AN APERITIF FOR THE FEAST OF SAINT VALENTINE

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……………………………LEGS IN THE AIR

…………………………………Do not dare to breathe
…………………………………a word against the men

………………………………...your willing white wings

…………………………………support
…………………………………and speed
…………………………………as they descend
…………………………………cupped in your dark, swelling web.

…………………………………When otherworldly lovers grub
…………………………………for too much light
…………………………………and knowledge
…………………………………it’s your proud-beaked perfect flight

…………………………………that staggering tricks them out again
…………………………………to clever little fever pigs
…………………………………like dildo gods

…………………………………who still breathing quick celestial air

…………………………………yet grunting lie
…………………………………in righteous muck—

…………………………………rutting like men in beauty’s ruin!

……………………………………………………………….Christopher Woodman
……………………………………………………………….from Galileo’s Secret
…………………………………………..            

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21 Comments

  1. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 14, 2010 at 4:16 am

    What love child has not engendered a single parent?

    Your most recent poem’s a small masterpiece, Tom. But the poet’s a dilettante, and the poem just a dalliance.

    Fun, but the earth moved more in the prose than the verse.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    February 14, 2010 at 3:08 am

    Christopher!

    “Rutting?”

    Happy Valentine’s to you, too, bud.

    WTF?

    I don’t understand your poem. You see, this is the problem with modernism…first, replace coherent grammar with linebreaks…then, promote difficulty for its own sake…indirectness for its own sake…pedantry for its own sake…anything to avoid being accessible…

    Why do you think you can get away with this, Christopher?

    Building a whole post around a poem??

    How arrogant!

    Do you really think a poem like this is going to win the day?

    Thomas

  3. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 14, 2010 at 3:51 am

    Not “rutting,” Tom — “rutting in beauties ruin.”

    And ever heard of love hurts? Ever been pierced through the eye by a blind babe? Or raped by an innocent?

    Love’s rough stuff too, young man — and the babe and the innocent are complicit, as Leda’s complicit in the swan and the poem.

    ~

    “Legs in the air?” Try Icarus as a lover. Try making love without somebody’s legs way up in the air!

    ~

    You’re such a bright simpleton, Tom — and you know so little about poetry even when you write about it so brilliantly.

    The poem’s easy — it doesn’t promote difficulty at all, just says the unthinkable. It’s not the poem but the themes wound up in it that are difficult, the way it thinks upside down with its legs in the air. And although there is no prose, there’s the dynamic with the Breugel which not only connects the event to a great modern poem that everybody knows, but to the poet in general through Icarus.

    Oh, it’s about “legs in the air” alright, it’s a poem right down and dirty like all things great are also engaged in tragic descents. Like the shepherd at the very center of the painting. What does he see up there in the heavens? Do you think with that attitude he’ll ever be able to see what’s really happening right there behind him?

    ~

    You’re a startlingly clear and original thinker, Tom Brady — but not a very poetic one. To be confronted with this aperitif and to say it needs prose is to demonstrate you don’t really respect poetry. You buy it just for its looks, to have it walk beside you on your arm, to revel in the way it makes you look as you, the famous lecturer, make your entrance.

    In fact, you’re no better than the modernists you mock, wanting to have it all in the lecture, to have the beef in the notes.

    Christopher

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 14, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Christopher,

    Somewhere in the Vita Nuova, Dante takes a moment to criticize poets who write poems which they cannot defend in plain language. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was a harsh rebuke. Dante does explain his poems in simple terms in this little book, the VN—which I was fortunate enough to study in school—and many find it apallingly simple, too simple; D analyzes his poems throughout the book merely by saying, “in the first part of the poem, I tell the poem to tell my lady of my vision, in the second part of the poem, begininning with the line “____” the poet sees the lady B. walking with her friends…” This book profoundly affected me and has been one of my touchstones down the years. Dante makes you see that life is complex enough in its most moving, simply described moments and the humility of the poet-critic is so important; it is so important to avoid bombast and pedantry, the fussy rhetoric meant to impress, which professors and poets are so often drunk with. I don’t know how, but the Dante of the VN got under my skin and it did change me from what I then was.

