Anthologies are my favorite way of reading poetry.

Authorial vanity cries out “Read my book! Get to know me! Immerse yourself in my book’s theme!”

I reply, “Have you written Paradise Lost? If not, let me return to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (I am only fluent in English and don’t have much faith in translation) where I can read not only many poems, but many poets, and immerse myself in an era.”

In 1990 J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Vintage anthology just mentioned, assembled the best of Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911) thru Gjertrud Schnackenberg (b. 1953), 65 poets in a not-too-heavy paperback—over 500 pages, which I purchased in 1999, and still not falling apart.

When was an entire book of poems, by one poet, been worthy of praise for all the lines in it? We probably need to go back to a small quarto volume by Poe or Tennyson.

Beyond Tennyson floating in dust or Shakespeare staged in heaven, a poetry anthology, light enough to peruse while holding it aloft in one hand, is the only way to properly commune with the Muse.

As I read my McClatchy (actually a gift to my wife, but between her subscription to Poetry and several other journals; recent purchases of Nikolayev’s translation of Pushkin, Steven Cramer’s latest volume; and the ten million novels she’s currently reading, I don’t believe she’ll miss it) I discovered good poems from poets I never had any interest in, and poems so bad they made me laugh. My laughter produced not a smidgen of guilt, since the anthologist selected only poets covered in poetry prizes—my mockery could never in a million years break down their highly credentialed immunity.

I will be guilty, however, in the eyes of a few of my readers (I am thinking of one in particular, a highly educated, avant-collecting, condescending, fellow) should I make these private feelings known, that I now take the liberty to reveal, chuckling a bit, I won’t lie, at the very thought of it.

Why isn’t Marilyn Hacker (pg 489) more famous? She writes like Byron. I think the problem is, in order to write like Byron, you must be Byron. Also, Hacker was born around the same time as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Had she been born in 1842, instead of 1942, Hacker would be better known. No one really talks about her anymore.

There was just too much competition for a poet publishing in the sex, drugs, and rock and roll 60s and 70s—the worst time to be a poet in the United States. Hacker’s work is impressive—as reproduced in the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Is she still risqué? That shouldn’t be the question. Is she good? She is, and accessible, too, unlike poets who eclipsed her, such as Louise Glück and Jorie Graham—poets we occasionally pretend to understand, but don’t. (Glück and Graham were model-beautiful in the 80s. Hacker was not.) It was a quieter and cooler world in the 1980s when Graham and Glück became known, a window of time for high-brow poetry to carve out a dignified and contemplative space for itself; the 60s rock culture, which had sucked all the cool out of the room for so long, had come down to earth. John was dead, Paul had a mullet. Poets could now be called on to deliver “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day In The Life” vibes—in a place both more rarefied and more practical—the MFA as a ticket to poetic respectability was still real and fresh. The college protest was now less cool than college itself—the poets could smoke pot in college; they could have their cake and eat it.

Donald Justice (p. 210 in the Vintage anthology, poorly represented by mid-life crisis poems) was a poet (40 years old in 1965) swallowed up by the youth culture; old, he mentored Jorie Graham at Iowa—the critic William Logan learned under Justice at the same time; Logan, whom Graham admired, reviewed her first book.

In 1980, the original Modernists were dead, the Rock culture was exhausted, the larger culture had become corporate, cheap, goofy, and trite; it was time for academia and poetry to shine. Helen Vendler and Jorie Graham, who would have been buried and ignored in the 1960s, were somehow actual (gulp) stars in the 1980s. William Logan became the sybil who reminded the poets of the 80s and 90s that they weren’t really stars—because, well, they weren’t. Somebody had to be funny (rude?) and tell them.

Poetry died in the poetic 60s and gave birth to comedy in the non-poetic 80s. William Logan was SNL for what was left of the poetry public that the Modernists had chased away with their unsentimental theory and sophistication.

The New Critics—only one of its core members is represented, p. 67, Robert Penn Warren (b. 1905)—made a great deal of giving the study of poetry largely over to the text. Yet I can describe most of the poets in the 1990 Vintage anthology with a single gesture-–I don’t need words, and my summation refers to no text whatsoever. Imagine I am making the universal sign of sucking on a joint—thumb and finger planted on pursed lips.

One could learnedly can go on for hours about form and its relationship to content, the theories of the French, and Pound’s “make it new,” but hey you try reading the late night confessions of C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Hugo, and Frank O’Hara without smiling knowingly at my gesture. So much for the authority of text-centered New Criticism.

The Vintage anthology is 65% white men, 30% white women—who published largely in the 50s thru the 80s.

It’s a record of weed.

We just couldn’t see it for all the Brooks and R.P. Warren tweed.

New Criticism was the only real educated influence on poetry in the 20th century, mingling the text-obsession of Derrida with the sandy grains of Imagism, a crashing wave that reached from the early days of the 20th Century—John Ransom, the T.S. Eliot of the American South, was born, like Eliot, in the late 19th century, to Debussy and the turmoil of the French avant-garde—all the way to the 1990s and its small End of History window where the inscrutable poetry of a Jorie Graham could mesmerize and soothe us.

There are two types of bad poetry.

One. A poem describes some well-known event in which the poet feels he is heightening or adding meaning to the event—but isn’t.

Two. A poem attempts to be metaphysical—no event is described, except accidentally, so the poet hopes the reader will not be able to judge whether an event is described well—or even at all—since that was not the intention.

The first example can be found in the Vintage anthology on pg. 521, in a poem by Edward Hirsch. The poem is called “Fast Break” and attempts to describe a basketball game.

A rebound: “gathering the orange leather/from the air like a cherished possession.”

The prose-poem’s line breaks and stanzas are supposed to replicate the quickness of the play (they don’t).

The failure of the poem increases in its attempt to find a final straw of meaning in its empty enthusiasm (“our gangly starting center”) at the end:

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country
and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly through the net.

Edward Hirsch is a distinguished poet (even if in a pot-smoking era) and yet this may be the worst poem ever written.

The second type of bad poem is demonstrated on page 525 by Jorie Graham’s “Over and over Stitch.” Unlike Hirsch’s poem—which attempts to describe what is already real (sadly, “orange leather” for “basketball”) Graham takes the opposite approach, describing nothing at all:

Late in the season the world digs in, the fat blossoms
hold still for a moment longer.
Nothing looks satisfied,
but there is no real reason to move on much further:
this isn’t a bad place;
why not pretend

we wished for it?

The poet is being intentionally vague (here in the first 7 lines) hoping the reader will mistake vacuousness for philosophy. The poet isn’t going to let herself err in the direction of describing a basketball as “orange leather,” and look! she triumphs.

We might blame Graham’s distinguished teacher, Donald Justice, more than Graham’s privileged and highly educated background. Just look at this existential nightmare of a poem written and published by Justice himself and unfortunately reprinted by McClatchy in the Vintage anthology (p 210):

The Evening of the Mind

Now comes the evening of the mind.
Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood;
Here is the shadow moving down the page
Where you sit reading by the garden wall.
Now the dwarf peach trees, nailed to their trellises,
Shudder and droop. You know their voices now,
Faintly the martyred peaches crying out
Your name, the name nobody knows but you.
It is the aura and the coming on.
It is the thing descending, circling, here.
And now it puts a claw out and you take it.
Thankfully in your lap you take it, so.

I won’t quote the whole poem. You get the idea. The poem is embarrassing. “Faintly the martyred peaches crying out your name” is beyond bad. It’s laughable.

Back to Graham’s poem:

The bushes have learned to live with their haunches.
The hydrangea is resigned
to its pale and inconclusive utterances.
Towards the end of the season
it is not bad

to have the body.

The poet isn’t following Ovid any more than John Muir. We never thought of her hydrangea as doing anything in the first place; so when she first mentions the plant as being “resigned,” we simply don’t know what to think and quickly don’t care.

The final assertion that “the dry stalks of daylilies” mark “a stillness we can’t keep” only shows us the poet is at least consistent in never letting up from the poem’s dry observation that there is nothing that matters, whatever the poet might do or say. Her single-minded pursuit of not committing herself to anything recalls a haiku being stretched; a paralysis of purpose becomes the purpose. They also write who only stand and wait.

“The bushes have learned to live with their haunches.” Bushes are described as being, or having, “haunches”—childish, though not as bad as using “orange leather” to describe a basketball; it is the addition of “learned to live with” which self-consciously recalls the vacant theme: Nature’s OK, I’m OK, we’re OK; this is what moves the poem from merely mediocre to pot-smoking horrendous.

These, then, are the two faults good poets make: either they fail to describe something or, they describe nothing, but since a poem demands we say something—the second type of bad poem often becomes like the first, only ten time worse, because the flaws of the first become magnified by the strategies used in the second—to avoid the flaws of the first. Describing something is all a poem finally does, or fails to do—this dilemma, then, is the primal one; its failures are legion.

The more common type of failure—triteness and lack of originality, afflict the bad poet.

These two types of bad poems I have described here are important—because good poets so often indulge in them.


Ben Mazer in Romania, taken by Tom Graves

Scarriet supplies, deliciously, delightfully, a necessary alternative to the banner raising that often passes now for criticism. Still, Tom was wrong to state that I haven’t reviewed the poet Ben Mazer because he’s published by a small press. (I’m not sure who gave him secret access to the contraption of whistles and gears that compose the Rube Goldberg machine of my criticism.) I’ve reviewed a fair number of small-press books over the years, and I look seriously at any book a press sends me. If most of the books I’ve reviewed have come from presses mid-sized or larger, well, those are the books that provoked me. Show me a brilliant book by a press I’ve never heard of, like Melissa Green’s chapbook from Arrowsmith Press; and I’ll review it instantly—even though by the time I received that book it was out of print.

—William Logan

Scarriet’s “Fame and Literature” 5/8/22 which I wrote, said the following:

“Is this essay’s indictment meant to deconstruct not only your feelings, but literature and fame? Like the infinite—an idea that may, or may not, finally exist (does the universe go on forever?)—fame is untouchable; it is the constant in my equation. You, the inconstant one, with the rest of the hypocrites, having your frothy opinions about which poetry is “good” and which poetry you “like,” find your anchor in fame—in the vast poetry pecking order of fame. Ben Mazer has published many books of poetry, but none with a major publisher, so William Logan will not write on him. Logan is famous for his sharp critical teeth—but his teeth chew on what others think, not thought. He returns from the hunt hauling big game; anything less would be embarrassing. William Logan makes no exception to his reviewing rule; even he lives, like all of us, by fame—from which poetry cries and is indistinguishable.”

In the attempt to hammer home my theme that literature is fame—notices, publications, readership—and assuming that if this is true, the pecking order of fame must also be true, I imprisoned William Logan, the great critic, in the magnetic field, with everyone else. There is no individual voice quite like William Logan’s, and I’m only too happy to let him walk away, unharmed, from my pit and my pendulum. Williams Logan is one individual who is always welcome to annoy my philosophy.

When publishing poetry today is like tossing a pebble into the grand canyon, it is good to keep in mind that Criticism is poetry’s light—my poems dwell in my heart and crawl into books with my name on them, dwelling with darkness and flattery—until Criticism comes.

Who have our critics been? Wise, beyond doubt, but too often too wise for the honest, particular review. Where do we go for the honest review? Important question.

Most literary scholars are proud, like Emerson. They don’t stain themselves by reviewing. Harold Bloom? Untrustworthy oratory. Helen Vendler? Charitable and humorless. Marjorie Perloff? Theoretical. Flies a banner.

Why is William Logan of world-historical importance?

Because he is a Critic who reviews. Honestly, and with humor. And lives to tell about it.

Good, independent reviews are good for the ecology. Bloviating manifestos rarely add green to the environment.

Which literary figure in our day is going to last? I’m putting my money on William Logan.


Emily Dickinson—hidden away as fame; childless, but mother of us all.

Most poets have—even published ones—very few readers. Even the supposedly famous poets these days have no public, really. The situation of poetry is nearly a crisis—but enough of that. There’s already a surfeit of crisis-rhetoric today. I’m not talking here about how rotten and cheap and prosaic contemporary poetry is—my point here has nothing to do with that. The point of this Scarriet essay is even more embarrassing, if that’s possible: literature is fame; the two are synonymous.

What I say is true. Fame and literature are the same. Pound and Poe—who couldn’t be more different—understood this; the navigation a poet travels to become famous is the poetry, is the whole subject matter of the poet, is the very poet himself.

The two (poetry and fame) cannot be separated.

Is this a cruel thing to say?

I’ll be honest. I published a book on Ben Mazer’s poetry because he was the most famous poet I knew. Mazer—Romantic, avant-garde, it makes no difference—possesses a shadowy, but not quite an actual, sense of what I’m talking about.

I don’t know anyone who does.

I’m not speaking of personal ambition, with mere pleasure as the goal.

Fame and Literature are one. It’s such an obvious fact in the blatant way I am expressing it that even Scarriet didn’t understand it until the insight hit us yesterday—greatly obvious truths remain hidden to the sophisticated, and even published or unpublished cabbie poets who write about “real life” are sophisticated; the very act of being a poet, no matter how humbly, gives one that sophistication which bars one from the obvious truths. You feel it in your bones, sure, but you don’t come out and say it as I am saying it.

Scarriet specializes in too-simple-to-notice truths. Poe was murdered. The “Dark Lady” is a pun on black ink and the sorrowful nature of the written word. “Modernism” is a far-right, Creative Writing business.

Scarriet (since 2009, founded by Alan Cordle of as a mockery of Blog Harriet) is prominent enough to attract seekers after poetic fame. (Charles Bernstein hates me based on what I wrote about him in Scarriet, according to a trusted source.)

In my rather helpless musings on this—“who are you to ask me to take notice of you? I’m not famous; I can’t make you famous”—the truth that an educated, literary, public exists which I may inhabit, notwithstanding—the simple truth, ‘literature is fame,’ plucked me suddenly out of the crowd.

Emily Dickinson is literature—because we talk of her, not because of what she has written. Who among the sophisticated would take notice of this recluse today? None. Hypocrites! You wouldn’t. She would be admired by a few friends, as friends. She would have no literary existence. Those beyond her friends, those slightly more prominent in the poetry-pecking-order (“how many books have you published? where do you teach?”) would ignore her. You would. Don’t lie. Those who happened to see her work would say to themselves, “Hmm. No wonder she isn’t published. One just cannot emote in clumsy half-rhymes upon ‘immortality’ this way. Amateur.”

But now all is different for you and Emily; she is famous—therefore you convince yourself: “oh, this is good!”

Hypocrite. You have no idea whether any poetry is really good or not. Emily Dickinson is famous because others talk about her and because others talk about her, you do, too.

To hide the humiliating fact that her fame alone is what has converted you to the “truth” that she is now worthy, because our minds can convince us of anything—Keats is somewhat good, Cid Corman is good—you practice a liking, done automatically since it is part of the happy entrails-buzz fame (vicarious or not) bestows.

Is this essay’s indictment meant to deconstruct not only your feelings, but literature and fame? Like the infinite—an idea that may, or may not, finally exist (does the universe go on forever?)—fame is untouchable; it is the constant in my equation. You, the inconstant one, with the rest of the hypocrites, having your frothy opinions about which poetry is “good” and which poetry you “like,” find your anchor in fame—in the vast poetry pecking order of fame. Ben Mazer has published many books of poetry, but none with a major publisher, so William Logan will not write on him. Logan is famous for his sharp critical teeth—but his teeth chew on what others think, not thought. He returns from the hunt hauling big game; anything less would be embarrassing. William Logan makes no exception to his reviewing rule; even he lives, like all of us, by fame—from which poetry cries and is indistinguishable.



We may still ask: why is ____ famous, but I submit the answer will never be forthcoming, for fame is its own reason for being, therefore analysis cannot enter. Does anyone doubt that God exists and is beyond us, forever clothed in mystery? And that the only living proof of God’s existence which can ever exist (every other proof learnedly and cleverly posited and just as learnedly and cleverly refuted) lies in a path and a small girl—why would you ever announce, cruelly, the end of that path? That she and all whom she loves will vanish and die? Why would you ever do that?

Is there any doubt that fame inspires all greatness to exist—the thrill of fame is the highest, the very opposite of being buried alive—which is the worst condition, as Poe intuited. Fame for the artist is when you know every exciting thing you do is watched and therefore you automatically rise to the glory of the great, lived, non-secret, secret—participation for its own sake.

Did the man who wrote “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” and “Eleanor Rigby” in the 1960s then write nothing of note as an experienced musician for 5 decades? Why did genius manifest itself only in that five year window of towering, exciting, miraculous fame? The answer is self-evident.

If you have ever seen the video of a famous person’s face through time—a fat faced child, the often homely youth, and then the first photo when they are “famous”—the beauty arrives like a miracle—the fire in the eyes, the facial muscles knowing what to do in the face, it is the receptivity of the now ferocious attention re-broadcast and seen as the light, the fire, the joy, the secret knowledge, eternal and ephemeral, of—fame.

Salem, MA, USA


I’ve edited Scarriet since September 2009, when Alan Cordle, who I met on the poetry-contest-exposing website Foetry, created Blog Scarriet as an alternative to the Poetry Foundation’s Blog Harriet—which banned poets (yours truly included) from Harriet’s Comments for being “off-topic” (whatever that means; digression is a sign of intelligence in my book) and soon thereafter Blog Harriet (Poetry magazine’s online site) erased Comments as a feature altogether. Poets like Eileen Myles and Annie Finch were regulars on the Harriet Comments; it was a lively good time, I thought, but management didn’t see it that way, which is fine; Harriet managed to birth Scarriet (indirectly).

Poetry and its politics boils down to one question: Is this a good poem?

Alan Cordle’s question on was narrower: did you take contest fees to publish the winner’s book and was that winner your friend? I did not personally expose anyone; I was just an online participant on Foetry because I was curious about Alan’s quest, which seemed to me a sincere attempt to correct a wrong. Today I still believe this.

I broadened the investigation (watering it down to something more intellectual and benign) to Is This A Good Poem? This question is the ruling spirit of Scarriet. I understood, during my unofficial Foetry membership, that poets are allowed to be friends and help each other. This will always happen, and why not? But what ultimately matters is that the best poems are praised (no matter who writes them, or what manifesto is attached to them) and the worst poems are noticed as such.

This gives rise to a sweet philosophical complexity: how do we know what a good poem is? Who are you as a critic (and a person) to make this judgment? Are you, the judge, able to write a good poem? Who are the famous poets who write bad poems? Who are neglected poets who write good poems? What inhibits us from being honest about this?

Anyway, that’s me and Scarriet in a nutshell.

The poet Ben Mazer is a friend of mine. I have written a book on Ben Mazer—which praises his poetry. I defend him as a writer of good poetry, and the friendship matters less in the ratio of how well I defend him as a poet—and how good he actually is compared to poets not on my radar.

Ben was hanging out with the poet Charles Bernstein last year and Ben said, “Charles doesn’t like you.” This flattered me, as I hadn’t realized a poet of some note knew of me or Scarriet. There’s never any excuse to be a jerk—I have been, at times, in the past, in an effort to have strong, honest, opinions—and make a name for myself.

I’ll take this moment to apologize to anyone I may have offended.

I judge (dead and living) poets in the Scarriet March Madness “contests.” A few of these poets I know, but how good they are, and how I am able to articulate how good they are, is on display for all to see, though how well I know this or that poet, is not always known. Those who know me, know I have very few poet pals, and I try very hard not to get close to bad poets. 😆 I met Marilyn Chin as a friend (not a close friend) a long time ago at Iowa before her career took off. I know Philip Nikolayev because I know Ben. I’m a shy person; my life is not full of friendships with poets—not even close. I think this helps me as Scarriet editor. (Yes you’ll notice Mazer and Chin showing up often, but some things can’t be helped, and I honestly believe they are both really good). I also met Dan Sociu in Romania in 2016, and I do think he’s a good poet. If an unpublished poet is good, I will say so. Discovering truly good poets takes a great deal of time and work—I wish I could do more in this area, but no one alive can single-handedly offer this kind of justice to the Poetry world.

I apologize for this laborious introduction; I wanted to look back at 2021:

January “Winter Threw Its Shadow Over the River of My Years” (1/30) is perhaps the best poem of this month because of its poetic cohesion; a poem can have a great idea, but unity is all. A Jeopardy poem, a CIA poem, a NFL rigging poem (life as “rigged” courts self-pity, but Scarriet siezes on the theme a lot) a love-revenge poem (another common theme) but again, interesting topics don’t make a poem good—but (I don’t think I’m wrong) an accessible idea (no matter how simple) is necessary. “Bored” (1/4) is one of the best of the month, and “My Iranian Girlfriends” (1/3) is subtle and witty.

February “I Can Confirm” (2/1) sounds like Blake, which no Scarriet poem tends to sound like. “In The Evenings” (2/9) is richly poignant, probably the best Scarriet poem of early 2021. Scarriet Poetry Hot 100! (2/15) is always exciting. Amanda Gorman is no. 1, Cate Marvin no. 2 (“Republican Party Is Evil” poets really talk like this), followed by Louise Gluck (Nobel), Joy Harjo (3rd term laureate), Don Mee Choi (National Book Award), Jericho Brown (Pulitzer), Noor Hindi (“Fuck Yr Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”), Naomi Shihab Nye (Emma Thompson reads her poem “Kindness” on Instagram to 2.3 million views), Wayne Miller (wrote article on talking about poetry online at Lithub) and William Logan (the critic/poet) rounding out the top 10. Also on the Top 100 list, the wonderful fugitive poets Mary Angela Douglas and Stephen Cole—I discovered them not too long ago online. As an experiment, a letter to my dad is published as a poem (2/21). “Now That The Poem Is Over” (2/22) works well.

March “This Poem Can Only Speak For This Poem” (3/7) , “Happy Marriage” (3/11), and “The Object” (3/26) (on musical fame), are the best poems. March Madness—the topic is Pop Music—(3/20) runs through early April, with interesting essays on your favorite artists and bands as they compete with each other. Nina Simone and Led Zeppelin are among those who go far. The tourney includes Spanky and Our Gang (“Sunday Will Never Be The Same”), as well as Dylan, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra.

April Many good poems this month as spring 2021 inspires love poems—not maudlin but suave and biting. Failed love poems unfortunately plague Scarriet, but in certain months real wit, rather than bitterness, accompanies the love. This month seems to be one of them. A Brief History of U.S. Poetry revised (4/30). Check out this post! Scarriet literary history at its best.

May continues with lots of good poems. “When You See Me You Insult Me” (5/25) is a classic Scarriet love poem (who hurt you so badly, Scarriet poet?) and the first of many great literary essays arrives on 5/31—a look at the critic Harold Rosenberg, who hadn’t really been on Scarriet’s radar previously.

June Poems of high quality continue. Book announcement of Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism by Thomas Graves (6/26).

July I read “Weather Poem” by Dan Sociu (7/5). Another audio feature—2 of my songs on YouTube (low-fi) (7/8) Self-indulgent, perhaps; I’ve composed many pop songs never given professional treatment for one reason or another. “Man, Those Decades In American Poetry Went By Fast” (7/11) Another historical re-posting. Finally, an essay: “The Four Quartets Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” (7/19) in which an overrated work is just one of the things looked at.

August Some of the poems which begin to appear are slightly revised poems written long ago. Three reviews appear this month: The poems of Ruth Lepson (8/1), poems of 14 Younger Poets published by Art and Letters press (8/18) and poems of Daniel Riffenburgh (8/22). Many definitely prefer Scarriet’s prose to its poetry.

September A rather odd article in which the timelines of Delmore Schwartz and Giuseppe Verdi are compared and some observations on the partially neglected poet Schwartz are made. (9/12) An article on Tom Brady and NFL stats (9/26) Scarriet has a very opinionated, love-hate, relationship to sports. Old original poems continue to see the light of day.

October A great month for prose (and poems of decent quality continue) as Scarriet seems to be enjoying one of its best years. “One Hundred Years of Pulitzers” is a revealing historical survey (10/18). “The Poem Defined” (10/21) is a fine essay. Another Poetry Hot 100 (10/27) features the unstoppable Kent Johnson as no.1. The month ends with the scintilating “100 Greatest Poems by Women” (10/31).

November has more Scarriet essays. “Trickle Down Verse” (11/8). “The Good” (11/10). “The Textbook Which Changed Everything: Understanding Poetry” (11/19). In the autumn of 2021, Kent Johnson and his avant friends on FB goaded me into defending my core principles and beliefs. Thanks, Kent! Also this month, you can hear me recite Poe’s “For Annie” on video on my phone, one evening alone in my house, holding my copy of Library America Poe gifted to me by Hilton Kramer many years ago. (11/16)

December The year ends with an essay on Ezra Pound’s The Spirit of Romance, as I attempt to come to grips with this figure who was the subject of a Kent Johnson inspired online debate, “Can a bad person write good poetry?” (12/11) Poems on ‘poetry politics’ (inspired by Kent Johnson and friends) and politics—similar in theme to poems from January 2021, close out the month.

Happy New Year.

Thomas Graves (aka Thomas Brady and Scarriet Editors) Salem, MA 1/1/2022


Detail of Panel 3 of 40. "Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to Hell" oil on  AlumaComp 48 x 60" 2017. : r/painting

Scarriet’s Hot 100 has been going on for over 10 years. It’s now a fixture on the poetry scene.

Those toiling in the poetry trenches struggling to be read don’t look up.

Those who do make this list (most aren’t read much, either) are afraid to look down. (Ask Don Share or Michael Dickman)

Therefore no one else really bothers to do what Scarriet does here, taking a long vertical look to judge harshly and succinctly poets in the moment.

I don’t know if the Hot 100 is fruitful—or merely feeds resentment and idle curiosity.

I don’t like to summarize poets’ subjective lives (who cares, really?)—their travels, their membership in hipster guilds, their predictable neo-liberal politics, their fragile creds, their backroom alliances—frankly it bores me to tears.

I do this as an obligation. I just feel—damn— someone ought to do it.

I guess a secondary reason might be that I seek poetic or critical genius, or signs of it, at least. We need the haystack to find the needle.

A final point is that Scarriet putting poets on the list makes them hot. My own subjectivity is involved in the process.

Let’s look back at the previous names, reputable or controversial, who made the list as number one. See if you know them all:

Amanda Gorman 2021
Laura Foley 2019
Jennifer Barber 2019
Anders Carlson-Wee 2018
Garrison Keillor 2018
Sushmita Gupta 2017
Bob Dylan 2017
Matthew Zapruder 2016
Ben Mazer 2016
Vanessa Place 2015
Yi-Fen Chou 2015
Kenneth Goldsmith 2015
Claudia Rankine 2014
Valerie Macon 2014
John Ashbery 2014
Mark Edmundson 2013
Natasha Tretheway 2012
Rita Dove 2011
Billy Collins 2010
John Barr 2010
Harold Bloom 2010

And now, the current list!

1. Kent Johnson —this well-known avant hoaxster asked for reviews to be anonymous 10 years ago. The best minds in poetry said, “great idea!” It hasn’t happened.

2. William Logan —in an era of “too many poems” (Marjorie Perloff) there’s always criticism and reviews—Logan’s the great guilty pleasure, still the most mentioned.

3. Ben Mazer —Randall Jarrell’s living example: the Romantic Modern. Auden (who read Byron) was loud. Mazer has a quieter beauty. Also an editor, Mazer is bringing out The Collected Poems (with never published material) of Delmore Schwartz. Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism (2021) is a critical study of Mazer’s work from Spuyten Duyvil press.

4. Barbara Epler —Editor, New Directions. ND launched Delmore Schwartz when Delmore and founder James Laughlin were companions in their twenties.

5. Don Share —the last poetry editor of the now defunct Partisan Review, a position Delmore Schwartz once held. Share was recently forced out of his position at Poetry.

6. Su Cho —took over Poetry magazine editorship duties after Share was forced to quit. In general, the too-much-white-space poetry of Poetry still sucks.

7. Michael Wiegers —Editor in Chief, Copper Canyon Press.

8. Kevin Young —New Yorker poetry editor. Studied with Seamus Heaney at Harvard along with Ben Mazer.

9. Jonathan Galassi —FSG poetry editor who will publish Mazer’s Delmore Schwartz, much of it seen for the first time.

10. Marilyn Chin —Jury Chair for the 2021 Pulitzer. I knew her when she was a shy poet/translator at Iowa when we both worked for Paul and Hualing Engle’s International Writing Program.

11. Donald Futers —Penguin poetry editor.

12. Fiona McCrae —director and publisher, Graywolf

13. Eric Lorberer —Rain Taxi editor

14. Cal Bedient —with David Lau, edits Lana Turner

15. Robert Baird —reviewed William Logan’s Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods in the NY Times, claiming Logan was attempting to play nice (to balance out his literary reputation) with a book of over-fastidious literary research.

16. John Beer —his parody poem, “The Waste Land” is a real achievement.

17. Michael Robbins —influenced by James Schuyler. In an interview, he strongly objected to “deforestation.”

18. Bill Freind —edited book of essays on the poetry of Araki Yasusada—a poet thought by many to be Kent Johnson’s creation.

