The white guys of High Modernism

“Literary activism” has taken center stage recently among the chattering classes, those academics and journalists whose job it is to tell the working class how to live.

Is music a supplement to speech, or is it anti-speech?

Well, it depends on whether you hum or sing.

Mere humming is music which is anti-speech.

Singing music, however, (and that would include wordless Mozart) is clearly a supplement to speech.

Poetry, in the 20th century, went from anthologized, lyrical quietism by the fireside, to avant formalism in the classroom.

Poetry went from singing to humming.

It went from the musical wit of Byron to: red wheel barrow in the wastes of white space.

Lyrical quietism, so named today, was universal, personal, political, as well as…lyrical.

Avant formalism was apolitical, abstract, elitist, and just happened to be…white and male.

To put it simply: the crazyites (as Edgar Poe named them) won, even as Pound was put in a cage.

The recent surge of “literary activism” marked by ethnicity, with all its accompanying buzzwords (“struggle” and “voices” and “change”) is nothing more than a passionate reaction (or correction) to the white elitist character of the Modernism (the Men’s Club of Pound, Eliot, Williams) which destroyed the Universal Poetry of the People (dubbed ‘lyrical quietism’ by the avants).

The new “subversive” academics, the highly ethical and ethnic voices of “literary activism,” currently making headlines in the textbooks and Blog Harriet (The Poetry Foundation blog of Poetry magazine—famous because of the right wing Pound and Eliot) are semi-literate and reactionary, like their masters, the white “subversives” of 20th century Modernism, who shook off the highly literate and song-worthy revolutionary spirit of accessible 19th century poetry heroes such as Keats, Byron, and Poe.

Literary Activism does not sing, it hums.  It doesn’t speak, it produces a tune to which everyone must dance, an easily understood music—yawn in the face of the Odes of Keats because their author is white and male.

Keatsian Aesthetics is the enemy of the Ideological State—because the State is in a continual mode of “correction,” the on-going communist/fascist revolution which never ends; the war against whatever is old—running continually.

The reactionary nature of an Emerson or a Pound is hidden as long as these men are identified (and they are) with change.

Emerson’s imperialist, neo-liberal, racist “English Traits” is ignored in favor of his “The Poet,” which (subversively) attacks the aesthetics of Poe—the essence of whom, beauty, is not hidden: the subversion of Emerson leads straight to Pound and his white, male avant inheritors.

The soul-crushing politics of literary activism produces poorly written odes against “capitalism.”

God forbid we buy and sell. The ideological State does not approve of exchange. It does not approve of singing, of words, of speech, which create mutual influences: this is why dialogue is such a powerful tool and why the first clue to a bankrupt human being (crippled by ideology) is how difficult it is to have a conversation of discovery with them; they immediately quarrel and disagree the moment they are confronted with having to think as they talk. They can only talk about what they already think—they will not tolerate true dialogue, and the anger displayed always surprises the innocent lover of wisdom.

Exchange has one drawback. It is morally blind. Slavery is an instance of this, and the State which made the moral choice to end slavery is a good, not an evil.

But slavery has its origins in economic inequality—the slave trade persisted as long as it was profitable; the slave trade did not operate because it was a moral or an amoral practice; in the same way, thievery will always exist if there is economic inequality—morals mean nothing to the starving man.  If there is no honest exchange, it is due to one reason and one reason only: too much dishonest exchange: but the fault is not with exchange (capitalism) but with morals, and here we see by the very term, “honest exchange” that the two elements are really the same. The whole Marxist separation is false, and the intrusion of morals, per se, a mere Victorian illusion. The intrusion of morals becomes, in fact, capitalist competition by other means.

The good State wants good exchange. Exchange (song, thought, trade, capitalism) is a good, as long as it fosters further exchange. Slavery is an evil precisely because it prevents (by reducing a person to a commodity) further exchange. By faulting exchange itself, however, we actually perpetuate an evil, even as this anti-exchange folly is morally sugar-coated by the Marxist.

The State mind doesn’t like the music of singing; it prefers humming that pre-made tune.

