ELIZABETH OAKES SMITH: “SHE SENT AN EMISSARY TO ENFORCE THE DELIVERY…HE WAS CRUELLY BEATEN…”

“…HE REFUSED TO RETURN HER LETTERS, NOR DID SHE RECEIVE THEM UNTIL DR. GRISWOLD GAVE THEM BACK AFTER POE’S DEATH.”

Poet, playwright, journalist, lecturer Elizabeth Oakes Smith, 1845, testifying on the murder of Edgar Allan Poe

Smith did not name the offended woman, but Poe scholars know who she is.  Scarriet will investigate all of this further.    A recent work by John Walsh made great strides in solving the mystery of Poe’s death:

“Now the least curious aspect of the Smith charge is the way it was, and has been ignored.   Only when Mrs. Smith had put forward her beating charge [1857] did the cooping idea make its appearance.  At first, Thompson accepted Poe’s death [1849] as did everyone then, as the result of a drunken debauch.  Not until the late 1860s did [Thompson] come out with his cooping theory.  By then, Mrs. Smith had twice stated her own belief in Poe’s having been beaten to death by ruffians who were related to, or agents of, some offended woman.

“John Thompson, it can be seen, in addition to being the originator of the idea, was also the one who, through Stoddard and the influences of Harper’s, then The Southern Magazine, deliberately put it into print.   …if there is no real support, no actual evidence…for the “cooping” theory, then how and why was it ever conceived?”

—John Evangelist Walsh, Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe St. Martin’s, 2000.

Poe’s death is still a mystery, but we at Scarriet have faith that one day the mystery will be solved.  First, the cover-ups and lies need to be cleared away, and that is gradually happening: the drunken debauch, and now the ‘cooping theory’ have been debunked.  There are many odd facts surrounding Poe’s murder.  The oddness of those facts should actually make the solving of the case that much easier, (to steal a little of Dupin’s logic.)

A significant author, a mother, an early champion of women’s rights, a friend of Poe’s, here is a poem by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, which could be a tribute to Shelley.  It sheds no light on Poe’s death, but it does make the whole matter more interesting to know that the source of a theory on Poe’s death is by a very fine poet, and this should also give us pause: why have so many fine writers with connections to Poe been ignored all these years?   Are you getting tired of the Harvard University/F.O. Matthiessen/N.Y. Review of Books view of 19th century American literary history?  Emerson, Emerson, Emerson, Whitman, Whitman, Whitman?  Well, we are, too.

The Drowned Mariner
by Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

A mariner sat on the shrouds one night;
The wind was piping free;
Now bright, now dimmed was the moon-light pale,
And the phosphor gleamed in the wake of the whale,
As he floundered in the sea;
The scud was flying athwart the sky,
The gathering winds went whistling by,
And the wave as it towered, then fell in spray,
Looked an emerald wall in the moonlight ray.

The mariner swayed and rocked on the mast,
But the tumult pleased him well;
Down the yawning wave his eye he cast,
And the monsters watched as they hurried past
Or lightly rose and fell;
For their broad, damp fins were under the tide,
And they lashed as they passed the vessel’s side,
And their filmy eyes, all huge and grim,
Glared fiercely up, and they glared at him.

Now freshens the gale, and the brave ship goes
Like an uncurbed steed along;
A sheet of flame is the spray she throws,
As her gallant prow the water ploughs,
But the ship is fleet and strong:
The topsails are reefed and the sails are furled,
And onward she sweeps o’er the watery world,
And dippeth her spars in the surging flood;
But there came no chill to the mariner’s blood.

Wildly she rocks, but he swingeth at ease,
And holds him by the shroud;
And as she careens to the crowding breeze,
The gaping deep the mariner sees,
And the surging heareth loud.
Was that a face, looking up at him,
With its pallid cheek and its cold eyes dim?
Did it beckon him down? did it call his name?
Now rolleth the ship the way whence it came.

The mariner looked, and he saw with dread
A face he knew too well;
And the cold eyes glared, the eyes of the dead,
And its long hair out on the wave was spread.
Was there a tale to tell?
The stout ship rocked with a reeling speed,
And the mariner groaned, as well he need;
For, ever, down as she plunged on her side,
The dead face gleamed from the briny tide.

