Foetry did not begin with Jorie Graham!

Delmore Schwartz

Christopher, I remember how you tried to reach out to Joan Houlihan, how you even tried to join one of her Colrain Manuscript Conferences and talked about how you would like to have a coffee with her, that you were sure you would in fact find you had lots in common. But you forget how vindictive she remains, aloof, a figure, lurking, ice-cold in her sad attempt at superiority–a coverup for plain old insecurity and fear — reminding us of the nasty state of current American poetry, where all poets are essentially alone, moving in a miasma of cred-hunting, ego, and truism shaped by facile modernist scholarship.

Delmore Schwartz, who traveled on the edges of the “in” circle of the mid-century modernist revolution, but was finally too sensitive to fit, published an essay in The Kenyon Review in 1942 which reveals the terrifying Foetic state of American poetry–see how the curtain slips, and for a moment in Schwartz’s essay in John Crowe Ransom’s magazine, we see the true horror:

“He [the modern poet] does feel he is a stranger [Schwartz had just quoted Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Stranger’], an alien, an outsider; he finds himself without a father or mother, or he is separated from them by the opposition between his values as an artist and their values as respectable members of modern society.  This opposition cannot be avoided because not a government subsidy, nor yearly prizes, nor a national academy can disguise the fact that there is no genuine place for the poet in modern life.  He has no country, no community, insofar as he is a poet, and his greatest enemy is money, since poetry does not yield him a livelihood.”

I’m not saying there is not a trace of paranoid, Baudelarian, self-pity going on here, and Schwartz’s personal disintegration was due not a little to this bathos, but there, is, in fact an ‘objective correlative,’ the Foetic fact, the ‘government subsidy, the yearly prizes, the national academy,’ trying to ‘disguise’ the truth, and of course what Schwartz meant by this was the ‘cred hustle’ which he obviously felt as early as 1942. This is more proof that Foetry did not begin with Jorie Graham.  It was going on in the world of John Crowe Ransom, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot.



  1. thomasbrady said,

    October 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I think Delmore Schwartz saw the writing on the wall. Schwartz got his break in 1937, in The Partisan Review, an organ of the Communist party.

    What Schwartz and others didn’t see coming was the new Academic colossus, the Criticism Priesthood, which gained ascendency after the war.

    The Criticism Priesthood posits a System of Myth and Symbol, a semi-coherent Religion–or Science–of Literary Study, based on profound erudition and a faith in a structured, imaginative order which lies behind literary works themselves.

    Northrup Frye, ‘Fearful Symmetry’ (1947) and ‘Anatomy of Criticism’ (1957) was one of the original priests of this order.

    Frye makes the following ‘declaration of independence’ in his 1957 work:

    “The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with (Anatomy).”

    Harold Bloom is perhaps Frye’s greatest disciple, raising the Criticism Priesthood to new heights of popular acclaim, influence, and Blah Blah Blah.

    The Blah Blah Blah School of this Priesthood was initiated by a number of erudite crackpots, most conspicuously, Ezra Pound and William Empson. The point was to be erudite and eccentric in a devil-may-care manner so as to intimidate everyone but a select few, brave and wanton enough to fund the priesthood’s enterprise. The priests hit upon the idea to feign mystical reasons for other languages and other disciplines to invade poetry so it would never be recognized by the public (a bunch of amateurs!) again.

    The field was left to the Priesthood.

    Unfortunately the field was small—the size of a little magazine or two.

    Also, there was competition from literary Marxists who had the silly idea of inviting the great unwashed back to the party.

    Critics of the Frye-Bloom-Vendler Priesthood were above Marxism, above tawdry politics.

    John Crowe Ransom and a few friends at U. Chicago and Iowa, however, hit upon the idea that the Priesthood could have a home in American universities and he wrote ‘Criticism, Inc’ (1937) which announced the end of “amateur” reviewing as a worthy practice. For the good of Letters, Criticism, Ransom wrote, must be professionalized and practiced in the academy.