19. Matthew Zapruder —Wave Books editor

20. Jill Bialosky —Norton poetry editor. Accused of plagiarism by William Logan.

21. Natalie Diaz —2021 Pulitzer prize winner.

22. Ange Mlinko —was the Nation poetry editor

23. Jericho Brown —Won the Pulitzer in 2020.

24. Frank Bidart —recently recognized with major awards. You can read his “Ellen West” online.

25. Laura Newbern —Arts and Letters editor.

26. Ira Sadoff —poet and critic, who once said he is “trying to resist the return to formalism.”

27. David Orr —poet and poetry critic for the NY Times, he once defended Alan Cordle of Foetry.

28. Johannes Goransson —his 2020 book of criticism is Poetry Against All.

29. Joe Amato —he has published a novel on poetics.

30. Jos Charles —she is the founding-editor of THEM.

31. Arthur Sze —won the 2021 Shelley Memorial Award and the 2019 National Book Award.

32. Desiree Bailey —short-listed for 2021 National Book Award.

33. Daniel Slager —publisher of Milkweed editions.

34. Barry Schwabsky —poet and art critic of the Nation.

35. Michael Theune —Structure and Suprise is the name of his textbook on poetry.

36. A.E. Stallings —this New Formalist almost won the Pulitzer in 2018.

37. Adam Kirsch —Jury Chair for the Pulitzer in 2020.

38. Al Filreis —MOOCS and PennSound

39. Dorianne Laux—best known for “The Pipe Fitter’s Wife,” recent runner-up for a major prize.

40. Joy Harjo —current U.S. poet laureate—in her third term.

41. Natasha Trethewey —pulitzer prize winner and latest jury member for that prize.

42. Dale Smith —his Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent After 1960 came out in 2012 from U Alabama Press.

43. Glyn Maxwell —probably the best living British poet.

44. Robert Archambeau —protested the poet laureatship of Billy Collins.

45. Victoria Chang —shook things up when she said “fuck the white avant-garde.”

46. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge —finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer.

47. Blake Campbell —young, gifted formalist poet who currently lives in Salem, MA.

48. Maureen McLane —in 2019 her Selected Poems published by Penguin.

49. Martin Espada —on the short-list for this year’s National Book Award.

50. Annie Finch —featured in the Penguin Book of the Sonnet. I met her on the old Blog Harriet Comments. I was a feisty comment writer, then, having sharpened my teeth as “Monday Love” on with visitors like Robert Creeley. Later, “Thomas Brady” would tangle with Franz Wright on Scarriet.

51. Charles Bernstein —stung by Scarriet. In a 1984 Alabama conference (Annie Finch pointed me to the transcript, with an unforgettable performance by panelist Denise Levertov) Gerald Stern demanded Bernstein name the “policemen-poets” of “Official Verse Culture.” Harold Bloom attacked Poe in a monster hit piece in the October 11 NY Review at the same moment. Defining point in history for poetry. “Alabama” will bring it up in a Scarriet site search.

52. Forrest Gander —Pulitzer prize winner, friends with Kent Johnson.

53. Marjorie Perloff —avant titan. One of the greatest conversations I ever witnessed was her and Philip Nikolayev debating the worth of Concrete Poetry in the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square. Philip won (but it was his turf).

54. Mark Wallace —was a student assistant for Bernstein at Buffalo.

55. Robin Coste Lewis —is it really that long ago she won the National Book Award? (2015).

56. Philip Nikolayev —met Mazer at Harvard. Fulcrum editor has just published book of Pushkin translations.

57. Rupi Kaur —someone needs to publish a big important anthology which includes poets from all walks of life and mediums and points in history, taking an honest and serious look at all the selections, with popularity one criterion, and critical judgment the other. Poetry cannot keep going on like this. A reckoning is needed.

58. Billy Collins —hated by other prose poets. Because he sells. Kill Robert Frost. Poetry as mobsters fighting for turf. So anyway, how many poets can fill an arena these days? Is Collins the last famous poet living? Are famous poets necessary?

59. Helen Vendler —she must remember Alabama, too.

60. Jorie Graham —in a pretense to be non-pretentious, she lost her gift. Got in trouble with But survived.

61. John Latta —works at the University Michigan library.

62. Ron Silliman —not sure what’s going on with his blog.

63. Fanny Howe —won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2009.

64. Julie Carr —Omnidawn published her in 2018.

65. Mary Angela Douglas —a poet of beauty and childhood.

66. Don Mee Choi —National Book Award 2020.

67. Rita Dove —her Penguin anthology produced controversy. She was too dignified to exploit it.

68. Daniel Borzutzky —won the National Book Award in 2016.

69. Sharon Olds —she won the Pulitzer with a book about divorcing her husband. She has written some extraordinary poems.

70. Mary Ruefle —destined for major prize greatness.

71. Peter Gizzi —was the lyric hope for a while.

72. Layli Long Soldier —her first volume of poetry was published in 2017 by Graywolf.

73. Dan Sociu —one of the best Romanian poets; had a chance to meet him (and the late David Berman) in Romania when Mazer and I visited.

74. Ocean Vuong —one of the strategies of contemporary poetry is the trope of tactile feeling. Winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot prize.

75. Lawrence Rosenwald —editor of War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing, 2016

76. Carlos Lara —Subconscious Colossus is his latest book.

77. Rachel Kaufman —Many To Remember is her new book of poems.

78. Billie Chernicoff —high praise from Kent Johnson.

79. Carolyn Forche —more poets! Bring them in, by the thousands, by the millions! Poets! Poets!

80. Michael Dickman —if a poem is cancelled because of something unkind in the poem (and yet not a reflection of the poet’s own views) is our complicity in this the death of poetry itself? Have the narrow dreams of Plato won?

81. Luke Kennard —from the Guardian (Sun 24 Oct 2021) : has won the Forward Prize for best collection for his “anarchic” response to Shakespeare’s sonnets, a work judges are predicting could “transform” students’ relationship with the Bard.

82. Louise Gluck —from the NY Times (Oct 26 2021) : Consisting of just 15 poems, “Winter Recipes from the Collective” extends the Nobel Laureate’s interest in silence and the void…

83. Murat Nemet-Nejat —a poet and editor of an anthology of contemporaryTurkish poetry.

84. Tom Orange —conceptual poet who has written on Clark Coolidge.

85. John Bradley —the editor of Eating the Pure Light: Homage to Thomas McGrath (Backwaters Press) which appeared in 2009.

86. Richard Owens —Damn the Caesars is his literary journal and Those Unknown his punk band.

87. Toi Derricote —The 2021 Wallace Stevens Award winner. She was a judge for the Wallace Stevens Award for many years, beginning in 2012. The stipend is $100,000.

88. Mark Halliday —a critic called his poetry “ultra-talk.”

89. Ben Lerner —poet, novelist, MacArthur genius grant recipient.

90. Seth Abramson —this lawyer, prof and poet went from Poetry MFA advocate to rabid political tweeter. Seems a throw-back, somehow, to the rough-and-tumble literary times of Poe. Fisticuffs and odes.

91. David Lehman —His BAP (Best American Poetry) began in 1988 with John Ashbery as guest editor. In the latest volume (2021) introduction he brags about the number of guest editors who have won Pulitzer prizes. Well, sure.

92. Jim Behrle —annually pokes fun of BAP.

93. Tracy K. Smith —Pulitzer prize winner and 2021 guest editor of BAP. Whitman-type poems of near-endless listing appears to be the latest trend.

94. Dana Gioia —2018 BAP guest editor. His essay decrying American poetry as a dying, sell-out industry is about 30 years old now and reflects feelings which were not new at the time, and will never go away. All we can do is forget everything else and keep our eyes focused on that Nobel.

95. Terrence Hayes —in the 2021 BAP.

96. Jonny Diamond —editor-in-chief of the always interesting Literary Hub.

97. Daisy Fried —nominated for a Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

98. Thomas Brady —makes these ridiculous lists.

99. Atticus —so much depends on “An open window in Paris/is all the world I need.” (poem from his “best-selling” book)

100. Stephen Cole— just some poet who puts his poems on Facebook (he’s really good).


George Dillon (poet) - Wikipedia
George Dillon was an editor of Poetry magazine in the 30s.

There is something about poetry which eludes definition—and therefore attracts the thoughtful person satisfied to reside in an unfinished state (Keats called this Negative Capability).

The poet’s problem is that nothing gets done; paths are persistently followed to nowhere. But the type embodies a virtue—patience in crossing the desert of thought.

If one refuses to find an answer on purpose, however, the virtue of patience is replaced by pathology; a path to nowhere becomes the whole reality.

The poet can’t earn a living from poetry directly but still makes this either the goal (often by artificial means) or the source of so much resentment that self-pity confines poetry to its noteworthy problem: a trail leading nowhere.

To be wrong about poetry is not the same thing as being in a state of negative capability about it. If one has all sorts of unrealistic expectations about poetry (why can’t I earn a living from it? It’s as important as religion, isn’t it? If I’m a poet it means I’m really special, doesn’t it?) these very expectations will prevent us from seeing what the poem—just the poem—is.

When I recently put together an overview of 100 years of the American Pulitzer prize, I discovered a few poets from the 1920s who didn’t, or couldn’t, ride the Modernist train—roaring with great but obscure purpose into the future towards the “new” (the new and the future were the same, it turned out) and roaring along to some of those elaborate expectations mentioned above which tend to confuse the public (who do things for a purpose) and setting off an apologetic fury in Modernist critics (Randall Jarrell crying, “Shakespeare is confusing, too!”).

One of the poems from the 1920s I discovered was by George Dillon (Edna Millay’s boyfriend) and I found myself forced to defend it against those who had embraced the New—and all its significant expectations. I had no idea how I was going to defend this forgotten, old-fashioned lyric of George Dillon’s, since I merely liked its rhyme and I was sure a defense of it would never please a sophisticated Modernist far advanced into all that was complex, ironic and new.

Almost absent-mindedly I thought about George’s poem (a short, simple lyric) and then it dawned on me: this neglected bauble (covered in post-war dust) was a little more sophisticated than I had first thought.

Allow me to trace how I came to this conclusion.

William Logan (enamored of High Modernism, not old, girly lyricism) had told me quickly in passing he wished the poet “Jimmy Merrill” had more “grit” (I had ranked Merrill near the top) and this threw me into reflecting on what I thought were poetry’s ideal qualities and I quickly formulated a reply in my mind to William: In poetry I want beauty and maybe philosophy; grit is more a quality which can be found in other places.

I always thought it was wrong to think poetry contained everything—this was simply no way to define something. I refused to believe “grit” belonged in poetry.

Then I thought: (it is important to critique oneself) philosophy doesn’t really belong in poetry, either—poetry isn’t philosophy.

But I knew poetry had a thoughtful aspect. Poetry doesn’t need to be “gritty.” The most popular poems, (the good ones?) however, tend to be mildly reflective.

I settled on irony. Beauty and irony, I thought might define poetry. Then I smiled and thought “beauty” is difficult to define when it comes to words.

The irony (I thought ironically) is that beauty (perhaps) won’t define poetry, either. A rose is beautiful, but words? How are words beautiful?

Maybe irony is all poetry is.

Poetry (principled receptacle of anything) contains nothing, but is a continual deferment (ah Negative Capability again).

In terms of taste, I found a certain beauty (pleasantness?) in Dillon’s poem because of its nice (skillfull? tactile? sensual? real?) rhymes (largely unnecessary to the Moderns).

Irony, however, has an intellectual complexity—and in a flash I saw, far apart from its beauty or rhyme, Dillon’s poem was strongly and explicitly ironic—now I was off to the races.

“Beauty Intolerable” posits that beauty (what we like) is more intolerable to us than death (what we revile and fear).

The poem submits completely to a startling or contradictory idea—irony defines Georgie’s poem.

The work of the poet is this. How does he invoke the “beauty” which he likes? How does he give the poem a body, and make it more than just an ironic statement?

A body has certain dimensions; by creating a rhythm of a certain duration (following certain rules of rhetoric and the lyric) the poet creates that body for us. The flesh of poetry is its metrics.

Leaving the body aside for a moment, two things which Dillon does establishes him in my eyes (as I scrutinize the poem) as a student of those simple, yet profound rules of poetic composition elaborated in a bygone day, based, roughly, on the aesthetics of the time-honored, ancient Greeks.

The two principles followed both involve limits.

Beauty cannot be experienced in its purest form; the poet George Dillon understands we are limited by how beauty appears to us: pure, ideal “beauty” (accepted by the “Romantic” or rejected by the “Modernist”) will not do.

Combination (in this case, and alluded to briefly yet starkly, flame combined with snow) is the clear means by which the poet presents the beauty which moves him. We know excellence only through the combining faculty—we cannot know excellence mystically or ideally. The poet must take care to never present the essence without identifying the parts which, as parts, identify themselves as such per the whole poem.

The combining faculty—and the necessity of identifiable parts—is the first principle.

The second limiting principle, even more strongly manifest in this particular poem, is the Effect principle: the poem (a thing of words) is highly limited in its ability to describe extreme situations or visions.

Rather than childish attempts to describe directly the thing, the poet preferably describes his limited and human reaction to the thing.

The cause of whatever is existentially important is beyond us; only through the effect can the essential thing, the essential beauty, the essential urgency, be glimpsed.

Rather than attempt to describe the beauty (a hopeless task of non-sensual, non-gritty words) the poet presents his visible reaction (for all poetry is a reaction to the ineffable) which we have no trouble seeing and understanding, since the thing, by nature of its extreme importance (why we attempt the poem in the first place) is naturally far beyond us—all poetry traffics in extremes, ideals, hopeless situations, since the extreme of what the poem tries to do defines the poem, not anything in the poem itself.

George Dillon describes a series of bodily shocks which we can easily identify with as mortals (the necessary “realism” within the excessive world of beauty) and this effect remains the “visible” aspect which fills out the poem’s irony.

Unlike a story, the lyric does not end with some specific incident; the music of its lyricism ends it, together with the expression of the irony—subordinate, in this case, to the action of sensual love being like death. (The lyric poet can certainly add story-like elements if he so chooses, as long as he remembers to make them subordinate to the lyric effort as a whole.)

It is the limited nature of the lyric (fashioned by principles based on limitation) which gives the lyric “Beauty Intolerable” its focused, laser-like, quality.

The limiting principles were abandoned by the Modernists, but irony was not.

Note the irony of the “Red Wheel Barrow” (also from the 1920s) “So much depends…” on merely “mundane” objects; we see the expression of the irony, but the Modernists forgot the other limiting principles, as well as the one which requires a measured duration of metrics or rhythm for the poem to have real flesh.

The Modernists flew too close to the sun—they thought they could manifest the thing (the Image) by simply presenting the thing, which had an added effect of taking them away from the ineffable and the human, as they fell in love with thing-ism and all that is literal (political poems, non-ironic didactic poems, poems which think out loud, as well as poems of pure description and imagery).

“Beauty Intolerable” also features two other Romantic tropes surrendered by the Modernists—the Urgency principle (poems by nature deal with extremes of vision and feeling) and the Human principle (poems by nature are made of observable human thought and behavior).

Romance is the most popular trope in all of literature (followed closely by the supernatural topic of religion) because the Extreme and the Human combine to give us, so often, the romantic. This is for reasons based on principle, not squishyness or sentimentality.

The Modernists, highly thoughtful in their rejection of romance and sentimentality, nevertheless, in their embrace of “things” or hard “images”—and even while the best of them kept and fostered all-important irony—unfortunately neglected old, underlying principles, to their general estrangement and despair.

This, too, and now we quote the poem, (which we recommend speaking aloud) features despair, but of a much different kind:

Beauty Intolerable

Finding her body woven
As if of flame and snow,
I thought: however often
My pulses cease to go,
Whipped by whatever pain
Age or disease appoint,
I shall not be again
So jarred in every joint,
So mute, amazed and taut,
And winded of my breath,

Beauty being at my throat
More savagely than death.

We quote this lovely work, not because it is a great poem but for the many principles it contains.

If a reader does not believe what this poem is expressing, the poem will certainly fail for that reader, but this failure would still not be a rebuke of anything I have said.



What Did Harold Rosenberg Do? An Introduction to the Champion of "Action  Painting" | Art for Sale | Artspace

The trouble with Criticism is that its whole business is to insert itself between a poem and its reader—a superfluous act; if the poem is good it doesn’t need the extra words of Criticism. The smell of a bad poem arises with the smell of Criticism. No wonder a thousand poets exist for every critic—and even then a critic is 9 times out of 10 a poet whose criticism is morale boosting notes to himself—a pure sideline activity.

When anyone discusses poetry, the same few critics are mentioned over and over—an indication of how unpopular critics are; in the whole history of Letters, five or six critics receive all the press:

Plato—because he had the audacity to ban the poets (too crazy, too emotional) from his Republic.

Aristotle—The Greek alternative to Plato. “Tragedy is good because it purges emotions.”

Samuel Johnson—Did us all a favor by faulting the “metaphysical poets,” saying of them “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

Wordsworth—Also did us peasants a favor by defining poetry as plain talk.

Poe—More fodder for the simple folk: “A long poem does not exist” and “the best subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman.”

T.S. Eliot—Returned poetry to the professors. Told us “poetry must be difficult” in an essay praising the metaphysical poets.

Despite the fact I have said Criticism is rare, that critics are usually poets first, and that people generally dislike or fear criticism, I will defend Criticism in this essay—only because I believe critically I have something to say.

This is all that matters.

Having something to say. Critically, that is.

Auden mocked poets who earnestly felt they “had something to say.”

Well. Of course.

Poets do need ideas, though. In poetry, it is not the idea, but how the idea gets put into the poem.

Somewhere along the way, based on wise remarks by those like Auden, and due to the hard, gem-like resistance of Modernism generally, ideas—as things to be stated, worked-up, and enjoyed—got tossed aside.

Never mind poems—Criticism is nothing but ideas.

Most young writers today who try their hand at “criticism” have no overriding ideas; they choose topics to write on—a poet’s lifestyle or some neat time period.

As I think Plato and Aristotle demonstrated, literary criticism belongs properly to philosophy—even if it’s “amateur” philosophy.

Criticism should remain above poetry and not play second fiddle to it—even if it plays its fiddle in a “professional” manner, like Helen Vendler or Marjorie Perloff, or God forbid, Harold Bloom (who carried on as if he were a pure Critic, but was not; his colleague at Yale, W. Jackson Bate, was far closer to true Criticism).

Critics need to debate other critics. Criticism needs to be a field on its own. It should not be a press agent for poetry. Just like an honest reviewer, critics should never befriend poets.

Enjoying a poem has nothing to do with Criticism. Enjoying a poem is an unconscious activity. Criticism is a conscious activity. And this is okay. We need to become accustomed to the fact that Criticism is its own art. This is difficult in our present day because we haven’t had Criticism practiced like an art form since Plato. So you see the task before us.

There have always been two sides to Criticism and we must decide, before we go any further, which side we are on.

The good side seeks to narrow and the bad side seeks to expand, poetry.

The realist, who wishes to expand poetry’s role, is naive.

We don’t usually associate realism with naivete, but let’s jump into today’s debate by yoking some heterogeneous ideas violently together.

John Crowe Ransom was a realist from Tennessee and Harold Rosenberg an idealist from New York.

Rosenberg is best known as an art critic, but he published a volume of his own poetry and Rosenberg’s philosophical approach (as opposed to a literary criticism approach) happens to put him in a place I can use to great advantage.

Let’s quote Ransom first, from the Preface to his distinguished, prize-winning, collection of essays, The World’s Body:

“First we should see what poetry properly is not, though it is what poetry has often declared to be.”


“The poetry I am disparaging is a heart’s-desire poetry. If another identification is needed, it is the poetry written by romantics, in a common sense of that term. It denies the real world by idealizing it: the act of a sick mind.”

This is quite an ideal kind of realism which I have found—Ransom was highly respected in his day, and New Criticism was very influential; it was the school of T.S. Eliot: “difficult,” savvy, worldly, smart.

As opposed to poetry which “denies the real world,” Ransom states in his preface he is for the poetry that “only wants to realize the world, to see it better.”

“The kind of poetry which interests us is not the act of a child, or of that eternal youth which is in some women, but the act of an adult mind; and I will add, the act of a fallen mind, since ours too are fallen.”

Ransom’s language is really loose here—the rather modest expression: “only wants to realize the world, to see it better” could be construed as “idealization.” After all, to merely “see” the world carries with it an immense task (think of how much there is to “see”) but to “realize it,” to merely “see it better” implies narrowing (ideal) not expansion (real). Idealism (which selectively narrows its focus) can be a very realistic approach.

Any “realist” who opposes “idealism” (as Ransom is doing here) finally doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Later in this essay I am going to argue for an idealism free of all worldly elements involved in one’s response to art—sufficient to say that Ransom’s possible wavering between idealism and realism in terms of the world will finally make no difference in my equation. Anyway, “to realize the world, to see it better” is what the scientist barely succeeds at; surely Ransom cannot seriously believe this is a goal of art?

Well I warned you that you would need to pick a side.

A modest narrowing is our only choice when it comes to poetry.

The issue is simple—too simple for “fallen” Ransom to grasp, apparently.

Ransom argues (badly, vaguely, but nonetheless strenuously) for the opposite, for expansion, not narrowing—as he explicitly equates “idealizing” with “sickness.”

Ransom needs to believe the idealist is a sentimentalist. He doesn’t come out and say the sentimentalist is naturally an idealist—this would be to give sentimentalism a chance against being brutalized—which is not at all where Ransom, if one knows him, is coming from. We must therefore question Ransom this way: If one (realistically, practically) chooses what to focus on, why shouldn’t the selection be governed by happiness (the “heart”)? Should we select what we don’t want? (We understand Ransom does not necessarily mean “happiness” when he refers to what he calls “heart’s-desire” sentimentalism, but this is a quibble—to be sentimental is to either be happy or suffer because one wants to be happy.)

Ransom concedes elsewhere in no uncertain terms that for him, art is not science—art, for Ransom, fulfills a complimentary but completely different function. Strange, then, that he should juxtapose the hard, unforgiving laws of science with art which in his view has no child-like happiness or charm, but caters rather to an “adult” and “fallen” mind.

Harold Rosenberg will now set himself down on our side—in this instance, in the moment of my essay, a Wolfgang Mozart to Ransom’s Antonio Salieri.

Ransom is being a child when he rejects the child.

But let’s be clear.

In other places in his writing, generally, Ransom says absolutely brilliant things.

But we get to wisdom truly only thru someone’s ignorance. I saw a cooking show yesterday in which the chef praised the shaved broccoli stalk as the best part of the plant. Critics cannot be timid; they must prepare and ravish other critics. Just as a poet seizes on whatever inspiration happens to come along, critics should not let the hidden, tender parts of other critics go to waste—go for it!

To critics: when you find error in the reasoning of another, don’t be shy—this is how the meal is made.

There is profit, no doubt, in critics trailing after, and cleaning up after, poets; Ransom came into his own by love-hating Milton—his smashing first essay in The World’s Body—but if there is to be a revival of Criticism—which poetry needs almost more than a revival of Romanticism and the Child—critics ought to stir each other up—especially the few who exist, and especially those just coming onto the scene (we hope there are some rowdy ones)—if only to make the public aware that Criticism is not dead, that it’s able to hurt, and draw blood, and have real feelings.

Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism is perhaps a good start. The author of this essay is the author of this just-released book.

Of course my point is not all of Harold Rosenberg is superior to all of John Ransom—those incapable of Criticism might fret over what they imagine in horror is my unforgivable sin—as I impugn an idea or two of Mr. Ransom’s.

The following quotes are from Rosenberg’s essay, “Literary Form and Social Hallucination.” Rosenberg put in this essay his whole critical being, leaving nothing essential out. Writers do have highs and lows. Judge for yourself, but you ought to see immediately how Rosenberg brilliantly advances my argument—it is his argument, really; Rosenberg is in service to me, as much as I am deeply and forever in service to him:

“If, to the Greek, art subordinates the facts to the emotions, to the modern writer it subordinates both facts and emotions to art’s own ends.”

I don’t know any statement which sums up Ancient v. Modern quite so well—and John Crowe Ransom would concur. I don’t know of anyone who would not.

Rosenberg continues:

“…T.S. Eliot gives reasons why literature does not, and ought not, go to the limit in ‘tracing a certain fact.'”

Rosenberg had just quoted Dostoevsky: “The apparent impotence of art made me wonder about its usefulness. Indeed, trace a certain fact in actual life—one which at first glance is not even very vivid—and if only you are able and endowed with vision, you will perceive in it a depth such as you will not find in Shakespeare.” (italics mine)

With that Dostoevsky quotation in mind per Eliot, let’s return to Rosenberg:

“In a good poem, he [Eliot] says, there must be a ‘precise fitness of form and matter…which also means a balance between them.’ Like Dostoevsky, Eliot refers to Shakespeare, but he points out that in a Shakespearean song, ‘the form, the pattern movement, has a solemnity of its own, however light and gay the human emotion concerned, and a gaiety of its own, however serious or tragic the emotion.’ The form, in short, carries its own independent feelings, which play against the feeling aroused by the subject; and the artist, according to Eliot, is most interested in the ‘fitness’ of these contrasting feelings to each other, so that a ‘balance’ may be reached.”

Eliot (and again, Ransom would fully agree, having himself emerged fully formed from the head of Eliot) is stating the great “reactionary” truth of art, which is that the art-form must be taken into account when it comes to art, no matter what the art is “talking about.” Accounting for “form” is necessary, Eliot says, in a “good poem.” And Rosenberg, like an excited child, runs with this idea as an idea, to wherever it might lead:

“If this is the case,” Rosenberg continues, “the form of a literary work acts directly contrary to Dostoevsky’s desire to get to the bottom of a particular state of affairs.”

Doesn’t “desire to get to the bottom of a particular state of affairs” sound similar to what Ransom professed poetry singularly ought to do? In Ransom’s own non-idealizing words: “to realize the world, to see it better.” Rosenberg begins with Eliot (and Ransom attached to him at the hip) but where Rosenberg ends up may not be fit for Ransom’s eyes:

“Indeed,” Rosenberg goes on, “the very function of form would be to cut across the reaction aroused by the subject and suspend the mind in a riptide of feelings belonging to art itself.”

But wait, it gets better. In the next paragraph Rosenberg hits a home run:

“In emphasizing balance Eliot is consistent with the attitude of literature toward truth throughout most of its history. For it is clear that writers have not, traditionally, regarded themselves as crusaders against mystification. Their way has been rather to appropriate illusions inherited in the patterns of story-telling and in the usages of words and to contribute to deepening these illusions. It is not by chance that the meaning of ‘form’ and the meaning of ‘hallucination’ overlap in their connotations of an appearance or ‘show’ without substance. There is a natural alliance between art and deception; and one needs no prompting from modern radicalism to see this alliance as the ideal extension of the relation of the arts to their historic patrons: courts, priesthoods, and in more recent times, capitalists and bureaucrats.”

The reference to “form” as an “appearance” in a “hallucination” is one of the greatest moments, for me, in the history of Letters. Eliot’s delicate “balance” between “form” and “matter” in art is in danger of being swept entirely away into pure suspension of disbelief and illusion. But Rosenberg, the lynx-eyed social critic, grounds it in society: “the ideal extension of the relation of the arts to their historic patrons: courts, priesthoods, and in more recent times, capitalist and bureaucrats.” Again, this is not foreign to Ransom, who brings acute social observances into his literary ideas, but what is being smashed here is Ransom’s naive aesthetic desire to “realize the world, to see it better.”

Rosenberg attaches a footnote after “bureaucrats,” which demands quoting: “Writing about the traditional attitude toward the nude, Paul Valery observed: ‘Everyone had a muddled conviction that neither the State, nor the Law, nor Education, nor Religion, nor anything else that was serious, could function if the truth were entirely visible.’ [Valery’s italics]”

But Rosenberg still isn’t done, bringing in Keats, a modern critic known to Ransom, and then Plato:

“The celebrated phrase about poetry inducing a ‘suspension of disbelief’ need only be given its socio-political dimension and it becomes a formula for the service rendered by art to holders of social power. If it weren’t for art, men’s disbelief would not be suspended. Would not curiosity press them then to chase after the hidden truth? Form, beauty, calls off the hunt by justifying, through the multiple feelings it arouses, the not-quite-real as humanly sufficient.

Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity

Wasn’t it in I.A. Richards’ discussion of Keats’ drugged lines about beauty being truth, truth beauty, in which the poet so perfectly draws the curtain of ecstasy over his vision of painful fact, that ‘suspension of disbelief’ first entered the contemporary vocabulary of literary criticism?”

“Plato’s Republic, which was organized ‘transparently,’ and hence had no disbeliefs to suspend, banished the poet.”


“In the past, governments took for granted the cultural Chinese walls which the arts built around them; today, the cost of reinforcing these walls against the siege of rival concepts is included in every defense budget.”

And then another brilliant footnote follows:

“Note to ideology-enders: In the war of ideologies, history grows more and more talkative, i.e., rhetorical, which means that image assaults image, until all have lost their sacredness and none inspires a defense to the death. Thus ideological conflict, which promotes rather than suspends disbelief, is the only kind of conflict among great powers in which hope can exist for a nonviolent resolution.”

“Considering the function of the arts in transferring into familiar experiences the hallucinations bred in the centers of authority, one might decide that the arts are by nature reactionary. Such a conclusion would be neither far-fetched nor particularly novel—I suspect that most liberals feel this, though they shrink from admitting it to themselves.”