The ethnic character of literacy activism innocently demolishes the ‘whole’ human being—who is forced into the prison of perceiving itself chiefly as black or gay or female. Instead of offering highly literate females, it offers illiterate females praising females—which is hurtful to females and does not advance their cause at all. Yet this reactionary practice is considered progressive.

In this instance it is easy to see why.

It is precisely because “literary activism” today is an unspoken correction against the embarrassingly white, male, elitist (and fascist/communist) character of avant Modernism: which destroyed the glory of lyrical quietism—the glory of Enlightenment Byron and Romantic Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The new literary activism is amending ‘old fogey John Crowe Ransom white male Modernism’—but is unfortunately at the same time an unwitting extension of the avant trampling of true poetry.

Caveat Emptor!



This is hard to refute: Nothing is important and true if it is merely important and true to you.

At the college where I work, I heard a humanities professor remark recently: the abstract is the basis of education.

By abstract, the professor means: All that is wise, good, and important is true for everyone, not just you.

The children who “get this,” grow up to be productive members of society; those who don’t, become those half-formed dreamers who merely survive, or worse, criminals.

Most of us are comfortable thinking that there is a ‘selfish curve;’ the more selfish you are, the more you ultimately suffer; the religious find contentment knowing God’s justice ultimately takes care of everything, but that doesn’t mean everyone isn’t irked when they witness selfishness in others; the religious are still motivated to “spread the word of God,” even though their all-powerful God will “take care of everything at last, anyway.”

This contradiction is not a minor thing. If God is all-powerful, why do you behave as if He were not?

You (the religious) are busy “spreading God’s word,” even as God, beyond all words and beyond all understanding, inhabits, in a vast, just, material, eternal manner, everything. Why so busy, then?

I could believe every single thing you (the religious) say as you “spread God’s word” and still find you excessively ignorant and redundant and tiresome—and tell you in all sincerity to please go away and never show your face around here again.

There. As you may have guessed, Scarriet is not a religious place.

And this sentiment is precisely where we are in the world today, with the secular world becoming increasingly exasperated and emboldened in their objection to religion, especially as it manifests itself around social media-driven flashpoint issues and events.

Anti-religious extremism threatens more and more each day to become mainstream, at least in the West, thanks to academia and social media, where the religious find their antiquated mists lifting before the winds of progressive and intellectual arguments; secular common sense is nearly impossible to resist as the “love of Jesus” is turned against every religious prohibition under the sun.

The immutable Abstract God needs human representatives—with human stories and human logic. When servants of the Abstract God debate with the professor/artist/social worker class, who represent The Abstract Benefits of All People, the servants of The Lord lose, and they lose because they are humorless and antiquated, and because Equality is the abstraction which trumps everything.

This does not mean the religious ultimately lose—they will surely never go away—and they do not ultimately lose for the following reason: Equality, or even the need for it, is, alas, an abstract theory, not an abstract reality.

Abstraction, itself, at its most powerful, exists as a reality, not a theory.

Those quiet ones, who skip the debate, knowing the One True Real Abstraction, God’s Justice, takes care of everything, and not in some theoretical equality-type manner, but with every unequal thing and person fitting into the great scheme at last, miraculously and imaginatively, the quiet ones who skip the debates, are the ones you should listen to, when you have a moment—not the self-assured ones on the left or the right.

To return to “you” and how your feelings are never the most important thing:

According to our wise secular professor, what you happen to feel is never as important as the abstracted feelings of the many.

But not only is Religion on the run in the West, but a counter-force, Romanticism seems to be making a quiet comeback.

The Romantic does value “your” singular feelings.

This is because “the you” is finally an abstract idea, as well, and those who defend “the abstract” find themselves trapped by the whole theoretical notion of “the abstract”: once we begin to sociologically impose abstract models onto everything, in the name of a benevolent but coarse system of benefits for all, the theoretical destroys everything in its path. Theoretically, the “you” joins the “many,” and science becomes farcically anecdotal, all in the name of abstraction, and of words abstractly used, with “them” and “you” swapped and traded in the blink of an eye.

The Romantic persists in being “wrong” in the face of all the wise theorists; the Romantic denies the abstract with passionate feeling: Ovid’s “I hate and love.”

