THE PROZAC CRITIC

In a recent article, Poetry and Project Runway, on the Poetry Foundation’s Website, Stephen Burt, some guy who attended Oxford and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism)  defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the bad.   Scarriet recently pointed out that this is like telling a philosopher to ignore the bad.  Put this way, Burt’s rosy view appears silly, which is proper.

In this essay, Burt uses the TV show Project Runway as a platform for his pedantry.

“Project Runway,” Burt informs us, “holds lessons for poetry critics,” but first we must learn “how the TV show works.”

Contestants design clothes.

Judges judge.

Enter Stephen Burt with ill-fitting analogy.

Ron Silliman has examined the show at length” and “a poetry blogger from New Zealand” has blogged on the idea of “Poetry Runway,”  so Burt is ready to launch. [click here]

Ruffles, buttons, ribbons, white T-shirt, striped button-down, jacket…ready.

“Poets, like clothes designers, love technical challenges.”

Design a dress made from newspaper.  Write a poem about a red wheel barrow.  OK.

I.A. Richards, Burt informs us, encouraged his students to make “snap judgments” on “unfamiliar poems” in an exercise of “Practical Criticism.”

Judging is Fun.   Alright.   So far, so good.

But now Burt wades into deeper waters.

And is quickly in over his head.

Happily reveling in the fact that TV overlapping poetry is pretty cool, Burt reaches for his drug of choice:

The happy drug, designed by the Lilly pharmaceutical company.

Prozac.

“Aspects of the TV show,” he tells us, make him “uneasy” in terms of “how we judge poems.”

The show, Burt warns, tends to highlight “contestants who flounder.”

Oh, no!

Criticism. Not good in the world of Stephen Burt.

Burt informs us what works on TV–and “rightly so” (Burt doesn’t want to appear as a scold)–are “flagrant failures” and “life stories.”

A TV show, Burt admits, “devoted wholly to winners’ techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me.”

Now Burt gets down to the nitty-gritty:

“Those truths [popular appeal of negative focus and life stories] affect, not only the judging of hurriedly-assembled cocktail dresses on television, but the reading and reviewing of new poems. The broader the audience, or potential audience, the harder it is to talk about technique, and the more tempting it is to fall back on the poet’s life: Keats‘s tuberculosis, or his failed romance with Fanny Brawne; Robert Browning‘s successful romance with Elizabeth; Emily Dickinsons isolation (so often exaggerated); William Carlos Williamss medical practice, and so on.”

Burt’s reasoning is fatally flawed on two counts.

1. Does he really believe reviews of “new poems” are marred by reports of medical ills and romantic intrigues?  When is the last time a review of a new book of poems came down the pike with delicious details of the poet’s love life?  Is this really an issue, today?  Note that all of Burt’s examples are poets born in the 19th century.   Is it really true that poets born in 1980 are aesthetically challenged–because reviewers and critics keep focusing on their romances?

2. Any legitimate historical, philosophical, and cultural view of Keats that flies above mere New Criticism would obviously need to pay attention to a great deal more than Keats’ “turberculosis.”  (Though someone should tell Mr. Burt it was kind of a big deal—it killed him.)  Meet Mr. Burt’s straw man.  Mr. Burt evades the responsibility of the critic who whould investigate more than “getting collars right” by categorizing biography as “failed romance” or “TB.”  Burt, the New Critic, derides biography, and thus historical scholarship, by diminishing its scope—assuming the topic is little more than sordid gossip.

Burt is most troubled, however, by “the dangerous ease of a focus on failure.”  What does this mean?  Why isn’t he worried about a “dangerous ease of a focus on” glib praise?   The latter is far more prevalent than the former, and surely Burt’s prozac approach to poetry has a lot to do with this bland and sorry state of affairs in the first place.   Burt is like someone who complains of a bean bag’s hardness.

Mr. Burt now sheds the playful attitude he had towards the TV show completely, Silliman’s appreciation be damned:

“Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures.”

Shades of Blackwoods!   Say it ‘aint so, Professor!

Unable to face even the idea of failure, Burt, seeking out more serotonin, announces: “But it’s not good for readers and critics to treat poets this way.”

Burt demands nice—or else.

Critics must be nice to poets.

Great.  The prozac is kicking in.

Burt quotes Randall Jarrell, saying we should judge poets by good poems.  Well, sure.  Judge poets accomplished by their good poems.  Sort of obvious, isn’t it?  Pope warned against fastidiously finding fault if the poem triumphs as a whole, and this is more to the point: we should protect ourselves against the pedant—but Burt wants to protect us against the truth.

Because Wordsworth wrote dreck at times and was faulted for it, Burt proclaims, “Wordsworth would have never lasted on Project Runway.”   But he did.  He’s Wordsworth.

Now Burt brings out the heavy artillery:  “Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry should consult, first and last, ourselves.”

A noble sentiment, but what if “ourselves” is a prozac buzz?

Finally, the bow-tied New Critic steps from behind the Reality TV curtain:  What is important, Burt intones, is “whether and how poets can make it work.”

The very phrasing is right off the New Criticism rack: doctrinaire, tweedy, and square-jawed, with a whiff of the musty.

A little tip for Stephen Burt (and Helen Vendler):

1. A criticism is a criticism.

2. Criticism should consider everything–the poet’s mentors, associates, politics, in short, the life.

3. Use tact and taste (this goes without saying).

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29 Comments

  1. dmanister said,

    November 20, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Oh great. Not only are we flooded with mediocre academic poems by MFA grads, but now this turkey wants to lower the standards of criticism even more.

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    November 21, 2009 at 4:58 am

    Thanks, Diana — good to have you back after your terrible accident. Blessings on you too in your recovery.