Liberals realizing that art is reactionary in 1960? Is this like liberals facing their white privilege in 2021? Not only is Rosenberg’s essay brilliant on several levels (I wish I had time to quote more of it)—it’s prophetic, as well.

But let’s not get side-tracked, although this is perhaps what Rosenberg wants, and this is the danger I face in quoting this marvelous essay at length.

Now at last I can quote Rosenberg a couple of pages later in the essay speaking directly to Ransom’s all-too-common Modernist complaint against poetry of the “heart,” the “child,”—of and for “romantics:”

“The sigh of Keats and the logic of Eliot represent art’s willing acceptance of the merger of substance into form—and the fabled lightheartedness of the artist, his childlike spirit, his ‘innocence,’ have to do with this professional yielding to the falsification, play-acting, and charmed distortion inherent in his medium. The abnormal thing is not the pressure upon art to falsify, but that art should have come to resist that pressure.”

John Crowe Ransom represents the thrust in our time to “resist that pressure” to romantically “falsify,” though he is fully aware of it and even somewhat sympathetic to it. From The World’s Body:

“The whole poem is properly an illusion, but a deliberate and honest one, to which we consent, and through which we follow the poet because it enables him to do things not possible if he were presenting actuality. At some moments we may grow excited and tempted to forget that it is illusion, as the untrained spectator may forget and hiss the villain at the theatre. But we are quickly reminded of our proper attitude. If the author tends to forget, all the more if he pretends to forget, we would recall him to the situation too. Such license we do not accord to poets and dramatists, but only to novelists, whose art is young. And even these, or the best of these, seem now determined, for the sake of artistic integrity, to surrender it.”

We can see from this passage that Ransom understands the importance of art’s deception—but by God he will not be deceived for very long! Ransom goes so far as to be pleased that the “novelists” will “surrender” their art “for the sake of artistic integrity.” Surrender your art for art, Ransom says—but can he really be saying this? Yes, he is saying this. And now comes the following two questions: Why is he saying this? And what is wrong with him?

Rosenberg will help us out; let’s re-quote him: ” In the war of ideologies, history grows more more and more talkative, i.e., rhetorical, which means that image assaults image, until all have lost their sacredness…”

Ransom, who took great delight, with many of his contemporaries, to label Romanticism as the act of a “sick mind,” to hiss at villains from the past, to beat the drum as mustaches were put on the Mona Lisa—was a high-ranking general in the Modernist ideological war in which “image assaults image, until all have lost their sacredness…” Ransom was at the front of the mob which threw splinters of the red wheel barrow at The Raven.

The stripping-away-the-veil-from-art so that all sacredness is lost is just what certain intellectuals love to do. They may justify their acts with “theory” and impressive intellectualism, but they are finally like Ransom’s “untrained spectator” hissing at “the villain at the theatre.”

Their “theatre” is whatever they want it to be. In art theories (think of Wilde) which have the art hide the artist, we are reminded of the New Critical impulse to look “only at the work.” The New Critics never really believed this, and first asserted it in order to seem “pure;” they spent the second half of their careers back-peddling, as they raised the “impure” flag—what I said to gain attention I now renounce as a full human being: thus end all art movements.

In the essay by Ransom just quoted from, “A Poem Nearly Anonymous,” Ransom is most interested in Milton, the “man,” lurking behind the acknowledged masterpiece of “Lycidas.” As Ransom remarks in the penultimate sentence of his essay: “We are disturbingly conscious of a man behind the artist.”

As I said earlier, Ransom falls on the side of expanding poetry, which is wrong (oh we must think of this and think of this and think of this) and despite New Criticism earning its reputation of narrowing (focus on the work only) this is more its exception than its rule—as Eliot questioned what the Metaphysical Poets really were, we must do the same with The New Critics.

What this critic believes is this: there is no “man” behind the poem.

There is no John Milton who John Ransom needs to be “disturbingly conscious of.”

Save your energy, John.

There is a wonderful South Park episode called Sarcastaball, in which the sarcasm a father uses to defend the rough-and-tumble aspects of football is taken literally, leading to a whole new professional sport. The father becomes addicted to sarcasm—he is sarcastic in the doctor’s office—the audience of this South Park episode are not sure whether or not the doctor is being sarcastic as he shows the father brain scans of severe brain damage—but is it from a concussion, or the father’s disease of sarcasm?

Criticism which demands to be taken seriously, but is so absorbed in balancing form and matter (but willing also to choose one for the sake of an art movement so that finally either one will do,) drags us into the mind-fuck world of “Sarcastaball.”

The truth is: form in art is all that matters.

Art is “suspension of disbelief.”

And art is “reactionary,” and we will all just have to deal with it.

Politically, Ransom and his colleagues were reactionary. And this is why in their Criticism, they tried to go the other way. The New Critics’ “balancing” act within literature sprawled over into politics—politics/social commentary (Plato, Marx, the State) has traditionally been the escape-hatch, the fourth wall, for any critic who is not certain of his or her aesthetic designs. If they were more certain of purely motivated art, the critic might become an apolitical creative genius, instead.

Criticism—which wrestles with things other than pure form—is finally seen in the public square as rather a mess. Its politics hides behind its criticism (New Criticism) or its criticism hides behind its politics (Marxism). Our best living Critic happens to be a reviewer—William Logan—and in the eyes of Letters, he is considered a conservative, by default, since he dares to actually criticize what he reviews. No one knows if he is actually reactionary—they assume he is, since he is a Critic, and has no choice but to be less than polite. As an honest Reviewer he has no where to hide. Actually, William Logan is not reactionary. (Like many people, he likes old stuff.) There’s no other reviewer like him, because no one wants to be thought of as reactionary in the world of Letters—and utterly transparent reviewing pegs one as so. Why this phenomenon exists would make for a very interesting essay, indeed. Harold Rosenberg might be able to help, but he’s been dead for over 40 years.

Logan does puncture “Romanticism” in a manner similar to Ransom—and until recently, “conservatives” tended to clobber Romanticism—we will quote Harold Rosenberg in a few minutes on this very point. Romanticism, however, no longer represents progress—perhaps T.S. Eliot and Harold Rosenberg assumed it did; surely William Logan does not object to Romanticism for this reason!

I champion Romanticism—but for aesthetic reasons only. (I do sometimes think in political terms—and do not believe High Modernism is progressive in the least, but as a true Critic, I should suppress these feelings.)

The ideal art form, of course, is music. And in music, form is all. There is no “man” behind Mozart’s music. There is no way one would be construed as “reactionary” in discussing Mozart’s instrumental music honestly, in a detailed and critical manner.

There isn’t even “feelings” as we commonly think of that word, in Mozart’s music. To hear “feelings” in Mozart’s music is to falsify, in a non-artistic sense, the art.

Sarcasm cannot exist in Mozart’s music—it can only exist in speaking of Mozart’s music. Mozart’s music is a very heaven because everything is completely understood immediately there.

If we hear a passage in a Mozart concerto which sounds “sad” to us, there is no way to prove that any of this “sadness” (which is merely due to a certain arrangement of notes) can be traced back to Mozart the “man” (or the “composer,” what difference does it make?)—so we really would be completely deluded to believe it is “sad.”

When you hear a critic going on about the “mature” Mozart wrestling with “tragedy” in his “life” through his “music,” this is only the critical impulse puffed by its own importance. For truly, even if Mozart (who can do it) expresses melancholy in a concerto, the point of the concerto is for the whole to be resolved by the whole—so that a bit of “sadness” qua “sadness” is meaningless—in terms of any understanding we have of the “sad.” Even if a violinist who understands the music better than we do weeps as she plays the music, we cannot, from this, assume the music Mozart has written is intrinsically “sad.”

The overwhelming genius of Mozart might make us sad or frustrated, but this, again, is of no consequence. That we “feel emotional” listening to Mozart’s music is eminently possible—but we can’t trace this back specifically to the music, nor (and this is more far-fetched) to the “man” behind the music.

Rosenberg at one point said that pure formalism is the art which really annoyed the Soviet Union. Why should the Soviets have cared about painting of drips and shapes? They did, Rosenberg insisted.

If you don’t like Mozart, you might want to re-think.

I will end this essay by leaving art and returning to the real world. Art is indeed wonderful because it has nothing to do with the real world.

Harold Rosenberg’s introduction to his book of essays, Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture & Politics, published in 1973, contains some remarks worth noting, as well.

“The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Today’s authentic vanguardism is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, by state arts councils, by museums, by industrial and banking associations.”


“Exhibitions of art and publications of literature are quite pleased to be absorbed into the teaching and entertainment industries. Professional art lovers are less interested in their responses to works of art than in knowing what to tell people about them—to take an early example, Leo Stein lecturing on Matisse the moment he began to acquire works by him.”


“An assistant professor of English, writing in the Times Book Review on a work by the Marquis de Sade, finds the Marquis’ tortures of servant girls to be tame, and is prepared to fit him into middle-class reading lists. Is this professor radical or conservative?”


“That there is no radical presence in society seems to give the conservative an edge in the argument. He can revile the mistakes and foolishness (Romanticism) of those who still hope for more humane social arrangements and for forms more responsive to actualities, high and low. But though the radical consciousness is stymied, the events of the epoch are radical. The values to which the conservative appeals are inevitably caricatured by the individuals designated to put them into practice. The cultural conservative wins the argument, but, like the political conservative, he repeatedly finds himself betrayed. Hence he is in a constant state of paranoia. The most he can hope for is that nothing will happen—that Nixon will not go to China—and that fewer knives will flash in the dark.”

Again, Rosenberg is prophetic about our day: the “conservative” hopes “Nixon will not go to China” (!)

Or: “prophecy” merely means nothing has changed very much?

Ben Mazer sent me Rosenberg’s essays recently—utterly by accident—and isn’t that how life usually changes one?

In Ben Mazer I, too, find that mysterious phenomenon—as a voter, Mazer, shuffling along with the mass of humanity, is a liberal, a Democrat, a leftist all the way, but in the completely unspoken presence of his uncanny work, I find him to be something else.

Thomas Graves, Salem MA 5/31/21


Allen Tate Poems > My poetic side

Nature is excellence everywhere all the time. Art is excellence—extremely rare.

Not only is nature’s excellence more abundant, nature is excellence itself; nature defines excellence—as does that extremely rare excellence art produces, which is why Pope, and the Enlightenment generally, called the Greeks “Nature.”

Not only is the poet’s excellence rare—it is very often a channeling of nature’s.

Truly original art (existing completely apart from nature) which is excellent is rarer still.

The wailing of an honored blues singer imitates the wailing of a babe (nature). Poetry that resents nature—a poem (I’m thinking of no poem in particular, only one that would) which complains, for instance, of loud and unruly children will fail. This failure will be signified by reasonable Criticism—which is Nature. Can you imagine a poem seriously complaining about misbehaving children? I can’t.

All good Criticism, like anything else people produce, comes from Nature.

Art cannot compete with Nature. It may (and often does) run away from it. This is fine. However, Art cannot challenge Nature. It will fail miserably (whether some critic knows it or not).

Nature is ordered, but often appears chaotic—artists who attempt chaos as a way to imitate nature have succeeded wildly (we call it Modernism) but only due to a lapse of judgment (sometimes referred to as the New Criticism).

Everyone agrees poetry died around the middle of the twentieth century.

According to some, like the fearsome critic William Logan, this happened in the wake of a Modernist Renaissance which took on, and quickly exhausted, everything new to be done in poetry.

Robert Lowell was the first casualty of that Early Twentieth Century Modernist moment, failing to rescue the iambic pentameter as he went slowly mad.

Robert Lowell, the mad poet, left Harvard to study with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, a couple of mad (New) Critics.

Most—who don’t care about New Criticism, and who are more radical than Logan—agree poetry died, but are glad it died; in retrospect, that wasn’t poetry, they say, that was Victorian. What is now (still) called “poetry” is better—more “honest” and “raw.” The word, “raw,” was the very term Lowell himself used, as he promised he would try to be more “raw” as the New England Lowell, former pupil of the New Critics, and former Iowa Workshop instructor, made peace with the Beats. Even as the Beats, and every generation following, became poetry workshop instructors.

Others, more pedestrian, looking for reasons why poetry collapsed, blame poems which stopped rhyming. Poetry no longer had form. Poems simply became the receptacles of Everything—and therefore became Nothing.

Two things did happen in the middle of the twentieth century, which had nothing to do with how people wrote poems: the rise in mass popularity of Writing Programs and Blues Music.

Writing poetry simply couldn’t compete with these two things.

The same poet/critic/professors who stopped rhyming due to the success of early twentieth century Modernism ran the Writing Programs. They told poetry to stop rhyming.

Meanwhile, blues music, which everyone loved, was rhyming like crazy.

The post-modern poets were caught in the middle. Poetry, as both an art and a social practice, didn’t know what to do.

But finally the poets had no choice. Not being blues singers, they listened to the Writing Programs. They stopped rhyming.

The death of poetry in the middle of the twentieth century was not the poets’ fault.

Blame the Critics.

The Critics were guilty of embracing chaos—because Nature sometimes seems chaotic. (But it’s not. It’s ordered.)

Criticism, or rather lack of Criticism, killed poetry.

The New Critics are much to blame—they were not New Critics; they were “No” Critics; as one reads what they wrote, one realizes this. As one reads the New Criticism, one finds there is a lot to chew on. But beware. Don’t take it too seriously. You will choke. New Criticism is not nutritious. Most of it is confusion—though it is intelligent.

The New Critics didn’t like Modernism, but Modernism liked the New Critics.

To establish itself successfully in the academy, Modernism needed to look smart, respectable, academic. The New Critics were successfully recruited. Both sides shook hands.

Nerds became thugs; the tweedy New Critics agreed to murder poetry—as they murdered judgment.

They decided modernist poems—the “new” poems—needed to speak. Under the sway of modernism, they decided they didn’t trust Criticism at all.

The New Critics were avatars of the Writing Programs. In the Writing Programs, poetic reputation no longer grew in the wild; it could now be manufactured in academia. This was “the deal.” The affected learning of the New Critics (dressed in tweed) was enough to make the Writing Programs respectable—finally “respectable” in the way crazy Robert Lowell was respectable.

If you think this is hyperbole, let’s quote Allen Tate, a New Critic, from his essay, “Is Literary Criticism Possible?”

When I first taught a college class, about eighteen years ago, I thought that anything was possible; but with every year since it has seemed a little more absurd to try to teach students to “evaluate” works of literature, and perhaps not less absurd to try to evaluate them oneself. The assumption that we are capable of just evaluation (a word that seems to have got into criticism by way of Adam Smith) is one of the subtler, if crude, abuses of democratic doctrine, as follows: all men ought to exercise independent judgment, and all men being equal, all are equally capable of it, even in literature and the arts. I have observed that when my own opinions seem most original and independent they turn out to be almost wholly conventional. An absolutely independent judgment (if such a thing were possible) would be an absolutely ignorant judgment.

Shall the instructor, then, set before the class his own “evaluations?” He will do so at the risk of disseminating a hierarchy that he may not have intended to create, and thus may be aborted, or at least stultified, the student’s own reading. It is inevitable that the instructor shall say to the class that one poem is “better” than another. The student, in the degree of his intelligence, will form clear preferences or rejections that will do little harm if he understands what they are. But the teaching of literature through the assertion of preference will end up either as mere impressionism, or as the more sinister variety of impressionism that Irving Babbitt detected in the absorption of the literary work into its historical setting.

In the beginning of this essay, Allen Tate agonizes over the “humanities” as something which merely has an odor of the past (one teaches time periods) but no truth, and therefore, except for grammar, cannot be taught, unlike “natural science.”

Modernism blew everything up and Robert Lowell, the first “great” poet who came along after this explosion, went mad because he couldn’t go forward—and wasn’t allowed to go back.

And it was the teachers who wouldn’t allow him to go back.

The teachers, like Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, went mad, so the poets went mad, too.

Teachers are supposed to steer the ship; they are supposed to rescue the troubled students. The New Critics did the opposite.

Allen Tate is obviously a brilliant, well-educated man. Listen to that subtle pedagogy! But what is it aimed at? What is its end? He is teaching despair. He is teaching mental breakdown.

Here’s what the New Republic had to say (pretty accurately) about Tate 10 years ago:

In the galaxy of American modernism, Allen Tate is now a black hole. The authority that made him, in the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most formidable figures in American poetry, mentor and superego to a generation, has collapsed. Neither his strenuously ambiguous poems nor his orotund essays in literary interpretation (he was one of the deities of the New Criticism) are still commonly read. In both realms, Tate seems to represent a version of modernism scarcely more acceptable than the politics–Agrarian, neo-Confederate, quasi-fascist–that put the seal on his obsolescence.

Of course it is wise to say, when Tate says, ‘when I had what I thought was an independent thought, it turned out to be a conventional thought.’ Yes. This is good. This is why you are a professor. You are the true gatekeeper of literature, because you can tell the truly independent thought from the conventional one.

Yet Tate goes on to wring his hands that if he “evaluates” and “asserts preference” he will create debilitating hierarchies based on personal weakness, or worse, “sinister” elimination of the art of literature itself.

Mind you, these are not political hierarchies Tate is warning against—no judgment at all, for Tate, is the best thing of all. This is the blank, the leveling, which every sincere and successful revolution seeks. Pull down the old walls—then, later, build anew.

John Crowe Ransom was, like Tate, suffering a crisis in teaching literature.

And like Tate, Ransom counted himself as a poet more than a teacher, anxious to have his poetry taught by professors who unfortunately were oblivious—too interested in “evaluation” and “history” (not Ransom or Tate)

Of course, who can blame them? They were ambitious poets—and there is nothing wrong with that. We can forgive them for this.

But to continue:

Now Ransom, from his essay, “Criticism, Inc.”

“Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature? They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods.”

There it is, in black and white. The lady, Contemporary Literature, has no suitors. What is to be done?

And now let’s return to the highbrow-yet-know-nothing agenda of the “No” Criticism revolution. Here is what Ransom says Criticism is not and cannot be:

“I should wish to exclude: 1. Personal registrations…2. Synopsis and paraphrase…3. Historical studies…4. Linguistic studies…5. Moral studies…6. Any other special studies which deal with some abstract or prose content out of the work.”

Ransom was just as brilliant as Tate, and this narrowing of Criticism by Ransom is brilliant even as it is completely insane.

Don’t get me wrong. If a poet wish to throw off all Criticism in their pursuit of glory, all power to them.

But these gentlemen, Tate and Ransom, are speaking as school teachers. As higher education administrators. As critics.

Ransom, like Tate, is the teacher giving up his role as teacher—it is the madness of professors leading to the madness of the world.

Nor does Ransom in this essay want Criticism which is more social or practical, either:

“I do not suppose the reviewing of books can be reformed in the sense of being turned into pure criticism.”

Finally, he says,

“I know of no authority. For the present each critic must be his own authority.”

This manages to simultaneously contradict every rule, habit, and principle “conservative” Ransom and Tate stand for—while asserting perfectly their perfect madness.

And even so Ransom persists in asserting:

“Studies in the technique of the art belong to criticism certainly. They cannot belong anywhere else, because the technique is not peculiar to any prose materials discoverable in the work of art, nor to anything else but the unique form of that art.”

And then Ransom serves up, after closing off all lanes of Criticism, his own interesting idea:

“I intrude here with an idea of my own, which may serve as a starting point of discussion. Poetry distinguishes itself from prose on the technical side by the devices which are, precisely, its means of escaping from prose. Something is continually being killed by prose which the poet wants to preserve.”

If poetry can be made a subject of study delicately separated out from prose, Ransom thinks he can, by this maneuver, inform true Criticism—of prose!

Again, this is brilliant—but absolutely nuts.

On at least two levels.

One: Poetry is opposed more to painting than prose; poetry and prose are both temporal art forms.

Two: How can one (outside of one’s own mind) assert a “unique form” of an art which is free of all the “abstractions” of all that is traditionally associated with Criticism—without entering an Alice-In-Wonderland-World inside a nutshell?

The New Critics and their empty brilliance (which served Modernism—and Pound’s coterie) existed for a practical purpose. To bury professors who taught Homer, Plato and Keats and usher in the catch-all-as-catch-can Writing Program era—which took poetry away from reviewers, critics, the public—and placed it safely in universities.

Since then, Criticism and Poetry have continued—but oddly.

It isn’t really that poetry is dead.

It is that Independent Poetry Criticism—of Evaluation and Hierarchy—is dead.

The professor has become the poet and the poet has become the professor.

And that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Tate and Ransom knew this all along. It wasn’t too many mint juleps or madness (maybe they were mad, who knows?). It was brilliance and ambition. And certainly everyone forgives them.

I’ve heard people defend the Poetry Workshop by saying, “We don’t just write our poems—we are students of poetry in the traditional sense, too!”

No doubt! This fits right into the idea of the poet and the professor becoming the same.

I’m sure this is true. As Poet-Critic Ransom put it, even as he was narrowing Criticism down to a barely visible point: ” A very large volume of studies is indicated by this classification.” The “classification” he is here referring to, is his “exclusion” of everything traditionally associated with Criticism—both outside and inside the classroom.

We can argue all day about what Criticism was before Tate and Ransom took their axes to it, but this would take us far afield; right now let’s just say one very important task a critic had was to make sure no lies were told about the poets.

The last thing a critic should be is self-interested, but this unfortunately occurred when the poet-professors of New Criticism and Pound’s clique shook hands.

Criticism stops evaluating—but that doesn’t mean all sorts of fussy, faux-learning cannot explode in the meantime.

This is exactly what happened. The Keats professors were buried. But “knowledge” grew.

What replaced the old poetry (which in retrospect, seems narrow) is what can only be called:

The Poetry of Information.

Workshop poems tend to be extremely informative.

They are written after long study.

The vast learning of Poetry rolling over weak Criticism is what Ransom and Tate within the academy wanted.

It’s a childish wish among poets too brilliant and ambitious to understand what Oscar Wilde (d. 1900) laid out so beautifully in his master-work, “The Critic As Artist.”

Tate, the professor, was ashamed of his job as a professor in the humanities department. Here is Tate from his essay again:

Of the humanities, the division with which as poet and critic I am presumably most concerned, one must speak with melancholy as well as in ignorance. For into the humanistic bag we throw everything that cannot qualify as a science, natural or social. This discrete mixture of hot and cold, moist and dry, creates in the bag a vortex, which emits a powerful wind of ineffective heroics, somewhat as follows: We humanists bring within the scope of the humanities all the great records—sometimes we call them the remains: poetry, drama, pre-scientific history (Herodotus, Joinville, Bede)—of the experience of man as man; we are not concerned with him as vertebrate, biped, mathematician, or priest. Precisely, reply the social scientists; that is just what is wrong with you; you don’t see that man is not man, that he is merely a function; and your records (or remains) are so full of error that we are glad to relegate them to professors of English, poets, and other dilettanti, those “former people” who live in the Past. The Past, which we can neither smell, see, taste, nor touch, was well labeled by our apostle, Mr. Carl Sandburg, as a bucket of ashes…No first-rate scientific mind is guilty of this vulgarity. Yet as academic statesmen, the humanists must also be practical politicians who know that they cannot stay in office unless they have an invigorating awareness of the power, and of the superior footwork, of the third-rate mind.

Again, the combination here is of sheer brilliance and deep, hopeless, madness and depression. The New Critics did not like what they were doing. They were professors lured by the new poetry. Note how deeply ashamed of the “Past” Professor Tate is. That was their problem. “I want to be a famous poet like Keats (d. 1821)!” Tate must have thought. “But how can I be a famous poet if fame in poetry belongs to the past—and Keats?”

Thanks to Writing Workshops, poetry, as it seeks fame, is as academic as ever.

The world of poetry in John Crowe Ransom’s day was similar to ours—fame for the poets was elusive (Pound and Eliot were not yet famous) and the professors didn’t understand how elusive it was for contemporary poets—because they kept on teaching—before the Writing Program Era took off—Homer and Keats.

Slowly this would change.

Academia would make respectable—in the middle of the twentieth century—those revolutionary Modernists from the century’s beginning.

The essays by Tate and Ransom glimpsed here belong to the period in-between the Modernist explosion (when nothing was certain and things were exciting, doubtful, somewhat pessimistic, and ambitious) and the material rewards which eventually followed.

We now live in an era where Criticism is dead, the English major is dead, the Writing Program still pays the bills, and poets are not famous.

And Blues Music is still much bigger than poetry.

The poetry in favor right now, more so even than overt political poetry, is the Poetry of Information.

The following is a contemporary poem which is an example of this.

Steven Cramer teaches writing, and is one of the best poets writing today. Cramer is as brilliant as Tate and Ransom—and these two were, indeed, brilliant.

“Elegy for Little Richard” is beyond evaluation or rank—it is simply a fantastic poem, teeming with information. The most respected poetry has existed in this mode pretty much since Robert Lowell.

Since Robert Lowell, poetry is now a perfect blend of the “raw” and the “cooked.”

But before we quote this poem in full, let us, for comparison, look at one stanza from a poem in favor prior to the Modernist revolution. It evinces beauty, not information.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense
As though of hemlock I had drunk
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not thru envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

One might call this a selfish poem—the “news” is about the poet, and how he is feeling. There is no “information” provided, in the conventional sense. Keats is no professor.

And now our contemporary poem:

Elegy for Little Richard

Satori can surge upon you on the subway,
lectured Dr. Tufail in Intro Zen.

The mire gives us the very substance of art,
goes Lorca’s Play and Theory of the Duende.

reflected Little Richard in a Macon

Greyhound terminal’s greasy spoon,
up to his biceps in Georgia suds, boss-

man piling on pot atop pot atop pot—
and that’s exactly what I meant at the time.

Of the two strains of modesty, false
and true, he knew neither.  I put that little

thing in it, he said of Little Richard’s Boogie—
gospelized flop, in no way Tutti Frutti,

green as air before a downpour. Always
had that thing, but didn’t know what to do

with that thing I had.   For consistency,
he’d win the Whitman Contradiction Prize—

Gay?  I founded Gay. I wore makeup
and eyelashes when no men were. But once

a chartered flight caught fire in a dream,
Jesus Christ made men, men; women, women,

sermoned Minister Richard Penniman.
Satori, Duende: daemon versus demon—

one draws from light; the other swills
in Bier-stink at the Star Club, Hamburg,

1961. He didn’t open for The Beatles;
The Beatles opened for him. Backstage,

he’d preach from RevelationsWe’d all
sit around and listen, just to hear him talk,

remembered Lennon, whose dying mono-
syllable, yeah, I’ll never not recall, down

to the loaf-sized radio the news dirged
through (I call that time my decade-long

lost weekend).  His own One and Only,
for years an ancient star I didn’t know

wasn’t dead—in fact it was the Fab’s
blandish cover of his Long Tall Sally

that schooled the Beatle-daemonic
white mass of us: don’t sit so still; sex

sings best in tongues, if not yet drag;
Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.

When this hits us early in the poem, we laugh—it’s a shock. A brilliant, humorous effect. Cramer’s a genius.


Cramer’s poem is a riveting lesson. It gives us literary criticism in places we wouldn’t expect, and so much more.

“Elegy for Little Richard” is a delight: autobiographical, deeply thematic, linguistically glorious, as well as informative.

The two-line stanzas do not appear to be organized to impart sound—they exist more to hurriedly and efficiently impart information.

The epic fallacy, said Poe, was a lot of short poems strung together to make an epic.

There is no reason why Poe’s formula cannot exist in a shorter poem, where a shorter poem exists only as a sequence of small poetic glimpses: “green as air before a downpour,” “the other swills in Bier-stink at the Star Club” and “Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.”

We might say that “green as air before a downpour” is Keats—this is John Keats kept alive in poetry today.

To say nothing of “Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.”

It is a wonderful and beautiful phrase: “green as air before a downpour.” To say “this is like Keats” does make sense.

But no—we need to be more rigorous.

The poetry Keats wrote is defined chiefly by its rhythmic quality—Keats wrote poems rhythmically cohesive. Poems of Information are nothing like this at all.

Information belongs to Man, not Nature.

Pieces of poems are not poems.

The minor poets have written beautiful lines and phrases, but they are minor poets because they have written no major poems. Poe, the critic, often collected beautiful lines from minor poets in his reviews.

Like music laid asleep in dried up fountains

Plain as a white statue on a tall, dark steep

Green dells that into silence stretch away

And the list could go on of lovely phrases by poets no longer read.

But if we quote the following line, we see immediately it belongs to something greater, something immensely popular:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

This belongs to a wider, rhythmic sea—a famous poem, full of rhythm, which has nothing to do with the Poetry of Information.

The differences are more vital than the similarities—we are talking about two different forms of art.

The Poem of Information began with Robert Lowell (or perhaps that poem by T.S. Eliot with all the footnotes?)—student of Ransom and Tate (but did they “teach” Lowell anything? Doubtful)—think of that poem, which the critic William Logan calls Lowell’s last major poem—“For The Union Dead.” There is a lot of information in that poem—the cars in Boston have “fins” and the Boston Aquarium—have you heard?—is closed, and there is this statue in the Boston Common… It is a very fine poem, but it is scattered, and has no cohesive rhythm.

