“MUMBO JUMBO?” — “PARADOX?” “AMBIGUITY?” “IRONY?” “SYMBOL?”

March Madness has been a study as much as it has been an intoxication; the New Critics erred in thinking the emotive and the cognitive could not be combined; of course they can, by any astute critic (Poe is a shining example, who the New Critics, from Pound to Eliot to Warren to Winters to Brooks to Wimsatt carefully ignored or played down.). The New Critics made no satisfactory criticism; they merely introduced mumbo-jumbo, mere terms, such as paradox, ambiguity, irony and symbol and nothing about it was original or coherent, it was finally nothing but mumbo-jumbo for the self-elected priesthood.

The professional priest will lord it over the mere amateur, but such religious hierarchies do not belong in poetry, not artificially, anyway; Letters is not science, but finally morality for the many, and this is the ugly, primitive secret which the sophisticated modernist Oxford erudite fop dare not face.

……………………………………………………………..………….Thomas Brady

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………..The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
………..And then forgot to tell us why.

……………                        ………                      …………Ogden Nash

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The paradox here lies not in the fly or in the Lord’s wisdom but in what a poem can say that ordinary language can’t. You don’t need Pound, Eliot, Warren or Winters, or anyone from Oxford for that matter, to help you out with that, or even a High School diploma. Indeed, “The Night Before Christmas” is loaded with paradox, as is Pooh’s poetry, the Beatles, nursery rhymes, limericks and gospel. You can laugh or cry as much as you like, but still you can’t say what it  is without saying what it isn’t.

The ambiguity in this poem lies in the absurdity that gets to the very heart of what bothers human beings about life, the complexities of it – how a creature so indispensable to the health of the planet should be so small, for example, yet so insistent, fickle, and in your face, so disgusting yet impossible to swat.

The irony lies in the fact that the Lord in His wisdom forgot to tell us just about everything, and even when the scientist has done his or her very best to remedy that, and even shown us photos of the fly’s eyes and cultivated its filth in a petri dish so we could actually see the link between flies and disease, and then gone on to save lives by cleansing wounds with maggots, we still can’t decide who we are. And then along comes poetry, of all crazy stuff, and tells us!

Love hurts. Grief heals. The meek inherit the earth.

As to symbols, there are none in this poem in the usual sense. Indeed, symbols are rare in poetry worth reading because the whole idea of poetry is to rewrite the comfortable shorthands, cultural icons and codes we depend on. Indeed, when poetry is most effective even the symbols come off the rails, so to speak, and wreck our understanding of everything. For a moment we just have to stop — my God, my God, what is it?

Take the Rose in William Blake’s poem, “O Rose Thou Art Sick,” for example, or the Tiger in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Only beginners talk about either as “symbols,” because the moment you think you know what they mean you’re lost. You lose the thread, you lose the argument, you lose your soul to the facts already stuck in your head. And you can’t move on.

Symbols are for simpletons, not for Ogden Nashes!

Had Ogden Nash written a whole series of poems about flies, as Yeats did about towers, for example, then we might want to consider “why” in a broader sense, and “the fly” might even be considered a symbol in the little poem above. And hey, why not? Life’s too complex not to accept what little help we can get from the way we human beings use language!

But we don’t need a Professional Priesthood for that, though sometimes we get one, boo hoo. Then abuses do follow, and yes, we do get Reformers, Counter-reformers, New Critics, Anti-new-critics, Pound-profs or Poe-profs or Flat-earthers, you name it.

Fortunately,  most of us move on with the baby still in our arms and not lying there blue on the floor with the bathwater.

Most of us also examine our lives in privacy too, I might add, even if we also love frisbee and beer. And the best poetry, of course, remains private in public.

Christopher Woodman

DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

David Lehman to William Logan graphic

David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.

Now we know things are really out of hand.

Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:

The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”

But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry?  Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing.   No finding fault with poetry!  Ever!

Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?