The Romantic is worth listening to, because there are two kinds of Abstraction.

Our professor friend, who we quoted in the beginning of the essay, refers to the Abstract Abstract.

The Abstract Abstract is the abstraction we find in psychology, sociology and literature textbooks, the essential content of the non-religious liberal arts education: generalized information applied anecdotally and then traced back to the generalized information in a rough ‘what’s best for all’ sort of way.

In these liberal arts scenarios, passion is always reserved for “blind evil,” which does the things we professionals are appalled by, and cannot understand, as we, rationally, in the course of our liberal arts education, pursue our sane pedagogical goals: marriage for everybody, love for everybody, riches for everybody, etc etc.

But the Romantic and the religious refer to something else: the Real Abstract.

The Real Abstract is The Whole Universe, literally, that dynamic, grand design of the whole which God (whether or not He really exists) is short-hand for.

It is why Edgar Poe ventured to call his essay on the Universe a poem—the unity of the subject called for it.

The abstract is truly one thing and one thing only: the material, finite universe as it really in fact exists.

The rigor of this abstraction puts to shame the mere ‘good for all’ theory practiced by the liberal arts colleges.

Example: there is no such thing as a kind review. We never argue for something in a generalized manner: the one (poem, book, world, etc) contains many things, which, by necessity, if the whole of which the parts are a part is worth anything at all, succeed and fail as things to varying degrees. So instead of saying, ‘this is a great ___,’ we instead say which parts of ____ in any given ____ are good and which are bad.

How many reviews of friends’ poetry books and chapbooks are thorough, and truly objective?  They are almost never objective. They always feel, due to friendship and kindness, like advertisements: you must read this great book!

Passion is required for truth, and passion, by definition, is Ovidian, containing love and hate. The truly unique whole of the universe is both loving and hateful. The Real Abstract contains both beauty and necessity.

The merely Abstract Abstract, however, the one we get from the liberal arts professor, is necessary, but not beautiful: proper goodness must prevail, so that the poet, who is both student and customer in the new professional university environment, receives the proper flattery and is pleased—each part in the Abstract Abstract must exist abstractly, pleased to be an unreal part of what is essentially a pleasing, artificial (abstract) agenda.

The uneasy way the universe actually fits together produces the passion that is at once the cause and the effect of  its meaning—for those who attempt to comprehend it. (Poe perhaps having come the closest?)

Abstractly speaking, the universe, today, in our progressive age, is a “rainbow” of benevolent mixing.

What does this “rainbow” symbol mean, anyway? What does it actually mean?

Be nice to everyone. Accept differences. But isn’t this too general to mean anything?

A friend once asked us if Joan Rivers was mean or funny. The answer, of course, is both. The funny and the mean are inextricably mixed.

“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” will always sound in fair Verona’s streets.

Let us look at an actual example.

A black conservative judge, who opposes gay marriage, and his white wife comprise two races and two genders. The vast majority of gay couplings comprise one race and one gender.

Which couple most resembles a “rainbow?”

If there is no rational reason to oppose gay marriage—we cannot think of one; Scarriet certainly does not oppose gay marriage—perhaps it is only a “rainbow” impulse that does oppose it: is that an irony, or what?

Our benevolent “rainbow” idea belongs to the Abstract Abstract, one of those ideals, which, upon inspection, is found to be one of those liberal arts ideals whose “truth” is a highly convincing symbolism for the sake of an abstract good: robbing from the rich is “good” in similar abstract ways.

The Real Abstract consists of social minutia, flawed expression, breeding, borders, hierarchy and competing interests over time—messy and vastly complex mixtures, not given to easy Abstract Abstract ideals.

Hate and love, as a mixture, is never easily understood; love by itself and hate by itself, are far more easily understood, and they are understood more easily—because they belong to the Abstract Abstract, not the Real Abstract; the Abstract Abstract is what tends to be taught—in the schools.

We can gently refute our wise professor after all: very often what is true and important is true and important—to you.


Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist, does not belong to the English-speaking poetry canon.

Michelangelo’s success in this year’s Scarriet March Madness perhaps proves nothing—after all, this tournament features excerpted lines, not entire poems.