    ~

    Turkey indeed. Because when the critic is no longer responsible for his or her “criticism,” and is even encouraged not to express a critical point of view but just blurb the book that’s under review, then the stage (good word in the context!) is set for the entry of the critic whose job it is just to blurb the industry.

    Enter Stephen Burt and that wonderful new fashion statement called “The New Thing!”

    Yes, and enter the new Poetry/Industrial Complex — which appoints the same committee to draft the specifications for the project, to judge the relative merits of the bidders (and a motion is quickly passed not to), and then to review the accounts –and in its declarations loudly asserts that such humdrum, secular, inartistic considerations are unpoetic!

    It is for our vague fellowship in the pursuit of FOETICS that we at Scarriet got banned from Blog:Harriet, obviously, and the fact that the management never bothered to tell us why we were banned, or even to notify us, is proof the reasons were too ‘difficult’ to explain. Add to that the fact that the remaining posters on the site never commented on the biggest event that had ever happened on Harriet, and that indeed everybody remaining seems happy with the Blog just as it is — what more proof do you need that Tom is spot on in this article?

    Prozac, he calls it!

    We’ve been reaching out to Don Share in a number of Scarriet articles, and Catherine Halley too still has our respect, or certainly mine, as does John Barr, whatever Desmond Swords feels about him personally, yet none of those senior and influential members of The Poetry Foundation lifted a figure. So obviously the management agrees with Travis Nichols, and feels its o.k. to censor out a critical dimension in the so-called “open community” of Blog:Harriet. And of course, Travis Nichols still posts his drek — how could they?

    Time will not look favorably on all of you, I’m afraid, Don, Cathy, John Barr, and the popularity of Scarriet is eloquent testimony to that. True, in the American poetry community there are few individuals like Dmanister and Fglaysher [click here for the latter] who have the courage to stand up and be counted by posting comments here, but that in itself is an indictment. Your political affiliations really do matter in American poetry, and if you express your doubts about the Poetry/Industrial Complex you won’t get hired, I’m afraid, or what comes first, get published — as simple as that!

    We’re not a movement here on Scarriet at all. We don’t have a clubhouse or even share the same views or have any idea what American poetry might be like without the business (look at the difference between those two little poems by Tom and myself just posted below, chalk and cheese!), we just know something very bad is going on. We’re also sad that some of those who do share our disquiet obviously like the sound of their own voices better than what we have in common, and can’t tolerate rivals even if they’re on their own team! But that has always been the case among reformers, who are such an ornery bunch — and the very word ‘reformation,’ not to speak of ‘revolution,’ sends a chill right up most spines.

    Read the excellent article, “Orphan of History,” about the polyglot revolutionary, Victor Serge, by J. Hoberman (NYRB Oct 22, 2009, LVI, No. 16) to get a taste of the absurdities involved in protests that really make things change. Because however tragic the failure of Communism as an ideology, it changed the world so much for the better, and ‘workers’ will never be exploited in the same way again. But Joe McCarthy is still in the saddle when it comes to what you can’t say about poetry!

    And who would ever dare get tarred with that brush?

    So thanks again, Diana — for all your courage.

    Christopher

  3. thomasbrady said,

    November 21, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Diana,

    “this turkey wants to lower the standards of criticism even more.”

    Well, here’s the insidious paradox. Burt’s no “turkey.” Vendler would not have picked him as her successor if he weren’t intelligent. I’ve never met him, but I’m sure he has a winning personality and he can probably do the N.Y. Times crossword puzzle faster than we can.

    It’s not quite as simple as ‘lowering the standards of criticism.’ Burt’s defenders would say he’s raising standards with intelligence, sympathy, and insight.

    And, as far as he is intelligent and sympathetic, they would be right.

    The close-reading of New Criticism (of which Vendler and Burt’s work are examples) calls for intelligence and insight–so what’s the problem? What’s to dislike here?

    It all comes down to this term: Ambiguity. This was the key issue for early 20th century Oxford/Cambridge linguistic philosophy, for ‘plain language philosophers’ like J.L. Austen, who taught Stanley Cavell at Harvard, who, in turn, taught Charles Bernstein, at Harvard. This was the issue for I.A. Richards and the New Critics.

    Ambiguity, as we all know, is two-edged:

    First, ambiguity resides in ‘negative capability’ and accompanies imaginative leaps into the unknown. Ambiguity is a friend of the imagination.

    Second, ambiguity cripples clear thinking if persisted in as an end in itself; it enables priesthoods to gain control; it defers and frustrates true dialogue. Ambiguity is an enemy of the imagination.

    Take a poem like ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ by Williams. It is significant to note that New Critics Brooks and Warren, in their textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” lauded ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ without reservation. ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ is an ambiguous work; whatever excellence it may have is not self-evident; a priest must explain its importance.

    Is it lowering critical standards to spend half an hour giving a detailed analysis of ‘The Red Wheel Barrow,’ finding all sorts of significance in it?

    Ambiguity is a useful tool–but useful to whom? That is the question.

    If the ambiguity in question is generic–if any ambiguity can be woven into an impressive result by a erudite close-reading, who gains?

    Thomas

  4. thomasbrady said,

    November 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Christopher,

    Yes, I suppose we represented the ‘communist menace’ to Blog Harriet’s management.

    I still don’t know why I was banned. Distinguished contributing writers to Harriet, Martin Earl and Annie Finch, for example, explicitly went out of their way to say they enjoyed my commentary. My detractors were either trolls, or those like John Oliver Simon with whom I fostered a dialogue. None of my posts were found to be offensive, nor did I find it necessary, as often happens with others, to apologize for any of them.