Here is the second stanza:

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

Beautiful, in itself, but does it need—aesthetically—to belong, in any sense, really, to this, a few stanzas later?

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

There is no “art” which unites the two stanzas. Information belonging to itself is paramount.

Poetry’s rhythmic strategy is absent.

This is what makes Keats Keats.


I might as well quote the poem evoked by Cramer’s “Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.”

To get the stark difference, in terms of rhythm and cohesiveness, quotation (because otherwise we might not believe it) is probably necessary; the first and last stanzas should suffice; notice, unlike the Lowell, how much the two stanzas resemble each other:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
    Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
    A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
    Of deities or mortals, or of both,
        In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
    What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
        What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats sustains the theme—and the rhythm. There is no overriding desire to provide information—in the sense that we understand that term. Information is not barred from the poem—the poem is merely doing other things; information is not necessary; it would merely distract. Information in itself, by its very nature, is distracting. Whatever distracts from the theme—even if it is interesting itself, or relates in some indirect way to the theme—is not artful.

Poetry once implied concentration—not a lot of parts lying about on the ground. Parts were not bad in themselves; the point was to gather them into the poem—to welcome them, and not forget about them.

Can we finally evaluate anything here?

No, we are not ready for that. The world created by Tate and Ransom, and practiced by Lowell a half-century ago is still the air in which we swim. We cannot rank or judge. The Poetry of Information will not be out of fashion at all soon.

What if a poet tells us that if he did not turn on the news, or consult an encyclopedia, or do research on something he sees on a walk, he would have nothing to write about? Should we take him at his word?

Poets—and even the critics—have long since given up being concerned about these sorts of things.

I’ll close by quoting two contemporary, neo-Romantic poems.

I Never Give Out My True Love’s Name

I never give out my true love’s name.

Is love my god? My god is shame.

In the dreaming garden I walked along,

Too ashamed to sing a song.

Love may be the moon, smooth and bright.

But shame rules the details of the night.

All I whisper when no one’s there

From my true heart? Shame doesn’t care.

The sad images which lie in my heart

Belong to love. But shame rules my art.

Shame rules all I see and hear.

Love hides. Never spoken. Though here.

Shame lives with millions. Do I blame

Love? Shame is not afraid of love. Shame

Is an army of poetry. Shame is not afraid.

Do not love your love, he said. And I obeyed.

This poem—one of my own—is aggressively anti-informative.

And this one, by Ben Mazer, from “The King,” also springs more from pure imagination:


for Isabel Biderman

Finally to see with eyes of onyx and jade –
what’s always there. Cleopatra with her crown
gives O’s for X’s, gives X’s for O’s
perpetually working towards the city’s center
by katty-corner, wishes too grand to grant
– for who can both live in the rarest palace
and be its guest? Passing again and again
brings nothing closer – a few feet in the end
and all is different. Different and the same!
A better life, taller and rising to heaven
(the dog escapes, returns according to plan).
Fabulous laughter lives in the hereafter.
The cat withdraws into its impregnable dream.
The actor leaving the palace is just a man.


Brighton Riviere. Una and the lion | Art, Moonlight painting, Classic art

This critic’s fire burns himself
Even as it entertains me.
Let me admit I love
(And maybe it offends you)
What I am too cowardly to do:
Undoing with wit someone’s wit
Having the audacity to sit in a poem,
A dry poem, offered up to one, in flames,
Trained to match all the poems to all the names
Without faces. Wit has a chance to be unkind
In criticism felt only by the mind.

But this is how I want my poetry
To be eaten—with less respect than lamb.
Let poems be torn limb from limb,
A lady of crowe ransom propped and prim
Or the poem which doesn’t respect itself at all.
He’ll show it respect, a critic who owns no circle,
The critic the eagle where below we crawl.
His judgment like atoms—invisible, not small.

But what does he love?
There’s the rub. Old Robert Lowell? We don’t know.
Judgment is the shadow
And love is the sun.
He strikes fear in everyone.
But he should not.
We didn’t wait for Christmas
So we might have the sun—
That’s never what we got.
The shadow, like his ink, is neutral.
Criticism isn’t his, or yours.
Let’s face it: A poem is a dry rock.
Sans lightning, sans thunder, sans display,
Criticism pours.


Image result for poet with a mask

AMANDA GORMAN is an “American poet and activist,” according to Wikipedia.
CATE MARVIN “THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS EVIL. Straight up evil. It’s just beyond.” –Facebook
3 LOUISE GLUCK 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature
4 JOY HARJO In her third term as Poet Laureate.
5 DON MEE CHOI DMZ Colony, Wave Books, wins 2020 National Book Award.
6 JERICHO BROWN The Tradition, Copper Canyon Press, wins 2020 Pulitzer Prize
NOOR HINDI Poem “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying” in Dec 2020 Poetry.
8 NAOMI SHIHAB NYE Her poem “kindness” read online by Emma Thompson has 2.3 million Instagram views
9 WAYNE MILLER “When Talking About Poetry Online Goes Very Wrong” 2/8/21 essay in Lithub.
10 WILLIAM LOGAN “she speaks in the voice of a documentary narrator, approaching scenes in a hazmat suit.”
11 VICTORIA CHANG Obit Copper Canyon Press, longlist for 2020 National Book Award; also, in BAP.
12 ALAN CORDLE founder of Foetry, “most despised..most feared man in American poetry” —LA Times 2005
13 RUPI KAUR Has sold 3 million books
14 DON SHARE Resigned as Poetry editor August of 2020.
15 MARY RUEFLE Dunce, Wave Books, finalist for 2020 Pulitzer Prize
16 ANTHONY CODY Borderland Apocrypha, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
17 LILLIAN-YVONNE BERTRAM Travesty Generator, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
18 EDUARDO C. CORRAL Guillotine, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
19 PAISLEY REKDAL Poet Laureate of Utah, Guest editor for the 2020 Best American Poetry
20 DORIANNE LAUX Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems, Norton, finalist for 2020 Pulitzer Prize
21 DANEZ SMITH Latest book of poems, Homie, published in 2020.
22 ILYA KAMINSKY LA Times Book Prize in 2020 for Deaf Republic.
23 RON SILLIMAN in Jan. 2021 Poetry “It merely needs to brush against the hem of your gown.”
24 FORREST GANDER Be With, New Directions, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize
25 RITA DOVE Her Penguin Twentieth-Century of American Poetry Anthology is 10 years old. Collected Poems, 2016.
26 NATALIE DIAZ Postcolonial Love Poem, longlist for 2020 National Book Award
27 TERRANCE HAYES “I love how your blackness leaves them in the dark.”
28 TIMOTHY DONNELLY The Problem of the Many, Wave Books, 2019
30 FRANK BIDART Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 (FSG) winner, 2018 Pulitzer
31 OCEAN VUONG “this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning into a tongue”
32 MATTHEW ZAPRUDER Disputed Ocean Vuong’s Instagram reflections on metaphor.
33 SHARON OLDS Stag’s Leap won 2013 Pulitzer; she’s in 2020 BAP
34 HONOREE FANONNE JEFFERS The Age of Phillis, longlist for 2020 National Book Award.
35 CLAUDIA RANKINE Citizen came out in 2014.
36 HENRI COLE Blizzard, FSG, is his tenth book of poems.
37 TRACY K. SMITH In the New Yorker 10/5
38 DIANE SEUSS In the New Yorker 9/14
39 SUSHMITA GUPTA “She missed her room, her pillow, her side of the bed, her tiny bedside lamp.”
40 ANNE CARSON has translated Sappho and Euripides.
41 AL FILREIS Leads “Poem Talk” with guests on Poetry’s website
42 MARY ANGELA DOUGLAS “the larks cry out and not with music”
43 STEPHEN COLE “…the everlasting living and the longtime dead feast on the same severed, talking head.”
44 MARILYN CHIN Her New and Selected was published in 2018 (Norton).
45 KEVIN GALLAGHER Editor, poet, economist, historian has re-discovered the poet John Boyle O’Reilly.
46 DAVID LEHMAN Series Editor for Best American Poetry—founded in 1988.
47 JIM BEHRLE A thorn in the side of BAP.
48 ROBIN RICHARDSON The Canadian poet wrote recently, “I have removed myself completely from Canadian literature.”
49 PAOLA FERRANTE New editor of Minola Reivew.
50 A.E. STALLINGS Like, FSG, finalist for 2019 Pulitzer
51 TAYLOR JOHNSON Poetry Blog: “felt presence of the black crowd as we study our amongness together.”
52 PATRICA SMITH Incendiary Art, TriQuarterly/Northwestern U, finalist for 2018 Pulitzer
53 TYLER MILLS in Jan. 2021 Poetry “Gatsby is not drinking a gin rickey. Dracula not puncturing a vein.”
54 SEUNGJA CHOI in Jan. 2021 Poetry “Dog autumn attacks. Syphilis autumn.”
55 ATTICUS “It was her chaos that made her beautiful.”
56 JAMES LONGENBACH Essay in Jan. 2021 Poetry, wonders: would Galileo have been jailed were his claims in verse?
57 DAN SOCIU Hit 3 home runs for the Paris Goths in Scarriet’s 2020 World Baseball League.
58 PHILIP NIKOLAYEV Editor of Fulcrum and “14 International Younger Poets” issue from Art and Letters.
59 SUSMIT PANDA “Time walked barefoot; the clock gave it heels.”
60 BRIAN RIHLMANN Poet of working-class honesty.
61 TYREE DAYE in the New Yorker 1/18/21
62 JANE WONG in Dec. 2020 Poetry “My grandmother said it was going to be long—“
63 ALAN SHAPIRO Reel to Reel, University of Chicago Press, finalist for 2015 Pulitzer
64 PIPPA LITTLE in Dec. 2020 Poetry “I knew the names of stones at the river mouth”
65 PATRICK STEWART Read Shakespeare’s Sonnets online to millions of views.
66 STEVEN CRAMER sixth book of poems, Listen, published in 2020.
68 BEN MAZER New book on Harry Crosby. New book of poems. Unearthing poems by Delmore Schwartz for FSG.
69 KEVIN YOUNG Poetry editor of the New Yorker
70 BILLY COLLINS Poet Laureate of the U.S. 2001 to 2003
72 VALERIE MACON fired as North Carolina poet laureate—when it was found she lacked publishing credentials.
73 ANDERS CARLSON-WEE Nation magazine published, then apologized, for his poem, “How-To,” in 2018.
74 DANA GIOIA 99 Poems: New and Selected published in 2016. His famous Can Poetry Matter? came out in 1992.
76 MARJORIE PERLOFF published Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire in 2016.
77 HELEN VENDLER her The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry came out in 2015.
78 MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGE A Treatise On Stars, longlist for 2020 National Book Award—her 13th book.
79 GEORGE BILGERE  Belongs to the Billy Collins school. Lives in Cleveland.
80 CAROLYN FORCHE 2020 saw the publication of her book In the Lateness of the World: Poems from Penguin.
81 BOB DYLAN “Shall I leave them by your gate? Or sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”
82 RICHARD HOWARD  has translated Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Breton, Foucault, Camus and Gide.
83 GLYN MAXWELL The playwright/poet’s mother acted in the original Under Milk Wood on Broadway in 1956.
84 KAVEH AKBAR published in Best New Poets
85 D.A. POWELL The poet has received a Paul Engle Fellowship.
86 JOHN YAU In 2020 BAP
87 DAIPAYAN NAIR “Hold me tight. Bones are my immortality…”
88 ANDREEA IULIA SCRIDON in 14 International Younger Poets from Art and Letters.
89 LORI GOMEZ Sassy and sensual internet poet—Romantic who uses F-bombs.
91 SIMON ARMITAGE In the New Yorker 9/28
92 TOMMYE BLOUNT Fantasia for the Man in Blue, longlist for 2020 National Book Award.
93 TYLER KNOTT GREGSON on Twitter: “let us sign/our names/ in the/emptiness”
94 STEPHANIE BURT Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry published in 2009
95 WILLIE LEE KINARD III in Jan. 2021 Poetry “The lesbians that lived in the apartment to the left…”
96 MICHAEL DICKMAN His poem about his grandmother in 2020 July/August Poetry was controversial.
97 FATIMAH ASGHAR published in Best New Poets
98 RICK BAROT The Galleons, Milkweed Editions, on longlist for 2020 National Book Award and excerpted in BAP 2020
99 DERRICK MICHAEL HUDSON had his 15 minutes of fame in Best American Poetry 2015.
100 JEAN VALENTINE (d. 12/30/20) in New Yorker 1/18/21


Honoré Daumier | Man on a Rope | The Met

One of William Logan’s former students sent me a link to a couple of recent poems by the famous American critic.

Logan is equally ambitious as a poet and a critic, but he’s much better known as a critic, or, more accurately, a “reviewer.”

William Logan is not a “theorist:” he hasn’t made popular any critical dicta.

And, who knows? this might even make him a better reviewer.  He keeps his eye on the ball (the subject of his review) and is never distracted by pet theories.

In fact, he’s largely ineffective when he wanders into theory; he’s like Camille Paglia, another wolf who turns lamb when speaking of poetry in the abstract, and this would include writing about poets safely dead. Paglia and Logan have fans because they pull no punches with their contemporaries.

You can argue with their opinions, but Letters needs honest criticism even more than trades need inspectors; a building may stand up without a building inspector; a poem without a critic doesn’t really exist. That critic “over there” who needs to tell you how to read a poem is you.  Criticism builds the building. Poetry only admires it.

Logan as a reviewer is rare, but he shouldn’t be.

As a critic, Logan doesn’t make friends—which is how it should be; the conscious decision not to be friendly as a critic is why he is good—for otherwise a critic cannot be good.  So when the New York Times calls Logan “Poetry’s Hanging Judge,” a “slasher, a burner, a brawler,” this is just silly, like a child’s fear of the dark.

Logan strolls into the poetry which he is reviewing with no agenda whatsoever; he’s not even asking that the poem be well-built. When it comes to criticism, “burner” or not, Logan is all Henry James, who said, when it comes to art and its criticism, one should just be intelligent—there are no rules.  This is not bad advice. Let the mind and eye be free.

These are the two principles of Logan’s reviewing:

1. no friends

2. no rules.

If this is a “hanging judge,” so be it.  It’s why Logan is the best critic around.

Actually, the best reviewer around.  Logan is not a critic at all.

Logan’s reviewing has two principles.  His criticism has none.

When those who are honest and controversial like what everybody else likes, the air goes out of the balloon.  Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty Three of the World’s Best Poems is perhaps the most boring book ever written.  A close second is Logan’s Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods: Poetry In the Shadow of the Past.

In Dickinson’s Nerves, Logan adds historical facts to a poem—whether they belong to the poem, or not.  Good poems (especially lyric poems) don’t need added historical facts, and that’s why they are good.  Successful poems are the history which Logan goes somewhere else to find.

The New Critics, who err by being too narrow, at least are in the right part of town.  The critic William Logan is like a man looking for a party in the wrong city—not that he doesn’t find interesting things in that other city.  He has a wide-ranging mind.  That’s why he’s a good reviewer.

Logan, when reacting to poems as a reviewer, is a champ—:with the poems of a living author in front of him, he feels no obligation to find historical touchstones in a worshipful sort of way, and with no theoretical axes to grind, obeying the advice of Henry James—obeying no principle whatsoever—he simply allows his intelligence to tell us what it sees.

As far as Logan’s two poems in Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts, they are both sound, full of references, and rather dull.

Both describe painting, in one case, a painting, in the other, a landscape, which may be a painting. It is Logan’s habit as a poet to use poetry as a means to be scholarly towards a scholarly artifact.  He’s not being attentive so much as attentively bookish.  And the poems are certainly not how people talk.

My advice to Logan: Write from your memory and your heart.  Avoid “subjects.”

I really believe Logan tries too hard to sound high-brow and thoughtful. He’s too fastidious. We could look at the painting or the landscape he describes and enjoy in a moment, ourselves, what he patiently explains to us, standing in the way. Poetry is speech. It is not describing a painting or a meadow or a street. He should listen to G.E. Lessing. Poetry is not painting. Nor is poetry a series of learned references.

There needs to be more feeling. Logan should read Holderlin.

He attends to the important things—he finds a theme with a physical equivalent in the real world, and the parts of the poem contribute, in an ordered and thoughtful way, to that theme.  And it’s all done with a learned air.

But it’s finally the trivial things, so trivial as to escape scrutiny, which make a poem successful.

This is why no one can will a poem to be good, and why a poem written in five years will not be better than a poem written in five minutes.

Because reviews can’t wait, Logan, by necessity, writes his reviews relatively quickly. Which allows him to skip most of his learning and get right to the doing. The speed, and the irritation at having to be speedy, no doubt contributes to the wit we see in his reviews.

His poems, however, are vacations from the deadlines of reviewing; one senses he writes his poems in the midst of vacations; he spends an entire day in a museum, and almost a whole afternoon in front of a painting. Daumier’s Man on a Rope, perhaps.

And then, five years later, a poem.

Yet all the five years did was hide the true poem, which, after five minutes, was right there:

Above the nothing that is nothing,
Hanging between earth and heaven,
Arms taut with the sum of his own gravity,
One foot steadied against the building,
Braced against the fall,
Burglar or acrobat,
Hung between the idea
And execution, the nowhere
And the nowhere.


Daumier, Man on a Rope

Above the nothing that is nothing,
he dangles in forethought,
not afterthought, like Mohammed’s coffin
hanging between earth
and heaven, face darkened
by fear or apprehension,
or merely paint, arms taut with the sum
of his own gravity,
one foot steadied against the building,
braced against the fall
that never comes, though whether
burglar, or acrobat,
or just a man on a rope is never revealed.
Like Bede’s sparrow,
like Schrödinger’s cat, like the artist
hung between the idea
and execution, the man
is lost in the nowhere
that is life and the nowhere not.

—William Logan





Lord Byron In Albanian Dress - 1813 Painting by War Is Hell Store

George Byron in a pensive mood, before taking part in the opening day Scarriet baseball ceremonies.

Happy Easter!

Scarriet has expanded and restructured its baseball league!!

Gone the 2 leagues of 20 teams led by 20 American poets—Eliot, Pound, Frost, Poe, Williams, Stevens, Moore, Dickinson, Millay, Jorie Graham, Ginsberg, Ransom, Cummings, Whittier, Whitman, Bryant, Longfellow, James Lowell, Ashbery, and Emerson.

Now poets like Emerson, Eliot and Poe can be player/managers—to contribute to their teams both at the plate and in the field.

The field is more international—Scarriet Poetry Baseball is now 25 historical teams from all over the world.


The gods and muses must be pleased with our ten years of Poetry March Madness and our first Poetry Baseball season, where poetry is worshiped through time and space in a manner which no one has ever seen.

Fortunately one of the Muses has always been here to help us, Marla Muse.

Marla Muse: They are indeed pleased, Tom!

You have spoken to the other muses who live in other realms, in those shadowy timeless realms where time is one and poetry lights up suns distantly—

Marla Muse: Yes, and they approve! The stars in the heavens love you more than you know… I would rather die than see poetry die.

This baseball season is different. Mysterious and wealthy owners throughout time and space are bidding, some in secret, for players to fill their rosters.

In the Great Emperor League, we have the Broadcasters. Their motto is “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name” and they feature Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Gregory Corso, Anne Sexton, Bobby Burns, Omar Khayyam, Rilke, Coleridge, Leopardi, Anacreon, Sappho, and Ingrid Jonker.  They are rumored to be owned and funded by a business group led by Federico Fellini, and their ballpark is in Rimini, Italy.

These ballclubs are timeless, in every sense of the word (these teams compete, with actual statistics, where chance unfolds out of space, out of time) but real money, blood money, purchases these players.  We know JP Morgan, for instance, wanted Shakespeare and bid heavily to get him.

The Pistols, who play in Berlin, are said to be associated with Eva Braun, but this cannot be confirmed; one older muse claims to have overheard Eva say, “I take care of this. Adolf is too busy talking to bankers and architects. He doesn’t have time for poetry.” But honestly we cannot say who owns the Pistols.

Nahum Tate, owner of the Laureates, for those who do not know, re-wrote a popular King Lear with a happy ending (after Shakespeare’s death when, for a long period, the Bard was out of fashion,) and was chosen as Poet Laureate of England in 1692. 

Dick Wolf produces Law & Order on television, and appears to have a controlling interest in the Laws, playing out of Santa Barbara.  He’s got Aristotle, Lord Bacon, and Horace.

John Rockefeller opened his purse to get Walt Whitman, and he thinks that will be enough to win a championship.  We don’t know.  We do know baseball is all about pitching.  All you need is a few good arms which dominate, defense behind them, and some clubhouse chemistry, and not too many injuries. It’s a crap shoot, in many ways, and this is why Rockefeller grumbled he wasn’t going to waste money on superstars who hit home runs and have a high batting average. He’s probably right.  A team that wins 2-1 is better than a team that wins 7-4, by pure mathematics, even though the former score wins by 1 and the latter by 3 runs. It’s the ratio that counts.  2-1 = 2. 7-4 = 1.7  This simple reason is why defense wins in every sport. Rockefeller is using this formula, and the oil baron was also advised that you can’t buy a pennant—throwing money at sluggers doesn’t do any good; it’s 90% pitching and luck. Just put a a poet with critical depth on the hill and three good versifiers in the infield and sit back.

Some of the rosters might have some question marks, but that’s what happens in a free market.  It’s an historical fact that Longfellow did meet Queen Victoria in person. But no one expected him to play for her!

And W.H. Auden just “wanted to play for Napoleon, I don’t why.”

Marla Muse: I can’t wait for the season to begin!  Spring is in the air! Around Rome, and in those still fairer isles… Let’s forget about plagues and the starvation for awhile. Songs are going to sing.

Here then, are the Teams, their Mottoes, and the preliminary rosters—they are always changing (there’s a big minor leagues!)



Federico Fellini, Rimini  The Broadcasters [Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name]
-Mick Jagger, Sappho, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski, Paul Valery, Anne Sexton, Omar Khayyam, Robert Burns, Ben Jonson, Coleridge, Jim Morrison, Edmund Waller, Nabokov, Rilke, Giacomo Leopardi, Anacreon, Ingrid Jonker, Swinburne

Napoleon, Corsica The Codes [Let the more loving one be me]
-W.H. Auden, Homer, Hesiod, Racine, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, Mina Loy, William Logan, Irving Layton, Villon, Jean-Baptiste Tati-Loutard, Wole Soyinka, Jules Laforgue, Derek Walcott, Callimachus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius

King Philip II, Madrid The Crusaders [If in my thought I have magnified the Father above the Son, let Him have no mercy on me]
-Saint Ephrem, G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien, Thomas Aquinas, Hilaire Beloc, John Paul II, Saint Theresa of Lisieux, Joyce Kilmer, Saint John of the Cross, Mary Angela Douglas, Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Countee Cullen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aeschulus

Charles X, Paris  The Goths [Every great enterprise takes its first step in faith]
-A.W. Schlegel, Baudelaire, Goethe, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Madame de Stael, Chateaubriand, Sophocles, George Herbert, Heinrich Heine, Robert Herrick, Clement Marot, Ronsard, Saint-Beuve, Catulus, Thomas Gray, John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Theophile Gautier

Pope Julius II, Rome  The Ceilings [They also serve who only stand and wait]
-Milton, Michelangelo, William Blake, Robert Lowell, Petrarch, G.E. Lessing, John Dryden, Klopstock, GE Horne, Ferdowsi, Ariosto, Luis de Camoens, Swift, Tulsidas, Edmund Spenser, Kwesi Brew, Pindar, Euripides



Eva Braun, Berlin The Pistols [A life subdued to its instrument]
-Ted Hughes, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis, DH Lawrence, Alistair Crowley, George Santayana, F.T. Marinetti, Giacomo Balla, Richard Wagner, Jung

Queen Victoria, London The Carriages [Theirs but to do and die]
-Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett, Robert Browning, Longfellow, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Hazlitt, Paul McCartney, Geoffrey Hill, Henry James, Andrew Marvel, John Suckling, Virginia Woolf, Theocritus

Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence The Banners [The One remains, the many change and pass]
-Percy Shelley, Dante, William Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, DG Rossetti, John Keats, Marlowe, Guido Cavalcanti, Glyn Maxwell, Ben Mazer, Friedrich Schiller, Thomas Moore, Philodemus, Virgil, Stefan George, Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci

P.M. Lord John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, Devon The Sun [A good indignation brings out all one’s powers]
-Emerson, Horace Walpole, Thomas Carlyle, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Matthew Arnold, Sir John Davies, Margaret Fuller, Robert Southey, Marilyn Chin, Joy Harjo, Basil Bunting, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

Nahum Tate, Dublin  The Laureates [Luck is bestowed even on those who don’t have hands]
-Ghalib, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Peacock, Leigh Hunt, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Sara Teasdale, Pasternak, Louis Simpson, Dana Gioia, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Aphra Behn, Rod McKuen, JK Rowling



Harvey Weinstein, Westport CT The Actors [I am no hackney for your rod]
-John Skelton, Langston Hughes, Henry Ward Beecher, Chaucer, Amiri Baraka, Lord Byron, Hafiz, Thomas Nashe, Marilyn Hacker, Petronius, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jim Carroll, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, Audre Lorde, Jimmy Page, Andre Gide

David Lynch, Alexandria VA  The Strangers [So still is day, it seems like night profound]
-Jones Very, Alexander Pope, William Burroughs, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Robert Graves, Laura Riding, Weldon Kees, Berryman, Mary Shelley, Rabelais, Charles Simic, Eric Satie, Labid, Roethke, Camille Paglia, HP Lovecraft, Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett

P.T. Barnum, Fairfield CT  The Animals [Majesty and love are incompatible]
-Ovid, Gerald Stern, Robinson Jeffers, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Seamus Heaney, Jack Spicer, Kay Ryan, Leslie Scalapino, Mary Oliver, W S Merwin, Melville, Camille Saint Saens, Edward Lear, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Gerard de Nerval, Robert Bly

J.P. Morgan, Madison Avenue  The War [The fire-eyed maid of smoky war all hot and bleeding will we offer them]
-Shakespeare, Louis Untermeyer, Apollinaire, T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Rupert Brooke, Sir Walter Scott, Philip Sidney, James Dickey, Harry Crosby, Keith Douglas, Wilfred Owen, Howard Nemerov, Stephen Crane, Erich Remarque, Alan Seeger

Ben Franklin  Philadelphia  The Secrets [We come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune]
-Paul Simon, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Poe, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, F. Scott Key, Cole Porter, Plato, Hawthorne, Pushkin, Walter Raleigh, Moliere, William Cullen Bryant, Amy Lowell, Emma Lazarus, Carl Sandburg, Pete Seeger, Natasha Trethewey, Amelia Welby, Woody Guthrie, JD Salinger, John Prine, Kanye West, Stephen Cole, Bob Tonucci



Sajyajit Ray, Calcutta The Cobras [Is it true that your love traveled alone through ages and worlds in search of me?]
-Tagore, Allen Ginsberg, Jeet Thayil, Rupi Kaur, Anand Thakore, Dhoomil, G.M. Muktibodh, Rumi, A.K. Ramanujan, Samar Sen, Daipayan Nair, R. Meenakshi, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Hermann Hesse, Persius, George Harrison, Adil Jussawalla, Tishani Doshi, Sushmita Gupta, Vikram Seth

Kurosawa,  Tokyo  The Mist [In Kyoto, hearing the cuckoo, I long for Kyoto]
-Basho, Hilda Doolittle, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, D.T. Suzuki, Yone Noguchi, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Kobayashi Issa, Lady Izumi Shikibu, Cid Corman, Sadakichi Hartmann, Heraclitus, Richard Brautigan

Chairman Mao, Beijing  The Waves [Death gives separation repose. Without death, grief only sharpens]
-Tu Fu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Voltaire, Rousseau, Guy Burgess, Amiri Baraka, Brecht, Neruda, Li Po, Li He, Bai Juyi, Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Ho Chi-Fang, Yen Chen, Billie Holiday, Khomieni, Lu Ji , Wang Wei, Lao Tzu, Gary B. Fitzgerald, Wendell Berry

Dick Wolf, Santa Barbara  The Laws [In poetry everything is clear and definite]
-Ajip Rosidi, Aristotle, John Donne, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Donald Justice, Anna Akhmatova, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Campion, Frederick Seidel, Antonio Machado, Mark Van Doren, David Lehman, Lord Bacon, Martial, ML Rosenthal, Horace, Gottfried Burger, Yvor Winters

Merv Griffin, Los Angeles  The Gamers  [He thought he saw an elephant that practiced on a fife]
-Lewis Carroll, James Tate, E.E. Cummings, Tony Hoagland, Ogden Nash, Billy Collins, Eugene Field, W.S. Gilbert, Thomas Hood, Noel Coward, X.J. Kennedy, John Betjeman, Wendy Cope, Tristan Tzara, Heather McHugh, Charles Bernstein, Jack Spicer, James Whitcomb Riley, Joe Green, Menander, Morgenstern



Pamela Harriman, Arden NY The Dreamers [not the earth, the sea, none of it was enough for her, without me]
-Sharon Olds, Edna Millay, George Dillon, Floyd Dell, Dorothy Parker, Stanley Burnshaw, Richard Lovelace, Stevie Smith, Louis MacNeice, Louise Bogan, Louise Gluck, Jack Gilbert, Marge Piercy, Carolyn Forche, Muriel Rukeyser, Jean Valentine, May Swenson, Propertius, Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir

Andy Warhol, East 47th St The Printers [the eye, seeking to sink, is rebuffed by a much-worked dullness, the patina of a rag, that oily Vulcan uses, wiping up.]
-John Updike, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, James Merrill, Hart Crane, Lorca, Thom Gunn, Stephen Burt, Frank Bidart, Mark Rothko, Marjorie Perloff, John Quinn, Duchamp, Aristophanes, Christopher Isherwood, Andre Breton, Lou Reed, John Cage

John D. Rockefeller, Chicago The Buyers [Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?]
-Walt Whitman, Alcaeus, Edgar Lee Masters, Kenneth Rexroth, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Helen Vendler, Jorie Graham, Franz Wright, Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, Paul Engle, William Alexander Percy, Richard Hugo, Carl Philips, Harriet Monroe, Duke Ellington, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Sigmund Freud

A. C. Barnes, Philadelphia  The Crash [But for some futile things unsaid I should say all is done for us]
-Allen Tate, John Gould Fletcher, John Crowe Ransom, John Dewey, Cleanth Brooks, Donald Davidson, Merrill Moore, Walter Pater, Wittgenstein, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Archilochus, Anne Waldman, Stanley Kunitz, Jackson Pollock, WC Williams, Luigi Russolo, Stephen Spender, Richard Howard

Steven Spielberg, Phoenix AZ  The Universe [I know why the caged bird sings]
-Maya Angelou, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bob Dylan, Margaret Atwood, Paul Celan, Czeslaw Milosz, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Anthony Hecht, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Claudia Rankine, Harold Bloom, Alice Walker, James Wright, Juvenal, Chuck Berry, Stephen King


Ballpark Road Trips in Review: 2018 - Ben's Biz Blog




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Scarriet came into existence in September of 2009, quite by accident—from a silly quarrel with Blog Harriet, the Poetry Foundation site.

