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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting, keeper of the image, destroyed it.

Poetry, the temporal art, embraced it.

The con was two-sided and weirdly related.

Money (gold) versus Wisdom.  And who won?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there you have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you wonder why poetry sucks now?

 

 

 

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INSIDIOUS MODERNISM

The Armory Show: 100 years ago, Modern Art came to America

The government of Letters has its lobbyists and wealthy influence, too.  They say politics is show business for ugly people—we don’t know if poets and artists as a rule are ugly, or not, or whether it matters; however, as thinkers who are keen enough to dismiss much that doesn’t matter, we would most likely err if we dismissed the (often hidden) idea that art movements have non-artist and bad-artist people behind them as much as they do theory, people who buy art seeking a deal and may even build a museum or buy off a critic for that deal, people who have political or material interests.  The particular, motivated human, in other words, runs the show, the show of fame and influence and money we grace with the euphemism “art,” “architecture,” or “poetry” in our more idealistic moments.

Modernism is barely a hundred years old and has two chief characteristics: 1) a profound, enduring, and institutional influence on society at large, 2) not understood in the least by the public. Impressionism, as a technique, is understood; as an idea only theorists understand it.  Every technique has an end or result which does—or does not—satisfy the public.  To pretend that art is more than a technique rendered for public satisfaction is for theorists to twist and mangle.

Theorists, lobbyists, institutions, foundations, critics, lawyers, and politicians all have an interest in art-buying, whether it is sculpture, architecture (a trillion dollar industry), painting, photography, or poetry (a zero dollar industry, measured in something other than dollars). Before Modernism, nations used to own and fight over art (pillage in wars being only the most obvious): Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Arnold (and their contemporary sentiment) worked for Great Britain. Whistler v. Ruskin—the famous 19th century painting court case (1878)—was U.S. ‘modern art,’ before Modernism became an international brand, doing battle with entrenched Gothic/Victorian pride. The French painters of the Salon des Refuses (1863) were owned by the despot, Napolean III, for the French government (some forget) sanctioned this avant-garde event.

By the time the spirit of Salon des Refuses came to America as the Armory Modern Art Show (1913), everything had changed.  The Eliot/Pound lawyer who negotiated the Dial Prize (worth an annual salary at Lloyd’s) for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” before it was even finished (Pound was still editing) was also a buyer of modern art, and made the Armory show happen, delivering the welcoming greeting to the assembled on the first day.

Modernism was not an art movement so much as it was a business venture with “art” (Stein, Picasso, and Dewey, Inc.) and “architecture” (Cement, Glass and Bauhaus, Inc.) as its front.  One could not swing Ezra Pound without hitting a wealthy art buyer in the stuffy, ambitious offices of Modernism, Inc. (John Crowe Ransom called the enterprise Criticism,  Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.)

The wealthy art buyer Walter Arensberg hosted Duchamp (“Nude Descending Staircase” the hit of the Armory Show) when he came to America, and Williams and Stevens belonged to Arsenberg’s cabal.  Stevens and Ransom were a mutual admiration society at Kenyon, and Ransom’s fellow Fugitive, Tate, who helped start creative writing at Princeton, was quick to praise “The Waste Land” when it was published in 1922.

If we look at contributors to the first issue of The Fugitive that year, we see: Robert Graves, Oxford professor of Poetry in the 60s who beat out Lowell for the sough-after post and advocated mushroom use from that honored position; Witter Bynner, with a poetry prize to his name; Hart Crane, important poet; Louis Untermeyer, important anthologist; John Gould Fletcher, poet caught in the middle between Amy Lowell and Pound/Maddox Ford during the brief U.S./British split before WW I; Laura Riding, then married to a Kentucky professor; and William Alexander Percy, godfather of the Fugitives, Harvard Law School and later Yale Younger Judge, who would award Paul Engle (Iowa Workshop) his Yale Younger prize.

William James, the first word in the first poem in the first book of BAP (1988, “Garbage,” Ammons), founder of stream of consciousness writing and Psychology as a subject at Harvard, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Waldo Emerson’s godson, brother of Henry, who became British, was Gertrude Stein’s professor; Stein, wealthy deb from Baltimore, was a poet, but more importantly, one of those lobbyists, with her brother Leo, who collected the new art, buying very, very low and selling very, very high.  Low (vulgar) to high (stoned) was the Modernistic lifestyle as well as the simple business practice.   How perfect to be smart and rich!  You will buy Picasso and he will make you famous and they will teach you in college.

The public could not understand Modernism, not even when John Dewey came to Harvard in 1931 and, in a series of lectures to honor William James, patiently and painstakingly attempted a defense.  The lectures became the book Art As Experience, and as we set eyes on the first sentence of the first chapter, we see at once both the insidious genius of Dewey and the impossibility of a lay reader understanding him:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.

And we’re off to the races.  Place your bets. This Matisse doesn’t look like much, but I’ll give it to you cheap. Dewey’s modernist apologia was mentored by art collector A.C. Barnes (1872-1951) of the Barnes Foundation.  Barnes made a fortune selling an antiseptic drug.  He accumulated vast amounts of paintings by Cezanne and Matisse (well over a 100 in total).  Dewey writes in the preface to Art and Experience:

My greatest indebtedness is to Dr. A. C. Barnes.  The chapters have been gone over one by one with him, and yet what I owe to his comments and suggestions on this account is but a small measure of my debt. ** Whatever is sound in this volume is due more than I can say to the great educational work carried on in the Barnes Foundation.

Dewey shows himself adept at saying all kinds of common sense things about art, and Art and Experience reflects wide reading in Classical and Romantic aesthetIcs. Most of the time he sounds perfectly reasonable, and we would expect nothing less from someone lecturing on art at Harvard:

Mutual adaptation of parts to one another in constituting a whole is the relation which, formally speaking, characterizes a work of art.

