Alexander Pope was 20 when he wrote his rhymed “An Essay on Criticism.” This single essay contains more memorable poetry quotations than the entire 20th century produced.

We want to focus on one from that essay, which might save poetry from the wretched state it is currently in:

“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

In their mania for “the new,” the modern poets (who have no public) constantly strive for what has never been thought before—and no wonder the results are sometimes pleasantly odd (at best) but mostly baffling, obscure, and unreadable.

Since thought and language are profoundly linked, any random combination of words, sentences or phrases will, in theory, produce “new thought.” If only this were true! We would all be poets, and all poetry magnet kits, Shakespeare.

It is easy to illustrate, with the help of Pope’s quote, this “new thought” folly, but this does not mean this folly has not been highly seductive.

Unfortunately, bad things seduce.

The Moderns, if anyone has any doubt, are to blame. We mean those men born in the latter part of the 19th century—Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Who has “thought” in white spaces on the page: how “oft” has that been thought before?  If you take this question too seriously, be careful; you might have the Modernist virus—which holds the utterly baffling “new” to be more important than common sense.

Pound’s Imagism, which led to his friend, Williams’ “no ideas but in things” further points to the insanity at issue; what sort of “thought” runs about in and between “things?” Isn’t it people (like Pope) who think?

If by “things,” the Modernists meant a sort of no-nonsense materialism (da Vinci on perspective or Poe on verse) than surely they would have said so (if they could actually bring themselves to do such a thing) but they didn’t; they really did mean things: a poem that reverently mentions a wheel barrow. This is really what it was all about. Yes, it really was crazy. A Duchamp conceptualist art joke. Ha ha.

T.S. Eliot represented the “serious/educated” fake side of Modernism, the counter-weight of gravitas in the Modernist scam.

Sexless, morbid Eliot—who hated Shelley—was like the sexless Ruskin and his “pre-Raphaelite” movement—eclectically raising certain art moments far above others: champion the Middle Ages at the expense of Raphael and the Renaissance: Ruskin—who famously and publicly attacked the great American poet, Whistler.

Eliot, when he was not whimpering about the end of his beloved British Empire in “The Waste Land,” theorized that Milton and the Romantics were saddled with a “dissociation of sensibility,” unlike the “Metaphysical poets.” It was actually taken seriously in some circles that Byron, Shelley, and Keats lacked fusion of thought and feeling, while Donne did not. Taking nonsense like this seriously was just what the Modernists did. Eliot attacked “Hamlet” and the work of Poe, for good measure. Modernism had to kill certain things before it, so it, itself, could be taken seriously. This is what it means to be “new” and “modern,” and Anglo-American, and teach in college.

The New Critics, the American ‘T.S. Eliot’ wing of Modernism, with their stern, tweedy advice that a poem was not something which could be “paraphrased,” was another weapon against “what oft was thought.”

Imagine the horror. Thousands and thousands of poets writing poems that cannot be paraphrased.

What could be paraphrased was too close to Pope’s “thought,” and the whole era of Pope and his Romantic Poet admirers had to be done away with: John Crowe Ransom (b. 1888) advised that we can’t write like Byron anymore, and the influential New Critic textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” held up as models little poems by Williams and Pound (on “things” and nothing else) and featured an attack by the Anglo-American Aldous Huxley against America’s Shakespeare, Edgar Poe.

Not only does casting aside “what has oft been thought,” cripple accessibility and thought, it also damages expression—since it leaves the poet nothing to express, a problem solved by Ashbery (given the Yale Younger by Auden, an Anglo-American friend of Eliot’s).  Ashbery—praised by the Poe-hating Harold Bloom and other academics—and his brand of refrigerator magnet poetry, is the natural result of the whole process, the decline which started when Modernism kidnapped the arts in the early 20th century—a decline from common sense to mystical snobbery.

Pope’s point: Expression should be new, not thought. This is poetry: new expression, not new thought.

The modern poet has been seduced by the idea that “If I don’t come up with new thoughts, I must be stupid!!”

But this idea is stupid.

Because here’s the secret: it really has all been thought before, and the most interesting thought is what has been running through the thoughts of everyone for centuries: you, as one poet, can’t compete with that. So don’t even try.

Don’t wreck yourself on expression trying to come up with original thoughts.

Original thoughts, which are truly that, are actual ideas which no one has ever entertained before. If one should be so fortunate to come up with one of these—if one is supremely lucky and fated to win the ‘idea lottery,’ why would one ever think that a ‘winning ticket’ like this should be inserted into a poem?  (Those things nobody reads anymore.)

Of course the reply might be: but according to you, Pope did, and you are spending this essay of yours defending Pope.

But Pope belongs to history, and here is where the picture of our essay gains its third dimension. We have spoken of 1) thought, 2) its expression—and the third, which is: ‘what has gone before,’ Pope’s “what oft was thought.”

We must assume that Pope’s advice—his thought—was “thought before”—Pope’s very idea, expressed in 1712, that what poetry really is, is whatever has been previously thought but now expressed in such a way that—what?

Had been thought before, but Pope crystallized it with his expression.

The message is this. Be humble, as the speaker for your tribe: take their thoughts and express them so that the thought is transmitted in the most efficient manner possible. Here is the essence of invention and beauty, for beauty, by definition, is that which expresses what it is immediately, and invention, in all cases, is nothing but that which takes our wants and brings them to us in less time. Beauty and invention do not create the wants, they serve them. Likewise, the poet does not create thoughts, but merely serves them.

A poem, as directly opposed to what the New Critics said, is not only that which can be paraphrased, but that which travels in that direction to an extreme degree.

Pope was—is—a crucial historical marker, and his “Essay” could not help but influence poetry that came after—not in the fake way that Modernism tried to usher in change and influence, with its influence of the thoughtless new for its own sake, sans want and sans beauty—for Pope had expressed a thought in such a way that gave that thought new currency, new force, new appreciation, for the sake of generations coming after, who need to understand anew the delicate ideas that fade away in utilitarian light.

There is a war, as Plato said, between philosophy and poetry, what is matter-of-factly good for the state and what is ecstatically good for the individual—“clean your room” (public projects) on one hand, and “what are you doing in your room?” (private desires) on the other—and this conflict is timeless, and its resolution is the secret of all human activity that can be called policy or art.

Pope’s admonition for poetry: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is precisely a blockbuster quotation because of its efficiency in resolving the philosophy/poetry conflict for the good of humankind; poetry can err in one of two basic ways: it can be too didactic in a public-minded manner, or too creepily and anti-socially private (obscure). Poetry, because of what it is, must err in one direction or the other, always attempting and failing at a happy medium; Pope erred, as a poet, towards the didactic, and Poe and the Romantics were a correction in the other direction. Yet the greatness of Pope’s formula remains—a Platonic ideal, feeding with its ideality poets of all kinds, as they move with their poetry towards public/private gratification.

Modernism’s “progress” is merely a Shadow Movement, moving in a faulty direction, downwards, backwards, a mere reaction to the True Progress of Great Poetry—which expresses beautifully what we all in our hearts know.

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)

THE MORAL SMUT PARADOX

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Poetry, once beautiful, has become merely eccentric; more troubling, currently, is the vast indifference, and even revulsion by the public for the art, despite valiant efforts at subsidy, chiefly the commerce and spread of university MFAs.

Some say we have a glut of poets—the MFA, a pyramid scheme when all pay for a small number who teach—poets read poets in a purely careerist context, even as real poetry hides in cracks and crevices—but “too many poets” and MFA criticism seems a small concern beside the tremendous indifference of the general public.

Why can’t poetry live outside of school (and Slam bars) and thrive in the public square, with cooking and napping and sports?

Because poetry is either

1) too easy or

2) too difficult:

1) Rhymes for imbeciles

2) Footnotes for specialists in which the content and syntax of a Newsweek essay stirs up in the reader a puzzle: why is this called poetry?

Surely there is a middle ground—between the banal pop lyric and the mangled prosy essay, between “We will, we will, rock you” and William Carlos Williams’ stupid plums, between Victorian pillow talk and academic vertigo—a middle ground of highly skilled, original poetry which pleases poet and non-poet alike—

A middle ground accessible to non-poets while alerting the poets that obscurity is over: Shelley, Keats, Byron and Dickinson are back.

This will do 3 things:

1. Make poetry better.

2. Make the pictorial and musical arts better as poetry inspires them once again

3. Revive public interest in poetry—even as the narrow creds-mongers howl in protest

The chief objection to a modern Romanticism revival (desperately needed since the pretensions of Pound and Williams mowed over the beauty of Millay) will come from the Institutional Art Theorists, who say the history of art (no matter how driven by actual folly) is more important than art, that poetry requires a “learned” context of historical change and development—as phase trumps the thing itself.

Old models—think of Greek Tragedy, cave paintings, Emerson’s doggerel, will be improved upon, yes, certainly, but the improvement comes from the original poet, not the impotent university scholar/historian who learnedly and belatedly cheers on change. The cheering in universities needs to stop and beautiful originality needs to begin.

The university historian says Keats is dead—because history is more important to them than art.

But there is an even deeper issue we need to address:

The poet, if he is worthy the name, avoids what chiefly cripples all moral expression: smutty morals, or moral smut, the heart and soul of most middle class literature.

We speak of best-selling literature in which morals are highly overt, and in order to be overt, makes smut overt as well, thus inflating even more the overt moral content, feeding and encouraging low-brow taste in the process, and dragging down in a mania of good intentions all literature into that “realism” of bad taste in which readers slum free of guilt.

The alternative: the “fantasy” genre, fares no better and is similarly in thrall, as it exploits moral smut even more overtly, using racy bad taste increasingly as its “ideal” weapon.

This earnest and vastly popular state of affairs not only makes for bad literature, it reduces the middle class population which consumes it into a species of reader entirely ill-equipped to appreciate beautiful good taste, which is the Eldorado of the Poet.

This is not to say that a certain amount of raciness and bad taste and excitement cannot drive certain types of popular literature—we are not saying there cannot be cakes and ale. Let there be cakes and ale. But when ale becomes excessive, infecting even so-called highbrow literature, and when good taste for its own sake is no longer cultivated, we reach that threshold in which the elevated feelings no longer stir, real moral beauty no longer excites, and the poor body drags along without a soul.

We also understand that lovely flowers grow in dirt, etc.  That contrast is required between low and high. Shakespeare was great at this, but his greatness—what other word is there for it?—kept the low in its place. Low is low—unless we are suckered after long exposure into admiring it.  Addicted, we continue to feed on what makes us ill; judgment atrophies, taste becomes bloated with sentimentalism, discernment wastes away, obscurity becomes robust in a pretentious miasma, and the best that’s left are sneering sophisticates with steely hearts.

The great poet resists overt morals—and the smutty bad taste which invariably feeds on it.

The prose novel, with its earthiness and scope, will sometimes benefit from this phenomenon.

But poetry is far more susceptible to the disease of which we speak.

The paradox of Moral Smut insidiously sweetens, destroying the healthy vigor of poetry, and its art, and Taste, in general.

 

 

 

THE AVANT-GARDE IS LOOKING FOR A NEW (BLACK) BOYFRIEND

Cathy Park Hong: “Fuck the avant-garde.”  But does she really mean it?

For its whole existence, Scarriet has hammered away at Modernism—and its Avant-garde identity—as nothing but a meaningless, one-dimensional joke (the found poem, basically) tossed at the public by reactionary, rich, white guys in order to make it ‘cool’ to stifle truly creative efforts accessible to the public at large.

The controversy surrounding Scarriet’s claim lies in this one simple fact: the Avant-garde (Ron Silliman, et al) identifies itself as politically Left.

In Leftist circles of the Avant-garde, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are championed for their poetry, not their politics.

We might call this Pound/Eliot phenomenon the Art-Split: Bad Poet/Good Poetry.

By accepting this “Split,” the reactionary, white, male, Avant-garde is given license to dress in Left-wing clothing.

You have to believe, of course, that Pound’s poetry is important and good, and that Hugh ” The Pound Era” Kenner’s trashing of Edna Millay, for instance, was a good and noble effort to debunk old-fashioned “quietist” poetry, and not chauvinist, jealous bullying.

Leftist Ron Silliman has no taste for Edna Millay, and the “Split” allows this to appear perfectly normal.

The embarrassing and obvious truth: 1. accessibility to the public at large is democratic, 2. befuddling the masses is reactionary, gets a yawn, too—because of the “Split.”

The reason the “Split” works as an excuse is that it appeals to both Left and Right intellectuals: the greatest ‘am I an intellectual?’ test is if one is able to grasp (and embrace) the idea that a person can be bad but still write good poetry.

We do not believe this is true; we believe the opposite: one cannot be a bad person and write good poetry. If the poet is a truly bad person, the “good” poetry was most likely stolen, or written before the soul of the poet became  rotten.

And this is why Modernists hate the Romantics—because the Romantics were poetic individuals, while the Modernists (because of skyscrapers and aeroplanes and women getting the vote and other lame excuses) were not.

The “Split,” the source of so much modernist mischief, is a red herring.  The almighty “Split” even makes one think Ezra Pound must be a good poet: one must believe this is so to have intellectual, avant-garde creds—simply for the reason that for so long now, the “Split” has ruled over Letters.  The wretched, sophistical, school-boy “And then went down to the ship,/ Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/ we set up mast and sail on that swart ship/” is somehow good because Pound is badAnd because it is wretched, it is avant-garde, and because it is avant-garde, it is wretched, and therefore better than, “What lips my lips have kissed and where and why.”  This is how those who think themselves very good judges of poetry convince themselves that Ezra Pound is a great poet.  Yes, it is truly frightening.

Despite the “Split,” rumblings about the reactionary nature of the Avant-garde were bound to start, as Scarriet does influence the culture it observes.

Witness the explosion of Left indignation in the latest Lana Turner Journal as the “Split”-fooled Left vaguely catches on.

We have Kent Johnson, an imaginative and brilliant man, in “No Avant-Garde: Notes Toward A Left  Front of the Arts,” reduced to the most pitiful, quixotic Old Leftism it is possible to imagine. In his essay, he imagines splendidly well, and he knows a great deal, but he’s very bitter, obviously, as the ugly truth—the Avant-garde is, and has always been, reactionary—sinks in.

We have Joshua Clover, in “The Genealogical Avant-Garde,” complaining in the same vein.

The current avant-gardes in contemporary Anglophone poetry make their claims largely by reference to previous avant-gardes.

The genealogical avant-garde is defined by a single contradiction. It has no choice but to affirm the very cultural continuity which it must also claim to oppose.

The “Split” is always rationalized.

The “Split” in this case, however, is not Bad Poet/Good Poetry, and in some ways it is far less problematic.

The “Split” now imploding due to common sense is: Bad Mainstream/Good Avant-garde.

The Avant-garde, as the progressive intellectuals finally understand it, is the Mainstream—and thus, bad.  Had they been able to see, 100 years ago, the nature of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. O. Matthiessen, and their New Critic allies, they would not have taken so long to understand the clever reactionary agenda.

But now they are finally getting it.

Cathy Park Hong (writing in Lana Turner no. 7) definitely wants a new boyfriend.  And it ‘aint Ron Silliman.

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.

Poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.

Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document.  Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form!

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.

Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.”

From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters.

Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions.

The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.

Yes, “fuck the avant-garde.”  But we might just add that it is the avant-garde that has always been the problem; in this case, the tail wags the dog.