The experiment has nonetheless proved interesting. First, Michelangelo is an interesting discovery. His poetry is good. Even in the English translations available.

And secondly, with the assertion that “a long poem does not exist,” Edgar Poe, in the mid-19th century, ushered in a new criterion. It is really very simple, and Scarriet has followed Poe’s insight to its logical conclusion: poetry is poetry in as much as it pleases immediately, and in its smallest parts: prose can be unremarkable as it builds; poetry we define as that which is remarkable right away: it is poetry as much as it makes an impression right away—in one line, or a few.

Therefore, let’s be frank: the modern prose poem, which takes time to unfold and make its “poetic” impression on the reader, hasn’t got a chance in this tournament.

And let’s be even more frank: what is the advantage of writing poetry which is not poetry?

Or, to put it another way: is there anything wrong with the type of writing which makes a strong impression immediately?

We cannot think of any reason—touching on pleasure, usefulness, or pedagogy—why this type of writing does not deserve the highest acclaim, should not be considered an expression of the highest virtue.

And yet—who writes like this anymore:

Fate is a wind and red leaves fly before it Far apart, far away in the gusty time of year—Seldom we meet now, but when I hear you speaking, I know your secret, my dear, my dear.

Which poet today produces work like the above—to critical acclaim?


And yet here is that type of writing which deserves notice—which moves, entertains, pleases on its own and also demonstrates what language itself can do.

And poetry—which is the very best at doing the most important human activity of all: expression—chooses another path, the same path which prose treads.

We find this whole state of affairs—and we love prose—just a little disconcerting.

So let us throw, a little sadly, rose petals at Sarah Teasdale, and congratulate her, with the rest.

Of course, Tennyson, won.  Is the following old, or good?  We say it may be old, but it is also very, very good—whatever else we call it.

My heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy bed; my dust would hear her and beat, Had I lain for a century dead; Would start and tremble under her feet, And blossom in purple and red.

Tennyson probably asked for tea in the way any person would—and when writing poetry such as this, he was practicing to make poetry of the highest order—which it is.

It seems a little ridiculous to condemn verse such as this as “old-fashioned.”

This would be like calling the work which graces the Sistine Chapel “old-fashioned.”

The label “old-fashioned,” applied to Tennyson, and to great verse, should make a person of good taste wince, and cringe.

Here’s the Sweet Sixteen from Brackets one and two:

Michelangelo (d. Marlowe)

Teasdale (d. Dowson)

Eliot (d. Arnold)

Wordsworth (d. Merwin)

Coleridge (d. Wylie)

Poe (d. Frost)

Keats (d. Khayyam)

Tennyson (d. Marvell)


Michael Brown: immortalized by Kenny Goldsmith?

Edgar Poe’s “effect”-as-the-basis-of-fiction is the seed of Conceptualism and the avant-garde as we know it.

That poetry should be beautiful was a necessary caveat in Poe’s mind: effect-science needs genres and reasons and exactitude as it moves literature towards self-consciousness and away from “This happened in my town yesterday. Let me tell you about it.”

The poetry world is currently befuddled and outraged because the Conceptual poet Kenny Goldsmith—who read (in a paisley suit) plain traffic reports as “poetry” at the White House (yea, where Barry lives) a couple of years ago—recently gave a “poetry reading” in academia in which the actual, detailed autopsy report of Ferguson’s Michael Brown was the sole text.

Poe would say, first: Goldsmith’s effort is the very opposite of the poem; the poet does not surrender to the news of the day (Ferguson, etc) but finds, first, a precise effect, and then works on bringing about that precise effect in the reader. Poe’s notion has nothing to do with suppressing discussion of “the news;” it merely says: give the news of the day to the news of the day and reserve poetry for poetry—both in practice and in theory.

To know what poetry is, we think, is very useful to the poet, who is doing something a bit more complex than going to the store and picking up an item:

“What did you want me to buy, again?” “I dunno.”

If we don’t know what to get at the store—and this destroys every reason for the visit, we imagine it might be slightly important to know what the poem is—as one sets about writing one.

Just an idea.

So we find an effect.

The artist thinks: First, what effect shall I pick? Second, how shall I bring about this effect in the audience?

