THE MYTH OF QUIETISM

The School of Quietism, a coinage Professor Silliman partially ripped from Poe, supposedly represents the smug, reactionary mainstream, what Professor Bernstein, fresh out of Harvard (philosophy) used to call “Official Verse Culture.” 

The SoQ, to these professors and their followers, is the great nemesis to all progressive “movements,” avant-garde experimentation, modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist, flights, spiraling, downward into the lower regions of Creative Writing Workshop hell, where such texts as American Hybrid (Iowa, say “hello” to Brown!) greet the sad victim.

The binary of Quietism v. Avant-garde is an outrageous falsehood that would matter if there were still a pulse on the American poetry scene—last time we checked, there was none—so Scarriet will have to step in and pretend to care, for we do take a malevolent delight in stirring things up. 

The educated person seriously interested in pedagogy and history who studies the ethical, sociological, aesthetic, philosophical issues of American poetry cannot help but laugh at the notion that the American avant garde is “progressive.”  How is the American poetry avant-garde, in any of its forms, “progressive?”   One must be a complete ass to believe this.

The history of modernist poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, is not even faintly “progressive.”  To point fingers at some of these writers as “Quietists” misses the whole point; the label is without merit; it doesn’t matter which side of the radical line one is on.  The Quietist label of Silliman’s is pure mystification. 

A literature which is incoherent, incomprehensible, and not in the least amusing or interesting to anyone, except a few professors, is not “progressive.”   One cannot be “progressive” while befuddling and confusing the downtrodden, the middle class, and 99.9 % of the highly educated.

Even admirers of  The Red Wheel Barrow, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, the Maximus Poems, and LangPo admit these works are not improvements on the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they reflect a change of taste over time.

Progress requires improvement.

Yet “progressive” is automatically linked to every inanity which flies under the banner of  “manifesto” or “movement,”  save those asserted as “new,” such as the New Formalism, a milk-and-water attempt that is retrograde on account of its weak and pedantic nature. 

But so are avant-garde movements in American poetry retrograde,  and for precisely the same reason. 

The “progressive” nomenclature is a con, for no measurable “improvement” exists.  Decreasing accessibility, coherence, beauty, popularity, excitement, and literacy in Letters cannot, in any shape, excuse, or form, be termed “progressive.” 

What sort of “progress” can be asserted?  Material?  Scientific?  Social? 

No, no, and no.

So the next time you hear some avant clown referring to themselves as “progressive,” wag your finger at them and say, “No, no, no…”

Asinus asinum fricat.

TRAVIS NICHOLS WARNS: LOUSY POETS WANT TO EXPERIMENT ON OUR BRAINS!

Beside running Blog-Harriet into the ground, Travis “The Enforcer” Nichols has another gig writing scientific articles for The Huffington Post. 

The mission: Attempt to make really bad contemporary poetry mainstream.

Step One.   Find a fairly eclectic topic covered by the mainstream press.

Take it away, Travis:

As you read this, Dr. Jacopo Annese is slicing up a brain. Not just any brain, but the brain of Henry Molaison, a man famous for his inability to form new memories after he underwent brain surgery in the early 1950s. Dr. Annese, a San Diego scientist, is digging into Molaison’s gray matter with hopes of figuring out exactly how human memory works. The NYT reports that recordings of Molaison’s brain slices will “produce a searchable Google Earth-like map of the brain with which scientists expect to clarify the mystery of how and where memories are created–and how they are retrieved.”

“The NYT reports…”   Good job, Travis!  That’s good. “The NYT reports…”  I like that.   OK…you’ve found something about the brain.  Good.  Someone is “slicing up a brain.”   That’ll perk their interest. 

Step Two.  While no one is looking, change the topic to poetry.

So Dr. Annese and his compatriots are, in effect, plunging into the greatest poetic mystery of all time.

Yeaaaa  “…greatest poetic mystery of all time.”   Way to go!   

Step three.  After mentioning a few dead poets in a erudite manner, politely name-drop your contemporaries as much as possible.  It might prove helpful one day.

