DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.

Now we know things are really out of hand.

Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:

The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”

But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry?  Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing.   No finding fault with poetry!  Ever!

Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?

The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”

Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely.  Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard.  In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer.   Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”

When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing.   When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it?    Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it?   What does he think we are?   Little kids?

Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’

The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”

But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:

Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”

Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time.  It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.

As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher?  And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”

Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby.  Emerson was a mediocre poet.  Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true.   Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?

Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.

‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’

All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.

Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.

There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it.  Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.

Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose?  It tells us to like it.  So we don’t.

It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

ANGER IN POETRYLAND

Since Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com got major media attention and made Foetry a household word, a quiet revolution has taken place.   Publishing and prizes are no longer assumed to be pure.   The ‘Cred Game’ has been exposed.

Here’s a random example from the world of poetry bloggers: http://irasciblepoet.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-makes-me-want-to-vomit.html

From the list of 10 things that makes this poetry blogger “want to vomit:”

Vomit #4: I want to vomit when presses that are vanity exercises continue to publish their friends and exclude new voices.

We think it’s wonderful, thanks to Alan Cordle, that new understanding and outrage exists, but further education is needed.

What made Alan Cordle so dangerous and hated, was that he named names. He was not content to just bellyache.  Foetry.com named, and brought low, big names, because, as more and more realize today, “vanity” in po-biz goes all the way to the top.

Big names intimidate, allowing foetic practice to continue where ‘the gods’ play.

But not everyone is intimidated by big names.  And the word is getting out that Foetry did not begin with Jorie Graham.  The word is getting out that many of the icons of Modernism–which so many people worship because they learned about them in school–were foetic frauds.

It takes critical acumen to detect foetry in history, foetry in the canon, and foetry in contemporary big names.

This is what Scarriet is here for.

All that juicy and critically acute stuff.

The poetry blog which I quoted at random is called ‘The Irascible Poet,” with the following quote on its masthead:

“I Have Never Met a Poet Worth A Damn that was Not Irascible” —Ezra Pound

Here’s what we mean by education.  Our blogger needs to be educated.  The foetic Modernists really brought very little new to the table that was not merely crackpot. We really hate to keep going back to Poe, and making this an issue of Pound v. Poe, but this did fall into our lap.

Before Pound recommended “the irascible poet,” Poe wrote the following:

That poets, including artists in general, are a genus irritable is well understood, but the why seems not to be commonly seen. An artist is an artist only by dint of his exquisite sense of Beauty – a sense affording him rapturous enjoyment, but at the same time implying, or involving, an equally exquisite sense of Deformity or disproportion. Thus a wrong – an injustice – done a poet who is really a poet, excites him to a degree which, to ordinary apprehension, appears disproportionate with the wrong. Poets see injustice – never where it does not exist – but very often where the unpoetic see no injustice whatever. Thus the poetical irritability has no reference to “temper” in the vulgar sense, but merely to a more than usual clear-sightedness in respect to Wrong, this clearsightedness being nothing more than a corollary from the vivid perception of Right, of justice, of proportion. But one thing is clear -–that the man who is not “irritable” is no poet.

This is from Poe’s Marginalia.   Is it not a rapturous paean against foetry? And as we close this post, let us quote Poe again from his Marginalia, and this, too, could be a pledge against all foetic affliction.

Take heart, my friends!

Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path. I shall be a litterateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California. Talking of gold, and of the temptations at present held out to “poor-devil authors,” did it ever strike you that all which is really valuable to a man of letters, to a poet especially, is absolutely unpurchaseable? Love, fame, the dominion of intellect, the consciousness of power, the thrilling sense of beauty, the free air of Heaven, exercise of body and mind, with the physical and moral health which result, these and such as these are really all that a poet cares for. Then answer me this: why should he go to California?

BREAK, BLOW, FIZZLE

WHAT HAPPENED TO CAMILLE PAGLIA?

ALL communication is a warning.

The more articulate a person, the more they are experiencing what they are warning us about.

All information presupposes danger.  The menu cries out against the horror of starvation–the diet warns of the menu.  The chef who starves cooks best.

Priests are unable to warn directly, since the more articulate the priest, the more that priest personally knows the very sin against which their sermon is a warning.

The dilemma of the articulate priest is at the heart of all moral philosophy and its intellectual, political, cultural, and pedagogical conflicts.

Loyalty is the quality which attempts to stave off this conflict.  Loyalty to group or tribe warns against the dilemma of the articulate priest.  The truly articulate priest disrupts loyalty and its certainties; this is why prophets are hated in their own land.

