Why I love Bukowski

I know I’ve expressed this opinion before to the surprise of some of my readers (and dismay) but I really do think Bukowski was a greater poet than the current establishment favorites, and by establishment I refer to those publications like The Library of America, who have anointed the likes of John Ashbery and W.S. Merwin—having dedicated whole books to their collected works. For the record, I find Merwin ineffably dull—the consummate writer of the generic—always poetic, but rarely writing poetry. Every last poem by Ashbery is written in the same key. That is, if you’ve read his best poems, then you’ve read Ashbery. I suspect that Ashbery represents the consummate ideal of the latter twentieth century—the pursuit of originality as the consummate artistic accomplishment; and in that sense, he deserves recognition. No other poet was as distinctively original as Ashbery; and yet, ironically, Ashbery was also his generation’s most derivative poet. As William Logan said of Ashbery: “A poet who will do anything to avoid repeating himself must, at last, repeat himself all the time.”

Bukowski would seem to be the antithesis of everything I enjoy in poetry, but not wholly so. I would put it this way: I don’t go to Bukowski for his way with language. Bukowski writes lineated prose, but so do the vast majority of contemporary poets. What I love about Bukowski is that he has something to say and he’s a story teller. He’s a narrative poet in a sea of poets whose poems are the poems of affect—having neither narrative nor having anything to say. As an example of affect, I just tabbed over to Poetry Foundation and randomly chose a poem by Merwin:

The Animals
By W. S. Merwin

All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw

I with no voice

Remembering names to invent for them
Will any come back will one

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again

There’s neither a narrative nor argument. Merwin’s poem is the poetry of affect—defined as “Affection; inclination; passion; feeling; disposition.” The poem is nothing if not a feeling or disposition—a momentary and ill-defined passion; so much so and so generic that one isn’t really sure what Merwin is even talking about. He just leaves you with the feeling that you ought to be feeling something. I’m guessing that one might successfully argue that this kind of poetry is a subset of confessional poetry (that burst onto the scene in the 50s and 60s and was internalized by almost every poet that followed). One could argue, in the poem above for example, that Merwin was confessing his feelings. But poetry like this mostly puts me to sleep, and there’s so much of it (which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes enjoy such poetry or that I haven’t written the same myself). After Merwin’s poem, I returned to Poetry Foundation and randomly picked a poet I had never read. I found Heid E. Erdrich’s poem Last Snow. As in most such poems, Erdrich creates a landscape (which could be literal or figurative) meant to be evocative and emotive, and ends the poem with a kind of affective sigh. “Stubborn calendar of bone. Last snow. Now it must always be so,” the poet writes. If I were asked to describe what happened in the poem, I’d have to answer: Nothing at all. Some snow fell. And it was sort of melting and sort of not. If I were asked to describe what the poet was trying to say, I’d answer: Just that he feels like this or like that. In fairness to Erdrich, the poem is well written (in the sense that it would do nicely as a paragraph in a novel, let’s say); but as a poem I get awfully bored reading stuff like this. My mind wanders.

Not Bukowski.

I can read Bukowski the way I read a short story or a novel. Inasmuch as his poetry also arouses feelings, he does so through story telling and by having something to say. This isn’t to say there aren’t real duds among Bukowski’s poems (and among my own) but by in large, if you give the average person a poem by Bukowski and ask them what happened and what Bukowski was trying to say, they’ll tell you. Though the stylistic and linguistic gifts of a Robert Frost (or Eliot or Keats for that matter) far exceeded Bukowski’s, they nevertheless all have storytelling in common. And so, despite the plain prose of Bukowski’s poetry, I would say he has much more in common with traditional poets of the 19th century (and earlier) than, probably, the vast majority of contemporary poets. Contemporary traditional poets, who write accomplished meter and rhyme rarely, to my knowledge, write narrative poetry or, it seems, have something to say. They write poems of affect like their contemporaries.