    So, yes, I suppose Harriet is guilty of McCarthyism when it comes to my banning–they obviously have a “list” of my offenses, since they did ban me, and yet no one has seen one item on this “list.”

    The last thing I wanted, I assure you, was to become a spectacle in this way.

    Scarriet, however–look at it!–is such a glorious revenge.

    Of course there will be those who say: ‘The Internet is such a terrible thing! It gives everyone a bull-horn.’ We hear this gripe all the time, don’t we? These complainers, however, have a not-so-secret hatred of democracy. For why do they feel the need to use the term, ‘bull-horn?’ Isn’t the whole point of democracy to give everyone a voice?

    Thomas

  5. thomasbrady said,

    November 21, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Christopher,

    Prozac is a good Pollyanna metaphor.

    It’s a mere coincidence that Lilly–which gave all that money to the Poetry Foundation–produces it. I just discovered recently Lilly also produced LSD and that LSD and Prozac do similar things to the brain.

    I don’t want to get into any controversial stuff re: drug companies and drugs, but it would be interesting to see a Scarriet article on Poetry & Drugs.

    Thomas

    • dmanister said,

      November 21, 2009 at 3:51 pm

      “Prozac Poetry” is an appropriate term for the stuff the Foundation publishes in its magazine; it appeals to the widest demographic of readers, those who expect poetry to offer “beauty” and “comfort,” with a sprinkle of little enigmas these readers can easily solve and so feel literate.

      The same situation prevailed in the 18th Century when Addison and Steele catered to the rising middle-class who wanted to feel “cultured” but lacked deep cultural background. The Spectator, for instance, larded its columns with commonly-used Latin terms that were easily translated — providing readers with the sense that they could read Latin.

      But The Poetry Foundation is rolling in dough. If anyone could take a chance on unknown and experimental poets, and those who seriously critique the status quo, it would be they, but instead they mimic the timidity and conformism of struggling publishers who need to build their subscription list.

      Tocqueville noted that democracy has a built-in imperative to eschew elitism; high culture is anathematized and mediocrity is embraced. That’s not to say that Communism fostered high art either — unless you think that Socialist Realism is aesthetically challenging.

      Of the two I’ll take democracy. But inclusiveness implies that difficult and dystopic poetry be valued as well as feel-good but bad-for-you-McPoems, doesn’t it? Why ostracize sorehead poets and the elite literary fringe from Poetry Magazine?

      Harriet is a giant blurb for the Foundation’s conservative projects. If you’re not with that program, it’s best to exit, stage left, or waste your energy fighting a losing battle. Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 couldn’t argue with O’Brien. Scarriet is a wonderful way to escape the juggernaut.

      Diana

  6. thomasbrady said,

    November 24, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Diana,

    Thanks. I’m glad you feel Scarriet is a good alternative to Harriet. We feel that, too, and we’re proud of what we’ve done so far.

    I’d like to issue you a challenge.

    Who are these “unknown & experimental poets who critique the status quo?”

    Can you write an article for Scarriet on the most important of these poets?

    Here are my questions:

    1. In a democratic society, how does poetry that’s difficult, or experimental, or obscure, challenge the status quo?

    2. Would the difficult or experimental poem ever have a chance of appealing to a mass audience, even if it were given a mass hearing?

    3. If it did appeal to a mass audience, would it then become part of the status quo, and lose its status as ‘challenge to the status quo?’

    4.If the experimental poem did appeal to a mass audience, how would it do so? Is there a beneficial way you imagine this happening? How, specifically, would the status quo be challenged? Politically? Philosophically? Aesthetically? Would it make people more truthful? Would it make them more educated? Would it increase their standard of living? How so?

    These are towering issues. If you were going to change the world in dramatic fashion, is ‘experimental poetry’ even the most efficient way to go? Do you have something specifically in mind when you speak of “challenging the status quo?” Or is this more a case of “I know experimental when I see it.”

    I have no problem with Harriet attempting to appeal to a wide audience. My suspicion is that poetry’s end is ‘to make people happy,’ not ‘be politically subversive,’ and if poetry were to be political subversive, a certain amount of popular appeal would be necessary.

    Thomas

  7. dmanister said,

    November 25, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    If Poetry Magazine’s current mission is to appeal to a wide audience, it is betraying the purpose for which it was created, which was to provide modernist poetry a venue:

    “The magazine was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, who was working as an art critic of the Chicago Tribune. She wrote at that time:

    “The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions.”

    In a circular she sent to poets, Monroe said the magazine offered:

    “First, a chance to be heard in their own place, without the limitations imposed by the popular magazine. In other words, while the ordinary magazines must minister to a large public little interested in poetry, this magazine will appeal to, and it may be hoped, will develop, a public primarily interested in poetry as an art, as the highest, most complete expression of truth and beauty.”

    The magazine discovered such poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and John Ashbery. T. S. Eliot’s first professionally published poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” was first published by Poetry.

    Contributors have included Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, Marianne Moore, Charlotte Wilder, Wallace Stevens, H. D., William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Yone Noguchi, Carl Rakosi, Dorothy Richardson, Peter Viereck, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff and Carl Sandburg, among others. The magazine was instrumental in launching the Imagist and Objectivist poetic movements.

    A.R. Ammons once said, “the histories of modern poetry in America and of Poetry in America are almost interchangeable, certainly inseparable.”” (Wikipedia)

    Note that the magazine “launched” and “discovered” new poetry and poets.

    Poetry Magazine today discovers nothing, launches nothing. Harriet Monroe was willing to have her taste thoroughly challenged and her judgement of what poetry was changed. When she first read “Prufrock” she called it “insane.” But she was open-minded and a risk-taker, and she published it. The rest is literary history.

