for FRANZ WRIGHT: “dark, then bright, so bright”

An antique Relic found amongst the Ruins,
thought to be Samson’s.

What Genius Means Border………………….[Click twice on the old script to read it more easily.]

A further antique Relic thought to be Samson’s:
illuminations on Jūlija’s desk under the volcano on Bali.

God burns

…………….God Burns 4 …………..[Click twice on both to see better, & read carefully for clues to decipher the text.]

Dear Jūlija,……………………………………………………….December 9th, 2017
I love what you say in your last paragraph about the “message of the relics” — it’s very exciting how we’re finding our way there together, and I’m tremendously grateful to you for the help.

In answer to your question about Franz Wright, he was a unique, and uniquely great, American poet who also had a uniquely troubled life. He died just two and a half years ago after a long struggle with lung cancer, having essentially smoked himself to death. He had been abusing drugs and alcohol and everything else for 40 years, was in and out of mental hospitals, and was famous for being extremely angry and aggressive in public and especially  on-line. For examples of the latter you can go to For Franz Wright (2010) cited in my previous post. In particular you can read his Comment 34 followed by his Comments 38 & 39, and finally his very moving last Comment 41.  (For convenience sake I have highlighted all Franz Wright’s Comments in Green.) And you can also read a short reply of my own to him in Comment 40, which will give you an idea of how I dealt with all this at the time.

Insufficiently, needless to say, and why I have felt compelled to revisit the original thread 7 years later, and of course why I am dedicating “He Reflects on What his Genius Means” to Franz Wright along with your beautiful illuminations.

Also why I have high-lighted in blue the discussion with my co-editor at the time, the anti-modernist critic, Tom Brady, who mocked Franz Wright ferociously both as a poet and as a person throughout. My feeling is that readers will be interested not only in Tom Brady’s ‘Old- (as opposed to ‘New-) Critical’ views but also in the way my own understanding of both ‘the poet’ and ‘poetry’ in general developed during the discussion. Because I was caught between a rock and a very hard place, pushing against two uncompromising Savanarolas, Tom Brady on the own hand and Franz Wright on the other, the former dismissing my poem, “Leonardo Amongst Women,” as “didactic” and the latter as “perfectly awful.”

Which was a lot to deal with then, and still is.

[Cont. in the Comments.]

from JULIJA’S SCRIPTORIUM ON BALI

IMG_0548
………………………..

………………………..Stumped like this,
………………………..we hear the Years
………………………………………………..cascade
………………………..And stoop to grace
………………………..the Water
…………………………………………………..‘s Fall.

IMG_0551
………………………..

………………………….(Remember? Click HERE if you don’t.)

These are all three rough drafts, even the last one, but to me the blotches, squiggles and crossings-out have their own special glamor. Indeed, they all testify to Jūlija’s imagination, inventiveness and skill as a calligrapher, and as work in progress they all lead me deeper and deeper into the poem.

C.

“O FOOL OF EARTH!” A Haiku by Samson illuminated by Jūlija with Caravaggio, T.E.Lawrence & an encore by our Christy himself.

Julia O Fool of Earth jpg

……………………………………………………………………November 21st, 2017
A first draft of an illuminated haiku by a very special and gifted new friend, a Russian speaking Latvian calligrapher who goes by the single name of Jūlija. And there’s going to be lots more of her, including an illumination of the haiku in the previous post. At the moment her version of “Stumped like this” is lying on her scriptorium desk on the island of Bali, and I just read that Mt. Agung is going off so there may be a delay.

Just a few weeks ago, Jūlija and I started working together on a project to illuminate a series of what I call “relics” in my latest book called La Croix Ma Fille. And just to lay this new card on the table from the start, should La Croix Ma Fille find a publisher it would now have to include Jūlija’s work. Because what she is doing has inspired me so — lifted my spirits, confirmed my hunches, and given me the courage to believe that, even at just a few days short of 78, this author might still manage to publish the book!

I’ve had the idea for years — that I might assemble a book that would include some poems that I didn’t write myself but were “found.” So La Croix Ma Fille has a Foreword entitled “Three Relics Found Amongst the Ruins, Thought to be Samson’s,” the last poem of which is the haiku called “O Fool of Earth” — which, if you please, was written not by me but by the “front-line saint” called Samson, a Justice League enforcer if there ever was one. Because he’s God’s own body-guard, bouncer, and batman — yet he’s also humanity’s fool like the shy inventor, Bruce Wayne, which means not unlike me and perhaps even a bit like you. And don’t forget that these jottings were discovered “in the ruins” sometime after Samson pulled the temple down about his ears — “So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life,” as the Bible puts it. And if that doesn’t sum up our own well-meaning but tragic interventions at home and abroad, what does, and I mean both on the personal and national levels?