    Thanks to the Criticism Priesthood, reviewing was out. Criticism by elites in the academy was in.

    A new modernist work could not be evaluated or rejected. It simply HAD to fit, to fit into the sacred order–the New ‘Tradition’ (see TS Eliot) of the new Critical Priesthood.

    As for the Marxist competition, magazines like the Partisan Review lost their audiences after World War II, Delmore Schwartz went mad and died in 1966, and Philip Rahv, who rejected the myth-making of Frye, died an unhappy man in his mid-60s of a possible suicide in 1973—the same year Northrup Frye became the Norton professor at Harvard.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    October 17, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    In the golden age of Harriet this past summer, in a thread called ‘I Hate Poetry’ by Eileen Myles, they were talking of dear ol’ Delmore:

    I’ll just reproduce one comment here, but the whole thread is worth reading.


    You had me until you closed with this:

    “There is nothing more profound than fashion. Except silence and it’s time for poetry to find a way to speak through both at once.”

    Explain this–or not.

    Here’s the problem with poetry. It took a profoundly wrong turn back in 1910; it was ridden to death by a little clique (I could give you the two dozen names, but you all know who they are) of wooly manifesto-ism. The university ceased being a museum and became a bullhorn.

    Modern poetry as we know it essentially came out of the Princeton Creative Writing Program, better known as the Allen Tate/R.P. Blackmur Bacchanalia (partially depicted in Saul Bellow’s novel, ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ on the tragic poet and ‘Partisan Review’ writer Delmore Schwartz) whose flower was John Berryman, the first Freudian, confessional poet, who, through his friends, garnered prizes, even though he was a complete flop at everything he tried.

    Here’s the thousand dollar question:

    What is the intellectual integrity of a dream?

    The Modernist cocktail of New Criticism and Freud created the Ewww Criticism, the Text as Hidden Clues to John Berryman’s Terrifically Fucked Up Life.

    The irony here is that the New Criticism of Berryman’s mentors (Eliot, Tate, Ransom, Blackmur) was supposed to provide an escape from biography, but here poetry, the highest, most distinguished poetry of the Modernist/New Critical revolution, had become nothing more than a biographical chew toy.

    So, again, what is the intellectual integrity of a dream?

    Who cares about John Berryman’s fucked-up life?

    Because EVERYONE has dreams, EVERYONE has a fucked up life. But here’s the big point: Why should we have to puzzle out a poem to get the details of someone’s suicide anxieties? Memoirs and biographies and essays are a much faster and more efficient way to get that fix.

    Who needs the poetry? Especially when that sort of vile, panting interest has been invoked? And especially when the New Criticism promotes the brainy sort of interpretation which feels it has to hide juicy details of the fucked up life which the vulgar desire so desperately wants?

    What has happened to poetry is that two virtues have cancelled each other out, creating a nullity, creating something which the public DOES NOT WANT.

    1. Brainy, university-trained, New Critical ‘difficulty’ in which a text is a puzzle.

    2. Confessional, ‘real voice,’ ‘tell-all’ ‘anything-goes’ ‘here-is-my-life-baby-this-aint-no-John-Milton’ content.

    This, in a nutshell, is the legacy of Pound/Eliot, ‘The Wasteland,’ John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Kenyon Review, University Creative Writing Workshop MODERNISM. Remember, none of these guys sold until the Eliot/Ransom Inc. and their employees like Berryman and Lowell got a foothold in the universities and began teaching and awarding prizes to themselves, essentially.

    This still prevails; we are still swimming in the legacy of this ill-conceived state of affairs.

    This is why poetry does not sell. It’s a crappy product.

    I can’t blame anyone for hating poetry.

    –Thomas Brady

    “This is a wonderful post and absolutely screaming out for close attention.” said Martin Earl

    119 comments, lots of different voices, no fighting; some fellow named Tim Upperton was a bit rude, but overall–what an amazing thread.
    June, 2009