The New Critics (ex-I’ll Take My Stand Old South reactionary agrarianists) got an “in” when they launched their textbook, Understanding Poetry in the late 30s—it praised Pound and attacked Poe.

Popular poets like Edgar Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay were the Mainstream “good” ambushed by the clique of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics.

How blithely and unthinkingly Cathy Park Hong takes up the “quietist” definition of the avant-garde (and ostentatiously Left) Silliman.

Unfortunately, they will get fooled again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

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

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

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what did they say was coming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TWO TRADITIONS

Thomas Eliot: He won!

There will always be two traditions. With the greatest philosophical rigor we claim this to be true, and  by the simplest possible mathematical reasoning, it is.

The Tradition will always be: those works that stick to each other as notable over time, comprising what cannot help but exist— due to both formal and imitative significance—as that which is definable as the—Tradition.

In poetry, these works are palpable and visible and real. This is not some abstract, theorizing gambit at work. Plato’s philosophy, Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s plays, Pope’s essays, Shelley’s odes, Poe’s fiction, Dickinson’s poems, Eliot’s criticism are the Tradition— and this is a certainty, and not for argument.

This defining Tradition can only be opposed by one other tradition—the opposing tradition, which, because by definition only one tradition can exist, is not a tradition, but will be called one and will be believed (by some) to be one, as such, and exists, therefore, as a shadow exists next to a body.

There is one Tradition, one Body (made of actual works that comprise a recognized canon) and not two. We can see this logically: there is one universe and we can divide the universe up in any number of ways without violating the idea of one universe, and so, without quibbling about the fluctuating content of the Tradition, we acknowledge with simple logic the Tradition as definitionally one.

Waiting impatiently in the wings, of course, is the “other” tradition, waiting for its moment on stage, the anti-tradition, the new tradition, the different tradition, etc, etc, the inevitable shadow to the body.

Because the Tradition is, by definition, one, it cannot, without destroying its identity, admit another tradition. But just as a body may have a shadow, and just as there may exist both a thing and a desire for a thing, a Shadow or Desire Tradition has a shadowy existence which blooms in rhetoric and thought: and here is where tradition number two “exists.”

No further traditions can exist, even though “multiple counter-traditions” may dance on the tongues of a thousand professors.

Either a new work, or a new group of works, connects to the Tradition, or a new work or a new group of works desires to connect to the Tradition; in terms of what a tradition is, then, “multiple counter-traditions” is a mere shadow of a shadow, without any existence at all.

We hope the reader is following the logic of our theme and noting its iron-clad character.

We now turn to our specific case.

The canonical work has two things going for it: a formalist excellence as well as a content that enlightens or instructs in the way it reflects the world outside of it. The Tradition is not a series of works which comment and talk only to each other; art is not some place where artists speak a similar “art language” to one another; the Tradition is not a club or clique of self-imitators.

Poetry is precisely that which counteracts the ‘in-the-know’ coterie-mind and speaks to the newcomer. The word is like money: it does its job on everyone equally. One can narrow one’s appeal to a specific audience and it may elicit giggles and applause from a certain type, but playing to a type will inevitably keep one out of the canon, because the Tradition reflects the world at large and appeals to it as something immediately pleasurable— not as something one has ‘to get’ by having specialized knowledge. There is nothing wrong with specialized knowledge and universally popular art may contain specialized knowledge as one of its side features—which may be exploited by those who are endeared to that sort of thing— but it is never the source of its ultimate appeal.

The counter-tradition, as we pointed out above, is a desire to be a tradition, but a desire for a thing is not the thing, no matter how strong the desire and its rhetoric; this is why there is really only one Tradition. But the shadow Tradition can be a very convincing thing.

The most convincing and cunning shadow Tradition of all is the one constructed by T.S. Eliot in the beginning of the 20th century, the one outlined in his now iconic essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he flattered the Tradition by saying it was self- aware, a living chain of succession that lives anew with each work that is added to it.

T.S. Eliot, however, was a flatterer and a liar. The Tradition is not self-aware. The Tradition is not a clique of self-imitators, a club in which only art-speak is spoken. If we buy Eliot’s premise, it follows that art is only about other art (the key to post-modernism) which is the great lie of the coterie-mind. Coteries and specialized knowledge do have their place, but the Tradition, if it is one, has no place for the temptations of coteries and specialized knowledge.

The Tradition is not a series of works aware of each other; every canonical work stands on its own, reflecting the world beyond art, even as it revels in formalist mastery.

Is there occasionally a self-conscious echo among works? Of course. But this is not the ruling animus of the works which make up the Tradition, as Mr. Eliot would have us believe.

The works themselves don’t know they are in a Tradition.

We are aware of the Tradition.

The Tradition, however, is not self-aware.

Unbelievable as this may sound, the Tradition was not waiting to be blessed by the addition of Modernism.

Modernism did not change the Tradition. Modernism is interesting only in that it existed, and exists, as a cunning attempt to join the Tradition.

We mentioned T.S. Eliot, whose brilliant attempt to enter the Tradition on behalf of himself and his Modernist friends is the defining moment of Modernism itself.

“The Waste Land,” with its numerous self-conscious echoes of canonical works in the Tradition, was the embodiment of Eliot’s earlier theory expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” works talk to each other. But of course they don’t.  Don’t tell T.S. Eliot that—that’s his ticket to the Big Dance.

Of course then there is the added bonus that Eliot is writing of a world ruined by post-world-war modernist calamity ostensibly never seen before, which the Tradition, hyper-aware of itself, in Eliot’s new view, will obviously welcome in order to move forward as a self-consciously historical entity.

History examines the Tradition from outside; the Tradition, however, is not itself self-consciously historical—this is the crucial difference which “Modernists” do not get.

Eliot’s theory pitches us forward into that state where art has no independent existence, but is only art talking to art, or, professors talking to each other, endlessly, in ivory towers.

This state of things—Eliot’s coup, we might call it—fortunately (for the Modernists) occurred with two other events: the take-over of literature by the university and the rise of modern art in partnership with modern poetry.

Pound and Eliot’s lawyer, John Quinn, who negotiated the book deal for “The Waste Land,” and secured Eliot the Dial magazine prize while Pound was still editing the soon-to-be-famous work, was the instrumental figure in making the Armory Show happen, the 1913 tour that made Duchamp famous and brought cubism and modern art to America. Quinn not only made the welcoming remarks at the show, he went to the U.S. Congress and successfully changed import/export laws to facilitate bringing European paintings to the U.S.

Painting witnessed content disappearing into technique as art became more abstract, a precise mirroring of what was happening to poetry in the reverse, poetry chucking its technique (metrical language) for the sake of content (imagery). The experiment simultaneously murdered the healthy fullness of both arts, but because the experiment was new, it appealed to the idea Eliot had advertised: the Tradition was not exemplifying the Best, but self-consciously unfolding the New.

Art, it was discovered, could be validated simply by hiring enough critics and building enough museums, with the added stimulus of huge profits gained in buying unknown Picassos which in a self-prophecizing frenzy, appreciated in value as the century progressed.

The Modernist scheme—academic, intellectual, aesthetic, monetary, institutional, ribald, exciting, fashionable—with the ordinary philistine masses sputtering and howling in ineffective protest—climbed heights after WW I which no one could have predicted.

Modern art successfully infiltrated modern life. Tall buildings and million dollar abstract art did some kind of Bauhaus dance which only the rich can understand.

Meanwhile, modern poetry toiled in university classrooms, gaining converts to Pound and Williams one student and one professor at a time, with help of the New Critic textbook “Understanding Poetry,” which extolled in its pages “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “A Station at the Metro.”

The New York School sealed the deal, as Harvard poets O’Hara and Ashbery, friends of modern art money, Peggy Guggenheim, mingled with abstract artists, writing poems secretly supplying what painting no longer had to offer.

Painting and poetry collapsed into each other. The Tradition wobbled. All fall down.

We read that Williams was an important counter-tradition to Eliot. Who could be more unlike than Williams and Eliot? But then we realize that Williams and Pound and Eliot all belonged to the same experimental, ‘make it new,’ Modern Art/Modern Poetry crash-the-canon clique.

If Eliot had not successfully crashed the Tradition, his friend Pound, and his friend Williams, would have lacked legitimacy—for all counter-traditions need a body in order to be its shadow.  All that we find in Eliot that we do not find in Williams, then, is precisely that which got Eliot into the Tradition.

Eliot made it into the mother ship; Williams throws rocks from below.

The excellent works of the Tradition have originality as one of their features; the new is worthy, but only if it is good.

In the new order established by Eliot, however, the Tradition, we are told, values the new over the good.

Poets cease using meter; this fact, becomes, by dint of time passing, a piece of the Tradition; but this is to confuse history with the Tradition; the latter demands excellence, the former does not.

The early 20th century Imagistes borrowed from haiku, which became the rage in 1905 in the wake of the stunning Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War.  This key aspect of Modernism was not new; nor was prose poetry new, either.   In this case history helps us to select the truly original as a criterion for the Tradition: which is nothing more than a collection of excellent models of literature—one of those excellent features being originality.

One of Eliot’s gambits was to write poems, like “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” with references to “Agamemnon” and “The Convent of the Sacred Heart.”  This alone will not get you into the Tradition.

We now copy the work of four Modernist poets:

Two, by Hulme (a founder of Imagism who was killed in WW I) and Williams, are in the imagist tradition; Pound references, as Eliot did, old literature (the myth of Daphne and Apollo) and finally, we copy Eliot’s excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Note the dismal flatness of the first three poems; the Eliot is the only one that moves, the only one that has real interest.

“Autumn” by T.E. Hulme

A touch of cold in the Autumn night —

I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

“Approach of Winter” by W.C. Williams

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine–
like no leaf that ever was–
edge the bare garden.

“A Girl” by Ezra Pound

The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast –
Downward,
The branches grow out of me, like arms.

Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child – so high – you are,
And all this is folly to the world.

From “Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

The yellow fog that rubs it back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

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 patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves 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, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined- It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.lLrMAEX9.dpuf
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 patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves 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, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined- It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.lLrMAEX9.dpuf

Eliot was clever enough, with his fake Criticism, to knock down a few entrance-doors to the Tradition; but a few of his poems will keep him there.

The Tradition will finally welcome Eliot, but, as Eliot probably knew all along, it will not admit his friends.

Fragmenting counter-traditions finally become a crowd of shadows, with the dogs fighting it out in the dark, below those beacons of the influential and the blessed.

DREAMS, FALSE GODS, FAKE THEORIES, AND THE SENSUS COMMUNIS

In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”

UGLY BIRDS: THE FAILURE OF MODERN POETRY AND THE SUCCESS OF THE NOVEL

Modernism is no longer “modern.”  Duchamp was born in the 19th century and the Mona Lisa moustache artist is several generations closer in time to Byron than he is to us.

But the legacy of modernism, with its self-conscious -isms, grows apace: ungainly poetry the public ignores continues to flourish, aided by institutional subsidy.

The New English Review published an article last year, “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” by Mark Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros, and was rebuked in First Things by Maureen Mullarkey: “Beckmann’s Deposition, A Modernist Offering.”

It is nice to know these sorts of discussions are going on, for Modernism’s profound influence is taken too much for granted.  Here is Signorelli’s reply to Mullarkey.

Compare the two paintings in Mullarkey’s article:  the one by Max Beckmann (1917) and the one by Geerhaert David (1500).

The models speak for themselves.

Rhetoric of a certain religious or political bent need not distract us.   Artistic Modernism is too important an issue to be sidetracked by religious or political wrangling, and it is precisely this wrangling, which, by its very nature, is nearly always beside the point, that helps to keep the legacy of Modernism afloat.

The cry against Modernism could be any of the following:  “God has gone out of art!” or “It is as if God, if there were a God, had gone out of art!”  Or,  “Beauty has gone out of art!”   Or, “Art now sucks!”   The rhetoric may be different, but the truth is the same.

Now, we will not deny that Modernism has a certain powerful secular, scientific, open-minded, progressive perception among many intellectuals, and that complaints against Modernism tend to be construed as nothing more than a sort of superstitious “yahoo” reaction.

But Modernism lacks genuine scientific credentials: Cubism is not a “fourth dimension” or a “new reality.”  Poems cannot be measured by “breaths” or “fields of energy” or “things.”  Also, many of Modernism’s founders were fascists.  Modernism’s heady, positive, scientific “perception” is largely a p.r. gimmick.

Modernism’s p.r. perception, however, is fading, as minds secular and religious are getting fed up with what has been to a large extent, a narrow, anti-human, anti-art, con.

Why a “con?”   Real simple:  Because 20th century art was a profitable style based on cheap materials (Bauhaus cement) and hyped painting (buy Cezanne/Matisse/Picasso low, sell high) with an accompanying apparatus of critics, lawyers, speculators, art leagues, schools, and galleries, each part validating the other.

Poetry was the intellectual con that abutted the profit con (architecture, painting).  The arts tend to pull along together: think Keats and Mozart; then Pound and Picasso.  There’s an intellectual/artistic sea that catches up all swimmers.

On a more practical level, however: the modern art collector and lawyer, John Quinn, changed import law (in US Congress!) to make the modern art Armory Show (1913) happen—Quinn also negotiated Eliot and Pound’s “Waste Land” deal.  The wildly influential modern art critic John Dewey allowed wealthy modern art collector A.C. Barnes to co-write his famous Art and Experience. The poetry clique of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, and Louis Ginsberg (Allen Ginsberg’s father) was headed up by another wealthy modern art collector, Walter Arensberg, who hosted Duchamp’s first visit to America.  Duchamp advised Peggy Guggenheim, who hung out with Ashbery and O’Hara.  William James, the nitrous oxide professor, taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard; Stein’s poetry was less important than the modern art collecting she and her brother Leo did.

Knowing the history and persons does open up our eyes, but we don’t have to waste time with shallow, abstract, ideology, or do a lot of historical second-guessing.  To repeat: the art, the models, speak for themselves.

The public is no longer interested in poetry, at least since the death of Frost 50 years ago.  Today, free verse poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver sell a little bit, but they are not critically esteemed.  Poetry is a fractured, mostly ignored enterprise.

Novels still sell, but poems do not.

In our previous post, we pointed out the crucial difference between fiction and poetry:  the public has a certain amount of patience for novels—readers will “stick with” a novel for a “pay-off;” poems are not given the same chance—and this is due to an old (and correct) expectation that poems should please us immediately.

A novel may be hard to “get into,” and even appear to be an ugly mess, at first, but readers will stay with it because they assume that the total effect will eventually please them.

Modern poets stubbornly believe readers will “give poems the same chance” they do novels.

They won’t.  Public perception of modern poems as compared to modern novels will always operate in the following way:

The consumer’s choice is simple:

Poems are no longer beautiful things which please immediately, but instead imitate the prosy nature of novels,

So what does that mean?  It means the buyer has two choices: the novel—an ugly bird who can fly a long way or, the poem—an ugly bird who can only fly a short distance.  In terms of bang for their buck, the consumer is always going to choose the bird that can fly a greater distance.

No wonder the novel out-sells the poem.

We’ve all seen the poets who try some new trick, who try to make the poem into something it isn’t: an offensive joke, a dense nugget packed with topical information, a pictogram, a revolutionary tract, a diary, but this just makes the poet look desperate: it never works.  The clever poet thinks, Look, I am not only giving them a poem, I am giving them a joke, too!  The public is not interested.  The public just thinks: if you don’t like poetry, why are you pretending to write it?  Write a novel or a joke, instead.