Camille Paglia is an articulate priest who smashes loyalites.  She offends all groups.  All have reason to despise her: Democrats, Republicans, independents, feminists, conservatives, gays, Catholics, and scholars.

Paglia is the Barren Mother and the Breeding Virgin of intellectual culture.

She is a lustful Socrates, whose questing, intellectual advocacy is centered on ecstatic pleasures and sexual beauty–hers is a warning against what she, personally, has secretly suffered: chastity.

Obviously it’s nobody’s business how much someone gets laid, but my thesis is based on a guess that during Paglia’s development as a young person, she didn’t get laid.  This was both her strength and her weakness.

Paglia fell in love at a very early age with Amelia Earhart’s lone flights—the poem “Alone” by Edgar Poe probably best sums up her soul.  Paglia was a virgin during the 60s and adopted the brazen lesbian role as a graduate student to hide the shame of her uncool virginity.

Paglia, the scholar of sex, shone, as the scholar, herself, remained virginal, or, if not virginal, deeply ashamed of losing out to more successful schmoozers in sex and career.

The virgin is alone more profoundly when surrounded, and not barred from, sexual activity.  For whatever reason, actual sex wasn’t a fit, so Paglia became an artistic fan of pornography—but not out of a feeling of deficiency, for she was an Amelia Earhart in her soul, flying above the boorish crowd.

We warn of what we know—the awed, hurting mind produces what the sensual, happy mind cannot.

Sexual Personae marked the start of a brilliant career.  Her gadfly presence in magazines and the lecture circuit, in the wake of the success of her historical treatise, was truly exciting.  But the promised second volume of Sexual Personae never arrived.  Then she began to write on politics, speaking of presidents and secretaries of state as if she were making snarky judgments at a high school dance.  It never quite rang true.

Paglia also boxed herself in as a hater of ‘French Theory;’ it was always obvious to me this prejudice of hers was linked to her mentor, Harold Bloom, who, like many academics, is explicitly pro-Emerson/anti-Poe, and this Anglophone school can never forgive the French for loving Poe.

Then she took five years to write Break, Blow, Burn, her book on poetry, a tepid close-reading exercise of some of her favorite poems.

How in the world did the author of Sexual Personae morph into Cleanth Brooks?

And five years…think of it.   That’s the writing career of Keats, the recording career of the Beatles (almost), the entire career of the Doors, to take a few dozen short poems, many loved and adored since childhood, and riff on them…this took five years?

Couldn’t most of us do this in a week?

Paglia still blogs on Salon and most readers hate her; the consensus of Salon readers seems to be, I HATE THIS B***, FIRE HER!!!

Which is great.   We at Scarriet understand.  But what happened to you, Camille?

Really?

BEGUILING MY SAD FANCY INTO SMILING: WHY DOES HORROR HAVE TO BE SO HORRIBLE?

 

 

HORROR, the genre, must be horrible because horror, the reality, stalks us daily;  the relief of laughter, and the relief of revery inspired by beauty, both exist partially as an antidote to anxiety.  Directly confronting fear (in a horror film, for instance) triggers a physical response which competes with laughter–a bodily response–and pleasurable swooning–also a physical response.  The comedic, the beautiful and the horrific are sisters.  Art deftly combines them, and the skill in combining these three marks the great artist. 

Fictional horror gives a crude psycho-physical pleasure in the use of contrast as it diminishes the banal horror of ordinary worries and anxiety–the less intense dread we feel in varying degrees in our own lives.    

The cure is the poison itself; fear in life seeks out more intense fear in stories; ironically, more palpable fear comes to us through fiction; the horror genre is a vaccine of ‘dead’ (fictive) horror for our ‘live’ (real) anxieties.     

But why does horror have to be horrible when it can be comedic and beautiful too–and not merely full of horror?  We can have our poem and eat it; the art that is beautiful and comedic and terrifying all at once  is the greatest gift art can give. 

Alfred Hitchcock won no Oscars, and the terrifying film “Bright Star” will win none, and Poe, who they say ‘is not really that scary’ (of course not! his genius was not merely out to scare) was the Hitchcock of his day, winning no ‘Oscars’ (Poe was shut out by the literary establishment, despite his popularity).  I’ll name one more figure who fits into the category of aesthetic balance–and for that reason gets rejected by various camps: Camille Paglia.  A highly controversial, contradictory, but rich, thinker, (who has wasted her talent on political blogging to some extent) Paglia provides more than single-genre types can chew on.

On this Halloween, here’s to celebrating books, films, and art that are scary, funny and beautiful in tasteful, ingenious combination. 

Take fright and add a little light.  The dark doesn’t have to be so stark.