Memory–and the wonder and terror it inspires–has generated great poems from Simonides, famous for eulogizing ancient Greek nobility, to Coleridge, who longed for his faraway friends in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” to the contemporary poets writing an “experiment in collective autobiography,” The Grand Piano. These poets–Ron Silliman,  Rae Armantrout,  Lyn Hejinian,  and Carla Harryman among them–have spent their careers using poetry to prod the brain in other areas besides just the comfortable spot where (to paraphrase Wordsworth) emotion is recollected in tranquility.

“…have spent their careers…”   Nice touch.  People will think you had no choice but to mention them in your article. 

Step Four.  Discuss the work of your contemporaries as if it’s new and important, even if it isn’t.

Poetry in this tradition–one that is less interested in telling stories and more interested in exploring how story-language works–attempts to make the emotion present in the reading experience. Tranquility can come later. They’re not re-telling memories in a poem (like the memory recounted in William Stafford’s much-anthologized “Traveling Through the Dark”, but rather using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading (Bernadette Mayer‘s writing is a great example of this kind of thing). To varying degrees, these poets have delved into what literary critic Reuven Tsur has called Cognitive Poetics, a field of study that has taken “reader-response” theory to a whole other level.

For example:  “…using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading…”  “…different types of sentences…”  Great!

Step Five.   By now, the only readers still with you are those contemporaries you’ve name-dropped.  So you might as well name-drop some more.

Tsur makes the case that certain sound patterns have inherent properties that fire up the “poetic” parts of the brain, and that by paying attention to those patterns we can read poetry in an entirely new way. A wave of contemporary poets–the Grand Piano folks as well as Clark Coolidge, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Eric Baus,  Christian Bok,  and, in his way, Tao Lin–have taken up Tsur’s ideas about reading and used them in their writing. A “Cogntivie Poet” won’t simply say “When I first made out with so-and-so, I did the happy dance!” Rather, she will use word combinations that cause the attentive reader to feel, to create a new experience, a memory, by the act of reading. It will make the reader’s brain do the happy dance.

Step Six. It might make one or two people suspicious if you do all that name-dropping and don’t quote at least one bit of actual writing to demonstrate your thesis, so find a poem by someone hot and throw it out there.

Here’s how Bhanu Kapil handles a childhood memory in her poem “The House of Waters”:

Mud walls whose surfaces belonged to the plantar surfaces of human hands. I could see finger marks, whorls. Once, I was a living being, embellished with skin: fortunate and blighted in turns. I turned. In circles. In the adventure playground, which was concrete. When I fell, the nurse would daub me with yellow smears, that stang.

 “Mud walls.”  That’s good.   Now praise what you’ve just quoted and be sure to mention a dead poet in connection to it.

It’s heady stuff, and it follows in Gertrude Stein’s footsteps much more than Robert Frost’s.

Artsy-fartsy is the new brain science.

Step Seven. Finish up, lest a reader ask themselves what bad poetry has to do with the science of the brain.

It also can be full of messy failures that achieve nothing at all besides piles of linguistic gobbeldy-goo (it’s experimental, after all). For these reasons, only the most adventurous poetry readers have so far taken it up . This kind of poetry isn’t a comfort. Rather, it’s a challenge. It’s an experiment much like that of Dr. Annese, who, when he first sliced into H.M.’s brain uttered the quite expressive phrase, “Ah ha ha!”

“Ah ha ha!”  

Warn them, Travis, warn them!

THE PROZAC CRITIC

In a recent article, Poetry and Project Runway, on the Poetry Foundation’s Website, Stephen Burt, some guy who attended Oxford and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism)  defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the bad.   Scarriet recently pointed out that this is like telling a philosopher to ignore the bad.  Put this way, Burt’s rosy view appears silly, which is proper.

In this essay, Burt uses the TV show Project Runway as a platform for his pedantry.

“Project Runway,” Burt informs us, “holds lessons for poetry critics,” but first we must learn “how the TV show works.”

Contestants design clothes.

Judges judge.

Enter Stephen Burt with ill-fitting analogy.

Ron Silliman has examined the show at length” and “a poetry blogger from New Zealand” has blogged on the idea of “Poetry Runway,”  so Burt is ready to launch. [click here]

Ruffles, buttons, ribbons, white T-shirt, striped button-down, jacket…ready.

“Poets, like clothes designers, love technical challenges.”

