We loved your latest Hawaii/Benazir Bhuto dream essay, but we noticed you haven’t been participating in the conversations of other posts on Harriet.

It’s not enough to just send missives.

You need to be present.

That blog needs your help.

And you can help yourself by sharpening your intellectual teeth there.

I know there’s not much to choose from.   Harriet doesn’t have much going on.

Perhaps you feel intimidated.

Allow us to break down for you a recent Harriet post and comments.

A post by Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Christian Bok (it’s the one with the guy who looks like he’s got indigestion, holding a book in front of the mike, blue background).

Christian Bok is a Canadian professor who wrote a best-selling novel consisting of chapters which use only one vowel.   He read the dictionary five times before he wrote it.    That’s all you need to know about him, really.  Not particularly original, he’s one of those contemporary exotics doing wild experiments in the corner of some ancient fingernail.

Let’s look at the key portion of the lengthy Bok quotation in Goldsmith’s Harriet post.

We”ll look at it in two parts.

First part:

“I’m probably technically oriented and it seems to me that among the poets that I know, many are very lazy and very dumb. I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know. They became poets in part because they were demoted to that job, right? You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that disciple actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.”

Don’t be freaked out by this, Amber. It’s pretty simple.

This is lifted right from the Greek philosopher Plato “If they [the poets] knew something, they’d be in that discipline and actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever…”

Plato’s argument is quite sound and the only decent refutation of Plato’s point of view comes in the form of poems—by poets who happened to be very much tinged with Platonism themselves: Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Keats–which is all that can be expected.

Your typical inferior poet, however, becomes upset when they hear Plato’s argument.  They’re not up to Plato’s challenge.

This is the first part of Bok’s quote you need to understand.

Here’s the second part (as quoted by Kenneth Goldsmith in his Harriet post) :

“I find this very distressing that the challenge of being a poet in effect to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself, that we tend to think that because we’re conditioned to use language every day as part of a social contract, we should all be incipient poets, when in fact people have actually dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice in order to become adept at it and I think that craft and technique are part of that. If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course. I joke with my students again that if it was simply a matter of saying, “You know you’ve written a good poem just because; you’ll know it was a good poem when it happens.” To me, that’s tantamount to telling your students that “You should just use the force, Luke” in order to write a poem. I don’t think it’s very helpful. But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.”

Again, this doesn’t require much thought.

Here Bok is making use of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.   Aristotle didn’t ban the poets from his ideal “Republic” as Plato did.   Aristotle accepted poetry as something humans do, and focused on whether it is done well, or badly.

Aristotle would not have accepted the notion we are all poets, and Bok, when he mentions “people have dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice…” is implicitly agreeing with the philosopher.

Bok didn’t mention this, but I want to mention it to you:  Aristotle did pay heed to Plato’s objection that poetry makes us “soft” with fake emotionalism; Aristotle got around Plato’s objection by saying that poetry’s indulgence in emotionalism purges these emotions from us.  Aristotle managed to turn a drawback into a virtue.

But here is why Platonic poets tend to be the best: They take to heart Plato’s objection, rather than using Aristotle’s glib betrayal of it.

As soon as you start believing in Aristotle’s purging theory (Catharsis) you make a fatal error; you buy into the idea that poetry’s emotion is a separate thing from it, and then you essentially become a pedantic, doctrinaire kind of poet.

Anyway, the important point that Bok is making in the second part of the quote here is the Aristotelian one: there’s a proper way and form and method to making poetry.

As he did with the purging theory, Aristotle resorts to a doctrinaire pedantry in order to ‘get one past’  his master (Plato was Aristotle’s teacher).

This is important to understand, Amber.   You’ve got to go Greek, and you’ve got two choices, Plato’s truly challenging road, or Aristotle’s pedantic road.  Most people don’t go Greek at all and groan under both Plato and Aristotle.  But you can’t escape them, really.

You can see this in the reactions to Bok in the comments to Goldsmith’s post:

Carolyn, the first one to comment seriously, writes this, “I honor people’s attempts to express themselves in whatever manner suits them.”

Here is the typical modern response.   As you can see from her statement, and from what I told you above, she rejects Plato and Aristotle.  She has no Greek.  She is ignorantYou can ignore these people.  Better to be a pedant than to be someone who says ‘express yourself in whatever manner suits you.’ This point of view loses in philosophy what it gains in being nice.  It is a tempting vice, this point of view.  Avoid it at all costs.

Silem’s post #7 basically sums up the Plato and Aristotle positions and then repeats Bok’s mention of “the uncanny,” which is largely the basis of Romanticism: the “Sublime,”  produced when Platonism contradicts itself and produces poetry–a sly but positive phenomenon which I alluded to above.  As Longinus said in his famous treatise “On the Sublime” 3rd century, AD, the sublime is both “moral” and “fearful.”  The sublime is a contradictory idea–which is the secret of its religious power and appeal.

Comment #8 is by Henry Gould. We can sum up all his comments this way: Mumble.

Comment #9 is by Kent Johnson, who is poison.  Here’s a sample.  It should make you shudder:

“I strongly suspect that from the bourgeoning technical-hip formation represented by Bok and Mohammad (and both of them very brilliant, to be sure) a more elevated measure of professional status for the poetic vocation will come, via ever more sharply defined knowledge-sets and rigorously applied instrumental techniques.”