Bethink thee, mariner, well, of the past,—
A voice calls loud for thee:—
There’s a stifled prayer, the first, the last;—
The plunging ship on her beam is cast,—
Oh, where shall thy burial be?
Bethink thee of oaths that were lightly spoken,
Bethink thee of vows that were lightly broken,
Bethink thee of all that is dear to thee,
For thou art alone on the raging sea:

Alone in the dark, alone on the wave,
To buffet the storm alone,
To struggle aghast at thy watery grave,
To struggle and feel there is none to save,—
God shield thee, helpless one!
The stout limbs yield, for their strength is past,
The trembling hands on the deep are cast,
The white brow gleams a moment more,
Then slowly sinks—the struggle is o’er.

Down, down where the storm is hushed to sleep,
Where the sea its dirge shall swell,
Where the amber drops for thee shall weep,
And the rose-lipped shell her music keep,
There thou shalt slumber well.
The gem and the pearl lie heaped at thy side,
They fell from the neck of the beautiful bride,
From the strong man’s hand, from the maiden’s brow,
As they slowly sunk to the wave below.

A peopled home is the ocean bed;
The mother and child are there;
The fervent youth and the hoary head,
The maid, with her floating locks outspread,
The babe with its silken hair;
As the water moveth they lightly sway,
And the tranquil lights on their features play;
And there is each cherished and beautiful form,
Away from decay, and away from the storm.

PEDANTS OF POETRY: THE TOP TEN

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Paul Valery (top), Polonius & T.S. Eliot

The last 100 years have seen more pedantry in poetry than in any other age.

Remember when poetry as a topic brought out the best in thinkers?

Socrates may be a villain to many poets, but Platonic arguments are grand, necessary, and…poetic.

Horace and Aristotle laid groundwork so vital we can overlook their pedantic natures.

Dante’s Vita Nuova is without the pretence of pedantry.

Shakespeare, another enemy of pedantry, made it a popular trope: Rozencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius in one play alone.

Pope and Swift fought pedantry as a natural impulse.

Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Poe were against it in their souls.

Yeats, at his best, displayed a hatred of pedantry: “Old, learned respectable bald heads edit and annotate lines…”

These artists are practically defined by their opposition to pedantry.

Something went wrong in the 20th century, however, as Manifesto-ism became a way to get attention in a field of diminishing returns

Here’s Scarriet’s Top Ten Pedant List:

1. Yvor Winters

Claimed the formal is moral, while convincing himself that Allen Tate’s poetry was better than Shelley’s.

2.  Harold Bloom

A pedant’s pedant’s pedant.   Shakespeare’s great—OK, we get it.

3. Jacques Derrida

One part Nietszche, one part William James, one part Analytic Philosophy, one part New Criticism, one part absinthe.

4. Ezra Pound

“Make it new” is a very old pedantry.

5. Cleanth Brooks

Ransom and Warren kept him around to feel like geniuses by comparison.

6. T.S. Eliot

Hated Hamlet.   Afflicted with Dissociation of Verse Libre.

7. Allen Tate

Modernism’s Red-neck traveling salesman.

8. Helen Vendler

A drab sitting room with a Wallace Stevens poster.

9. Charles Bernstein

“Official Verse Culture” was in his own mind.

10. Paul Valery

Always too correct.  Proves the rule that Poe sounds better in French than modern French poetry sounds in English.

BONUS—11. Charles Olson

Take a deep breath.  And blow.

–T. Brady

WHAT IS “MODERN?”

When I was 18 and began to study poetry for the first time, it was obvious to me the Romantic poets were far and away the best models for me in English, as I was not a student of languages then, and contemporary poets were prosaic enough to make a study of them no study of poetry at all.

Had I traveled back 2,000 years to study Homer or Sappho, I should no doubt have become a Greek scholar, but I wished to travel back a hundred years or so and be a poet like Shelley or Byron.

