POETRY’S NEXT BIG THING: THE BRAIN!!!!

According to the New York Times, science is coming to the humanities:

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”

(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. —Patricia Cohen, The New York Times

This is good news.

It’s about time “figuring out what someone else is thinking” became a concern of Letters.    For too long “figuring out” and “thinking” have been absent.

Perhaps the divine eros of Dante and the ratiocination of Poe will return and the silly acadademic fads will be banned forever.

The New Critics fancied they were doing science, but they forgot to ask why paradox and ambiguity and symbol existed; blinded by their rejection of origins (“Intentional fallacy”) and aims (“Affective fallacy”) for the sake of the pure text, the New Critics were, in reality, hopelessly unscientific.   So much for structuralism.  Psychoanalysis concerns itself too much with  drives and not enough with thoughts.  Marxism burdens its advocates with the impossible job of inventing ideal governance, of forming an economic Plato’s Republic that always finds itself rejecting a great deal more than poetry.

Ironically, poetry was perhaps the only thing Plato got right.

Brain science, as anyone in the field will tell you, is still very primitive.   But if the new trend gets us to see the poetry (and art in general) as one planet among many, and to see poetry as natural and selfish and not merely benign, to study human nature in a truly global context of secret motive, where matching wits and competing is just as real as the material of  which the universe is supposedly made, then this is a good thing.

Science does not have to invalidate art or make it subordinate; quite the contrary.

It is precisely because fiction carries knowledge, and is not knowledge itself, that humanity in general take any interest in it.

Fiction is not some indirect means to a greater reality or the truth, fiction is not a window to the truth.  Fiction exists as a socialized address; it speaks to us in the act of its speaking, and thus is reality which speaks.  Art does not depict reality, or point to reality—it is reality.  It is reality speaking.  The opinion another holds regarding us is as real for them as it is for us, and how that opinion is expressed resembles a fiction because this is fiction’s realm, but this resemblance is not a casual one, but actual.  If we water fake plants, we still water them.  Accident can determine how another feels about us, but a feeling expressed is never accidental.  Reality is accident, but art never is.  Since carrying knowledge is a real function, the idea that we never access the knowledge itself matters not; in fact, it peaks our interest because the inaccessibility of knowledge replicates our experience of reality.  What is our experience of reality?   Reality is an experience we are constantly experiencing but never finally knowing.   It is by experiencing fiction, by experiencing what merely carries knowledge  that we finally know anything at all, and this is why fiction is our only means of knowing—because reality is a fiction which carries itself (its reality, our reality) ever further, without ever resting in knowledge.

Here is the Times again:

They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Plato was the last great scientist of fiction.  It was fiction’s reality that Plato feared, in banning it from his Republic.  Plato’s attack on art remains the greatest homage to art in literature.  It is by supposing that reality is fiction and that fiction is reality that we better understand both.  Aristotle’s approach was to treat art as if it were a worthy component of reality; thus when Plato warned that art watered the passions, Aristotle claimed that art served the state by purging the passions, but Aristotle’s catharsis counter was nothing more than sleight of hand—for nothing is purged when it springs into existence; Aristotle made art a toy, a tool, of reality, but Plato knew it was more.

Before a poet reading this gets a swelled head—a poet friend in college enjoyed quoting Plato that poetry was something “divine”—we should remember that most poets are helplessly Aristotelian in their approach: their poetry is ‘about’ this or that; their conception of poetry is that of an illustration or an example of reality, but not reality itself.

Partial descriptions of reality are the soul of science; religion is impatient to disclose the secrets of the whole; devotion wants the answer, and only fictitously can such a thing be given.  Evolution is scientific by its very definition: scientifc knowledge evolves; it is acquired slowly; but knowledge cannot be partial, nor can the factual be partial; by a rude paradox, then, we find religion is more factual than science, since no fact can be true if facts keep evolving; religious truth, by attaching itself to what is unchanging, eclipses scientific knowledge in all but a few studious and lonely minds.

I do not mean to say that religious truths are true in any objective sense, but to the individual mind—which is how knowledge, as far as we know, is known—religion is true as reflected in social reality (to most of us, the highest reality and truth),  guided and comprised of symbols of behavior, a fictional morality, if you will, which significantly influences all human thought and action.

Again, the Times:

Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

The brain may be it.

Again, it’s way too early to tell, and really quite doubtful, if “the brain may be it,” but the “evolutionary psychologists” mentioned in the article think broadly enough in terms of human motivation that thinking about literature might acquire wings after so many decades of trends which feature narrow, earthbound pursuits of the  pure text, lumbering politics, and self-centered psychology.

Art has been tamed by all these fads, over-shadowed by them, and perhaps the ‘next big thing’ will end up doing the same.

So let’s take this opportunity to speak rationally and scientifically once more about art’s importance.

Art’s divine function is to mirror life sufficiently and then distort it so that a new reality is created in the cognitive and emotional life of the audience, and this distorting can be horrific or beautiful or comic, depending on the character and aim of the sculptor.  The cognitive or emotional life created in the audience does not merely reflect life; it is something new.  To be familiar, it must reflect life up to a point.  The necessity of this familiarity should serve the art, not the other way around.  When the art merely serves the reflective necessity, it will impress (in the way all similitude does) but not elevate the audience.  Art which makes no effort to reflect life fails on this very account.  This failure can manifest itself in a variety of ways: lack of personality, of action, of form, of duration, of emotion, of subtlety, but these demerits are qualities, not particular elements of life.  The artist uses clay, not life, to build up his art; the clay can be anything so long as it holds an impression, but the manner of artistry belongs to the will of the artist.  The merit of the work will be found in its unity—its faults will exist in parts, or in those spaces, pauses, and gaps where mere life (sans art, sans science) shows through.

As far as what Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”   This reminded me of how I always admired the Beatles’ first big American hit: She Loves You.

This is a perfect example of how art is, more than anything else, cunning expression.

The lyrics of this song somehow manage to celebrate love while excluding the lover from the song.  The typical love song is “I love you,” in which the man addresses the woman, or another common variation is “you don’t love me,” the Petrarchan trope, types of addresses which Shakespeare had so much fun twisting about  in his sonnets.

With “she loves you,” we have something which is many, many levels more complex than “I love you.”  Yet, on the surface, it’s simple enough to work as a happy love song.  Yea, yea, yea.

