HORROR, the genre, must be horrible because horror, the reality, stalks us daily;  the relief of laughter, and the relief of revery inspired by beauty, both exist partially as an antidote to anxiety.  Directly confronting fear (in a horror film, for instance) triggers a physical response which competes with laughter–a bodily response–and pleasurable swooning–also a physical response.  The comedic, the beautiful and the horrific are sisters.  Art deftly combines them, and the skill in combining these three marks the great artist. 

Fictional horror gives a crude psycho-physical pleasure in the use of contrast as it diminishes the banal horror of ordinary worries and anxiety–the less intense dread we feel in varying degrees in our own lives.    

The cure is the poison itself; fear in life seeks out more intense fear in stories; ironically, more palpable fear comes to us through fiction; the horror genre is a vaccine of ‘dead’ (fictive) horror for our ‘live’ (real) anxieties.     

But why does horror have to be horrible when it can be comedic and beautiful too–and not merely full of horror?  We can have our poem and eat it; the art that is beautiful and comedic and terrifying all at once  is the greatest gift art can give. 

Alfred Hitchcock won no Oscars, and the terrifying film “Bright Star” will win none, and Poe, who they say ‘is not really that scary’ (of course not! his genius was not merely out to scare) was the Hitchcock of his day, winning no ‘Oscars’ (Poe was shut out by the literary establishment, despite his popularity).  I’ll name one more figure who fits into the category of aesthetic balance–and for that reason gets rejected by various camps: Camille Paglia.  A highly controversial, contradictory, but rich, thinker, (who has wasted her talent on political blogging to some extent) Paglia provides more than single-genre types can chew on.

On this Halloween, here’s to celebrating books, films, and art that are scary, funny and beautiful in tasteful, ingenious combination. 

Take fright and add a little light.  The dark doesn’t have to be so stark.                                   


Remember when poetry and art used to dance?  Poe and Tennyson were painted and illustrated constantly.

As for poetry and painting interacting after Modernism, what is the likelihood of two autistic persons dating?

We might even define Modernism as the artistic becoming autistic.  Modernist poetry is when poetry ceased thinking pictorially.  (Recall the Imagistes were not so much pictorial as minimalist.)

What painter wants to paint an Ashbery poem?   A painter could paint a red wheel barrow, but why would this be interesting?  If a painter were to paint a T.S. Eliot poem, what would they paint?  StreetsDooryards?  “April is the cruelst month.”  How does one paint that?  Or, “Hurry Up, Please, it’s Time!”

Artists could have depicted any number of modernist poems, but the point is they did not.

Instinctively artists have felt, with the general public, that modernist poetry is insular and parochial.

They were never wrong, the old masters.  They were painters and poets.

Although certain well-placed associates in the press have swooned over certain modernist “masterpieces,” one can only go so far with a jumble of cut & pastes from Dante and Andrew Marvell covered in a world-weary, sophisticated mist.

Even a popular 20th century poet like Frost: a painting of a man & horse in a snowy woods?  It smacks of calendar illustration.  To paint Frost’s most famous poem we’d have…what?  A grassy path?

This, of course, is a truism: modernism ushered in specialization in the arts–essentially cutting genres off from each other.  Painters ceased being poets and poets ceased being painters, as each modernist group became self-reflexive, self-quoting, and narrowly obsessed with what made their art unique:  “I use language!”  “I use paint!”

The modernists’ perception may be different, but for poets, the truth–in the mirror of art–is plain to see.

WE WERE THERE TOO: But We’re Banned from Blog:Harriet now. And WHY? Did Martin Earl find us troublesome? Or what about you, Annie Finch, or you Camille Dungy? Don Share? Cathy Halley? You were all there along with Gary Fitzgerald and Michael Robbins? Who in the light of the International Poetry Incarnation of 1965 could possibly have allowed this to happen in 2009, and at The Poetry Foundation of all places???

International Poetry Incarnation,
The Original Program,
The Royal Albert Hall, June 11th, 1965,
Smoking Permitted.