Immediately we are aware of conflation, the type which occurs when avant-garde Conceptualism brings together as one, painting and poetry—the two disappear in the outrageous effect produced by the Duchamp jest. The art, all of it, dies into idea. Michael Brown’s autopsy becomes a pure thing subordinated to pure effect.

The conflation in Poe’s effect-method is artist/audience: to test the effect, the artist stands in for his audience: simple, even simpler than going to the store for an item; the item (effect) is had immediately, because the artist immediately becomes his own audience as the effect is tested.

Kenny Goldsmith does not have to visit the store to purchase a particular effect—any item at the Outrage Store will do.

We know of no one who has really thought through to the end what Poe meant when, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe spoke of choosing some “effect” to use—Poe has been accused, in every quarter, of starting with the “The Raven” already written, and working backwards in a synthetic fashion; in other words, he cheated. And no one really writes that way, ever, say the sneering Poe-critics. Life and art are open and random; talk of “grand design” in this day is highly suspect (“what are you, a religious nut?”) even when talking of poetry.

But we know what Poe means, and we can easily demonstrate what he means.

Let’s say the effect chosen is: happiness—you choose to make the audience happy.

A good effect, but too general, so we narrow the definition to make it more effective. “Making the audience happy by removing the fear of death.” This is sufficiently unique, and this is precisely what John Donne did when he penned his famous “Death Be Not Proud.”

It matters not if death be not proud came into Donne’s thoughts “randomly,” (many poets will tell you a poem begins with a single phrase that just pops into their head) and it matters not that Donne wrote the sonnet without any fussing over “which effect shall I choose?” The fact remains that “I am Soothed by Learning Death is not as Fearful as Supposed” is the design “Death Be Not Proud” has on us: it has this effect on any lay person who reads it; it has an argument, one that can be paraphrased (yes, the New Critics were wrong) and all of Donne’s sonnet’s parts line up behind its effect.

Donne went to the store (even if subconsciously) looking for a specific, singular, item (effect and execution) and, to our pleasure, found it.

Goldsmith’s success (notoriety, attention) arose from the same process:

What shall I do to my audience?

Outrage them.

How shall I do so?

I shall pick a contemporary news item which already bespeaks outrage, and I shall choose some manifestation of this outrage and present it as my “poem.”

Now do we see who “cheats?”

It is not the author of “The Philosophy of Composition.”

It is the avant-garde “poet,” Kenny Goldsmith.


In other news:

John Crowe Ransom advanced past Elizabeth Bishop 61-60 in the Wild Card Round. Ransom’s “it is so frail” was finally too much for Bishop’s “the art of losing is hard to master” in the final minutes of the extremely close contest: both teams were brilliant, but the edge went to Ransom’s tender and emotional plea, which seemed finally less conscious, if that nuance can be at all understood.  It is very hard to say goodbye to the Bishop, as Ransom moves on.

Bishop’s loss put the VIDA count for Scarriet’s 2015 March Madness at 25%—which we think is pretty high, considering the tournament reflects the canon throughout history.



Wordsworth, who recently defeated Marx, contemplates advancing past Poe to reach the Elite Eight

If one reads Scarriet one is not under the usual illusions about Edgar Poe; one understands he was a thousand times more than the “macabre” writer as perceived by those who have been sadly deluded, and we include here the editors of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and the various busybodies of the ‘book world’ who are clueless in the typical snobbish manner of the helpless bookworm.

It is important that art does not get reduced to content; art’s medium is not simply a blind receptacle for politically-approved, fashionable rhetoric—the sort of ‘meaning’ which the dense and unphilosophical type is always searching for in order to have their uninspired world view confirmed.

The ‘medium is the message’ is not the point either; it is precisely the duality of medium and message, the way they interact, which is crucial.

Poe, by inventing genres, by being a master and inventor of so many mediums, is the most important literary figure America has produced. The rest is mostly content or ‘stream-of-consciousness’ fiction: the South as presented by Faulkner, the Cubist reality of Joyce, the junkyard collage of Pound, with the whole Modernist project the same: foster illusion by dismantling the medium. The illusion, or the fiction, in the common parlance, is the autobiographical content in which the writer’s guts unspool, as it were, and the Fiction Writing instructor urges the color of ephemeral detail fill up every line in the “realist” project.

