BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES

Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as himself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
.
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
.
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
.
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
.
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)

MR. ASHBERY, I PRESUME?


……..Eliot…………….Perloff…………….Ashbery…..Dusty Springfield

“One would never mistake an Ashbery poem for an Eliot one.”

Breakthrough narratives, it is true, are always forced to simplify the work of the past from which the new text deviates. I plead guilty to this charge in my own references to Eliot or Stevens in The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981). Of course the symbolic structure of The Waste Land is not as easily understood as I implied in that study, but I stand by my original distinction between the “logic of metaphor” (Eliot’s phrase for St. John Perse) of The Waste Land and the much greater indeterminacy of the Ashbery lyric in question, “These Lacustrine Cities” from Rivers and Mountains (1966). Indeed, however great the debt Ashbery owes to the “modernism” of Eliot, one would never, as I suggested in my book, mistake an Ashbery poem for an Eliot one.

…………….Marjorie Perloff,  ‘Normalizing John Ashbery,’ Jacket Magazine

Only, that is, when one isn’t lost in the windmills of one’s mind…

~

BURNT LOVIN’

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind. But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Other echoes inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.

……………………………………………..–T.T. Initial

~

THESE LACUSTRINE CITIES.

These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,
Though this is only one example.

They emerged until a tower
Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.

Then you are left with an idea of yourself
And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon
Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others
Who fly by you like beacons.

The night is a sentinel.
Much of your time has been occupied by creative game
Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.
We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,

To a violent sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air
To you, pressing you back into a startled dream
As sea-breezes greet a child’s face.
But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.

The worst is not over, yet I know
You will be happy here. Because of the logic
Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.
Tender and insouciant by turns, you see

You have built a mountain of something,
Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.

……………………………………………..–Johnny Ashbery

~

THE WINDMILLS OF YOUR MIND

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel,
Like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon,
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon,
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping  past the minutes of a face,
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.
.

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own,
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone,
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half-forgotten dream,
Or the ripples from a pebble someone throws into a stream,
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping  past the minutes of a face,
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.
.

Keys that jingle in your pocket, words that jangle in your head,
Why did summer go so quickly?  Was it something that I said?
Lovers walk along a shore and leave their footprints in the sand;
Is the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway and the fragments of a song,
Half-remembered names and faces, but to whom to you belong?
When you knew that it was over, were you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair?
Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel,
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel,
As the images unwind, like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind.

……………………………………………

…..Words & Music:  Alan & Marilyn Bergman & Michel Legrand
…..
Vocals:  Dusty Springfield
…..
Drums & Ambiguity:  Tommy Eliot
…..
Kazoo & Erudition:  Johnny Ashbery
…..
Spoons, Bones & Foetics: Tommy Brady
…..
Producer:  Marjorie Pull-it-off

ONE MORE LOOK AT ALABAMA

“Stars fell on Alabama”   –Old song

As promised, here’s the Final Part 5 report on the Alabama ‘What Is Poetry?‘ conference which took place 25 years ago in October.  

What happened at that October 1984  conference, exactly? 

The old guard– Ignatow, Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler–won the battle, but lost the war.

The Language Poetry team, led by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff,  scored almost no rhetorical points, and were even humiliated several times in the final group panel discussion.

Charles Bernstein was asked to “name names” of “policemen-poets” running “official verse culture” and could only sheepishly come up with one: T.S. Eliot.  Denise Levertov, with political guns blazing, said Bernstein’s concern for “official verse culture” was parochial and small-minded.  Unable to specify what made her outsider position important or unique, Marjorie Perloff was painted into a corner by Louis Simpson.  At one point Vendler said, to applause, “If you look at the statistics of dissertations done and M.A. theses done all across the face of America today, you will find that overwhelmingly they are done in twentieth-century studies, and the past is in danger of being forgotten altogether by the English departments.”

However, just sharing the stage with the status quo helped Bernstein and Perloff.   In a major capitulation to the barbarians, Helen Vendler conceded a huge point to Bernstein, explicitly agreeing with him that poetry makes language “opaque” and “problematic.” 

Well.

Poetry does not make language “problematic.” 

Poetry does the reverse; poetry overcomes the “problematic” aspect of language—this is why it is poetry! 

But don’t tell that to Vendler or Bernstein, champions of Art’s for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry, respectively.  

Art for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry would seem to be miles apart, but they’re not, actually.  

Both schools are more concerned with “How poetry tells us” than “What poetry tells us.” 

Vendler’s modernism really has little trouble fitting into Bernstein’s post-modernism.  

Erudition for its own sake will suffer from pedantry. 

But even worse than the old-fashioned pedantry—which once characterized the absent-minded English professor of old–is the erudition which attaches itself to a program, to a theoretical framework.  Free and open inquiry may thrive in a pedantic morass, but it never thrives when ideology stacks the deck.  Ideology turns erudition into a monster.

No one can accuse Vendler of being ideological—and this is precisely why her surrender to Bernstein is so harmful.  She did not surrender to his ideology, per se.  She generously and unconsciously abetted post-modernism because she found it intellectually pleasing to find how easily her modernism fit into Bernstein’s post-modernism.

Modernism decided to make poetry “problematic” or “difficult” (T.S. Eliot first ascribed the term “difficult” to modern poetry) in response to all sorts of issues, which, looking back, seem manufactured in light of a certain pessimism bearing down on the age, a heady manifesto-ism in general, and Eliot’s intuitive push towards the erudite and learned.  It was natural for this journey down “Problematic Lane” to lead from the opaque coyness of Wallace Stevens to the utter madness of LANGUAGE poetry.  

Bernstein’s intellectual legacy traces through Stanley Cavell, who was Bernstein’s mentor at Harvard, to J.L. Austin, a member of British Intelligence, who was Cavell’s Harvard professor.

Austin was a Moral Philosopher at Oxford who specialized in language, coining the term “speech acts” to describe speech as action–as opposed to speech as a mere passive agent of description.  Already we can see that—for this school of analytic philosophy—there is no speech which is not opaque and problematic—all speech is shot through with motive and desire, not just poetry.  Vendler, therefore, by conceding that poetry’s role was to “problematize language” was coming over to Bernstein’s turf and surrendering to him without a fight.

‘French theory’ did not only come from France.  It came from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It came from Bloomsbury. (See G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.)  Modernism and post-modernism have the same parent and are the same age.  Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein are puppies of the same litter.

ZOMBIE MODERNISM, FASCIST FUTURISM “WAR–THE WORLD’S ONLY HYGIENE”

      

      

The Zombie-Modernists are:

1. Ignorant of material, social, political, elitist origins of Modernism.

2. Ignorant of the vicious, exclusionary, philistine nature of Modernism.

3. Ignorant of how much ‘Make It New’ was fascist razing and leveling, not  democratic or revolutionary building.

Here’s what the Futurist Manifesto, published in 1909 on the front page of a major daily newspaper in Paris, said: 

We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn of woman.”

The critic Marjorie Perloff, whose job is to glorify kooky, 20th century modernism, excuses these words, saying Marinetti didn’t really mean it.

Perloff is not the only one, of course, who finds the manifesto-ism of Pound and Futurism full of “charm.”  Here’s more from that 1909 document:

“Courage, audacity and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.”

We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunisitic or utilitarian cowardice.”

“We affirm that the world’s magnficence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.  A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath…”

“We intend to exalt aggresive action, a fervent insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”

GRRARRRRERURGGGHHHHH!

HELEN VENDLER AS DR. PHIL: THE CRITICISM OF EMPATHY AND SUCK-UP