Tom O’Bedlam reading Bluebird

When I was offering my novel to friends, I’d tell them: All I’d like to know is if the story makes you want to turn the page. In some ways I’m more of a story teller than a poet (though I’ve only shared a handful of my short stories here). I’ve written hundreds. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve really come to value a good story, or at least a good narrative, in both poetry and fiction. Bukowski makes me want to turn the page. I finish reading a poem by Bukowski and I say to myself: I’ve had it in mind to say the same god-damn thing. I like that about Bukowski and realize that I like that in poetry.

upinVermont | April 11 2021

The Piety of Formalism?

Way back in 2008 I reviewed one of Dana Gioia’s books. I just edited it. (My writing was a bit more straight-laced back then—and wordier.) And that was because, while noodling around The American Conservative (the closest I get to visiting an alien planet and/or parallel universe) I discovered a new article about Dana Gioia. The article was — odd. Like a couple articles I’ve read there, it managed to make the article’s ostensible subject matter yet another opportunity to piously reflect on the “The Church” (to be fair, the conservative site doesn’t hesitate to lay into conservative commentators). They’re not solely a right wing propaganda outlet.

But back to Dana Gioia. Schmitz, the writer of the article, Dana Gioia’s Timeless Piety, likes him because:

Gioia’s characteristic virtue, like that of Aeneas, is piety. (….) The pious man worships God, serves his country, and honors his mother and father. He remembers the dead. “To name is to know and remember,” Gioia writes in one of his finest poems, and here he repeats the refrain: “Oblivion can do its work elsewhere. Remembrance is our métier. After all, our Muse is the daughter of Memory.”

I’m not sure whether Gioia would necessarily go along with that interpretation, but it suits Schmitz’s narrative. And then Schmitz makes the assertion that has done more to ruin traditional poetry (let alone classical music) than any critique that I know of:

His unpolemical formalism is in part a way of keeping faith with the literary traditions that have shaped and sustained the West, expressed in their highest forms by Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Gioia is Latin not just as an ethnic matter, but in his commitment to an ancient civilization. He is a faithful steward of what Pope Benedict XVI describes as “the treasures of worship and culture … accumulated by the Romans.”

He enlists “Formalism”, or the formalist writer, into the conservative cause. But the more one drills down into this belief, the more insubstantial it becomes. George Gordon Lord Byron had nothing good to say about the the church or its pieties—and he was a blue-blooded formalist. Keats was more a Deist than a Theist (some say a pantheist) and detested the clanging of church bells. Milton is the only poet one could call pious, and Milton rejected the strict formalism (the closed heroic couplets) considered (by conservative Restoration poets) the true analog to the great poetry of classical Greece and Rome. He wrote blank verse instead. No one really knows where Shakespeare came down (some speculate he was Catholic) but he too paid no mind to the classical obsessions of his peer, Ben Jonson, who insisted plays be written according to the “Classical Unities” (and huffed and puffed when bored audiences didn’t appreciate the effort). So if, anything, the great formalist of the past weren’t exactly faithful stewards of worship and culture.

But Schmitz has this to say about piety: “Today the word “piety” is used to describe hollow and sentimental shows of belief. In its ancient and proper sense, however, piety is a noble thing, a disposition of reverence toward those to whom we owe gratitude.”

And this is how literature gets dragged into the mud pit of identity politics—both on the left and the right. The “left” by asserting that a given work’s “canonical status” is primarily a reflection of the author’s gender, skin and entrenched social hierarchies (that art has no intrinsic claim to greatness beyond this); and the “right” by identifying the formal structures in “canonical literature” as intrinsic to great art and as the embodiment of the social hierarchies (formal “structures” in politics and religion) they wish to preserve and reinforce. And then there are the politicized poets and authors who reinforce these associations insofar as it benefits them.

All I can say is: Good grief.

Why I’m an idiot

Or why am I not making 8 figures yet?