Gary Fitzgerald made a witty remark, but was buried by negative votes.

Conrad and ZZZZ had a brief dispute on what position the “avant garde” should take in relation to the mainstream.  Pedestrian stuff, really.  Not worth your while.

The remaining comments fizzle away into inconsequence.

Maybe Terreson will add something interesting.

(But we’d rather not encourage him.)

And there you have it,  Amber.    Harriet 101.   I hope this helps!


Beside running Blog-Harriet into the ground, Travis “The Enforcer” Nichols has another gig writing scientific articles for The Huffington Post. 

The mission: Attempt to make really bad contemporary poetry mainstream.

Step One.   Find a fairly eclectic topic covered by the mainstream press.

Take it away, Travis:

As you read this, Dr. Jacopo Annese is slicing up a brain. Not just any brain, but the brain of Henry Molaison, a man famous for his inability to form new memories after he underwent brain surgery in the early 1950s. Dr. Annese, a San Diego scientist, is digging into Molaison’s gray matter with hopes of figuring out exactly how human memory works. The NYT reports that recordings of Molaison’s brain slices will “produce a searchable Google Earth-like map of the brain with which scientists expect to clarify the mystery of how and where memories are created–and how they are retrieved.”

“The NYT reports…”   Good job, Travis!  That’s good. “The NYT reports…”  I like that.   OK…you’ve found something about the brain.  Good.  Someone is “slicing up a brain.”   That’ll perk their interest. 

Step Two.  While no one is looking, change the topic to poetry.

So Dr. Annese and his compatriots are, in effect, plunging into the greatest poetic mystery of all time.

Yeaaaa  “…greatest poetic mystery of all time.”   Way to go!   

Step three.  After mentioning a few dead poets in a erudite manner, politely name-drop your contemporaries as much as possible.  It might prove helpful one day.

Memory–and the wonder and terror it inspires–has generated great poems from Simonides, famous for eulogizing ancient Greek nobility, to Coleridge, who longed for his faraway friends in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” to the contemporary poets writing an “experiment in collective autobiography,” The Grand Piano. These poets–Ron Silliman,  Rae Armantrout,  Lyn Hejinian,  and Carla Harryman among them–have spent their careers using poetry to prod the brain in other areas besides just the comfortable spot where (to paraphrase Wordsworth) emotion is recollected in tranquility.

“…have spent their careers…”   Nice touch.  People will think you had no choice but to mention them in your article. 

Step Four.  Discuss the work of your contemporaries as if it’s new and important, even if it isn’t.

Poetry in this tradition–one that is less interested in telling stories and more interested in exploring how story-language works–attempts to make the emotion present in the reading experience. Tranquility can come later. They’re not re-telling memories in a poem (like the memory recounted in William Stafford’s much-anthologized “Traveling Through the Dark”, but rather using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading (Bernadette Mayer‘s writing is a great example of this kind of thing). To varying degrees, these poets have delved into what literary critic Reuven Tsur has called Cognitive Poetics, a field of study that has taken “reader-response” theory to a whole other level.

For example:  “…using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading…”  “…different types of sentences…”  Great!

Step Five.   By now, the only readers still with you are those contemporaries you’ve name-dropped.  So you might as well name-drop some more.

Tsur makes the case that certain sound patterns have inherent properties that fire up the “poetic” parts of the brain, and that by paying attention to those patterns we can read poetry in an entirely new way. A wave of contemporary poets–the Grand Piano folks as well as Clark Coolidge, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Eric Baus,  Christian Bok,  and, in his way, Tao Lin–have taken up Tsur’s ideas about reading and used them in their writing. A “Cogntivie Poet” won’t simply say “When I first made out with so-and-so, I did the happy dance!” Rather, she will use word combinations that cause the attentive reader to feel, to create a new experience, a memory, by the act of reading. It will make the reader’s brain do the happy dance.

Step Six. It might make one or two people suspicious if you do all that name-dropping and don’t quote at least one bit of actual writing to demonstrate your thesis, so find a poem by someone hot and throw it out there.

Here’s how Bhanu Kapil handles a childhood memory in her poem “The House of Waters”:

Mud walls whose surfaces belonged to the plantar surfaces of human hands. I could see finger marks, whorls. Once, I was a living being, embellished with skin: fortunate and blighted in turns. I turned. In circles. In the adventure playground, which was concrete. When I fell, the nurse would daub me with yellow smears, that stang.

 “Mud walls.”  That’s good.   Now praise what you’ve just quoted and be sure to mention a dead poet in connection to it.

It’s heady stuff, and it follows in Gertrude Stein’s footsteps much more than Robert Frost’s.

Artsy-fartsy is the new brain science.

Step Seven. Finish up, lest a reader ask themselves what bad poetry has to do with the science of the brain.

It also can be full of messy failures that achieve nothing at all besides piles of linguistic gobbeldy-goo (it’s experimental, after all). For these reasons, only the most adventurous poetry readers have so far taken it up . This kind of poetry isn’t a comfort. Rather, it’s a challenge. It’s an experiment much like that of Dr. Annese, who, when he first sliced into H.M.’s brain uttered the quite expressive phrase, “Ah ha ha!”

“Ah ha ha!”  

Warn them, Travis, warn them!