    If a poem is a contract between writer and reader—and I do think it is, the poet is selling something to the reader, asking for the reader’s time—then I don’t want a contract with a lot of fine print. I don’t want to be tricked. If you send a rocket to the moon, one tiny miscalculation on earth and the rocket will miss the moon by a billion miles. I believe the laws of nature and science apply to poetry. So what if you changed one word in your poem? If I don’t understand your poem completely (and let’s say you don’t understand everything it’s doing, either) than how do we know if the change is good or bad? And if one word can be changed, what about two, or three, or four, or five? And do we even know whether we are going to land on the moon, or not? If existence really is glorious and unique and if precision really does count, why should I accept a long contract with miles of fine print from a poet who is not going to take me to the moon, or even across the street?

    Lastly, I will say something about poetry v. prose. Shelley in his “Defense of Poetry” says that poetry is more than just rhyme, that great prose writers are poets, period. If another writer had said ‘prose is poetry,’ I wouldn’t buy it, but from Shelley, I do. Shelley is like Dante for me. I trust their word. This doesn’t mean they are perfect, but as I have spun my poetic web of affections they have made me happy, so until I fall down from a new bolt of lightning, they are my clothes and mien. So I think it’s wrong to put poetry aside as this precious, pampered, little god, and prose must obey the child-poetry’s every whim and come when it calls and go away when it says, ‘go away’ and poetry gets to be mysterious and irresponsible and adored just for being the chosen boy-god, no for me this is not the set-up. Poetry is an island in the sea of prose and the island’s weather is due to the sea around it and they are very, very nearly one.

    Thomas

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 16, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Scarriet regulars may remember this one: GALILEO’S SECRET: Where we Look When We Look for the Truth.

    And in particular there’s this comment.

  6. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 16, 2010 at 1:16 am

    It would be hard to fault any of that. “Life is complex enough in its most moving, simply described moments,” so keep to the text. Don’t change a word of life, don’t add a flourish to it, don’t let the imagination start fiddling around with it, or the sound or the diction mess with the snap. The camera never lies, we all know that, so for God’s sake don’t photoshop!

    Enter The Iliad, enter Paradise Lost, enter The Wasteland. Enter Edna St Vincent Millay’s Renascence at 20 or, at the opposite extreme, that mean old man’s Directive — makes you shudder just to think about it. No, keep it descriptive like real life, the whole thing present in one clarion, euphonous reading, that’s what you want, melodious and comprehensible at any age and for any sex, any fisherman or farmer, virgin, lover, victim or lout. And don’t drink or get down on your knees, you’ll just get confused — you’re so healthy and well brought up, after all, you won’t start reading The Pearl poet, John Donne or Christopher Smart.

    Or The Songs of Innocence and Experience, oh, keep away from psychotic disturbances like that, and political!

    ~

    Enter Love. Enter Lying in Bed with your Lover and not knowing whose inside of whom, or where the empyrean starts or God finishes. Enter the wake, the baptism, the first frost, the last fire, altruism, dying in order to live. Enter the amour fatale, enter the betrayal, the passionate kiss in the poisonous dark. Enter the ecstatic paradox. Enter the excruciating delight. Enter Leda.

    ~

    But it is simple, I’m sure you’re right, Tom. I’ll just keep to the text and won’t go beyond the niceties of my rhythms or the sweetness of my figures of speech.

    Yes, The Divina Comedia –I’ll keep it simple and transparent like that. Oh, and I won’t complicate it with any personal kinks, don’t worry — like I’ll keep my religion, for example, or, as it happens, despite everything I believe as well as my poetry, total lack of it, out of it!

    C.

  7. thomasbrady said,

    February 16, 2010 at 3:49 am

    Christopher,

    But life is complex by a factor of a trillion, more complex than we can possibly say. Life is complex and poetry that attempts to ape it with any sort of precision immediately finds itself complex by a factor of a billion, say, rather than a trillion. But the ‘Paradise Lost’ is very, very simple by comparison. My eye registers more complexity in a half second than all the complexity of ‘Paradise Lost.’ It’s all just a matter of degree. I’m not saying no flourishes. Make every flourish beautiful and comprehensible if you are going to have them. The great poets make life less complex, not more. The genius reduces complexity into a happiness. Complexity is free for the taking in life. Why manufacture what already exists?