Poetry may be dead, but the idea of it still lives.

Modernism couldn’t kill that.

WHAT IS POETIC VALUE?

The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.

IS T.S. ELIOT ROMANTIC ENOUGH TO WIN THIS TOURNAMENT?

 T.S. Eliot: Who the hell was this guy, really?  What the hell was Modernism, really?
The way in certain parts of the country summer arrives in a single moment after the vagueries of spring’s warm and chilly tease, Modernism made its entrance quite suddenly into English-speaking Letters in the person of T.S. Eliot around the year 1915.
A rumor got started when Modernism began (early 20th century) that Poe’s poetry was admired by the French more than it should have been because of what was lost/gained in translation.  Poe-hater Harold Bloom called it the “French Poe” phenomenon.  It was troubling to certain moderns that the French, those subtle, ingenious, Parisian inventors of modern poetry, were besotted with Edgar Poe.  As an English-speaker, you couldn’t admire Poe if you were truly modern; Poe was too Byronic, too classical, too fussy, too correct, too chaste. (Poe also disliked Emerson—whom Bloom champions) Poe was timeless, not modern.
If Modernism was anything, it was irreverant; it was naughty and naughty now.  Not Poe at all.
Despite all the talk, it all comes down to this.
Nice. v. Naughty.  (Even as the “naughty” might be covered up in “learned” blather to keep things “honest.”)
Poe was icy, and the French, hot and cold, found Poe’s temperature bracing, and to their liking, but their modernism could survive the addition of a stranger speaking a foreign tongue, one like Poe who made it quite known that he preferred the French to the British.
So in the beginnings of English-speaking Modernism, Poethe American, who conceived a new genre of literature whose detective was French, and who was both classically chaste and a loud critic hearkening back to the correctness of an Alexander PopePoe was all wrong.  Poe wasn’t decadently subtle and seedy enough, and for men like Pound and Eliot, Poe was a horror—Poe had to be kept hence.
Aldous Huxley, who was born 6 years after Eliot, a wealthy, connected Englishman who died in California while on LSD, burned Poe at the stake, calling him “vulgar” and stating that Poe’s French admirers had made a grave error because of the language difference.  Henry James, the teacup author, a blood-thick anglophile like Eliot, also dripped with scorn in putting Poe in his place: boyish-loser.
You can’t be a tweedy, pessimistic, world-weary, experimental British modern if you are brightly USA-ish and boyish.
Eliot supplied Modernism with its tone of mature pessimism.  Poe was a hopeful “Tom Swift” adventurist, by comparison.
But if Poe, the whiz-bang American, was distorted favorably by the sophisticated, avant-garde French, perhaps Modern Anglo-american poetry was nothing more than a favorable distortion of the French going the other wayEliot admired certain ‘bad boys’ of decadent, 19th century French poetry, and modern English poetry, reaching for that irreverence which distinguished it, found in a poet like Jules Laforgue the French lens which could justify and validate its practice in English.
The Longfellow War (street-wise journalist Poe v. Harvard academic Longfellow) continued in the 20th century in a Paris salon.
Was Jules Laforgue a great poet?  Or, more importantly, did Laforgue’s poetry hit like a bomb because of the particular way it innoculated a certain tribe of Americans as a French vaccination?  If one of Pound and Eliot’s pals had written Laforgue’s poetry, they would have probably envied it as the product of a unique, eccentric personality by a fellow-traveler; but as it came from a recently dead Frenchman, it sprang upon them as a kind of cultural-aesthetic truthLaforgue’s petty sentimentalism and vulgarity, through the distance of its translation, became towering irony and sophistication.
Innovative success in the arts invariably involves foreign influence; it provides that necessary stamp of worldliness and learning, that automatic ‘otherness’ which frightens some and encourages others in the home country—the ensuing tension, camp-arguments,and general excitement feeding the revolutionary (moral-loosening) change.
The importance of Paris to Modernism cannot be underestimated: avant-garde, after all, is a French word.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Modern Art Show in New York, as the American public caught wind of European modern/Cubist art; art and poetry swirled about, hand-in-hand, like two dancers, as Modernism began to become popular just prior to World War One.
Laforgue influenced both Eliot and Duchamp.  The early modern art collector who gave the opening speech at the Armory show, John Quinn, negotiated the publishing deal for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  Quinn, a secret associate of Aleister Crowley, was also Eliot and Pound’s lawyer. It was the same joke: the ugly having a laugh at the beautiful.  As the wife of a Cubist painter who befriended the young Duchamp, before his “Nude Descending A Staircase” made a big splash at the Armory Show, put it:
[Duchamp and Picabia] emulated one another in their extraordinary adherence to paradoxical, destructive principles, in their blasphemies and inhumanities which were directed not only against the old myths of art, but against all foundations of life in general.   —-from Picasso and the Chess Player
It really had nothing to do with theory or aesthetics.  Modernism sought to tear down, on a whim, the virtues of the past. (Or to put it more simply, virtue.)  Which, naturally, becomes a theoretical-aesthetic issue (of which any reasonably intelligent person can blather on about)—but Modernism was an act of irreverence first, an issue of aesthetics, later.
No art movement is going to announce to the world that it seeks to be immoral.  This is neither sensible, nor even cool.  But this is the unspoken truth of Modernism, and the unspoken truth of it is precisely why it quickly became covered in terms like “symbolism” and “cubism,” terms that were never accurate or agreed upon (even by the so-called “symbolists’ or “cubists” or “imagists” themselves) by anyone, merely betraying to the wise what was really going on: the “symbol” is merely to distract you from the fact that poet X, some years ago, completely lost his mind, and requires your pity, not your admiration.
We love the modern arts the way we pity wounded animals: it is not love or admiration, but it is a strong feeling.
But isn’t this what the artists always do?  They trick us into strong feelings.
The “science” of Modern art has always been suspect—the “fourth dimension” of Cubism, for instance, was something Picasso and others merely laughed at; Modernism has always been Romanticism by other means, the “other means” in this example the fourth-dimension of Cubism, which helps the ‘validity’ of the modern art industry if at least some rubes swallow its “learned” nonsense.
Conceptual art, which “Modernists” like Duchamp created when they were still “Modernists,” evolved out of Modernism only because Modernism’s trappings—existing to cover up the fact that it was an emotional continuation of Romanticism—naturally went in that direction; faux braininess covering up mere hysteria, passion and tears.
The Scarriet March Madness poem-entry by Eliot is miles from Pope, Byron, Shelley, Poe, Tennyson, but not from any technical innovation or revolutionary approach; it is merely a poem of feeling sans morality and beauty.  Eliot is far more emotional than Shelley, for instance; Eliot veers into hysteria, and thus more realism and less art is required to keep the hysteria in check.
Jules Laforgue, who died at 27, in 1887, a year before Eliot was born,  has long existed as a profound, partially-hidden influence to the whole modern art/poetry world.  Stephen Spender pointed out that young Eliot—from a respectable Boston American family with Emerson connections and re-settled in St. Louis—was not only profoundly influenced by Laforgue’s cynical, jokey, naughty, pessimistic poetry, but also by the way Laforgue dressed: formally, like a gentleman banker.
The Romantic trope: a Shelley with shirt open, panting beneath the full moon at midnight was cleverly reversed by the T.S. Eliot persona via the Jules Laforgue persona—for several reasons, not immediately obvious to unsuspecting readers of poetry.
Even regular readers of Scarriet may not know the answer.  Here it is:
1. With the impending rise of the Program Era (Robert Lowell teaching at Paul Engle’s Iowa after leaving Harvard to study with Alan Tate (Princeton Writing Program teacher) and John Crowe Ransom, Eliot and Pound’s American Modernist Fugitive/New Critic university foot-soldiers), poets would soon be the ‘teacher wearing suit’ model, not the Shelley model.
2. The art collector/banker/lawyer was the new persona of the elite art/poetry world in the 20th century.
3. Eliot’s buttoned-up image masked the fact that Modernism was far more emotional/hysterical than Romanticism, and, in fact, hysteria was the whole of Modernism, all its so-called “theory” a distracting ruse.
Modernism is the very opposite of what is advertised; it does not present less pure, floating emotion, but more—and this is the sole reason why formally it is what it is—and the trick is that there really is no “formal” reality whatsoever to Modernism—it is whatever bit of catchiness can be made up by word-smiths on the fly, (the Apollinaires, the Cocteaus, the Pounds) who are beholden to the art dealers and wealthy patrons who fund the parties, and buy-low-sell-high at the art auctions.
Let’s call the “ism” what it really is: Money-ism.
Duchamp journeyed to New York in 1915. He was met at the pier by the art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter PachPach worked for John Quinn, T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s attorney.  Enter another Walter: Walter Arensberg, wealthy art patron and poet, who put up Duchamp in a Broadway apartment and hosted plenty of orgies and parties in another lavish apartment nearby.  Walter Arensberg, who translated Jules Laforgue, was the co-conspirator in Duchamp’s “Fountain by R. Mutt” (urinal) museum “ready-made” publicity stunt in 1917.
The poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams (Pound’s friend) also belonged to the modern art investor Walter Arensberg’s circle.
Below is a quote from a just-published book on Picasso and Duchamp, Picasso and the Chess Player by Larry Witham, University Press of New England, 2013.  We see in it the familar rhetoric of modernism/post-modernism history: we always get some “theory” by way of a catchy phrase which the author dutifully quotes from one of the (con) artists—in this case, Ezra Pound.  Rhetoric is all it is, since, in this particular instance, “objects” have always been, and always will be, a part of art and poetry: the theory is of no importance; it is only a smokescreen to cover the ‘buy low/sell high’ enterprise—and the elite, hysterical, socially-connected parties.  Modernism wasn’t about “word-objects;” it was about “sentiments:” celebrities and their hedonism.  Modernism was “Realism,” because it was Romanticsm outside of the art—at the parties.  The “theory” was mere bait for the newspapers—and “scholars,” whose talk puffed up the cash value of the “art.”
All around [Duchamp] the new aesthetic was about photographs of objects and the new poetry, which a’ la Gertrude Stein and others, was about word-objects. A mere object—and any would do—could be photographed and called fine art, as Stieglitz had shown. [by photographing Duchamp’s urinal.] A poem, by the same token, could be simply a string of words about objects. This was the modernist poetry advanced by Stein in Paris, Ezra Pound in London, and William Carlos Williams in the Arensberg circle: the focus was on objects, particulars, not the big ideas, symbols, sentiments, or themes of past verse. As Pound said, “Direct treatment of the ‘thing.'” Besides chess, the modernist view of language was the intellectual content of the otherwise hedonist Arsenberg salon: the group was interested in linguistic games, puns, and little magazines.   —Larry Witham
After all that introduction, here is Eliot’s poem in the 2013 Scarriet March Madness Romanticism Tourney:
HYSTERIA—T.S. Eliot
 
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles.   An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden …”   I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.
Eliot’s opponent is the French Romantic poet, Gerard de Nerval.

GOLDEN SAYINGS (trans Richard Sieburth)
Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855)

So you alone are blessed with thought, free-thinking man,
In a world where life bursts forth from everything?
You are free to dispose of forces at your command
But the universe is absent from your well-laid plans.

Honor each creature for the mind in which it takes part:
Each flower is a soul turned towards Nature’s face;
Each metal hides some ancient mystery of the heart;
“All things feel!” And all you are is within their art.

Beware, even blind walls may spy on you:
Even dumb matter is imbued with voice…
Put not its precious stuff to impious use.

The most obscure of beings may house a hidden god;
And like the new-born eye pouched within its lids,
Pure mind drives its bud through the husk of stones.

Nerval’s poem warns, “honor each creature” and of objects (“dumb matter”) “put not its precious stuff to impious use.”  He’s seems to be talking to the reckless, hysterical “impious” moderns.

Of course, Nerval’s poem, as wise as it is, does suffer from didactisim; Eliot’s poem is realism, squeezed out of actual social horror.

Guiltily, we prefer Eliot’s car-wreck.

The crowd pushes forward, rooting for Eliot; it is impossible for Nerval to concentrate.

Madness in the arena!

The referees are making strange calls!

Eliot wins, 99-77!

YOU’RE STUPID AND EZRA POUND IS NOT

Ezra Pound: Did a fatal error cripple the Modernist revolution?

Poetry today is in the worst state imaginable: 1) not popular, 2) not respected, and 3) not understood. 

“Not popular” would not hurt so much if poetry were respected, and “not respected” would not hurt so much if poetry were understood—by even a few! But, alas…

If something is neither popular, respected, or understood, the game is up.  It’s time to walk away. 

But hold on.  Poetry does exist and everyone knows it when they experience it, like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.  But poetry now is like an act of nature: it’s a nice thing, a useful thing, it exists, but, amazingly, it eludes institutional or human knowledge. 

There are two issues:

1) isolating poetry from what resembles it (prose, fragments, ordinary speech) and

2) creating poetry from what it should resemble (beauty, intelligence, inspiration, song). 

Now, what happens when 1) and 2) are reversed? 

What happens when poetry is created from prose and isolated from beauty?

The Modernist revolution, of course.

As Pound complained of “beauties” of the “deceased” in his revolutionary 1929 New York Herald Tribune article:

Literary instruction in our “institutions of learning” was, at the beginning of this century, cumbrous and inefficient. I dare say it still is. Certain more or less mildly exceptional professors were affected by the “beauties” of various authors (usually deceased), but the system, as a whole, lacked sense and co-ordination. I dare say it still does.

One can see the Modernist advantage: poetry does resemble prose, and prose is readily available to us.  But Beauty?  That’s harder to define.  One can see superficially how the Modernist revolution would, without much effort, succeed.

But what does one notice about this revolution?   Two things.    The great reversal was 1) radical (thus it was called a revolution) and 2) practical:  poetry is now closer to prose

The advocates and beneficiaries (there are a few) of the Modernist revolution, and probably everyone else, would agree this is what essentially occured as the 20th century unfolded: the reversal of 1) and 2). 

Against all odds, Ezra Pound took on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury—and won.

The Modernist revolution apparently did something good.  Or did it?

It did not.  And why?   Because the reversal of 1) and 2) was not beneficial.  The reason is simple—so obvious that we’ve all missed it.

Formal poetry has as much prose as free verse. 

Prose is not really the issue at all.

By assuming otherwise, we “see” a “revolution” where there is really none.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

Here are two examples.  The first is from “The Raven” (1845) by Edgar Poe, the second is the entirety of “The Red Wheel Barrow” (1923) by William Carlos Williams. 

Poe was an astute grammarian—and the correct use of commas helps his passage surge forward as a creative piece of prose.

Is the Williams more interesting as prose?   Does it seem more like real speech?

Neither.

When we compare Poe’s iconic 19th century poem—supposedly the fussy verse the Vers Libre Modernists were rebelling against—to an iconic piece of Modernism, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” we find something odd: the Williams poem is not moving towards ease of prose or speech; compared to the Poe, the Williams poem evinces neither interesting verse nor interesting prose

Williams presents his tiny poem (in the spread-out way we usually see it) as if it were a billboard looming over Times Square, or as if he didn’t understand how to use commas and therefore subsituted white space. 

The Poe is a far better example of good prose writing, and of good writing, period.  The singular feature of the revolutionary Modernist poem is a kind of lame ekphrasis or a lame version of Pound’s phanopoeia—jokey, superficial, childish.   Are Pound’s “institutions of learning” meant to teach good prose—or unorthodox word-arrangement? 