One of the latest Pocket articles (no, I haven’t turned off the feature) to catch my attention was this: “Professional Romance Novelists Can Write 3,000 Words a Day. Here’s How They Do It.” That caught my interest because I just finished my novel on the 1st of the year, am still trying to find an agent (so far ignoring me), and occasionally wrote 3000 words in a day. I never got stuck on words. What I did get stuck on was storytelling—how to build on what I’d already written so that what came next felt as inevitable and natural as life itself. In other words, I wanted the novel to feel character driven rather than plot driven. I had ideas to get across, but the trick was to make them without obviously manipulating the plot. I sometimes would get stuck for several days not knowing the best way to get from A to C. I would sit in front of the keyboard like a pond fisherman on a day when the fish weren’t biting.

And I would berate myself at day’s end. Did I seriously just sit there all day long and have nothing to show for it? The problem with writing is that if you don’t sit there, if you don’t keep your hook in the water, then you definitely won’t catch any fish. I would chalk up those unproductive days to part of the process.

The other problem, if you want to call it that, is that I wanted to write a great novel—or at the very least a unique work of literature. I think I succeeded, but then I question what success really means. Let’s say I’ve deluded myself. Let’s say I’ve written what I think is a unique work of literature but is really little more than a demonstration of my own self-delusion. That’s possible. The history of writing is littered with the corpses of writers who were legends in their own minds. At last three or four times a year I’m contacted by one of the great and ignored poets of world literature, a poet who outstrips Shakespeare as the sun the moon, and demands that I recognize their genius; and invariably their poetry is gawd-awful stuff. I’ve had to ban one such poet from my blog. His fury at my refusal to recognize his genius was turning into multi-paragraph rants.

It’s possible that I’m self-deluded. Even the very greatest writers are going to have their vocal detractors—and who’s right? Ultimately, all the writer has to fall back on is their own judgement which, as a point of reference, may be deeply flawed. The madman is mad because he thinks he’s the only one who’s sane. If you don’t have doubts about your sanity, then the madman is you.

But getting back to why I’m an idiot.

Why am I not making 8 figures from my writing? I’m definitely not going to make much money from my novel, if any. I’ve never made any money from this blog. I’ve made no money from my poetry. This blog has been visited almost 4,000,000 times, is read around the world, is linked to by hundreds of educational institutions, and I make nothing. But I’m my own worst enemy. I don’t want to run ads on my blog, which would require me hosting my own blog, and who’s going to advertise on a poetry site anyway? Almost to a person, the last thing any literary agent wants to see is poetry. Poetry has been so damned cheapened by the deluge of mediocrity over the last hundred years that nobody wants to touch it. I can’t blame them.

Add to that the mediocrity of the readership; and there’s the rub. And that’s because I’m of two minds about the great mass of readers. And I mean you. Individually, you don’t have a clue. You don’t have a clue as to how poetry works, how a novel works, what distinguishes great writing from mediocre writing or why. Ya’ll are clueless. But why not? I myself don’t have a clue when it comes to art, architecture or cinema (the short list).

But.

Given enough time and even though 99 out of a 100 of you won’t be able to explain why you like one poet, artist, author, composer, or band more than another—beyond, you know, reasons—you nevertheless know who the great ones are. You’re brilliant. You’re amazing. The genius of humanity resides in you. Likewise, when I see a painting by Van Gogh, as opposed to a landscape by some mediocre hack, I’m inexplicably drawn to Van Gogh and I say inexplicably because I’m idiot appreciator of art. I couldn’t begin to explain why Van Gogh is better than the next painter. He just is. Leave me alone.

But that’s only one among many reasons why I’m a fool.

The main reason is that I’m not making an 8 figure income writing romance novels (see the linked article above). Out of morbid curiosity, I checked out some romance novels by H.D. Ward (she who makes the eight figure income—yes, eight and not six—self-publishing; on Amazon; and who tells agents and publishers where they can stuff it.) Here’s the opening paragraph to her latest masterpiece of income production, The Arrangement:

The gunshots echo in my mind as I stare out a window, perched on the top floor of the large estate house. Down below there’s a great pool with a glittering blue bottom. Warm lights illuminate the otherwise inky night, creating a soft cast of golden light from beneath the water. The surface ripples as crimson streamers seep from the two bodies floating face down in the water.