I was informed by my literature professors that poets who wrote in the 19th century were “old-fashioned” and no models for me at all.   Poets who were born in the 19th century, however, were modern—to follow them was the only way to succeed.

This seemed absurd to me.  I wanted Keats for a model.   Keats was…you know…goodKeats was a poet.

The models my professors enforced on me seemed ridiculous.   T.S. Eliot was a banker—with 1920s slicked-back hair and big ears.  Allen Ginsberg was some guy with a beard and a bald spot.   Ezra Pound looked like a Satanist with his pointy beard.

But Keats as a model was out.

I had to pick “moderns.”

Banker.

Guy with bald spot.

Satanist.

The beautiful was out-of-bounds.    It was “old-fashioned.”

I had to marry the hag,  not the lady.

This was my fate if I decided to pursue poetry.

Beauty had nothing to do with it, my professors told me.

Poetry was now the property of science and pragmatic religion.  Protestant revolt and scientific specialization had supplanted the old poetry of beauty—poetry had to specialize, too—everything was breaking into specialized tasks—poetry was no longer about pleasing in a universal manner.   Poetry was now a tiny part of the branching into particulars which modernity was speedily carrying out.

My literature professors were not scientists themselves, but they somberly informed me science had grown up, and it no longer cared for poetry.

The art of poetry, in order not to fall into “amateurism,” had to leave science to the scientists and pursue its own path.

“Poetry now cannot attend science into its technical labyrinth,” as poet and English professor John Crowe Ransom put it in 1938.

Poetry had to grow up, too.

Business and religion and science were grappling with pragmatic matters of new complexity that required a coolness and flinty disposition—the poetic was no longer a help in these areas, but actually a hindrance.

We did not discuss business, religion, or science; literature professors, with a vague sociological authority, assured me these subjects had turned into technical, unfriendly pursuits for the poet; poetry as it had existed was no longer required by the scientist or the businessman or the priest—poetry must survive by turning into a labyrinth of its own.

Poetry had to be “difficult,” as T.S. Eliot (b. 1888)  put it.

Instead of being inspired by the Romantic poets directly, I had to study “moderns” like Allen Ginsberg.

William Blake had inspired Ginsberg, but I couldn’t be inspired by someone as “old-fashioned” as Blake.

I had to go to Allen Ginsberg.

I had to write like the “moderns.”

I had to listen to Ransom (b. 1888) to tell me what was “modern” and what was not—and how poetry existed as “modern.”

Only years later did I realize that “modern” wasn’t modern.  Only later did I realize that poetry and learning are not beholden to any idea of “modern” in the first place.

“Modern” wasn’t modern.    “Modern” was merely a code word for a clique of power brokers who had discovered a sophistry—“modernism”—to validate themselves.

It was a trick.

A trick of coteries and word-play.

A trick as old as the hills.

–Thomas Brady

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.

SMOKING MAKES NOTHING HAPPEN

Drugs like caffeine and  nicotine are wonderful stimulants for poetry.

Five packs a day, and you, too, could be a great poet.

In 1939, a transition year marking the start of WW II, the poet W.H. Auden was divided.

Auden was between jobs, homelands, faiths, political beliefs,  romances–as well as drags on his cigarette.

The English poet was about to settle in the U.S. (New York) say goodbye to friend Christopher Isherwood (who moved to California in April) meet and“marry” Chester Kallman–a devotee of anonymous men’s room sex, abandon his atheism for the Church of England, give up his Marxism for a belief in Western Democracy, and abandon travel reporting for college teaching.

In a Nation article in March 1939, Auden played prosecutor and defense—rhetorically dividing himself—in debating the poetic worth of W.B. Yeats–who had died in January of that year.

Yeats’ death surely made Auden,  famous and middle-aged in 1939,  reflect on his own worth as a poet, and, naturally on the worth of poetry itself in a brutal age approaching war.

Are we surprised, then, that poetry’s most divided and ambiguous statement about itself, emerged in March of 1939, in a poem by Auden on W.B. Yeats?

