A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”

Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom……………………………………………………[November 22nd, 2009]
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘Modern Poetry’ since I started writing it in 1990, and I was already 50 by then. I’ve never sat in a Modern Poetry lecture, for example, never participated in a Writing Workshop, and only rarely attended a Poetry Reading. I’ve got Gawain and the Green Knight, all of Chaucer, The Faerie Queene, George Herbert, Christopher Smart, John Clare and Emily Dickinson on my shelves here in Chiang Mai, but very few literary-critical texts written after Wimsatt & Brooks.

The fact is I only came up against ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 10 precious packets I had sent to a much-respected University Poetry Series between 1994 and 2006 were probably never opened, and that my 8 packets to yet another up-and-coming Press hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter purporting to be a personal critique of my work. The letter, almost identical copies of which have subsequently emerged, suggested that for a certain sum the editor would help me to improve my book and that I could then resubmit it to his/her competition. I remember that moment very well — I was at my desk with my cheque book in hand when I was first alerted to the existence of Foetry.com which had already started to investigate the letters. When I then complained about my own letter on Poets & Writers (Nov 2006), I was scolded by a well-known critic for my limited understanding of publishing poetry in America today, while the very same judges who had abused me were praised for their hard work and integrity.

That was hard for me — and still is.

But the critic who attacked me on P & W was partly right, of course — even at 66 I was uppity and ignorant, and was nowhere near ready to concede that the situation I found myself in was ‘normal’ what is more ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry in me or anyone else in America. And the next thing I knew I found myself banned on-line for discussing my disquiet, first by the P&W blog, then by the AoAP blog, and finally by the Poetry Foundation’s new and wonderful Blog Harriet — not a very promising start to my new career, and particularly not at 69.

So what can you call me, then, and how can my input be more useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a peasant in poetry when you compare me with somebody like David Lehman, for example, what is more Stephen Burt — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed a lot of people who knew a whole lot more than I did about the poetry business, and wanted me to be more practical, respectful, and compliant. Because after all, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? And my cow pat hammer, that was the last straw [open the ‘Comments,’ then ‘Show More Comments,” then scroll down to July 6th, 2009, “Footnote for Posterity”]. And I was fired a few days later.

What I do have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly and successfully educated in the History of  Literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Dino Bigongiari Prize, Woodrow Wilson at Yale, Kellett Fellow at King’s [after Lionel Trilling and Norman Podhoretz but before David Lehman], C.S.Lewis & G.G.Hough as my Supervisors for my work on Edmund Spenser, Tutor for George Steiner at Churchill, Research Fellow at Christ’s) — yet I never got formally educated in Modern Poetry, not once. So I go straight from the ’30s in which I was born and jump straight to the ’90s in which I got published by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise! Indeed, I will be forever grateful to Marilyn Hacker — and to the likes of James Laughlin (only just legible on his old Remington), Theodore & Renee Weiss (I was one of the last QR Finalists, and I still have his notes in pencil), Joseph Parisi ( who read my long poem, Works & Days,  3 times!), and Alice Quinn (who suggested The Kenyon Review for my Connemara Trousers). They made not just my day but my life!

Yes, a “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on that P & W critic’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” perhaps.   Because the irony is that in the end my publishing credits have turned out to be not bad at all, considering my age and when I started.

So back to  “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of Modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because Edgar Guest/Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the side of the verse they specifically despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which went along with the satisfaction you got when you at last sat down to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for some time to come. On the other hand, after 1916 “A Heap O’Livin” sold over a million copies — which opens up a huge social and educational grey area in the History of American Poetry, one which is not yet quite out of the bag like what actually happened when my ancestors put in to Plymouth.

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and “mush” made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the so-called “Gold Coast,” and in my American childhood I never sat down with a worker, or a so-called ‘person of color,’ or a Catholic who wasn’t a descendant of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 20s didn’t socialize with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter “Delia Hilary Orlando Woodman,” (Irish plus a name which could be mistaken for someone of Italian descent???).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my two brothers and I — my younger brother, Loring, westward to the Gros Ventre in Wyoming, myself eastward across the Atlantic to Cambridge and then on up to remote Eskdalemuir, and Tony just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965). And how I ran, and kept bees, and fiddled around with Trungpa Rimpoche, and sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and here I am now writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the upper working-class poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rung of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “Make it New” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit-bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry tradition that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think I’m well-equipped even with just a small cow pat as a hammer in my hand.

Read the rest of this entry »


Click Here to continue reading this GUARDIAN article.

Why are we doing this? Is this just more watchdog barking, is this just Foetry II? Indeed, what do we hope to achieve on Scarriet?

Because it comes at a price, this work of ours, and if you read the comments following the last article just below you can see how much. Desmond Swords is ready to move on because he feels we’ve achieved a lot, and isn’t willing to limit his own huge creativity to such a parochial little struggle. Tom and I are veterans, on the other hand, we’ve been banned from Poets & Writers, The Academy of American Poets,  and now The Poetry Foundation, so we’re running out of legitimate space to write in as legitimate travellers. I mean, we’re writers, not Black Panthers — and if you don’t understand how depriving creative people of their voices creates that sort of nightmare, you know nothing about the history of protest. Nor how tragic it can be, and particularly for those who have the gifts to be heard — how that hurts, how that rankles and drives them on!

The previous article just below, The State of the Onion, was posted to help anyone who cared to re-examine what happened last year on Poets.org, and we may or may not choose to comment on that ourselves. We’ll see. But whether we do or not, it’s up to all of you to decide about each one of us individually, and add your voices to ours if you feel what we’re saying deserves to be heard.