    Perhaps it assumes it should continue publishing warmed-over versions of modernist poetry since that is what the magazine is famous for introducing in the early 20th Century.

    In a true democracy, difficult poetry is not excluded from public discourse. One can excuse struggling publications from taking a chance on strange, weird, new poetry, but not one that benefits from a $200-million gift!

    Diana

    .

  8. thomasbrady said,

    November 25, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Diana,

    I agree with you that Harriet Monroe was open-minded and that her magazine was an interesting experiment.

    But we shouldn’t put too much stock in any magazine. ‘Poetry’ did not ‘discover’ Ashbery, for instance. Ashbery would have been noticed; he was on a track to be noticed because of his Harvard and Modern Art connections, etc. He didn’t finally need ‘Poetry.’

    Cultural history is much, much deeper than any one magazine, and modernism is a subject that needs a lot more critical exploration.

    Thomas

  9. dmanister said,

    November 25, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    It was a lot more than “an interesting experiment!” It published unknown poets whose work is now in the Modernist canon. Ezra Pound put a lot of stock into the magazine, nagging Monroe to publish Eliot, and publishing his own work in it.

    Pound knew the value of literary reviews like Poetry; he worked on several in Paris that were open to new work.

    I think you underestimate the power of the press. Look what L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine did for a group of Postmodern poets!

    I say shame on Poetry Magazine for playing it safe; they haveno excuse for not hiring fearless editors who will offend conventional tastes. I don’t see Poetry as democratic, if it censors out odd, shocking, bizarre styles because of the difficulty of anyone “getting” them right away. Harriet Monroe was courageous in that respect — the public didn’t even get free verse when she published “Prufrock.”

    You say Ashbery “would have been noticed” but really you can’t know if he would have been, or even if he were, Poetry Magazine certainly gave him an early venue.

    Diana

    .

  10. thomasbrady said,

    November 25, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Diana,

    So Harriet should have hired Amber’s boyfriend, David Cross, to be a writer for them, rather than Amber herself?

    X-rated commedians are far better at offending conventional tastes than poets, and reach a much wider audience, too.

    I’m sure one episode of Seinfeld, broadcast when that show was popular, has offended more people than all of Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, and Bernstein ever will.

    What has poetry, qua poetry, in its entire history, done, really, to offend conventional taste?

    I guess I’m just trying to pin down the radicalness of your assertion in a down-to-earth context.

    “Poetry” almost folded several times. It was not self-supporting. Modernist poetry had no popular appeal.

    Margaret Anderson’s “The Little Review” was the first to publish “Ulysses” and made obscenity headlines, which helped make Joyce famous. Pound was the London editor for the “The Little Review” as well. Anderson was a rich lesbian from the mid-west; the magazine depended on her cash.

    The “Transatlantic Review” was Ford Madox Ford’s magazine during the same period, publishing the same people (Ford and Pound were friends, of course).

    “The Dial” (Emerson’s old rag) was another small magazine publishing the same people–T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland,” for instance, and yes, it gave out an annual prize to people like Cummings, WC Williams, Eliot, Pound, and Marianne Moore. Scofield Thayer, a wealthy scion of the Wool Trade (Worcester, MA) ran this magazine until he had a nervous breakdown when Cummings ran off with his wife. Then Moore became editor in 1926.

    It’s true that “Poetry” lasted longer than all these others, but someone would have published these people (and did) if Harriet Monroe hadn’t.

    So there were other outlets like these for modernist literature but none of them sold, because it was basically a small clique trying to do something different and make a name for itself, and if there hadn’t been wealthy pawnbrokers trying to make a buck and interested in throwing groovy parties, the whole thing would have died very quickly, I imagine.

    I don’t want to belittle the idea of rich people throwing off convention and having fun, or intellectuals satifisying an itch to try something new, but I find it a little naive to think that ‘offending convention’ was what modernism entailed. It was more complex than that. Coco Chanel, who brought us Chanel No. 5, hung out with the avant garde, with Stravinsky and Cocteau, etc etc; the fashionable rich, people who created fashion for the rich, who created ‘convention’ for the rich (and their middle-class fashion slaves) were involved with modern art, and they were not ‘offending convention,’ but doing quite the opposite: seeking ‘beauty’ and ‘comforts’ of which you claim to dislike as an artistic path.

    My question is–do you really think the Poetry Foundation is consciously trying to suppress the spirit of 1920s and 1930s modernism? Or the post-modern movements which followed in their wake?

    My beef with Harriet is very specific, and I suppose you could call it, personal; I’m not about to say, in general terms, that the Poetry Foundation is letting the poetry world down by not including more Lang-Po or incomprehensible poetry. My issue with them is not so much aesthetic, as foetic.

    Thomas

  11. dmanister said,

    November 27, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    I should have known by now that citing anything about LangPo makes one’s argument vulnerable to being dismissed. If you read my post closely you’ll see that I never recommended that Poetry Magazine publish LangPo or incomprehensible poetry (they are rarely the same, by the way.) However, as I noted upthread, Eliot’s poetry was generally regarded as incomprehensible at the time it was written because it upset conventional expectations of what poetry was, just as Beethoven disabused concert audiences of the old notions of what a symphony was.

    Asserting that if an artist is really a genius “someone else” will publish the work is no excuse, and an empty speculation. Art history is full of geniuses who had no venue for their work.

    Poetry Magazine and Harriet repeat the same old tired truisms about poetry based on the same old tired Modernist taste, but they forget this one: time marches on.

    Why does the Poetry Foundation cater to the bourgeoise taste for the last century’s art? Is it hoping for more gifts from Trumpish millionaires?

    Certainly there are editors available who do not find all new styles and forms of poetry unintelligible.