However the ‘next big thing’ plays itself out, let’s hope we see more of the following quotes in english classes:

The orange ray of the spectrum and the buzz of the gnat (which never rises above the second A), affect me with nearly similar sensations.  In hearing the gnat, I perceive the color.  In perceiving the color, I seem to hear the gnat.   –Edgar Poe

Colors and grief, memories, the expected and the unexpected, this tree and the fluttering of its foliage, its annual variation, its shadow, as well as its substance, the accidents of its shape and position, the remote thoughts which it brings to the edge of my wandering attention—they are equivalents.  Any one can be substituted for any other.  Is not this perhaps the definition of things?Leonardo Da Vinci

Thomas Brady

“MUMBO JUMBO?” — “PARADOX?” “AMBIGUITY?” “IRONY?” “SYMBOL?”

March Madness has been a study as much as it has been an intoxication; the New Critics erred in thinking the emotive and the cognitive could not be combined; of course they can, by any astute critic (Poe is a shining example, who the New Critics, from Pound to Eliot to Warren to Winters to Brooks to Wimsatt carefully ignored or played down.). The New Critics made no satisfactory criticism; they merely introduced mumbo-jumbo, mere terms, such as paradox, ambiguity, irony and symbol and nothing about it was original or coherent, it was finally nothing but mumbo-jumbo for the self-elected priesthood.

The professional priest will lord it over the mere amateur, but such religious hierarchies do not belong in poetry, not artificially, anyway; Letters is not science, but finally morality for the many, and this is the ugly, primitive secret which the sophisticated modernist Oxford erudite fop dare not face.

……………………………………………………………..………….Thomas Brady

.

………..The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
………..And then forgot to tell us why.

……………                        ………                      …………Ogden Nash

.

The paradox here lies not in the fly or in the Lord’s wisdom but in what a poem can say that ordinary language can’t. You don’t need Pound, Eliot, Warren or Winters, or anyone from Oxford for that matter, to help you out with that, or even a High School diploma. Indeed, “The Night Before Christmas” is loaded with paradox, as is Pooh’s poetry, the Beatles, nursery rhymes, limericks and gospel. You can laugh or cry as much as you like, but still you can’t say what it  is without saying what it isn’t.

The ambiguity in this poem lies in the absurdity that gets to the very heart of what bothers human beings about life, the complexities of it – how a creature so indispensable to the health of the planet should be so small, for example, yet so insistent, fickle, and in your face, so disgusting yet impossible to swat.

The irony lies in the fact that the Lord in His wisdom forgot to tell us just about everything, and even when the scientist has done his or her very best to remedy that, and even shown us photos of the fly’s eyes and cultivated its filth in a petri dish so we could actually see the link between flies and disease, and then gone on to save lives by cleansing wounds with maggots, we still can’t decide who we are. And then along comes poetry, of all crazy stuff, and tells us!

Love hurts. Grief heals. The meek inherit the earth.

As to symbols, there are none in this poem in the usual sense. Indeed, symbols are rare in poetry worth reading because the whole idea of poetry is to rewrite the comfortable shorthands, cultural icons and codes we depend on. Indeed, when poetry is most effective even the symbols come off the rails, so to speak, and wreck our understanding of everything. For a moment we just have to stop — my God, my God, what is it?

Take the Rose in William Blake’s poem, “O Rose Thou Art Sick,” for example, or the Tiger in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Only beginners talk about either as “symbols,” because the moment you think you know what they mean you’re lost. You lose the thread, you lose the argument, you lose your soul to the facts already stuck in your head. And you can’t move on.

Symbols are for simpletons, not for Ogden Nashes!

Had Ogden Nash written a whole series of poems about flies, as Yeats did about towers, for example, then we might want to consider “why” in a broader sense, and “the fly” might even be considered a symbol in the little poem above. And hey, why not? Life’s too complex not to accept what little help we can get from the way we human beings use language!

But we don’t need a Professional Priesthood for that, though sometimes we get one, boo hoo. Then abuses do follow, and yes, we do get Reformers, Counter-reformers, New Critics, Anti-new-critics, Pound-profs or Poe-profs or Flat-earthers, you name it.

Fortunately,  most of us move on with the baby still in our arms and not lying there blue on the floor with the bathwater.

Most of us also examine our lives in privacy too, I might add, even if we also love frisbee and beer. And the best poetry, of course, remains private in public.

Christopher Woodman

“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.

THE GREATEST STANZA OF ALL TIME IS…

The stanza is the aria of poetry.  If the line zings, the stanza sings.  The stanza is poetry’s true voice, where the poet displays not just melody, but harmony, as well.

The stanza presents not just an image, but an image moving into another.

The stanza is the line out for a spin on the racetrack.

The stanza is the line on the dance floor, the line proposing marriage.

The stanza is the beginning, the middle and the end of the meal.

If a line is a puff, the stanza is the whole cigarette.

If the line skitters, the stanza is the release, the fall, and the landing.

The stanza is the full-length portrait of Painting, the torso of Sculpture, the pillar, the room, of Architecture.

We like poets of the line.  We study poets of the poem.  We  worship poets of the stanza.

Lines can be dropped into letters or conversations or prose.  Stanzas raise the curtain on the muses.

Lines are bites.  Stanzas are plans.

The art of the stanza takes many forms.  It can beat a folk tune in 4/4 time:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

………………………………Andrew Marvell

Or, it can sound almost symphonic:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’

……………………………………………………..Edgar Allan Poe

The most remarkable stanzas have a unique design, and are more than simply couplets joined together.

The line exists as a unit of sound/meaning.

The stanza, though it has more parts, and can be pedantically categorized (tercet, quatrain, ballad stanza, Ottava Rima, Spenserian, etc) exists independently as a unit of sound/meaning, as well.

We might say that the “free verse” revolution of the 20th century was not so much a joyous act of freedom as it was an anxious flight from the stanza.

The poetic line did not become important in a vacuum; the shackles were real, and those shackles?

The stanza.

The sociological explanation invariably ignores this, equating ‘old’ poetry with ‘old’ times and ‘new’ or ‘modern’ poetry with ‘new’ or ‘modern’ times.  But this is to push history aside for a vain celebration of the present.

The ‘modern’ poets were not celebrating the ‘modern,’ for the poems never know if they are ‘modern,’ or not.  The poems only know what they are as poems, in terms of line and stanza.

A poem can never say it is modern in a way that history will be convinced.