Albert Hall 1aAlbert Hall 2


Thomas, Gary, Christopher, Camille, Annie, Michael, Don, Cathy, others…

I certainly don’t see a problem, and I second Thomas’s drift in this comment. The thread is about open space, cornfield, Nebraska style space. Thomas has a point. You read what you want to read. Volume can only be stimulating, especially when the discourse is conducted at such a high level. I’m sure this is exactly what Ms. Lilly had in mind, free and open forums which grow organically. Any given post can sustain pointed commentary for only so long before drift, meta-commentary, opinion, personal ideology and the gifts of individual experience begin to take hold. I, for one, feel extremely lucky, as one of the hired perpetrators these last few months that the threads unfold the way they do. Maybe Gary has a point – some people could be scared away by the clobbering breadth of the most enthusiastic threaders. But perhaps not. I suspect a lot of people are reading just for the fun of it, for the spectacle, without necessarily feeling the need to contribute. And I’ve seen enough examples of people, late in the day, breaking in without any trepidation. Thomas has brought up a lot of good points here about the way things are supposed to work. And I would say, having observed this process over the last six months, that, given the lawlessness, there has always been a sense of decorum, even decorum threaded into the syntax of insult (a wonderful thing to see). We are all at a very lucky moment in the progress of letters. A kind of 18th century vibrancy is again the order of the day. We should all thank the circumstances that have led to this moment. We should drink a lot of coffee and get to work.


Honestly, you all, go and read such passionate and well-informed commentary, and BLUSH! Go and read it right here, and then look at Harriet today!


VISUAL ARTS TO POETRY: WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? [Poetry twists & shouts at cold Serpentine Gallery p-p-poetry marathon]

No, this isn’t Lotte Lenya.  Eileen Myles enjoys ‘post-modern’ moment at the Serpentine.  Du hast kein Hertz, Kunstler, und ich liebe dich so.

50-some poet, 36-hour poetry marathon at the Serpentine Gallery in London on October 17–18.  Part of Caroline Bergvall’s dispatch on Harriet  follows:

Although a number of the chosen artists are known for dealing with writing and language pertinently and intrinsically as part of their artwork (Susan Hiller, Tacita Dean, Sean Landers, Jimmie Durham, Jonas Mekas, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster), it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, “poetry.” Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, “I don’t know poetry,” “I dont know what to read,” choosing to calm the audience by reading from known values such as Eliot, Ted Hughes, Lorca, and Hamburger’s Celan, rather than tracing their own engagement with writing as part of the event. Here, poetry itself was treated as a historical, in the sense of acquired, decorative, rather than productive, mode of functioning.

What happened? Tim Griffin, poet and editor of Artforum, said in his opening remarks that poetic investigation might provide a needed grammar for the arts in a period of crisis. This insightful point was echoed by Eileen Myles, who reminded us that a number of poets in the late-20th and early-21st centuries have certainly at times sought out arts environments for a wider, looser, more open renewal of their forms and modes, but that it was now time for the visual arts seeking out writing and literature to query their more profound questions about writing. How and why might they be courting poets and poetry, how and why might they wish to including reading and writing as part of their practices, and more pointedly, what were poets doing at the Serpentine?

So what’s the problem? Here again, it seems to me that the event confirmed that the debates between art and poetry remain superficial and usually kept on a back foot, or at arm’s length. Apart from artists or writers who specifically develop ways of working across these disciplines or modes, the cultural status quo is still very much, and in an often unexamined way, one of irreconcilable historic and formal differences between the literary and visual arts. The mood was certainly very different a year ago when the Serpentine hosted a large retrospective by the filmmaker, painter, and poet, Derek Jarman.

The prejudice of much art towards poetry is that it is inherently passeistic when not informed by artistic modes. The question of writings by artists is that writing is an instrumentalized, functional activity. This ignores the fact that the whole question of applied (or writerly) language is also that of histories of language and of literary and semiotic applications. All this forms a specific skills base that is indeed pertinent to the demagogic and mediatized rhetorics of our times.

The reluctance of the artists present to engage with poetic material and the absence of more British poets effectively created the feeling that the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure was language itself. Or rather, a fear of language, a fear about not controlling a knowledge of language that demands its conscious, careful, and studied semiotic and semantic manipulations across a whole range of environments. The fact that poetic and literary cultures in Britain are still resolutely separate from other artforms, unless dealing with theatrical performance, certainly plays an important part in generating this sort of sclerosis between verbal and non-verbal arts.

Caroline Bergvall, October 26, 2009

I agree totally with what you say. Poetry is seen as a pejorative term by most people in general and perhaps by some artists. Or seen by artists as an inferior discipline which cannot achieve the same ends. I often talk to people who can talk to me at ease about contemporary art but when they find out I write and read poetry look at me like I’m a stamp collector and ask ‘what do I write about’ – meaning ‘what’s the topic of my poems?’ Is it about war? or maybe about seeing the strangeness in the everyday.