This sounds like Aristotle or Coleridge or Poe, and it would seem Dewey is sympathetic to centuries of tradition.  But, as a modernist, he’s not.  He’s only playing us.  His loyalty is not to art or tradition, but to A.C. Barnes and his Matisse collection.  But Dewey needs to lull us into a false sense of his erudition.  It is almost like someone who secretly spikes your drink.  The sensible and nonsense are skillfully woven together, and this weaving is where the real erudition is displayed.  Dewey continues in a sensible vein:

Every machine, every utensil, has, within limits a similar reciprocal adaptation. In each case, an end is fulfilled. That which is merely utilitarian satisfies, however, a particular and limited end.

But now he gets hazy:

The work of esthetic art satisfies many ends, none of which is laid down in advance. It serves life rather than prescribing a defined and limited mode of living.

“It serves life” sounds wonderful, but we wonder exactly what it means, beyond a gesture towards art for art’s sake, unless we can define “serves life,” and yet the ill-defined seems to be Dewey’s  whole point.  But we wonder about definitions which are non-definitive.

We also wonder about “none of which is laid down in advance.”  All artists appreciate serendipity, but to censor all planning seems a bit fanatical.

“Experience” is big for Dewey.  He uses the word in almost every other sentence in the book.  Its frequent use can turn into a running joke, if one is not careful.  If it were a drink when you see “experience” game, intoxication would result almost immediately from all of Dewey’s “experiences,” the experience of not being able to rise, the greatest experience of all.

“Experience” for Dewey is like “experience” for Emerson; it allows them to talk and talk and talk without coming to a point; it allows them to expand discussion of two plus two into a cosmos of psychological inferences: how do we feel about two plus two? Who is responsible for two plus two?  What coward dares to oppress us with two plus two?  What sort of experiences are we having when we add two and two?  Is two plus two an insult to our souls?  How shall we free ourselves of two plus two?

Of course there is nothing wrong with a little expansiveness, as long as it’s not blah blah blah; to examine ‘process’ and the ‘process of process’ and all the pushes and pulls of the integrative efforts towards aesthetic unity and wholeness is all very good, but too much of this “experience” business can turn us into someone obsessed with spots swimming before our eyes.  Too much “experience” and not enough focused thought will be reason’s undoing.  The following (from the same chapter, Chapter 7, The History of Form) is important because it describes a painter’s method:

Matisse has described the actual process of painting in the following way: “If, on a clean canvas, I put at intervals patches of blue, green, and red, with every touch that I put on, each of those previously laid on loses in importance. Say I have to paint an interior; I see before me a wardrobe. It gives me a vivid sensation of red; I put on the canvas the particular red that satisfies me. A relation now exists  between this red and the paleness of the canvas.  When I put on besides a green, and also a yellow to represent the floor, between this green and the yellow and the color of the canvas  there will be still further relations. But these different tones diminish one another. It is necessary that the different tones I use be balanced  in such a way that they do not destroy one another. To secure that, I have to put my ideas in order; the relationship between tones must be instituted in such a way that they are built up instead of being knocked down. A new combination of colors will succeed to the first one and will give the wholeness of my conceptions.”

Now there is nothing different in principle here from what is done in the furnishing of a room, when the householder sees to it that tables, chairs, rugs, lamps, color of walls, and spacing of the pictures on them are so selected and arranged that that do not clash but form an ensemble. **  Even at first glance there is the sense of qualitative unity. There is form.

We are reminded by Dewey’s remarks of Poe’s “A Philosophy of Furniture.”  The principles expounded here by Matisse and Dewey are perfectly sound, nearly to the point of truism.  Matisse is clearly a bridge to abstract expressionism; we can see it in the way he privileges blobs of color.  We doubt Da Vinci painted this way.  In any case, this is Dewey behaving himself, generally drawing upon the wisdom of those who have gone before:

In a word, form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art. Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified perception. Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, sense and situation to its own integral fulfillment. The connection of form with substance is thus inherent, not imposed from without. It marks the matter of an experience that is carried to consummation.  If the matter is of a jolly sort, the form that would be fitting to pathetic matter is impossible. If expressed in a poem, then meter, rate of movement, words chosen, the whole structure, will be different, and in a picture so will the whole scheme of color and volume relationships. In comedy, a man at work laying bricks while dressed in evening clothes is appropriate; the form fits the matter. The same subject-matter would bring the movement of another experience to disaster.

The problem of discovering the nature of form is thus identical with that of discovering the means by which are effected the carrying forward of an experience to fulfillment.  When we know these means, we know what form is.

Dewey is eloquent even as he propounds the truism that matter and form are mutually self-supporting.  We like this: “a man at work laying bricks…in evening clothes” and “When we know these means, we know what form is.”  We admire Dewey’s attempt to see art as an active process.  These are bracing, healthy statements.

The reader might think: Dewey sounds old-fashioned.  This is radical Modernism?  Yet one must remember: Modernism was a Business.  Conservative-sounding critics like Eliot, Ransom and Dewey were key to radical Modernism’s acceptance and success.

But at our backs we shall hear Modernism’s clunky chariot drawing near.  Dewey is a good man for the task of selling Modernism’s lunacy, precisely because he can sound like a learned Aristotle for days on end.  But he does not forget his agenda: to sell modern art.  First, however, he builds and builds on tradition:

Admiration always includes an element of wonder. As a Renaissance writer said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

The quote is from Lord Bacon, and Poe loved this quotation, too, making it famous in both his criticism and fiction.

Poe also said, “The senses sometimes see too little, but they always see too much.”

This statement is almost a summary of the whole bare-boned aesthetic of Modernism, beginning with “Ornament is a crime” by Anthony Loos (1908).

But we doubt Poe would have liked the works of Modernism; he would have found Modernism repellent and dull.  Dewey can sound aesthetically agreeable to almost any time and place for long stretches, to Modernism’s advantage: making abstract remarks on matter and form, for instance, can lend an air of authority to any artistic enterprise; the more abstract the criticism, however, the more likely it is to be fraudulent.  Bad poems, as well as good, have form and content doing the same thing, have rhythm, have ordering systems, etc etc.  But the real test is when we observe the art itself.  One can make a critical laundry list of aesthetic characteristics shared by a masterpiece and a pile of garbage: the dishonest critic can make anything sound good.