We really don’t need to puzzle over the meaning of “Poetry makes nothing happen,” for it is clearly the utterance of a helplessly divided and self-pitying man: “Poetry makes Auden happen” is closer to an accurate statement, for poetry makes a great deal happen.  Auden, the famous poet, felt sorry for himself as he contemplated the death of another well-known poet (Yeats) falling like a tiny droplet in the ocean, a day when a “few thousand”  were aware of something “slightly unusual.”

Or, if Auden wasn’t pitying himself, the phrase probably sprang from Auden’s sense–which one can detect in the Nation article–that Yeats was (and this is probably correct) a right-wing loon; “poetry makes nothing happen” was a description of Yeats’ poetry, not poetry.

Auden looked around at the world in 1939 and said, rather gruffly, after smoking a pack of cigarettes with a few Pinot Noirs, ‘look, Yeats believed in fairies and Hitler is about to set the world on fire…

It was Yeats–Auden thought he was a freak.

Auden knew poetry–in general–made things happen.

After all, poetry created the poet, Auden, who made the ambiguous statement, ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ in the first place.

The idea that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ is…silly.

Auden married Kallman–and, to no one’s surprise, Chester broke Wystan’s heart.   Shall we say, then, “Marriage makes nothing happen?”

We should remember that poetry is much larger than W.H. Auden or W.B. Yeats, or any individual, and that sordid details and facts pale beside universals, and small facts can suddenly become universals, depending on the context.  We should remember what Percy Shelley, whose poetic treatment of the death of John Keats blows away Auden’s ditty on Yeats, said in his A Defense of Poetry:

The frequent recurrence of the poetical power, it is obvious to suppose, may produce in the mind a habit of order and harmony correlative with its own nature and with its effects upon other minds. But in the intervals of inspiration, and they may be frequent without being durable, a poet becomes a man, and is abandoned to the sudden reflux of the influences under which others habitually live.”   –Shelley, A Defense

A long poet does not exist.

Sure, a poem, or a poet, or poetry might–sometimes–make nothing happen.

Fairy dust and puffs of smoke make nothing happen.  Most of us know that.

But, again, Shelley:

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau,  and their disciples, in favor of oppressed and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women, and children burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief. The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.”  –Shelley, A Defense

What was Shelley on, anyway?

LANGPO SLAYS OFFICIAL VERSE CULTURE AS VENDLER GOES OVER TO BERNSTEIN

BAMA PANEL IV:  SURVIVAL OF THE DIMMEST?

The Alabama Panel 25 years ago this month was essentially a high-brow rumble: LangPo taking on Official Verse Culture.

Two heavyweights of LangPo, 53 year old USC Comparative Lit. professor Marjorie Perloff and 34 year old L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E editor Charles Bernstein took on U.K. poet Louis Simpson, 61,  former Nation poetry editor and Black Mountain associated poet, Denise Levertov, 60, David Ignatow, 70, poet and poetry editor of The Nation, Harvard professor Helen Vendler, 51, and Iowa Workshop poet Gerald Stern, 59.

Perloff and Bernstein were on friendly turf, however. 35 year old Hank Lazer, the ‘Bama professor host, was in Bernstein’s camp, as was 30 year old Gregory Jay, punk ‘Bama assistant professor.

Charles Altieri, 41,  professor at U. Washington and recent Fellow at Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, ostensibly had a foot in each camp, but you could tell his heart was with Perloff and Bernstein.  The match-up was actually 5-5, so LangPo should have counted itself fortunate.

Also at the table 25 years ago was the elder statesman, Kenneth Burke, 87, a coterie member of the original Modernists–winner of the annual Dial Magazine Award in 1928 (other winners of the Dial Award in the 1920s: T.S. Eliot in 1922 for ‘The Waste Land,’ Ezra Pound, WC Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore.)   Burke, chums with figures such as Malcolm Cowley and Allen Tate, was an editor at The New Republic 1929-1944, a radical Marxist, and a symbolism expert–if such a thing is possible.

The poet Donald Hall had been invited and could not attend–submitting in writing for the conference his famous ‘McPoem’ critque of the Workshop culture.