As we approach Scarriet’s 10th anniversary—after nearly one original post per day, and a million visits—we offer thanks to everyone who has ever looked at Scarriet—or contributed in some way to its pages.

Scarriet’s Poetry March Madness began in 2010.

Congratulations to the poets who have made it to 2019 Sweet Sixteen!

BOLD bracket

Diane Lockward “The wife and the dog planned their escape.”
Aseem Sundan “How do I make the paper turn blood red? How do I make everyone read it?”
Eliana Vanessa “I’d rather be outside, with him,/turning stones in the rain,/than here,/listening to the hum/of so many skulls, alone.”
Daipayan Nair “I run, run, run and run/Still I don’t reach my birth/I don’t cross my death”


Jennifer Barber “Sure, it was a dream, but even so/you put down the phone so soundlessly”
Merryn Juliette “grey as I am”
Michelina Di Martino “Let us make love. Where are we?”
Kushal Poddar “Call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer.”

LIFE bracket

William Logan “’I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’”/She touched me then with the ghost of a caress.”
Alec Solomita “All of the sky is silent/Even the jet shining/like a dime way up high”
Divya Guha “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”
N Ravi Shankar “You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”


Mary Angela Douglas “one candle grown lilac in a perpetual spring”
Medha Singh “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on”
Jennifer Robertson “ocean after ocean after ocean”
Sushmita Gupta “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love.”



Reaching the Elite Eight!!

Daipayan Nair defeats Diane Lockward.  The wife and dog are finally caught! The winner’s line was a little more thrilling.
Eliana Vanessa defeats Aseem Sundan. The “hum of so many skulls, alone” was finally too much for the blood red paper.

Jennifer Barber defeats Kushal Poddar. “All Summer” was not quite enough to vanquish “even so you put down the phone so soundlessly.”
Michelina Di Martino defeats Merryn Juliette. “Let us make love. Where are we?” is a poem in itself.  We hate to see “grey as I am” go.

N Ravi Shankar defeats William Logan. The nude mother overcomes the “ghost of a caress.”
Divya Guha defeats Alec Solomita.  The jet like a dime way up high is so delightful, but “greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you” is victorious.

Sushmita Gupta defeats Mary Angela Douglas.  How can one of these perfections lose?  The mortal eye will have to accept this decision.
Medha Singh defeats Jennifer Robertson.  The oceans surrender to the winter.

Congratulations to the surviving poets!



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Semeen Ali competes in the Life Bracket with 15 other poets

William Logan is known for fierce criticism.

His poetry is nicer.

His poetry is where his scholar smiles, that aging tour guide, who gently waves his hand. He has published a lot of poems, but the criticism is what he is known for.  His critical lash has stung. His poems? Not a mark.

His criticism is the offense, his poetry, the defense. His poems are thick walls to cover himself.  His critical reviews score big. His educated poetry defends against the long pass. As a poet, he belongs to the Difficult School, that briar patch established by Sir Geoffrey Hill, admired, but rarely entered, and when you get into it, you will die by scratches unless you exit with great difficulty—this is why Poe’s gardens were razed; to bad poets, everything is difficult, (even writing poetry), and therefore difficulty easily becomes a banner of the academic realm. The frowning briars are tenacious, like pride, and they are all that’s needed to keep the million flowers and their scents away.

Logan is not a bad poet, however; just one who is always looking over his shoulder. What if some offended poet intends a criticism as a form of revenge?  Logan’s poems dare not make a mistake; the dictionary is carefully consulted.

Because he is a good critic—agree, or not with him, he’s good—the law of aesthetics says Logan must be a good poet; poetry is what the critic in us writes. He seems to have decided contemporary poetry is mostly bad because it offends High Modernism; but where Pound was a critical crackpot, Logan is a critical lion; his defense of High Modernism has surpassed by great lengths what it ostensibly defends; he has forgot himself, gone into his humor and become a Poe (who, if read correctly, is funny; wit is criticism’s best weapon) or a Pope, or a Byron, and thank goodness he has! How dreary poetry would be today, without the prune and dance of William Logan.

Just as he escapes overrated High Modernism in his heated criticism, Logan occasionally escapes High Modernism in his poetry; but why he soars in criticism, and not in poetry, it is difficult to say. Perhaps his poetry is the diffident, abashed Dr. Jekyll to the criticism of his Mr. Hyde.  The split in Logan is artificial, since the natural split which once existed, between prose and verse, has closed up; the poets write in prose, too.  A hint of this truth is that when Logan writes formalist poetry, he’s much better.  He doesn’t want to sing so much in poetry, perhaps, because he doesn’t want to seem doubly odd: a Poe-like critic and a Poe-like poet.  He wants a little respectability, at least.

Logan is the no. 1 seed in the Life Bracket (the brackets are somewhat randomly named) and the line is from one of his formalist poems:

“‘I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’/She touched me then with a ghost of a caress.”

(It almost needs a comma after “then;” it is the pause right there that creates glory.)

It just so happens his opponent is Garrison Keillor. We found this by Keillor on FB:

“Starved for love, obsessed with sin, /Sunlight almost did us in.”

There’s a greater aesthetic distance possible between two formalist lines than between any two lines of prose.  Have you noticed that?  The Keillor is delightful.  Starved for love, obsessed with sin, Sunlight almost did us in.

But Logan wins.


Danez Smith, the no. 2 seed in the Life Bracket, is a contemporary poet getting a lot of attention lately. His poetry doesn’t need verse. It has so much attitude.

“I call your mama mama”

Akhil Kaytal is also a contemporary poet who throws into poetry the best and funniest of what he finds.

“How long did India and Pakistan last?”

Attitude is really not about attitude. It’s about fact. “I call your mama mama” is a fact.  It’s not speculative.  The speculation naturally follows after. The speculation, the thinking, and the poetry, is implied. And this, really, sums up the respectable, contemporary, academic, vers libre view.

Is it really love when you call your lover’s mama mama? And when your imagination takes you far into the future, from where you ask one you loved if a little graffiti you made on a marble step is still there, you naturally want to know: How long did India and Pakistan last?

Danez Smith advances.


Divya Guha breaks our heart in ten seconds.

No, in ten words:

“The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

It doesn’t cry about the leaving—it discovers the leaving, which is better.

The contrast between the shaver (a device belonging to the body) and the laptop (a device belonging to a great deal else) is complex and effective. The “shaver missing” is the real blow; because of the sequence of things, we assume this is the first thing the poet notices that is gone, a device which is mundane—but intimates the domestic and the intimate—which makes the “gone too” poignant, if only because the “greedy” laptop can “hide” much more of a person, and whether it (or he) is gone, or not.

Guha, the third seed, tangles with Semeen Ali’s broader observation—also a discovery, and also poignant on a small scale:

“for a minute/That one minute/contains my life”

We love the box-within-a-box-within-a-box aspect of Semeen Ali’s contribution. We think to ourselves, “how is it possible, really, that one minute contains a life?”  But the poet is very sly, because, after all, it is only “for a minute” this miraculous “minute” occurs.

Nine words by Semeen Ali against ten by Divya Guha.

We love both, but there is a little more happening with “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

Divya Guah will advance to the second round.


The sentiment expressed by the fourth seed, N Ravi Shankar, is overwhelming:

“You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”

Who would write something like this, but someone very comfortable in their own skin?  Writing lovely poetry may only take one thing, and one thing, alone: don’t be uptight.

The pleasure evinced is such that it almost seems like wisdom.  Why is that?  When does the sensual become philosophy?  The great secret to this seems to hover within Shankar’s fond and rapturous lines.

Lily Swarn, another poet from India, counters with:

“The stink of poverty cowered in fear!”

This, too, has an uncanny strangeness about it.  It strikes us as marvelously original, as if the force of a personality, or the primitive cleverness of a god, were uttering divine poetry in a half-dreaming, prophetic trance.

The insouciant rhyme of “You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby” gives it the edge.

R Ravi Shankar wins.

A lullaby roared by fans fills the arena.



Rupi Kaur v. Kim Gek Lin Short.

June Gehringer v. Alec Solomita

Marilyn Chin v. Stephen Cole

Sam Sax v. Dylan Thomas


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It’s here once again.  Poetry March Madness!!

Previously, Scarriet has used Best American Poetry Series poems, Speeches by Aesthetic Philosophers, and poems of, and inspired by, Romanticism

This year, our tenth!—and we’ve done this once before—lines of poetry compete. 

The great majority of these poets are living contemporaries, but we have thrown in some of the famous dead, just to mix things up.

The line is the unit of poetry for ancients and moderns alike—moderns have argued for other units: the sentence, the breath—but to keep it simple, here we have fragments, or parts, of poems.

Is the poem better when the poetic dwells in all parts, as well as the whole?  I don’t see how we could say otherwise.

What makes part of a poem good?

Is it the same qualities which makes the whole poem good?

A poem’s excellent and consistent rhythm, by necessity, makes itself felt both throughout the poem and in its parts.

A poem’s excellent rhetoric can be strong as a whole, but weaker in its parts—since the whole understanding is not necessarily seen in pieces.

This is why, perhaps, the older, formalist poets, are better in their quotations and fragments than poets are today.

But this may be nothing but the wildest speculation.

Perhaps rhythm should become important, again, since rhetoric and rhythm do not have to be at war—rhythm enhances rhetoric, in fact.

Some would say modern poetry has set rhythm free.

No matter the quality under examination, however, any part of a poem can charm as a poem—with every quality a poem might possess.

Before we get to the brackets, let’s look at three examples in the 2019 tournament:

Milton’s “Glory, the reward/That sole excites to high attempts the flame” is powerfully rhythmic in a manner the moderns no longer evince. It is like a goddess before which we kneel.

Sushmita Guptas “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love” also has rhythm, but this is not a goddess, but a flesh and blood woman, before which we kneel and adore.

Medha Singh’s “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on” is so different from Milton, it almost seems like a different art form; here is the sad and homely, with which we fall madly in love.

And now we present the 2019 March Madness poets:


Diane Lockward — “The wife and the dog planned their escape”

Aseem Sundan — “How do I make the paper turn blood red?/How do I make everyone read it?”

Menka Shivdasani — “I shall turn the heat up,/put the lid on./Watch me.”

John Milton — “Glory, the reward/That sole excites to high attempts the flame”

Philip Larkin —“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

Eliana Vanessa — “I’d rather be outside, with him,/turning stones in the rain,/than here,/listening to the hum/of so many skulls, alone.”

Robin Richardson — “Please let me be a blaze. I will destroy,/I mean create again this place.”

Khalypso — “to wake up/strangers & sticky & questioning.”

Walter Savage Landor —“I strove with none, for none was worth my strife”

Robin Morgan — “Growing small requires enormity of will.”

Joie Bose — “I am a fable, a sea bed treasure trove/I am your darkness, I am Love.”

Daipayan Nair — “I run, run, run and run/Still I don’t reach my birth/I don’t cross my death”

Edgar Poe — “Over the mountains/of the moon,/Down the valley of the shadow”

Linda Ashok — “When you have a day, let’s meet and bury it.”

Hoshang Merchant — “I have myself become wild in my love for a wild thing”

Aaron Poochigian — “beyond the round world’s spalling/margin, hear Odysseus’s ghosts/squeaking like hinges, hear the Sirens calling.”



Jennifer Barber — “Sure, it was a dream, but even so/you put down the phone so soundlessly”

Percy Shelley —“Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.”

A.E. Stallings — “Perfection was a blot/That could not be undone.”

Merryn Juliette — “grey as I am”

Michelina Di Martino — “Let us make love. Where are we?”

Sukrita Kumar — “Flames are messengers/Carrying the known/To the unknown”

Ben Mazer — “her room/retains the look/of the room of a stranger”

Richard Wilbur —“The morning air is all awash with angels.”

Sridala Swami —“There is only this book, and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words in it.”

Nabina Das — “under the same ceiling/fan from where she/later dangled.”

Kushal Poddar — “Call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer.”

Meera Nair — “How long can you keep/The lake away from the sea”

Ranjit Hoskote — “The nightingale doesn’t blame the gardener or the hunter:/Fate had decided spring would be its cage.”

Aakriti Kuntal — “Close your eyes then. Imagine the word on the tip of your tongue. The warm jelly, the red tip of the quivering mass.”

Srividya Sivakumar— “I’m searching for coral and abalone deep in the dragon’s lair.”

Sophia Naz — “Deviants and dervishes of the river/lie down the length of her”


William Logan —‘I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’/She touched me then with the ghost of a caress.”

Danez Smith — “i call your mama mama”

Divya Guha — “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

N Ravi Shankar—“You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”

Rupi Kaur — “i am not street meat i am homemade jam”

June Gehringer — “I don’t write about race,/ I write about gender,/ I once killed a cis white man,/ and his first name/ was me.”

Marilyn Chin — “by all that was lavished upon her/and all that was taken away!”

Sam Sax — “that you are reading this/must be enough”

Dylan Thomas —“After the first death, there is no other.”

Stephen Cole — “I feel the wind-tides/Off San Fernando Mountain./I hear the cry of suicide brakes/Calling down the sad incline/Of Fremont’s Pass.”

Alec Solomita — “All of the sky is silent/Even the jet shining/like a dime way up high”

Kim Gek Lin Short —“If truth be told/the theft began/a time before/that summer day.”

Lily Swarn — “The stink of poverty cowered in fear!!”

Semeen Ali — “for a minute/That one minute/contains my life”

Akhil Katyal — “How long did India and Pakistan last?”

Garrison Keillor — “Starved for love, obsessed with sin,/Sunlight almost did us in.”



Mary Angela Douglas — “one candle grown lilac in a perpetual spring”

Ann Leshy Wood — “where groves of oranges rot,/and somber groups of heron graze/by the bay.”

Medha Singh — “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on”

Yana Djin — “Morning dew will dress each stem.”

John Keats —“Awake for ever in a sweet unrest”

Sushmita Gupta — “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love.”

William Shakespeare —“Those were pearls that were his eyes”

A.E. Housman —“The rose-lipt girls are sleeping/In fields where roses fade.”

Raena Shirali — “we become mist, shift/groveward, flee.”

C.P. Surendran — “A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,/Window by window/Regained vision.”

Dimitry Melnikoff —“Offer me a gulp of this light’s glow”

Jennifer Robertson — “ocean after ocean after ocean”

Sharanya Manivannan — “burdening the wisps of things,/their threats to drift away.”

Philip Nikolayev — “within its vast domain confined”

Ravi Shankar — “What matters cannot remain.”

Abhijit Khandkar — “So I write this poem and feed it to the ravenous sea.”





































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 Sushmita Gupta

Poetry doesn’t have a center—therefore this “hot” list is not legitimate, but is.

Good poems and poets are everywhere. These happened to hit my eyes.

The best poems are not being published by the major publishers or the glossy magazines or the Poetry Foundation, but by our Facebook friends, our girlfriends, or the guy sitting next to us at the café. The best poem in English, being written somewhere right now—right now—is probably being written in India. Comforting or not, this is the fact.

The death of Mary Oliver, and its fairly large public notice, shows poetry has a kind of shadow center, if not a real one, occasionally manifesting itself as seemingly real, only to fade into Auden’s cry, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Slowly, in obscure corners of people’s hearts, poetry does happen. It has no intellectual, philosophical, or critical identity, and its social identity is crushed by cinema and the popular song. But times change, and poetry does seem to be simmering towards something larger in the places where large things occur.

Poetry as the technical art, and poetry as it vaguely exists in the everyday efforts and reflections of the world are two different things. No poet or critic is responsible for the vastness of the latter.

In this contemporary snapshot list of poems, I intentionally made the search greater to include the best-known sources, for two reasons: “what are the most distinguished outlets doing?” and for the sake of variety.

So the poems on this list are poems I happily and locally and accidentally see, and also poems gleaned from sources which a slightly larger audience sees.

This explains why you see the poems you do.

As far as how the poems are actually ranked, the best first, and so on, again, I plead guilty to subjectivity, which never excuses authoritarian decisions—it only makes them seem more authoritarian; but the word authoritarian is overused and misused these days—whatever decisions the comfortable, fake-revolutionaries don’t like, are called, after the fact, authoritarian.

The poems are ranked by the best lines uttered in these poems.

Philip Nikolayev (on the list) has a theory that poetry lives, finally, in great lines.

It was a great Facebook discussion, and I forget what I said about it, then, which is all that matters—the Scarriet Hot 100 I introduce here is my authoritarian moment in the sun—and why I bring it up, I don’t know, because I agreed with Nikolayev, then, and now, perhaps, I don’t.

All the poems on the Hot 100 list are good—but some, as good as they are, have nothing but plain and ordinary lines, or phrases. No stand-alone piece of the poem—good when the poem is read as a whole—sounds very interesting.

In rare instances, the title of the poem, coupled with the selected mundane part of the poem, combines to be of interest, or surprising. As you judge, keep the titles in mind as you read the line.

Because the ranking here is by line (or part of a line, or lines) I should say a word or two about what makes a good line.

I believe it can be summed up: a good line is where the vision and the rhythm speak together.

Some lines are good for purely prose fiction reasons—they sound like the start of a great short story. They point, rather than being the point.

One more thing: since Scarriet has written on Indian poetry recently, many poets are from India; those designated “Scarriet” were featured on that date on this site, though found elsewhere. Please search, enjoy, and support, will you? all 100 of these poets.


(1) Jennifer Barber —Continuum (2018 The Charles River Journal #8) “Sure, it was a dream, but even so/you put down the phone so soundlessly”

(2) A.E. Stallings —Pencil (2018 Best American Poetry, Lehman, Gioia—The Atlantic) “Perfection was a blot/That could not be undone.”

(3) Sushmita Gupta —Gently Please  (12/18 FB) “Everything hurts,/Even that/Which seems like love.”

(4) William Logan —The Kiss (2017 Rift of Light Penguin) “‘I’ve never thought of you that way, I guess.’/She touched me then with the ghost of a caress.”

(5) Eliana Vanessa —this black rose (12/13 FB) “I’d rather be outside, with him,/turning stones in the rain,/than here,/listening to the hum/of so many skulls, alone.”

(6) Abhijit Khandkar —Bombil  (Poetry Delhi 12/1) “So I write this poem and feed it to the ravenous sea.”

(7) Philip Nikolayev —Blame (1/4/19 FB) “within its vast domain confined”

(8) Sharanya Manivannan —Keeping the Change (12/5/18 Scarriet) “burdening the wisps of things,/their threats to drift away.”

(9) Hoshang Merchant —Scent of Love (10/12/18 Scarriet) “I have myself become wild in my love for a wild thing”

(10) Divya Guha —Non-attendance (1/16/19 Gmail) “The shaver missing, your greedy laptop: gone too, hiding you.”

(11) Ravi Shankar —Buzzards (12/5/18 Scarriet) “What matters cannot remain.”

(12) Mary Angela Douglas —Epiphany of the White Apples (1/3/19 Scarriet) “one candle grown lilac in a perpetual Spring”

(13) N Ravi Shankar—Bamboo (12/26/17 FB) “You are nude, sweet mother,/so am I/as the bamboos creak a lullaby”

(14) Aseem Sundan —The Poet Lied About The Paradise (1/12/19 Indian Poetry) “How do I make the paper turn blood red?/How do I make everyone read it?”

(15) Stephen Cole —The descriptor heart (1/18/19 FB) “I feel the wind-tides/Off San Fernando Mountain./I hear the cry of suicide brakes/Calling down the sad incline/Of Fremont’s Pass.”

(16) Yana Djin —Days are so slow, adoni, so slow (1/2/19 Vox Populi) “In the dusk leaves like golden suns shiver and glow”

(17) Ann Leshy Wood —Thanksgiving, For my father, 1917-2012 (11/23/16 FB) “where groves of oranges rot,/and somber groups of heron graze/by the bay.”

(18) Shalim Hussain —Dighalipukhuri (12/5/18 Scarriet) “His downy heart bleeds over the bliss beneath.”

(19) Linda Ashok —Tongue Tied (4/4/18 Cultural Weekly) “How deep is the universe? How many/light years will it take to reach your belly”

(20) Marilyn Chin —How I Got That Name (2018 Selected Poems, Norton) “by all that was lavished upon her/and all that was taken away!”

(21) Diane Lockward —The Missing Wife (2016 Veils, Halos & Shackles Fishman, Sahay, eds) “The wife and the dog planned their escape”

(22) Daipayan Nair —Roseate with Jyoti (Season 2) Poem VI (12/30/18 FB) “you hold my hand like possibilities”

(23) Ranjit Hoskote —Effects of Distance (8/10/18 Scarriet) “Blue is the color of air letters, of conqueror’s eyes./Blue, leaking from your pen, triggers this enterprise.”

(24) Nabina Das —Death and Else (9/7/18 Scarriet) “under the same ceiling/fan from where she/later dangled.”

(25) Sridala Swami —Redacted poetry is a message in a bottle (6/9/18 Scarriet) “There is only this book, and your one chance of speaking to the world is through the words in it.”

(26) Anand Thakore —Elephant Bathing (7/5/18 Scarriet) “As pale flamingoes, stripped irretrievably of their pinks,/Leap into a flight forever deferred.”

(27) Danez Smith —acknowledgments (December 2018 Poetry) “i call your mama mama”

(28) Anne Stevenson —How Poems Arrive (2018 Best American Poetry, Lehman, Gioia—The Hudson Review) “Or simply wait/Till it arrives and tells you its intention.”

(29) Jennifer Robertson —Coming Undone (4/14/18 Scarriet) “ocean after ocean after ocean”

(30) Srividya Sivakumar—Wargame (1/12/19 Scarriet) “I’m searching for coral and abalone deep in the dragon’s lair.”

(31) Medha Singh —Gravedigger (January 2019 Indian Quarterly) “you’ve/remembered how the winter went/as it went on”

(32) Lily Swarn —The Cobbler (1/7/19 Pentasi B World Friendship Poetry) “The stink of poverty cowered in fear!!”

(33) Sophia Naz —Neelum (5/2/18 Scarriet) “Deviants and dervishes of the river/lie down the length of her”

(34) James Longenbach —This Little Island (November 2018 Poetry) “And when the land stops speaking/The wave flows out to sea.”

(35) Sam Sax —Prayer for the Mutilated World (September 2018 Poetry) “that you are reading this/must be enough”

(36) Raena Shirali —Daayan After A Village Feast (Anomaly #27) “we become mist, shift/groveward, flee.”

(37) Priya Sarukkhai Chabria —She says to her girlfriend (12/5/18 Scarriet) “in the red slush/open/to flaming skies.”

(38) Nitoo Das —How To Write Erotica (10/12/18 Scarriet) “You’re allowed to be slightly long-winded.”

(39) Sukrita Kumar —The Chinese Cemetery (4/14/18 Scarriet) “Flames are messengers/Carrying the known/To the unknown”

(40) Zachary Bos —All that falls to earth (May, 2018 Locust Year—chapbook) “In a library properly sorted/ecology stands beside eulogy.”

(41) Khalypso —Women Are Easy To Love Over The Internet (Anomaly #27) “to wake up/strangers & sticky & questioning.”

(42) C.P. Surendran —Prospect (10/12/18 Scarriet) “A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,/Window by window/Regained vision.”

(43) Dan Sociu —The Hatch (Trans. Carla Bericz, National Translation Month) “the man with the tambourine went off cursing me”

(44) Nalini Priyadarshni —When You Forget How To Write a Love Poem (12/21 Chantarelle’s Notebook a poetry e-zine) “You try different places at different hours,/dipping your pen in psychedelic summer skies”

(45) June Gehringer —I Don’t Write About Race (1/16/19 Luna Luna Magazine) “I don’t write about race,/ I write about gender,/ I once killed a cis white man,/ and his first name/ was me.”

(46) Robin Flicker —I fell asleep holding my notebook and pen (12/22 FB) “In my dream, the pen was a pair of scissors, and I had to cut out every letter of every word.”

(47) Robin Morgan —4 Powerful Poems about Parkinson’s (10/15/15 TED Talk You Tube) “Growing small requires enormity of will.”

(48) Arundhathi Subramaniam —Prayer (11/15/18 Scarriet) “when maps shall fade,/nostalgia cease/and the vigil end.”

(49) Menka Shivdasani —The Woman Who Speaks To Milk Pots (9/7/18 Scarriet) “I shall turn the heat up,/put the lid on./Watch me.”

(50) Ryan Alvanos —7:30 (2011 From Here—album online) “not too long and not too far/I carefully left the door ajar”

(51) Tishani Doshi —The Immigrant’s Song (3/16/18 Scarriet) “hear/your whole life fill the world/until the wind is the only word.”

(52) Semeen Ali —You Look At Me (3/16/18 Scarriet) “for a minute/That one minute/contains my life”

(53) Kim Gek Lin Short —Playboy Bunny Swimsuit Biker (American Poetry Review vol 48 no 1) “If truth be told/the theft began/a time before/that summer day.”

(54) Lewis Jian —Mundane Life (1/9/19 World Literature Forum) “who’s wise enough to reach nirvana?”

(55) Dimitry Melnikoff —Offer Me (1/12/19 Facebook Poetry Society) “Offer me a gulp of this light’s glow”

(56) Kushal Poddar —This Cat, That (12/13/18 FB) “call its name around/with the bowl held in my cooling hand./I can see myself doing this. All Winter. All Summer.”

(57) Ben Mazer —Divine Rights (2017 Selected Poems) “her room/retains the look/of the room of a stranger”

(58) Christopher T. Schmitz —The Poet’s Oeuvre (12/24 FB) “poems that guess/at the argot of an era to come/and ache with love/for the world he’s leaving/and couldn’t save.”

(59) Simon Armitage  —To His Lost Lover (2017 Interestingliterature) “And left unsaid some things he should have spoken,/about the heart, where it hurt exactly, and how often.”

(60) Akhil Katyal —For Someone Who Will Read This 500 Years From Now (7/5/18 Scarriet) “How long did India and Pakistan last?”

(61) Minal Hajratwala —Operation Unicorn: Field Report (8/10/18 Scarriet) “The unicorns are a technology/we cannot yet approximate.”

(62) Jehanne Dubrow —Eros and Psyche (2016 Veils, Halos & Shackles Fishman, Sahay, eds) “my mother might stay asleep forever, unbothered by the monument of those hands”

(63) Rochelle Potkar —Friends In Rape (2016 Veils, Halos & Shackles Fishman, Sahay, eds) “Doesn’t she smile at each one of your jokes?”

(64) Merryn Juliette —Her Garden (9/21 FB) “grey as I am”

(65) Marilyn Kallet —Trespass (Plume #89) “Maybe that’s what Verlaine said,/at the end.”

(66) Meera Nair —On Some Days (12/17 FB) “on all days/Without fail/I need you”

(67) Nathan Woods —Wander, Wonder (12/26 FB) “into wands for spells to scatter the beasts”

(68) Rajiv Mohabir —Hybrid Unidentified Whale (11/15/18 Scarriet) “no others/can process its cries into music.”

(69) Dana Gioia —The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves (Video, Dana Gioia Official Site) “a crack of light beneath a darkened door.”

(70) Paige Lewis —You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm (January 2018 Poetry) “Right now, way above your head, two men”

(71) Smita Sahay —For Nameless, Faceless Women (2016 Veils, Halos & Shackles) “change the way you tell your stories.”