This is due to the canons of art and poetry not matching. Many people simply are not aware of contemporary poetry (hopefully this event will have alerted them) .Anyone who hasn’t dismissed the popular canon of poetry has no knowledge of possibilities: but they might well know text art. The problem lies with the fact that the popular canon of art is essentially contemporary whereas the popular canon of poetry is modernist (and almost to a state of regression): dull or embarrassing.     —James Davies (Harriet comment)



The one self-evident effect of the modernist revolution is that art appreciation has become an activity both intellectual and elitist.

Pound, for instance, has no popular following, but one cannot swing a cat in any discussion of literary modernism in the last 100 years without hitting Pound.

The 100-year-old gulf between art for the people and art for elites is widening, not shrinking.  Think of a relatively short while ago,  with a writer like Poe, (you guessed correctly, didn’t you?) when the gulf hardly existed!

Art for the masses lives in the movies, TV, and (with less frequency) the novel.  Students in the universities can elect to skip literature and the fine arts completely.  Those few who do care for literature go into creative writing.   Movies, when they are not ‘torture porn,’ are typically comic books brought to life.  The cleverest writers are those in TV comedy: sexual inuendo awash in sentimentality, reflecting, to a certain extent, real life, the entertainment concoction of the mainstream.  Novels are mainly written to become movies.  Ineffective political propaganda fills an artsy niche.

Both the artistic and intellectual self is withering since intellectualism has been taken from the well-rounded person and handed over to the narrow eccentrics who are fit to survive in the realm of museum rank and critically acclaimed art bequeathed by the modernist revolution.

How did manifesto-ism narrow artistic endeavor so quickly?   How did a handful of unknown writers, painters, and collectors during the Great War era triumph so completely in a couple of generations?   If we look at Pound’s success we see the answer: one-tenth, so-so art, nine-tenths, patronage.   Pound’s art has had a neglible effect on the world, but the Zeitgeist of the Pound era was patronage, and in the post-WW II  Writing Program era, modernism extended its miraculous push directly onto the academic track.

The Bloomsbury aristocrats who practiced free sex, and funded Modernism, were Great War hawks and doves when Hitler was on the march.  Later, when they weren’t founding the Whitney art musems or Marxist magazines, they were agents for the KGB, or drug use advocates during the 1960s.  The modernist patrons were very well connected with each other and with the Zeitgeist.   Hollywood threw money at Aldous Huxley, who didn’t produce much as a screenwriter, but he was a Huxley, and sought after among that set.  A blind, coddled, sadistic, aristocrat, Huxley was one of the Zeitgeist elites who slithered  from one superstitious fad to another from Bloomsbury to Los Angeles.

The transition from the Pound era to the Program era can be glimpsed in Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks’ ‘Understanding Poetry’ textbook which greeted millions of GI Bill students back from defeating Hitler with little chapters rapturously fawning over ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ by Pound’s friend, Williams, and ‘In A Station in the Metro’ by Pound himself, next to a chapter reprinting Aldous Huxley’s mocking  and acerbic put-down of Poe.

Huxley calls Poe “vulgar.”  This by a man who wrote poetry like this, anthologized by H.D.’s husband Richard Aldington:

“God’s in His Heaven: He never issues/(Wise man!) to visit this world of ours./Unchecked the cancer gnaws our tissues,/Stops to lick chops then again devours.

Beauty for some provides escape,/Who gains a happiness in eyeing/The gorgeous buttocks of the ape/Or Autumn sunsets exquisitely dying.”

from “Ninth Philosopher’s Song”  Aldous Huxley

Huxley must have felt proud to be so clever in a world-weary, English aristocrat way, comparing “the gorgeous buttocks of the ape” to “Autumn sunsets exquisitely dying.” 

For  Huxley, we can be sure that he really did find an ape’s buttocks gorgeous.  

But “Ulalume,” by Poe, is “vulgar,” and Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, the American wing of Pound’s Modernist triumph, were anxious to share this wisdom with the oncoming rush of students in post-war America.

“How American Modernism Came Out:” Tom writes it in a letter.


Hi Christopher,……………………………………………………………..10/27/2009
I never had a chance to see your draft before you pulled it. Don’t be too self-critical — I sort of like it when we post a howler. It’s part of our style, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t even know what we’re going to post next ourselves!

I like the ‘LangPo v. Official Verse Culture’ just up because that’s IT in a nutshell for lots of poets these days.  We’ve got to simplify it like that if we’re going to be popular at all.  We’ve got to mine this whole Modernism thing–it’s pertinent, it’s relevant, it’s got legs, it’s known, it’s familiar to many, it’s sexy, and it’s Foetry-city, and it’s horribly sexist, in my opinion, and fascist, to boot, so if we can get people stirred up about it, we’ll have a huge audience.