We already looked at how Gerald Stern embarrassed Bernstein by asking him to ‘name names’ when Bernstein raised the issue at the 25 year old panel discussion of ‘poet policemen’ enforcing the dictates of ‘official verse culture’ and Bernstein only coming up with one name: T.S. Eliot.

Then we looked at Vendler asserting the crucial modernist division between timeless criticism and “abrasive” reviewing–with Simpson retorting this was nothing but a status quo gesture on Vendler’s part, with Vendler weakly replying she was fighting the status quo in working to make Wallace Stevens more appreciated.   Then in Part III of this series, we saw how Levertov roared ‘you parochial fools are ignoring race/unprecedented crisis/human extinction.’

Levertov, taking a no-frills Leftist position, and Simpson, with his no-frills aesthetic of pre-interprative Vision, proved too much for the LangPo gang.

Levertov became incensed with professor Jay’s post-modern argument that human language and interpretation are at the heart of human experience: “Bullshit!” Levertov said.  Levertov and Simpson (with Ignatow) argued for universal feeling as primary.

Levertov argued for universal access as the very nature of language; Perloff countered that a small group of people might find meaning in something else.

Louis Simpson came in for the kill, asking Perloff:

“Suppose you found some people who were using bad money and thought it was good money.  Would you be mistaken to point out then it was all forged?”

The audience roared appreciatively with laughter.

Bernstein, with his training in analyitic philosophy, was shrewder, finally, than Perloff. 

Rather than confront the dinosaur Levertorous head-on, the furry little Bernstith sniffed around and devoured her giant eggs:

Bernstein: “We’re not going to to resolve philosophical & theosophical, religious differences among us.  Religious groups have these same disagreements.  I think the problem I have is not so much understanding that people have a different veiwpoint than I have–believe me, I’ve been told that many times (laughter) and I accept that.”

Here’s the insidious nature of Bernstein’s Cambridge University training–he seeks disagreement as a happy result; he embraces difference as a positive quality in itself.   Bernstein gives up on universals sought by pro and con argument.  Now he continues:

“What I do find a problem is that we say ‘poets’ think this and ‘poets’ think that–because by doing that we tend to exclude the practices of other people in our society of divergence.”

What are these “practices of other people?”  He doesn’t say.  But we can imply that these “practices” are radically different and reconciliation is impossible.    Now Bernstein goes on to make a stunning leap of logic:

“And I think it’s that practice that leads to the very deplorable situation that Denise Levertov raised: the exclusion of the many different types of communities and cultures from our multicultural diverse society, of which there is no encompassing center.  My argument against a common voice is based on my idea that the idea of a common voice seems to me exclusion.”

Bernstein’s Orwellian thesis is that the One does not include the Many; the One is merely a subset of the Many.   Bernstein rejects the universalizing social glue necessary for Levertov’s democratic commonwealth of social justice; Bernstein promotes inclusion while positing inclusion itself as exclusion(!).  Multiculturalism interests Bernstein for its severing qualities–Bernstein wants to break but not build.  Logically and politically, he is unsound, and later on in the discussion–after Vendler breaks from ‘official verse culture’ and goes over to Bernstein’s side (thus giving Langpo a numerical 6-4 victory) with her ‘poetry makes language opaque’ speech–Levertov strikes the following blow:

Bernstein:  My poetry resists the tendencies within the culture as a whole. What poetry can do is make an intervention within our language practice in society.

Levertov:  I disagree.  Language is not your private property. Language has a common life.

DANCING WITH THE STARS: Percy Shelley spins Joan Houlihan. Judge Helen Vendler slips, but does she fall?

For Scarriet’s many  friends from the U.K. and Down-under,  Dancing with the Stars is a popular American TV show in which a dancing star partners with a celebrity who cannot dance, and the couples compete in front of judges.

HERE WE GO!

Valentine Chocs..Shelley Closeup

..Joan Houlihan …………..and …………….Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ready?

Dancers, take your places.

Both poems we are looking at by Houlihan and Shelley are songs.

In Shelley’s poem, the music supplies helpful adornment, pleasing the investigator of Shelley’s idea– as the music harmonizes with Shelley’s idea.

