WHAT IS POETRY?

A poem is an imaginative fiction, and though it may aim at a kind of truth, it is not real; it is not the truth.

The poet never necessarily endorses what he imagines in his poems.

A poet is essentially a playwright or a story-teller. Shakespeare is not himself guilty of mayhem, because he put mayhem in his plays.

The mind that imagines is not the hand that does. The author is never the persons imagined.

Countless authors have used their own experience to recount crimes in the first person. Of course this does not mean they are guilty of anything. A society would not be free if it prevented authors from making imaginative fictions.

Think of all the songs that sing of things not necessarily condoned by the singer or the songwriter. Poems, like songs, like stories, like plays, are finally not real; that’s why they belong to creative writing.

There are some, who have almost no imagination themselves, who would judge a poet harshly by that poet’s fictions—fictions meant to shine light on life by dint of imaginative thought, seeking to understand and cure the world’s ills, the very ones which most afflict those who have no imaginations, those who, ironically, imagine that a fiction is entirely real.

Unfortunately, poetry is increasingly taught in our schools as something which is not imaginative, but either a collection of facts or the real voice of a real person speaking. The imaginative virtue, in this case, is replaced by a different virtue, a virtue that is virtuous precisely because it has no imagination at all.  Either the poem makes no sense (without sense, there is no imagination) exhibits some political opinion found in any newspaper, or is a kind of memoir in which the poem’s speaker is precisely relating a real incident from real life. The imagination is nowhere to be found.

The virtue which is virtuous because it has no imagination is a necessary virtue, and there should be no objection to it: ‘virtue without imagination’ accompanies duty and loyalty and obedience of every kind, and society as we know it would be impossible without this kind of simple virtue.

But this kind of simple virtue has nothing to do with imaginative writing.

This does not mean that the imaginative cannot be moral and virtuous, in the final analysis, and in fact, it should be, but it is moral in a different manner; it arrives at the good in a more round-about way; as in Dante’s famous poem, hell may have to be visited before heaven is gained. In the imaginative fiction, “hell” is both real and not real.

Great poets have been exiled. Mixing real with unreal, the real they include may still offend. Imaginative writing, which comes close to the real, includes this risk. The ‘scary’ real mingles with the ‘scary’ fiction.

But in the end, it is fiction, and, if it is good fiction, it overcomes the scary, it does not support the scary, for the imagination is guided by the ultimate truth or good, if it is good. The imaginative writer, using the bad occasionally, strives to be good. Not because the writer is ‘honest,’ as in writing a truthful memoir, or because the writer expresses a desire to ‘save the whales,’ but because the fiction is a fiction which participates in a truth expressed in a highly imaginative manner, so that the expression itself is as important as the thing expressed, the power of the expression giving a kind of license to say what people may think but are afraid, or too embarrassed to say, the embarrassment existing not because of who the poet is, but because of the world’s shortcomings. The poet is not expressing his thoughts, but in the imaginative act of the fiction, the thoughts of everyone. This is the purpose of imagination: to go out of ourselves in a moral act and identify with the world, to identify with the intrigues and secrets and welfare of the world, for the sake of the world.

I have been influenced by the work of Dorothy Parker, one of the best poets of the 20th century. The last stanza of her poem, “Love Song,” goes like this:

My love runs by like a day in June
And he makes no friend of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
in the pathways of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.

Parker is madly in love with a man who will not sit still long enough to love her, and the torture is such that she wishes somebody would kill him. We don’t know how real, in this particular case, this sentiment is, but we do know that this precise sentiment could be real, and this very sentiment could be Parker’s precise state of mind.

But since, as readers, we know it is a poem, we identify abstractly with its sentiment; we call it real and yet unreal, and don’t equate it with any actual behavior of Parker’s. As we live in a free society, we do not censor; we allow both Dorothy Parker and her poem complete freedom, with the democratic conviction that a society which suppresses fictional expressions of this kind will be a society which has less creativity and more violence.

Scarriet holds to this principle of free expression: we carefully and deliberately produce work that could be true, but which is not true; no person, place, or thing is ever identified so that a stranger might identify the truth of its content in any way; only its truth as an inspired fiction exists; a Scarriet love poem could be about any love; the universal sentiment is always the subject, never a particular individual in a particular circumstance. The imaginative poem is the only poem we allow to be published here.