We now reach the middle of the chapter where Dewey begins to show his true modernist colors:

Some of the traits mentioned are more often referred to technique than to form. The attribution is correct whenever the qualities in question are referred to the artist rather than to his work. There is a technique that obtrudes, like the flourishes of a writing master. If skill and economy suggest their author, they take us away from the work itself.

Here Dewey frowns upon the individuality of an artist—what else but the input of a unique human could make a work interesting?  His objection is icy and stern.

And here is where his obsession with “experience” begins to betray him; Dewey assumes radical changes in “experience” throughout the ages; should an artist assume we “experience” all sorts of things our ancestors never could?

Significant advances in technique occur, therefore, in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical but that grow out of the need for new modes of experience.

Which leads him to this, which really jumped out at us:

If we take the developments in the major techniques of painting during and since the Renaissance we find that they were connected with efforts to solve problems that grew out of the experience expressed in painting and not out of the craftsmanship of the painting itself.

This is nuts.  We should ignore “the craftsmanship of the painting itself” (think of the craftsmanship of the old masters!) and focus on “experience expressed?”  The vague term, “experience,” has now carried Dewey away.  The great painters of the Renaissance did not pay attention to “the painting itself,” but rather to “experience” that had to be “expressed.”  This begs the question: do we “experience” the craftsmanship of painting itself?  Most certainly we do.  So what, exactly, does Dewey mean, then?  “Experiences” of love and war drove great painting?  “Experiences” of religious devotion?  Dewey never defines these “experiences;” he merely uses the term “experience” to diminish the importance of “craftsmanship” by Renaissance artists, a highly suspicious ploy by a modernist critic.  It is nice to think of Michelangelo, by the use of pure will, transforming his “experiences” into great art.  But we don’t think this is what happened.

There was first the problem of transition from depiction of contours in flat-like mosaics to “three-dimensional” presentations. Until experience expanded to demand expression of something more than decorative renderings of religious themes determined by ecclesiastic fiat there was nothing to motivate this change: In its own place, the convention of “flat” painting is just as good as any other convention, as Chinese rendering of perspective is as perfect in one way as that of Western painting in another. The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art. Something of the same sort applies to the next great change, mastery of means for rendering aerial perspective and light. The third great technical change was the use by the Venetians of color to effect what other schools, especially the Florentine, had accomplished by means of the sculpturesque line—a change indicative of a vast secularization of values with its demand for the glorification of the sumptuous and suave in experience.

Look how often he uses the word “experience.”

This claim is foolish and cannot be proven: “The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art.” What can “growth of naturalism in experience” possibly mean?  As Shakespeare wrote, “Perspective is great painter’s art.”   Surely “perspective” is not put into painting because of a “growth of naturalism,” unless we assume that technique in painting is just an expression of “naturalism,” and in that case, we are not saying anything at all, except to add significance to certain words: experience, naturalism, etc.  And then it becomes the critic’s business to define more rigorously terms such as “experience” and “naturalism,” which finally bankrupts what the “naturalist” critic was trying to say in the first place.

Worse, for Dewey, is that he claims the second great technical change after “three-dimensional presentation” was “rendering aerial perspective and light,” but if he had studied Da Vinci, he would know that light is crucial for “three-dimensionality.”  Art history has this flaw, that it needs to show “advances” in definite historical “stages,” when this only distorts the truth produced by the Renaissance masters.

“The convention of ‘flat’ painting is just as good as any other.”  But then Dewey writes, in a harsh manner, “Thus in the later seventeenth century, the treatment of dramatic movement characteristic of Titian and still more of Tintoretto, by means chiefly of light and shade, is exaggerated to the point of the theatrical. In Guercino, Caravaggio, Feti, Carracci, Ribera, the attempt to depict movement dramatically results in posed tableaux and defeats itself.”

A Modernist can manage abstract theorizing, but whenever they talk history, whenever they start talking about real works from the past, their judgements fly apart.

Given the Modernist agenda, this is not surprising.

THE RIGHT-WING AVANT-GARDE

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was a big hit.

The avant-garde is generally thought to be radical, not conservative, especially when we think of the explosion of avant-garde culture in the early 20th century, that “revolution” which rebelled against the Victorian, the traditional, the stodgy, and introduced new ways of seeing and thinking, and broke with a narrower and more middle class manner of experiencing the world.

Everyone accepts this definition of the avant-garde without blinking an eye.  The ruling belief is that the avant-garde, and especially the avant-garde of 20th century modernism, which still reverberates through intellectual consciousness today, belonged to the people; it was open, so goes the story, renewing, new, working class, and left-wing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The 20th century avant-garde did not break out from a narrow mold—the 20th century avant-garde was narrow and its influence narrowing.

The 20th century avant-garde was not a left-wing people’s movement; it was a right-wing movement of business elites.

The 19th century (Goya, Beethoven, Poe) was a vast bounty of magnificent art.  The early 20th century avant-garde “revolution” in art was, in reality, a great shrinking.

A great, flowering forest was razed by a small band of Modernists, and yet almost every artist and intellectual today actually celebrates this destruction.

As much as we are convinced of the truth of what we say, we also understand the startling success of the modernist fascist con has become, in a way, reality itself.

All that is left to do is chuckle at the pretentiousness of it all (as the public did at the start, and continues to do—you know, the public, those bourgeois folks who don’t “get it”—) and point out a few amusing examples of how close-knit and narrow-minded and righ-wing the modernist avant-garde clique really was.  One observation is especially telling: the modern art players and the modern poetry players were one and the same to an extent no one seems to realize.  For instance, who talks about John Quinn, these days, the lawyer and art collector?  Yet Quinn successfully lobbied in Washington to change the tax laws to allow European art collections to come to America, gave the opening address at the landmark Armory show in 1913, and put together the publishing deal for “The Wasteland” as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney. Small world, huh?

Who did the Chicago Tribune send to review the 1913 Armory art show?   Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry.

Who did A.C. Barnes, pharma millionaire, and one of the first great modern art collectors, force his factory workers to read on the job?  William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, who invented stream of consciousness and taught art collector and poet, Gertrude Stein at Harvard.