    Poetry Magazine has betrayed the open-mindedness of Harriet Monroe.

    Diana

    .

  12. thomasbrady said,

    November 27, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Diana,

    I don’t know if people found “Prufrock” incomprehensible; Eliot’s new Bloomsbury friends sort of laughed at Eliot a little behind his back, and when “Prufrock” was read aloud at one of their parties, the reaction was not: ‘I don’t understand it,’ but ‘Oh, what a neurotic, self-efacing young man.’

    Eliot studied philosophy at Harvard and Bertrand Russell (grandson of Lord Russell, British P.M.) took him under his wing; Eliot was brought into a very influential circle–he did not need Harriet Monroe.

    Today, Eliot published in ‘Poetry’ is what matters; not that ‘Poetry’ decided to publish Eliot; it’s a subtle distinction, but important. Not to take anything away from Harriet Monroe; she raised money herself for the magazine and she was sincere, I believe.

    Eliot, (and Modernism) was merely an extension of protestant-ism, of Wordsworthian and Coleridgian romanticism (which is quite different from Shellean/Keatsian romanticsm) a sophisticated critique of Old Western Values.

    Critiques such as this are always accompanied by middle and upper class support; revolutions always come from the top and ultimately are battles at the very top; grass-roots revolutions don’t happen, really. The working class as a whole is too busy getting through its day. I’m not saying members of the working class can’t rise up individually and make profound changes, just that classes as a whole never start revolutions and revolutions are much more accidental than we suppose. A progressive revolution can turn reactionary in a heart beat, faster than supporters can change their minds, and this is why there’s such a lot of misunderstanding in politics, and resentment and hatred–ideas have too many sides for the unthinking person to understand. Art should not be embroiled in politics, but rise above it. The genius simplifies fast-moving issues. Art clarifies politics without being tainted by it–that’s difficult to do.

    Most of the battle for the artist is what I might call ‘cross-over appeal.’ The ecstacy of the Beatle success came down to finding a formula which combined blues chords and folk chords–it’s a simple as that: appealing to different audiences at once. This is the root of political power.

    Anyway, I’m straying way off course into a futile lecture.

    Diana, if you were to write YOUR article for “Poetry,” what would it look like? Why don’t you write something for Scarriet? If you were in control of an issue of “Poetry,” lay it out here for us–we’ll publish it.

    Thomas

  13. dmanister said,

    November 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    Firstly, I don’t operate with a grant of $200 million, and fantasizing that I could edit a publication with that much money behind it exceeds my imagination. My complaint is that a publication like Poetry Magazine whose funding exceeds mere affluence exercises conservative unadventurous taste in poetry, where its founder, who worked with limited funds, took risks.

    You make a few wild unsupported assertions, such as

    “when “Prufrock” was read aloud at one of their parties, the reaction was not: ‘I don’t understand it,’ but ‘Oh, what a neurotic, self-efacing young man.’ ”

    Whom are you quoting, anyone? Aren’t you just making this up? Eliot in fact was greatly respected by the Bloomsberries, who created an endowment for him from their own contributions, so he could leave his job at the bank and write full-time. That group did not suffer fools, and Eliot was frequently invited to Monks House, Garsington and other of their country estates by the Woolves, Ottoline Morrell and other landed gentry. If they found him less than an equal, he would not have been included in their soirees.

    “Eliot studied philosophy at Harvard and Bertrand Russell (grandson of Lord Russell, British P.M.) took him under his wing; Eliot was brought into a very influential circle–he did not need Harriet Monroe.”

    Bertie Russell took Eliot’s wife off on a whirlwind affair, so he was hardly Eliot’s protector. This “influential circle” — to whom do you refer? Ezra Pound? He was broke, and married Dorothy Shakespeare who supported him most of his life. Eliot had very very few opportunities to publish his work, as did Ezra Pound and the other avant Modernists.

    Eliot edited The Criterion, it’s true, and published some of his work and his wife’s in it, but that did make his reputation. Eliot’s father had cut his allowance because he wanted Eliot to return to the U.S. and the Eliots were always in financial difficulty.

    Eliot certainly needed Monroe, otherwise why would Ezra Pound have kept after her for months to publish “Prufrock?”

    And you are wrong about that poem not having been considered incomprehensible by a public used to Matthew Arnold’s narrative poetry. Remember that Modernism was in part a reaction to Victorian poetry.

    There’s no point in tossing out your opinions and calling them facts; without documentation your argument has little weight.

    Diana

    .

    Today, Eliot published in ‘Poetry’ is what matters; not that ‘Poetry’ decided to publish Eliot; it’s a subtle distinction, but important. Not to take anything away from Harriet Monroe; she raised money herself for the magazine and she was sincere, I believe.

    Eliot, (and Modernism) was merely an extension of protestant-ism, of Wordsworthian and Coleridgian romanticism (which is quite different from Shellean/Keatsian romanticsm) a sophisticated critique of Old Western Values.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    November 28, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Diana,

    I didn’t mean to imply Bloomsbury thought Eliot was a joke–but, remember these were complex and cynical people–they DID snicker at Eliot behind his back. No, I’m not making it up.

    200 million? (Shrug) It doesn’t take that much money to run a good poetry blog.

    Thomas

  15. dmanister said,

    November 29, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    Bloomsbury sneered at everyone; even Vanessa Bell snickered behind her sister Virginia Woolf’s back, and Virginia made disparaging comments about her husband Leonard not being upper-class. They were snarky by nature and convention.

    Your statement that they thought Eliot to be “neurotic” is an anachronistic error I think. Freud had just been published in English and psychological terms were not commonly used by the literati, who were themselves all quirky and eccentric and not inclined to analyze behaviors. Virginia Woolf, who attended Eliot’s reading of The Waste Land, had an affair with Vita Sackville-West, who dressed as a man (she was the model for Orlando) and once ran off with a man’s wife until both their husbands tracked them down and brought them back home. Eliot was weird, but so were they all.

