“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

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Tupelo Welcomes Your Submissions, But Alan Still Has Questions

An Open Letter from Alan Cordle.

This just arrived in the Scarriet inbox, and I’m still confused. Initially, Jeffrey Levine drew up the most ethical guidelines of them all, yet he still slipped up terribly, and hurt a lot of people. I also don’t get the  “non-profit” angle. So the Tupelo Press gets 1,000 manuscripts at $25.00 each, that’s $25,000 for each contest, right? So how can this be called “non-profit,” even when you subtract $3,000.00 for the prize?

And did Tupelo Press actually manage to match that $30,000.00 matching grant this year? I know some people offered to contribute to the fund if Jeffrey Levine would just clear up some doubts about his ethics, but I don’t think he did. Also, why do you only get $3,000.00 now for winning a Tupelo prize, whereas it used to be worth $10,000.00? Yes, things are getting more expensive as Tupelo says, but nothing like that much more. It makes you wonder how they managed to pay that astonishing sum when they were first just getting started?

And what happened to Jeffrey Levine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Donovan, I think her name was, the advertising executive who used to be Tupelo’s Managing Editor? Why is she no longer an officer at the Press?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was, of course, Foetry.com that pressured contests into specifying in their Guidelines that no “former students” of the judge are eligible.   It’s hard to believe, but there was even a time when  Foetry.com was derided for insisting upon just this, and now it’s routinely part of all poetry-contest guidelines.   “The Jorie Graham Rule,” it’s called, for obvious reasons.

Tupelo Press Guidelines

I’m still confused about the Tupelo Press Guidelines. This is what they say. “Readers” reduce the 1,000 submissions to 175, but as to who those “readers” are we are told nothing by Tupelo.    The “readers” also put comments on the manuscripts they like, and then “the editors” take the roughly 175 manuscripts and reduce the pile to 25 which are “ranked” for the Final Judge along with the supporting arguments from the “readers” and “anonymous” editors, so it’s hard to know who is who when it comes to responsibility for following the guidelines.

It could even be argued that the Final Judge makes no judgment at all, theoretically speaking.   For if the 25 manuscripts presented to the Final Judge are “ranked,” no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, etc., “editors” have essentially picked “the winner,” haven’t they, and the Final Judge, who is in the employ of Tupelo as well, presumably, is under no obligation to do anything more than automatically choose No. 1 as the winner of the contest.

What bothers  me is that there are no clauses in the Guidelines that address the relationship between the poets who submit their manuscripts and the “readers” and “editors” who are so crucial in choosing the winner.

Still, in perfect keeping with the published Tupelo Guidelines, couldn’t a personal friend, even a spouse of a “reader” or an “editor,” submit their manuscript to the Dorset Prize competition and “win”?    The Final Judge, who does not personally know the wife, let’s say, of a Tupelo editor, and who receives the manuscript anonymously, sees that the manuscript is ranked No. 1 out of the whole slush pile sifted by the “editors” before him. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, Bin Ramke selected winners at Georgia who were known only to Jorie Graham, and in at least one well-documented case who hadn’t even entered the contest. And, of course, there was that other well-documented case of someone else’s otherwise unrelated almost husband who still managed to win and is now also a professor at Harvard.

Yes, I do worry that a published, well-known poet who submits to a Tupelo contest, and is known to a “reader” and/or “editor” at Tupelo, will have the same advantage.  The “anonymous” character of the judging is suspicious, isn’t it, since the Tupelo editor winnowing the manuscripts down to a “ranked” 25 can “know” the poet who is submitting, and Tupelo can have an overriding wish to declare “a known poet” the winner? Isn’t that exactly what was also done year after year by Graham and Ramke at Georgia? Indeed, there’s nothing in the Guidelines that says the Tupelo editors can’t directly let the Final Judge know which manuscripts they (the Tupelo “editors”) “admire.” It doesn’t take a corporate lawyer to set that one up!

Colrain Manuscript Conferences & Crazyhorse/ Tupelo Press Graduate Program: Matters Arising

I’m also concerned about the students who have paid such a lot for the intimate editing services offered in both the Colrain Manuscript Conference retreats and the Crazyhorse/Tupelo Press Graduate Programs — they even advertise what a large number of their graduates get published. Hasn’t the work of these poets been discussed in fine detail by some of the same people who will winnow down the field in other contests? Does it say anywhere that these “students” are ineligible for the contests, because it ought to, shouldn’t it?

The only interdiction is they can’t be a personal friend or student of the Final Judge. But the Tupelo or other editors can easily make sure that all 25 or so manuscripts the Final Judge reviews are submissions by 1.) their friends, 2.) well-known poets they are keen on recognizing, and 3.) their own Colrain/Crazyhorse students.  So it becomes a fait accompli, doesn’t it? The 999 other contestants who have paid their $25.00 fee, or more, and including you and I, won’t have a clue that the game has potentially been rigged as described above—even while observing the rules set out in the guidelines.

