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

“I GAVE UP EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING TO BE A POET” –FRANZ WRIGHT

…….Franz Wright Grab

 

James and Franz Wright, poets, and miserable sons-of-bitches.

“A Blessing” by James Wright is maudlin crap, perhaps the worst poem ever published.

The lust for horsies and the ‘break into blossom’ trope is embarrassing in the extreme.

“Northern Pike” is a close second: “we prayed for the muskrats”

“I am so happy.”    Good grief.

His football poem isn’t much better; “gallup terribly” is a trite way to describe the violence of football.  One can tell he’s just a nerdy observer.

“Their women cluck like starved pullets,/Dying for love.”  Lines like these are destined for the ash heap.

Don’t get me started on the treacly, self-pitying exploitation of George Doty, the executed killer.

What to do with James Wright, who is nothing more than smarmy Whitman-haiku?

[Note: No woman poet seeking entrance to the canon would be permitted to get away with Wright’s metaphorical slop.]

“Depressed by a book of bad poetry…”

“I have wasted my life.”

Yea.

The times (1972) were right for Whitman-haiku poetry, so James Wright’s Pulitzer is no surprise.  Plus, Wright was associated with a lot of big names: Roethke, Kunitz, Tate, Berryman, Bly.

Franz faced a difficulty as a poet.  His father was a name.  Say what you will about Whitman-haiku, his father did it well.

Franz seems to have genuinely admired his father’s poetry and made no attempt, as a poet, to get out from under his father’s shadow.

Junior poet looks up to senior poet and uses the same straight-forward, plain-speaking, self-obsessed, sentimentality of approach: Look, reader, here is my transparent chest; take a look at what I am feeling.  You might think I’d be sad—and good Lord, I have reason to be—but something about the inscrutability of the universe and my inner faith makes me happy.

Recently on Harriet, Franz Wright wrote the following, which Franz never should have written and which Harriet never should have published, and which we publish here because…oh, we forget why.

[Warning: Wright’s comment on Harriet does contain abusive language]

Henry–I have no opinion about your “work”, or the “work” of others like little Kent and the others you masturbate with. My suggestion to all of you is: give up everything for the art. Everything. Can you do that? I did it 35 years ago–do you think that might have something to do with what you little whiners call “being on the inside”? I am not on the inside of shit. I gave up everything, everything, to be a poet. I lived in financial terror and homelessness, sometimes, for nearly 40 years. Can you do that? You little whining babies. Franz Wright, 12/20/2009 Blog:Harriet

Now, that’s poetry.

Granted, it’s hyperbolic to say you gave up everything to be a poet.  What does that even mean? No one wants to suffer, and to say in hindsight that you suffered for your art is arrogant, because even if you thought it were true, it can never be proven by anyone, anywhere, that the more outrageously you suffer, the better your art will be.   There’s no substance to such a “brag.”

But we love the balls of it.