Shelley said the secret of morals was love, for love makes us passionately identify with another person.

Romantic attraction, or love, used to be the staple of lyric poetry, but imagination is required to make love interesting, and the non-imaginative poetry of today is not up to the task.

First, since love has been written about so often, the challenge to be original is greater.

Second, romance has become problematic in modern times, just as romance.

Third, since poetry now exists most influentially in the college classroom, it behooves professors to make poetry a subject that feels more modern, and expresses the sort of social change college campuses are simmering with; thus love poetry is tacitly rejected as too simplistic and old-fashioned, too associated with popular music, and so essentially not serious.

Fourth, social media has created a firestorm of private-turned-public, take-no-prisoners, gossip which pries into slightly uncomfortable private feelings with a judgmental animus never before seen in history, and since original romance effusions are bound to entertain slightly, or even deeply, uncomfortable private feelings, the love poet may just throw in the towel altogether, and instead write poems on very simple subjects, like history, politics, and philosophy.

Imagine if the Beatles were told they couldn’t write love songs; the Beatles simply would not exist.

The result, today, is that poetry finds itself in a state of confusion, exiled from all song, or lyric, elements, and struggling, as “poetry” to make a prose more meaningful than—prose. Which, obviously, cannot be done.

Look at these lyrics from one of the Beatles’ best-known albums, Rubber Soul, released in 1965, the height of Beatlemania, in which the Beatles were also striving to be more sophisticated:

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl, or I won’t know where I am.” —Lennon & McCartney

This is from the songwriters that would go on to produce “Imagine” and “Let It Be” and “Here Comes The Sun.” Imagine if a would-be John Lennon wrote a poem like that today, and it ended up on Facebook. “Run For Your Life” was influenced by an Elvis Presley song, and has been covered numerous times. What is the difference between a song and a poem? Should poets be held to the same standards as songwriters, recording artists, and other ‘creative writers,’ and what should those standards be? Should all creative writing, whether a movie script, a short story, a song, or a poem, be held to the same moral standard, whether or not it appears in a cinema watched by millions, or on some poor wretch’s blog?

If I make something up, which nonetheless has some resemblance to reality, in a poem, is this not the same as a major-release film depicting precisely the same thing, with the only difference that the latter costs millions of dollars to make, and employs thousands of people? It may just be that the film will be considered an elaborate fiction, no matter how horrific the content, but with the way poetry is increasingly read and judged these days, the poet, it will be assumed, is somehow responsible in his own person, as the filmmakers are not, for any offensive content that is part of the fiction.

Can censors say, “You may write about love, but you may not depict hateful things like jealousy?” No poems or songs like “Run For Your Life?” No ambiguity of desire allowed? Where do we draw the line, when it comes to imaginative fictions, in keeping a society creative and free? And can we ever justly assume something about an author’s personal character—think of our Shakespeare example—based on their imaginative fiction?

Look at what Plato demanded for his Republic: poems that only praise. (Plato, contrary to popular opinion, did not ban all kinds of poetry from his ideal society.) A song like “Run For Your Life” would be banned, because threatening to kill your girlfriend is not praising her.

It didn’t matter to Plato that Lennon wrote a song about an unnamed girl. What mattered was purely the bad emotions involved. Yet Aristotle would say these “emotions” are a vital part of art’s expressive good.

Was Plato right?

How imaginative/expressive/creative are we allowed to be?

We believe we have made it clear where Scarriet stands.

If Scarriet has ever strayed, in any way, from our rigorous standard,—we are human, after all, and poetry is a passionate and extremely difficult art—we apologize, without reservation.

THE ONE HUNDRED GREATEST HIPPIE SONGS OF ALL TIME

If Mick Jagger’s hair had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed.

When we mentioned to the poet Marcus Bales we were putting this list together, he immediately assumed a pejorative intent; yes, “hippie” has come to mean a term of censor, even in music—but we assured him our research was sincere.