    Eliot first published The Waste Land in the magazine for which he was editor in chief, The Criterion. If he could have published it elsewhere, I’m quite sure he would have, as self-publishing had as much stigma then as it has now, signifying that no one wanted the work.

    My point is that Harriet Monroe provided one of the few venues for Modernist work when that work was new and NOT ACCEPTABLE. Her lily-livered successors at Poetry Magazine publish only acceptable poetry that upsets no one.

    Diana

  16. thomasbrady said,

    November 29, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Diana,

    The publishing history of ‘The Waste Land’ is a fascinating one.

    John Quinn, a successful modern art collector and lawyer for Pound, Joyce and Eliot, was a key player.

    Eliot’s old friend, Scofield Thayer, ‘Dial’ editor, essentially paid Eliot prize money for ‘The Dial Prize’ so Eliot would publish his poem in ‘The Dial’ and not elsewhere. Harriet Monroe was probably horrified by the whole rotten business and wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, but who knows? The whole thing was an arrangement worked out by Quinn, not an honest publishing venture.

    It makes you wonder, because Quinn worked for British Intelligence as a double agent, pretending to be an Irish Nationalist; Quinn had known Yeats since 1902, and I suspect Yeats, who flirted with fascism, was a British agent attempting to derail the efforts of Maud Gonne–who Yeats harrassed for years. Pound, and Eliot were right-wing bigots, as everyone fully knows and Quinn was their lawyer. This is no secret, but polite society refrains from being so blunt. But why shouldn’t we speak the truth? Quinn was a British Intelligence case officer for Aleister Crowley: the goal was Irish nationalist infiltration.

    I’m just speculating here, but it stinks to high heaven where I stand. Kipling, an Irish-hater, was lovingly adored by Eliot, who bragged of his (Eliot’s) “British stock” when he was invited to give the toast at the Kipling Society in 1958. You probably know this–even Wiki briefly lays out the Quinn story.

    I don’t know if politics such as this interests you. When you write ” lily-livered successors at Poetry Magazine publish only acceptable poetry that upsets no one,” perhaps you refer to a different kind of controversy?

    Is it ‘John Quinn/back-room truths of modernism’ information you feel the Poetry Foundation would not dare publish, for fear it would “upset” someone?

    What should ‘Poetry’ publish that would “upset” someone, Diana? I’m not arguing with you. I’m just asking.

    You seem to be implying that ‘The Waste Land’ is important because it “upset” people. My point is that it merely befuddled a few people, and there is no way ‘Poetry’ magazine would refuse to publish ‘The Waste Land’ today.

    These matters always involve more than poems which offend, or do not offend. They involve motivated individuals. When the ‘Little Review’ got in hot water for obscenity with ‘Ulysses,’ the lawyer brought in was—John Quinn. Do you think ‘Poetry’ should publish more sexually explicit work? I don’t think that’s what your saying. Or, do you mean ‘Poetry’ should be more political?

    I’m not defending the Poetry Foundation, per se.

    Thomas

  17. dmanister said,

    November 30, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    I think poetry should avoid politics; for one thing, it’s always topical, which dates the poems very quickly, making them seem irrelevant.

    Eliot’s misogyny and anti-semitism were pretty thoroughly explored by Cynthia Ozick in The New Yorker some years back. I would not argue that his poems have flaws of this kind. Furthermore, his essays are even worse. After Strange Gods, a book of lectures that Eliot withdrew from publication, contains an essay that explicitly states that D.H. Lawrence was demonically possessed, and another that describes Eliot’s ideal state, in which “the presence of free-thinking Jews would be undesirable.”

    Needless to say, this is not what I meant when I recommended that Poetry Magazine publish poems that epater le bourgeoisie. I was referring to aesthetic innovations, strange and original poetry, instead of the stuff they print now, which every junior English major can comprehend.

    Modern art offended nearly everyone when it was new. From Picasso to Pollock, Gertrude Stein to Eliot, Shoenberg to Cage. But culture has a way of absorbing transgressive art, and so what had been shocking became monetized and acceptable.

    Poetry Magazine would certainly publish Eliot now that Modernism is firmly in the literary canon, but what does that say? That they are only as advanced as Harriet Monroe was decades ago?

    Diana

    .

  18. thomasbrady said,

    November 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Diana,

    Does “strange and original poetry” have to “offend?”

    I think I see where you are coming from: your ideal seems to be: poetry which is not understood by everybody now–due to its orginality and strangeness–but which will be understood, eventually.

    You don’t think ‘Poetry,’ which is trying to please the mainstream, has the courage or the insight to publish this kind of poetry.

    Is this it, then?

    Thomas

  19. garybfitzgerald said,

    November 30, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    I guess you guys missed Poetry’s recent Flarf/Conceptual issue with Kenny Goldsmith, et al.

  20. dmanister said,

    November 30, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Dear Thomas,

    Exactly.

    Hello Gary!

    I actually subscribe to Poetry Magazine, believe it or not. I find flarf offensive, but not in a good way. It’s a simple-minded attempt to shock, but anyone older than a sophomore in college would find it puerile, unless they find puerile to be a good thing.

    Writing transgressive content is as easy as telling a dirty joke; but when did you last see poetry that plays with parts of speech, coins neologisms, and otherwise bends traditional linguistics out of shape in order to better express an insight or feeling?