The paradox of Fiction striving, at all costs, to be realistic, to break the rules of form in such a way that content (data, info, ‘what is said’) is all, so that the medium disappears in the sprawl of what is communicated—this paradox of The Attempt To Be Real dressing itself up and calling itself Fiction (or Poetry) seems to be lost on many, who don’t see it as a paradox at all. But it certainly is.

Defenders of paradoxical ‘Real Fiction’ may reply: the Real is paradoxical, the Real is always an attempt, and not realized, and Fiction just happens to be one flexible and very important way to reproduce or experience the Real.

This response will satisfy some, but we object to it for the following reason: the Real is always an attempt, true, but this defines Fiction as failure—either it reflects our failure to know Reality or it reflects Reality the Unknowable. In either case, such a project is bound to be haphazard. The Socratic admonition to know what we don’t know is not the same thing as celebrating ignorance, or not knowing. The medium is something we can know, and for this reason alone, it deserves our attention; if proportion and pleasure belong anywhere, they belong to the way the medium captures reality, for this is what art, by definition, is; this is all we mean when we refer to form—form, or, more accurately, the form in space and time—the form of form—which is what we as artists know; otherwise we have no way of distinguishing reality from art, and reality trumps all understanding and becomes experience—the kind of experience which is experienced, and for that reason has no public or social existence, no art. Without the medium, there is no science. The painter begins with a rectangle laid against reality, and through this “window” discovers what can be scientifically known—the artist becoming an artist only insofar as he is a scientist.

Back to Poe, America’s Daedalus. Poe was scientific, not fictional. Detective fiction is a template, and not in the least concerned with persons and cultures. The writing of the populist poem, “The Raven,” with every formal aspect contributing to a unified effect as of a framed painting, with the accompanying essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” was like the work of a Renaissance Master in the studio. The science of perspective was behind the advances of Renaissance painting; these profound advances occurred precisely because the artist made this question paramount: how is reality to be portrayed in my painting? For when the artist wrestles with perspective, with how every part of the painting is viewed in space and time by the human eye in time and space (when the viewer ‘walks by’ a portrait, do the painting’s “eyes” follow, etc) measurement comes to the rescue of mere seeing.

Art which abandons perspective destroys art’s scientific medium and gives it over to that realm of imitation in which the viewer is charmed by mere colors. Do the colors charm the viewer “in reality?” Yes—and no. Do we “see” the moon as larger than it normally appears—when the moon is near the horizon, with objects that are closer—“in reality?” Yes. But here we see what Plato and the Renaissance painter were onto, in becoming self-conscious of imitation and human weakness and measurement: the issue, if looked at in the right way, is not  about being anti-art, at all, but rather it is about creating, or exploring, standards (based on science) for great art.

The rediscovery of Plato fueled the Renaissance. Here is Plato (Book X, The Republic):

Has not imitation been shown by us to be concerned with that which is thrice removed from the truth?


And what is the faculty in man to which imitation is addressed?

What do you mean?

I will explain: The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance?


And if the same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water, and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the act of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.


And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding—there is the beauty of them—and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?

Most true.

And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rationale principle in the soul?

Plato is not saying to ignore or eliminate human weakness with its merely imitative propensities; Plato only asks that we become aware of error as we make art; it is the triumph of Platonism to bring about this self-consciousness in the artist; Plato’s condemnation of imitative projects, in which the medium is played down or ignored, is only one superficial aspect of Plato the Republic-builder’s intent. And why is the medium, as medium, so important? Because the medium is precisely that measuring vessel which brings us closer to reality as we make art with the medium as our guide (not as an end). This is true for perspective in “illusionistic” painting as it is true for formalism in “idealistic” poetry, aspects which Modernism and its obsession with trashy/fragmented reality has intentionally destroyed, as it seeks to define ‘the medium’ as something artificial, which interferes with reality and needs eventually to be sloughed off, like a Futurist snake shedding its ancient skin. But how deluded! And here we see the error of modern art in a nutshell.