Categories are safe, even when they dissolve into others.  We know what “hippie songs” are, even as they expand like a stain.  And what is amazing is how great and various and popular this list of hippie songs is.  In a thousand years from now, when we look back at this era, all of our popular music will be seen for what it really is: hippie music.

The 1960s, as one would expect, features prominently, a time which, artistically, happily resembled the great Romantic era in poetry: sensual, but not overly so, intellectual, but not overly so, and perhaps because indulgence was miraculously tempered by a certain unstated restraint, popular.  It sounds crazy to say the 1960s featured conservatism and restraint, but it did. Now that we’ve traveled through post-modernism, we know how conservative the lyric is, and the 60s were lyric.  Tradition had yet to be toppled.

Only a few really like chaos, and when chaos threatens, lyric structure and common sense fight back in all sorts of hidden, wonderful ways. Shelley’s spring is never far behind. Tender, conservative feelings survive in the frenzy, even as rebellion gets the headlines.  In an early interview, the Beatles made the astute observation that in England, kids hated what their parents symbolized, but not their parents, whereas in America, it was the other way around.  The cliches of the 60s are just that: cliches, and should not be used to bash what was a spectacular confluence of events and sensibilities.  There are movements which are self-consciously internationalist: one country fawns over another nation’s art, like the rich American ladies who in 1905 suddenly hankered for Japanese vases and haiku.  But in the ’60s, England and America, two great nations, both gave and took, equally, appreciably, in a healthy, natural, intense, rivalry of shouting, stomping, feeling, and sharing.

So how is it that “hippie,” a demeaned, belittled, mocked, obsolete, term, symbolized by long, unwashed hair, drug derangement, and artsy-fartsy, pie-in-the-sky ideals, translates into such significant and wonderful music, as seen in this list of undeniably great songs—greater than any similar list of popular songs one might compile?  Who knows?  But there must be a lesson here, somewhere.  Perhaps it’s this: art responds to popular focus, popular sincerity, popular desire and material accident (length of hair, for instance); art cannot be intellectualized into greatness.

Two more observations before we present the list: John Lennon wrote more good ‘hippie songs’ than anyone, and yet, in person, he was the opposite of a ‘hippie’ in so many ways: a bully as a kid who routinely made fun of ‘spastics,’ John was too sarcastic and mean to care for anything ‘hippie.’  John was recruited into the ‘hippie movement’ almost against his will by various forces, and, proving how complex and powerful the whole ‘hippie’ sensibility is, John’s extremely complex working-class/art school/inner turmoil/ life became a fountain of ‘hippie music.’

There were divisions and fears in the 60s, as well as money to be made, and this surely fueled music being made in the safety of recording studios.  The quality of songs on this list does not translate into a ‘hippie’ era that was nice.  When George Harrison first met his producer, he told him he didn’t like his tie.  George famously had a bad experience when he visited hippies in California. In the words of his sister-in-law:

We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be special, a creative and artistic place, filled with Beautiful People, but it was horrible – full of ghastly drop-outs, bums and spotty youths, all out of their brains. Everybody looked stoned – even mothers and babies – and they were so close behind us they were treading on the backs of our heels. It got to the point where we couldn’t stop for fear of being trampled. Then somebody said, ‘Let’s go to Hippie Hill,’ and we crossed the grass, our retinue facing us, as if we were on stage. They looked as us expectantly – as if George was some kind of Messiah.

Laugh—along with John—or sneer—along with George—as you will, but all these very different songs are very much ‘hippie,’ (in feel, as well as idea) and, improbably, are many of the loveliest, most significant, and most enjoyable songs ever recorded.