    Screaming, indulging in insults or graphic descriptions of sex is just too easy to do. It doesn’t qualify as formal innovation, which is what all the shocking modernists did: Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Glass wrote music that was generally considered not to be music at all, until it was absorbed by the culture, which pretended it was what it wanted all along. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon outraged everyone before it became an icon of Modernism.

    Transgressive styles that change what everyone thinks of as poetry is much more difficult to achieve than using Modernist styles to write outrageous content. That’s not even putting new wine in old bottles; it’s pouring old vinegar in them.

    Diana

    .

  21. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 1, 2009 at 1:14 am

    I don’t think “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was ever considered “difficult” in the sense that some of Pound’s “Cantos” are difficult or, not a poem but perhaps the quintessence of “difficult” in word-art, “Finnegan’s Wake,” is truly difficult to read. Indeed, it irritates me when teachers at any level suggest that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” needs a whole lot of literary background and a briefcase full of notes to read, which is nonsense. It’s easy, it’s beautiful, it’s intensely lyrical and moving yet always elusive because it’s seductive even — as all great art is, and full of the most wonderful surprizes that never cease to amaze me or any other dedicated reader in the world.

    All that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” needs from a reader is the conviction that it’s honest and willing to reveal its secrets if you just give yourself time with it, like the Mona Lisa or a painting of Balthus. You just have to be there and look — nothing needs explaining to a moderately sensitive reader, though of course like the Mona Lisa or Balthus there are mysteries that are delicately suggestive, some of them esoteric, some of them offensive even, or forbidden, and critics will write about all that forever, and we’ll read them. But we read them because we like them not because we need them, like the NYRB!.

    No, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was simply offensive — too raw, too revealing — and was meant to be! The fact of the matter is that the millieu of the poem simply “went without saying,” and was therefore unassailable — including demi-tasse coffee spoons, Michelangelo as a subject for polite conversation, and the perils of eating a peach when you’re sporting such a fine cravat and the linen napkin in your lap is so white and so perfectly folded like your turn-ups down there under the table. The fact that messy anxiety was admitted into the very heart of the secure establishment where nobody had anything to worry about — that made the poem extremely uncomfortable for the intellectual middle class that was striving to ressurrect poetry as a fine and noble new art to go with their new status.

    Ditto Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, an ugly picture really and not of much lasting value, but just such a shock, particularly when glimpsed as it was casually resting there in Picasso’s messy studio by artists who were trying really hard to find out how to say something important, and weren’t quite ready for a classical statement quite as ugly as that!

    Or Le Sacre du Printemps, which nobody has ever listened to with pleasure unless they’ve swallowed too many musical notes and have ideas coming out of their ears — or they’re dancers. It’s brutal if it’s restricted to just sound, and the audience erupted because they heard it and were offended, as they ought to have been — because it was shocking not because it was “difficult!” And it was meant to be!

    Flarf isn’t difficult either, it’s just lite — and personally I find that shocking. Indeed, I didn’t spend more than a few minutes with that issue of Poetry, it seemed such a waste of a whole new issue of the great magazine I was so eagerly awaiting in my mailbox. Why bother to send me lite all the way to Chiang Mai?

    Aren’t there two kinds of “difficult,” Diana, “difficult” because it makes the difficult accessible and difficult because it makes what’s already difficult inaccessible?

    Christopher

  22. garybfitzgerald said,

    December 1, 2009 at 1:47 am

    Diana…chill. You’re preaching to the choir. 🙂

    I actually called Eileen Myles and CA Conrad vulgar in public (on the PF site).

  23. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 1, 2009 at 2:34 am

    But what is “transgressive” is the psycholgical and also socio-political elements, not some curiously “difficult” prosodic or aesthetic transgressions. Eliot doesn’t employ a single new technique in the poem, and doesn’t even throw a curve ball, it’s all so straight in its flight straight over the plate. Yes, the poem has its elipses and hiatuses, but Browning is just as prodigal with the natural interruptions, circumlocutions, asides and eruptions that go with any true statement of personal truth from the heart.

    The title is about the most revolutionary aspect of the poem, and I could well imagine that Harriet Monroe might have worried about how it would look in the index. But that’s not being difficult or even particularly original.

    Essentially it’s conservative, one of the greatest Good Bad poems ever written!
    C.

  24. thomasbrady said,

    December 1, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Diana,

    Thanks, our resolution felt good.

    Gary,

    You’re such an icon-smasher!!*&%%@

    Christopher,

    “Aren’t there two kinds of “difficult,” Diana, “difficult” because it makes the difficult accessible and difficult because it makes what’s already difficult inaccessible?”

    Excellent distinction. Yes.

    Thomas

  25. dmanister said,

    December 2, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Dear Christopher:

    You make the mistake of reading “Prufrock” not as a contemporary of Eliot’s, but as someone reading the poem after Modernism has been absorbed into the canon of Western literature, and after the poem has been explicated to death in a million surveys of literature courses.

    Browning and Eliot exist in two different literary universes, although Eliot certainly learned from the former. I need not go into the formal differences here, anyone reading “My Last Duchess” will certainly note the formal differences between the two poets, especially the differences in narratology. Where Browning follows the traditional paradigm of beginning, middle and end, Eliot’s poem does not, being fragmented and disjunctive.

    In his book T.S. Eliot, Michael Grant writes:

    “Conrad Aiken, one of Eliot’s Harvard freinds a fine poet in his own right, had been impressed by Eliot’s early poems, and at a party gathering in London in 1912 had shown ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ to Harold Monro, editor of ‘Poetry and Drama,’ whose initial reaction was that the poem was ‘absolutely insane.’

    Christopher, if a contemporaneous editor of a literary journal reacted with outrage to ‘Prufrock’ how can your assertion that the poem is “conservative” and “not original” hold up? Especially since Monro’s publication was considered to be advanced for its time, otherwise Aiken and Pound would not have been interested in it.

