HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL?

Mantegna 466

At the very end of his life, Andrea Mantegna inscribed the answer to the question on the tree in this delicate cameo-painting of Delilah snipping away at Samson’s hair — as if the fountain next to the tree weren’t clarification enough.

If it’s hard to read the words on the tree, you can click on the tree itself to read them more easily — and if that’s still not enough you can click yet again on the bigger picture. Then it’s a piece of cake — that is, the riddle’s a piece of cake, not the beautiful, dignified, introspective young woman trimming the hair of her grizzled, old, pumped-up and psyched-out lover, the act that reduces all men to the divine fools they are destined to be. Because the Divine Fool is the true message of the Samson story, it seems to me, that is if you read the details of the story very carefully — or, alternatively, if you carefully and exhaustively read your own life, or even read me if you know where to look — which is why I am writing what follows, to find out.

I’m going to leave some space on that now, for reflection.

[ADDED A WEEK LATER]

My reflections on Mantegna’s dictum, foemina diabolo tribus assibus est mala peior, are developed day by day in the Comments below, and if you are interested in such things I hope you will be able to read them with as much hope for an answer as I posted them. On the other hand, if you’re impatient you can skip ahead to a specific discussion of HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL IN THE END.  But fasten your seat belts as you scroll down, because jumping ahead is going to make for a very fast ride!

And those of you who start at the beginning, be warned as well: the discussion that follows thrives on hair-pins and other sticky corners, and very often paints itself into untenable places as well — I do hope you’ll be charitable and forgive me for all the dead-ends. I’m an Old Father William, and all I can tell you is that this is how it goes. Indeed, that’s part of the riddle of knowing where you are in the space you inhabit, and it doesn’t much matter whether it’s on earth, in space, buried in your own person or in some other idea or dimension, or perhaps even suited up in a New Age space-vehicle transitting infinity to arrive where you actually are, like in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Wrapped up in your own cocoon like Eve, in other words, even if you’re a man and not yet ready to be that beautiful, powerful, and fey. Or a snake with your own tail in your mouth like Satan in the Garden of Eden — indeed, you may even be impatient enough to want to go straight to the discussion for men and women who are no longer inhabitants of the Garden of Eden but would like to know what really happened back then.

……….1.) CLICK HERE TO START AT THE BEGINNING OF THE END.

Or if, like most of my friends, you’re more interested in my own demise as a soi-disant angel and poet yet again you can begin at that end:

……….2.) CLICK HERE FOR THE END OF WHAT WAS ACHIEVED IN THIS THREAD.

Or if you’re really impatient and just want to know what happens at the various ends:

……….3.) CLICK HERE FOR THE SECOND TO LAST POSTSCRIPT.

And finally, if you don’t want to begin at any end but just keep on fooling around like Old Father William:

……….4.) CLICK ON THE END OF HIS NOSE TO SEE HOW EVERYTHING GOES.

Christopher Woodman,
Chiang Mai, March 3rd, 2016
….

THIS THREAD IS CONTINUED IN THE COMMENTS THAT FOLLOW.

 

CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: The New Critical Habit and How I Broke It.

As someone who was trained at Yale and Cambridge in the 60s, caught the bug from W.K.Wimsatt, sipped sherry with I.A.Richards and E.M. Forster on the same couch at Kings, shared a bag lunch with F.R.Leavis in a cold brick corner of some unrecorded quadrangle at Darwin, and suffered a nervous breakdown when a close disciple of Wittgenstein played with his head and his wife somewhere down the Huntington Road toward Girton, mostly on a bicycle, I have the New Criticism in my blood — and it’s a rush, I tell you.

And that’s a major part of the problem for any New Critic, to resist the thrill of using the gift of the academic gab as if it were a divine right — and I had a lot of that sort of chutzpah too, which I’ve now partly outgrown and partly forgotten. Indeed, that gift has bedevilled me both as a teacher and a poet all my life — because I so loved being a Guardian of the Poetry Threshold, I got so high on it, so vatic and blissfully feathered, I was not to be trusted on the ground at all. And even in my twilight years here on another planet I can still hold forth for hours and hours on a text, and the few people that somehow find their way to my table in Chiang Mai and ask the wrong question, e.g. anything to do with poetry, are still in mortal danger.

