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.