Here is the “relic” as it appears in my typed m.s. in 12 point Lucida Calligraphy — that’s as far as I dare to go for open submissions, but I’d love to see what a good book designer could do with the fonts, colors and spacing . It’s a ‘Haiku’ as well as a ‘Relic,’ of course, so there’s that too to take into consideration.

O Fool of Earth - Relic

Jūlija’s version of the same poem at the top of the page is an early sketch with the script partly in black-letter and partly cyrillic, a fusion which creates an ageless sort of sacred cypher, which I love. Because the reader mustn’t forget that the original was transcribed in long-hand by a prophet in a most challenging position — trussed up between pillars with his God on the one hand and his girlfriend on the other (my imagination still goes to  Caravaggio*  for that, the saint’s bare head, her lap, the nipple, and God flaring up all over the place…).
………………

*Note: CARAVAGGIO! or How the Samson of Painters Paints Samson.
……………………………………………………………………..November 25th, 2017
It’s the prophet himself who wrote this little poem so forthrightly, of course, and by my way of thinking it’s the weakness of Samson that demonstrates his ‘chosen’ status more than his brute strength ever did. That’s why I think Samson was granted even more divine strength for that one last shove, and why the effects of it were even more cataclysmic than what he managed to do with the jawbone of the ass. And that’s how Caravaggio painted him as well, didn’t he? Doesn’t his shaved Samson reveal a prophet who is even more powerful sexually than he was before, his smooth skin, his feminine curves in silk and his hands just like her’s? And don’t the lovers fit together just about perfectly? And doesn’t everybody inside and outside the painting know just what that means? (Click more than once to see that even better.)

What also makes this haiku holy is the simplicity of its vocabulary: “wise,” “heart,” “love,” “girl’s,” “flares up,” and “burns.” Had someone like me written the poem you’d think it was by a middle-school student trying to make his creative writing teacher happy, whereas the author is actually an ancient prophet who is just about to discover his true strength by acknowledging that he has not only lost it but abused it. He admits, moreover, that his heart is not “wise,” and whereas the girl’s heart in the poem just “flares up,” his goes on burning and burning, a self-destructive and at the same time self-affirming conflagration not unlike Caravaggio’s. And it’s not demeaning for him to use the word “girl” either — indeed, he’s mocking himself, not women, exposing his fatal attraction to fantasy lovers as opposed to real or ‘other’ persons, and that’s a man-problem that no amount of man-splaining can ever cover up. Samson may be a saint but he knows he’s also a fraud ** — which is precisely what makes this humble scrap of a relic-poem so precious, and why any human being might think to fold it up carefully and place it in a small reliquary on a string about the neck, a talisman to keep from being undone by gently, humorously, respectfully turning oneself away from the self-serving self to behold. And “turns” is just the right word to describe whatever that is, I feel sure, though I haven’t a clue what that is myself.

**NOTE: The flawed saint I admire above all, and the one I never stop thinking and writing about, is T.E. Lawrence, and in a sense all of the above is about him. While actually on the road to Damascus at the very end of the Arab Revolt in 1918, [and with the Morte Darthur in his camel’s saddle bag, dear Jūlija and Romain], Lawrence realized that “all established reputations were founded, like myself, on fraud.” He removed himself from public life altogether shortly after representing King Faisal at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the outcome of which broke his heart as well as the whole of the Middle East. He died in 1935 under the name of T.E.Shaw, an ordinary mechanic in the Airforce. It was just a local motorcycle accident on a small country lane, but his funeral entourage a few days later included everybody from Bernard Shaw and E.M.Forster to Winston Churchill, and many born like myself too late are still there.

……
ONE LAST FINAL ACT AND DEPARTURE
By way of an encore to all these final acts and departures I’d like to bring in for one last bow another Irishman, J.M.Synge’s almighty wastrel/minstrel hero from “The Playboy of the Western World.” For it’s “our Christy himself,” that genius liar, lover and logos, who makes such an utter fool of himself that he can turn the tables on the whole world, and scold all the Fools of Earth in one hearty go as if he were some Old Testament prophet: “Shut your yelling, for if you’re after making a mighty man of me this day by the power of a lie, you’re setting me now to think if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worse, maybe, go mixing with the fools of earth!”

Which should bring this to a close, I think — dear friends.