(72) Sampurna Chattarji —As a Son, My Daughter (2016 Veils, Halos & Shackles) “You fear nothing./You frighten me.”

(73) Michelina Di Martino —Original Sin (1/12/19 Intense Call of Feelings) “Let us make love. Where are we?”

(74) Jo-Ann Mort —Market Day (Plume #89) “wanting the air/ beside me to welcome you.”

(75) Sohini Basak—Laconic (1/12/19 Scarriet) “the rude dove just blinked”

(76) Carol Kner —Pieces of us Keep Breaking Off (Plume #89) “to quench the rage that lunges daily”

(77) Shikha Malaviya —September 9, 2012 (A poem in 9 hours) (11/15/18 Scarriet) “Our hips swaying badly/to Bollywood beats”

(78) Michael Creighton —New Delhi Love Song (8/10/18 Scarriet) “all are welcomed with a stare in New Delhi.”

(78) Ranjani Murali —Singing Cancer: Ars Film-Poetica (8/10/18 Scarriet) “Anand jumps to his death from the staggering height of two feet”

(79) Jeet Thayil —Life Sentence (7/5/18 Scarriet) “your talk is of meat and money”

(80) Urvashi Bahuguna —Boy (6/9/18 Scarriet) “Girl kisses/some other boy. Girl wishes/it was Boy.”

(81) Huzaifa Pandit —Buhu Sings an Elegy for Kashmir (3/16/18 Scarriet) “The beloved weeps in a hollow tongue”

(82) Nandini Dhar —Map Pointing At Dawn (2/21/18 Scarriet) “Ghost uncle is a calligrapher who cannot hold/a pen between his fingers.”

(83) Sumana Roy —Root Vegetables (2/21/18 Scarriet) “darkness drinks less water than light”

(84) Jorie Graham —Scarcely There (January 2019 Poetry) “We pass here now onto the next-on world. You stay.”

(85) Christian Wiman —The Parable of Perfect Silence (December 2018 Poetry) “Two murderers keep their minds alive/while they wait to die.”

(86) Martha Zweig —The Breakfast Nook (December 2018 Poetry) “One day it quits./The whole business quits. Imagine that.”

(87) Alex Dimitrov —1969 (September 2018 Poetry) “Then returned to continue the war.”

(88) Campbell McGrath —My Music (12/17/18 The New Yorker) “My music is way better than your music”

(89) Terrance Hayes —American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin (2018 Best American Poetry, Lehman, Gioia—The New Yorker) “It is possible he meant that, too.”

(90) Garrison Keillor —I Grew Up In A Northern Town (1/12/19 FB) “Starved for love, obsessed with sin,/Sunlight almost did us in.”

(91) Dick Davis —A Personal Sonnet (2018 Best American Poetry, Lehman, Gioia—The Hudson Review) “These are the dreams that turned out to be real.”

(92) Sharon Olds —The Source (2018 All We Know of Pleasure—Poetic Erotica by Women, Shomer) “Ah, I am in him”

(93) Manjiri Indurkar —Diabetes at a Birthday Party  (1/12/19 Scarriet) “Who talks about diabetes at someone’s birthday party?/Ma’s life is a cautionary tale.”

(94) Jayanta Mahapatra —Her Hand (1/12/19 Scarriet) “The little girl’s hand is made of darkness/How will I hold it?”

(95) Rony Nair —Solarium (1/12/19 Scarriet) “some people get off on sleeping with your enemy”

(96) John Murillo —A Refusal To Mourn The Deaths By Gunfire, Of Three Men In Brooklyn (American Poetry Review vol 48 no 1) “You strike your one good match to watch it bloom/and jook”

(97) CA Conrad —a Frank poem (12/31/18 Facebook Fraternity of Poets, “one experience is quietly/consumed by the next”

(98) Sara J. Grossman —House of Body (Anomaly #27) “weather of abundant appendages”

(99) Rupi Kaur —did you think i was a city (1/5/19 Instagram) “i am not street meat i am homemade jam”

(100) Warsan Shire —The House (2017 Poetry Foundation) “Everyone laughs, they think I’m joking.”








Image result for ben mazer selected poems

Selected Poems by Ben Mazer
Paperback, 248 pages
Madhat Press
Preface by Philip Nikolayev

T.S. Eliot was born in 1888. As Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems, with its T.S. Eliot heft, lands on America’s doorstep (as writing workshop and slam poet hives hum in every college town) this is the question a few may be asking: is Mazer a genius, or a copyist?

When we write in the ascendant style of an age, we position ourselves for greatness (think Beethoven atop Mozart), or neglect—a copyist the world doesn’t need.

W.H. Auden—younger, English-born, sassier than the somber American, T.S. Eliot—whom Eliot published, and who, after traveling to Berlin and China with Isherwood, subsequently moved to America and awarded John Ashbery his Yale Younger—is Auden Mazer’s fountainhead?

Are the following quotes from Auden or Mazer?

1.Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day/Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,/He got down to work

2. The flier, at the Wicklow manor,/Stayed throughout the spring and summer,/Mending autos in the drive

3. In a strange country, there is only one/Who knows his true name and could turn him in./But she, whose father too was charged with murder

4. Look, stranger, on this island now/The leaping light for your delight discovers

5. And move in memory as now these clouds do,/That pass the harbor mirror/And all the summer through the water saunter.

The insouciance of rhymes flung against the language of hard-boiled detective fiction. It’s Modernism longing to be Romantic, but finding it quite impossible.

1, 4, and 5 are Auden; 2 and 3, Mazer.

Shelley in army uniform, cynically resigned to domesticated Empire life—which pays better than it ought.

Ben Mazer is for, by, and about poetry which sings out the following historical paradox:

Shelley, the Romantic, is quick—look at him riding winds and swift ocean currents.

The Modern, with her machines and her anxiety, hasn’t got time for Romanticism singing Shelley, and, yet, the modern boredom and leisure which the modern affects, allows for poetry which goes deeper into the Shelley of Shelley than Shelley ever did.

If you give Mazer a few minutes (since a long poem doesn’t exist) he will pour more Shelley on you than you’ve ever known before.

The Mazer quoted above, in the comparison with Auden, is early Mazer.  The later Mazer is less like Auden and more like Eliot.  But these comparisons are not entirely fair. Mazer is Mazer.

Here’s an excerpt from Mazer’s “The Double:”

I remember chiefly the warp of the curb, and time going by.
As time goes by. I remember red gray green blue brown brick
before rain or during rain. One doesn’t see who is going by.
One doesn’t think to see who is going by.
One sees who is going by all right, but one doesn’t see who is going by.
The bright lights attract customers to the bookstore.
Seeing, chalk it up to that. The bitter looks of the booksellers,
as you leave the shop without paying. Rickety steps that will soon
be history. A ripped up paperback book with some intelligent inscriptions
in very dried out blue gray ink. Lots of dumpsters. And seagulls.
Or are they pigeons. They seem related, as the air is to the sea.
When it gets darker, or foggier, it is a really big soup
of souls, works of art, time tables, the hour before dinner,
theatrical enterprise, memories of things never happened, warnings
spoken in a voice familiar, a keen and quickened sense
of possibility glimpsed through windows.
Handbills, whatever to mark the passing time. And sleep.
I know it is good when the good of it is not noticed.
It is something you try and tell someone privately in a room
where the light is broken in October. Your sense of time
is the source of your charm with strangers,
who would accept you anyways.

Mazer’s accumulation of details—this is the first 22 lines of “The Double” (Poems (2010) in Selected pg. 9)—unlike the poetry of Ashbery, which explodes in non sequitur—narrows down to philosophy. With each additional observation, Mazer’s centripetal process pins down meaning; notice how the passage we have quoted is not just creating categories, but reflects on category itself: “They seem related, as the air is to the sea.” See (“seeing, chalk it up to that”) the subtle manner in which observations are linked throughout the passage: the ambiguity of the poet’s seeing-but-not-seeing-who-is-going-by is repeated in the “booksellers,” who by their very nature see-but-don’t-see visitors to the bookstore, since they want visitors (our poet) to buy books from their store—a store which has “rickety” steps, indicating not many people are buying books, and the store itself will become “history”—the bookstore itself will become a book. The poet embraces the trope of attracting customers (readers) himself—the poet comments on what makes poetry good (“I know it is good when the good of it is not noticed”) defines imagination (“memories of things never happened”) and the actual surroundings of the poet’s rambles (“lights, fog, handbills, dumpsters, gulls, bookstores, the hour before dinner) cunningly mingle with the walking-and-seeing poet’s thoughts on poetry: “try and tell someone privately…” “your sense of time” (poetry, a temporal art) “is the source of your charm with strangers”—and with “strangers” we are back to the booksellers—and the customers who don’t buy (“strangers” to each other) and readers of poems—the more successful, the more “charm” the poet has, the more readers (“strangers”) the poet will have.

The hidden meaning of “The Double” is the lonely enterprise of the seeing-but-not-seeing poet who strives to be successful—the background of urban poverty and charm denoting the modern is just one of its layers. There is a density of significance impossible to define, but Mazer’s poetry has it.  “The Double,” “Death and Minstrelsy,” and “The Long Wharf,” three longish poems which greet us in the beginning of Mazer’s Selected, should be taught in every writing class—these three poems alone ensure Mazer’s immortality.

We also think “Divine Rights,” Cirque D’ Etoiles,” “Deep Sleep Without Reservations,” “Monsieur Barbary Brecht,”  “The King,” (excerpted in Selected) and “After Dinner Sleep” fall into the “immortal” category, though there are shorter pieces (mostly sonnet-length) in the book of great charm, and even sublimity.

In Auden’s “The Partition,” quoted above, Auden was writing about the immensely real: the British Empire dividing up its conquests.

Mazer writes of the real, but almost religiously avoids current events.

Mazer writes of what is close—he is Romantic in nature.

The British Empire splitting apart requires the poets of that Empire to say something, to mourn, to capture.

The American Empire holding itself, remarkably, together, is impossible to speak, except in amateurish and splenetic bouts of boring and dubious prophecy. The best American poets are not historians. They enjoy being in the middle of a dream.

In the wider historical scope, it could just be this.

Mazer is properly, we think, poetry, not history.

Poetry, in a certain historic time and place, which tries to be history, fails.

Poetry of any sensuality, which doesn’t try to be history, tends to be Keatsian.  We don’t read the poetry of Keats to find out about English history.

Mazer, the neo-Romantic, might be called the Wordsworth of brick, but he is really closer to the sublime Keats than the more mundane and pedantic (though still good) Wordsworth. A Romantic urbanity thrills, and when a natural scene is glimpsed, it is all the more beautiful. To this extent, Mazer is Wordsworth.

Still more powerfully, Mazer carves out, half-self-consciously (there’s genius in that “half”) the leisure to travel wholly in Keatsian revery—into and around reality (we use “reality” in the plainest and most mundane way possible)—which makes Ashbery look like a mere manipulator of words, by comparison.

Ashbery’s prose-poetry might be said to resemble the Stars Wars trinity of prequel movies: Ashbery’s pyrotechnical ur-poetry attempts to modernize the nostalgic; Ashbery is a kind of hyper-contemporary of quotation and copying, done very well, but missing what makes the franchise (Poetry) great.

Every major contemporary critic, from Harold Bloom to Helen Vendler, acknowledges Ashbery—now the mourned, late Ashbery—as the contemporary master. But no one would say Ashbery is the future of poetry, or a reenactment of what makes the “old” poetry “great.” Ashbery took the franchise, Poetry, and inserted himself in front of it as a language machine which artificially generates poetry with a small “p.” The Ashbery “river” is like poetic consciousness, but without the Poem. Ashbery is (or attempted to be) the equipment of poetry without Poetry, without the poetry itself, without the ‘iconic poem.’

Ashbery also has a Jar Jar Binks quality, a silliness which condemns him before a certain more serious crowd.

William Logan, known for his critical rigor (and rancor?), isn’t fond of Ashbery. Logan, much younger, will outlive Bloom, Vendler, and Perloff, and so we’ll see.

Mazer may be the last Modern—his Modernism resembling Luke Skywalker’s lonely predicament in the currently much discussed, and much maligned, Last Jedi.

The High Modernism of T.S. Eliot is new, yet old, situated, in terms of politics and taste, somewhere between Dante and the new diversity.

Luke Skywalker is the last Jedi—and we might as well say it: Mazer is the last Modern.

Mazer gets his “Force” from the Tradition (in our crude analogy, the “Force” from the original Star Wars films)—Mazer’s work belongs to High Modernism, but if his poetry is “heroic,” (and we believe it is) the poetry is both nostalgic (timeless, longing) but also unique—when we read Mazer’s poetry, we care about the person in the poetry, and this is what gives the “great” poem an added, human, interest. The reader identifies with the poet on his quest, but also with the poem-significance of the quest, in terms of the bigger picture—Tradition, Poetry.  The great poem will use both elements in its appeal—1. this is a good poem 2. my heart is moved to pity and understanding by this poet who lives in this poem.

Mazer writes poems first, and secondly, poetry. Mazer’s poems will ensure his immortality—or not.

Ashbery wrote poetry first, and secondly, poems. Ashbery’s immortality depends on his poetry—as time rolls on and does its usual up-rooting and destroying.

A poem is probably a better shelter, but who knows how the future moves?

A review of a poet’s Selected Poems—retrospective by its very nature—would not be complete without some discussion of the arc of the poet’s career.

Critics love to talk of an artist’s phases, but most of this talk is speculation and half-truth; it is the fate of a poet to be a poet—never to be a poet in this or that phase.  Tennyson wrote about Crimea because Crimea happened—not because Tennyson was in a phase.

The quality which makes any artist significant is

1. recognized by the connoisseur immediately

2. transcends phases.

A long poem does not exist.  In the same way, a book of poems does not exist. Mazer’s Selected is hefty, but even if it were not, any poet’s Selected is for reading, at one’s leisure, a marvelous poem, or a series of marvelous poems. Eventually, the whole book may be digested and understood, and even memorized, but a Selected is not intended to be read straight through in one sitting.

The arc of any great poet’s career is: over a certain amount of time, they wrote poems.

And that’s it.

If a poem is successful, it escapes the circumstances of its writing.

We can say Dante was “exiled,” and this fact contributes to our understanding of the Divine Comedy.  Well, yes and no.

A biographical fact is good. The imagination of the poet rarely finds it useful, however.

But what happened to Mazer?  Don’t we care?  And shouldn’t his Selected Poems reflect this?

If you want to know, read the poems.

Keats, the most iconic Romantic, once complained of Wordsworth writing about Dover.  “Dover?” Keats groused, who would write on Dover?  The Moderns, of course, would laugh at this—why shouldn’t the poet write on anything he wants?  But Keats—no matter how much his advice may fly in the face of “freedom” and “common sense,” is correct.

No poet should write on Dover.  The poet uses his imagination to describe his own imagination.  Otherwise, the poet should be a photographer, a political writer, or a travel writer.

Mazer did write on New York. “Entering the City of New York” Selected, pg 84

It begins:

Entering the city of New York
is something like approaching Ancient Rome,
to see the living people crawling forth,
each pipe and wire, window, brick, and home.

The times are sagging, and it is unreal
to know one’s slice of mortal transient time.
We angle forward, stunned by what we feel,
like insects, incognizant of every crime.

We are so duped, who make up civilization
in images of emotions that we feel,
to know the ague of the mortal steel,
each one perched balanced at his separate station.

The graves are many, and their fields decay,
where nothing can be meant to stand forever.
No doubt in due course God will have his way,
and slowly, slowly, all our bonds dissever.

Mazer is obeying Keats’ edict, and not writing on New York City; these opening lines are certainly redolent of some very large city which a humble, rural, meditative stranger enters, but more importantly, an almost 18th century sublimity is expressed—the subject is not New York City, but the soul.

Mazer should be read for poetry, which vibrates to the times, to the reality—which surrounds all of us; and as we read, Mazer’s poetry frees itself of that reality, and then returns to it.  It’s the new return in the poetry which matters, not exactly what he is writing about. 

Even as the exact, in the winding, mossy ways of the poetry, is paramount.

If this advice sounds like a truism, it is, but it is a truism which is fading away, as Keats is fading away.  Mazer is Modernism returning (impossible!) to Romanticism, and not in a bookish sense, or a scholarly sense, but in exactly the way we have described it—it is poetry returning to poetry.

A minor drawback: Mazer reads his poetry aloud in a manner which does not do justice to its greatness; admirably, he speaks plainly, letting the poetry speak; at times, however, monotone eclipses music. The verse of Mazer’s Selected Poems Tour comes out of his body, which can barely know his mind, the latter being so vast as to have no affinity with mere lisp and gesture. (In person, Mazer tends to be very intense, and very quiet, rather than ebullient, but this makes his occasional joking and excitable nature all the more charming.)

In person, Mazer is a wit, one who does not waste words.

At one of his readings, there was a long question for Mazer, involving the structure of his poetry.

Mazer paused, and then said, “It all rhymes.”

The drama of the poems is missing in Mazer’s recitation, perhaps, because the drama is delicately locked within, guarded by the brain of the poet, which, when it comes to speaking its treasure, fails to properly spill outward the swells and currents of its majesty—in the ephemeral instruments devoted to breath.

We saw an anecdote, once, of Rupert Brooke reading his poetry so softly that he could only be heard in the front row. Mazer can be heard—he is certainly competent when he reads. Mazer is a talented musician, and his devotion to poetry (to the delight of poets everywhere) overtook his earlier interest in music.

Who are the great living poets today?

The audacity to seriously ask this question precludes, perhaps, an answer.

Should we say it?

At the top, or near, of the greatest living poets, is, without a doubt, Mazer.


Image result for masked ball in painting

1. Matthew Zapruder: Hurricane Matthew. Hired by the Times to write regular poetry column. Toilet papered the house of number 41.

2. Edward Hirsch: Best American Poetry 2106 Guest Editor.

3. Christopher Ricks: Best living critic in English? His Editorial Institute cancelled by bureaucrats at Boston University.

4. Joie Bose: Living Elizabeth Barrett Browning of India.

5. Sherman Alexie: Latest BAP editor. Still stung from the Chinese poet controversy.

6. Jorie Graham: Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard

7. W.S Merwin: Migration: New and Selected Poems, 2005

8. Terrance Hayes: “I am not sure how a man with no eye weeps.”

9. George Bilgere: “I consider George Bilgere America’s Greatest Living Poet.” –Michael Heaton, The Plain Dealer

10. Billy Collins: Interviewed Paul McCartney in 2014

11. Stephen Cole: Internet Philosopher poet. “Where every thing hangs/On the possibility of understanding/And time, thin as shadows,/Arrives before your coming.”

12. Richard Howard: National Book Award Winner for translation of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1984.

13. William Logan: The kick-ass critic. Writes for the conservative New Criterion.

14. Sharon Olds: Stag’s Leap won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2012.

15. Nalini Priyadarshni: “Denial won’t redeem you/Or make you less vulnerable/My unwavering love just may.”  Her new book is Doppelgänger in my House.

16. Stephen Dobyns: “identical lives/begun alone, spent alone, ending alone”

17. Kushal Poddar: “You wheel out your mother’s latte silk/into the picnic of moths.” His new book is Scratches Within.

18. Jameson Fitzpatrick: “Yes, I was jealous when you threw the glass.”

19. Marilyn Chin: “It’s not that you are rare/Nor are you extraordinary//O lone wren sobbing on the bodhi tree”

20. E J Koh: “I browsed jobs”

21. Cristina Sánchez López: “If the moon knows dying, a symbol of those hearts, which, know using their silence as it was an impossible coin, we will have to be like winter, which doesn’t accept any cage, except for our eyes.”

22. Mark Doty: His New and Selected won the National Book Award in 2008.

23. Meghan O’ Rourke: Also a non-fiction writer, her poetry has been published in the New Yorker.

24. Alicia Ostriker: Born in Brooklyn in 1937.

25. Kay Ryan: “One can’t work by/ lime light.”

26. A.E. Stallings: Rhyme, rhyme, rhyme.

27. Dana Gioia: Champions Longfellow.

28. Marilyn Hacker: Antiquarian bookseller in London in the 70s.

29. Mary Oliver: “your one wild and precious life”

30. Anne Carson: “Red bird on top of a dead pear tree kept singing three notes and I sang back.”

31. Mary Jo Bang: “A breeze blew a window open on a distant afternoon.”

32. Forrest Gander: “Smoke rises all night, a spilled genie/who loves the freezing trees/but cannot save them.”

33. Stephen Burt: Author of Randall Jarrell and his Age. (2002)

34. Ann Lauterbach: Her latest book is Under the Sign (2013)

35. Richard Blanco: “One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes/tired from work”

36. Kenneth Goldsmith: “Humidity will remain low, and temperatures will fall to around 60 degrees in many spots.”

37. Rita Dove: Her Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry is already 5 years old.

38. Stephen Sturgeon: “blades of the ground feathered black/in moss, in the sweat of the set sun”

39. Marjorie Perloff: Her book, Unoriginal Genius was published in 2010.

40. Kyle Dargan: His ghazal, “Points of Contact,” published in NY Times: “He means sex—her love’s grip like a fist.”

41. Alan Cordle: and Scarriet founder.

42. Lyn Hejinian: “You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon.”

43. Stephen Dunn: Lines of Defense: Poems came out in 2014.

44. Ocean Vuong: “Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god/to give it back”

45. Marie Howe: “I am living. I remember you.”

46. Vanessa Place: Controversial “Gone with the Wind” tweets.

47. Helen Vendler: Reviewed Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom, editor Ben Mazer, in the NYR this spring.

48. Martin Espada: Vivas To Those Who Have Failed is his new book of poems from Norton.

49. Carol Muske-Dukes: Poet Laureate of California from 2008 to 2011.

50. Sushmita Gupta: Poet and artist. Belongs to the Bollyverses renaissance. Sushness is her website.

51. Brad Leithauser: A New Formalist from the 80s, he writes for the Times, the New Criterion and the New Yorker.

52. Julie Carr: “Either I loved myself or I loved you.”

53. Kim Addonizio: Tell Me (2000) was nominated for a National Book Award.

54. Glynn Maxwell: “This whiteness followed me at the speed of dawn.”

55. Simon Seamount: His epic poem on the lives of philosophers is Hermead.

56. Maggie Dietz: “Tell me don’t/ show me and wipe that grin/ off your face.”

57. Robert Pinsky: “When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.”

58. Ha Jin: “For me the most practical thing to do now/is not to worry about my professorship.”

59. Peter Gizzi: His Selected Poems came out in 2014.

60. Mary Angela Douglas: “the steps you take in a mist are very small”

61. Robyn Schiff: A Woman of Property is her third book.

62. Karl Kirchwey: “But she smiled at me and began to fade.”

63. Ben Mazer: December Poems just published. “Life passes on to life the raging stars”

64. Cathy Park Hong: Her battle cry against Ron Silliman’s reactionary Modernists: “Fuck the avant-garde.”

65. Caroline Knox: “Because he was Mozart,/not a problem.”

66. Henri Cole: “There is no sun today,/save the finch’s yellow breast”

67. Lori Desrosiers: “I wish you were just you in my dreams.”

68. Ross Gay: Winner of the 2016 $100,000 Kingsley Tufts award.

69. Sarah Howe: Loop of Jade wins the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize.

70. Mary Ruefle: Published by Wave Books. A favorite of Michael Robbins.

71. CA Conrad: His blog is (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals.

72. Matvei Yankelevich: “Who am I alone. Missing my role.”

73. Fanny Howe: “Only that which exists can be spoken of.”

74. Cole Swensen: “Languor. Succor. Ardor. Such is the tenor of the entry.”

75. Layli Long Soldier: “Here, the sentence will be respected.”

76. Frank Bidart: Student and friend of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

77. Michael Dickman: “Green sky/Green sky/Green sky”

78. Deborah Garrison: “You must praise the mutilated world.”

79. Warsan Shire: “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes/On my face they are still together.”

80. Joe Green: “I’m tired. Don’t even ask me about the gods.”

81. Joan Houlihan: Took part in Franz Wright Memorial Reading in Harvard Square in May.

82. Frannie Lindsay: “safe/from even the weak sun’s aim.”

83. Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright: Translates contemporary German poetry.

84. Noah Cicero: This wry, American buddhist poet’s book is Bi-Polar Cowboy.

85. Jennifer Barber: “The rose nude yawns, rolls over in the grass,/draws us closer with a gorgeous laugh.”

86. Tim Cresswell: Professor of history at Northeastern and has published two books of poems.

87. Thomas Sayers Ellis: Lost his job at Iowa.

88. Valerie Macon: Surrendered her North Carolina Poet Laureate to the cred-meisters.

89: David Lehman: Best American Poetry editor hates French theory, adores tin pan alley songs, and is also a poet .”I vote in favor/of your crimson nails”

90: Ron Silliman: Silliman’s Blog since 2002.

91: Garrison Keillor: The humorist is also a poetry anthologist.

92: Tony Hoagland: “I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain/or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade”

93. Alfred Corn: One of the most distinguished living poets.

94. Philip Nikolayev: He values spontaneity and luck in poetry, logic in philosophy.

95. Laura Kasischke: Read her poem, “After Ken Burns.”

96. Daipayan Nair: “I was never a part of the society. I have always created one.”

97. Claudia Rankine: Her prize-winning book is Citizen.

98. Solmaz Sharif: Her book Look is from Graywolf.

99. Morgan Parker: Zapruder published her in the NY Times.

100. Eileen Myles: She makes all the best-of lists.













In our review of Mazer’s latest book, The Glass Piano, published on the first of November, we tried not only for a review, but a Criticism, and reflecting on our words, feel a certain remorse.

In the most recent number of the Battersea Review, the critic William Logan wrote, “the critic is a Diogenes in a world where everyone is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

How true! And no one feels this as acutely as ourselves (save perhaps Logan himself)—because we have taken to heart in our criticism the simplicity spoken simply by the honest Edgar Poe: “a criticism is simply that—a criticism.”

And one cannot, if one is a critic, escape the necessity of wounding others even if one is writing a positive review.

We loved Mazer’s book—but in our review we had to kill a great deal that was not Mazer.

Was it necessary to praise Mazer by killing what is not Mazer?


This is precisely where the heart of critical intelligence resides—to say anything worthwhile, it is necessary to contemplate everything: no value, no good, no judgment, no insight, no understanding, stands alone.

Insight does not live in a vacuum, and no poet does, either: a bad poet is bad next to a good one, a good poet is good next to a bad one—no matter how politeness, or the discursively half-baked, might say otherwise. Mazer’s worth is meaningless without asserting what Mazer destroys. The Hindu religion has a Destroyer god; all major religions feature a God who is wrathful; even in the kinder ones, such as Buddhism, there is a philosophy that counsels denial, rejection and casting out. Religion does not make us obey—the world makes all religion (and all philosophy) obey the trope of destruction, in order that the world be understood and known. There is much around the heart that must be removed, before the heart can be seen. There is much of the one world that must be lost before the one world can be embraced, loved, or known.

Addition (Actual Creation) has, in the beginning, already been done by the Deity-Past; subtraction is how mortals proceed. Man, if divine, if creative, if artistic, resembles God the Creator—in reverse. Since you are mortal, if you don’t hate and destroy, you cannot build and love.

Nonetheless, we feel bad that we had to smite the non-Mazer in order to lift Mazer up.

Any time a critical judgment of any kind is made, it offends many poets who love poetry and participate in poetry on various levels—in the spirit of Everything.

Everything, or Everything-ness, is, precisely, for all these poets and their friends, the essence of poetry.

All we have said in this essay, and all we said in our Mazer review, to winnow away the non-Mazer, is, to these poets, the poets of Everything-ness, an offense and a horror.

For them, poetry is that which embraces Everything. The critical faculty that winnows, destroys, rejects, qualifies, judges, and defines is counter to everything the Everything-ists hold dear.

The Everything-ists believe poetry is poetry so far as it is able to be everything and imply everything and insinuate everything by using everything—and rejecting nothing.

The two views—ours and the Everything-ists—are oil and water. The two views are like matter and anti-matter.

They both belong to the category “poetry,” and yet they could not be more different.

Until this duality is really understood, poetry as an understood practice will be a great confusion, with no center, and a hard exterior, bashing in skulls, wounding egos, damaging philosophy, and creating an army of polite but sore-headed hypocrites.

For the Everything-ists are wrong. Poetry may seem to be for, and about, Everything—but the claim to this is specious and inane. It doesn’t matter how many famous or semi-famous poets you name-drop.

The bad poets must die.

If Ben Mazer is to live.

This is literally a matter of life and death.

We sympathize with the Everything-ists.  We understand what a temptation it is to embrace their good will, their pluralism, their kindness, their laisse faire, their cow-munching-in-the-meadow complaisance.

Why does Scarriet defend the wolf?

Just as Everything as a poetry trope is an illusion (the Everything-ists do not actually embrace Everything: only its idea, which is quite different), so the accusation that we defend the wolf for the mere sake of destruction is also an illusion.

We want to save the Everything-ists from destruction; their position springs from good will; but in terms of poetry, it makes no sense—and therefore, in the long run, it actually hinders good will and good poetry.

To say more regarding our sorrow at offending others would be superfluous.

We have apologized too much already.

So we will hurry on to the main point.

Mazer’s poetry can safely exist in the category, Everything.

Our criticism of Mazer cannot.