1. Imagine -John Lennon
2. Here Comes the Sun  -The Beatles
3. Woodstock -Joni Mitchell
4. Going Up the Country -Canned Heat
5. I’d Love to Change the World   -Ten Years After
6. If I Had A Hammer  -The Weavers
7. Live For Today -Grass Roots
8. Suzanne  -Leonard Cohen
9. Hurdy Gurdy Man  -Donovan
10. In a gadda da vida  -Iron Butterfly
11. That’s The Way  -Led Zeppelin
12. Tiny Dancer  -Elton John
13. Heart of Gold  -Neil Young
14. All You Need Is Love  -The Beatles
15. Mr. Tambourine Man  -Bob Dylan
16. Knights in White Satin  -Moody Blues
17. Get Together -The Youngbloods
18. We Are Young  -Fun
19. Ohio  -Crosby Stills Nash & Young
20. Wild World  -Cat Stevens
21. Feelin’ Groovy  -Simon and Garfunkle
22. The Wind Cries Mary  -Jimi Hendrix
23. This Land Is Your Land  -Woody Guthrie
24. Alice’s Restaurant  -Arlo Guthrie
25. Eve of Destruction  -Barry McGuire
26. Creeque Alley  -Mamas & Papas
27. What Have They Done To My Song, Ma   -Melanie
28. Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In   -The Fifth Dimension
29. White Rabbit   -The Jefferson Airplane
30. Walk Right In   -The Rooftop Singers
31. I Love The Flower Girl  -The Cowsills
32. Crimson and Clover   -Tommy James and the Shondells
33. Incense and Peppermints  -Strawberry Alarm Clock
34. She’s Not There  -The Zombies
35. Eight Miles High   -The Byrds
36. Light My Fire   -The Doors
37. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?   -The Beatles
38. Mr. Bojangles  -Jerry Jeff Walker
39. Do You Believe In Magic?  -The Lovin Spoonful
40. Green Tambourine   -The Lemon Pipers
41. I’m Free (from Tommy)  -The Who
42. San Francisco   -Scott McKenzie
43. Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)  -John Prine
44. Us and Them  -Pink Floyd
45. Pleasant Valley Sunday   -The Monkees
46. We Gotta Get Out Of This Place  -The Animals
47. For What It’s Worth  -Buffalo Springfield
48. Strawberry Fields Forever  -The Beatles
49. The Sound of Silence  -Simon & Garfunkle
50. I Gave My Love A Cherry  -Doc Watson
51. Georgy Girl  -The Seekers
52. Space Oddity   -David Bowie
53. 99 Red Balloons  -Nena
54. Norwegian Wood  -The Beatles
55. When The Music’s Over  -The Doors
56. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35  -Bob Dylan
57. Instant Karma  -John Lennon
58. Hey Jude  -The Beatles
59. Truckin’   -The Grateful Dead
60. Me and Bobbi McGee  -Janis Joplin
61. Hotel California  -The Eagles
62. Sympathy for the Devil   -The Rolling Stones
63. Almost Cut My Hair   -Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
64. I Feel Just Like A Child  -Devendra Banhart
65. Fortunate Son  -Creedence Clearwater Revival
66. You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)  -White Stripes
67. American Pie  -Don McLean
68. Good Vibrations   -The Beach Boys
69. What The World Needs Now Is Love  -Jackie DeShannon
70. People Are Strange  -The Doors
71. Melissa  -The Allman Brothers Band
72. The Times They Are A Changin’  -Bob Dylan
73. Buffalo Gals  -John Hodges
74. Wonderful World  -Louis Armstrong
75. Lola  -The Kinks
76. Universal Soldier  -Buffy St. Marie
77. Freaker’s Ball  -Dr. Hook
78. I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)  -The Electric Prunes
79. Melody Fair  -The Bee Gees
80. Old Man   -Love
81. Brand New Key  -Melanie
82. Stoney End  -Laura Nyro
83. Vincent  -Don McLean
84. Indian Reservation -Paul Revere and the Raiders
85. We’re Only in It for the Money  -Frank Zappa
86. Eleanor Rigby  -The Beatles
87. Hey Ya!   -Outkast
88. Born To Be Wild  -Steppenwolf
89. Rocky Mountain High  -John Denver
90. Young Folks  -Peter Bjorn and John
91. Smells Like Teen Spirit  -Nirvana
92. I Shall Be Released -The Band
93. Lucky Man  -Emerson Lake & Palmer
94. In the Summertime  -Mungo Jerry
95. Piggies  -The Beatles
96. Sunshine of Your Love  -Cream
97. Hesitation Blues  -The Holy Modal Rounders
98. Mother Nature’s Son  -The Beatles
99. A Horse With No Name  -America
100. 21st Century Schizoid Man  -King Crimson

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