The purpose of poetic speech is NOT to make language “opaque,” or to make the reader aware of language’s “materiality,” or to “problematize language” by making it less “transparent.”   These are the words of Helen Vendler, who sought to agree with Charles Bernstein as she expressed this opinion at the October 1984 Alabama Poetry Conference, hosted by Hank Lazer.

Vendler’s analogy fails.

Language is NOT glass; transparency is the character of glass, and coloring it alters mood as well as vision, until too much darkening ends the function of the glass as glass.

Language, let us repeat, is NOT transparent like glass; even the simplest language is NOT simple, and Bernstein with his Cambridge Analytic philosophy background would be the first to understand this.  Language is NOT transparent; it is made transparent through the poet’s harmonizing skill.  Seeking opacity, as Vendler recommends to the poet, burdens the muse unnecessarily.

Rhyme, meter, metaphor, and assonance are not strategies in the direction of opacity, but are harmonizing elements in the direction of transparency.

Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame” has bewitched many an aesthete—but poetry has more to do with air and light than stone or concentrated flame.  The skill of the poet adds transparency to language, it does not take it away; “difficult,” muddy, opaque language brings out materiality in a way that might please a Valery, but thickness of tongue and poor handling of theme inevitably create an opacity that finally hinders poetry’s higher design.

As we compare the Houlihan and Shelley, note how Shelley’s theme is  transparent and rich with harmonic accompaniment.

Compare this to Houlihan’s poem: her theme lacks transparency; Houlihan’s theme is obscure, it lacks focus; thus her song-like attempts at opacity lack harmony.

As we see in the Shelley, harmony should be the end of language’s materiality, the materiality should never be an end in itself–unless we are writing pure nonsense poetry.

We can see in Houlihan’s poem the less than happy result of reaching after materiality or opacity as a capricious end in itself.

In her poem, “I Sing To You, Offering Human Sound,” words like “here,” “finger,” “hair,” and “weather” do present the reader with a powerful potential for harmony; the mere resemblance does please to a certain  degree, but the poem’s theme, as rich and mysterious and heart-felt as it is, is neither robustly presented, nor clear; it wanders too much, and thus the opacity is finally wasted, for the web of  the poem’s language is unable to contribute to the harmony of the poem as a whole.

Shelley’s “An Exhortation” is problematic, as well, and feels like a ‘throw-away’ by a young poet in some respects, but Shelley’s genius for harmony and transparency shines upon the reader in no small degree, despite his theme’s highly metaphoric and fanciful nature.

An Exhortation
…………………..by Percy Shelley

Chameleons feed on light and air:
Poets’ food is love and fame:
If in this wide world of care
Poets could but find the same
With as little toil as they,
Would they ever change their hue
As the light chameleons do,
Suiting it to every ray
Twenty times a day?

Poets are on this cold earth,
As chameleons might be,
Hidden from their early birth
In a cave beneath the sea;
Where light is, chameleons change:
Where love is not, poets do:
Fame is love disguised: if few
Find either, never think it strange
That poets range.

Yet dare not stain with wealth or power
A poet’s free and heavenly mind:
If bright chameleons should devour
Any food but beams and wind,
They would grow as earthly soon
As their brother lizards are.
Children of a sunnier star,
Spirits from beyond the moon,
O, refuse the boon!

~

I Sing to You, Offering Human Sound
…………………………..by Joan Houlihan

Come here. Let me finger your hair.
I like the way you imitate weather:
a white breath here and there
the rush and sting of pinkened air
a coven of crows talking briefly of home
and then the pelted tree.
By these shall I know ye,
bless yer little round mug.

Oh, my semi-precious, so much slow time
so much crawling and browsing
so much fascination with harmful insects
and corrosive sublimate.
As if you have as many eyes
as many eyes as the common fly,
and every one stuck open wide
to the wonderful, wonderful world.

So, I get up at 4 am, finally, to put on some tea—
a soothing explanation for steam.
Children grow into themselves, then away.
We musn’t worry when they’re gone—
or worse, not-quite-gone-yet.
The roots of things connect
where we can’t see.