    Thomas

  8. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 16, 2010 at 4:28 am

    “Legs in the Air” makes the paradox in the cosmic myth we call “Leda and the swan” far simpler too, and far more comprehensible than the experience itself. “Legs in the Air” is child’s play by comparison, positively architectonic. As if God had only Lego at his disposal, or those gentle smooth blocks called Kapla.

    Because the paradox is that human beings are way ahead of the gods — and that that’s why the gods are always horny and jealous. The gods need us far more than we need them, and when they burn us to a crisp in the embrace they destroy their own sole entrance into life. We, on the other hand, are already there even if we usually don’t know it!

    And how do I know that myself? I know that because when I behave like a god I know I’m irresistible, immortal, and wildly “horny,” as does every musician who plays like a god, every actor, poet, or lover in his or her own celestial stride.

    And the recipient, the object, the victim, is always beautiful, and always disastrously vulnerable. And the recipient’s name is always, for want of a better word, “soul.”

    And if you have to say it, of course the Leda and the swan dynamic exists within the psyche, and both the swan and the girl reside in oneself. (I hate the Jungian-type discourse with a vengeance, but what can a prose writer do?)

    And the offspring, even on the couch of oneself, is always Helen and her sister, Clytemnestra, and the consequences of the rape as appalling, unwritable.

    Like being both mortal and immortal at the same time, i.e. Castor and Pollux, Leda’s sons, don’t forget. Then you’ll know the tragic fate of all conscious beings, and though you’ll still die you’ll have finally got life licked — or so they tell me.

    So what fool would try to simplify that?

    Keats, maybe. Ode to Psyche!

    ~

    No, Tom, “Legs in the Air” is reductio ad absurdum, and if you really want to get at me you should say I should never have trespassed on such ground in the first place. “Christopher,” you should say, “it’s fools like you rush in where angels fear tread!”

    And I’d say that’s poets.

    I’d also say that I haven’t explained one word of “Legs in the Air” in these comments — indeed, if I could I should have done so in the first place. That’s a cardinal rule I always observe in my poetry, in fact — if I can explain it better in different words, more or less, I do. If I can’t I know the poem is finished.

    “Legs in the air” took over 10 years, and I do know it’s finished.

    C.

  9. thomasbrady said,

    February 16, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Christopher,

    Now you’re coming out with your ideas and your philosophy, now you are speaking “like a god” (a god?) and so now you are really vulnerable!

    The poem hides you, makes you safe; no one can hurt you in there.

    Are poems vehicles for forbidden, ravishing thoughts? I think for many of us they are. Better these little prisons—poems—than shame and rebuke here.

    I love your ideas, even if you are, no doubt, a bit shamed by them—which is why they are powerful, of course. And that’s why we become poets… We have ideas of which we are ashamed…which need to be looked at…in a certain way…

    I know…I know…I’m daring to peep at Diana (your poem) naked in her bath…

    I’ll be punished for it.

    Thomas

  10. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    You’re a brick, dear Tom — but Diana is as radiant as she’s naked in the bushes, and all poetry hunters who glimpse her in the forest have to be careful. The consequences are so dire — and of course one is most at risk even as one tries hardest to protect her. I’m always the one who comes out with the fancy new clothes, for example, but like all loving clothes they just make a woman more naked.

    Certain things should never be talked about.

    I can feel the breath of the hounds in your tact and your patience.

    You let me let my hair down, you encourage me, you brush it.

    C.

  11. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 17, 2010 at 2:32 am

    Thomas Brady wrote:
    I don’t understand your poem. You see, this is the problem with modernism…first, replace coherent grammar with linebreaks…then, promote difficulty for its own sake…indirectness for its own sake…pedantry for its own sake…anything to avoid being accessible…

    Honestly, Tom, I don’t think the line breaks in the poem interfere with the grammar — the movement is specifically syntactical and the structure of the two sentences straightforward. I don’t think the poem is “pedantic” either if you mean, as I think you do, that the poem is dependent on external mythological references to make sense, which I don’t think it is at all. What lover, male or female, doesn’t know those “willing white wings,” for example, or the “dark swelling web” (spider’s, did you say, intrigue, swan’s feet?). You don’t have to read Yeats to know how destructive divine love can be either, or the consequences. Any card-shop in February will show you how lovers descend from Parnassus, and how beloveds are adventurers as well. And, of course, you don’t need myths to understand that higher thoughts can do a whole lot of damage!