In the middle of the 19th century, with the rise of prose fiction and prose journalism, poetry was poised to improve on the stanza.   Poe’s ‘Raven’ was a sensation as music, with its unique stanza.   Poe was once accused of stealing his stanza-idea from Coleridge, but Poe said in his defense that the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s” stanza was different in 19 ways, and—we doubt that anyone is surprised—Poe listed every one.

Poe understood (oh that rascal understood everything) that with the rise of prose (Poe was leading the charge with short fiction, essay, prose poem, science fiction and detective fiction) poetry had only technique to save it and the stanza was the key to poetic technique.

Poe saw the tidal wave of prose coming.

Some modern poets pondered protection in houses of stanza and thought, “No way.  This tidal wave’s too big.”

Many modern poets built their poems on sand, and others, rather than be drowned by prose, tried to breathe in prose.

The poets turned into fish.

And drowned anyway.

Is it surprising that the poets most popular in the 20th century, such as Dylan Thomas, Millay, Frost, and Plath, were adept at the stanza?

Millay’s marvelous sonnets—what are these but stanzas?

Plath’s “Daddy” has one of the most original and interesting stanza schemes ever produced.

THE MYTH OF QUIETISM

The School of Quietism, a coinage Professor Silliman partially ripped from Poe, supposedly represents the smug, reactionary mainstream, what Professor Bernstein, fresh out of Harvard (philosophy) used to call “Official Verse Culture.” 

The SoQ, to these professors and their followers, is the great nemesis to all progressive “movements,” avant-garde experimentation, modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist, flights, spiraling, downward into the lower regions of Creative Writing Workshop hell, where such texts as American Hybrid (Iowa, say “hello” to Brown!) greet the sad victim.

The binary of Quietism v. Avant-garde is an outrageous falsehood that would matter if there were still a pulse on the American poetry scene—last time we checked, there was none—so Scarriet will have to step in and pretend to care, for we do take a malevolent delight in stirring things up. 

The educated person seriously interested in pedagogy and history who studies the ethical, sociological, aesthetic, philosophical issues of American poetry cannot help but laugh at the notion that the American avant garde is “progressive.”  How is the American poetry avant-garde, in any of its forms, “progressive?”   One must be a complete ass to believe this.

The history of modernist poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, is not even faintly “progressive.”  To point fingers at some of these writers as “Quietists” misses the whole point; the label is without merit; it doesn’t matter which side of the radical line one is on.  The Quietist label of Silliman’s is pure mystification. 

A literature which is incoherent, incomprehensible, and not in the least amusing or interesting to anyone, except a few professors, is not “progressive.”   One cannot be “progressive” while befuddling and confusing the downtrodden, the middle class, and 99.9 % of the highly educated.

Even admirers of  The Red Wheel Barrow, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, the Maximus Poems, and LangPo admit these works are not improvements on the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they reflect a change of taste over time.

Progress requires improvement.

Yet “progressive” is automatically linked to every inanity which flies under the banner of  “manifesto” or “movement,”  save those asserted as “new,” such as the New Formalism, a milk-and-water attempt that is retrograde on account of its weak and pedantic nature. 

But so are avant-garde movements in American poetry retrograde,  and for precisely the same reason. 

The “progressive” nomenclature is a con, for no measurable “improvement” exists.  Decreasing accessibility, coherence, beauty, popularity, excitement, and literacy in Letters cannot, in any shape, excuse, or form, be termed “progressive.” 

What sort of “progress” can be asserted?  Material?  Scientific?  Social? 

No, no, and no.

So the next time you hear some avant clown referring to themselves as “progressive,” wag your finger at them and say, “No, no, no…”

Asinus asinum fricat.

THE LION AND THE LITTLE DOG: “I BELIEVE HIM TO BE THE BITTEREST ENEMY I HAVE IN THE WORLD”

One of Poe’s killers, a cousin and Baltimore journalist, Neilson Poe.  Note the arrogant sneer.  Neilson kept watch for days while Poe died, notifying no one.

We do not claim to have solved the murder of Edgar A. Poe.  The mystery has baffled everyone and lies under many layers.  We have reached a point in Poe history, however, where the drinking binge, the ‘cooping’ theory, the rabies death, and other absurdities have been disproven.  The field lies open before us at last; a real investigatin of the facts seems, for the first time, possible.

We assume murder in Poe’s case.  The manner of Poe’s end was violent and secretive.  Accidents tend to come to light but murders do not. Poe’s murderers not only covered their tracks, but a story grew over the victim replicating perfectly in death the slander which dogged his life.  Since slander is a kind of murder, libel a kind of killing, especially among those with literary reputations, the key to solving Poe’s murder is to follow the thead of those who told the story of his death.

The most helpful person in chasing away the fog of rumor is undoubtedly John Evangelist Walsh, whose book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Poe, St Martin’s, 2000, is the first treatment of Poe’s death which actually succeeds as a piece of detective work.

Walsh was not satisfied to itemize the rumors of Poe’s death and then add his own vague speculation.  Walsh chased down the origin of the rumors themselves.   For too long the stories have distracted us from the story-tellers.

Let us begin by quoting three prophetic letters written by Poe: 1) pertaining to the city of Baltimore—where Poe met his end, 2) the journalism scene in Baltimore and 3) Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, who was in charge of Poe’s imprisonment and death.   Two of the letters are to Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, a Batlimore physician, poet, essayist and editor, who traded some literary favors with Poe and managed to elicit many private confessions from him.  Studying the correspondnce, which was hot and heavy between Poe and Snodgrass in  1839 and then trails off to end for good in 1842, just after Poe left his editorship at Graham’s—succeeded by Griswold—we can see that Snodgrass is playing Poe, attempting to elicit as much private opinion from the great poet as he can.  Poe pleads too much to the man;  clearly they are not friends,  though Snodgrass held out that possibility.  The two men had a common enemy in Burton, of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a kind of Ricky Gervais figure from England; Burton was pushing the ‘drunk’ slander hard against Poe and it was to Snodgrass that Poe made his famous defense on that count: “My sole drink is water.”   In that same letter Poe writes to  Snodgrass, who will eventually turn into a Griswold figure, “You are a physician, and I presume no physician can have difficulty in detecting the drunkard at a glance.”   A bit ironic that it is this very Snodgrass who becomes the one man to describe to the world Poe’s condition when Poe is found, helpless, by some odd coincidence, close to  Snodgrass’s residence.  If Snodgrass were a friend, our guess is that Poe would not have felt the need to argue his case as he does. In the final letter which exists between the two men, Poe gives vent to his negative feelings for Griswold.  The “friendship” between Snodgrass and Poe quickly fades away and Snodgrass suddenly appears, five years later, an assassin,  to libel and entomb.