So where is this “reversal” between Romantic poems of verse/beauty and Modernist poems of speech/prose? 

ooops! 

It didn’t really happen at all. 

But what happens if we all go on thinking it did?

The current train wreck of contemporary poetry?

Wordsworth’s advocacy of plain speech always rang hollow; the Modernists have been guilty of the same thing.

The problem isn’t that there really wasn’t a Modernist revolution—the problem is that we believe and act as if there were a Modernist revolution.  We somehow believe that Shakespeare and Shelley and Milton and Poe wrote poetry burdened by the fact that it wasn’t prose and that the Modernist revolution freed us from this burden by putting prose into poetry.

But prose was always in poetry.

If we ask which era best turned prose into poetry, we would probably point to the “Shakespeare through Tennyson” era, but then we’d point out that the Modernists were better at turning poetry into prose.  But from our Poe/Williams example above, we see this isn’t true: the great formalists, it could be said, not only turned prose into poetry, they also turned poetry into prose—since their poems triumph as great works of prose.  In fact, there is no difference: the good poet will always do both.   The Modernists did not lead a revolution of making poetry more like prose—because the finest prose always inhabits successful formalist poetry.

And as far as “speech,” goes, Byron, the Romantic, wrote poetry closer to speech than Williams, the Modernist, and good actors can make the elevated language of Shakespeare sound like speech. A mixture of high and low will generally prevail in dramatic poetry, in any age, whether for the stage, or not.

This is surely why there was a sudden frenzy on the part of the Modernists, mid-way through their (failed) revolution to emphasize “difficulty.” The Modernists must have felt (if not known) the error of their vers libre ways, and looked about for something else to fuel the revolution that was dying a slow Imagiste death.  The institutionally-connected New Critics arose, rescuing the revolution of Pound and Williams with the New Critical smokescreen of “ironies” and “close-reading ” and “tension between prose and verse,” an attempt to win by surrendering, or hitting a target by missing it.  This distraction worked.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by two New Critics, got into all the high schools and GI Bill colleges. The revolution was saved.

THE THREE TYPES OF POETRY

I like discovering new poems.  I almost said new poets, but that is too personal: poetry is marvelous because it allows us to experience human delight without all the messy and inconvenient aspects of humanity—poetry sweetly bars the heavy and smelly poet—bragging, disappointing, spotted, ruined, dying—from our sight.  The minute I start following a poet I will cease to love poetry.  My lover certainly ought to be poetic, but they don’t have to write poetry, and I don’t need more lovers; I don’t need poets—keep them away!  A poet will invariably disappoint with a new poem.  A poem is what we should be looking for when we pursue poetry, and no poet has a monopoly on poems.

Scarriet has defended Billy Collins, but this doesn’t mean we believe every Billy Collins poem is good.  Defending Billy Collins only indicates that there is something that we recognize as a “Billy Collins poem” that is worthy of notice.

Critics have nothing to do with the ‘likes and dislikes’ of readers.  Worthy of notice is just that—worthy of notice.  To hear these Collins detractors, you would think they were forced to kiss Billy Collins.  The whole matter of whether Billy Collins is worthy of notice, or not, is one of pure intellectuality, and it involves a sensible acknowledgement of poetic classification.

There are three distinct kinds of poetry, and the Collins poem happens to be one of them.

These three types of poetry are important not just as frozen types—they have a history—we can trace their development over time.  The Billy Collins poem, for instance, goes back as far as “Dover Beach.”  Along the way, the rhyming aspect of “Dover Beach” is jettisoned, and the poet learns to navigate without it, keeping the spirit the same.

Another feature which makes the three types essential, and not merely arbitrary, is this: these three types strongly repel each other; the three kinds of personalities which enjoy these three kinds of poetry would fight if they were left in the same room.

I recently discovered a new poem—a major discovery, because it is a perfectly realized Collins poem—but not written by Billy Collins.  It therefore flashed upon me that I was in the presence of a powerful type of poem, and this poem both attracted and repelled my critic’s nature so forcefully, that almost immediately the three types of poetry sprang up before me.

Here is the poem, by George Bilgere:

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
Not doing much of anything: the boxed set
Of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:
The French-cut silk shirts
Which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
And make me look exactly
Like the kind of middle-aged man
Who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:
The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
The mysteries of the heavens
But which I only used once or twice
To try to find something heavenly
In the window of the high-rise down the road,
And which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
When it could be examining the Crab Nebula:
The 30-day course in Spanish
Whose text I never opened,
Whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,
Save for Tape One, where I never learned
Whether the suave American
Conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
At a Madrid hotel about the possibility
Of obtaining a room,
Actually managed to check in.
I like to think
That one thing led to another between them
And that by Tape Six or so
They’re happily married
And raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.
But I’ll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
For a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
Who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
There lives a woman with, say,
A fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
Near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
Drying in their tubes
On the table where the violin
She bought on a whim
Lies entombed in the permanent darkness
Of its locked case
Next to the abandoned chess set,
A woman who has always dreamed of becoming
The kind of woman the man I’ve always dreamed of becoming
Has always dreamed of meeting,
And while the two of them discuss star clusters
And Cézanne, while they fence delicately
In Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,
She and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
Fixing up a little risotto,
Enjoying a modest cabernet,
While talking over a day so ordinary
As to seem miraculous.

This poem is wonderful in a way that would repel the likes of Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout and the avant-garde, simply for its clarity.  Those who believe that poetry is verse and not prose would also dislike this poem.  But here it stands.

Briefly, then, the George Bilgere poem is wonderful because of the way it begins with “They sit around the house,” referring to unused objects of human imagination and improvement that bespeak, universally: limits, despair, and finally longing, gently mocking human limitation with the very longing that hovers about the unused objects themselves, unused because there is too much longing? not enough? and finally it is words themselves, objects that “sit around” in the poem itself which is the poem’s grand, secret symbol in its playful and longing imagination that fights against the despair of not having enough will to improve, or imagine, or be useful.

The poem has a Newtonian logic—moving forward (in humor and optimisim) with a force equal to its moving backwards (in realism and pessimism).  The language learning tapes are transformed from an object into something human, and even passionate, in a manner that is logical, humorous, and delightful.

But how different is Bilgere’s poem compared to something like this:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil’d
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers “‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott”.

This is Part I of the famous Tennyson poem; notice how the poem not only gives us luxurious sound, but it paints a scene, as well.

Ekphrasis is overrated, for it is a hundred times better to paint—with a poem—a painting that doesn’t exist yet, than to merely describe one that already does exist.  And this is what the—currently underrated—Tennyson does.

By comparison, the work by Mr. Bilgere exists in the realm of idea only—it’s a funny story about neglected hobbies; it is not a painting; the Tennyson, however, begins, “On either side…”  Tennyson paints a world; the Bilgere is jokey and anecdotal: “They sit around the house…”  These two poems are different kinds of art.

The third type of poem is currently the most common and it owes more to simple human nature than to anything else. We all know “The Lady of Shalott”—and we all know human nature.  Human nature produces envy on a whim—if someone else has something nice, we decide we don’t like it, on account of the fact that it is nice.  We disparage the nice; secretly at first, and then more boldly, as we find peers who feel the same envy we do, and then even more boldly as we equate nice with evil itself, in political terms…the rich have nice houses and the rich are unkind and therefore the nice itself is—not really nice!

And so the third type of poem is all-encompassing and attracts many people: amateurs, puritans, students, and scholars, alike, and identifies itself as avant-garde, experimental, politicalThe whole point of this third type of poetry, avant-garde poetry, is to be unpleasant and ugly.

One example will suffice.  From William Carlos Williams, published in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002:

LEAR

When the world takes over for us
and the storm in the trees
replaces our brittle consciences
(like ships, female to all seas)
when the few last yellow leaves
stand out like flags on tossed ships
at anchor—our minds are rested

Yesterday we sweated and dreamed
or sweated in our dreams walking
at a loss through the bulk of figures
that appeared solid, men or women,
but as we approached down the paved
corridor melted—Was it I?—like
smoke from bonfires blowing away

Today the storm, inescapable, has
taken the scene and we return
our hearts to it, however made, made
wives by it and though we secure
ourselves for a dry skin from the drench
of its passionate approaches we
yield and are made quiet by its fury

Pitiful Lear, not even you could
out-shout the storm—to make a fool
cry! Wife to its power might you not
better have yielded earlier? as on ships
facing the seas were carried once
the figures of women at repose to
signify the strength of the waves’ lash.

There is no way to reconcile whatever this poem is doing—or thinks it is doing—with the first two types of poetry.  But a certain perversity in human nature will defend this third kind against the other two, and none will be reconciled.

EDGAR LEE MASTERS AND EDNA MILLAY: THEY SUCK!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uses of Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Schirding

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

—Edgar Lee Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Waken An Old Lady

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

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

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

Recuerdo

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

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

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

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

RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES ALICE OSWALD IN ROUND 2 NORTH ACTION

 
Richard Wilbur—about 75 years ago.
 
According to G.E. Lessing (1729-1781), painting depicts one moment with many bodies, while poetry depicts one body in many moments, and each genre fails if they attempt to invade the other’s territory. Homer, Lessing says, did not waste energy trying to be a painter; action was paramount, description limited. Lessing goes so far as to say painters should depict soft rather than stiff clothing to better infer bodily movement in the immediate past or future. For Lessing, the poet who describes, or paints, is didactic, and the didactic is not poetic.  The poet should describe one body, or one part of a body.  Prose is better at mere description—poetry is concerned with illusion. The eye can take in many parts simultaneously—for the poet to attempt this with description is a waste of labor. Action, sequential action, is the poet’s domain. Lessing’s theory, to the moderns, must seem hopelessly narrow (as Poe, the anti-didactic critic and poet, is often viewed).

 But it can be argued that the eclectic and highly sophisticated modern temper has lost the ability to understand nature’s simple truths or grasp the common sense argument of a rigorous scientific mind such as Lessing’s.

 It cannot be denied that modern poetry has lost both the innocent public and the objective, scientific reader.  The freedom of the modern poet has led to a cul-de-sac of obscurity, the ‘everything’ of the modern poet has turned to ‘nothing’ in many eyes, and the moderns’ touted ‘difficulty,’ to hopeless looseness, even to its many sophisticated followers.

 What if Lessing’s common sense is generally correct?

Richard Wilbur may be the last living classical poet.  We don’t know if Lessing is an influence, but reading Wilbur’s poetry, one almost senses he must be.  Rhyme can be used for all sorts of things; Wilbur is known for his rhyme, but the respect he’s earned is for more than rhyme, though it might be difficult to separate that out.  It might help to read Wilbur with Lessing in mind.
 
Wilbur has three poems in Dove’s anthology, but one of our readers, Robert Bagg, pointed us to the grand “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” 
 
“Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” (in the Dove’s anthology) is always anthologized and it is not, we think, one of Wilbur’s best.  It’s good, but it has a lot of flaws.  So we are breaking our Penguin Anthology rule (a silly rule, we admit)  in honor of this still living poet born in 1921, by including a poem not in the anthology.
 
Wilbur does write  Homerically—he never describes something but there is some kind of action involved. Lessing would probably say that “Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” is not a complete action—and is thus a failure.  “Baroque Fountain” succeeds partially by Lessing’s classical rules—too meditative, too busy, Lessing would probably say.
 
Wilbur is the favorite here against Alice Oswald, who is a sentimentalist—for those kinds of poets are still given respect in Britain. (Billy Collins is a funny sentimentalist, which is not the same thing.)
 
Here is Wilbur’s poem:
 
A BAROQUE WALL FOUNTAIN IN THE VILLA SCIARRA
 
Under the bronze crown
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat,
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down
 
            Past spattered mosses, breaks
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes
 
            A scrim or summery tent
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent
 
            And flatteries of spray,
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease,
      Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
 
            His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
 
            Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
      And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more
 
            Interminable to thought
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not
 
            More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
 
            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed,
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
 
            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
      Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?
 
            If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
 
            Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
      For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
 
            And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
 
            Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state
 
            As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
 
Wilbur does not merely describe the fountain.  We follow—perhaps not always perfectly—a movement of sorts. 
 
Wilbur has not reached major poet status; he’s an embarrassment to most moderns and  post-moderns, perhaps with good reason.  There used to be a public for Wilbur, but it was killed around the time he was born. Or maybe Wilbur’s work is too ‘busy’ to appeal to a wide audience.  In poetry circles, WC Williams is mentioned 1,000 times for every mention of Wilbur. Williams’ one advantage?  He’s not as ‘busy’ as Wilbur. “The Young Housewife” has a certain Homeric quality in terms of action, clarity and emotion, but Williams doesn’t pass the Lessing test, either.
 
Alice Oswald’s poem has movement, but its delight is miles away from Wilbur’s Homeric grandeur.  “and when” propels the poem and it is sweet the way “and when” becomes “which is” at the end.  When ideas make the poem move, this only makes the poem move closer to didactic prose—at least this is what Lessing would say.  Moderns make ideas so central so often in their poems, they are probably not conscious of how unlike the old poetry, the poetry Lessing would have admired, they are. 
 
Can Oswald’s humble poem, like David, slay Goliath?
 
WEDDING
 
From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.
 
Wilbur 89 Oswald 66

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!

THE RED WHEEL BARROW SOLVED!

The new William Carlos Williams biography, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” by Herbert Leibowitz, editor of Parnassus, is an unwieldy, poorly organized, ill-written mess, but the 496 page tome does present plenty of unflattering gossip about its subject.  It’s not that Leibowitz doesn’t adore Williams—he certainly does—but as one reads the book, something interesting happens: the Williams mystique, constructed around the coy and tacit verse, is lovingly lured from its hiding place—Williams is bathed in light, written large across the sky in a fit of close-reading (poems and poet) by this generous and hefty biography, and we see the flawed, unhappy, egotistical man step from behind the poems at last. 

Goodbye, Mystique.  Hello, Embarrassment.

Prediction: This detailed, major-publisher effort (FSG) will mark the beginning of the decline of Williams’ reputation after its slow and steady increase for almost 100 years.  

The reasons are two-fold: 

First, Leibowitz indulges modernist platitudes in such a heavy-handed, amateurish manner that there is sure to be a backlash for that reason alone.  Here’s an example:

Progress would come slowly but steadily, and so it did.  Al Que Quiere!, his 1917 book of poems, showed promise that he would eventually find his own voice. He was not too proud to seek tutors who might hasten his acquisition of a flexible technique. Luckily, across the Hudson River, the New York art scene was fermenting, and the headquarters for the avant-garde was Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, whose influential magazine Camera Works was the photographer’s sounding board for publicizing the new art before the Armory Show. Stieglitz’s expert eye reconnoitered the  European skies like a powerful telescope to discover the newest stars, such as Juan Gris, or a movement, such as prankish, subversive Dadaism, but also swept the horizon for emerging American artists such as Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley. On the walls of his gallery hung paintings and photographs that deliberately set out to shake up the complacent traditions and premises of what art could and should do. Nothing was sacred or impervious to the breakthroughs the new art trumpeted.