We always hear about the Black Mountain poets.  The Black Mountain School was most importantly, a school of Abstract Art (Josef Albers taught Rauschenberg there) and John Cage experimentation.  Black Mountain’s two founders were John Andrew Rice, a Rhodes Scholar and”open classroom” educator, and Theodor Dreier, the father of modern art patron Katherine Dreier, who, along with Man Ray and Duchamp, formed the modern art Societe’ Anonyme.

O’Hara and Ashbery were fortunate to know Auden (though Auden had his doubts about them) but their real ticket to notoriety was their art connection; knowing Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, the rich girl who was advised by Duchamp on her modern art collecting.

Duchamp is the most important figure, a Frenchman born in the 19th century, a part of the most important avant-garde generation, which includes T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  There is nothing new after Duchamp: every Modernist, avant-garde, 20th century -ism comes directly out of Duchamp: his infamous urinal, “Fountain,”  his “found object” Mona Lisa with Moustache, and his cubist, abstract painting “Nude Descending Staircase” (the hit of the Armory Show, which made Duchamp an American celebrity) all done before 1920, contains everything, everything that came afterwards: Abstract, Cubism, Futurism, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Collage, Minimalism, Surrealism, Pop art, everything, Duchamp contains it all—the entire joke—is contained in this one man, born in 1887.

All that is “new” and avant-garde, decades after Duchamp, is old and one-note.

The story of the avant-garde is how one joke told so many times eventually made what was materially authentic about different genres of art irrelevant: the narrow, wealthy social agenda mattered, not the art, and this is why the clique’s members had a tacit understanding and were able to move in lock-step.

The 20th century avant-garde had its roots in the 19th century, mostly notably in France; modern art officially began in the Salon des Refuses—sponsored by the globally ambitious Napolean III and the French state.  The imperialist despot, Napolean III, who joined the British Empire in the mid-19th century to trample the world, gave official life to French avant-garde painting.

The poet Baudelaire was also an art critic, and he pushed hard for the new and disparaged the old, art.  Baudelaire also set the standard for Modernism’s view of Poe as an outsider freak; the limited and narrow avant-garde had to bring Poe down to their level by turning him into a disheveled victim, playing down the towering, multi-faceted artist Poe really was.  Poe showed the world how to be innovative and still aesthetically pleasing, and without being trendy and clique-y and sophistical and narrow.   Thus, Poe, even today, is the number one target of the Modernist avant-garde, either damned with faint praise or condemned and mocked outright.

Two things, then, drove the 20th century avant-garde: 1) 19th century colonialist era imperialism (and its 20th century twin, fascism)  and 2) insanity.

Most, even those who celebrate it, can accept that a certain amount of insanity defines the 20th century avant-garde.  It was pretty crazy, and that was part of the point. Insanity helps serendipitously: barriers to be removed are knocked down as artists become audacious and thrill certain elements of the idle rich while simultaneously offending the working class. If the avant-garde has a working class element, the avant-garde itself is not ever a working class movement; the avant-garde art appeals to the idle rich precisely because it offends the working class and the working class is only a tool in the avant-garde’s actions.  It obviously didn’t hurt the modern artists that the world itself was partly insane when Modern art burst onto the American consciousness.  The Armory Show was the Fort Sumter of Modernism, the first large modern art show that hit America’s shores in 1913.  One year later, the insanity of the first world war began, eventually dragging the U.S. into its trench-grinding maw, allied as America was to Britain and France—two nations who refused to side with America during the Civil War, intentionally turning that war into the bloodbath by holding out promise of recognition to the Confederacy if it could win enough meat-grinder battles. The Salon des Refuses happened to occur in middle of America’s Civil War.  The avant-garde was a crazy party thrown by the rich and it was crazy in exactly that sense; the avant-garde rules were set by the rich and for the rich.

One casualty of the Modern art movement, with its seeds in mid-19th century France?  History Painting.  Why look at history when it was becoming so ugly under Napolean III?  History painting thrived when France and the American Colonies heroically took on the British Empire.   Modern art nixed all that.  The blurred vision of pure insanity was more Modernism’s elitist style, the style of the jaded rich, eschewing grace and beauty.

The insanity reflected in modern art was real and this surely gave it legitimacy, as much as reflecting insanity is legitimate; to be sure, who reflects insanity better than artists who are insane themselves?  The “derangement of the senses” was a prophecy coming true, springing as it did from modern art’s roots: mid-19th century France.

The story that is told is that this aesthetic insanity was really a sane response to an insane world.  But should the response to insanity be more insanity?  Modernism thought so.

There is a distinction that needs to be made here: when the public views a Shakespeare play, filled in with insane characters, the audience has no doubt that Shakespeare, the playwright is sane. Insanity, such as we get in Shakespeare or Goya or Beethoven or Poe, can be expressed by a genius who has not been crippled by insanity himself—even if we allow that some insanity itself might reign in the genius.  Modern art, however, made the very medium itself insanity.

Insanity was a great medium for another reason, already mentioned:  Since the avant-garde sprung from colonialist and fascist impulses, what better art for those impulses than art which disintegrates and distorts and howls with derisive laughter?

HENRY GOULD TRIES TO UNDERSTAND AMERICAN POETRY—AND THE MAZE THAT IS MAZER

Ben Mazer.  Don’t let his demeanor fool you.  He’s funnier than Ashbery.

In a review of Ben Mazer’s Poems (Pen and Anvil Press, 2010) and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Press, 2010), Henry Gould begins:

If there is, or could be, a center of American poetry — a suspect, much-derided supposition — then John Ashbery, needless to say, lives at or near it. Ashbery: presiding spirit, native genius! That courtly gent, whose arctic blue eyes, disappointed mouth, and eagle beak, convened for the camera, curiously resemble portraits of T.S. Eliot in old age. Ashbery’s parasol-like plumage spreads a kindly shade over more recent laboring; his generous blurbs brighten the back pages of scores of advancing young upstarts. The work of two of the most promising, Ben Mazer and John Beer, reveal a substantial debt to their mentor — combined with the influence of an earlier poet, lurking behind both as he does behind Ashbery: that is, yes, Eliot, old Possum himself.