    The poem’s originality lies in the position it takes toward all this, who it scolds, who it shelters.

    That’s enough— all the rest is just icing on the cake.

    ~

    We all wake up the next morning, so to speak, and wish we hadn’t, but who’s going to stand up and defend the artist or the philosopher at that point? “She was asking for it” is just as unacceptable in philosophy and art as it is in sex —on the other hand, all philosophers and artists know, like lovers, what it’s like to be on a divine mission in the descent, that they are god driven, and that the cries of the innocents below are complicit however they sound to others.

    And that beauty lies in the ruins sometimes, and the ashes.

    Not an easy angle, but who said it was all going to be fun?

    C.

  12. thomasbrady said,

    February 17, 2010 at 3:16 am

    You are hinting at some experience in your life that does not translate into mine. I wonder how much poetry is a translation of life, and how much of it is style, craft, art? I think most of us spend the majority of our days avoiding other lives, the ugly parts of life, things we’d rather not face, and for some, art is a vicarious glimpse of those things we avoid in life, but for others, art is a reinforcement of the impulse to avoid unpleasant facts. I don’t have much patience for metaphor and indirect expression, but I also don’t have much patience for what is ugly and unpleasant. That makes me an odd duck, perhaps, an idealist, maybe even a coward, and very judgemental.

  13. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 17, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Good point, Tom — and this is, of course, a very little poem, and needless to say unpublished. I billed it as just an “aperitif” — but it might have been called a “digestif” as well, the nasty little shot the French kick back to help deal with the main feast that’s gone.

    Hair of the dog.

    I chose it as well because I wanted to explore a modern poem that was truly “purple” — that was the word Franz Wright used to dismiss my earlier poem called “Leonardo Amongst Women,” which by comparison was green.

    The “purple” is shunned by most modernists — who, I’m afraid, Tom, feel much the same way as you do, and shun the more ‘difficult’ sides of experience, and particularly the ones involving intense feeling and commitment. Modernists often seem to be hiding, to be cultivating detachment, whereas I suspect they’re actually afraid they may have nothing to say. They like to hide behind nonsense, for example, and take delight in seeing how much they can say without saying anything. That can be thrilling up to a point — like John Ashbery. But where does it go?

    It cuts the risks, I guess — but it relegates poetry to a side show.

    Christopher

  14. thomasbrady said,

    February 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Christopher,

    John Ashbery is the high priest of ‘William James modernism;’ recently validated with a handsome Library of America volume, Ashbery is called the best of our age by Harold Bloom, worshiped by Jorie Graham, Helen Vendler, and nearly everybody in po-biz, but, of course no. 1 in po-biz today translates into no. 10,674 in America: he’s almost a nothing. He’s like the guy admired as a writer by his family and friends who say to him, “Gosh, John, why don’t you publish a book?” In relative terms, he’s nearly a non-entity.

    There is another strain of modern poetry which is the opposite of Ashbery, and it probably peaked in 1993, and I mean in-your-face-realism-from-the-headlines, poems that recount political and religious torture, loved ones dying horrible or banal deaths in hospitals, the banality and stupidity of American life raw, in the reader’s face, without apology or sugar-coating, so that as you admire the honesty and writing skill, you feel terrible after five minutes, and then you find yourself longing to slip into a warm Ashbery tub to soak and relax.