Design a dress made from newspaper.  Write a poem about a red wheel barrow.  OK.

I.A. Richards, Burt informs us, encouraged his students to make “snap judgments” on “unfamiliar poems” in an exercise of “Practical Criticism.”

Judging is Fun.   Alright.   So far, so good.

But now Burt wades into deeper waters.

And is quickly in over his head.

Happily reveling in the fact that TV overlapping poetry is pretty cool, Burt reaches for his drug of choice:

The happy drug, designed by the Lilly pharmaceutical company.

Prozac.

“Aspects of the TV show,” he tells us, make him “uneasy” in terms of “how we judge poems.”

The show, Burt warns, tends to highlight “contestants who flounder.”

Oh, no!

Criticism. Not good in the world of Stephen Burt.

Burt informs us what works on TV–and “rightly so” (Burt doesn’t want to appear as a scold)–are “flagrant failures” and “life stories.”

A TV show, Burt admits, “devoted wholly to winners’ techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me.”

Now Burt gets down to the nitty-gritty:

“Those truths [popular appeal of negative focus and life stories] affect, not only the judging of hurriedly-assembled cocktail dresses on television, but the reading and reviewing of new poems. The broader the audience, or potential audience, the harder it is to talk about technique, and the more tempting it is to fall back on the poet’s life: Keats‘s tuberculosis, or his failed romance with Fanny Brawne; Robert Browning‘s successful romance with Elizabeth; Emily Dickinsons isolation (so often exaggerated); William Carlos Williamss medical practice, and so on.”

Burt’s reasoning is fatally flawed on two counts.

1. Does he really believe reviews of “new poems” are marred by reports of medical ills and romantic intrigues?  When is the last time a review of a new book of poems came down the pike with delicious details of the poet’s love life?  Is this really an issue, today?  Note that all of Burt’s examples are poets born in the 19th century.   Is it really true that poets born in 1980 are aesthetically challenged–because reviewers and critics keep focusing on their romances?

2. Any legitimate historical, philosophical, and cultural view of Keats that flies above mere New Criticism would obviously need to pay attention to a great deal more than Keats’ “turberculosis.”  (Though someone should tell Mr. Burt it was kind of a big deal—it killed him.)  Meet Mr. Burt’s straw man.  Mr. Burt evades the responsibility of the critic who whould investigate more than “getting collars right” by categorizing biography as “failed romance” or “TB.”  Burt, the New Critic, derides biography, and thus historical scholarship, by diminishing its scope—assuming the topic is little more than sordid gossip.

Burt is most troubled, however, by “the dangerous ease of a focus on failure.”  What does this mean?  Why isn’t he worried about a “dangerous ease of a focus on” glib praise?   The latter is far more prevalent than the former, and surely Burt’s prozac approach to poetry has a lot to do with this bland and sorry state of affairs in the first place.   Burt is like someone who complains of a bean bag’s hardness.

Mr. Burt now sheds the playful attitude he had towards the TV show completely, Silliman’s appreciation be damned:

“Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures.”

Shades of Blackwoods!   Say it ‘aint so, Professor!

Unable to face even the idea of failure, Burt, seeking out more serotonin, announces: “But it’s not good for readers and critics to treat poets this way.”

Burt demands nice—or else.

Critics must be nice to poets.

Great.  The prozac is kicking in.

Burt quotes Randall Jarrell, saying we should judge poets by good poems.  Well, sure.  Judge poets accomplished by their good poems.  Sort of obvious, isn’t it?  Pope warned against fastidiously finding fault if the poem triumphs as a whole, and this is more to the point: we should protect ourselves against the pedant—but Burt wants to protect us against the truth.

Because Wordsworth wrote dreck at times and was faulted for it, Burt proclaims, “Wordsworth would have never lasted on Project Runway.”   But he did.  He’s Wordsworth.

Now Burt brings out the heavy artillery:  “Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry should consult, first and last, ourselves.”

A noble sentiment, but what if “ourselves” is a prozac buzz?

Finally, the bow-tied New Critic steps from behind the Reality TV curtain:  What is important, Burt intones, is “whether and how poets can make it work.”

The very phrasing is right off the New Criticism rack: doctrinaire, tweedy, and square-jawed, with a whiff of the musty.