“Artistic illusion” is when the medium is dismantled and disappears; the illusion becomes, in fact, delusion, as when we think a painting is “real.”

Perspective in painting is not simply an imitation of perspective in life—it is an investigation of the visual system itself, which includes both the perceptive mechanism of the individual viewer and geometric or mathematical truth, which, together, navigates and attempts to know higher reality within various contexts.

Let us quote from Michael Kubovy’s The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art:

I do not think there ever is “false belief or conception” when we look at a work of art. Arthur C. Danto’s discussion of illusion (in the sense of false belief or conception) shows clearly why we should hold this view:

“If illusion is to occur, the viewer cannot be conscious of any properties that really belong to the medium, for to the degree that we perceive that it is a medium, illusion is effectively aborted. So the medium must, as it were, be invisible, and this requirement is perfectly symbolized by the plate of glass which is presumed transparent, something we cannot see but only see through (as consciousness is transparent in the sense that we are not conscious of it but only of its objects)…So conceived, it is the aim of imitation to conceal from the viewer the fact that it is an imitation, which is conspicuously at odds with Aristotle’s thought that the knowledge of imitation accounts for its pleasure. In Plato’s it evidently did, and it is this form of the theory I am working with now. Taken as a theory of art, what imitation theory amounts to is a reduction of the artwork to its content, everything else being supposedly invisible—or if visible, then an excrescence, to be overcome by further illusionistic technology.”

Art can be pro-Medium or anti-Medium; the Medium can be seen as a glory, or at least as a necessity, as it was for the Renaissance painter exploring perspective, as it was for Plato, in which the Medium equalled “measurement” which comes to the “rescue” of blind imitation, as it was for Shelley, who said the poet would be a fool not to use rhyme, and as it was for Poe, a Medium-based writer if there ever was one, frustrating the typical reader of autobiographical content. An important point here: the glory of the Medium is not something “artificial,” even as it escapes the “ephemeral fact” in the “scientific-how-to” of its Medium-ness. The rectangular window of the Renaissance painter pictures reality not artificially, so much as naturally and scientifically. Rhyme and meter belong to science; they are not artificialities getting  in the way of reality, so much as a concession to how vast and unknowable reality qua reality is, making measurement and limit necessary, not only for art, but for knowing reality at all. And further, the Medium works with Content; the Medium does not simply exist statically by itself.

And then we have the anti-Medium school, which really does believe in a Reality better known without the nuisance of the bullying, “old-fashioned” limitations of the Medium. This includes, really, the entire Modernist project of the last 200 years, which attempts to either fight free of the Medium’s limitations, or hold it up as a joke or a gimmick.

So here we are: Wordsworth is an early Modernist who is best known—even as he worked brilliantly in poetic forms—for praising poems which imitated the “real speech of real men:” the implication of this revolutionary project is that reality—the real speech of real men— can be conveyed “without poetry, or that cumbersome Medium known as “Verse,” which, the Reality-loving Modernist is quick to point out, is “artificial,” just as Renaissance perspective is “artificial.” To the Modernist, all art is “artificial,” and the quicker we get rid of this diversion, the better. We have already pointed out how wrong-headed this is; but we should point out here that indeed, if the Medium is too removed from Reality, if it is badly or ineptly wrought, then, yes, it will be artificial and inept, in the very sense of the Modernist critique. But the Modernist threw out the baby with the bath water. For the Modernist, the Medium itself, no matter how excellent, became a nuisance and an enemy.

Perhaps we are being unfair to Wordsworth; since he did work in the medium of poetic formalism, what he meant perhaps, with his explicit talk of the “the speech of real men” was only his way of saying that his medium was a vehicle for the real, and not a medium, only. Just as Plato called measure beautiful, Wordsworth, in the same vein, was insightful enough to intuit plain speech as poetry. But not so. Art either stoops or elevates. It either pretends to give us reality-without-medium or acknowledges that art is reality-through-medium. The gods of Keats are more artistically profound than the beggars of Wordsworth, or, more importantly, Keats’s gods are not further from reality than Wordsworth’s beggars, and are closer to reality, if Keats uses the Medium of Verse better. No one can claim an over-arching reality which is superior to medium and form. Ever.