There are two things to be said about this opening paragraph. First, it looks like stream of consciousness dreck—the 3000-words-a-day kind. It’s bad writing. It’s stuffed full of clichés, “inky night” and redundancies, “down below”. The whole first sentence is up there with It was a dark and stormy night. It’s like a satire of a satire—a meta-satire perhaps. The second thing is that it’s brilliant. Ward is obviously a great storyteller and what a great way to start a story—two bodies face down in a pool as they “seep crimson streamers”. It’s the stuff of penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction and campfires. And the great mass of readers are rewarding her with an 8 figure income. And I’m an idiot because I could write like that but I don’t. To be honest, though, I’m increasingly tempted. At this point I’d be satisfied with a two figure income and food.

I’ve written posts on this subject before but to repeat: Readers love poets who have a message and novelists who are storytellers. Just as with Ward, there’s a reason instapoets like Rupi Kauer are selling millions of books. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your style or original your vision, if your poetry has nothing to say or if your novel doesn’t tell a good story, you’re ultimately going to go the way of a Geoffrey Hill or John Ashbery—the tallest gravestone in the cemetery. Congrats.

I can only hope there’s enough storytelling in my novel that it persuades an agent and publisher, somewhere, someday, that it’s worth publishing. When I’ve given it to friends and relations to read they’ve told me that well, you know, they’re clueless; and not to expect any real criticism. I put a lot of stylistic work into the novel’s writing. There are passages of pure poetry in my madman’s opinion, but my answer has always been: Just tell me if the novel makes you turn the page. That’s all I want to know. Period. If it doesn’t do that then I’ve failed. Doesn’t matter how beautiful my writing is. And yes, I know that the three people who read Finnegan’s Wake at least once a year will disagree.

And to those three people I apologize.

Also, to readers of Ashbery who can name a single poem beyond Convex Mirror, my apologies.

Poetry, Politics & Position Papers

The saga concerning what is, apparently, a continuing scandal in Holland was updated with a poem from Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the author who had originally been nominated by Gorman to translate her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb. Rijneveld, if you don’t already know, was firmly disinvited from climbing said hill by Janice Deul, a critic at de Volkskrant (because Rijneveld wasn’t born with the right skin color and body parts). Rijniveld claimed to be shocked by the criticism, writing, ““I am shocked by the uproar surrounding my involvement in the spread of Amanda Gorman’s message… However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not.”

One can well imagine that Rijniveld was shocked—just shocked. Rijniveld is nonbinary and surely never considered themselves a member of the previleged class. And so it must have been a definitive shock for Rijniveld to discover that in the great spreadsheet of race, gender and privilege, said author discovered themselves firmly moved from the opressed minority column to the privileged, old, white European column who had no business translating the poetry of a dynamic young, black woman or, as Deul put it: a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”. Skin color trumps all.

And so, Rijniveld, now an apologetically white, gender-asterisked European, wrote a poem called Everything inhabitable. And it’s this, really, that got my attention more than the identity politics. (And forgive my mordant sense of humor. I do have sympathy for Rijniveld—who asked for none of this.) Rijniveld’s poem caught my attention because while news outlets generally aren’t in the habit of publishing poetry, The Guardian not only published the poem but drew attention to it in a subsequent article. Why? And what’s weird about the subsequent article is just how apropos it is. The Guardian treats/analyzes the poem not as a work of literature but as a kind of press release and position paper. Here’s an example:

“In the poem, Rijneveld sets out in the second person how they are ‘against all of humankind’s boxing in’, and how they have ‘never been too lazy to stand up, to face / up to all the bullies and fight pigeonholing with your fists / raised’.