These excerpts from three letters in 1839 require no preface; they speak much of the literary life in which Poe lived:

The reception of the paper convinced me that you, of whom I have long thought highly, had no share in the feelings of ill will toward me, which are somewhat prevalent (God only knows why) in Baltimore  –Poe to Snodgrass, Sept. 11, 1839

It is always desirable to know who are our enemies, and what are the nature of their attacks.  I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down (excuse the pun) and I am not aware that there is any one in Baltimore whom I have particular reason to fear in a regular set-to.  I would take it as a great favor if you would let me know who edits the “Sun”  –also who the editors of the other papers attacking me–and should be thankful for any other similar information.   –Poe to Beauchamp Jones  Aug. 8, 1839  [The “Sun” is the Baltimore Sun]

I felt that N. Poe, would not insert the article editorially.  In your private ear, I believe him to be the bitterest enemy I have in the world.  He is the more despicable in this, since he makes loud professions of friendship.  Was it “relationship etc” which prevented him saying any thing at all of the 2 or 3 last Nos. of the Gentleman’s Mag?  I cannot account for his hostility except in being vain enough to imagine him jealous of the little literary reputation I have, of late years, obtained.  But enought of the little dog.   –Poe to Snodgrass, Oct. 7, 1839  on his cousin, Neilson Poe

Dr. Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore is perhaps even more important than Neilson Poe in the case of America’s greatest literary murder case.  Snodgrass is not only the recipient of Poe’s letter which calls N. Poe my “bitterest enemy,” Snodgrass, with Neilson and Henry Herring— uncle by marriage to Edgar and Neilson and also ill-disposed to the poet—stole away, essentially imprisoned, and after his death, buried in secret haste, the great poet before the world knew what had occured.  Snodgrass, a doctor, and Herring, a relation and a wealthy man, rather than taking Poe into their homes, put him unconsious into a carriage to be taken to a little bare room with iron bars.  What Poe’s actual condition was when found, what happened to him before he was found, and what happened to him after he was found, is unknown.  Dr. Snodgrass and Dr. Moran completely contradict each other on Poe’s condition, so it’s safe to say no one “helping” Poe during his last days can be said to be reliable in the least.

Poe urged two things on thinkers: be detectives and don’t overlook the obvious.  Herring, a man who disliked Poe and refused to allow the poet in his home, showed up at Ryan’s where Poe was found on Oct. 3 at the same time as Snodgrass.  Who summoned Herring? Snodgrass was summoned (supposedly…or was he?)

All Poe biography through the 19th century to the middle  of the 20th, relies on a crackpot ‘cooping’ theory employed initially by a few men, a theory Walsh explodes by reading newspaper accounts of the actual electn during which this supposed election ‘cooping’ took place and also by tracing the theory itself to an editor in Richmond, John Thompson, who originally bought into the ‘drunken debauch’ theory before he changed his mind, years later, after prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith published her theory that Poe was assaulted, and came up with—out of the blue, and well after the fact—his absurd ‘cooping’ idea.

The ‘cooping’ theory states that Poe was captured by ruffians, beaten and drugged in order to vote various times, a theory without witnesses that such a thing happened to Poe, or that such a thing occured—at allto anyone.

The testimony of Snodgrass gets into print, like the ‘cooping’ theory, years after Poe’s death.   According to Snodgrass, Poe was found in Baltimore by a Joseph Walker.

Poe scholar John Evangelist Walsh believes the ‘cooping’ idea was invented in reaction to the prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s assault charge, which she published on three separate occasions over 20 years.

Snodgrass went to press with his story twice, ten years apart, and only in the second article mentions the mysterious Walker, a type-setter acquaintance, who sent Snodgrass the note that Poe was asking for Snodgrass—who was conveniently located just around the corner from where Poe was discovered wholly by accident in Baltimore.   Walker had died in a drowning accident by the time Snodgrass felt the need to mention the note from Walker summoning him (Snodgrass) to Poe’s dying side, and Snodgrass embellishes the note to say “beastly intoxication” where it actually said “worse for wear.”  We know this because the note itself was found among Snodgrass’s papers in 1881, after Snodgrass died in 1880.   Snodgrass refutes Oakes Smith expliticly in his second article in Beadle’s Monthly.

John Walsh writes in his book, “Midnight Dreary,”

Surprisingly,—even, it can be said, incredibly—more than six years were to pass before a fuller picture of Poe’s last days and hours became available.  In May 1856, a New York City  periodical, Life Illustrated, carried an article by Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore, an old friend and journalist colleague of the poet.  It revealed Snodgrass to be the one who transported the inebriated Poe from tavern to hospital, and much else of interest besides.   —Walsh, “Midnight Dreary”

We share, as should we all, Walsh’s incredulity at the six years passing, but Walsh manages to overlook what every Poe biographer has—the significant role of Snodgrass in Poe’s manufactured debauchery death, as Walsh blithely refers to Walsh as a “friend,” shutting the door on a world of interest.  Nor does Walsh stop to acknowledge that “inebriated” is a description based on one witness and one witness alone—Joseph Snodgrass—who altered a note in his possession he chose to share with the world—16 years after Poe’s death, and after the death of the note’s author, a misquotation from “worse for wear” (Walker) to “beastly intoxication” (Snodgrass).

Poe was  not “among friends” during his last days.

Here is the trail to solving Poe’s murder, and it lies wide open.

Joseph Snodgrass, Henry Herring and Neilson Poe saw to it that Poe was imprisoned with a lunatic named Dr. Moran, on record as the attending physician at the “hospital” where Poe rotted for four days, another unreliable witness who waited 25 years before going public with what he knew, to bask in the spotlight as Poe’s posthumous fame and curiosity about his death grew, supplying all sorts of  hyperbolic “literary” quotes from the dying poet which Poe obviously never uttered.  No autopsy, no death certificate, no communication with the outside world while Poe succumbed in slow agony, a hasty burial attended by Herring, N. Poe and Snodgrass, a minister to say a quick last rites and then 24 hours later, Rufus Griswold’s “Ludwig” article in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.

The manner of Poe’s death fits in perfectly with the actions of a cabal drawing a curtain quickly over his life, and killing him in such a way that even in death he found no martyrdom or honor, but was seen by the world to die as a drunkard, the slander of drink used as a trowel to bury him.