“Find his voice…not too proud…across the Hudson river…the art scene was fermenting…nothing was sacred…the new art trumpeted.”   The writing is dull and the bibilographical interest is derived only from Williams’ letters; there’s no literary interest aside from some ambitious close-readings of the poetry; important figures such as John Quinn, Walter Arensburg, Alfred Kreymborg, Alfred Stieglitz are merely mentioned in passing.  Pound, who we know enough of already, is ever-present.  Chapter one begins with, “The high priests of the New Criticism schooled their acolytes in an art of reading poems that elevated technique—modulations of meter, subtle shifts in tone, adroit maneuvers with syntax, ironies planted in dramatic monologues to detonate later—to unaccustomed sovereignty.”  This is nice, but in the entire chapter, Leibowitz does not quote one New Critic!  We get prose like this: “The job of the critic was to ferret out linguistic clues scattered on and below the poem’s surface and, through patient analysis, put the circuitry back together.”  After a look at recent essays by Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, there follows an inspection of Pound’s Cantos and when Williams finally makes an appearance: “Asphodel,” the stroke, the infidelities, and the attempt to explain them to his wife, Floss.  Was Williams opposed to the New Critics?  Did he know any New Critics?  What did the New Critics say about Williams’ poetry?  Leibowitz doesn’t answer any of these questions; an organizing principle is nowhere to be seen. The first chapter is a train wreck.  The book is not a literary biography; it desperately needs editing.  One gleans gossip from it.  Occasionally one finds a solid close-reading of one of Williams’ short poems: “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” serves no other purpose.

Secondly, Liebowitz, not a New Critic, apparently, shows the reader enough of Williams himself to penetrate the mystical and reticent veil of his modernism: we clearly see the flawed person behind it.   As Richard Howard writes on the book’s back cover: “Leibowitz’s study of the good doctor Williams leaves us in no doubt of his troubled and troubling character.”

When the life is put next to the poetry and its apologies, the apologies lose their force.  When we learn, for instance, that Williams courted and married a woman he did not love because her sister (Charlotte) rejected his marriage proposal and because this same woman—who rejected him—married his brother, Edgar; when we see the weakness, the vanity, the egotism, and the deep insecurity of the man, (there’s even a hint of pedophilia) the narrow literary beliefs subtly change from the revolutionary and heroic to the spiteful and foolish; what is this hatred of Eliot all about, anyway?  “I distrust that bastard” and “It’s like walking into a church to me”  writes Williams to his fascist friend Pound in 1939—but if Williams’ poetry is like magnetized words thrown against a fridge, who is Williams to complain about a “church,” and why is Williams not able to see that Eliot’s poetry speaks like actual persons—with more variety—than Williams’ does? 

Leibowitz is alive to the sexual interest of Williams’ work, and the biography’s frankness helps us to see that modernism wasn’t just about fascism, the leisured rich, and pretence, it was also about sex.  In 1914, Williams, now married to Floss, writes to a young woman whom he unsuccessfully tried to have an affair with:

You are wrong to overlook the worth of the “Egoist” in a fit of temper against the filthiness you may find there. You might as well detest your own hands because your nails do on occasion get muck under them. I know of no one who has yet advocated  pulling out the nails to prevent this annoying accident.

Pulling out the nails… The poet’s prose is almost as banal as his biographer’s.

Williams fails often in love; in fact, he fails all the time, but Leibowitz seems blind to this; his theme seems to be that Williams had a jealous, puritanical streak that got in the way of pleasure, and yet Williams enjoyed numerous affairs–but none of these are documented, and one suspects Williams’ conquests are hearsay.  Or was there the occasional visit to a prostitute? 

Still, sex and imagist poetry converge in the mind, thanks to this Williams biography.   OK, one thinks to oneself; I guess I can see it.

Sex!
Purple flowers!
Sex!

Yellow flowers!
Beside the purple ones!

Though Leibowitz doesn’t mention this, the New Critics did aid Williams’ career; Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks’ influential textbook, Understanding Poetry, greatly admires “The Red Wheel Barrow.”

After reading Leibowitz’s biography, Scarriet has discovered the secret of this famous poem, and we will share it with you now.

This simple poem,

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

features the obsession of Williams’ life: his brother and only sibling, Edgar, marrying the woman, Charlotte, he, Bill, courted and loved .  There are two things next to each other in this poem: Red recalls the name of his brother, Edgar, and as we look for Charlotte’s name, there it is, in chickens.  

A man-made thing, “the wheel barrow,” represents Edgar, a ruddy, healthy, individual, and an architect—and the second thing in the picture is “white,” as in a bride.

ADIEU TO QUAINT MODERNISM

Name a Flower While You’re At It

show us your animal self in words
william carlos williams
show us the frustration and the sorrow and the anger
of the real man*
william carlos williams
the hunger the taking the eating
the enjoying the apology for
eating plums (cold)
william carlos williams
a novel in sixteen words
we can be done with it all
tomorrow at 6
i go to plum island
and leave this style
behind
forever

* William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883—March 4, 1963) b. Rutherford, New Jersey. Father, William George Williams, a cologne distributor, was English. Traveled with mother, living in Geneva and Paris. While at University of Pennsylvania began a lifelong friendship with Ezra Pound and met H.D. Became acquainted with circle of writers and artists including Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Marcel Duchamp, and Alfred Kreymborg, editor of Others, to which Williams contributed regularly; frequented Walter Arensberg’s salon and Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery.  Met Louis Zukovsky in 1928; Zukovsky included poems by Williams in February 1931 issue of Poetry devoted to “Objectivist” poets; Objectivist Press published Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931 (1934). Through Pound, met James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, which published most of his subsequent books.  Suffered heart attack in 1948. Met and correpsonded with Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg.

MODERNISM BEGAN ON AUGUST 15, 1911 AT 3:42 IN THE AFTERNOON…

They don’t know no William Carlos Williams

At 3:41 in the afternoon of August 15, 2011, T.S. Eliot, 23, is falling asleep over his Sanskrit lesson at Harvard. “Prufrock” won’t be published for another 4 years, and will be panned by the London Times.  The Waste Land is over 10 years and a nervous breakdown away.  He sighs.  Some day he will meet a girl who will realize “like a patient etherized upon a table” is genius… He lays his glasses on the desk and rubs his eyes…

At the same moment, Ezra Pound, 26, unknown, but getting to know the famous, in London, is writing a letter to his dad, telling him he won’t need to send any money right now; an American, Margaret Lanier Cravens, has promised him an income, but please don’t tell mother about this. Pound is thankful Hilda—a  prof’s daughter who he met in school, and who refused his marriage proposal a few years ago—and her new English boyfriend Dick, soon to be his roommates, are buying into his Imagism scheme, in which Japanese haiku is the basis for a “new” Western approach to poetry—brilliant!  He rises from his desk and shadow boxes for a moment…

William Carlos Williams, 28, is checking his inventory of tongue depressors in his new home doctor’s office in Rutherford, New Jersey.  He’s thinking seriously of courting the younger sister of the woman who refuses to marry him.  He will marry the younger sister next year. His first book of poems is 10 years away.  He looks at the clock on the wall…

Modern life was stirring.

Poems on electricity were being written.

“Ode To A  Light Bulb” was circulating among friends, brightening their lives.

William Carlos Williams walked into a jazz club and pointed to his poems: “Look, fellas!  Jazz!”  They threw him out.

William Carlos Williams ran into the street, stopped the first person he met, and pointed to his poems: “Hey, pal, look at my poems! Aint this just the way people talk?” The guy looked at the scribblings on the page, with lots of white spaces.  Then he looked at Williams.  Then back at the page.  Then he looked at Williams, again.  Then he said in his best American idiom: “You is crazy.”

Despondent, Williams phoned up his friend, Ezra Pound. “Don’t worry, Bill,” Pound said.  “We are going to make enough noise and eventually we’ll be taught in college.  I know people. Lewis, Yeats, Ford will help. I’m meeting people every day. Great poetry is  hard to write.  Mad poetry will be fashionable, soon.  Don’t you worry.”

And the clocks began to chime and it was the modern time and all the rain in the street began to rain.

And the women came and went.

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?

 

“Exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation” –New Critics Brooks & Warren on “The Red Wheel Barrow”

One of our readers, William Kammann wrote:

Leroy Searle, in an essay on NEW CRITICISM writes:

“Accordingly, the meaning of the poem is not conveyed by any prose paraphrase and is valued as the source of an experience (for the reader) available in no other way. For this among other reasons, opponents of the New Critics have frequently charged that they ignore history, ideology, politics, philosophy, or other factors that shape literary experience. While such charges are not entirely fair, they arise because New Criticism in practice came to focus almost exclusively on problems of interpreting individual texts.”

And yes, those text could be poetry or prose, but they do not equate the two except as an object of analysis. It’s the method of “close reading” that is common.

The real distinction for them is between literary/poetic language and scientific language and this is the very thing that has since broken down. Is literary language a fine brandy and scientific (or religious) language something else?

Is there a difference in the end between the internal experience and the great wide world??

No, poetry is not brandy. 

And yes, it is brandy. 

Any song or poem can be usefully paraphrased. 

The New Critics are correct as far as that truism goes: screaming Beatle fans would be disappointed if a professor came on stage and began to intone summaries of the Beatles songs. 

So, sure, songs (and poems) are experiences. 

But that doesn’t mean that ideal and practical summaries do not exist, or cannot exist, or should not exist, for all kinds of reasons. 

Think of the poem as a room.

Rooms have integrity as rooms, but the New Critics wanted to take the door away. 

The New Critics essentially warned, “If you use the door, you violate the ‘experience’ of the room qua room.” 

Thus no one could look in the room (poem) and say that the room (poem) sucks, for this would ‘violate’ the experience of the room (poem), and so: the sucky rooms (poems) of the friends of the New Critics were safe inside the ‘locked room of experience.’ 

Inside the locked room of “The Red Wheel Barrow” reside the mad, who have been brainwashed by Modernism and the New Criticism.

Christopher Woodman’s been in that room since 1968!

We’ve all heard the “The Red Wheel Barrow” paraphrased and analyzed favorably; “Did you know the poem is actually two lines of iambic pentameter?  It’s a fresh view of the world!  It’s a microcosm inside a macrocosm inside a microcosm!” 

 “The Red Wheel Barrow” triumphs, because it is too minor to be anything but an experience.  It is too small a room to have a door—so it fits the New Critical ideal of ‘no paraphrase allowed.’ 

 Thus the New Critical commentators have nothing but good things to say about “The Red Wheel Barrow.”

Even though “paraphrase,” either good (it’s always good) or bad, is impossible.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” is the experience that can’t be paraphrased, earning plaudits as an experience— because by definition of the New Critics’ logic, experience can’t be paraphrased. 

Are you getting it yet?

Or should we ask:

Are you experienced? 

Have you ever been experienced?

The magical Red Wheel Barrow is rolling your way…

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.”

SEXISM RAMPANT IN PO-BIZ

Well of course it is.

Here’s why.  

The Modernist revolution was mostly male, and in terms of criticism, overwhelmingly so.    We are still in the shadow of that revolution, which featured William James, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, I.F Richards, Ford Madox Ford, T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Edmund Wilson, William Empson, Allen Tate, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Richard Blackmur, Robert Graves, W.S. Merwin, Yvor Winters, George Santayana, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, John Crowe Ransom, E.E. Cummings, Paul Engle,Robert Penn Warren, W.K Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner, M.L. Rosenthal, Robert Lowell, and Harold Bloom. 

This list is not just poets who happened to be men.   These men were not just poets; they shaped the critical outlook of our age. 

This outlook replaced the passions of the Romantic and Victorian heart with the mutterings of a priesthood, a male priesthood, thumping its chest about whatever the male talks about when he retires with his pals to smoke after dinner.  The male poets certainly didn’t agree about anything; this was no male conspiracy; they ranted and raved and chuckled and guffawed about the usual self-important male stuff, and the pomposity was almost sickening and terribly self-important: the Pounds and the Olsons hyperbolic and puffed up, the Ashberys and the O’Haras joking and sly, Thomas Eliot classical and aloof, D.H. Lawrence and Allen Ginsberg sexually vigorous, the New Critics, learned and doctrinaire, puffing on their pipes, it was all very male, 90%, even 95% male, with a few token females, H.D. and Marianne Moore enthusiastically following, just thrilled to belong to the club. 

And why should the women complain?  The general spirit of Modernism was more open and democratic than the Victorian mode had been; Edna Millay was a terrific poet, but she was a little too good in a Victorian, Romantic sort of way, so she wasn’t really allowed into the club, but in the long run, this was good for women, because Modernism, though it was run by males, really wasn’t about men lording it over women; the “parish of rich women” who bankrolled Yeats, Pound and Eliot were happy to give, and the women were right: even though women poets were far more plentiful and respected in the Victorian era than in the Modern one, eventually the general spirit of the Modern Age would prove beneficial to women.

Lady poets thrived in the 19th century, and when the lady poet was no more, a nadir was reached for women poets during the time Modernism vanquished Victorian manners: Modernist male poets and critics outnumbered Modernist female poets and critics in 1925 by 100 to 1, but today the ratio is now much closer to 50/50.

True, we find it shocking that poetry magazines feature men over women by 3-2, or 2-1 sometimes, but isn’t this better than 100-1?  If we judge by trends, historically the pendulum is swinging rapidly towards the female since the Golden Age of Modernism. 

Thanks to Modernism, men liberated women.

There were a few socio-cultural bumps along the way.  When WW II ended, the GI Bill saw millions of men newly studying liberal arts in the universities.   During the booming post-war economy women tended to be homemakers and nurses, not liberal arts college students, and as poetry became a place of grad school success, it took women a few generations to catch up in that regard.

But here’s the quesiton. 

Does the Muse care about gender? 

If all those males during the Modernist era were opening doors for women, setting the table for future women poets, even while Pound was at war with Amy Lowell and Hugh Kenner was dismissing Edna Millay, even though on the surface, male poets during the Modern era were not particularly nice to women, the sensibility of the Modern criticism and poetry, in its democratic and open impulses, was splendidly good for women.

So then: It’s not the gender of the poets that finally matters, it’s the poetry and the politics of the poetry itself.

When I hear males in po-biz now promising to include more women, I wonder: really?  Do the poems know about this?   Must the poems know the gender of their authors?   Should poems be gender-aware?  And why?  Isn’t that all very Victorian?

Should poets be bean-counters?

If twice as many men submit poems to a magazine, for instance, should editors really pick and choose just to make the numbers match up?

The Romantics, like the Moderns, were mostly male, but there was a difference.  The Romantics featured effeminate men, like Shelley, a blending of the male and the female.  One could argue that a sensitive man is better than either gender stereotypically itself. 

A sensitive man is the essence of poetry. 

A sensitive man solves everything. 

Equality of the sexes is something that is fought for outside of the poem.

The dyer’s hand is not gendered.  The poem is not male or female.  The poem is where male and female mingle in order to disappear.

Or, we could argue, instead, that women shouldn’t disappear in poetry, but assert themselves.  But how?  As women?  But again, isn’t that putting roles into the mix, and isn’t that old-fashioned and Victorian?  Isn’t that what Modernism got us away from?

It’s rather a lose-lose proposition: push for the female, and you regress, push for the genderless, and you banish the very gender you are supposed to defend.

I’m a man, and I’m baffled by the whole issue.

What else is new?

EYE V. EAR: THE OLDEST POETRY DEBATE

Ron Silliman recently linked this article as an “anti-modern attack on Poetry Out Loud.”

Readers expecting to see another harrowing Scarriet expose of the Modernist clique must have been disappointed; it was only a bland indictment by the conservative City Journal of an NEA program  of “recitation and memorization” of poetry in the schools which, according to the City Journal, fell victim to “egalitarian politics.”