Gould is correct: Eliot and Ashbery are the templates of all modern poetry; one hardly has to talk about anyone else.  Sure, one could discuss 19th century French poetry, or Elizabethan verse, or yammer on about Whitman, or go off on some insane Poundian tangent, or scream, What about women poets?   Or, talk about the modern or post-modern age.  Cars!  World War One!  Movies!  Airplanes!  TV!  The bomb!  The pill!  Parody! The internet!  But what would be the point?  E. and A. already contain these things.  Eliot has already been where you are going—in the past, and in the future.  Your one advantage over Eliot, reader, is the present—but if only we could find it.  I’m afraid we must make do with the “arctic blue eyes” and the “disappointed mouth” and the “eagle beak” of E. and A. for another century, or two.

Let’s be real simple for a moment: Shakespeare wrote about life; Keats wrote about feelings for life; since the grammaphone replaced Keats and the movies replaced Shakespeare, poets have nowhere to go but into parody, beginning with Eliot’s “a patient etherized upon a table” and “I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and, finishing with Ashbery’s parody of parody.  Gould:

John Beer and Ben Mazer together diagram a paired dissociative offshoot from Eliot and Ashbery. Beer’s poetic stance radiates bitter, self-canceling ratiocination, whereas Mazer’s stance represents unaccountable, free-floating emotion. Beer mimes a sardonic, midwestern Baudelaire, while Mazer seems primed with Keatsian negative capability.

Beer and Mazer are offshoots; one is “bitter” and the other “unaccountable.”  Parody is not always so—Shakespeare was a parodist of Dante—but in minor poets, “bitter” or “unaccountable” are the two forms the imitation inevitably takes.  Mr. Beer and Mr. Mazer are not gardens, or even plants, but tendrils growing from a larger plant—in the garden of American Poetry where Gould, the reviewer, is an even-tempered and faithful gardener.

Gould seems more interested in Mazer.  If this passage from Beer (indeed, ‘small beer’) which Gould quotes is any indication of Beer’s ability, we can see why:

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
I can smell the different perfumes,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France,
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell…

This is pure trash—far below Eliot.  Eliot never wrote milk-and-water phrases full of throw-away words, like: “With the smell of…”, “I can smell the different…”, “The smell whereof shall breed a plague…”  Beer is not even in Mazer’s league, much less Eliot’s, and we need not discuss Beer further.

Gould on Mazer is good:

In a jackhammer world that glorifies the transparent, the obvious, the literal, and polemical above all, the practice of this patient mode of symbolic representation is a lonely battle. Mazer reveals his discouragement: or rather, he mimes discouragement and near-despair. His heroes are sacred victims, like Hart Crane and Weldon Kees; he has an affinity for the disaffected Ashbery, to whom I believe he alludes obliquely (I could be mistaken) in these comically-botched lines (from an ambivalent fan letter?) in “Death and Minstrelsy”:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Gould doesn’t know Mazer as I know him—Gould writes that Mazermimes discouragement and near-despair,” but Mazer’s “near-despair” is genuine; there is no miming; Mazer is certainly capable of mimicry, but Mazer really does mourn Hart Crane as a tragic, long-lost brother, and there’s nothing fake about it.  Otherwise in the passage just quoted above, Gould gets Mazer down cold.  I agree with Gould—those lines he quotes from Mazer have Ashbery written all over them, and I will add that 1) Mazer is perhaps the only living poet who can do Ashbery as well as, or even better than, Ashbery, 2) the “moderate admirer” lines are screamingly, achingly funny, 3) Mazer was not being intentionally funny when he wrote those lines—in fact, he probably wrote the lines out of indignation and hurt, since Mazer genuinely loves most contemporary poets (he is not hyper-critical, in  the least—in fact, his spirit is quite the opposite) which 4) goes to show that Mazer’s genius does have a puzzling aspect that catches Gould somewhat off-guard.

Gould is one of the best critics writing today: sharp, witty, worldly.  He is a tad too much in love with own cleverness, though; he struggles admirably against his own tendency towards self-conscious hipsterism.  He is not quite as good as Logan, even though he’s much more likeable.  Logan, however, would never be tempted to write of Ashbery this way:

Ashbery emerged in the 1950s, in tandem with the ascent of U.S. hegemony on the world stage. This was an America moving toward historical apex: a coalescence of technological-ideological certitude and might, in an atmosphere fraught nevertheless with extreme stress (think Dachau; Hiroshima; Cold War). In the poetry realm, it was a golden age of criticism. The New Critics, impelled by the same Faustian drives which haunted the culture at large, saw in the figure of Eliot a model, above all, of masterful knowledge and control. Eliot’s aphorism, that “the only method is to be very intelligent”, was inverted to suggest that intelligence was, indeed, a method — the method — and the project was to methodize it further: an intellectual instauration. The well-made poem, that autotelic object, was offered as a model of perfection: of feeling perfectly objectified in art; of beauty technically refined in verse. There was something in these formulae reminiscent of the smug certainties of the Restoration, of a Dryden “smoothing out” the rough-hewn lines of Shakespeare. It was the rationalism of a time wrung dry by civil strife, more comfortable with mild truisms than with debate. Method and craft produced the polished poem, just as American know-how built the superhighway system.

Ashbery, according to Gould, is a poet who “emerged in the 1950s,” along with the might of the post-war United States, and the “Some Trees” poet is finally likened (by way of the New Critics and Eliot) to the “American know-how [that] built the superhighway system.”  The superhighway system is the efficient working thing of the New Critics, who “saw in the figure of Eliot a model;” — “intelligence” was Eliot’s ultimate guide to complex, functioning modernity, with Ashbery the road, and Eliot, the pylon.