Poe laughed at Wordsworth’s apology for his own poetry’s “awkwardness” in W.’s “Introduction to Lyrical Ballads;” the medium of music was necessary for poetry’s enjoyment, Poe felt, and in his little essay, “Letter to B.,” Poe quotes some awkward lines of pure doggerel from Wordsworth for the purpose of ridicule, and refers to the “doctrine” of the “Lake School” as overly “metaphysical.” By contrast, Poe had nothing but good things to say of Keats’ poetry. Pleasure. Idealism. Medium. Music. These are mandatory for the poet. If one wishes to be “wise” or “political” or “realistic” or “informative,” let the author use prose. This advice could not be more simple. Which is why, perhaps, the educated today ignore it.






Gotthold Lessing (b. 1729) elucidated the great differences between painting and poetry.



The first person who compared Poetry and Painting with each other was a man of fine feeling, who perceived that both these arts produced upon him a similar effect. Both, he felt, placed before us things absent as present, appearance as reality. Both deceived and the deceit of both was pleasing.

A second person sought to penetrate into the inner nature of this pleasure and discovered that in both it flowed from one and the same source. The beautiful, the notion of which we first derive from corporeal objects, has general rules applicable to various things; to actions, to thoughts, as well as to forms.

A third person, who reflected upon the value and upon the distribution of these general rules, remarked that some of them had prevailed more in Painting and others more in Poetry, and that with respect to the latter rules, Poetry could be aided by the illustrations and examples supplied by Painting; with respect to the former rules, Painting could be aided by the illustrations and examples supplied by Poetry.

The first was an amateur; the second was a philosopher; the third was a critic.

It was not easy for the two first to make a wrong use either of their feeling or of their reasoning. On the other hand, the principle force of the remarks of the critic depends upon the correctness of their application to the particular case, and it would be astonishing, inasmuch as for one really acute, you will find fifty merely witty critics, if this application had always been made with all the caution requisite to hold the scales equal between the two Arts. Apelles and Protogenes, in their lost writings upon Painting confirmed and illustrated the rules relating to it by the rules of Poetry, which had been already established; so that we may be assured that in them the same moderation and accuracy prevailed, which at the present day we see in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Horace and Quintilian, when they apply the principles and experience of Painting to Eloquence and to Poetry.

It is the privilege of the Ancients in no one thing to do too much or too little.

But we moderns have often believed that in many of our works we have surpassed them, because we have changed their little byways of pleasure into highways, even at the risk of being led by these safer and shorter highways into paths which end in a wilderness.





I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections— at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.


Edgar Poe is, of course, the greatest literary theorist next to Plato; Poe’s inventiveness is always a grounded and timeless effort—one never finds Poe qualifying his rhetoric by appealing to old or new ways; Poe never abased himself before the past or the future.

Lessing’s Laocoon belongs to the past, certainly, but his observations in that work on the relationship, and essential differences between Painting and Poetry are invaluable. Modernism and Post-Modernism have blurred the two Arts and nearly destroyed both in the process. When the two Arts blend, the waxing of the conceptual destroys everything human and actual in its path until we reach the Modern Art pathology of Tom Wolfe’s the “Painted Word.”

Poetry has not been immune to the toxic blur, either, though it is less easy to quantify the damage: Abstract Art cripples and shrinks what Painting can depict; that is easy to see, but hasn’t free verse simply expanded what verse can do?

Lessing and Poe (it is a shame one has to lose) would both remind us that material particulars trump freedom when it comes to art and poetry.

Lessing and Poe would both agree on this: the crippling logic of free verse works in the following way: we create poetry by taking prose and turning it into a visual product.  Read aloud, free verse is prose—only by seeing line breaks on the page are we alerted to the ostensible nature of the product. Can we take prose, make it a visual product, and thereby create poetry? Of course we cannot. But this is what happens when Moderns run amok. Poe would quickly point out that it does not help to blame “Moderns.” The term is meaningless. Error is error, no matter in what Age it occurs, and error belongs as much to the past as it does to the present.

Just listen to Poe. Using specific examples, he will fix it now.



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