Who would not agree the idea is a good one?   Put poems in the memories and mouths of children and let their hearts and minds be worked on by the general good of great poetry.  However, as the Silliman-linked article, pointed out, poetry’s music died in the prosaic innovation of Modernism.  The music of poetry is necessary to make poetry’s recitation and memorization imprint glory upon the soul.  But the Poetry Out Loud program missed this chance by using modern poems and poets based on race and gender—not the criterion of musical excellence.  Another right-wing, dead white male apology, right?   Only a reactionary pill would complain with the City Journal that:

Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.

Choose at a black woman poet (a slave!) and weep that she is “ranked” equally with an Opium addict of erratic gifts who happens to be a white guy.  Gnash your teeth that a woman chosen at random has “three poems” included, and make a point to say she’s “not a major poet.”  Then tell us the whole project was a failure because it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The neo-cons worship T.S. Eliot, yet Eliot pronounced Swinburne empty. Still, Eliot, and his right-wing pal, Pound, took delight in Swinburne’s music, as did a whole decadent tribe of twits anxious to forget Poe, who was always too universal and large to really appeal to the really decadent.  Because Eliot had a few nice things to say about Swinburne, it’s not in the least surprising to hear the neo-con City Journal cry out “it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne!”  (And Louise Bogan wrote for the liberal New Yorker, which is probably why the City Journal takes a swipe at her. Three poems! How could they?)

The neo-cons are as predictable in their hero-worship (T.S. Eliot) as is the Silliman Left (Williams, Olson, Zukovsky, Ginsberg).

The Modernist clique was tiny, but appears gigantic because its members are still loved by both sides of today’s great Right/Left Culture War divide, aptly represented by the City Journal and Ron Silliman—who was quick to name the City Journal’s attack on the Poetry Out Loud program an “anti-modern” one.

Hovering behind Silliman’s heroes is the right-wing Pound; Eliot and Pound will be forever united as Modernist Masters and Partners, Williams and Pound were friends, and Pound, Eliot and Williams cannot easily be separated by the sharp knife of politics today; in fact the sharpness of City Journal v. Silliman blunts and dulls when it attempts to divide Modernist spoils.

Eliot’s Anglicanism has absolutely nothing to do, finally, with his revolutionary Modernism, and yet his Anglicanism has everything to do with his appeal to the neo-cons.  The essays and poems which Eliot is famous for are as revolutionary and modernist as anything we can find, and they are all the more effective as radical contributions because of the author’s apologies for “tradition.”  The neo-cons are impotent when it comes to all matters of poetry; they utterly misread their master.

The Left in poetry is just as bad, however;  the poetic Left grovels before the most reactionary piffle simply because it’s “modernist,” blindly equating “modernist” with “progressive.”

Both sides are wrong.  The conservatives don’t realize that Eliot was radical, and neither does the Left, who instead follow Williams, who managed to turn himself into some kind of anti-Eliot, which was easy for Williams, since all he had to do was invoke what was American and plain: he was American and he was very, very plain.   Politics sits very oddly in poetry because first, poetry isn’t supposed to be political (at least not overtly) and second, in terms of Letters, Europe is far more extremist than America, who never quite shook the idea that Huck Finn is where they’re at, and so the U.S.A may be glorious compared to Europe when it comes to science and practical matters, but when it comes to imaginative stuff like readin’ and writin’ and playin’ music, we is sincere and plain, if nothin’ else.

None of these preferences and attachments make any sense, really, or have any real significance; these matters of allegiance to Eliot or Williams are mere matters of pride and vanity, and, by their very nature, are whimsy.

Literary opinion in this country is mere buffoonery.

To make a proper judgment on the pedagogy of Poetry Out Loud, it is not necessary to count how many poems by Phillis Wheatley or Algernon Charles Swinburne were included.

Here is the heart of the matter as put by the City Journal author:

Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.

It is better to understand something than to be in thrall to it, especially when we speak of education.   How can there be “musical complexity” in “fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?”   Wouldn’t “metrically irregular” poetry be more “complex?”  Obviously the author is vaguely feeling along in the dark with Eliot’s “difficulty” as guide; the “monotonous” rhythms of hip-hop are rejected, as is the propagandist simplicity of slam poetry, and even though modern poetry is more “irregular,” somehow “traditional metrics” are more “complex.”   The criterion of “complexity” is too vague to have any meaning.  Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.  The utilitarian worship of simplicity cannot be overlooked, nor the value of accessibility in simplicity.  Shakespeare extolls “simple truth” in his famous Sonnet 66 and damns those who would “miscall it simplicity.”   The haiku writer seeks simplicity as a virtue.  When we untie a complex knot, we travel through complexity in the untying, but complexity is not the end; complexity is the obstacle we overcome, even as we revel in complexity in the act of untying.

The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.

I cannot judge of the final effectiveness of Poetry Out Loud, nor does the City Journal article give any proof of the program’s failure or success.   Surely many factors make a poem succeed for popular audiences, but which factors are pedagogically significant and worthwhile?  All of them?  Some of them?  Are some aesthetic effects even harmful and not worthy of teaching?  Do harmful effects need to be ‘taught’ as warnings?

One thing can be said with certainty: poetry that relies on how it is laid out on a two-dimensional surface is weaker than poetry which pours into our ear as musical or dramatic speech.  Poetry should be heard and not seen.  Sound can carry an image, but once we begin to produce an image on the page, we move from poetry to a different art: painting.

Speech, purely as sound, can carry emotion, image, and idea, and do it musically.  That’s a remarkable thing in itself, and whether it is simple or complex is not the issue; and what is the refinement of this phenomenon (emotion, image and idea carried by musical sound) but poetry?

A POEM IS A DELICIOUS SHUDDER OF DELIGHT

Oriental Waitress Serving Drink 3.jpg

A poem is not an organism.

A poem is not a field.

A poem is not language.

A poem is not breath.

A poem is not a letter to the world.

A poem is not a rhyme.

A poem is not an image.

A poem is not speech.

A poem is not song.

A poem is a delicious shudder of delight.

As Poe said,—and who better to explain brevity and poetry than someone named Poe?—a poem is brief and it elevates the soul.

 I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

With these simple words, Poe dispels centuries of pedantic darkness.

It is always a painful process to root out ignorance in the popular mind, especially when it is habituated to certain comforting falsehoods; Poe goes right for the pain, testing his thesis in the jaws of Paradise Lost:

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.

Poe’s logic is air-tight.   The reader who reads a poem is performing a physical act, and this truth is all, really, that Poe is asserting, plus the notion that physicality has natural limits, which none can dispute.   Note that Poe is not making dubious claims re: the actual physical properties of the poem, and here Poe correctly limits the very thesis itself and does not err in the sense that Charles Olson (d. 1970) did, for instance: giving the quality of “a field” to the poem is to assert absolutely nothing, for a field can be measured, just as any physical object can be measured, but the physical measurement of a field and the physical measurement of a poem allign how?  They do not, and thus one can see at once that it is mere theoretical nonsense.  Poe again:

In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.

History has proven Poe correct: “no very long poem” has attained popularity in the century and a half since Poe wrote these words, and now we see that Pound and his followers, with their long poems*, were less modern (in the actual sense of that word) than Poe; it was Pound, not Poe, who fell into “inconsiderate and blindfold imitation.”   One looks about for an epic by popular poets Robert Frost, Edna Millay, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, or Billy Collins and finds none.  One of the many reasons is: the poetry anthology is the mode of poetic popularity and no epic will fit in it.  Another historical test of Poe’s theory is this: the novel is one of the great modern pastimes of the human heart and yet, despite trillions of novel-reading hours, no long poem during this time has emerged as a popular work in the vast reaches of this fiction-reading pursuit.  The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth may be the one slight exception, but it is more a wonderful oddity than a truly popular work.  Why no modern, best-loved long poems?

The core of Poe’s idea (duration) makes it an absolute rock of common sense, impossible to refute.    He follows out the implication of the central idea with genius-like simplicity:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another — nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom confound them.

On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.

The little poem by W.C. Williams called the “The Red Wheel Barrow” is a brief poem that has made a certain lasting impression on the public taste, but this proves nothing except that such a strong pull had been created by undue length and heavy-handed pedantry—persisted in by the pedants against Poe’s wisdom for such a long time—that “The Red Wheel Barrow” was, and is, a mere physical counter to this pull, lacking poetic qualities in itself; and we should also remember that this little poem was first heralded by the triumphant textbook Understanding Poetry, and has been pushed on students (anxious to do as little work as possible) in the schools and thus took root in a pedantic atmosphere at first, not in the popular mind.

The rush of excitement exists in the reader, not anywhere in the poem, and academic attempts to resolve the poem based on New Critical principles is a blind endeavor compounding error with error; the shift from New Critical thinking to various experiments have only made the problem worse, since these experiments keep following the poem as it disappears down the hole of its own physicality.

The poetic problem must be constantly approached from two directions: transitory excitement engendered in the reader and physical adjustment in response to that excitement in the act of composition, with the act of composition and the act of excitement feeding one another in a process that never rests in any sort of field or vehicle or receptacle that can be quantified except in the mind of the poet—a mind which balances a vast quantity of impressions and expressions in a combining process too rapid and complex for an outside observer to follow.

The brute fact of duration is the only quantitative measure possible in poetry according to Poe’s instinctive genius, and so far, in terms of poetry as a popular art, this remains as true today—despite a great deal of modernist avant-garde hoopla—as it was when Poe published the first modern poetry essay in 1849, the final year of his life.

 * I refer to Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s Maximus Poems, Williams’ Paterson, Zukovsky’s “A” among others.  Of course, it could be argued that these works were not intended by their authors to be long poems, but rather “a series of lyrics” (in Poe’s words) which is probably true, but if so, this hardly refutes Poe’s thesis.

 

 

READING WALLACE STEVENS IS LIKE…

Here’s how the game works.

Let’s start with Homer. 

Reading Homer is like... You are 22.  It is mid-summer.  You are playing the board game Risk with young and old family members, drinking ouzo, eating lamb on a large, open-air porch.

Reading Wallace Stevens is like…You are 60.  It is fall.  You are squeezed into a little uptown Manhattan jazz club, slightly buzzed, but hungry.  An elegant stranger looks you up and down and it seems they are going to speak to you, but they only end up giving you a snooty look, and turn away…

Reading John Ashbery is likeYou are 20.  You are talking to your favorite English teacher in a bar who you happened to run into by accident, for the first time outside of school.  You are drunk on 2 drinks; he seems sober on 12.  He’s really cool, and he sure can talk, but you keep waiting for him to get to the point…

Reading W.H. Auden is like…You are 36,  It is early spring.  You are listening to a trio play Vivaldi in a museum.  Your amusing friend has excused himself and they’ve been gone for quite some time, and you’re a little worried.

Reading Poe is likeYou are 9.  It’s late winter.  You are drawing a vase of lilacs early in the morning before anyone else is up, and you’re doing a crossword puzzle at the same time.

Reading T.S. Eliot is like…  You are 17.  It is autumn.  You are rowing across a lake in a rowboat, wearing a suit; a slightly older person in a stylish hat is with you.  You are afraid they don’t love you.

Reading Frank O’Hara is like…  You are 29.  It is spring.  You are playing poker at a drunken party for high stakes and you are winning.  You ask somebody please put another record on the phonograph.

Reading Philip Larkin is like…  You are 49.  It is spring.  You are purchasing a ticket at a railway station.  You have just had a nice meal, with drinks before and after.

Reading WC Williams is like…  It is mid-winter.  You are 99, and staring at yourself in the mirror.

Reading Wordsworth is like… You are 12.  It is late summer. You are playing hide and seek with your younger cousins in the woods.  You are tired of looking.  Everyone, it seems, is gone.  It is starting to rain.

Reading Dante is like….You’re 31.  It is the beginning of spring.  You are at a  rap concert, but you hate the music.  Your beautiful date, it is obvious, dislikes the music, too.  You finally discuss this in the lobby. You both stay.  You don’t know where else to go. 

Reading Charles Bernstein is likeYou’re 2.  It is winter.  You are indoors, where it is quite warm. You are hitting your sister, 1, with a scrabble board.

PLAYING AT POET

Get over him, already!

Scarriet readers know how effortlessly I crank out my diatribes against Modernism, and I think it’s beginning to have an effect. I sense out there a new defensiveness when it comes to the High Moderns; not that poets are finally turning their backs on them—they are much too stupid to do that—but I sense a growing panic as they realize: Modernism is a parent, that despite all my obscure and ribald post-modernism, I’ll never out-perform, and I’ll never escape.

The panic is probably for two reasons: First, it’s the twenty-first century and the Modernists grew up in the 19th.  So it’s a simple matter of time marching on.   If the Modernist legacy is to plough new ground, why is the “new ground” overrun with William Carlos Williams [1883-1963]  Condo Developments?

Second, such reactionary dogs as Dana Gioia and William Logan hold aloft the Age of High Modernism as the Golden Age.  And then you’ve got Scarriet harping on the ugly political aspects of the Modernists.

But the biggest reason might be this one: What’s so special about the Modernists, really?  Shouldn’t readers of poetry—and not just a handful of historians and scholars—enjoy poetry of all ages?  Do we need our poetry to remind us on the hour that we live in the “m-o-d-e-r-n age?”  When push  comes to shove, why should a William Carlos Williams poem, for instance, have more meaning for us than a poem from any other era?  Have we ever stopped to really think about this?  Is Wallace Stevens necessary for us to walk away with a more profound philosophical understanding of the world?  Come on.  Really?  What exactly is this philosophy that hasn’t been articulated before by numerous other poets and philosophers?   It would be one thing if the ideas of Wallace Stevens were part of a public debate, so that it would behoove us to join it, for that reason, but this is not the case.  His ideas are obscure.  Are any of the so-called High Modernists significant due to the timelessness and significance of their ideas?   Po-biz has invested a great deal of intellectual capital in “Make it New!”   Even if this were not uttered 100 years ago now—what does it mean? 

Rapid-fire commentary characterizes po-biz talk, but there’s little real thinking.

What of ideas like Eliot’s “objective correlative?”   Here’s a “high-modernist” concept, but interestingly enough, it applies to centuries of literary history, of which, because we’re ardent “modernists,” we are now ignorant.

Eliot and the New Critics did make some interesting criticism regarding “pure and impure” poetry (an essay by Robert Penn Warren by that name, for instance, is neglected but brilliant) and as intellectuals like Ransom and Tate came to terms with what Eliot had done in The Sacred Wood, a lively and intelligent socio-aesthetics was born, even among these rabid haters of the Romantics. 

But the Beats were finally too sexy for the New Critics, and the Creative Writing Programs too profitable for disinterested Criticism.

Today’s po-biz commentators, even though they can smell rot, only talk in sound-bites.  The Romantics could argue, the Romantics could philosophize.  (Who actually reads Byron, anymore?  We don’t even know what Romanticism is, much less Classicism.)

Philosophy?  A real sympathetic, historical perspective?  In Po-biz today?  Nope.   The Modernists, and we, their heirs, are all mysticism, symbol, and easy advice.