The length of time it took the one real witness to come forward, the odd relationship of the invisible  Joseph Walker and the altered content of his note to the one witness, the “bitterest enemy” keeping public watch over the victim in his last few days with the knowledge of fellow Baltimorean Snodgrass, Poe’s slow death occuring before any of Poe’s friends or loved ones were aware of his fate, his mother-in-law, his fiance, desperately worried and wondering where he was, kept, with the whole world,  in utter darkness even as Poe was being buried and Griswold was in New York penning his libelous notice—if this doesn’t stink to high heaven, nothing does.

WHO KILLED JOHN KEATS? ‘TWAS ONE OF MY FEATS

Pardon us as we take a fanciful page from the book of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

……………………….WHO KILLED ROBERT CREELEY?

……………………….Who killed Robert Creeley?
……………………….Twas I, Foetry. Yes. Really.
……………………….Now exiled here by the site that bans
……………………….We’ve dealt a mortal blow to Franz.
……………………….You cannot know where your reputation’s laid,
……………………….Or who pays you, at last, and who finally is paid.
……………………….Beware, you swaggerer, with cred and name
……………………….Who comes to quell: first, you lose, then, you swell our fame.

Franz Wright’s recent visit to Scarriet reminded us of the time when Robert Creeley came calling on Foetry.com shortly before he passed away in March of 2005.

John Keats was treated so rudely by the press a rumor began that a harsh criticism had killed him.   The poet is the most vulnerable to criticism since the poet and the critic both use words.   Poetry, by its very nature, has a It is so because I say it is so existence.   Words are cheap, and the poetry world is small.  Poetic reputations are fragile and can disappear overnight.

Longfellow was a wealthy titan whose poems were widely read in expensive and beautiful volumes.  Poe was a poverty-stricken, contentious critic who insulted and berated poets like Longfellow;  Poe was reviled by many literary elites of his day.   Poe, however, now towers over Longfellow and poets who are utterly forgotten.   Those who ‘go about their business’ and who are ‘above’ the sort of battles Poe indulged in usually sink into oblivion.   The trouble-makers survive.

Alan Cordle’s revolutionary Foetry.com turned po-biz on its head almost overnight with his controversial claims.  Controversy is catnip to fame.  Perhaps  Creeley and Wright knew what they were doing when they jumped in the Foetry dirt.

Flowers (and fame) need dirt to grow.

Thomas Brady of Scarriet was obviously out of his mind, temporarily, let’s hope, when he wrote the following as Monday Love on Foetry.com:

And what’s this crap about how a “librarian” [Alan Cordle] can’t express an opinion on poetry or the poetry world?  Jeez, what a lot of snobby rot. Since when did degrees and publishing creds and ‘official poet’ stamped on the forehead decide who can or cannot speak on poetry?  Did Keats have an MFA?  Philip Sidney, one of the world’s most prominent poets, never published a poem.  And what of Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler?  I can’t find any of their poems, but the world bows to their opinion.  If some twit gets an MFA and publishes a few books of obscure poetry scribbles, that twit should then have some kind of authority because of his CV?

No, poetry is naturally fitted for something more democratic and honest. R. Perlman [since discovered to be  Joan Houlihan] disgraces himself [herself] when he [she]indulges in this ‘poetry-cred’ nonsense–99% of the time such a gambit is merely an attempt to paper over stink.  I have never asked what his [her] creds are, nor do I care.  Those who come here trailing the glory of their creds in their wake tend to get slaughtered.  We don’t care who they are.  Robert Creeley came here and was treated like anyone else–in other words, a bit roughly.  We don’t care for that phony ‘respect,’ which the pompous desire.  Only the argument you make here counts.

Poetry was invented so that the learned could speak to the unlearned. Poetry is for the unlearned ear, because it had its origins, as Dante points out in his Vita Nuova, in the following circumstance: the learned fop was mad for some illiterate serving girl and therefore had to remove all that was phony and elevated in his speech to reach her heart.  The opinion which the poet craves is always the simplest and heart-felt one.  The ‘learned’ opinion is not to be trusted, finally.  Every poet in secret knows this.  This does not mean the poet writes simplistic twaddle, for the poet still must impress in a powerful manner, but that manner is not learned fops stroking each other’s learned egos, which only ruins the art.

—Monday Love, Foetry.com  2007

It is not our intent to dance on anybody’s grave.

We salute Mr. Creeley for not going gentle into that good night.

And God bless Franz Wright, too.

THE POEM OF MELANCHOLY HORROR

For the poem of melancholy horror to succeed, the reader must fall under its spell.

But just a tincture of the didactic and the effect is ruined.  Modern poets are especially prone to spoil this type of poem; they write of the horrible, but rarely combine horror with melancholy—which produces the sublime effect we have in mind.  The poem of melancholy horror peaked between 1800 and 1960.

American poetry in the last 20 years seems to be wholly absent of what we call melancholy horror.   We always seem to say, ‘That’s not melancholy, that’s depressing.’   We could assign this recent phenomenon to what we might term the scientific ego in the contemporary poet, a sort of clever hardness which will have no part of Victorian or Romantic sorrow.

Molly Peacock, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Lowell, to name some slightly older poets at random, have written poems of melancholy horror, but a determined busy-ness and verbosity, combined with a didactic intent, ensures failure.  Fred Seidel often gives us horror—and ego.  But there’s no melancholy, no shadow.

Part of the problem involves an acute misreading of Poe’s Heresy of the Didactic.  The issue is one of appearance: one must not appear to impart a moral or a lesson to the reader.

It is fine to impart a lesson; one just cannot seem to do so.

Poe made this quite explicit.

In terms of appearances, we all know that the best way to call attention to something is when we bungle the hiding of it.

This is what the modern poets do:  They know they cannot preach, but they cannot resist doing so, and because the moderns, in being good moderns, have chucked the stage devices of cheap, theatrical effects of the “old” poetry, and because the moderns suffer no hesitation in being frank and discursive in the above-board modern style, they tend to blurt out their lessons, which are poor lessons to begin with—since these moderns are not in the habit of really having anything to say, having been taught that the didactic should be avoided.

Pondering their Poe and the writings of the New Critics, with its ‘heresy of the paraphrase,’ the modern poets have come to think that one can write poetry while having nothing to say at all; if one cannot paraphrase their poem, they think, if their poem has no message or meaning, this is all the better, and perhaps, one day, they may even reach that ‘pure’ style of non-style all moderns affect,  and yet, given the modern style, in which melancholy surfaces and all sorts of cheap Victorian effects are to be eschewed, what remains is a kind of didacticism by default, sans lesson, sans moral, sans theme, just a kind of blathering that “wins” by avoiding the pitfalls Poe and the New Critics superficially laid out.