I’m not a ‘knee-jerk’ leftist, Christopher; I like to think I transcend political labels, but right now I’ll do anything to get a discussion going.  People who would otherwise be horrified at the true politics of the Modernists have given it a pass for the sake of ‘experimentalism’ and ‘aesthetic radicalism’ but I want to prove to the next generation of good people that we’ve been ‘had,’ and open up their eyes and tie it all into Foetics and then see where it leads, in a kind of Socratic manner: don’t know where the truth is exactly, but we’re looking for it…

You were at Cambridge, and I want to do an in-depth look at how American Modernism came out of the U.K.  It’s really exciting…Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Apostles and the Aristotelian Society…all the New Critics were Rhodes Scholars, including Paul Engle…I’m sure the Plan was formulated in comfortable, cozy rooms above the green lawns of Cambridge University…some British Empire planner took a moment from his busy schedule of running the world…”Oh, what to do with Poetry?  Well, let’s see…give me a moment…How about this and this and this?…very good, then!…carry on…”

So what was the Plan for Poetry?  What is the Plan for everything?  Consolidate power among elites, and I’m guessing the take-over works this way:

1. First, sow confusion in a ‘crisis’ atmosphere  (Oh gosh what the hell is poetry, what is reality, anyway?)

2. Hand-pick those who are best equipped to respond to the ‘crisis’

3.  Let these hand-picked be of two kinds: conservative and radical and let them feign disagreement while working towards the same end.

4. Stamp the hand-picked crisis-responders as the ‘new thing’ and have hand-picked associates in the press and in academia sound the alarm, but with grudging respect.

5. Relevance established, the ‘new thing’ is crowned savior and becomes the new status quo.

The whole thing ‘works’ precisely because the role of poetry no longer exists as poetry, but has been narrowed down into a kind of ‘movement’ which is ‘managed’ by a subsidized group; it is this ‘narrowing’ which provides the ‘energy’ that gains them advantage; they use poetry, instead of the other way around, they tie it into the current ‘crisis,’ and so the mere passive ‘appreciators of poetry’ don’t stand a chance–they’re slaughtered like cows.

I wanted to make this point to Des in our recent comments exchange on Scarriet.  Destroying culture is like killing people.  It’s serious business.  Our mission to save poetry is not just about one’s individual right to write without criticism–it’s deeper than that

Alan’s got to be happy at how Scarriet is doing.

A poet friend of mine from Canada who I only talk to occasionally just sent me an enthusiastic message re: Scarriet.  I’ll quote a part:

“Hi Tom, the Scarriet is amazing! we need something like this in Canada as its pretty lame here and no one is “kicking against the pricks” (sorry for my rather off colour language but this is an actual phrase that was popular in Canadian literary circles years ago) And I am not someone who can speak up unfortunately due to being shy! So congrats again on your feisty spirit and thats a lot of good work.”

Terreson & Gary are united by their ‘love of the earth’ which is OK, but it’s not finally interesting…eco-awareness has been played as much as it can possibly be played in the mainstream press, and now it’s become a matter of policy and implementation. Poets playing it up seems a little beside the point, like saying education matters…






The Alabama Panel 25 years ago this month was essentially a high-brow rumble: LangPo taking on Official Verse Culture.

Two heavyweights of LangPo, 53 year old USC Comparative Lit. professor Marjorie Perloff and 34 year old L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E editor Charles Bernstein took on U.K. poet Louis Simpson, 61,  former Nation poetry editor and Black Mountain associated poet, Denise Levertov, 60, David Ignatow, 70, poet and poetry editor of The Nation, Harvard professor Helen Vendler, 51, and Iowa Workshop poet Gerald Stern, 59.

Perloff and Bernstein were on friendly turf, however. 35 year old Hank Lazer, the ‘Bama professor host, was in Bernstein’s camp, as was 30 year old Gregory Jay, punk ‘Bama assistant professor.

Charles Altieri, 41,  professor at U. Washington and recent Fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, ostensibly had a foot in each camp, but you could tell his heart was with Perloff and Bernstein.  The match-up was actually 5-5, so LangPo should have counted itself fortunate.

Also at the table 25 years ago was the elder statesman, Kenneth Burke, 87, a coterie member of the original Modernists–winner of the annual Dial Magazine Award in 1928 (other winners of the Dial Award in the 1920s: T.S. Eliot in 1922 for ‘The Waste Land,’ Ezra Pound, WC Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore.)   Burke, chums with figures such as Malcolm Cowley and Allen Tate, was an editor at The New Republic 1929-1944, a radical Marxist, and a symbolism expert–if such a thing is possible.