Gould’s view is superficial and too contemporary, a sign of po-biz’s continual shrinking understanding of history.  The New Critics did not find Eliot—they were an extension of him; Eliot’s early essays were the blueprint of New Criticism, and Eliot, in turn, was influenced by the James family: Henry James advocated intelligence as the ultimate aesthetic measure (a formula, finally, of empty-headed snobbery and entitlement) long before Eliot, and William James (who taught Gertrude Stein) had transformed Harvard into a modernist citadel with his nitrous oxide pragmatism before Eliot arrived there.  W.H. Auden was writing Ashbery poems of wry obscurity in the late 1920s. Paul Engle, with his Yale Younger, his Masters Degree of his own poetry, and his Rhodes scholarship, launched the Creative Writing Program era with the help of the Rhodes Scholar New Critics, Tate, Ransom, Warren, and Brooks; Pound’s euro-frenzy and Williams‘ wheel barrow would land safely in American universities, and Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford and Auden would cross the Atlantic to teach writing in America, the latter famously delivering the Yale Younger to Ashbery.  Our MFA students today have only a Wiki-knowledge of New Criticism (if that)—they know the head, but not the feet, of the business.

Ignorant of the motives and actions of these men—first Fugitives, then racist Southern Agrarians, then New Critics, and then Creative Writing mavens, we end up saying impossibly quaint and silly things like “Ashbery emerged in the 1950s” and he resembles a “superhighway system.”   The New Critics (with Paul Engle) were far more important for what they did on a practical basis than for what they thought.  We don’t need the metaphor of a superhighway system when we have the reality of a super writing program system.

With history’s oxygen dwindling in the MFA classroom, the trapped poets with their Wiki-knowledge produce increasingly light-headed nonsense, “miming” as Gould puts it, the  “discouragement or near-despair” of an existence which fosters the inevitable human tragedies of drunken, Creative Writing profs who litter the 20th century, like Berryman, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Roethke, and Ted Hughes, or, rather,”comically-botched” lines:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Mazer is an intuitive and emotional poet, not an intellectual one—which is why these lines are funny; funny in a good way.

Post-modern poetry doesn’t think.  It reacts.

(One day we will begin to see that Ashbery’s work does not spring from mirth, so much as guilt, sadness, paranoia, myopia, and depression.)

Sincere passion, made by a Byron or a Shelley or a Tennyson, is out.  And so is their music.  Mazer, in his fleeting Ashbery moods, is the best we’ve got now.

WHO ARE YOU?

who are you

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.

THE DEATH OF THE TEXT

The_Frozen_Dead_1966_poster

Authorship almost died in 1967.

Roland Barthes tried to kill the author with his The Death of the Author (1967)

The text certainly went through a change in 1967, too—one could easily mark this as the year when songs, media bites, and video really began to replace the text as communication in wider western consciousness.

In 1967 the Beatles as a band disappeared into their album, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, their last hurrah before John Lennon’s heroin-and-Yoko Ono addiction and the Beatles’ final breakup a year and a half later.

The Beatles started a trend of bands “disappearing”—Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the early 70s did not appear on their album covers; photos of band members standing in meadows were replaced by mystical art. The “concept album” replaced individuals playing mere lists of songs. Individual song writing credits were no longer prominent, compositions simply came into being as part of a process from group efforts. I remember sitting on the floor as a kid, listening to the blasting, electronic, sound-effect enhanced, swirlings of a Led Zeppelin album and thinking four guys were not making this music—something else was. My naivety was short-lived—but it was a wonderful experience.

The ego of the singer/songwriter did not go away, nor did individual identity in pop music—not by a long shot. And if one listened to a Pink Floyd album, one could still hear a definite group of individuals playing their individual instruments—the band did not go away any more than the author—or the author’s intention—did.

Media bites, songs and video did not reduce the importance of the charismatic individual—they enhanced it.

In the universities, they may have been saying Homer or Shakespeare were really many people.

But this was more a history issue (given we knew so little about Homer and Shakespeare) than fundamentally asserting authorship was plural—or didn’t exist at all.  The average poet today knows more about Eileen Myles than he knows about Homer.

Automatic writing was first given prominence by William James under the influence of nitrous oxide—James, Emerson’s godson, would later teach and influence the young Modernists at Harvard, such as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.

But Man’s ego was such that the author could not really be killed.

But there was something exciting about saying the author was dead, of being the author of that idea.

To say the author is dead appeals to all sorts of mass political movements who hate and fear the individual or the lone genius for all sorts of reasons—the foremost, jealousy: hating the genius author because one is not a genius author oneself; secondly, conservatism: hating the genius because the genius successfully breaks rules; thirdly, radical politics: the authorial genius is a “patriarch” to be overthrown; fourthly, New Criticism: famous for “the Intentional Fallacy;” fifthly, Linguistics: Mallarme’s “it is language which speaks;” sixthly, the Yale School of de Mann—the criminal hides where no authorial accountability exists; and seventhly, dionysians: no author in the blur of pure, nitrous oxide, sensation.

In a corrupt society, blame gets passed around and hidden: no accountability, a death of the author, and that death is the death of society.

The death of the author supposedly “liberates” the text, as if “the author” were a tyrant, and the text, an oppressed people.

It’s too late to resurrect the author in the minds of those who would kill him. What I would like to do is add a radical thought of my own: let’s kill the text, too.

The target of many ‘kill-the-author’ advocates, such as Derrida and Rorty and…well, there’s too many to count—was Plato. That’s because the divine Plato, with wonderful common sense, pointed out that a speaker is alive, but a piece of writing is dead. A speaker must convince with his whole being, and, by being alive,  has a context which dwarfs the self-created context of the text. If the text lives, it is because the author is alive in it—if we must doubt the existence of one of them, we should doubt the text.

This is not to say a living person cannot speak ill, or lie, or that a text cannot express beautiful things, but all things being equal, which is more real?  And why should we kill what is more real?

A text is created by an author not just in the time that it takes to inscribe the text, but in the time (years) it takes the author to become the author who is then able to write that text.

We all understand this truism: If the author is feeble-minded, the text will not be strong, if the author is a genius, the text will be strong.  (But introduce nitrous oxide or LSD into the equation, let both the feeble-minded and the genius take LSD, and things become a little different, a little more equal, perhaps.)