When I was born, Mother began counting
to herself. Something in the middle
must have gone missing.
Fortunately, I have all my faculties.
In fact, I still remember to turn
every small thing until it gleams:
like your favorite airplane pin

there, riding on its own cotton wad.
Now come here so I can see
through your eyes to the sky within.
You are my only animal—
my animal of air.

SHELLEY’S BIRTHDAY, or “Real Life in Poetry with Don Share & Joan Houlihan:” exclusively on HARRIET

DON SHARE'S PUPPIES Yvor Winters Grab
DON & JOAN FULL

This article builds directly on Thomas Brady’s last comments following the previous Delmore Schwartz post [click here], and indeed tries to pull all the pieces of Scarriet together. What it is not is negative, and certainly not toward Blog:Harriet which has given its authors such pleasure. It’s sole target is the very poor taste and mismanagement of Harriet’s editor, Travis Nichols, who we feel should be fired point blank.

Toward the underlying controversy itself, Scarriet is tolerant — we feel the issues involved are so close to us they are difficult to unscramble. Indeed, our position is like the two sides of our poetry’s coin, and denying one or the other would be fraudulent.

Our position is that having banned one side of the coin Harriet is now bankrupt.

Don Share wrote the original article called REAL LIFE [click here] with great sensitivity and insight, and we are sure gave everyone pleasure. Don Share is not being attacked in this post — he is simply a piece in a much larger puzzle that without him would not yield its whole picture. But his side is GREEN, lots and lots of it, and indeed in his person Don Share embodies the ‘ruling’ position — no blame, but there we are. What is undeniable is that that position gets all the votes — and of course, in less than a month from this very moment Thomas Brady will be banned from Blog:Harriet altogether.

Yvor Winters is a matter of taste, and he’s dead. He’s an important figure in the original article which draws him in here, but he doesn’t speak, and nobody is voting for or against him, or at least not directly. On the other hand, he’s a crux in Thomas Brady’s literary historical argument — a true eminence grise casting a shadow over all of us, and making it hard to read Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Some birthday — indeed, the only warm light comes from the poet’s funeral pyre!

Joan Houlihan is drawn in because she is Sheila Chambers in the penultimate comment, and another large piece of the puzzle. Not only does she get +14 GREEN votes for one very small offering, she expresses most starkly the attitude that lies behind the extraordinary ill-will that Thomas Brady gets buried in (look and see for yourself!). She’s the very Avatar of RED in her compulsion to demonize the opposition, and insists that hooligans like Brady are not to be tolerated anywhere within the pale. She’s angry, dismissive, and will stop at no limits.

Joan Houlihan attacks Thomas Brady specifically for his phrase, “the machinations of the grooming process,” and she should certainly know about that because she runs one of the most expensive “grooming” consultancies in the poetry business in America. Called the Colrain Manuscript Conferences, her outfit offers sophisticated weekends in white mansions in the Berkshires during which you get to meet hot editors and publishers like Jeffrey Levine — available to anyone with an unpublished book to be groomed and an extra arm and a leg. So she’s really passionately opposed to this discussion on Harriet, because Thomas Brady is threatening not only her purse but her cachet. She wants him stopped, in fact. Period. And ditto Christopher Woodman — as he was on Pw & Poets.org.

The comments that follow form an uninterrupted sequence from Thomas Brady’s initial thanks to Don Share for the REAL LIFE post to Joan Houlihan’s cat out of the bag. It’s a shambles, a shocker of the first order, a disgrace to The Poetry Foundation and to all poets and poetry. Indeed, it should make us all blush to read it (but you can’t really read it, of course,  because the whole opposition is closed down, like in Singapore!).

We have decided to post typescripts of the first 3 exchanges because they express the gist of the argument, and need to be read carefully (don’t forget that both of Thomas Brady’s comments are closed in the original — some dialogue!). We also provide a typescript of Joan Houlihan’s and Thomas Brady’s last comments at the end — and, of course, Thomas Brady is closed there too with -23 Dislikes!

Enjoy, we’d like to say. But that would be nasty.

CLICK HERE to read the most important part of this article.