The danger is the way we New Critics deliver the message that only specially trained people can get the full meaning out of poetry, and even worse, that poetry that’s good is difficult.

We New Critics have become heavy pushers of that line, and far from increasing the popularity of poetry, our critical ‘gifts’ have crippled those who would like to hear about it just as much as those who would like to write it. For just like heroin, the effects of the New Criticism are as irresistible as they are destructive, and we’ve all ended up hooked on a kind of poetry that simply can never deliver enough. Indeed, the habit gets bigger and bigger even as we get smaller and smaller and more and more isolated from the world of real people down below.

Enter American poetry today. Enter the New Critical Angel.

Angels? Well Kierkegaard can tell you just how dangerous “great moments” can be, and how disastrously misleading, but there’s another picture that works for me too. In the well-known Tibetan mandala,  ‘The Wheel of Life,’ the angels are at the very top either blissfully at ease or blissfully exerting power. At the very bottom are the ghosts in hell, thirsty, hungry, endlessly tormented, abject victims of their own ignorance. Human beings are exquisitely poised between the two extremes and, the Buddha says, that’s a better place to be than even among the angels — because humans are the only beings that have any real hope of seeing things as they are, and thus achieving freedom from self-serving prejudice. And why? Ghosts suffer, angels live in bliss, but only human beings know both at once. When at last the heavens begin to change after countless aeons, and the slightest crack appears in the firmament, which inevitably it does, says the Buddha, an angel is unable to adapt. An angel’s attachment to bliss, permanence and control is so insidious it falls headlong into the very deepest hell at the first hint of dissatisfaction. Even an animal, it is said, is better off at that moment than an angel.

Instructional, and the curse of all inflation.

What I did about the potential Angel in myself, the Poet-written-Big in my nature, was truly radical. I simply placed a moratorium upon myself as a writer, and from my teen years in the 50s until I felt at last safe enough to try again in the 90s, I just didn’t write poetry at all. I always knew I was a poet, secretly, but a poet who couldn’t be trusted to write poetry as it should be written, with restraint, patience and integrity. Like T.E.Lawrence on the road to Damascus in 1918, I realized that “all established reputations were founded, like myself, on fraud,” and in my own humble way I wanted to avoid that pitfall. Even though I was very young and not remotely anything special, just living in a special time and place, I knew I had to be careful. And in the end I did manage to stay me, and not become just another fiddling angel. I arrested my development, went into artistic hibernation, and emerged 30 years later to publish my first poem at 52 without any established reputation at all to get in the way.

Here’s a poem about all this — it’s still a ‘new critical’ type poem, for sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it better. And there is room for this type of poem in Parnassus too, it’s just a lot harder to keep your head at such a heady level and, of course, to keep your hat off.

Christopher Woodman,…………
Chiang Mai…………

…………………………SAMSON BETWEEN THE PILLARS,
…………………………SAUL AND LAWRENCE ON THE ROAD

…………………………………There was knocking but
…………………………………no door into that heroic
…………………………………world but first
……………………………………………………….bowing out of it,
…………………………………deferring gracefully to those
…………………………………small private abstentions
…………………………………that had murmured all
…………………………………along just behind the
…………………………………uncompromising hard
…………………………………………………………god’s brilliance.

…………………………………Like all things likely shorn
…………………………………undressed ears can hear
…………………………………the faintest abdication
…………………………………………………………………knocking.

…………………………………Each white petal’s fall or
…………………………………slightest finger’s white
……………………………………………………………print in soot,
…………………………………every clean track or dry
…………………………………tear knocks too against
……………………………………………………………that solitude.

…………………………………Even the infinitesimal shock
…………………………………of a single naked
………………………………………………………………snow-flake
…………………………………slipping through some
…………………………………daedalian avenue before
…………………………………all that slicked-back tar
…………………………………can even wink at such
…………………………………quick celestial skin
…………………………………………………………..is knocking—
…………………………………just as veiled eyes seeing
…………………………………too many fine things done
…………………………………for the good in Damascus
…………………………………turn toward whatever
…………………………………violence or private wailing
…………………………………………………………….wall closing
…………………………………even as the bluntest flint
…………………………………tapping, tapping opens.

……………

…………………………….

A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


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

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

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

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

That was hard for me — and still is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher
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