As to myself, do you feel I’m a libellous cad whom any self-respecting on-line venue ought to shun, indeed worse than Jack Conway [Lola] — as Kaltica [Pirvaya] suggested? [click herepassim] Or am I simply uncontrollable in any other way than banning. Is that why the lights went out for me so quickly on Blog:Harriet? I mean, I was placed in the hands of the Foundation Censor way back on July 14th, just days after the Like/Dislike function was introduced, and Thomas Brady, who writes twice as much as I do, and is far more influential, survived until September 1st!

And just look at those accusations levelled at me — yes, yet again that I wrote “abusive letters to the staff” and “hi-jacked threads,” exactly the same accusations as Chrissiekl, the Site Administator at Poets.org, had levelled at me the year before — even though Kaltica admitted it was really because I spoke about people who “weren’t there.[click herepassim]

So who were those people, and why couldn’t the Academy Administrator just ban me for libel? I mean, that’s clear, isn’t it, if I attack others in a groundless slur, the Academy just steps in to protect them? So why was I dismissed for writing abusive letters to the staff instead of for libel? Why the smoke screen?

Was it that my remarks were already well-established in the public domain, that I was referring to material that had already been published in Poets & Writers, for example, that everybody knew what I was talking about but that the individuals involved still had enough clout on the inside to hush me up? [click here]

Copycat or what, “abusive letters” and “hi-jacking?” I mean, everybody knew there were no abusive letters at all on either venue, and none has ever surfaced, or ever will. And there are no hi-jacked threads either. Or is there something else, perhaps “clique and manipulation” as John Sutherland calls it in The Guardian article. And if so, what are those towering pillars of the poetry establishment going to do about it? Because Scarriet has no bones to pick with The Poetry Foundation or with The Academy — except that both seem to turn a blind eye when special interests are so obviously able to manipulate  some of their employees’ editorial decisions, and that’s where it matters!

So where does that buck stop?

Christopher Woodman

THE STATE OF THE ONION: A Report on Poets.org.

***********************************************************************POETS CROPPEDONION SCAN 3___________________________________________________________

Just a year ago, Poets.net, a small, independent poetry forum, did a study of the mother of all Poetry Boards,  The Academy of American Poets’ own Poets.org.

On a thread entitled  The State of the Onion, a Report on Poets.org, Poets.net hosted a discussion of recent events at Poets.org that involved some controversial departures similar to those on The Poetry Foundation’s own Blog:Harriet.

Thomas Brady had just completed a two month long debate with Poets.org’s leading critic and administrator, Kaltica, resulting in the most popular thread Poets.org had ever hosted. Called  On Aspiring Writers Becoming Successful Writers, it involved 259 replies and 72829 views, Indeed, Poets.org experienced a flowering during the time of Thomas Brady’s participation that it has never been able to recapture, anymore than Blog:Harriet has — the heart simply went out of both sites when they were unable to sustain a more passionate and independent sort of dialogue. All that remains without such engagement is desultory, I-score-you-score chit-chat  [click here or  click hereand on this latter, has anything changed a whole year later?].

It’s important to emphasize that Thomas Brady decided to leave Poets.net voluntarily. He never felt comfortable there, and couldn’t express what was on his mind without sneers and threats from the management and its clique of supporters who obviously felt threatened by him. I myself, on the other hand, was summarily axed, and as mysteriously as on Blog:Harriet. Indeed, I seem to lack friends in high poetry places. And the sad part is that that’s only partly a joke — because my story proves that there are, in fact, special interests in very high poetry places!

The State of the Onion: A Report on Poets.org — a fascinating piece of on-line skull-duggery, and some of the revelations are startling.

It’s important to notice that Thomas Brady’s last post is dated June 14th, 2008, and that this Report was compiled on September 17th, 2008. When you look at the statistics of “Visits” and “Replies” on the 1st page, you can calculate how little had transpired in those three intervening months.

Finally, Thomas Brady goes by the name of TomWest on Poets.org, and I’m A Commoner. On Poets.net, Thomas Brady is Monday Love, Kaltica is Pirvaya, and I’m still A Commoner.

Christopher Woodman



.Thomas Brady, Desmond Swords,
Alan Cordle, Christopher Woodman

Writers keep blogging about the end of writing [and brilliantly, Abigail Deutsch. It’s a most wonderful article, and would we were there to honor it. Indeed, this one could  be well over 100 comments in a few days, and really be worth saving as a resource too. So we apologize for the satire, but what can we do?].

The English department is declining. Book reviews? Print journalism?  The on-line poetry-establishment non-profits like Pw.org, Poets.org, and Blog:Harriet?

There’s just one problem: no one gets into details. We want to know exactly when and why poetry croaked.  Did it happen in bed or on the beat? Did poetry die in peace, or in the ambitious twilight schemes of on-line editors in the back rooms at the American Academy of Poetry or the Poetry Foundation? Did Travis Nichols get short-listed for a prize like Robin Beth Schaer, or did they all get together for a ‘Compleat Retro Refit’ in Stockbridge or Lake Forest?

And so, in the style of the solemn journalism covering this crisis, we offer a few speculative reports for a nonexistent newspaper (call it The Daily Travesty).

They Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Chicago Gang Takes Over, Ghetto Population Soars.

BOSTON– [on schedule]
DUBLIN– [tomorrow]
PORTLAND– [evening edition]
CHIANG MAI– [Sunday magazine section]

[STAY TUNED. The samizdat articles are coming in hot off the underground press — and if you don’t receive your copy it means you’re part of the problem! ]