Christopher

ON HOW I MAKE SENSE OF IT

IMG_0549(shopped)

Calligraphy by Jūlija added Nov 29th, 2017. CLICK HERE for more on Jūlija and our work together.
………………

…………………………..Stumped like this,
…………………………..we hear the Years
…………………………………………………..cascade
…………………………..And stoop to grace
…………………………..the Water
……………………………………………………..‘s Fall.

………………
a.) The poem has exactly 17 syllables, so it’s a haiku. That makes me slow down, reflect, get myself ready.

b.) The rhythm is, surprisingly, strict iambic — count the syllables and see. There are precisely 9 iambs which should add up to 18 as each foot has 2 syllables: da dah. So how can there be just 17, an odd number? Indeed, that’s the sort of simple-minded question any haiku worth its salt asks us, of course, and why we never get bored with the good ones. And the simpler they are the better — and the simpler we are too, needless to say.

c.) Perfection-in-imperfection, like everything. In fact there’s an invisible event at the very beginning of the poem which is unwritten, unaccented, and inaudible.  It’s simply not there in the poem — the first step has been lopped off, so to speak, truncated, ‘silenced’ as we say about an enquiry or execution, ‘stumped’ as we say in the forest or when we’re handicapped or failing. That’s why the first audible word in the poem works so well as a one syllable foot overshadowing the whole poem. “Stumped” from the very start, the poem is overshadowed by no shadow and left with no tree to bear, look up to, or hide under.

d.) “Stumped” is in the passive voice, an involuntary event that happens to someone or something — it’s done to you or me, not by us. The complementary “stoop” at the beginning of the second part is ‘active,’ as we say, and ‘finite.’ It’s what we-the-stumped do about it in the poem. And I’d say that rhetorical tension makes the poem a ‘haiku’ far more than the syllables do, or the layout — at least it does for me, and I’ve been living with this poem for over 20 years. Indeed, I’m writing this not because I wrote the poem but because it’s still talking to me.

e.)  There’s an even noisier event toward the end of the poem which constitutes a whole foot in itself, as huge as it’s empty and speechless.  The final ” ‘s” on “water’s” cracks off the edge of the 5th line to plunge down through the open space and land next to “fall” on the 6th line far below at the end. And it shushes us as it goes, indeed silences us completely as it plummets through space to rest at last beside the noun it owns at the end in perfect silence.

f.) A technical detail to further that. Like so many final events in stress-based languages, the apostrophe-s on “water’s” is not counted as a syllable. Yet in actual practice we pronounce “water’s” in three distinct parts: wa/- ter/- ‘s, almost as if there were three syllables. In vowel based, tonal languages as in Asia, for example, this is hard to say as there is no vowel to support the final consonant, and what does one do about that? Indeed, that’s why I’m called Kitofer where I live, the crush of 3 consonants at the beginning of my name, Christopher, being almost impossible to enunciate in an unstressed, tonal, vowel-based culture.

g.) Perfect iambics, yes, but not perfect pentameters — the poem is deficient again as there are only four feet in the final line. On the other hand, there’s so much happening in that apostrophe s as it tumbles off the edge of the poem that the numerical deficiency is filled up with something else in mid air, and in a poetical as well as a graphic sense fills in for the missing foot. In addition, the missing syllable makes just the right sound in its spectacular descent, the cascading sssssssss of the star which brings the poem to an end with no ripples, impatience or movement in ‘fall.”

h.) I’m pleased to say that none of the above attempts to explain anything at all about the meaning of the poem — haikus worth their salt rarely do. That’s why we so often choose to live our whole lives beside the ones we like best, as I have beside this one. They are never stingey.

Christopher

A DEFENSE OF POETRY…SORT OF.

A great deal of 19th century verse is wretched—exposure to poorly written rhyme will naturally push the educated poetry lover from the vales of tortured song to the stairwells of sober speech.

Verse was abandoned by educated poets in the 20th century because the versifiers fell out of tune—not because poetry evolved into something higher.   

Frazzled, goaded and tuckered out by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, with no more heart for Bret Harte, audiences everywhere cried Geez! and So Long! to George Santayana and the other thousand rhyming and chiming poetasters, tossing the simpering, milk & water verse out the window.   (Santayana was T.S. Eliot’s professor at Harvard).  

Throwing off rhyme was not a revolution. 

It was a revulsion.

The yellowish face of Imagism’s moon was not a sign of mystical glory; it was a sign of illness and disgust.

Music coming from instruments only a little out of tune will soon convince hearers to give up all music.

Imagism was a retreat, not an advance. 

Poetry in the 20th century did not add image—it subtracted music. 

The great poets of verse featured imagery and music, skillfully blended into a natural, pleasing speech so that neither speech, imagery, nor music was perceived as such–the elements were blended and lost in the poetry. 