What Poe really meant—no one knows what the New Critics meant, since they never really thought the problem through—was this: The poet must not appear to be didactic; if the poet can impart a message without anyone noticing, good for the poet.  Thus a Wordsworth, who does have something to say, can succeed even in the face of Poe’s “heresy,” while a Robert Lowell, let’s say, stumbles, for Lowell imparts only the vaguest half-lessons, not because his lessons are well-hidden, but because he discursively bungles the HIDING ITSELF precisely because there is very little worth hiding in the first place.

If Lowell’s poem, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” for instance, were coherent in what it were ‘trying to say,’ the melancholy horror might work; but as it is, the poem is unfocused, flat, the transition from the stated theme to “as a small boy…” is clumsy; the poem has no emotional impact not because the theme lacks horror, but because the poet lacks wit.

Here, then are some of the best Lyric Poems of Melancholy Horror, certainly not meant to be definitive:

  1. Darkness  –Byron
  2. Because I Could Not Stop For Death  –Dickinson
  3. Mariana –Tennyson
  4. Bluebeard  –Millay
  5. La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –Keats
  6. The Truth the Dead Know  –Sexton
  7. In the Waiting Room  –Bishop
  8. In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, W.VA Has Been Condemned   –James Wright
  9. Pike  –Ted Hughes
  10. Strange Fits of Passion –Wordsworth
  11. Lady Lazarus   –Plath
  12. A Brown Girl Dead  –Countee Cullen
  13. Mental Traveler   –Blake
  14. O Where Are You Going?  –Auden
  15. Sweeney Among the Nightingales   –Eliot
  16. The Men’s Room In the College Chapel  –Snodgrass
  17. Alone  –Poe
  18. The Phantom-Wooer  –Beddoes
  19. My Last Duchess  –Browning
  20. The Tourist From Syracuse  –Donald Justice
  21. Rime of the Ancient Mariner  –Coleridge
  22. Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812) –Barlow d. 1812
  23. Blue-Beard’s Closet  –Rose Terry Cooke
  24. Death of The Hired Man  –Frost
  25. Second Coming  –Yeats
  26. In A Dark Time  –Roethke
  27. Piazza Piece  –Ransom
  28. Nerves   –Arthur Symons
  29. Hunchback in the Park  –Dylan Thomas
  30. Suspira   –Longfellow

BILLY COLLINS KISSES BILL KNOTT ON THE CHEEK ALONG WITH THOMAS BRADY

In the glory days of Harriet, back in the summer of 2009, the following exchange took place between one of our Scarriet editors, Thomas Brady, and the poet, Bill Knott.

“It’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.”  — Thomas Brady

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“Even among the damned there are divisions…there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed!  Who want their poetry to be read! Who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!” —  Bill Knott

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Brady writes:

I don’t think the crisis in poetry is a social engineering issue.

It’s not a question of ‘how can we bring poetry to the people?’  Or, if this is the question, the question is not a large, complex one, but only a matter of refinement.

Despite the efforts of ground-breaking poet-academics like John Crowe Ransom (whose ashes are scattered on the Kenyon campus), there is no expertise anywhere that can decide how or what kind of poetry should be delivered up to ‘the people.’ I think we need to cure ourselves of this notion right away. Poetry is not for experts. Poetry is how the people short circuit the experts. Science demands a certain a certain amount of expertise; poetry is the joy of science sans expertise.

The people get all the poetry they need from old poetry or pop songs or prose or opera, or comedy, and these avenues will never be supplemented by contemporary poetry of the difficult variety to any significant degree.

Contemporary poetry is mostly lyric poetry and this is in keeping with our ‘short attention span’ age—which began with the rise of the penny presses 200 years ago and coincided with Poe’s famous words, “A long poem does not exist.”  How could it?  No recordings of Poe reading exist, but we do have Edna Millay and Dylan Thomas: listen to them reading their brief poems—how could one take that intensity for long?

John (Harriet comment) asked about the first ‘lyric poetry reading.’  Poe in the 1840s was asked all the time at salons in NYC to read his “Raven.”  John is absolutely right; not only does a long poem not exist, but short poems should not be read for long; they should never be a big imposition.

Perhaps we need to stop apologizing for the ‘short attention span.’  What if it’s not a flaw at all, but a feature of our advanced, busy, speedy-communications age?

Instead of slamming that square peg into that round hole, why don’t we accept that ‘short attention spans’ are part of who we are now; simply a reflection of how we are adapting to our times, and if poetry is not popular, it’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.

POSTED BY THOMAS BRADY: ON ON JUNE 2, 2009 at 4:07 PM

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Knott’s response:

“It’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.”

–I agree totally with Brady’s point there.

But WHY do (we) poets do this?  Doesn’t the answer lie in the realm of the psychoanalytic…

Almost all writers begin in adolescence by writing poetry—what differentiates those who continue in this futile practice while others (call them adults) go on to write prose…

Given that poetry is the least rewarded/ the least funded of all the writing genres, and indeed of all the arts,

–knowing that, why would anyone willingly opt to pursue this abject vocation…why would anyone seek such inferior status; why would anyone in their right mind join this subgroup, this slaveclass—

Masochists, manic depressives, suicides, all poets are neurotics of the death instinct, losers and failures who embrace the misery of their wretched trade, who wallow in its servile aura of diminishment and squalor—its paltry practice.

But among poets, those dismal defeated schlemiels and corner-biting cowards lured by vile Virgils into the abyss of verse, a fortunate few manage to inhabit the upper circles, its higher hellblocks—

Even among the damned there are divisions…there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed!  Who want their poetry to be read! Who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!—

What traitors these are to their class—(jeez, if they didn’t want to be failures, why did they become poets!)

No wonder all the normal (i.e. unsuccessful) poets hate the Judas Billy Collins and the quisling Mary Oliver

POSTED BY BILL KNOTT: ON JUNE 2, 2009 AT 5:10 PM

And did Martin Earl take this sitting down, and did Bill Knott not come back with post after post that broke every rule of length and frequency Travis Nichols had ever dreamt of, and did the fracas not wake everybody up and get all the bells in Parnassus ringing?