    Grant continues:

    “Pound sent ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ to ‘Poetry’ with a covering letter stating that it was ‘the most interesting contribution I’ve had from an American.’ None the less, it took nine months for Pound to beat down Harriet’s resistance to a poem of such strangeness. It did not appear in Poetry until June 1915. Pound had been obliged to defend Eliot with vigor…letters (between Pound and Harriet Monroe) chart the course of a protracted struggle on Pound’s part to convince Harriet Monroe of the poem’s value…

    ‘Not only did Pound expend his powerful energies on getting Eliot’s work published…but he also introduced him to the world of the avant-garde in London, peopled by such figures as Wyndham Lewis, harriet Shaw Weaver, H.D. and Richard Aldington…Arthur Waley and Ford Madox Hueffer…Pound even went so far as to borrow money, without Eliot’s knowledge, for the publication of ‘Prufrock and Other Observations.’

    Christopher, your notion that Eliot’s early work was not strange, shocking and avant-garde is belied by this account and many others that document its originality. Further, after the poem appeared, angry letters to the London Times expressed horror that such a poem would be published in a civilized nation.

    Diana

    .

  26. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 2, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks for that, Diana — lots of references that I knew slightly but am very pleased to get to read in a fuller context.

    But I don’t see anything in what you say that contradicts my position that the poem is not “transgressive” in the sense that you used the word. Yes indeed, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is shocking, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s shocking in its atmosphere and its message, not in its rhetoric, grammar, style, structure or logic. The poem was a full frontal attack on the comfy, the polite and the socially elevated — indeed, if you think about it as an attack on what we call “family values” today you will get an idea of the horror it arroused in people — because who among us is ready to satirize our most cherished American values without fearing for our own sanity? Who could even begin to think such thoughts?

    Like trashing prayer, democracy, Thanksgiving, or wellness.

    In any society at any time there are things you just can’t say, and Prufrock said them all in 1917.

    “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a very great and very beautiful exploration of intense anxiety, sexual, existential and neurasthenic, but what made it so particularly devastating at the time was that that anxiety was being explored in a milieu which was synonymous with safety, security, and correctness, and beyond all reproach. And of course, very few people were part of that world either — it was still just a dream for almost everybody, including for T.S.Eliot himself, who had to work very hard socially to become part of it.

    Because what was also shocking was J. Alfred Prufrock’s pretentions. How could a man with such a silly, inflated, upstart name ever aspire to be part of the old money world he was trying to figure out how to enter? I mean, with a name like that you’d think he were in trade.

    Which gets to the heart of the matter — because that’s so shocking it’s unpublishable.

    And of course we’re all insecure because we’re human, but the great artist can sometimes find a way to express it that makes you feel it in the pit of your stomach — and the imagery differs with each epoch.

    (It’s very late for me at the antipodes and I’ll try to do better on this tomrrow.)

    Christopher

  27. thomasbrady said,

    December 2, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Diana and Christopher,

    Let me say a few things. You’re both right. Eliot was surely influenced by Browning as well as T.E. Hulme, the founding Imagist whose work pre-dated “Prufrock.”

    Here’s a couple of Hulme poems.

    Note in the Hulme how the “I” rhymes with “sky” and the phrase “like a red-faced farmer” and also the idea of the sky as a blanket…the fallen gentleman…and the general melancholy, hide-and-seek lyricism. It’s very much, even in these brief examples, like “Prufrock.”

    [let us go then you and I/when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient…]

    The Embankment

    (The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night.)
    Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,

    In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
    Now see I
    That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.

    Oh, God, make small
    The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
    That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

    Autumn

    A touch of cold in the Autumn night —

    I walked abroad,
    And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
    Like a red-faced farmer.
    I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
    And round about were the wistful stars
    With white faces like town children.

    That’s the first thing.

    Secondly, Eliot’s poem does lack unity.

    One-third of the way through the poem, after the second “Michelangelo” part, the “you” of the “you and I” is abruptly dropped. The poet had been addressing the “you,” who is invited to make the “visit,” but we no longer hear of the “you” after line 32—“a time for you and a time for me” —as the poet becomes obsessed with his failings; the “I” completely supplants the “you and I” by line 40. The “you” never returns.

    If you do read “Prufrock” for “content,” which, thanks to New Criticsm, we never do anymore, it is “insane.”

    The failure of Eliot to write a convincing Browning poem (since we can’t know whether the lack of unity in Eliot’s poem is intentional or not) does not necessarily mean that Eliot was consciously breaking new ground. Pound published Edwardian verse in his first attempts, WC Williams was rhyming away in a traditional manner in his 20s, and Eliot was simply aping what existed then. The hype that modernism was some kind of “revolution” covers the fact that the modernists were trying to write Victorian verse–and failed. The ‘failure’ was then hyped into something ‘new and groundbreaking’ for purely selfish reasons.

    The “insanity” which Harriet Monroe saw was really there–as was the weakness of the poem—because it lacked unity.

    Lastly, Eliot admitted at the end of his life that “Prufrock” was also shaped by his enthusiastic reading of Rudyard Kipling.

    Thomas

  28. dmanister said,

    December 2, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Dear Christopher,

    It was in the poem’s transgression of prosodic conventions that elicited outrage, not only from the reading public but from more traditional poets and editors.

    Eliot was stylistically innovative, that is why the literary avant-garde claimed him.

    Joyce’s Ulysses was shocking for its erotic content as well as its formal transgressions; Prufrock offered nothing scandalous in that regard; he was so repressed he was afraid to eat a peach. I hardly think neurasthenia as a subject would have sent editors into a tailspin.

    Diana

    .


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