The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”

Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely.  Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard.  In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer.   Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”

When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing.   When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it?    Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it?   What does he think we are?   Little kids?

Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’

The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”

But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:

Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”

Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time.  It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.

As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher?  And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”

Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby.  Emerson was a mediocre poet.  Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true.   Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?

Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.

‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’

All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.

Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.

There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it.  Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.

Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose?  It tells us to like it.  So we don’t.

It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

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.

Another Interlude at the Bama Conference: Charlie Brown Teaches Poet Lessons.

A second Open Letter to my friend the poet, Gary B. Fitzgerald, who gets so upset when his poems attract Dislike votes on Harriet,

or even when an admirer gives him too much attention!

Charlie Brown_0001

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Dear Gary,
If you want to know how your poems make the Harriet posters feel, or at least that portion of the Harriet posters who feel compelled to vote ‘Dislike’ for every poem you post, look at Charlie Brown. For Charlie Brown, of course, is a poet, and you can tell that by how strongly he feels about that little red-haired girl. Indeed, that’s the first requirement, to have strong feelings, and the second is to have the courage of your convictions and, of course, get those convictions into words. You have to say what you mean, in other words, and say it loud and clear — even if it means your commitment knocks the little red-haired girl right out of her desk and onto the floor!

Because, of course, that’s the curse of being a poet as well, that if you say it too loud and clear the whole world will laugh and point — which is why most true poets never quite manage to become adults.

And would this set-back discourage Charlie Brown?  You bet it would, and he’d go home and sit down in that big chair and hurt.

And would Charlie Brown not write another poem the next time, and even post it on Harriet again despite all those horrible sophisticates he knows are going to dump Red all over it?

You bet he would — and will.

And would Yvor Winters find himself in the same predicament, or Kenneth Goldsmith, Stephen Burt or Travis Nichols? Never — they’re too smart and know too much, and deal with all poetry affairs circumspectly. They also know the little red haired girl couldn’t care less, and they’re certainly not going to risk their reputations by foolishly writing a poem for her. Because like her they’re cynics, which makes them always safe — and, of course, superficial poets.

Christopher

THE STRANGE CASE OF GARY B. FITZGERALD, POET PREPOSTEROUS on HARRIET

An Interlude at the Bama Conference — performed outside the curtain.

A letter to my friend the poet, Gary B. Fitzgerald, who gets so upset when his poems attract so many Dislike votes on Harriet:

“Your poems are very pure, Gary — indeed they’re unique in that. Because you bring no artifice to them, no stunts, no tricks, no riddles, no performances, no arcana, no complexities of any sort, no contradictions, no obscure references, no quotes, no citations, no buried hints, no deep alchemical or esoteric or psychological knots, no sleights of hand, no fits of madness, no fluff or flarf or fiddling, no lists, no inner flights of foolery, indeed almost no imagery at all, no sacred symbols, confessions or paradoxes, no minimalist self-abnegations, and, most unusual of all, no pretense. Finally, although your poems are almost always philosophical you don’t need to know one thing about Wittgenstein or Rorty, A.J.Ayer, Lyotard or Lao Tzu to understand them.

“All you need is a.) to be a human being,  b.) to know how to read slowly and deeply, with a pure and open heart, and c.) be able to trust something in words without any irritable searching after something even more fashionable to compare it with, or something even wittier, negative or positive, to stump the poem completely.

” You simply don’t give the Harriet readers anything to get their perfect teeth into, Gary — in fact, you make them choke. You make them feel that all that expensive orthodontistry they got done at Iowa or Stanford wasn’t even worth the smile! Because you don’t give them any chat-fat to chew on, and if they actually did read one of your poems, which they don’t, they’d just feel angry, as if you’d tricked them. Because your poems are THE REAL THING in an unwrapped nutshell, and an on-line love-you/hate-you show like the new regime at Harriet can’t deal with poetry that’s humble and, most unnerving of all, doesn’t even try to make it new!

And if you read this as an insult, Gary, or any other poet, you don’t deserve the name or the blessings it could bring you.

Christopher