And don’t forget that Joan Houlihan, the director of the Colrain Manuscript Conferences, was published by her colleague in the business, Jeffrey Levine, just as she was defending Jeffrey Levine and Bin Ramke in Poets & Writers — and of course trashing Foetry.com as “losers.” (A lot of us are still waiting for her to address that horrendous indiscretion, and until she does, it’s likely to go on haunting her.)

Also Robin Beth Schaer, the On-Line Editor at The Academy of American Poetry, was shortlisted for a Tupelo prize just weeks before Christopher Woodman was banned for mentioning Joan Houlihan’s P&W Letter about Jeffrey Levine in a comment on the Poets.org Forum. (Robin Beth Schaer appears to be no longer in the job, whether because there was an actual or perceived conflict of interest will probably never be known. The Site Administrator also resigned during the scandal — she was quietly reinstated after all the threads involved were deleted and there was no one and nowhere left on Poets.org to discuss the matter.)

And of course, Carol Ann Davis, the editor of Crazyhorse,  was published by Jeffrey Levine just as Carol Ann Davis announced a new course, The Crazyhorse/Tupelo Press Publishing Institute graduate program at the College of Charleston — taught by Jeffrey Levine. The program also selects the Tupelo Press First Book Prize, and awards yet another $3000.00, and of course, gets you the cred that will really get you the job — which explains why you bite the bullet of the bill!

Ouch, that last one is particularly gratuitous. We addressed it in some detail on Foetry.com, but apparently students still continue to sign up for it, which is disturbing.

Do Jeffrey Levine and Joan Houlihan Care For Poetry?

Of course Jeffrey Levine  and Joan Houlihan care for poetry, and both believe they are working hard on behalf of the art—I don’t deny that. But obtaining money from, or for, poetry is simply not an act in which the end can ever justify the means. Faith must finally reside in the public’s reception of that poetry, whether one is a poet or an investor. If you are producing a product no one wants, put it out there with private money. If you have to defraud part of the public to put that product out there, you shouldn’t be putting it out there at all.

Alan Cordle

A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


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

Dear Tom,
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 and expense 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 at 50, and have never sat in a modern poetry lecture and rarely attended a reading, have scarcely ever even started to read a contemporary literary-historical text, know no editors and only one poet who just happened to come to my house in Chiang Mai last Christmas. And of course I only got interested in ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 14 precious packets I had sent to Bin Ramke over the years at Georgia probably never even got opened, and that my 8 packets to Tupelo hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter pretending to be a personal critique of my work and suggesting that just $295.00 more might make all the difference. Then Joan Houlihan scolded me in public (P&W, Nov 2006) for my limited understanding of editing and publishing poetry while praising the very editors who had abused me, and I knew modern American poetry was in deep trouble.

And of course, Joan Houlihan was right, too, in a sense, but I’m still nowhere near ready to concede that the situation she regards as normal is ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry. Indeed, for challenging just that  I’ve been banned on-line by P&W, The AoAP, and The Poetry Foundation — not a very promising start to a new career, particularly not at 70, but revealing.

So what should you call me, then, and how can my input be 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 Stephen Burt or David Lehman, for example — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” (aka censorship) at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed the hell out of people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. Yes, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? [Click here for a fatal example]

What I 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 literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [a whole decade before David Lehman!], C.S.Lewis, F.R.Leavis, Fellow of Christs, you name it) yet I never got educated in modern poetry, not once. So I go straight from the 30s in which I was born and jump straight to 1992 in which I got published for the very first time by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise.

So I can see a lot — and since I’m much too old for success, and nobody is ever going to hire me what’s more give me a prize, I’m free to burn any bridges I want behind me, which is rare.

A “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on Joan Hoilihan’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-shopper,” or a “noble non-whopper,” or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” — because the irony is that my publishing credits are not bad at all, considering my age and when I started, but I have no position and no reputation to advance or defend.

So “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 the Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the actual hallmark of the verse they despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which celebrated the feeling you got when you sat down at last 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 a long time to come (which is a huge social and educational grey area, of course, and not yet quite out of the bag like what happened to the Native Americans!).

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 Gold Coast, and in my American childhood never met an African-American or a Jew and very few Catholics not descendants of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 30s didn’t mix with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter Delia Orlando, the middle name also being mistaken for Italian!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my brothers and I — my younger brother westward to Wyoming, myself eastward to Cambridge, and our older brother 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 I ran, and I kept bees, and I fiddled around with Trungpa, and I 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 now I’m 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 petit bourgeois poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rungs 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 traditin 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 “compatty hammer” [click here] in my hand.

Christopher