The poet Donald Hall had been invited and could not attend–submitting in writing for the conference his famous ‘McPoem’ critque of the Workshop culture.

We already looked at how Gerald Stern embarrassed Bernstein by asking him to ‘name names’ when Bernstein raised the issue at the 25 year old panel discussion of ‘poet policemen’ enforcing the dictates of ‘official verse culture’ and Bernstein only coming up with one name: T.S. Eliot.

Then we looked at Vendler asserting the crucial modernist division between timeless criticism and “abrasive” reviewing–with Simpson retorting this was nothing but a status quo gesture on Vendler’s part, with Vendler weakly replying she was fighting the status quo in working to make Wallace Stevens more appreciated.   Then in Part III of this series, we saw how Levertov roared ‘you parochial fools are ignoring race/unprecedented crisis/human extinction.’

Levertov, taking a no-frills Leftist position, and Simpson, with his no-frills aesthetic of pre-interprative Vision, proved too much for the LangPo gang.

Levertov became incensed with professor Jay’s post-modern argument that human language and interpretation are at the heart of human experience: “Bullshit!” Levertov said.  Levertov and Simpson (with Ignatow) argued for universal feeling as primary.

Levertov argued for universal access as the very nature of language; Perloff countered that a small group of people might find meaning in something else.

Louis Simpson came in for the kill, asking Perloff:

“Suppose you found some people who were using bad money and thought it was good money.  Would you be mistaken to point out then it was all forged?”

The audience roared appreciatively with laughter.

Bernstein, with his training in analyitic philosophy, was shrewder, finally, than Perloff. 

Rather than confront the dinosaur Levertorous head-on, the furry little Bernstith sniffed around and devoured her giant eggs:

Bernstein: “We’re not going to to resolve philosophical & theosophical, religious differences among us.  Religious groups have these same disagreements.  I think the problem I have is not so much understanding that people have a different veiwpoint than I have–believe me, I’ve been told that many times (laughter) and I accept that.”

Here’s the insidious nature of Bernstein’s Cambridge University training–he seeks disagreement as a happy result; he embraces difference as a positive quality in itself.   Bernstein gives up on universals sought by pro and con argument.  Now he continues:

“What I do find a problem is that we say ‘poets’ think this and ‘poets’ think that–because by doing that we tend to exclude the practices of other people in our society of divergence.”

What are these “practices of other people?”  He doesn’t say.  But we can imply that these “practices” are radically different and reconciliation is impossible.    Now Bernstein goes on to make a stunning leap of logic:

“And I think it’s that practice that leads to the very deplorable situation that Denise Levertov raised: the exclusion of the many different types of communities and cultures from our multicultural diverse society, of which there is no encompassing center.  My argument against a common voice is based on my idea that the idea of a common voice seems to me exclusion.”

Bernstein’s Orwellian thesis is that the One does not include the Many; the One is merely a subset of the Many.   Bernstein rejects the universalizing social glue necessary for Levertov’s democratic commonwealth of social justice; Bernstein promotes inclusion while positing inclusion itself as exclusion(!).  Multiculturalism interests Bernstein for its severing qualities–Bernstein wants to break but not build.  Logically and politically, he is unsound, and later on in the discussion–after Vendler breaks from ‘official verse culture’ and goes over to Bernstein’s side (thus giving Langpo a numerical 6-4 victory) with her ‘poetry makes language opaque’ speech–Levertov strikes the following blow:

Bernstein:  My poetry resists the tendencies within the culture as a whole. What poetry can do is make an intervention within our language practice in society.

Levertov:  I disagree.  Language is not your private property. Language has a common life.




The Zombie-Modernists are:

1. Ignorant of material, social, political, elitist origins of Modernism.

2. Ignorant of the vicious, exclusionary, philistine nature of Modernism.

3. Ignorant of how much ‘Make It New’ was fascist razing and leveling, not  democratic or revolutionary building.

Here’s what the Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909 on the front page of a major daily newspaper in Paris, said: 

We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn of woman.”

The critic Marjorie Perloff, whose job is to glorify kooky, 20th century modernism, excuses these words, saying Marinetti didn’t really mean it.

Perloff is not the only one, of course, who finds the manifesto-ism of Pound and Futurism full of “charm.”  Here’s more from that 1909 document:

“Courage, audacity and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.”

We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunisitic or utilitarian cowardice.”

“We affirm that the world’s magnficence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.  A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath…”

“We intend to exalt aggresive action, a fervent insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”



« Older entries