Take, for example, the latest from Huff Post’s Anis Shivani’s Modernism debate:

“Finally, I’ll risk restating the obvious by venturing that there’s only one useful piece of advice for any young writer: write. Pay no attention to the state of American poetry, the death of the book, the legacy of Modernism, the bedbugs in your cheap apartment: ignore as much as you possibly can get away with and write. Resist the careerist temptations of PoBiz. Stay home and write a poem. There is no particular place to get to in Poetry Land, anyway. The point of the journey is the journey itself, the process of writing poetry, which hopefully you consider enriching and indispensable. If not, spare yourself a lot of grief. Go back to that fork in the yellow woods, watch out for ATVs driven by gun-toting meth-heads, and pick another road.”

—Campbell McGrath

Ignore as much as you possibly can?   Stay at home and write?   The point of the journey is the journey itself? 

Imagine your typical college freshman today: angry, confused, depressed, bereft of history, philosophy, culture, has never been to a museum, has never read Plato, or any literature before 1920, knows only the shallowest pop culture, the shallowest ethics, and this is Campbell McGrath’s advice?  Stay at home and write?  Are you fucking kidding me?

Or, this one:

“The legacy of Modernism is alive and well–though, frankly, it’s so broad as to be pretty much unbetrayable. After all, the Language poets and Philip Levine both envision their work as building on William Carlos Williams. Robert Bly thought “Deep Image” poetry was a return to true Imagism, yet Ron Silliman lumps Bly and James Wright with many of the “academic” and Confessional poets Bly excoriated in The Fifties.

All poetry lives somewhere on a spectrum between Classicism and Romanticism. If high Modernists such as Eliot, Pound, and Moore tilt toward the Classical side, and the Confessional and Beat poets inhabit the Romantic, then we’ve more or less marked the boundaries of the Modernist legacy. But that gives us quite an aesthetic and intellectual range to play around in.

Many American poets frustrated by 1980s post-Confessionalism–which leaned largely on personal narrative and ad misericordium for its effects–have turned back to the high Modernists, Objectivists, and New York School to balance out a poetic that was, in the end, too baldly Romantic. Sometimes this turn has produced new work that’s mechanical, emotionally flat, or unparsable–but that doesn’t negate the fact that this rebalancing is mostly a good move, one that’s hardly a betrayal of Modernism. Indeed, it’s a backward turn similar to Eliot’s when he exalted the Metaphysical poets over the Victorians and Romantics.”

—Wayne Miller

The term “classical” gets thrown around an awful lot these days in a vague, yet extremely self-congratulatory manner.   As if applying this label to Ezra Loomis Pound and Miss Moore (!!) somehow lets us off the hook for the roaring ignorance of 99% of literary history.  The Titan Moderns, half-Classical, half-Romantic, stride the ages, trampling the pygmies and dwarfs who chirped in Athens, tweedled in Rome, and squeaked during the Renaissance.

And thank goodness for the restorative Objectivists and the balancing act of the New York School!

This isn’t poetry.  This is playing at it.

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.

ANIS SHIVANI ASKS: “HAVE AMERICAN POETS BETRAYED THE GREAT LEGACY OF MODERNISM?”

legacy of modernism.jpg

WHAT GREAT LEGACY?

Or, Why This Legacy?

Anis, how can you have a debate about the current state of American poetry by making this assumption—an assumption of “greatness”—right from the start?

The “moderns” had no hit records.  They are not read.

True, outside of school, very little poetry—and very little literature of merit—is read, but if we can’t blame the moderns for this, we certainly can’t ascribe to the moderns a “legacy,” for the public turned away from poetry during their reign!

Let’s look at what happened, shall we?

The little magazines of the modernists had tiny audiences.

The “moderns” enjoyed a small window of notoriety after World War II, when the New Critical modernists insinuated themselves into ‘English major’ textbook anthologies.

The ‘English major,’ however, is fast becoming extinct in the university, replaced by Business majors, mostly.

The “moderns” had a brief, artificial existence—which is now dying.

There is no “legacy.”

Every age has some good poets; granted.  But this is quite different from “betraying” a previous era’s “legacy.”

First:  As everyone knows, the “legacy” of the “moderns” is a vigorous and explicit betrayal of their prior eras.   So obviously one has to “betray” the “modernists.”   One can’t have one’s cake and eat it.

Second:  Very few (their friends) read the “moderns” until they were put into school textbooks.   Now, the new poetry today is only being read in school.   The idea, then, of a “betrayal” could only be understood by a New Critical, ‘close-reading’ comparison of “modernist” poetry with today’s poetry.  Obviously, one wouldn’t expect poets writing today to write just like William Carlos Williams; if one felt ‘William Carlos Williams influence’ were necessary to avoid “betrayal,” it would be highly quixotic to even ask for such a thing, much less make any attempt to prove some sort of “betrayal” of that “legacy” because WC Williams was not being followed closely enough.  Why not ask whether the “legacy” of Chinese poetry, or that of the Provencals or the Romantics, or the Greeks, has been “betrayed?”

Yet, the “moderns,” of whom no one reads, and who are no longer modern and whom “betraying” might just be profitable; the moderns, that small group of gentlemen, are held over our heads, with great ceremony and solemnity.

If we keep asserting this “legacy,” based on what is now fusty, fussy writing that failed to catch on with the public, how are we going to see clearly or make any reliable judgment on this matter at all?

MODERNISM’S HITS AND MISSES

The HITS

1. Skyscrapers Useful.  Spectacular.  Yet, like almost every aspect of Modernism, a certain irony in the success: Modernism’s brutal, in-your-face archicture is the very face of what Modernism was supposed to be protesting: big, industrial take-over.

2. T.S. Eliot  Effete, gloomy, prejudiced, but most talented writer of the lot.

3. New Criticism  A certain intellecutal elan, but at great pedantic cost.

4. Jean Cocteau   Just really cool.  It is said the news that Edith Piaf died killed him.

5. The MFA Creative Writing Workshop.  Yes, a Modernist creation of Paul Engle, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.  Great idea, commercially successful, but often reflects the crass, cheap clique-ish aspects of Modernism.

6. Gertrude Stein “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  A clown, but a savvy one.

7. William Butler Yeats Actually wrote some good poems

8. Bertolt Brecht Lucky to have Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya as partners, and not a bad poet.

9. Garcia Lorca Beautiful poetry

10. Abstract Art One complaint, though: all that lovely color should be on ugly industrial buildings and such; it’s a waste to be only in museums and private homes—where it often looks pretentious.

The MISSES

1. Manifesto-ism Pedantry, over-argument, splintering.  Makes you want to memorize a poem or two; or learn Latin or Greek or Hebrew…

2. Bauhaus The ugly factory.   Bauhaus building trade bucks enriched the modern painting con.  The puzzle of  millions chasing ugly art: solved.

3. Cubism Wins the Pretense Award in many categories.

4. James Joyce The most famous unread author.  Reinforces crass Irish stereotypes—no wonder the bluebloods love him.

5. Imagism Uh…memo to Pound and Williams: the Japanese already did it…it’s called haiku.

6. 12 Tone Music Get me out of this place.

7. John Crowe Ransom Very questionable taste, cunning essayist.

8. Apollinaire Wanted the Louvre burned down, but this iconoclast fights in WW I?  Died as a result—served him right.

9.  Charles Olson Ugh.

10. Picasso A blue period.

CAT STEVENS, YOU BASTARD

I was trekking nostalgically through Youtube, as I occasionally do, last weekend and Cat, you made me cry three times.   “Tea for the Tillerman” was one of those iconic records I heard in my adolescence and your intense, yet gentle singing style really knocked me out.  I think it was my sister’s record, not mine, but I grew to really like it.

Now that I have a young son and daughter, there’s an added emotion for me to the songs “Father and Son” and “Wild World” (the latter is about a girlfriend, but it could almost be about a daughter) and as soon as I heard these two songs: instant tears.

It’s a good thing my kids didn’t see me blubbering at the computer—I don’t know what they would have thought.  My sentimental music tastes freak them out enough, already.

Then I decided to watch Yusuf Islam, a much older Cat Stevens, play “Father and Son” to a gathering of Muslims, and that, too, made me cry.  Maybe because he was older and singing the same song, maybe because he was singing it to a different people who were enjoying the same song in the same way, but it really got to me.

Cat Stevens, you bastard.

But, unfortunately, the pedant in me would like to say a little more.  The lyrics of “Wild World” and “Father and  Son” have parental, moral, and sentimental strains which are the basis of all art—and all religion.

Every impulse in both art and religion has some kind of parental or authoritative guidance, and this is inescapable.

The poet who has no morals is still a moral lesson.  Art is trapped in morality; to be a poet is to be a priest: from this there is no escape.

In the lyrics to “Wild World,” the narration quickly moves from the painful Petrarchan trope  of the indifferent beloved (she’s leaving him) to tender, paternal guidance and concern; the poet escapes from the hell of disappointment into the heaven of care.  Amor’s resentments and regrets are quickly transformed into a kind of selfless agape.

Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you wanna start something new
And it’s breakin’ my heart you’re leavin’
Baby, I’m grievin’
But if you wanna leave, take good care
Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

CHORUS:
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
and I’ll always remember you like a child, girl

You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do
And it’s breakin’ my heart in two
Because I never wanna see you sad, girl
Don’t be a bad girl
But if you wanna leave, take good care
Hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware

Imagine if such passionate advice-giving took this form:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

This little poem seems a radically different address; and yet, would equals speak to each other like this?   No.   If your friend turned to you and said, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow…” you would laugh in his face. The power, if it has any, of this poem is in its moral guidance.  There is an implicit authoritative voice (religious, if not poetic) speaking to a child or devotee or follower:  here is my wisdom.

The “Wheel Barrow” wisdom is not the wisdom of “Wild World:” be a good girl, beware of a__holes, but rather: be attentive, don’t forget mere things are important, too.

Even though “Wild World” and “Wheel Barrow” seem to be very different, they are not.  Both rely on:  the advice of some kind of authority. They are both highly moral.

FILL UP YOUR RED WHEEL BARROW: HOW NEW CRITICISM DESTROYS POETRY

red w

It is impossible to tell whether the following phenomenon arose by accident or by design, but millions have fallen quietly under its spell since the Modernism-tinged Writing Program Era fell like a hood over serious poetic practice in the United States beginning in the 1940s.

The intrepid New Critics, who defined poetry pedagogy in both seminar and classroom at the crosswords of the new era when poetry took a hard, professional turn, had no method.

We assume that New Criticism 1) focused on how a text works, 2) apart from real life concerns, and 3) this is why it faded.

But 1) New Criticism hasn’t faded, because the general practice of its rhetoric remains and 2) New Criticism focused on the text only so the ‘new writing’ could crash the party.

We forget these ‘conservative’ New Critics were also, for the most part, Modernist poets looking for readers. Ransom and Tate and their European Modernist friends, such as Eliot and Pound, were poets with only a tiny, small-magazine audience in the 1920s.

By the 1930s, poets like Millay, Dorothy Parker and Frost, who actually sold books, were threatening to overshadow the Modernists completely; the whole experiment was threatening to go under; Ransom and Tate were not on Millay’s side, they were on Pound’s.   This was partly due to politics, but it also involved something even more primitive: naked ambition.

The New Critics, like their mentor, T.S. Eliot, were anti-populist, anti-Romantic and thought poetry should be especially difficult.  As they wrote their argumentative essays in the 30s and set up their Writing Programs at places like Iowa and Princeton in the early 40s, the New Critics pushed out the conservatives in the English Departments who clung to history and tradition, who worshiped Keats and Milton and Shelley; Eliot and Pound’s anti-19th century animus informed the New Critics as well.

The New Critical focus on “the text” was a means to an end: make history less relevant so the new writing could prosper as new writing.

The defensive tone of Cleanth Brooks is palpable (from Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1951): “The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men…”   Men, for instance, like Ransom and Tate, who were eager to become famous and get into print? This fact the New Critics were shrewd enough not to emphasize as they launched their attacks against English Departments of history and biography in the name of whatever text-reading tricks they were advertising—and backpedalling from at every occasion (the formalist critic knows as well as anyone…).

Where were the biographies of Ransom and Tate?  That was the issue.

The non-formalist critics knew “as well as anyone” that “men” wrote “texts.”

The New Critics’ hobby horse of focusing on the text was never really an issue.

The English Departments which the Modernists (then on the outside in ‘amateur’ status) were assailing in the 1930s and 40s  were not ignoring texts. How were the New Critics themselves going to be taught in the English Departments?  This is the point, made even now, which makes the professional uncomfortable, for ambition is only for the amateur at last.

I just re-read Scarriet’s post -Why Keats’ “Ode to Psyche” Also Doesn’t Work by Christopher Woodman and Mr. Woodman’s herculean effort in comments below: his reading of the Keats poem, his explaining the Psyche myth, providing anecdotes from his teaching experience in Thailand.  Mr. Woodman also got into his objections to Scarriet’s March Madness, which I find interesting, because Mr. Woodman objects to the Keats poem because Keats is excluding rough & tumble aspects of reality.  But Mr. Woodman is doing precisely the same thing he accuses Keats of doing when he (Woodman) abuses Scarriet’s March Madness.

Here’s where the insidiousness of New Criticism comes into play.  Mr. Woodman, like everyone born after 1920 in the U.S., has been quietly influenced by the New Criticism.  The textbook, “Understanding Poetry” (first edition, 1938) was the first big textbook for poetry in the United States when the GI Bill expanded university enrollment after World War II, the beginning of the Writing Program Era, when poetry left the public square and became a college subject.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” by William Carlos Williams—a member, by way of Pound, of Ransom’s group—gets unalloyed praise in “Understanding Poetry.”

In his post and comments, Mr. Woodman puts tremendous energy into arguing against the Keats poem—which remains absolutely beautiful in the face of all his objections.

This, finally, is what the New Critics did: they over-argued poetry; they laid down a rhetoric in which something as simply beautiful as “Ode to Psyche” couldn’t exist.

If one puts over-argument next to “Ode to Psyche,” it withers.

If one puts over-argument next to “The Red Wheel Barrow,” simply by dint of energetic over-arguing, the “Red Wheel Barrow” grows in stature.

Because the “Wheel Barrow” was nothing in the first place, it can only gain by being discussed.

In the New Critical universe, whatever gains from mad scientist argumentation is good and whatever diminishes from mad scientist argumentation is bad.  This is the powerfully simple formula which carries the day.  By New Critical logic, (which is how academics by the nature of their work operate) “Ode to Psyche” is bad and “The Red Wheel Barrow” is good.

THE ADORATION OF ANYTHING YOU THINK YOU OWN IS FIRE


…………….For a larger view of this detail click here. For the whole painting click here.

The Adoration of anything you think you own is idolatrous.

The Adoration of anything you think you own, even Poetry, even Baseball, is idolatrous because, like the Critic on his knees in this painting, the fire’s in your own head. You worship at the shrine but you’re looking not into it but out at us. You’re looking back at your audience to be sure they’ll know how astute and well-informed you are, and, of course, how properly dressed. In turn, your ‘readers’ have a choice — to play ball or cry FIRE!

With regard to baseball, the strange beauty and fascination of it have never been explored more deeply than in the following poem. So what is it? And why has the discussion of poetry on Scarriet becoming so ugly and savage?

Christopher Woodman

.