Lost so that no ‘close reading’ can get it out. 

Criticism finds the elements when they are not blended; if they are, criticism cannot see them, for the work succeeds and doesn’t require criticism

 The close reading of the New Critics was mistaken from the start, since it confused desultory, over-elaborated praise with criticism.  New Criticism finally ends in the Prozac Criticism of the Helen Vendlers and the Stephen Burts.

Too much focus on any part—image, language, irony, etc—is a sure sign poetry is in decline.

We’re not sure why–after the renaissance of verse in English from the 16th century sonnet mastery to the 17th century of Milton, Donne, Marvel, to the 18th of Pope, and then Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, with writers like Poe bringing Baconic science (with a Platonic sheen) to the art, and Tennyson carrying the flame–why the whole art sickened and died sometime during the middle or latter part of the 19th century. 

It may have been for a very simple reason. 

In the 19th century more people began to write and publish poetry.

There was a glut, and gluts will destroy whatever style currently exists.   

Those who complain contemporary poetry is prosy and dull usually champion the 19th century and its rhyme.  

But the issue is not a stylistic one.  It is simpler than that.   A glut destroyed poetry as it currently existed—first in the 19th century, when poetry rhymed, and then in the 20th century, when poetry didn’t.  The Quarterly didn’t kill Keats.  Sidney Lanier did. 

Those who could not write like Keats eventually decided no one should write like Keats—or none should try, because one more Sidney Lanier would be the death of poetry itself.   William Carlos Williams—when he reached middle-age and stopped rhyming—suddenly became vastly preferable to Sidney Lanier, at least among educated readers. 

Poetry–the art–could not handle one more failed Keats.  William Carlos Williams did not conquer Keats.   He was simply a sobering balm to the intoxicating pain of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  The 20th century stopped rhyming, not out of evolution, but from embarrassment. 

Rather than fail at Keats, it was necessary for the pride of the poet in the 20th century to partially succeed at haiku—and the whole history of modernism is nothing but extended haiku: even modern long poems are nothing but haiku patched together and embellished with flotsam and dialogue–breaking haiku’s rules, but not the rules of poetry—in any significant way. 

Our idea is supported by the following:  From the beginnings of poetry in English to the first confirmed glut in the early 19th century, a good poem was never a theoretical specimen; it was good in a way that was socially recognized by everyone: A 16th century Shakespeare song, a 19th century Keats ballad.   Then came the glut, and millions of would-be Shakespeares and Keats’s made rhyme come to seem the playing of an out-of-tune violin.  

The public gradually fled from the poem–not because the novel took them away, but because the public ran from the art of poetry holding its ears.   The modern novel was not an improvement so much as a refuge, and fortunately for that genre, poetry, by mishandling verse, was at that very moment chasing away readers as it had never done before. 

And bad rhyme did not end after Modernism–one can find it in Richard Aldington’s 1941 anthology: Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams’ only poem represented is a rhyming poem; there’s bad rhyme galore.  

Fashions die hard, but when they die, it’s sometimes not the fashion that’s at fault, but the mediocrities practicing it.

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

Joan Shelley Rubin, author of Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America, said the 1920s belonged as much to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as it did to Thomas Stearns Eliot—and this is true.

The anti-Victorian, Imagism revolution of Bloomsbury, which gradually changed poetry from an art of song to an art of image through the ‘trickle-down’ effort of its elites, gained the overwhelming momentum of  great numbers when its ‘trickle-down’ effort became  normalized and taught in the academy–both in English departments and Creative Writing Workshops–during the second half of the 20th century.

Are there any prominent musicians who bother to set contemporary poetry to music?

The image in poetry became associated with art, while the music of poetry became associated with vulgarity.

Two brief examples, from last century, will suffice:

First: these lines from J.V. Cunningham, the anti-modernist poet, who is largely forgotten:

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

Second:  Bloomsbury author Aldous Huxley’s infamous slam against Poe’s verse as “vulgar.”  The prim Englishman’s distaste for musical Poe was quoted approvingly in Brooks & Penn Warren’s well-placed textbook, Understanding Poetry (first edition, 1938) which also solidified the reputations of Imagist classics, ‘At A Station In the Metro’ (Pound) and ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ (Williams) in its unalloyed praise for these two works.

Could poetry change radically today?  And, if it did, would the public even notice?    The answer to both quesitons is, ‘no,’ and the reason the first answer is ‘no,’ is because the second answer is ‘no.’

How did poetry change so radically in the early part of the 20th century?