The text is the impression left not just by the author, but by the maturity and genius of the author in the context of that author’s existence.  Nor is the text merely inscribed; it is authored during the inscription process itself, as revisions, backtracks, erasures, additions, and revisions occur during the time it is inscribed. Nor does this does take into account the blueprint created by the author before the text comes into being, and again, this blueprint is the result of who the author is and what he has thought: it is not merely a moment’s impulse, even if the flash of conception occured in a moment.

Finally, when the text is read, the inscription takes place again in the reader’s mind, an impression not of the text, but of the author, for we do not say a footprint is the impression of a footprint.

A footprint is not produced by a footprint; the author produces the effect on the reader.

Nothing comes between the author’s intention and the text, for a text (never finished until it is finished) is a slave to the author’s intention.

But all sorts of things come between the text and its reception by the public, so many things, in fact, that it can be easily seen that the text is part of the author to the author, the genius and his text are practically one, whereas to the public, the text hardly exists at all.

We all know the phenomenon of people saying they have read a book when they haven’t, but what of reading a book and then forgetting most of it, even as we confidently announce, “I’ve read that book.”

We all know that most books become bestsellers because readers are reading what other people are reading—this is how empty texts sometimes have windows of popularity. The text in question is not of real concern—only that others are reading it, and no one knows really what it is they are reading and most realize part-way through they are not enjoying it at all. There was merely some aspect, unrelated to the quality of the text itself, which invoked enough curiosity to push it over that threshold of ‘people reading a book because others were reading it.’

What sort of existence does the text have in this case?

Texts that have real effects on people are often divisive books that have a positive effect on a one part of a population in exact ratio to the negative effect they have on the other.

If two contrary opinions are generated—wild praise on one hand, and sheer disgust on the other: where is the text, in that case?

Where is the text in the various reactions and differing opinions and misreadings of it?

Where is the text when eras pass away and tastes change?

Where is a text when different political factions fight to destroy it on one hand, and canonize it, on the other?

If a genius authored the book, and time passes and tastes change, what remains, then, of the book’s greatness, save the intention of the author, still able to impress the reader—despite all the changes. What essentially remains, if not the author’s blueprint and the genius of the author?

Where is the text, if it has no unity?

Where is the text, if it contains empty spaces, and weak, topical impressions, and unconnected details?  These sorts of texts tend to have random parts which take on importance depending how they are perceived by myriads of readers; where is the text, then?

Where does a text exist if it is a pile of fragments, or perceived as a pile of fragments, or if the text is too long to read at one sitting?

We may point to peeling wallpaper as a thing,  just as we can point to any writing as a thing—but the various shapes of the peeling wallpaper in any given area of the wall exist not as the wallpaper, or the wall, or the thing.

Only in the intention of the author is it possible to sort out the mysteries of the contingent universe, the universe of endlessly slippery texts and endlessly slippery perceptions.

The author never died, nor is intention ever a fallacy.

The universe of texts and perceptions is confusing, and therefore not holy.

Authorship is holy.

Textuality has interest only by the merit of an author’s intention.

This comes down to pure, physical science: no text can be discussed, because no text of any length can exist as a whole in the mind; at best we can discuss what we feel is the gist of a text, but finally it is only our faulty memory of what we believe is the gist of the text—filtered through all the imperfect influences and political opinions that others have of the text.

This is why poetry exists—to make it somehow possible, through the quantum of sequencing, aided by the mathematics of music—to hold an entire text in one’s mind.

What is the quantum of poetry?  Has anyone dared to ask?

In reality, only the author’s pure intention, which is the author’s being, which is being, itself, communicating itself one-on-one with the reader’s being— exists.

In reality, the text does not exist.

The author exists.

The book does not.

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?

FINAL FOUR: BOWDAN, COLLINS, KULIK, LIVINGSTON!

Fantastic_FourHead.jpg

The philosopher Benjamin Paul Blood (1832-1918) wrote the following to William James:

“Philosophy is past.  It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.”

The experiment of March Madness has been interesting.  We have examined whether or not poetry, like the philosophy portrayed in Blood’s essay, “Pluriverse: An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism,” can be known best if we become profoundly self-conscious as poets and readers in a group dynamics medium in which immediate experience and practicality are pushed to their limits within that context.

20,000 fans, spilling soda and popcorn, screaming at the top of their lungs in response to a contest between, let’s say, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, a 16th seed! and “Sunday, Tarzan In His Hammock” by Lewis Buzbee, upset winner over Mary Oliver’s fifth seeded “Flare” in first round play in the West Bracket, experienced the poem in such an intense manner—however the partisanship might have expressed itself—that the delight based on the pure excitement itself propeled the imaginative response—which has always relied on a certain suspension of disbelief—to new heights, in which the suspension of disbelief was simultaneously extended and dismantled by the crowd.

The vision of this collective consciousness, at once critical, reflective and wholly reactive, is not meant to be defined here as a definitive vision, nor should the results of these contests fill anyone with either joy or dismay.  Combatants, were these none.  The riotous fans have been, and were, you and I; once a mob, now a critic, once weeping and hollering, now holding steadily the iron pen.  Let the tattooing begin.

How shall we describe Janet Bowdan’s “The Year?”  How shall we describe her victory?  How shall we describe the young fan, who, in a fit of ecstacy, nearly fell from the top of the stadium upon the heads of the throng below, this young worshiper of this terrible and haunting poem?  How to describe the look of Buzbee in defeat, Tarzan and Jane beside him, the barely comprehending Cheetah on Tarzan’s shoulder, looking wildly around?

We sought out Bowdan for an interview, but she was gone.  The crowd had carried her away.

Earlier, at the crack of dawn, with a youngish Wordsworth showered and shaved, Billy Collins advanced to the center of our beloved March Madness court, the polished wood of the court gleaming, the clever concession stands spread around, and dominated Stephen Dunn, making sure he couldn’t breathe for a second.  “John Donne, eh?  Are you done?’  The voice of the haughty no. 2 seed in the East resounded for eons after Dunn’s poem was read.  We have to go back years before we find a game that was like this, or, find any game.  The gods were, of course, anxious.  Rules, there were none.  The fans were not silent for a moment.  The rooting was astonishing.