A little tip for Stephen Burt (and Helen Vendler):

1. A criticism is a criticism.

2. Criticism should consider everything–the poet’s mentors, associates, politics, in short, the life.

3. Use tact and taste (this goes without saying).

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Do American poetasters love their William Carlos Williams, or what?  They dream William Carlos Williams. Their tails wag when they hear the name, “William Carlos Williams.”   At the end of their lives, with their last breath, they cry out, “William Carlos Williams!”

William Carlos Williams is both naked and covered in –isms.  He’s everything!

Here’s a typical gushing paean from Curtis Faville on Silliman’s blog— the whole sentiment expressed has become a ritual repeated ad nauseam:

“Williams began as a very traditional poet, writing rhymed poems about Spring and love and delicate ironies. But by the mid-‘Twenties he had pushed into formally challenging constructions influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary and inflections of conversational speech, he was really the first to do it well.

In addition, he managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional cliches and make little naked constructions from the raw timber of American life. They look like scaffoldings, their structure plain and unadorned like a newly framed house. “The pure products of America go crazy”–who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as Williams? Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy which the line-breaks and stanzaic pauses and settings underscore.”

Curtis Faville,  July 2008, Silliman’s blog

Among the chattering classes, sprachgefuhl will take on a mind of its own, but Williams-worship is unconsciously ingrained to the point  now where a healthy curiosity on these matters has been bottled up completely.

Faville and his somnambulant ilk are apparently too sleepy to see the contradictions here.   We count 13 in Faville’s brief post alone:

  1. Williams began as a very traditional poet.’  He did, and he was being published in ‘Poetry’ as a very traditional poet with his friend PoundAll but the very gullible will quickly assume Williams was an item not because of his groundbreaking poetry, but because of his membership in a clique.  Why would his hack rhymes be published, otherwise?
  2. ‘By the mid-‘Twenties he pushed into formally challenging constructions.’   AhemThe Dial Prize in 1926 was Williams’ first real public recognition; the editor of ‘The Dial’ in 1926 was Marianne Moore.  The content of the ‘The Dial’ was mostly European avant-garde: Picasso, Cezanne & T.S. Eliot (who won the ‘Dial Prize’ in 1922).  Williams was not ‘pushing.’  He was being pulled.  He was 43 years old and had known Pound for years—he was finally ‘getting with the program’ and doing what the clique required.  Moore won the Dial Prize in 1924—she had known then-Dial editor Scofield Thayer (T.S. Eliot’s old schoolmate at Milton Academy), as well as Pound and William Carlos Williams for years at that time.
  3. Influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people.   How nifty.  ‘Cubism’ (!) and ‘Surrealism’ (!) ‘the speech of the common people.’  Yea, they go hand in hand.  Maybe in some pedant’s dream…
  4. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary…’  This is utterly false.  Compare any century of poetry with Williams–his vocabulary is not simpler.
  5. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the inflections of conversational speech.’  Again, falseRobert Browning is far more conversational than Williams.  Williams’ poetry is actually less ‘conversational’ than examples from the 17th century.
  6. He was really the first to do it well.’  Another whopper.
  7. He managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional clichés…’  Oh-kay…   William Carlos Williams personally threw out ALL the so-called ‘fluff and lace’ which centuries of poetry is burdened with.  Every so-called ‘traditional cliché’ evaporated before Williams’ magic touch.
  8. Little naked constructions.’  What are these?  Elf robots which dance in poetaster’s dreams?
  9. raw timber of American life.’  William Carlos Williams as Paul Bunyan…
  10. They look like scaffoldings’   We are not sure what ‘they’ are.  Ideas? Poems?  Fragments of poems?   By now, of course, it doesn’t matter…
  11. their structure plain and unadorned…’   Ah, yes.  They’re ‘raw.’  They’re honest.
  12. Who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as… “The pure products of America go crazy.”  This is accessible?  And telling?
  13. Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy…’  OK, we’ve heard enough.

Egad!   We can quote from this hyperbole no longer. 

What’s that?  WC Williams’ ghost is a Martian! and he’s beaming radio transmissions of kinetic energy to selected earthlings like Curtis Faville? 

Why didn’t  someone tell me?  

This explains everything!