    Richard Howard, as a guest editor for Best American Poetry (1995) took it upon himself to exclude the poets, like Ashbery, regularly published in that volume, year after year, and Howard selected instead a lot of second-tier poets, no Billy Collins, whose popularity was just then going through the roof, but who hadn’t really been accepted by the po-biz high-brow establishment yet, though ‘second-tier’ isn’t really correct, because Howard picked Ginsberg, but what Howard did was find that ‘other’ kind of poetry, not like Ashbery’s, which really tackles the dark, underside of politics and religion in America and just puts it out there, starkly, prose-going-for-the-throat:

    The transcript of an interview
    between a Red Cross doctor
    and a Muslim girl in Bosnia
    twelve years old
    who described her rape by men

    just to give one quick excerpt example (“Terminus,” Nicholas Christopher) a read which becomes more and more horrifying.

    Here ‘purple’ is the purple of blood, and I find myself not able to read much of this and I don’t know that poetry like this will ever be popular, not that it isn’t powerful, but one can already get this in the newspapers. People don’t want their poets reading the newspapers; they’d rather them read the age. But what if ‘the newspapers’ are ‘the age?’ What do poets do?

    Well, what they do is what Billy Collins did, who made a conscious strategy of reading ‘the age’ by returning poetry to the comforting position of one narrator making a subjective plea from an ‘everyman’ position of clarity and common sense; Collins took all the various modern ‘voices’ and threw them out, took all the modern ‘ambiguities’ and threw them out, and slipped in some dry humor against the right targets, and returned poetry to one-self-effacing-but-common-sense-man-against-the-rather-amazing-but-also-somewhat-ridiculous-world, cleared a discursive space for ordinary folk and feelings, and won the day. What Collins did in his modern plight was put on a voice in which he could make fun of purple poetry and get away with stealing purple poetry’s charm at the same time: it’s finally how you go about saying it, not what you say, when it comes to making a name for yourself in poetry.

    Thomas

  15. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 17, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    What you’re talking about is Purple Heart, Tom, I was talking about “purplish” in the sense that I think Franz Wright meant when he trashed my poem with the term. Like this, for example — which, by the way, says everything I was saying but 10 times over and 10 times more deeply purple too.

    It’s a good read, but far more than that if you’re willing to take some risks.

    Also, any reader who finds my poem too dark and rich is going to choke to death on this one!

    ODE TO PSYCHE

    O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
    By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
    And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
    Even into thine own soft-conched ear:
    Surely I dreamt today, or did I see
    The winged Psyche with awakened eyes?
    I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
    And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
    Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
    In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
    Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
    A brooklet, scarce espied:

    ‘Mid hushed, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
    Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
    They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
    Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
    Their lips touched not, but had not bade adieu,
    As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
    And ready still past kisses to outnumber
    At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
    The winged boy I knew;
    But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
    His Psyche true!

    O latest born and loveliest vision far
    Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
    Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned star,
    Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
    Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
    Nor altar heaped with flowers;
    Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
    Upon the midnight hours;
    No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
    From chain-swung censer teeming;
    No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
    Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

    O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
    Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
    When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
    Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
    Yet even in these days so far retired
    From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
    Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
    I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
    So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
    Upon the midnight hours;
    Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
    From swinged censer teeming;
    Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
    Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

    Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
    In some untrodden region of my mind,
    Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
    Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
    Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
    Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
    And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
    The moss-lain dryads shall be lulled to sleep;
    And in the midst of this wide quietness
    A rosy sanctuary will I dress
    With the wreathed trellis of a working brain,
    With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
    With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
    Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:
    And there shall be for thee all soft delight
    That shadowy thought can win,
    A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
    To let the warm Love in!

    …………………………………………..John Keats

  16. thomasbrady said,

    February 17, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Christopher,

    I’m glad you quoted that gem of a poem. It made me rise up from my desk and repeat the f-word several times and pump my fist like some frat boy ape. “This is f__ing poetry!” I screamed, and scared the cat, who from the kitchen table stared at me. (We let our cats go on the table)

    Indeed, this is poetry, and this is what Eliot and Pound and Williams and Ginsberg had to hate, or overcome, because how do you dare to write a poem yourself after ‘Ode To Psyche?’ You don’t. You put a puppet on your hand and say, ‘Look, over here!’ and make a big ‘modernist’ distraction, because, forget it, you can’t do Keats. And poetry is not what T.S. Eliot or John Crowe Ransom or John Hollander or Harold Bloom puts on a blackboard. Poetry is ‘Ode To Psyche.’ That’s the definition. Not a list of terms, not a professor saying, “Well..etc” It is ‘Ode To Psyche.’