Bernard Welt’s “I stopped writing poetry…” plied poetry long into the evening, almost as if to send Reb Livingston away, but she stood her guard, unblinking.  Some fans in the second half had a revelation and got the brilliance of Welt’s trope: the reasons he gave for not writing poetry were actually powerful incentives to write poetry, and this was the fuel of the poem itself, but the commotion in the second balcony as Livingston was shooting her free-throws was lost on the broadcasters—they  ignored it, thinking it was just the crowd being a crowd, a 190 line poem being a 190 line poem, and fans on the floor only saw it in separate parts.  Some Welt fans ran outside, but it was too late.  Livingston was stoic as Welt’s voltage melted.

William Kulik dazzled with a ferocity not seen yet in the tournament and Margaret Atwood froze with a searching look.  Kulik started to tick tick tick as soon as the contest started, the moss covered walls closed in, and no matter how hard Atwood looked, the drama of Kulik continued to drown.

“Bored” is sure of itself, as Atwood is; she was tranformed by Kulik into what went sadly down into the shadows.

The crowd implored those shadows.

Don’t trust crowds, they say.

We trusted this one.

Tom, this is Marla Muse, down at courtside…the crowd has seen four thrillers and they want more…this is how poetry should be…I’m being lifted by this crowd and that’s how I like it…I’m looking for my little notebook….have you seen it?

No, Marla, I haven’t.

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.

CULTURAL FASCISM


“I Want To Hold Your Land…”

The world’s intellectuals have little trouble discerning the signs of political oppression: a great gulf between rich and poor, military extremism, leaders who feed—vampire-like—upon the people, buying-and-selling for short-term gain, a high degree of domestic abuse, social intolerance, poor buildings, poor roads, poor nutrition, poor health, and science crushed by superstition.

Unfortunately, these same intellectuals are often eager to applaud and cultivate cultural fascism.  They support art which is ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

Why do they support such art?

The answer is simple.

Because it is art.

The intellectuals support this art, not because they are in favor of ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity, obviously, but because they feel they would not be true intellectuals if they did not allow art to be this way if it so chooses.

On issues of politics, the intellectuals, almost to the last, oppose, with all their might, these negative qualities; they oppose them in life, and yet, the sad fact is, political states everywhere are in thrall to these negatives: ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity.

Why, then, should we be surprised, that these qualites dominate in art?

Contemporary poetry is ignored by the masses, and for the rest of us, the highly educated who read it, poetry produces knowing smirks more than anything else.

The intellectual understands this political/art issue to be absolute: no protest can be made upon this count, for art must be free.   After all, art is not life, art is not politics, and bad politics would tell art what to do.   Therefore good politics does not tell art what to do.

Socrates, the wisest philosopher, is shown the door, is led away, down the hill, to that near meadow, to stand speechless, neglected among the buzzing of the flies, lost in thought, perhaps never to speak again.  Plato’s offerings must be opposed completely—no compromise is possible in opposing Plato’s philosophy of art, even if art itself comes to resemble the very totalitarian regimes the intellectuals oppose: ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

The intellectuals never think that maybe this is a trick the oppressive and totalitarian forces have played on us, to enforce their will not only on political regimes, but upon poetry, as well, so we never think about what poetry should be; we only use it to reflect what is.   Big fish will eat the little fish; the leisure of the college creative writing instructor will eat, with its stream-of-consciousness intelligence, all other fish in the blindness of the infinite, William James/nitrous-oxide, sea.

Most of the blame lies with other arts, those more emeshed in the machinery of crass, pornographic, violent sensationalism, but all are guilty, for instance, in the way the film Bright Star was ignorantly reviewed and received in all quarters, and in countless gestures among intellectuals, poets and artists everywhere who whore out the ideal in small ways every day.

After all, there are only, finally, two things: nature and the moral; nature provides the building materials; we build.  How we build is moral and ideal.  Confusing the two—nature (reality) and the moral (the ideal)—tends to be where all the trouble  starts.

Building a house keeps the two distinct.

Making art does not; this is why Plato famously questioned the latter activity.

Nothing shall oppose the onslaught of the ignorant, the oppressive, the violent, the backward, the pedantic, the cynical, the horrific, and the stupid.

And why should anything oppose this onslaught if our art will not?

The license to describe the thoughts inside our thoughts inside our thoughts is the one ruling principle today, and we have become a slave to it.  We have surely caught the self-justifying, William James/John Ashbery disease.  The vanity of  infinitely self-reflexive thought  is the only trump in our deck.   Stream of consciousness has drowned common sense.  “Enough of this nonsense!” we want to cry, but we dare not, because we really believe that educated nonsense is our last freedom, the last thing between our intellectual legitimacy and the absolutist wolf at the door.  We don’t mean good satire. We mean nonsense, the obscurantist crap which passes for poetry these days. We’ve confused freedom with crap.

This treatise is not a cry for any kind of censorship, but rather a discussion of how opposing censorship at all costs affects aesthetic philosophy.

And so we shall have paintings that are not paintings, poems that are not poems, music that is not music, criticism that is not criticism, and prose that is self-indulgent in its trivialities to an extreme degree; we shall have the daintily lurid, the sweetly sensational, and the brazenly corrupt.  The criminals shall have their way because to poets today criminality cannot exist in theory; wrong exists only in reality where cops and robbers are even now having a gun-fight, far from modern art’s purities.

But now the lords of cultural fascism cry, “Poems that are not poems!”  You are the fascist, trying to tell us what a poem is!   But we cannot write a poem if we don’t know what a poem is first,  just as Michelangelo doesn’t just start randomly hacking away at the block of stone.  The lords of cultural fascism will always steer the discussion back to simple-minded issues of censorship, but in reality the issue here is about pedagogy.

True, poetry has made itself so obscure that its effect on society hardly exists when we exclude the thousands of Creative Writing aspirants.

Not making good art, thanks to the license in which every kind of bad art is permissable—and thus, forever, actual—hurts millions in ways we cannot imagine.

Will the obscurantists wake up?    Will the wild and wilder drums wake them?  Or thrum them into a deeper sleep?

Roll over, Black Mountain.

Tell Ashbery the news.

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