Oh yes, and yes, and yes!

Yet shortly after Thomas Brady and his friends were punished for writing too much too often, Bill Knott, Eileen Myles, Martin Earl, Annie Finch and all the other passionate irregulars stopped bothering, and despite the best efforts of the new Contributing Writers, Harriet stalled to a  Members Only Chat-roomlike it is.

What a failure of The Poetry Foundation mission!

The Scarriet Editors


“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


l. to r. Tate, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Davidson.

These guys didn’t start a financial crisis, they merely robbed us of our poetry for most of a hundred years.

The college and HS textbook which introduced the Ezra Pound’s brand of poetry to millions of American students, Understanding Poetry, first edition, 1938, was authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, colleagues of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, the American wing of Pound, Ford Madox Ford and T.S.Eliot’s European/Bloomsbury coterie.

Ransom, in an essay published when this ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry, first hit the shelves, asked for an expert-ism developed in the academy to teach the new ‘modern’ poetry—which had not caught on with the public in its 25 years of existence.  Alan Tate founded a poetry writing department at Princeton at this time, and R.P Blackmur, a member of the coterie, would teach there.   The launching of the textbook Understanding Poetry by two old members of Ransom’s Fugitive clique showed  that all cylinders were firing in Modernist Poetry’s  engine.  Paul Engle, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner (judge: Fugitive clique member) was  poised to make Iowa the flagship of the Writing Program Era with his phenomenal fundraising abilities.

In their preface to Understanding Poetry, Brooks & Warren define poetry as “knowledge” and a “process” of “dramatic” expression, as  opposed to a “statement” or a “message.”  “Form” is the vehicle, according to the authors, which bypasses mere “statement” or “message” and carries the poem’s “meaning.”

The problem here is the authors never define “knowledge.”

What if “message” happens to be part of what the authors refer to as “knowledge?”   The authors famoulsly wish to exclude “the paraphrasable” as the important germ of the poem in a kind of Romantic gesture against poetry of mere ornamental prose, but here we see modernism, or more specifically, New Criticism, borrowing a mystical strain which is highly dubious.  No important writer before modernism ever rejected content, or, “the paraphrasable,” as a tool.  In fact, the less ornamental and the more substantive a poem is, the more it can withstand analysis which uses the paraphrase as a descriptive tool.  Brooks and Warren, with their paternal concern that the paraphrase will spoil the poet, spoil him more, since not having the  paraphrase allows for an infinite amount of mischief, while using it is an incentive to go beyond the ornamental— without feeling the need to reject it altogether.

“The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle impact of the  poem as a whole.”   —from the Preface

The “massive” religious and pedantic fervor of the authors is felt at once.   It is nearly Wagnerian.

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

Here is the far less hyperbolic alternative. We peruse the poem, and if we do not immediately and involuntarily feel its pull, the poem has failed, and we need not blame and curse ourselves in a hocus-pocus manner because we did not “submit” to the poem’s “massive” scope. This is the proper and sensual standard of criticism. Brooks & Warren ask for something else; these New Critical priests demand submission to the wishes of the car salesman poet. But the “whole” will move us if the first part of the poem move us, and if the first part fails to interest us, the “whole” fails, too–no matter how “massive” and “subtle” Brooks and Warren tell us the poem is.

This is not to say that surrendering ourselves to the entire length of any particular experience is not without advantage, but such surrendering does not occur because some outside entity has demanded it; the surrender, or the submission, happens without exhortation; a true aesthetic “whole” presumes not on forcing us to wait for its entirety to be understood before part 1 of its introduction please us; any “whole” worth its name would never do so.

If one uses the analogy of the reluctant piano student struggling with his first piece of music, then, yes, we would expect submission on the part of the student in attempting to master a technique or skill in musical interpretation upon an instrument. But where pedantry in this case is expected to push itself for the good of practice in the field of rudimentary learning, the same pedantry is not expected to be used where the student is reading poems. Here there is no instrument to be learned; the poet and the reader are assumed to share whatever technique is required; the poem triumphs on familiar turf with unfamiliar combinations of things that are already grasped. By “submit,” Brooks and Warren do not mean to say, ‘Approach the poem with a large dictionary and be prepared to use it!’ Obviously “submission” is shorthand by Brooks & Warren for: pay attention in the very depth of thy soul! or something similar. I call attention to this figure of speech on their part only because it points up the general tenor of their approach, which is: at all times make thyself subservient to the awesome mysteries of the poem, a pedagogical approach I find dangerous, especially when the poems lauded with such tenacity in Understanding Poetry are untested, experimental, and written by the authors’ friends.

Brooks and Warren have the audacity to say one ought to love this or that, which, as Poe demonstrated a century earlier, is never how we should speak of poetry.

It is not surprising, then, that Poe is much abused in the textbook Understanding Poetry, while experiments in the sort of poetry that hold no delight for the public are earnestly praised in their book for vague and mystical reasons.

In the Introduction to Understanding Poetry, the authors begin by quoting a passage from a Nobel-winning scientist for the purpose of attacking science in a flurry of petulance which ends with Brooks and Warren claiming for their side Jesus Christ, in a revivalist-tent-meeting moment. The following is the passage the authors of “Understanding Poetry” single out for abuse:

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason.

OK, so this passage does sound like the musings of a ‘square’ from the 50s who hasn’t got his jungle groove on. I dig. My point is not to quarrel with the statement, but with Brooks & Warren’s reaction to it. Because this is a piece of prose by a scientist, the authors are keen to point out that the passage is not scientific. They assume that science is “precise” and they know for sure this passage is not “precise” at all.

But here Brooks and Warren make a fatal mistake. They assume science is exact and bare-boned, while poetry is meatier, but this is a naïve and unfair characterization of science, which can, and does, reason in an indirect and poetic manner all the time. Science is more than just arithmos and conversely, poetry is not, as the authors assume, only dramatic, discursive and imprecise.

Brooks & Warren defend pacifism, citing the example of “the pacifism of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” and in attacking the passage by the scientist, they not only remove the issues of war and Christianity from a context we might be able to comprehend, they wind up their assault on the scientist by quoting in full Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:” “You shoot a fellow down…you’d…help to half a crown…” which is odd, because Brooks & Warren have said so far–if they have said anything–that you cannot reduce a poem to a “message,’ which they proceed to do with the Hardy (!) to win a silly argument against someone who was making a pretty simple and reasonable point that pure emotionalism is not reliable.