First, it did have a public, but not a particularly large or enthusiastic one, and secondly, poetry was understood by the public to have a certain definite identity: it looked like work by Longfellow and Tennyson.

An art whose practioners are disunited, who have no common expertise, will not be seen as an art at all.  Poetry had a common expertise: the ability to compose memorable music with mere words, like Longfellow and Tennsyon.

“Verse is not easy,” Cunningham wrote.    But the skill of verse is no longer a part of poetry; poetry no longer has a specific “skill.”

The Imagists never got beyond a very minor, little magazine existence, but they believed what they were offering would be very popular, like a portable camera; now you can just point and shoot!  Anyone can appreciate images–and put them into simple poems–like haiku.  Poetry for democracy!  Poetry that was selfless and natural!  It will be a phenomenon!  But the public didn’t buy it–they still wanted their Tennyson and their Longfellow with their gadgets and their telephones and their cars.  Imagism, like Futurism, Cubism and 12-Tone Music, failed to inspire anyone except the core of elites who were pushing them.  Imagism was a flop.

Or, was it?

People ‘on the street’ today define poetry as vaguely expressive, and the public’s perception of something, we have learned, should not be underestimated.  ‘Vaguely’ is the chief term here.  No longer does the public think of poetry as Longfellow.  They think of it as vaguely expressive.

100 years ago the American public had a more sharply defined view of poetry.  It was like what those fellows, Mr. Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote.  That was what poetry was.

The zen joke of ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and ‘The women come and go/talking of Michelangelo’ resonated once, but these jokes are no longer funny.  But Longfellow is gone, too.

Image truly belongs to other arts: painting, photography, and film;  further, these arts do not need to look to poetry at all as they wrestle with the image.

Song belongs to songwriters, and songwriters, the good ones, are poets, but they are known to the world as songwriters; poetry’s identity carries on in the sister art of songwriting, and unlike the filmmakers, photographers and painters, songwriters do consult poetry, not contemporary poetry, but old poetry, the art, for inspiration.

Since poetry has given up song for image as its current identity, poetry manifests no contemporary attachment with any other art.  No glory belongs to poetry, or is even reflected back on poetry.  Poetry is in the dark.

Poetry, with no public identity, is stuck: it has nowhere to go.

History affords countless examples of  technical changes which have improved music’s expressive qualities as a whole even as music, the art, remains, in its simplicity, recongizable to everyone.   When the piano replaced the harpsichord, all composers took notice, not just some.

The modernist revolution changed poetry so that everyone took notice,  but unfortunately in a way that made poetry no longer recognizable to everyone.  Nor is it easy to say if expressive qualities have increased–certainly not in the public’s perception.  As far as prose and how it perhaps opens things up, the problem poetry has, is that in prose, one would naturally think poetry could express itself with greater variety, but fiction owns prose, and poetry is expected to do something different than fiction; poetry as art has been developed in different ways than prose.   Yes, poetry should be as good as good prose, and all that, but how does poetry keep from disappearing into it?  And so poetry–sans the music that separates it from prose, as the art which the public knows as poetry–has been at sea for 100 years.

T.S. Eliot, an honorary Bloomsbury member, and the most respected critic of the 20th century, recommended minor poetry 300 years old as superior to major poetry composed  250, 200, 150, 100, and 50 years before his day.  This, in some ways, was counter to the whole modernist revolution.  John Donne?  Andrew Marvell?  Henry King, Bishop of Chichester?  What was Eliot thinking?  Eliot was thinking this: If my friends and I are to effect this modernist revolution of ours, we must not seem like mere brick-throwers; we need erudition, scholarship, appreciation of certain aspects of the past, and if we are to become professors and editors of modernist verse, it will be well to be able to make the past our clay, for revolutions must feed off the past; no revolution lives in the present day; Eliot knew he and Pound were not Bach, the master, at the keyboard, re-inventing music itself; he knew they were merely sullying a grand tradition with a little sleight-of-hand: Goodbye, Milton, Shelley, Poe, Shakespeare, Keats.  Hello, Kyd, King, Corbiere.  Eliot knew that when a revolution happens, the past will not disappear; a certain respect for the past must not only be feigned, but enthusiastically pursued, for every manifesto needs food; actual ‘new’ material (Waste Lands, cantos, wheel barrow haiku,) will run out in a week, so the past has to be transformed.  Every revolution needs a professor; Mary Ann and Ginger alone will not do.

The image is free-standing and pre-verbal; it is not necessary for image to fit, or be coherent–it simply is. Why should such a thing be the essence of poetry?  Ask that Bloomsbury elite.  After a snort and a sigh and a sip of their very expensive wine, they will tell you.