    I know what you meant by purplish writing, Christopher, and anyone who calls ‘Ode To Psyche’ purple just doesn’t get it.

    But, of course, just as Keats invokes the “Olympus’ faded hierarchy,” so does Keats fade, in turn, for us.

    But Keats will not fade so easily. Keats invokes the pagan religion of gods, but also the Catholic religion with its censers, nay, all religion, with its temples, shrines, prophets, etc, and erases them all for what lives alone in his mind.

    All poetry is about religion, finally. Poetry is never about itself, but only about religion. This is what Keats is doing, quite obviously.

    Keats and Shelley were trying to replace Christianity with a new religion, but poetry cannot replace temples and shrines; religion is too solid to be touched by poetry, so poetry’s attempt is in vain. But this is poetry, this attempt. (Religion is still getting by, with its Bible.) So we see it with Keats, and so we see it in all poetry since. Keats was the most strenuous attempt to replace religion with poetry ever seen, and the attempts today by Ashbery and Mary Oliver and Richard Howard pale by comparison.

    Poetry, qua poetry, is this: a Religious War.

    Know this, and you’ll be a better poet.

    Look at Billy Collins’ break-through poem: “Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey.” He is going after what all modern poets, to be modern, must go after: The Romantics, and by way of them, Keats. Collins wasn’t going to be embraced by the modern poetry establishment until he made this play: attack the Romantics. Only then, was he in. Look at this poem, selected by Hollander in Best American Poetry, 1998, where Collins ridicules the old Romantic poet in his “waistcoat” within his “copse.”

    “Waistcoat!” Ha ha ha ha ha!

    This is the best we can do against John Keats.

    “Copse!” Ha ha ha ha ha!

    Pretty sad, innit?

    Thomas

  17. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 18, 2010 at 4:26 am

    Quote, Thomas Brady, Feb 17th.
    You are hinting at some experience in your life that does not translate into mine. I wonder how much poetry is a translation of life, and how much of it is style, craft, art? I think most of us spend the majority of our days avoiding other lives, the ugly parts of life, things we’d rather not face, and for some, art is a vicarious glimpse of those things we avoid in life, but for others, art is a reinforcement of the impulse to avoid unpleasant facts. I don’t have much patience for metaphor and indirect expression, but I also don’t have much patience for what is ugly and unpleasant. That makes me an odd duck, perhaps, an idealist, maybe even a coward, and very judgemental.

    So, Tom, is Keats NOT “hinting at some experience in [his] life that does not translate into [yours]” in “Ode to Psyche?” Is there any part of this poem that is for you a “translation of life,” or is it enough for you just to be ravished by the “style, craft, and art?” Is it just aesthetic, the pleasure, just architectonic?

    And why do you feel the imagery in a poem always has to arise out of some “experience” in a poet’s life? It’s almost as if you can’t conceive of an inner life of images that arises quite separately from biographical facts. It’s as if you don’t feel there’s anything there in life but what happens, and that the bad parts are just personal secrets that ought to be kept hidden!

    Does a poet have to have had the experience of an unexpected pregnancy to write about an annunciation, for example, or to have been a rapist to write about Leda? Indeed, it irritates me no end when feminists go after Yeats for “Leda and the Swan,” so wonderfully imagined and fertile, suggesting the poet was an abuser of women in real life, and so we really shouldn’t be reading him.

    I chose “Ode to Psyche” not only because it’s so extravagantly “purple” but because it explores some of the same metaphysical ground as my little “Legs in the Air,” and in much the same way. Yet I suspect you don’t read any poem as anything but more or less beautiful — that indeed “Ode to Psyche” is for you “a reinforcement of the impulse to avoid unpleasant facts” in real life. Yet the story is appalling, Cupid and Psyche’s, devastating, cruel, unimaginably bad. Or do you read the poem without considering what the story actually says?

    And do you think Keats didn’t either? And if he didn’t, why did he write the poem? Just to show off and be ‘poetic?’

    “I don’t have much patience for metaphor and indirect expression,” you say — so what do you do about metaphor and indirect expression in “Ode to Psyche?” Or do you think such concerns are just a new critical hallucination?