Nor can any poet—even the species, everything-ist—write a poem using Everything.

So in actual practice, the Everything philosophy or aspiration is bankrupt.

All poets and all poetry already exist in the universe which defies Everything.

A poet who rhymes, for instance, reduces the pool of words available to him or her.

Any topic or theme chosen, automatically reduces the material available to write the poem, and the better the topic, the more the available material will be reduced, until the greatest topic will simply be the poem itself.

The well-read poet, to be original, has less available to say, precisely because of the voluminousness of his or her reading.

Remember what we said about “subtraction?” That it is the only avenue open to us? In every case, all poets, before they begin writing, severely and inevitably reduce and winnow, making war at every point against the only “enemy”—Everything.

And so the Everything-ists are seen for what they are, at last: nothing. They do not exist. To be non-critical, and to embrace Everything, is to embrace sand in the wind.

The Critical Faculty is not different and apart from the poetic impulse which writes the poem: they are the same.

To write a poem is to decide what you cannot say.

If you are saying whatever you want to say, you are not writing poetry.

You are not writing poetry unless you have first prepared a vessel which restricts what you can say.

The mind of the poet is not what writes the poetry, but what makes these ‘restriction’ vessels. What fills them are the random impulses of the unconscious everything-ness transformed by one of these vessels—which is the actual “poem”—a “vessel” that is not “read,” but which is, in fact, the poem, and which did, in fact, make the poem.

What makes these vessels excellent, in every case, is what they restrict, and on how many levels they limit how, as well as what, may be said. 

The Everything-ist who writes a poem of three words may exult in how much is intimated by those three words. The process we are describing—building by subtraction—may seem to them, triumphantly, exactly what they are doing. And it is proved by the fact that their poem is only three words! How subtractive is that?

But the folly of the Everything-ist can be easily seen. One does not simply subtract. This subtraction is a pitiful shortcut to glory. One must first build a unique and complex vessel of subtraction.

Every excellent poem is excellent in this way: the interest of the subtraction-vessel which generates the poem. The Everything-ist abhors the subtraction-vessel, for this involves a great deal of reading, a rhyme scheme, an effect decided upon which is original, all leading in the mind to a massive amount of reduction, discrimination and subtraction, so that several aspects of the world must be fought with and conquered—and this runs counter to the temperament of the Everything-ist, who loves agreement for its own sake, and a fairy-tale, naive belief in “the new,” which arises benevolently out of a naive love of “everything,” when, in reality, originality is possible only through destruction and subtraction, which is the only avenue open to the wise who would truly imitate God—in reverse.

The truth is, the real poem will far more likely “say” one thing with a hundred lines, rather than a hundred things with one line, or even one word! The former is always preferred, for reasons that should be apparent to the true poet at once.

Great poetry is a fanatical pursuit: it really doesn’t help to know a hundred things half-well; it is far better to know one thing well—and not know anything else.




1. Vanessa Place —The High Creator does not create.

2. Kenneth Goldsmith —Death to the “creative” once and for all.

3. Simon Armitage —Best known for 9/11 poem, wins Oxford Poetry Professorship

4. A.E. Stallings —Lost the Oxford. World is still waiting for a good New Formalist poet.

5. John Ashbery —Doesn’t need to be good. Unlike New Formalists, his content and form agree.

6. Marjorie Perloff —Must confront this question: is the “non-creative” nearly racist by default?

7. Ron Silliman —Keeps tabs on the dying. Burned by the Avant Racism scandal.

8. Stephen Burt —Stephanie goes to Harvard.

9. Rita Dove —We asked her about Perloff; she laughed. No intellectual pretense.

10. Claudia Rankine —Social confrontation as life and death.

11. Juan Felipe Herrera —New U.S. Poet Laureate. MFA from Iowa. Farm workers’ son.

12. William Logan —“Shakespeare, Pope, Milton by fifth grade.” In the Times. He’s trying.

13. Patricia Lockwood —“Rape Joke” went Awl viral.

14. Lawrence Ferlinghetti —At 96, last living Beat.

15. Richard Wilbur —At 94, last living Old Formalist.

16. Don Share —Fuddy-duddy or cutting edge? It’s impossible to tell with Poetry.

17. Valerie Macon —Good poet. Hounded from NC Laureate job for lacking creds.

18. Helen Vendler —New book of essays a New Critical tour de force. Besotted with Ashbery and Graham.

19. Cathy Park Hong —Fighting the racist Avant Garde.

20. David Lehman —As the splintering continues, his BAP seems less and less important.

21. Billy Collins —His gentle historical satire is rhetoric nicely fitted to free verse.

22. David Orr —Common sense critic at the Times.

23. Frank Bidart —Student of Lowell and Bishop, worked with James Franco. Drama. Confessionalism.

24. Kevin Coval —Co-editor of Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.

25. Philip Nikolayev —Globe-trotting translator, editor, poet.

26. Ben Mazer —Neo-Romantic. Has advanced past Hart Crane.

27. Amy KingHates mansplaining. 

28. Sharon Olds —Best living female poet?

29. Louise Gluck —Her stock is quietly rising.

30. Jorie Graham —Her Collected has landed.

31. George Bilgere —If you like Billy Collins…and what’s wrong with that?

32. Garrison Keillor —Is he retiring?

33. Kent Johnson —Is his Prize List so quickly forgotten?

34. David Biespiel —One of the villagers trying to chase Conceptualism out of town.

35. Carol Ann Duffy —The “real” Poet Laureate—she’s Brih-ish.

36. Cate Marvin —Poet who leads the VIDA hordes.

37. Lyn Hejinian —The best Language Poet?

38. Dan ChiassonNew Yorker house critic.

39. Michael Robbins —As with Logan, we vastly prefer the criticism to the poetry.

40. Joe Green —His Selected, The Loneliest Ranger, has been recently published.

41. Harold Bloom —The canonizer.

42. Dana Gioia —The best of New Formalism.

43. Seth Abramson —Meta-Modernism. That dog won’t hunt.

44. Henry Gould —Better at responding than asserting; reflecting the present state of Criticism today.

45. W.S. Merwin —Knew Robert Graves—who recommended mushroom eating (yea, that kind of mushroom) as Oxford Poetry Professor in the 60s.

46. Marilyn Chin —Passionate lyricist of “How I Got That Name.”

47. Anne Carson —“The Glass Essay” is a confessional heartbreak.

48. Terrence Hayes —Already a BAP editor.

49. Timothy Steele —Another New Formalist excellent in theorizing—but too fastidious as a poet.

50. Natasha Trethewey —Was recently U.S. Poet Laureate for two terms.

51. Tony Hoagland —Hasn’t been heard from too much since his tennis poem controversy.

52. Camille Paglia —Aesthetically, she’s too close to Harold Bloom and the New Critics.

53. William Kulik —Kind of the Baudelaire plus Hemingway of American poetry. Interesting, huh?

54. Mary Oliver —Always makes this list, and we always mumble something about “Nature.”

55. Robert Pinsky —He mentored VIDA’s Erin Belieu.

56. Alan Cordle —We will never forget how changed the game.

57. Cole Swensen –A difficult poet’s difficult poet.

58. Charles Bernstein —One day Language Poetry will be seen for what it is: just another clique joking around.

59. Charles Wright —Pulitzer in ’98, Poet Laureate in ’14.

60. Paul Muldoon New Yorker Nights

61. Geoffrey Hill —The very, very difficult school.

62. Derek Walcott —Our time’s Homer?

63. Janet Holmes —Program Era exemplar.

64. Matthew Dickman —The youth get old. Turning 40.

65. Kay Ryan —Are her titles—“A Ball Rolls On A Point”—better than her poems?

66. Laura Kasischke —The aesthetic equivalent of Robert Penn Warren?

67. Nikki Finney —NAACP Image Award

68. Louis Jenkins —His book of poems, Nice Fish, is a play at the American Repertory Theater this winter.

69. Kevin Young —A Stenger Fellow who studied with Brock-Broido and Heaney at Harvard

70. Timothy Donnelly —His Cloud Corporation made a big splash.

71. Heather McHugh —Her 2007 BAP guest editor volume is one of the best.

72. D.A. Powell —Stephen Burt claims he is original and accessible to an extraordinary degree.

73. Eileen Myles —We met her on the now-defunct Blog Harriet Public Form.

74. Richard Howard —Pulitzer-winning essayist, critic, translator and poet

75. Robert Hass —U.S. Poet Laureate in the 90s, a translator of haiku and Milosz.

76. Rae Armantrout —Emily Dickinson of the Avant Garde?

77. Peter Gizzi —His Selected, In Defense of Nothing, came out last year.

78. Fanny Howe —Is it wrong to think everything is sacred? An avant-garde Catholic.

79. Robert Archambeau —His blog is Samizdat. Rhymes with Scarriet.

80. X.J. Kennedy —Keeping the spirit of Frost alive.

81. Robert PolitoPoetry man.

82. David Ferry —Classical poetry translator.

83. Mark Doty —A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

84. Al Filreis  —Co-founder of PennSound

85. Frederick Seidel —Has been known to rhyme malevolence with benevolence.

86. Sherman Alexie —Is taught in high school. We wonder how many on this list are?

87. Marie Howe —Margaret Atwood selected her first book for a prize.

88. Carol Muske-Dukes —In recent Paris Review interview decried cutting and pasting of “Unoriginal Genius.”

89. Martha Ronk —In the American Hybrid anthology from Norton.

90. Juliana Spahr —Has a PhD from SUNY Buffalo. Hates “capitalism.”

91. Patricia Smith —Four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam.

92. Dean Young —His New & Selected, Bender, was published in 2012.

93. Jennifer Knox —Colloquial and brash.

94. Alicia Ostriker —“When I write a poem, I am crawling into the dark.”

95. Yusef Komunyakaa —Known for his Vietnam poems.

96. Stephen Dunn —His latest work is Lines of Defense: Poems.

97. Thomas Sayer Ellis —Poet and photographer.

98. Carolyn Forche —Lannan Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University.

99. Margaret Atwood —Poet, novelist, and environmental activist.

100. Forrest Gander —The Trace is his latest.







Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring


President Obama has Rita Dove going all the way in his Scarriet Poetry Tournament office pool.

Rita Dove will have to defeat M.S. Merwin in the South/Midwest Bracket’s semi-final to make it into the Elite Eight.  Her Penguin 20th Americna Poetry anthology has been the centerpiece of this year’s Scarriet March Madness Tourney—stretching its excitement and thrills into June.  Dove has three poems in her own controversial Penguin anthology and has barged into the Sweet 16 by knocking off young black poets.  Trashed by critics Helen Vendler and William Logan, Dove stands proud thanks to the success of her poems in Scarriet’s Tournament.  But she’ll have to beat the distinguished poet W.S. Merwin to advance.  Merwin brings this poem (from Dove’s anthology) to the table:


Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

We always feel slightly miffed at Merwin’s lack of punctuation—for whom does it serve?  Does Merwin (like a child) feel no punctuation adds poetic mystique to his work?

The idea of Merwin’s poem is an interesting one—the unknown anniversary of one’s death—and he gives it a fairly cursory treatment.  We are not thrilled by this poem, but we don’t dislike it, except for the reason mentioned above.

Rita Dove picked the following poem of hers for inclusion in her Penguin anthology of poems of the 20th Century:


I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! ...I'm Mickey!

My daughter spreads her legs
to find her vagina:
hairless, this mistaken
bit of nomenclature
is what a stranger cannot touch
without her yelling. She demands
to see mine and momentarily
we’re a lopsided star
among the spilled toys,
my prodigious scallops
exposed to her neat cameo.

And yet the same glazed
tunnel, layered sequences.
She is three; that makes this
innocent. We’re pink!
she shrieks, and bounds off.

Every month she wants
to know where it hurts
and what the wrinkled string means
between my legs. This is good blood
I say, but that’s wrong, too.
How to tell her that it’s what makes us—
black mother, cream child.
That we’re in the pink
and the pink’s in us.

This is a lovely poem, but we have no idea what “That we’re in the pink/and the pink’s in us” is supposed to signify.  Except for the charm of a mother and young child glimpsed, we have no idea what this poem is trying to do.  Is it pleased with itself that it is somewhat risque’ in content?  We are baffled.

Sorry, Mr. President!  You lose the office pool!

Merwin 88 Dove 69


All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year =’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011’s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28’s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember?
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now




Most softies can’t get their heads around the idea that criticism is more important than poetry—but it’s a no-brainer: critical fervor can stimulate the writing of great poetry itself, whereas the wishy-washy mind that fears, or hates, or is afraid of, criticism will never produce great poetry. image

The trouble with most attempts at criticism is that it’s half-hearted; it doesn’t rise to that fervor of interest and curiosity that grows wings, it remains at the level of blurbing, or that sort of reviewing which recites general facts.

Good judgement requires observation, not fairness; it requires those leaps that changes the look of all the facts.  And  finally, judgement doesn’t have to be persuasive; persuasiveness is for love and the law courts; the good critic should be blunt, above all.

The greatest poets have always excelled at criticism; the reader realizes this truth when reading side-by-side the prose and poetry of an Eliot or a Shelley; if Shakespeare is anything, he is a ferocious critic—look at those judgements in his plays and sonnets: harsh, pointed, weighty, insistent, hectoring, insane, pushy, ridiculing, weeping, bellowing, pleading, all arrayed in armies marching in the armor of intense education, and winding up vocalized in the most delicate poetry.  Which drives that Shakespeare-engine, do you think?  The windy delicacy or the  swelling judgement?   And what of Dante?  Is this a harsh, critical mind, or what?

The ambitious poet runs from criticism—in vain.

But don’t get big heads, Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom.  No poetry from you only proves your critical lack.  Yours is the example in reverse; unable to provide poetry yourself, it is no wonder your judgements are so erratic and untrustworthy—overrating Crane, Stevens and Ashbery, turning Shakespeare into a dull feast, belittling titans like Poe; ignoring past greatness to pump minor moderns.  Vendler, your overrating of Stevens will be your doom; in the long run it will destroy your reputation, and you will be forgotten.  You studied so intensely Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and yet found nothing new, only tossing more wood on the old flames of the “dark lady” and “young man” tale.

There are two choices: make a judgement or defer judgement—for a little while.  The Silliman side, the dark side of the bright, public, Vendler moon, flees from the critic’s responsibility by finding “communities” to appreciate.  But in darkness judgement is made the same as in the light; Silliman is as tyrannical as any speaking critic, as any William Logan, for all must make judgements, and do, even in silence, and silence can be the loudest judgement of all.

Judgements are made all the time, in placing a comma or choosing a word; judgements are made in the minutest actions, in all our helpless passivity and neutrality we still judge; all of us are judgemental all the time, whether we want to be, or not.   The critical wound touches us all.

Two major types attempt to flee  judgement: the ‘executive’ and the ‘nice chap.’  The executive (the Harold Bloom) makes grand judgements, ranking and rating, without thinking things all the way through, and the nice chap (the Silliman), attempts to defer judgement indefinitely.  The executive omits the details, while the nice chap tends to see details only.  Edgar Poe was a critic who always paid attention to small issues (the “carping grammarian,” as he was called)—which inevitably makes the executive types nervous.  But Poe was an American critic who knew when to make the large, historical judgement, too—the sorts of judgement which disconcerts the nice chap. (Big answers! Across time! Gulp!)  But the critic always needs to do both: care about the little things and make the sweeping judgments.  To quote the Phaedrus, we ask from the critic two things, first, “the comprehension of scattered particulars in one idea” and second, “division into species…”

But why does there have to be all this judgement in poetry?  Why does it matter, if poetry is not 1) life and death and 2) it’s finally a matter of private creativity?

Here’s why. Human beings are the only animals that care for things that don’t matter; caring even when it doesn’t matter is why there is poetry, (and also why there is criticism), and also why there are many other things that make life worth living, even as it sometimes confuses us.

Animals only care when it matters—or when they think it matters.   A cat cleans itself so its prey can’t smell it, yet an indoor cat who never catches prey still grooms itself and keeps itself odorless and clean. The indoor cat in this case thinks what it does matters—even though it doesn’t.  But we, as the cat’s owner, appreciate its cleanliness, anyway.

There are advantages to caring—even when it does not matter, or does not seem to matter.  Caring does matter, in ways we don’t always understand.  And as Kant reminded us, judging and understanding are not the same thing; understanding is a blessed state; judging is something we simply all do, all the time.  Does that look/sound right?  Why not?

The poet judges just as much as the critic does, and the good poet is more judgemental than the bad critic.


The obnoxious brat, Michael Dickman, a “demon kid whose poems are scrawled in fingerpaints or fiddled on an Etch-A-Sketch.”

The critic William Logan exists to give spankings to poets like Michael Dickman—who contemplates Emily Dickinson, for instance, like so:  “Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she took a shit every morning/or ever fucked anybody/or ever fucked/herself.”

Logan’s spanking is administered with a yawn:

This seems a touch more impolite than Swift’s Strephon, emerging from a lady’s dressing room (“Disgusted Strephon stole away/ Repeating in his amorous Fits,/ Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”). Swift took romantic longing down a peg. Dickman is just some guy with creepy fantasies.


But there’s no “creepy fantasies” in Dickman’s “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” just your typical haunted scenario featuring Victorian/goth/white dress/child Emily flying above her bed, and then Dickman actually introduces a comforting image, “Her ankles and wrists held tightly between the fingers of some brightly lit parent home from a party” before ending the poem ambitiously, hopefully:

Heaven is everywhere
but there’s still
the world

The world is made out of cancer, house fires, and Brain Death, here in America

But I love the world

Emily Dickinson
to the rescue

I used to think we were made of bread
gentle work and

We’re not
but we’re still beautiful
killing each other as much as we can
beneath the pines

The pines that are somebody’s

It’s not a bad poem.  Dickman’s a sentimentalist.  He’s a secret Victorian, spitting out modernism on his way back to the fuzzy mid-19th century.  “The pines that are somebody’s masterpiece…” that’s God.

This is not Fred Seidel creepy at all.  It’s not even Sharon Olds creepy.  This is much closer to the  Barbie Doll school of poetry; it could have been written by Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, or Marie Howe.  “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” by Billy Collins might be considered far creepier.   Creepy poems about Emily Dickinson could probably fill a book by now, and Dickman’s would be one of the milder ones, even though its opening lines would probably get all the attention.

So can we blame Professor Logan for focusing on them, even though Mr. Dickman was probably just setting a frank tone for the more sentimental parts? That’s the ‘art’ now of poets like Dickman: balancing attitudes, moods, and tones which avoid insincerity because-what-they’ve-got-to-say-may-seem-overly-heavy-or-silly-but-they-finally-need-it-to-succeed-poetically.  “The pines that are somebody’s /masterpiece” is a brilliant ending stroke because it just comes out of nowhere, but it works.

Logan obviously has no patience for all this.

I confess I cannot see the “incipient violence” or “manic overflow of powerful feeling” (how far Wordsworth has fallen) previous readers have noticed in such poems. What has been called a calculated clumsiness seems just, well, clumsy. Dickman’s childishness provides, not access to the world of innocence by a man of experience, just a reason to prolong post-adolescence a few more years.

William Logan is a product of his age—he is a modernist, not a Victorian.  When William Logan knocks poets over, he does so on the run, and not with a great deal of patience.  Logan wears no God-like frown, no vest coat, no whiskers, and sports no cane, but administers justice in a T-shirt, and with a grin.  Logan’s always in a hurry, and this is partly modern poetry’s fault: so many awful poets to ridicule, so little time.

Logan is guilty of not ‘getting’ Michael Dickman because Logan fails to heed the words of Matthew Arnold to “see the object as in itself it really is” and forgets Oscar Wilde’s advice to take both virtue and vice with a grain of salt when judging art, and does not recall Pater’s suggestion to realize the data of art distinctly and subjectively.

Logan expresses disgust with the opening lines of “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” but he fails to look at the whole poem.

Criticism was boiling over in the late 19th century, and only one critic really took the late 19th century to heart—T.S. Eliot, who turned out to be the most successful 20th century critic.  Logan can quote others—the Swift quotation was brilliant—but will Logan himself ever be quoted?  Not, we feel, until he mends his manner a little.

And yet—and yet…Logan begins his review of Dickman with a little essay on American surrealism which rescues the slipshod reading of Dickman’s actual poetry—quoting entire poems isn’t in the critic’s bag of tricks these days, anyway.  We don’t read poems with critics, at least not since Edgar Poe wrote criticism; critics instead pick a topic very much at random—surrealism, let’s say—and whether the poet under review is really a “surrealist” is anybody’s guess.

Logan’s point that the early Surrealists were anti-Christian is probably true, and this may be an idea worth chewing on, but I’m not sure what it has to do with Michael Dickman.

We should think of it as a Christmas gift from Logan to Dickman—whose search for fame gets a boost, as Michael Dickman is now…a fourth-generation American Surrealist!

Whooo!  Congratulations, Michael Dickman!

God bless us, every one!


I Win!

I don’t get Tomas Transtromer.  Perhaps it’s the language barrier.  Robert Bly, the translator, will get a small boost from Transtromer’s Nobel.  But I imagine it will be very small, and even resented.  Those stark, miserable poems!  Forced to read them, because of critical hearsay, and every line more depressing than the last!

But reputations and awards are far less interesting to us than the following:

In a new collections of essays, Poets On the Line, Gabriel Gudding has a potent essay touching on a theme Scarriet has enjoyed stirring up.  To quote Mr. Gudding:

The line is not a feature of poetry. The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique… The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life… So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival “avant-garde art” whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture…Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

…And let’s maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.

The above has been stripped of most of its rant-like elements, and here it resonates with the commonest commonsense—similar to Plato, it could be Wordsworth.

As a defender of quantity in poetry, we agree with Gudding that the line is overrated, not for Gudding’s more rant-like reasons, but because the line, from the point of view of quantity, is the chief poetic flag of Modernist and Avant pretenders.  Rhythm, and rhythm’s manifestation in stanza is more critical to the poetry of quantity than the line.  The line allows modernist and avant poets to have their cake and eat it—to revel in poetry’s historic accomplishments, while at the same time desecrating the art in the fashionable whirl of the William Carlos Williams’ Snip Snip Shop.

It is healthy to renew an art form from time to time, to climb from the pedant’s cave and get outdoors, and take a look around, and so the following is really not so naive as it sounds: “spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.”

The Ron Sillimans of the world (shall we call them Sillimites?) speeding through airports to the next conference, in search of their avant-garde holy grail among the wine-sipping urbane, will be the first to gag at Gudding’s suggestion.  Return to nature?  And give up my wordy pretensions?  Outrageous!  The intellectual atmosphere of the Sillimite, the gyrating, avant insanity which allows Jorie Graham to be appointed to a major Chair in Letters at Harvard, is steeped in the mustiness of the pedant’s cave, where antique songs are daily beaten and tortured by the line, and its henchman, the line-break.

Quantity is an amazing thing.  “Art is measurement,” Plato said, and the Renaissance, re-discovering Plato, made first-hand experience of quantity more important than authority and hearsay; science has flourished ever since. Perspective is the crucial element in painting, and connects it to astronomy—so thought da Vinci, and that other titan of the Renaissance, Shakespeare, agreed,  writing in his Sonnets: “Perspective it is best painter’s art.” Shakespeare proved prophet in those poems, as Time is stretched by generations of his readers.

In the Science of Poetry, elucidated by Poe’s Rationale of Verse, the spondee was the first foot, and its 1:1 ratio, the first ratio—as the One divides in the Big Bang of scientific creation.  A second division—into thirds, this time, instead of halves—brings us the 2:1  ratio, the ratio of the iamb and trochee, vital rhythms in the Metric Evolution in the Book of Quantity.

Without rhythm, without quantity, there is no line worth the name.  There is only the sentence, or the phrase; but this is grammar, and not poetry.

This is not to say that grammar is not vital, (“Good grammar is poetry” I sometimes say) but it is fascinating to see how my English Composition students, who may struggle with grammar and with scholarly prose, advance significantly in terms of expressiveness, mental leaps, feeling, vigor, imagination, confidence, and syntax, upon being asked to put their thoughts in a sonnet.

It is with a feeling bordering on disgust, then, that we read the following from a Sillimite professor, John Gallaher:

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“’At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

I like Neil Young, but the idea that he’s going through a wall which Chopin, for instance, cannot penetrate, is the height of pretence.  Young’s trope, cited by Gallaher, is a classic example of the game lesser lights play to make themselves feel better.  Trot out Thelonious Monk. Quote Ashbery: “Poetry is mostly hunches.”   Hunches?  This is hearsay, not quantity.

Gallaher quoted Gudding on his blog because the two have essays in the Rosko and Vander Zee collection.  I’m glad he did, because it gave us an opportunity to raise a little more hell.


The haunting image of Allen Tate—who is buried at Sewanee


Though his poems today don’t rate,
You may see the ghost of Allen Tate,
Staring at you, with a muddy smile!
Speak Ransom’s ‘Amphibious Crocodile,’
To scare him—and if you’re still shaking,
Recite at the top of your voice, ‘Janet Waking.’
But if Pound should come around,
Begin your leave-taking.

The Southern Agrarians
Were exquisite contrarians
But Ezra Pound
Laughs underground,
Drifting through Sewanee, drifting through Sewanee.

And Edgar Allan Poe?
You don’t want to know
How Matthiessen tied him up
So long ago,
And Eliot killed him
With spear and bow.

—Scarriet Editors


Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.

One kiss she gave her mother.
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.

“Old Chucky, old Chucky!” she cried,
Running across the world upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.

It was transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.

—John Crowe Ransom


Image result for rupert brooke


Rupert Brooke: Angry, perplexed, and the true face of tragic Modernism.


has been over-examined into platitude. The answers have hardened into unthinking cliche.  It’s so bad that not only have the answers hardened into cliche—they’re simply wrong.

Here’s a simple quiz: which of the following events shaped Modernism the most?

1. American Revolution
2. American Civil War
3. Franco-Prussian War
4. Russo-Japanese War
5. World War I

The answer, of course, is that all five are significant, (the Japanese victory in #4 produced a ‘haiku rage’ in the West in 1905, the real reason behind the Imagiste ‘revolution’ and Williams’ ‘Wheel Barrow’) but, in the usual discourse on Modernism, No. 5 gets all the attention.  “The Waste Land” was supposedly a reaction to World War One.  Well, not really.

The time has arrived to take a wider look at Anglo-American Letters (and its ancillary ethnic writings): to connect theory and practice, theory and the human, theory and the world at large.

Poetry has disappeared down the rabbit-hole of theory, and it’s time to bring her back, with all due respect to theorizing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Eliot, the New Critics, and the various post-modernist schools of Freud, Feminism, Linguistics, Multiculturalism, and Foucault.  I have left out the New Historicism, because calling historiography “new” is just another part of the problem—modernism studied from the perspective of “the modern” only perpetuates the myopia and the platitude.

American poetry criticism, by a strange accident, is Southern.

Poe, America’s first critic, though he lived many years in Philly/NY, established his critical renown in Virginia (after attending Jefferson’s newly formed U. VA), and even as Poe rose to world eminence as a post-romantic populist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and literary inventor, his reputation as a critic made him ‘who he was,’ a hated figure in many places: New York, London, and New England.  Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to London and wooed the English instead, bowing down before figures like Wordsworth and Carlyle—whom Poe, in good fun, had only insulted. Emerson turned his back on Poe, which established a long trend of Yankee aesthetes preferring the English to their own: T.S. Eliot and Henry James come rapidly to mind.

In his review of Poe’s complete works, Harold Bloom called Poe “inescapable.”  Poe is “inescapable,” so much so that 20th century Anglo-American Modernism almost means “kill Poe.” On one side, you’ve got Poe, as ubiquitous as the trees and the sun and boats, and, on another, a person writing a poem on their grandmother’s cancer treatment as an MFA student in one of American’s creative writing workshops. Emerson, who Bloom kept almost comically touting in his 1984 NY Review piece on Poe, is not “inescapable.”  Emerson, therefore, is allowed in the room.

The second wave of influential American poetry criticism emerged from a Southern campus: Vanderbilt University, as Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks took a 20th century American-world-prominence view of wave Number one, Poe, as a battered, Romantic figure of “pure poetry.” The New Critics theorized narrowly, even as they thought they were being expansive: Robert Penn Warren’s lecture in 1942 at Princeton—where Allen Tate founded one of the first Poetry Workshops and where John Berryman learned to drink—a lecture subsequently published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, was called “Pure and Impure Poetry,” and it boldly says:

In so far as we have poetry at all, it is always pure poetry; that is, it is not non-poetry. The poetry of Shakespeare, the poetry of Pope, the poetry of Herrick, is pure, in so far as it is poetry at all.

And then, just as boldly:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems don’t.

And, just as boldly, this as well:

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure? I should answer that nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.

And by way of assertion, Warren quotes Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana, and in this delightful quote from Santayana, one can see exactly where Stevens’ method comes from, even as it advances Warren’s argument:

Philosophy, when the poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet, it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude expression; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.

In this 1942 lecture, Warren lumps Shelley with Poe as naive examples of pure poetry (as part of the great modernist revolt against ideal Romanticism) and, at the same time Warren deftly expands the definition of pure poetry with the help of the now forgotten Frederick Pottle and his “Elliptical” poetry—poetry that is pure, yet obscure and suggestive.