Somehow the scientist’s statement offended the former Southern Agrarians’ hippie selves, and they got very emotional, gnashing their teeth and weeping over the ‘Prince of Peace” while violating their most important critical tenet: don’t reduce a poem to its “message.”

At this point, it’s pretty clear the authors are not reliable as critics (or textbook writers) and are probably drinking mint juleps (or good Southern whiskey) while they are writing their book.

As if on cue, the next poem they quote is Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” under the heading ‘message-hunting’ (message-hunting is BAD—although Brooks and Warren have just done it).

The authors posit poetry as something which is not science and then hector their students with unreasonable, emotional pleas which are full of contradictions as they seek to convince their audience of their “definition” of poetry.

Now comes the biggest gamble of their intellectual lives. With solemn demeanor Brooks and Warren now inform their readers that “It is important to remember that poetry is not a thing separate from ordinary life.”

“Ordinary life?” No wonder their meandering commentary wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. This explains it: IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT POETRY IS  NOT A THING SEPARATE FROM ORDINARY LIFE.

Their logic, of course, is irrefutable, as far as it goes: Any reader is “ordinary” in the sense that any reader’s thoughts, being familiar to the reader himself, because they are his own thoughts, will seem “ordinary,” and, since any appreciation of poetry is conveyed to the reader’s thoughts (since “knowledge” is what poetry gives us, according to the authors’ preface) it then follows that poetry needs to be “ordinary” to make an impression on this “ordinary” reader.

“Ordinary life” is finally Brooks & Warren’s trump card; just as revolutionary political theories always assure us that “ordinary folk” are the ones who will benefit. The “ordinary life” trope, at bottom, is what Brooks & Warren are selling: little work is involved, ideality and sensuality will give way to catch-all mysticism, even as it is rough-edged and plain-speaking. “The Red Wheel Barrow” captures all these qualities perfectly, a poem singled out for especial praise by the textbook: Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow” is certainly “ordinary” in what it describes, it is certainly “mystical,” (after all, who knows what the poem means) it is certainly made of “ordinary” speech, and certainly within the grasp of “ordinary” readers who might wish to become poets in this “ordinary” style themselves. And once this sort of poem is invited to the ball, the battle is won; lip service can be spoken to ‘the greats’ of the past, who by proximity serve to raise the value of “The Red Wheel Barrow,” as the authors revel in its contemporariness and ground-breaking “ordinary” qualities. The revolution is over. Brooks and Warren have pandered—and won.

Following the introduction of “Understanding Poetry” are chapters in which ballads are examined for their “suspense” and their “appeal to the reader’s feelings;” all sorts of traditional tropes are dragged out in a pedantic and perfunctory manner. We do not have the space here to examine the dull and uneventful whole of the book, but let’s look briefly at how the authors teach Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Pound.

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

“A man, engaged in conversation with Psyche, his soul, walks through a mysterious landscape.  He and his soul are so preoccupied that they do not notice the setting nor do they even know what month of the year it is…”   Brooks and Warren can hardly keep from yawning as they continue in this manner, paraphrasing the poem in a bored way, violating their own sacred tenet.  The Williams and the Pound poems have no content, thus allowing the authors to escape the awful dilemma: shall I paraphrase, or not?  They are only too eager to paraphrase “Ulalume,” a poem of which, they assure us, they don’t believe a word.

“dank tarns and ghoul-haunted woodlands are stage-sets, we might say, that are merely good for frightening children. We accept them only if we happen to forego our maturity…”   (?!?)   Well, sure.  All poetry and fiction is merely stage-sets, good at frightening our inner child.  Condescending in this manner to Poe only betrays an inflated sense of the critic’s own (ahem) “maturity.”

Brooks & Warren then dare to attack Poe on his own turf: “there is an emphatic beat [horrors!] that becomes monotonous…a lack of variation in the rhythmic effects…”  The authors do not understand music.  Poe’s rhythm is  more pronounced being chiefly anapestic, rather than the more common iambic; to call this rhythm “monotonous” is sheer ignorance.  Even the anapestic rhythm is varied skillfully by Poe, in lines such as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,”  so different from “It was night in the lonesome October.”
.

Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

“…the fact of its [free verse] being set off in lines has some significance.  It is signifcant, for one thing, because it pretends to be significant.  That is, we have to dwell on the line as a unit, even if, by ordinary standards, we can find no unity.”

“…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of it being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly.”

“Now the poem itself is about that puzzling portentousness that an object, even the simplest, like a red wheelbarrow, assumes when we fix attention exclusively upon it.  Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of carboard.  The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness, that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.”

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

“The petals on a wet black bough, the white faces against the dimness—the comparison does embody a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise.  And yet, in the midst of the novelty, we sense that it, too, has a logical basis.  The poet has simply focused upon the significant quality for the comparison, discarding other qualities, more obvious qualities.  And the shock of surprise takes us to the poem’s meaning.”

What do we notice here?

The authors are besotted by “surprise,’ “shock,” “freshness” and “revelation,”  in a Zen revery of “significance.”  Even granting the “significance” of  Pound’s “white petals” and Williams’ “wheel barrow,” which Brooks & Warren enjoy “peering” at, forty years after Noguchi toured the West and made haiku popular, we must ask: How long , in terms of ongoing poetic practice, can this “freshness” from “peering at ordinary objects” last?  We can almost hear the cry of the millions: What about my poem?  Don’t you see the significance of my ordinary object?  Look, I framed it with a pin prick, too!

Can’t we see at once that no repeat of the red wheelbarrow or the white petals as “revelation” is possible?   Such “hovering on the verge of revelation” is a deal with the devil, a short-term gain in “freshness” for an eternity of wandering in obscure hell.  Poe, on the other hand, who comes under such abuse by the professorial authors, presents a recognizable and enchanting skill, there for the taking.  “Ulalume” is a model in a line of significant utterance; if a poet possesses the imagination and skill to make another “Ulalume,” much pleasure will result, since appreciation of music is universal; hundreds of thousands of red wheelbarrows have been tried, and strange to report, not once has “freshness” been used to describe the attempt!  Brooks & Warren gambled on a sun which will never rise again.  Critics who write textbooks  have a responsibility to think of the long-term health of the art, lest the poetic economy collapse.

In “Understanding Poetry,’ poems by friends of the authors—Pound, Williams, Tate, H.D.—spear-head a modernist beach-landing against a defenseless tribe—students.

The public would not come to modernism, so modernism came to the public—in a textbook.

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