    “You are hinting at some experience in your life that does not translate into mine,” you wrote me about “Legs in the Air,” and at first I didn’t get what you meant. In fact you meant autobiographical, didn’t you, not something in my “inner life,” for want of a better word. You meant my dark secrets, and you were reading my poem as confessional!

    In fact I like the word “metaphorical” a lot — a word which I personally prefer to spiritual, visionary, mystical, religious, etc., etc., because it’s so practical and unpretentious, and doesn’t require any faith or self-delusion. But make no mistake about it, I think metaphor can be far deeper than any of the above, that in fact most of what spiritual, religious etc. describes is just immature and/or tired poetry.

    ~

    I think poetry is important, that’s why I can’t bear what’s happening to it in Chicago!

    ~

    Can you go anywhere with me on that, Tom, Bill — anyone?

    Christopher

  18. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Christopher,

    For a poem to be understood, every one has an X, Y, Z.

    X is the knowledge the reader must possess to understand the poem, whether that be knowledge of English or of English kings.

    Y is the content, or message of the poem, the poem’s identity as an idea-object.

    Z is how the poem is understood, sans message—which is also part of its identity as an interesting object.

    I appreciate “Ode to Psyche” instantly; my mind never darts out to wonder at it and appreciate it abstractly or coldly; I live and breathe the Keats poem as if it were my own. Of course the poem is not mine, and is strange and imaginative, but it requires no translation on my part, no mediation. It should be pointed out that it is necessary that Keats and I share some minimum of X, a shared knowledge of religion and the fading away of the old gods and a little knowledge of them. It should also be noted that “Ode to Psyche” contains no metaphor; a flourish of loose comparison at one or two points, but no metaphor. We see what Keats sees.

    Per your poem, you and I either do not share enough X for me to fully understand it, or Y or Z are not sufficient, or one, or two, or all three. There is no blame, here. It is neither the poet’s fault, nor the reader’s fault. The only fault that can exist in this situation—and there is only one, really, that can exist—and that is dishonesty from the critic, even if dishonesty saves the poet’s feelings. The poet’s feelings are not an issue, because no one is to blame, except that the critic is dishonest in his response.

    Thomas

  19. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 18, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    You’re honest, Tom, the most honest I’ve ever met — and I trust your responses implicitly because I know you’re always honest, independent and thoughtful. That’s why we work so well together, even though we are descended from different epochs and planets.

    Different gods, different ages, different destinies, different persuasions and allegiances. The contemporary elite dismiss us generically as “foets,” but only because we don’t belong to their school, lineage, career paths or interests. And of course we’re so difficult to handle!

    Nevertheless, you still do have to answer my questions. Our differences can’t shelter you from that.

    C.

  20. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 20, 2010 at 9:53 am

    This is what I wrote even before I mentioned “Ode to Psyche:”

    “Because the paradox is that human beings are way ahead of the gods — and that that’s why the gods are always horny and jealous. The gods need us far more than we need them, and when they burn us to a crisp in the embrace they destroy their own sole entrance into life. We, on the other hand, are already there even if we usually don’t know it!”

    Read “Ode to Psyche” for entrances, parse it Psyche-analytically, to coin a new critical phrase, drop some acid and let the poem boil up into sexual images worthy of the secret god and the beautiful girl who so loved each other in the dark that we all got created anew. Then ask yourself why Keats felt he could create a new religion around them, how he could elevate Psyche to become the Goddess of the Entrance for a whole new radiant age!

    Yes, you can say it’s sexual if you must, and of course it all is. But what’s sex? Which comes first, the Goddess or the Act?

    Which comes first, Venus or Psyche? Because, of course, that’s the crux of the story, the tragedy that initiates this birth.

    I make a travesty out of it when I say it, but when you love like a Keats you love like a god, and the poor girl that you love has such brightness focussed upon her she’s bound to be shocked and unnerved. I haven’t seen the film, “Bright Star,” so I’m not referring to any particular images or shots, but the myth is enough to show you what happens to a girl in becoming a goddess — and the girl, make no mistake about it, is not Fanny Brawne but us.