………………………..The Crowd at the Ball Game

………………………..The crowd at the ball game
………………………..is moved uniformly

………………………..by a spirit of uselessness
………………………..which delights them —

………………………..all the exciting detail
………………………..of the chase

………………………..and the escape, the error
………………………..the flash of genius —

………………………..all to no end save beauty
………………………..the eternal –

………………………..So in detail they, the crowd,
………………………..are beautiful

………………………..for this
………………………..to be warned against

………………………..saluted and defied —
………………………..It is alive, venomous

………………………..it smiles grimly
………………………..its words cut —

………………………..The flashy female with her
………………………..mother, gets it —

………………………..The Jew gets it straight – it
………………………..is deadly, terrifying —

………………………..It is the Inquisition, the
………………………..Revolution

………………………..It is beauty itself
………………………..that lives

………………………..day by day in them
………………………..idly —

………………………..This is
………………………..the power of their faces

………………………..It is summer, it is the solstice
………………………..the crowd is

………………………..cheering, the crowd is laughing
………………………..in detail

………………………..permanently, seriously
………………………..without thought
………………………………………………………William Carlos Williams (Dial, 1923)

[This poem has been posted twice  on this site, here and here. The response has been desultory, though the themes have been crying out for discussion.]

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.

WHY THE ROMANCE FOR MODERNISM?

Mmmmm.  So much depends upon a good cigarette….  

20,679 physicians say William Carlos Williams is less irritating!

Take your Remington typewriter with you!  It’s portable.  Oh, and bring along your portable William Carlos Williams, too!

Hey, fellas, if you want to impress that special someone, remember to always carry your William Carlos Williams for that special moment!

Nothing makes you look smarter than a slim volume of free verse!

After a hard day on the trail, I like a hot bath, a hearty meal…and William Carlos Williams!

Taste that modern poetry!   Smooooooth.

Ahh, the smell of leather, pine soap, model airplane glue, and the musty scent of an old hardcover book by William Carlos Williams!  That’s the ticket!

Let’s travel to jazzland!  And let’s not forget our William Carlos Williams!

PIG

Why is contemporary poetry such a vexation?

 

Poetry, one of our favorite writers once said, should be a passion, not a study.

But why shouldn’t poetry be a study?  What’s wrong with poetry and study?

Poetry and study are oil and water.

Study’s observational rigor demands factual results, not happy ones.

Poetry, contra study, seeks happy results, not factual ones.

Modern poetry, however, has turned the truism upside down.  Seduced by the apostles of modernism, William James, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and John Dewey, among others, our poets don’t care for poems which are happy results so much as poems whose results are in the broadest sense, true—which ought to be an improvement, and in some ways, is an improvement.

On the other hand, poetry lost its public when it began to use study rather than passion as its guide.

The public demands poetry full of whimsy, passion, froth, delight.   The public will pardon the poet when he calls a chicken a pig, as long as the poet does not appear to be great and wise while doing so, or mumble into his sleeve while doing so, or pretend to be some priest of the yellow-skinned moon while doing so; the poet must not do so while counting every feather on the chicken.

The public does not like a lot of mumbo jumbo.  A line or two of folly is fine, but pretentious stretches of more than that will not be tolerated, never mind entire landscapes of bombast like “The Four Quartets” or Canto Number One. Forced to read the entire Cantos, out will come the pitchforks and torches.  Oh, and deriding the public of pitchforks and torches will only sever relations between poet and public further.  ‘Torches and pitchforks’ is a metaphor.  The public is smarter than that—or not.   It is those who blame the public rather than the poet who are most far gone.

The public will not put up with too much fooling around; the public prefers the poem of the happy, or finished, or beautiful result.

Poets fell out of public favor when they began to engage the world for the world’s sake and lost sight of poetry as a certain instrument with certain uses for happy results.

No one consciously made poetry into a study; they merely embraced Dewey’s idea of experience as the key to aesthetics.

As far as the public goes, how could experience leave poetry so bereft?   One would think experience is the one thing the public qua public understands.  The public may not know its Sacred Wood, but the wood of experience it knows.

Dewey said two crucial things re: the public, art, and experience.  He said 1) experience was crucial and 2) the public did not associate art with experience.  (Yes, like all modern poetry theorists, he blamed the public.  Bad move.)  It’s right here in the very first paragraph of Art As Experience, first published as a book in 1934:

“In common perception, [that’s the public, by the way] the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting or statue in its existence apart from human experience.”

Dewey’s whole strategy, his whole philosophy of art,  is laid out in that single sentence.

Dewey’s intelligence was such that he could discuss painting and poetry at the same time, but he rode painting’s wave; the “New York School” of poetry followed in Dewey’s wake, but ironically, poetry, like a great sea, dissolved Dewey’s ideas—his wordy formulations triumphed alongside paint and clay but crashed and burned in the theoretical sky of that wordy art, poetry.

The brainy theorists of modernism pushed poetry ahead too quickly for public taste.  The fine arts are erected in the public square; museums force public taste to follow its lead, but taste in poetry dwells more privately and cannot be shaped by cultural fiat.   A Ginsberg is no match for a Warhol, a Pound is no match for a Guggenheim, in forming public taste.

Despite all its braininess, scientists pay no attention to modern poetry, just as they pay no attention to Dewey’s “experience;” after all, our experience on earth is that the sun, not the earth, is moving; science has proved the opposite; a poem describing an experience of the sun moving across the sky would not be modern, per se.   Poets can experience a poem as they write a poem—the very writing of a poem is an experience, and the reader shares in this experience, but this is not unique to moderns, nor does it signify the poem in question will be good.

The experience of language which reader and poet share is facile.  The free-association style of Ashbery, for instance, produces an experience on many levels, a complex experience which is open-ended and arbitrary, and due to the remarkable nature of language, is an experience which is actual in every sense, even if ol’ Ashbery is half-asleep and absent-mindedly laying on linguistic paint as randomly as he can.  If we grant this experience—reading stream-of-consciousness writing in a trance—is a genuine experience—and I don’t see how it is not a genuine experience—then Dewey’s “experience” becomes less than advertised.  If the act of reading meets the experience test, any experience within the reading experience (if such a thing does exist) will not actually be able to distinguish itself from its surroundings.

If the experience of poetry is the experience of reading, if mechanically these two are the same, if the reading experience is what greets all readers of poetry and no poetry would be experienced without the reading experience, it is safe to say that poetry’s unique qualities (whatever we dare say they are) cannot possibly belong to experience, per se.  Poetry cannot distinguish itself as poetry from the experience of reading, or any experience at all without having qualities which somehow set poetry apart from the experience of reading, and thus all other experience.

The more expansive poetry’s subject matter and formal properites become, the more poetry disappears into the reading experience, for it is the reading experience which is actually expanding, not poetry.

As poetry is currently defined, reading

Pig

is a reading experience precisely the same as reading poetry.

Reading Pig is fraught with ambiguity: why pig?  What does not only the word, but the fact that someone wrote pig mean?  Pig contains an infinite number of associations—once associations begin to flow, there is no end to that meandering river, and so in this sense Pig contains as much associative knowledge as a play by Shakespeare and thus generates as much experience, for associations, potentially infinite, are the key to any reading experience.

Experience has nothing to do with the happy result of a poem.  The term, as used by Dewey and the modernists, is empty.

“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

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

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

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

Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

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

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

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

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

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

What do we notice here?

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

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

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

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

WHITHER THE FEMME FATALE POET?

Elinor Wylie.  Lyrical, with a dash of madness.

Where have they all gone?  Not only does the candle no longer burn at both ends, the one end is hardly flickering.

Great power for the poem, and for the woman, resides in the femme fatale poet.  What killed her, and why has she been allowed to die?

Even if the femme fatale is not the ideal state of things, it elicits a powerful interest in poetry.  Moral objections are moot, since femme fatales will exist and all the negative associations of that genre will exist, whether we want them to or not, and poetry’s involvement can mitigate the unfortunate aspects and also give to the world a heroic and social character for poetry which today it lacks.

In the 1920s, when school chums Pound, H.D., Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, together with Harvard friends Scofield Thayer, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, bound together in their modernist ‘Little Magazine’ coterie, which gave itself Dial Magazine Awards, published in Poetry and tooted its tin manifesto horn, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay were best-selling poets, continuing a tradition from the previous century–when the poetess out-sold the poet.

Before academic solipsism, women’s poetry reflected breast-heaving life: Osgood bitterly reproaching a gossip’s judgment on her friendship with Poe in the pages of the Broadway Journal, Dickinson dreaming of hot romances, Barrett thanking the wooer who snuck her out of her father’s house, Millay hotly turning a cold eye on past sexual flings.

The brittle, sexless poetry of Marianne Moore, the wan, affected imagism of H.D. put an end to the reign of Femme Fatale poetry.

The suicides of Plath and Sexton were sacrifices on the altar of  femme fatale poetry, a reminder of what had been crushed by Pound and Eliot’s modernism.

In Eliot’s wake, Bishop has emerged as the most important female poet of the 20th century, but she’s sexless in comparison to a poet like Millay.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds present a domestic, intricately examined sexuality, a far cry from the femme fatale; Jorie Graham had an early opportunity to be a femme fatale, but transformed herself into a foet instead.  Marilyn Chin embraced ethnicity. Mary Oliver has gone the ‘fatalistic love of nature’s creatures’ route.   No femme fatale there, either.

The forgotten Elinor Wylie (d. 1928) wrote wonderful poems.  In “Now Let No Charitable Hope,” one can hear distinctly the frightening yet delicate voice of both Plath and Sexton, the confident whisper of the femme fatale:

Now Let No Charitable Hope

Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

A DEFENSE OF POETRY…SORT OF.

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

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

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

Throwing off rhyme was not a revolution. 

It was a revulsion.

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

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

Imagism was a retreat, not an advance. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may have been for a very simple reason. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Do American poetasters love their William Carlos Williams, or what?  They dream William Carlos Williams. Their tails wag when they hear the name, “William Carlos Williams.”   At the end of their lives, with their last breath, they cry out, “William Carlos Williams!”

William Carlos Williams is both naked and covered in –isms.  He’s everything!

Here’s a typical gushing paean from Curtis Faville on Silliman’s blog— the whole sentiment expressed has become a ritual repeated ad nauseam:

“Williams began as a very traditional poet, writing rhymed poems about Spring and love and delicate ironies. But by the mid-‘Twenties he had pushed into formally challenging constructions influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary and inflections of conversational speech, he was really the first to do it well.

In addition, he managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional cliches and make little naked constructions from the raw timber of American life. They look like scaffoldings, their structure plain and unadorned like a newly framed house. “The pure products of America go crazy”–who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as Williams? Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy which the line-breaks and stanzaic pauses and settings underscore.”

Curtis Faville,  July 2008, Silliman’s blog

Among the chattering classes, sprachgefuhl will take on a mind of its own, but Williams-worship is unconsciously ingrained to the point  now where a healthy curiosity on these matters has been bottled up completely.

Faville and his somnambulant ilk are apparently too sleepy to see the contradictions here.   We count 13 in Faville’s brief post alone:

  1. Williams began as a very traditional poet.’  He did, and he was being published in ‘Poetry’ as a very traditional poet with his friend PoundAll but the very gullible will quickly assume Williams was an item not because of his groundbreaking poetry, but because of his membership in a clique.  Why would his hack rhymes be published, otherwise?
  2. ‘By the mid-‘Twenties he pushed into formally challenging constructions.’   AhemThe Dial Prize in 1926 was Williams’ first real public recognition; the editor of ‘The Dial’ in 1926 was Marianne Moore.  The content of the ‘The Dial’ was mostly European avant-garde: Picasso, Cezanne & T.S. Eliot (who won the ‘Dial Prize’ in 1922).  Williams was not ‘pushing.’  He was being pulled.  He was 43 years old and had known Pound for years—he was finally ‘getting with the program’ and doing what the clique required.  Moore won the Dial Prize in 1924—she had known then-Dial editor Scofield Thayer (T.S. Eliot’s old schoolmate at Milton Academy), as well as Pound and William Carlos Williams for years at that time.
  3. Influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people.   How nifty.  ‘Cubism’ (!) and ‘Surrealism’ (!) ‘the speech of the common people.’  Yea, they go hand in hand.  Maybe in some pedant’s dream…
  4. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary…’  This is utterly false.  Compare any century of poetry with Williams–his vocabulary is not simpler.
  5. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the inflections of conversational speech.’  Again, falseRobert Browning is far more conversational than Williams.  Williams’ poetry is actually less ‘conversational’ than examples from the 17th century.
  6. He was really the first to do it well.’  Another whopper.
  7. He managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional clichés…’  Oh-kay…   William Carlos Williams personally threw out ALL the so-called ‘fluff and lace’ which centuries of poetry is burdened with.  Every so-called ‘traditional cliché’ evaporated before Williams’ magic touch.
  8. Little naked constructions.’  What are these?  Elf robots which dance in poetaster’s dreams?
  9. raw timber of American life.’  William Carlos Williams as Paul Bunyan…
  10. They look like scaffoldings’   We are not sure what ‘they’ are.  Ideas? Poems?  Fragments of poems?   By now, of course, it doesn’t matter…
  11. their structure plain and unadorned…’   Ah, yes.  They’re ‘raw.’  They’re honest.
  12. Who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as… “The pure products of America go crazy.”  This is accessible?  And telling?
  13. Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy…’  OK, we’ve heard enough.

Egad!   We can quote from this hyperbole no longer. 

What’s that?  WC Williams’ ghost is a Martian! and he’s beaming radio transmissions of kinetic energy to selected earthlings like Curtis Faville? 

Why didn’t  someone tell me?  

This explains everything!

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

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

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

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

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

Two brief examples, from last century, will suffice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

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

Now we know things are really out of hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

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

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

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

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

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

HI, COUP! THE ‘HAIKU COUP D’ETAT’ OF MODERNISM’S FANATICAL IMAGISTE CULT


Everyone knows the Poetic Modernism Revolution begain with the Imagists, but few appreciate the role of poet, fiction writer, and critic, Yone Noguchi (1875-1947) –the Japanese Ezra Pound.

Noguchi conquered the West in three steps: San Francisco, 1893-1900; New York City, 1901-1904; and England, 1903 & 1913.   He befriended William Michael Rossetti (one of the seven founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), Arthur Symons, William Butler Yeats, and Thomas Hardy. Not bad.

Noguchi got raves in Poetry magazine as a pioneering modernist, thanks to his early advocacy of free verse and association with modernist writers Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher.  (Fletcher, from Arkansas, was part of Pound’s circle, and, later, John Crowe Ransom’s Southern Agrarians.)

So Noguchi pushed all the Modernist buttons: Pre-Raphaelite, Pound’s Euro-circle, Agrarian New Critics, and Chicago’s ‘Poetry.’   Bingo.

Modernism is usually associated with WW I, but the Russo-Japanese War played a key role on more than one level.

Noguchi’s suggestion to write haiku in his “A Proposal To American Poets” had a great impact in the wake of Japan’s stunning victory (aided by Japan’s alliance with Great Britain) in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, as Japan took the world stage by storm.   Britain gained as a sea power in competition with Russia–soon rocked by revolution after its humiliating defeat by Japan.

Now, what are WC Williams‘ ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and Pound’s “In A Station Of the Metro” but haiku (and rather bad ones at that)?

The Modernists would rather not call Pound and Williams writers of haiku.   It makes the whole ‘Imagiste revolution’ seem a little quaint and second-hand.

Also, World War I is a lot sexier than the Russo-Japanese War.

So there’s a good reason why today Yone Naguchi never shows up in the history of Modernist verse.

Oh, and just to complete the Pound analogy; Noguchi gradually became more militaristic and ended fully supporting Japan’s imperial war designs in World War II.

Crush the West!  They never did get Haiku.

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