Warren proves to his satisfaction that “pure poetry” cannot exist—and nicely within the terms established by the godfather of New Criticism, T.S. Elilot. Warren adds this acknowledgment:

Marvell and Eliot, by their cutting away of frame, are trying to emphasize the participation of ideas in the poetic process.

The “inescapable” Edgar Poe, and his “pure poetry,” is killed by Robert Penn Warren—in his “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Southern Poe, according to Southern Warren, is wrong.  All sorts of ideas and things may be included in poetry.

If Poe chooses to include all sorts of things (quite successfully) in his work that is not poetry, Warren would rather not have to contemplate that.

But to each his own.  Poe had to be “escaped.”  And he was.

Warren was borrowing from Emerson, of course, who had attempted to dethrone Poe a century earlier with similarly excitable and high-sounding rhetoric:

The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.

Only an Emerson could get away with denoting who was an “eternal man” and who wasn’t, and Poe, who must be the writer to whom Emerson refers, “a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” was being eternally damned by Emerson, the modern seer, for writing what 100 years later, the New Critics would also consider a sin—writing “pure poetry.”

The third Wave in American Criticism was Confessional Poetry, and this, too, is Southern. Robert Lowell, on the advice of family psychiatrist Merrill Moore (an original member of Ransom and Tate’s Fugitive group at Vanderbilt) left Harvard for Tennessee to stay with Tate, and to study with Ransom and room with Randall Jarrell at Kenyon, and later, as a graduate student, to study with Warren and Brooks at Louisiana.  The whole “confessional” mileau was coined by M.H. Abrams in a review of Lowell, but it was also overshadowed by Wave Number One, Poe, analyzed by one of Freud’s inner circle, Princess Marie Bonaparte, in a landmark biographical study published in French in 1933.  Another way to “escape” Poe, apparently, was to psychoanalyze him, to keep his literary achievements at arm’s length by turning him into a person with a lot of hang-ups.  Wave Number Three was essentially born out of Wave Number Two and Wave Number One.

Where is criticism now?  It ambles along with Harvard’s Helen Vendler celebrating Wallace Stevens, who was at Harvard himself, 100 years ago; Stephen Burt is set to succeed Vendler—and Burt’s chief resume item is his bogus, 10-year old claim that he coined the term “Elliptical poetry.”

In the 1940s, F.O. Matthiessen wrote Poe out of the canon in his American Renaissance, firmly establishing Emerson and Whitman in Poe’s place; Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard when Bly, Ashbery and Creeley were students there, and they are now minor poetic icons: Bly, the hippie, Creeley, the refined hippie, Ashbery, the inscrutable.

John Ashbery’s “Elliptical” type of poetry now reigns—according to the influential critic, Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence (a theft of W. Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet) supports Ashbery’s amusing “Oh fuck it all” approach to poetry.  Ashbery is the implicit answer to the ‘dead-end’ of Western culture, as well as New Criticism’s desire for purely “impure poetry.”

The only objection to Ashbery’s importance comes from the South, in what might be described as the Fourth Wave of Criticism: William Logan, born, really, from the Second Wave. Logan might be called New Criticism’s revenge, a Randall Jarrell II, who sees Modernism not as a break with Romanticism, but as a legitimate continuation of it; for Logan, post-Modernism is where the problems really begin.

Criticism has traveled, and will travel, paths other than the Four Waves described here, but these are the essential ones.  Other topics arise: Islam v. the West, for example; but topics like this will finally be more about politics and religion than art. 

Poetry Criticsm has always been found in a wilderness inside a wilderness.  Talk about the larger wilderness, and one is not really talking about poetry anymore.

Let’s make an attempt to look at the larger wilderness as it applies to Anglo-American poetry criticism:

The two most popular poets in English-speaking poetry over the last 200 years are William Wordsworth and Robert Frost.  One celebrates the English landscape, the other the landscape of New England.  This is not insignificant.

Nature, that hoary term, is used by poetry, as it is used by imperial design—Nature is a political trope.  Natural beauty appeals to everyone; camping-out doesn’t require poetry as part of the camping equipment; one might tell stories in the tent—probably ghost stories—but reading nature poetry in the wilderness is twee, and anyone bringing Wordsworth along on a camping trip would be viewed as a bit of a dork.  Wordsworth is Nature for the drawing-room and parlor. Emerson’s “wilderness:” where is it, really? Nature poetry has less to do with wilderness than with the misanthropic musings of a highly patriotic Englishman:

It is that feeling of fresh loneliness that impresses itself before any detail of the wild. The soul—or the personality—seems to have indefinite room to expand. There is no one else within reach, there never has been anyone; no one else is thinking of the lakes and hills you see before you. They have no tradition, no names even; they are only pools of water and lumps of earth, some day, perhaps, to be clothed with loves and memories and the comings and goings of men, but now dumbly waiting their Wordsworth or their Acropolis to give them individuality, and a soul.

We all know Rupert Brooke’s famous poem that goes “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”  The prose excerpt above is from Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, (prefaced by Henry James) when the young poet traveled to the U.S. and Canada right before the Great War.  In these Letters, Rupert Brooke is a typical “liberal,” a refined, literary person.  Here he writes on Niagra Falls:

The human race, apt as a child to destroy what it admires, has done its best to surround the Falls with every distraction, incongruity, and vulgarity. Hotels, powerhouses, bridges, trams, picture post-cards, sham legends, stalls, booths, rifle-galleries, and side-shows frame them about.

Here’s the remarkable thing we learn from these Letters by the 24 year old Rupert Brooke, poet, English gentleman, beloved of elder literary statesman Henry James, and sensitive recorder of his race’s sensibility before World War I: He is morose in the extreme.

According to Brooke, “America has a childlike faith in advertising. They advertise here, everywhere, and in all ways. They shout your most private and sacred wants at you.”

Buying and selling, for Brooke, is a great stain on humanity.

He believes completely in the superiority of his race and pities the other races relentlessly: “These little towns do not look to the passer-by comfortable as homes. Partly, there is the difficulty of distinguishing your village from the others. It would be as bad as being married to a Jap.”

He feels American Indians were noble, but now they’re gone, dwindling into drunken “half-breeds.” Nature is beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely, unless it’s the nature of good old, comfortable England. Population growth is a menace. English civilization is ideal. Americans are idiots. They spit all the time. They don’t wear jackets. There is some admiration for the Americans: only they could have built the Panama canal, but canals and dams are just ruining the planet, anyway, so that’s bad. Russia is a “vague evil” to him, while the Irish, French and Japanese are “very remote.”  He has a few sentimental feelings about Germany, because he had some good times in Munich once, but his love of England is so overwhelming, that at the end of the book, when war is declared, he is ready to fight.  Why shouldn’t he fight?  His pre-World War One journey through America and Canada have made him depressed as hell.

Before World War I, the young, handsome, poet Rupert Brooke’s English soul was a “waste land.”

Modernism was not the effect of World War I—it was the cause.

No wonder they gave orders for the slaughter and the English enthusiastically heeded the call; their old world was rapidly fading before overpopulation, anyway.

Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:

I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…”Where”—as a respite—“did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty.  They seemed perplexed and angry.

This may be touching, but it’s easy to see that it’s Rupert Brooke who is “perplexed and angry.”

Here, indeed, is the tragedy of the intellectual West and the essence of “angry and perplexed” Anglo-American Modernism, on the eve of World War One.

T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is a cry of the perplexed British soul, not a reflection of any specific events or circumstances of humanity’s soul.

Brooke was perplexed by the great department stores in New York, where “improvisations by Herr Kandinsky” were sold cheaply, and “inspired French post-Impressionist painters” were happily working in the advertising departments, and Schonberg was as likely to be heard as Victor Herbert, or Beethoven, while people shopped.  Modern art was not resisting America’s culture of buying and selling—it was part of it. There was no escape for a cultured English poet like Brooke.

Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.

Even as the 20th century began, Modernism was already dead.


William Logan: School of Smirking Badass

The best reviewers make us laugh.

Laughter is just reward for the pain of pretentious, tedius, over-inflated writing.

The bad writer turns gold (nature) into lead (his work), and when, in turn, honorifics are bestowed upon that bad writing, the lead becomes millstones about our necks.

The good critic turns this lead and these millstones into gold (laughter).

There is no single individual (they are always alone) so vital in Letters than a good reviewer.

Without the good reviewer, our literary gardens would be weeds—and worse, the weeds would all be thought of as fruits and flowers.

Ron Silliman includes William Logan in his School Of Quietude, but this is a vile misnomer: Logan, like Poe (responsible for the term) provokes loud noises (both indignant on one hand, and merry on the other) with an eye that sees through quackery.

Join us for a little merriment, then, with our greatest living critic, William Logan:

Rae Armantrout’s poems are micro-dreams of sly vanity, their brute coyness typical of much late-generation avant-garde poetry. Money Shot lives in stark juxtapositions—sometimes there’s a snippet of science (“each// stinging jelly/ is a colony”), sometimes a scrap of old-fashioned suburban imagism (“Stillness of gauzy curtains// and the sound/ of distant vacuums”), sometimes a touch of cut-rate surrealism (“Give a meme/ a hair-do”).

The “money shot” is a porn-factory term for filmed ejaculation, the eruptus of coitus interruptus. The dust jacket demurely shows the Duchess of Alba’s hand from Goya’s famous portrait—the connection is scarcely less mystifying than a few of the poems, though it could allude to her alleged affair with the painter, her supposed appearance as “The Naked Maja,” the price of Goya’s commissions, or any number of things. It’s a tease, as much of Armantrout’s work is a tease.

Most of her poems offer little resistance to the conscientious reader (the book could be read on a lunch break), but now and then they revel in the iffiness to which experimental poetry is dedicated:


Able to exploit pre-






IndyMac was one of the big failed banks, the Independent National Mortgage Corporation.

Armantrout commented on this passage in an interview with Chicago Weekly Online: “‘Mac’
. . . suggests McDonald’s, but also now ‘Mac’ing down’ on something, or ‘pac-man’—suggests a greedy franchise. And it’s paired with the word Indy, which suggests independent boutiques.
. . . Then ‘Able to exploit pre-/ existing’—that’s a phrase that I got from a newspaper article about banking. . . . You know, the banking system was able to exploit the pre-existing blah-blah-blah. And then the poem breaks into single syllables: ‘Tain.// Per. In. Con./ Cyst.’ All those syllables . . . occur in words like maintain, retain, persist, insist, consist, and then there’s just the word—cyst. I guess the words that are just syllables are a kind of cyst, free floating references to acquisition and attainment.”

This is not nearly as helpful as it is hilarious—I don’t know which is better, the loopy free-association or the blah-blah-blah. Yet how private these associations are, and how hopeless the road map to them. (There are free-floating cysts in the iris; but how you get from IndyMac to Pac-Man is a mystery—as criticism this is the Higher Ditziness of the Humpty Dumpty School.) If the Mac in IndyMac can mean McDonald’s, then Indy can mean Indiana Jones, independent film, Indianapolis, or any number of irrelevant things. As for that jumbled wordplay, sure—persist, insist, consist, as well as pertain and contain (though not intain). As for maintain and retain, it’s as if she hasn’t read her own poem.

Armantrout relies on a cloud of knowing to organize this unknowing, but you have to be Armantrout to live in the cloud. The temptation to make meaning by juxtaposition can be overwhelming, but it’s a temptation that should sometimes be resisted:

The pressure
in my lower back
rising to be recognized
as pain.

The blue triangles
on the rug

Coming up,
a discussion
on the uses
of torture.

This is funny, then not funny at all. The self-absorption of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet should not come at the expense of those who have suffered real torture.

The defense of a poetry of splinter and shard, of tessera and ostrakon, has long been that our fragmentary, disconnected modern lives are best reflected in fragmentary, disconnected forms (no wonder that after a little post-post-modernism a reader would kill for a little story). But why should art always imitate life—and why should its form somehow be imitative, too? (I doubt that life seems more fragmentary and disconnected now than during the Wars of the Roses.)

But they’re lying,
which degrades them.

An immigrant
sells scorpions
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.

I look away before.

You can say various things about this poem, which seems perfectly easy to interpret. Ah, but I confess I just opened the book at random and picked out a stanza here or a line there—we have long needed a postmodern sors Vergiliana, and Armantrout is just the woman to provide it.

Armantrout is a museum exhibit of how unexperimental experimental poems have become. She relies on a very small bag of tricks, many of them old when free verse was young: the short, breathless lines; the smirking ars poetica (“‘Why don’t you just say/ what you mean?’// Why don’t I?”), the bodice-heaving antithesis (“The fear/ that all this/ will end.// The fear/ that it won’t”), with enjambments like stop signs—or, worse, bottomless abysses. Does she end a poem on “the”? Of course she ends a poem on “the”! Wallace Stevens once ended a poem on “the,” but he used it as a noun—and the poem was a much better poem. It wasn’t trying to imitate some fall into the emptiness of unmeaning.

I love Armantrout’s idea for a film genre called “diversity noir” (“a shape-shifter/ and a vampire// run rival/ drinking establishments”). She has a gift for the sneaky phrase (“Money is talking / to itself again”), but like a lot of experimental poets she can’t resist bossing the reader about. Poems that tease are appealing, but not ones that are teasing and bullying at once, that have a come-hither look and a go-thither command. The best poems here don’t try so hard to force the reader to go where the poet wants. Far too much experimental verse comes out of two phrases William Carlos Williams wrote in haste and perhaps regretted at leisure, phrases for which anthologists have been grateful ever since: “So much depends upon” and “This is just to say.” You could staple one or the other to the beginning of most avant-garde poems, and the poems would be no worse. They might even be better.

Those who think Logan is “being mean” miss the point.  Armantrout is not funny; she may be clever, but she is not funny.  Logan makes her funny, and this is a good that transcends right, or wrong, or mean. It allows the polite smile of approval to explode into merriment and glee, and gladness makes us see. Polite smiles are blind. Poetry may make nothing happen, but criticism—which makes us laugh—-does.  For laughter changes the way we think.  If we think like Armantrout wants us to think, if her poetry is “successful,” then, indeed, nothing happens.  But if Logan changes the way we ought to think about Armantrout, something does happen: a dialectic, felt in the body as laughter, and this moves society’s stream.

It is also important to note that in his brief review, Logan presents Armantrout’s own words—the mere arrangement, the voice which tells us it’s OK not to like this, these two do most of the work: what we feel about her work is already there and Logan merely brings it out.  Logan also points out what he likes; the dislike gets the attention—but this is not Logan’s fault.

What about Ashbery?  He is funny.  What does Logan do with him?  As you might expect, he makes him even funnier.

John Ashbery’s nonsense is a lot more amusing than most poets’sense. What he does well is nearly inimitable, as the mutilated bodies of his imitators show (what he does badly nearly anyone can do, though most poets wouldn’t even try). In the past decade, as old age has stolen upon him, he has published over nine-hundred pages of poetry—if there were a poetry Olympics, Ashbery would take gold, silver, and bronze, as well as brass, antimony, tin, and lead. He turned seventy-three this year—when did poetry have a more boyish septuagenarian? Will Ashbery ever grow up?

In Your Name Here (a witty title that reminds us of all the sneaky things he can do with language), Ashbery has started making sense. This will come as a shock to most readers, because his poetry has lived a long time on the subsidizing strategies of sense without making much sense at all—Ashbery writes poems that promise everything and deliver nothing. He’s the original bait-and-switch merchant, the prince of Ponzi schemes. Over and over, you’re lured into a poem, following along dutifully in your poetry reader’s way; then the trap door swings open and you’re dumped into a pit of malarkey—or a pile of meringue. And that has been the pleasure.

This was from a review in The New Criterion (where you can always find Logan) from 10 years ago, and you can see how Logan won’t let himself take seriously the poets who don’t want to be taken seriously.  No, Logan isn’t mean; quite the contrary—it’s the poets and the blurbists who waste our time who are mean—Logan merely presents the soul of wit in a 500 word review.  Logan gets Ashbery better than anyone; Logan merely seems mean because he doesn’t pile on the reverence—the coin of ‘blurb my book and I’ll blurb yours’ po-biz.

Logan is very much at ease trashing poets who hide beneath trash; the flip, the caustic, and the hip go down just like the rest of them:

The title of Tony Hoagland’s new book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, is the funniest thing about it. Along with Billy Collins, Dean Young, and a giggle of others, Hoagland has thrived among the gentle practitioners of gentle humor, sometimes with a gentle dash of the gently surreal, who have given American verse a New Age school of stand-up comedians.  (Their motto: Humor, or else.)  His new poems celebrate that great American religion, shopping, and that great American temple, the shopping mall.  The art of American consumption was part of our literature long before Babbitt and The Theory of the Leisure Class—Henry James knew all about the golden bowls of the Gilded Age, Trollope’s mother went broke starting a Cincinnati bazaar (right idea, wrong location), Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses almost bankrupted her husband, and even Whitman was astonished by the ready commerce and “gay-dress’d crowds” along Chestnut Street.  You might say that the subject of Americans and what they buy, from Thomas Jefferson’s rare books (or, when he went on a spree, the whole Louisiana Purchase) to O. J. Simpson’s Bruno Maglis and Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, is an embarrassment of riches, or just a bunch of crap: “the little ivory forks at picnics and green toy dinosaurs in playrooms everywhere;// the rooks and pawns of cheap $4.95 chess sets made in the People’s Republic of China.”

There’s not a lot to say about American consumerism that wasn’t said by Veblen, even if shopping is a Darwinian metaphor for the manners and mores of American life. Hoagland wisely turns his eye to all those lives impoverished—or, who knows, made infinitely richer—by that endless buying, buying, buying.  Still, when he thunders on about the “late-twentieth-century glitterati party/ of striptease American celebrity” he sounds as if he’s channeling Billy Graham channeling Billy Sunday.  Denouncing Britney Spears is like invading Rhode Island.

Hoagland has a superficial ease and charm—he’s likable, and his poems are likable, but they’re often less than they promise.  He’s a wonderful collector of the junk with which Americans furnish their lives, but it’s hard to turn junk into poems.  Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art.  All too soon, Spears will seem dated as a Stutz Bearcat or a man shouting “Twenty-three skidoo!” There’s a quieter and more unsettled poet inside all this bric-à-brac:
And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knifepried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in time of war.

“The ones who will survive,” he told us,
looking at us hard,
“are the ones who are willing do [sic] anything.”
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.

Hoagland doesn’t quite know what to do with the complicated feelings this evokes—it’s smug for him to say, “That was Lesson Number 4/ in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.” (Things could have been worse—he might have turned the scene into Deliverance2.)  In the silent desperation here, the real subject might have been the father’s misplaced expression of love.

Hoagland is skittish about love, though he knows that romance is often absurd and comedy the catharsis of fear. His hymn to American courtship scares me:

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a bench,
holding hands, not looking at each other,and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved.

This goes on to peacocks and walking-stick insects (“she might/ insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck”), but you get the idea: Man is the animal who spends a lot of time thinking he’s not an animal.  Like so much of Hoagland’s work, the poem softens into sentimental mush; yet for a moment the poet has seen the darkness in love, the animal passions released and endured.

These whimsical, mildly satirical poems about modern anomie, composed with far too much corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, want to rouse primal fears, then comfort the reader with a warm glass of milk.  Sometimes this arch joker forgets the point of humor—a poem on the D.C. sniper, which starts with the mystery of God (that riddle ever invoked when life is cruel or unfair), comes all too close to ridiculing the dead.  Next he’ll be making fun of Holocaust victims.

Poets who often take themselves too seriously—Mary Oliver, Franz Wright, Don Paterson, or Carl Phillips, for instance, are easy targets for Logan; but again, he’s not mean when he reviews these poets, for a critic’s job is always to see—not to support.  And if seeing poetry is easier for a critic than for the poet investing his or her life in their own work, this is not the critic’s fault.  Critics who are “mean” are merely mean the way Nature is mean, and this is true in every case of mean.  Even a critic with a grudge is better than a critic with a blurb. Grudges are more interesting and more complex—in their origins and their results—than blurbs.  It doesn’t matter how we look at a poet, as long as that look is an interesting one.  Every poem should be able to handle, and gain from, a different look—even if it’s mean.

And when Logan’s bullets bounce off a poet, as here in this review of Billy Collins’ latest, the result is still funny, entertaining, and enlightening:

Billy Collins is funny, everyone agrees.  The birds agree, the bees agree, even the fish in the sea agree: Billy Collins is funny.  Yet why do I feel, half an hour after closing a Billy Collins book, a sharp grinding in my stomach, as if I’ve eaten some fruit cake past its sell-by date?  His wry, self-mocking poems wouldn’t hurt a fly—but they couldn’t kill a fly, either, even if they tried.  Readers who have whetted their appetites for drollery on previous books may open Ballistics and be puzzled.  Our Norman Rockwell of sly winks, and elbowing good humor, and straw-hatted, flannel-shirted American whimsy is no longer funny. Worse, some of his new poems take place in Paris.

Billy Collins’s method has been to borrow a dry nugget of fact or some mildly absurd observation and see how far he can go.  Say you read that the people of Barcelona once owned an albino gorilla, or remember that Robert Frost said, “I have envied the four-moon planet,” or find yourself talking to a dog about the future of America.  Why, the poem would almost write itself! Collins’s gift was to make the poem a little odder than you expected.  The problem with his new book is that the ideas are still there, but the poems have lost their sense of humor. Here’s what happens to that gorilla:

These locals called him Snowflake,
and here he has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping his pallid flame alive
and helping him, despite his name, to endure
in this poem where he has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

There must be a lot of comic things to say about albino gorillas, things that don’t require sentimental guff with a twitch of self-pity.

Say you recall the day Lassie died, when, after you finished your farm chores and ate your oatmeal, you drove to town and scanned the books in Olsen’s Emporium—and what books they were!  An anthology of the Cavalier poets, The Pictorial History of Eton College, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po.  Why, who knew?  This is a send-up of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”—the book titles mock his purchase of New World Writing (as he said, “to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing”).  But then what?

I’m leaning on the barn door back home
while my own collie, who looks a lot like her,
lies curled outside in a sunny patch
and all you can hear as the morning warms up
is the sound of the cows’ heavy breathing.

And that’s it.  This labored parody of O’Hara’s famous ending (“I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/ leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”) isn’t side-splitting at all.  The premise has become just another excuse for softheaded mush—Collins doesn’t even get round to mentioning (SPOILER ALERT!) that Lassie was played by any number of dogs, that she was male (because males have glossier coats), and that, besides, Lassie is immortal and can’t ever die.

Collins has managed to be what he rarely was in the past—dull. The ending in many of these new poems falls flat, the speaker gazing at the moon or listening to a bird in hopes of revelation. If Billy Collins can’t joke about death, for example, well, who can?  When he pokes fun at writers’ guides (“Never use the word suddenly just to create tension”), or of teachers who ask, “What is the poet trying to say?” he’s still our best poet at piercing the pretensions of the whole literary shebang.  Get him off the subject, however, and the poems are suffused with mild gloom and misanthropy.  He writes of having tea “with a woman without children,/ a gate through which no one had entered the world.” You think that he’s blundered, that he can’t possibly be talking about her vagina.  Oh, yes, he can!  “Men had entered the gate, but no boy or girl/ had ever come out”—I’m not sure whether this is wickedly inventive prudery or plain bad taste.

When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way, reason enough for a man to take off his rose-colored glasses and book a flight to Paris.  Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet.  Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.

Logan is simply wrong here: Collins’ “Oh, Snowflake” and “the cows’ heavy breathing” is funny.  But no matter: Logan’s sense of humor still prevails, and so the review, attempting to neutralize Billy Collins (O what do we do with Billy Collins?) is a great read.  Poets are the first to tell you poetry transcends objective standards of wrong and right.  And so does humor, when it reaches a certain charming pitch.  When William Logan crashes into Billy Collins, pure joy ensues.


Take the official Scarriet Poetry test and find out!

1.  You have graduated from, or are in, an MFA program.

2.  You mostly read poems written by your teachers and friends.

3.  You mostly read poems by moderns and post-moderns.

4.  You have published at least two favorable reviews of work by your friends.

5.  You have published in some form the work of at least two of your friends.

6.  You have organized readings for at least two of your friends.

7.  A friend has published a favorable review of your work.

8.  Your work has been published by a friend.

9.  A friend has organized a reading for you.

10.  Your friends are mostly poets.

11.  You never argue about poetry.

12.  You only have friends in your poetry circles.

13.  You have little interest in quibbling about the definitions of poetry.

14.  You admit to strangers pretty quickly that you are a poet.

15.  You consider yourself a poetry critic.

16.  You wish poetry conversations were more civil.

17.  You prefer John Ashbery to Walt Whitman.

18..  You prefer Charles Olson to Edna Millay.

19.  You prefer Ezra Pound to Edgar Poe.

20.  You prefer Geoffrey Hill to Percy Shelley.

21.  You prefer Tony Hoagland to Rae Armantrout.

22.  You prefer Allen Ginsberg to Robert Creeley.

23.  You prefer Charles Bernstein to Charles Bukowski.

24.  You prefer Jorie Graham to William Carlos Williams.

25.  You prefer Jennifer Moxley to Billy Collins.

26.  You prefer Walt Whitman to Alexander Pope.

27.  You prefer Robert Frost to Wallace Stevens.

28.  You prefer Emily Dickinson to William Wordsworth.

29.  You prefer Dante to Robert Lowell.

30.  You prefer Pound’s Cantos to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

31.  You prefer Li Po to Leslie Scalapino.

32.  You prefer 20th century translations to Tennyson.

33.  You read more poetry than prose.

34.  You read more poetry criticism than poetry.

35.  Your favorite part of ‘Poetry’ magazine tends to be the poems.

36.  Your favorite part of ‘Poetry’ magazine tends to be the commentary.

37.  The first thing you do when you see a new anthology is to check to see which poets have been published in it.

38.  When you look at any poetry anthology, it matters to you how many poems/pages are allotted to each poet—whether or not the poets are living or dead.

39.  When you look at any poetry anthology, it  matters to you which poets have been left out/included—whether or not the poets are living or dead.

40.  You are naturally more interested in living poets than dead ones.

41.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1900.

42.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1960.

43.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1990.

44.  Over half of the books on your nightstand right now are books of poems.

45.  Over half of the books on your nightstand right now are books of poems by living poets.

46.  You would rather read a new, self-published book by an unknown poet than a book of reviews by William Logan.

47.  You would rather read a new book by an unknown poet published by an establishment press than a book of reviews by William Logan.

48.  You would rather read essays by Stephen Burt than by William Logan.

49.  You prefer the prose of Walter Benjamin to the prose of Coleridge.

50.  You would rather read essays by Robert Hass than letters of Byron.

51.  You would rather read an anthology of contemporary female poets than a book on Shakespeare’s London.

52.  You would rather read the latest book of poems by Peter Gizzi than a recently published anthology of essays by New Critics.

53.  You would never read a poetry textbook if you didn’t have to.

54.  You prefer Charles Simic to Philip Larkin.

55.  You would rather read a book of poems by Sharon Olds than an anthology of WW I poets.

56.  You would rather go to a poetry reading than attend a movie.

57.  Everything else being equal, you would always choose a poet for a lover.

58.  Your poems never rhyme.

59.  You teach/have taught in the Humanities.

60.  You teach/have taught  poetry, exclusively.

61.  You administer poetry contests.

62.  You enter poetry contests.

63.   You have won a poetry contest.

64.  You have won a major award.

65.  You have published in mainstream publications.

66.  You’ve met Franz Wright on a blog.

67.  You think Jim Behrle is hot.

68.  You have a private method or trick to writing poems.

69.  Ron Silliman has good taste in poetry.

70.  You read ‘Poets and Writers’ from cover-to-cover every month.

71.  You read books of poems from cover-to-cover in one sitting.

72.  You are proficient in at least one other language beside your native one.

73.   You have a degree other than in English or Creative Writing.

74.   Jorie Graham deserves her prestigious Chair at Harvard.

75.  Poetry is ambassador to the world’s peoples.

76.  You have a secret crush on Alan Corlde.

77.  Metaphor is the essence of poetry.

78.  You want to sit at Daniel Nester’s knee and have him tell you the ways of the world.

79.  You understand what the post-avants are talking about.

80.   Flarf is really cool.

81.  Conceptualism knocks your socks off.

82.  Poets turn you on.

83.  You want desperately to have a wild affair with a poet.

84.  Your secret goal is to teach poetry.

85.  When you are published in a magazine you buy copies for friends.

86.  At least one of your parents is an artist.

87.  It really bugs you that poetry has become prose.

88.  Marjorie Perloff is the bomb.

89.  Poetry is a way to explore political identity.

90.  Poetry is the best way to communicate the deepest truths.

91.  Humor for a select audience is poetry’s most important function today.

92.  The bottom line is that poetry helps nerds get laid.

93.  Poetry contributes to the dignity of the human race.

94.  Slam poetry is a great antidote to bookworm-ism.

95.  Your favorite poetry event is a slam poetry fest.

96.  You are wary that you might be a ‘school of quietude’ poet.

97.  You dig Language Poetry.

98.  You look for trends in poetry, but just so you can be informed.

99.  You write songs/play songs/are in a band.

100.  Poetry breaks your heart every day.


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.


Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

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