    The poem is superb, Tom, and of course it’s enough just to be superb, but when a poem is allowed to become a whole new religion, which it is, it’s bound to be a hard act to follow! Because when you as the reader make your way in through the image in the last stanza, and the whole poem has been preparing for that, it becomes you’re own entrance, you’re own threshold, you’re own hungry soul, you’re own sacred vulva that’s entered and seeded forever.

    ~

    X, Y and Z are enough, Tom, at least until you’re ready for more. At that point there are no letters left and you either have to speak in tongues or wing it. That’s where great poetry goes. That’s how high it gets us!

    Christopher

  21. thomasbrady said,

    February 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Christopher,

    “Because the paradox is human beings are way ahead of the gods—and that’s why the gods are always horny and jealous.”

    The gods were overthrown by Socrates, Christ, Dante, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Titian, Milton, Keats, Goethe, Poe, and Heine. Human beings were not always “way ahead of the gods,” and sometimes they slip back into god-worship. That’s the old Western trope, anyway. Comfortable old slippers, aren’t they? Basis for a lot.

    Keats selected Pysche precisely because she is the “latest” of the gods, too late for the old holy practices, too late to have any official god-status, to late for temples or shrines, and belatedness itself is at the heart of Keats’ theme.
    Progress, as Keats deeply understood in the tradition just mentioned, is not a positive value, but a lateness. As Shelley articulates it in “A Defense,” because of a flaw in human nature, our sweetest songs tell of saddest thought. The opening of Keats’ “Psyche” is profound and Keats is in control of his trope thoughout; his poem is literal god-speech; it is not about gods, it is god-speech within god-existence.

    You can see why some hate Keats, or want to keep him locked away; the best of his mature poetry literally burns rival poems to a crisp.

    As to your questions:

    “So, Tom, is Keats NOT “hinting at some experience in [his] life that does not translate into [yours]” in “Ode to Psyche?” Is there any part of this poem that is for you a “translation of life,” or is it enough for you just to be ravished by the “style, craft, and art?” Is it just aesthetic, the pleasure, just architectonic?”

    As I mentioned, it is not just the craft or style that I am ravished by, but the very poem itself makes experience that transcends life’s. Keats is not doing something so banal as ‘translating’ his ‘experience’ into ‘words’ for me; the ‘words’ are an ‘experience’ that aint no ‘experience’ on this earth—it lives in (and out of) the poem itself.

    “And why do you feel the imagery in a poem always has to arise out of some “experience” in a poet’s life? It’s almost as if you can’t conceive of an inner life of images that arises quite separately from biographical facts. It’s as if you don’t feel there’s anything there in life but what happens, and that the bad parts are just personal secrets that ought to be kept hidden!”

    No, I’m saying just the opposite—I do NOT think the poem has to arise out of ‘some experience in a poet’s life.’ I do believe in this ‘inner life of images’ and that’s what I have been trying, in some small manner, to convey, but it’s even more than an ‘inner life of images…’

    “Does a poet have to have had the experience of an unexpected pregnancy to write about an annunciation, for example, or to have been a rapist to write about Leda? Indeed, it irritates me no end when feminists go after Yeats for “Leda and the Swan,” so wonderfully imagined and fertile, suggesting the poet was an abuser of women in real life, and so we really shouldn’t be reading him.”

    No, a poet doesn’t have to experience an unexpected pregnancy to write about an annunciation. How banal that would be!

    Yeats? He abused Keats and he cannot touch Keats. I will not perhaps abuse Yeats as feminist, but Yeats certainly ought to be abused. Yeats is a dying ember next to Keats’ flame.

    It might be interesting to take a look at Helen Vendler’s book on Keats’ Odes. I have no faith in Vendler; I have not looked at that book in a long time, but it would be interesting to take a look back; I have a feeling I will notice how Vendler ‘doesn’t get it’ when she attempts to pedantically explain “Ode To Psyche.” I could be wrong.

    Or compare Jorie Graham’s “On Difficulty” to “Ode To Psyche.” We have the same trope of humans too “late” for divinity, but the Graham is as intellectual and blocked as the Keats is passionate and alive.

    Thomas