The Guardian continues its analysis of Rijniveld’s poetry with all the panache of a bored freshman high school student and journalist who otherwise dreamed of being a war correspondent. It’s a political poem; and if you look up political poetry, you’ll find this interesting paragraph at Wikipedia:

Some critics argue that political poetry can not exist, stating that politics do not belong with and can not be incorporated with traditional definitions of poetry. One of the most vivid examples of this comes from a 1968 essay, “Studies in English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century”, written by A.L. French.[2] In this work, French provides criticism of the influential 17th century poet John Dryden’s work, claiming that the majority of praise Dryden receives is due to his political messages rather than the quality of his poetry, which French believes is mediocre. For example, French believes Dryden relies too heavily on excessive allusion to get his messages and themes across; French describes Dryden’s work and “his treatment of the body politic in the epic simile”.[2] French’s argument reveals the inherent difficulty of political poetry: the attempt to incorporate the literal (politics), can destroys the fanciful and imaginary qualities that make poetry what it is. ~ Wikipedia: Can Poetry be Political

I tend to agree, though mine, like A.L. French’s, is probably not a popular opinion. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that politics and poetry are mutually exclusive, only that it is exceptionally difficult to pull off (if the poet wants to write poetry for “all time” (or universal) rather than “of an age” (or local, as it were). Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb is nothing if not a political poem. I suspect it won’t outlast Gorman’s celebrity. The poem’s euphuistic sparkle won’t be enough to buoy its generalized sloganeering. But getting back to Rijnivelt’s poem. It does sound more like a position paper than a poem. Although, to be fair, I suppose a position paper can also be a poem (a new genre?). Rijniveck wants to make it clear that although they have been re-columned in the great spreadsheet of identity politics as an old, privileged, white European, they still would like to be a member of the club:

...the point is to be able to put yourself

in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another
person’s eyes, the rampant wrath of all wraths, you
want to say that maybe you don’t understand everything,
that of course you don’t always hit the right chord, but that
you do feel it, yes, you feel it, even if the difference is a gap.

The poem is written in the second-person singular, which I’ve never been a fan of (understatement). It’s hard to know who Rijniveld is addressing. The risk with second-person singular, of course, is that Rijniveld comes off sounding precisely like the entitled white European they don’t want to be. The white European who assumes and presumes the privilege of speaking for the reader and listener: You feel this and You want to say that and I, Rijnivelt, will say it for You because I am a Poet and have the right to tell You what You think.

It’s not a good look.

More generously, one could read the poem as Rijnivelt addressing Rijnivelt in the second person, which is also odd but at least, even if it now sounds self-absorbed in a weird and disturbing way, doesn’t sound patronizing and presumptuous in all the wrong ways. I feel for Rijnivelt but I’m not sure that poetry as position paper, let alone written in the second-person singular, accomplishes what Rijnivelt thinks it will. But I don’t know. I do enjoy these moments when poetry matters even if, like a Nascar race, half the reward is in watching the cars crash and burn.

upinVermont | March 6 2021

A Brief Look at Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem

The first thing to say is that any Elizabethan Rhetorician who saw or heard Amanda Gorman’s poem would immediately, and with a broad smile and nod of recognition, recognize it as a species of Euphuism. The euphusitic style of writing comes from John Lyly’s play Euphues and, for a time, was all the rage in Elizabethan poetry and prose. As of this month, February 2021, Wikipedia opens their article on Euphuism with the following:

Euphuism is a peculiar mannered style of English prose. It takes its name from a prose romance by John Lyly. It consists of a preciously ornate and sophisticated style, employing a deliberate excess of literary devices such as antitheses, alliterations, repetitions and rhetorical questions. Classical learning and remote knowledge of all kinds are displayed. Euphuism was fashionable in the 1580s, especially in the Elizabethan court.

And goes further to describe the principles of the euphuistic prose style:

The euphuistic sentence followed principles of balance and antithesis to their extremes, purposely using the latter regardless of sense. John Lyly set up three basic structural principles:

  1. phrases of equal length that appear in succession;
  2. the balance of key verbal elements in successive sentences;
  3. the correspondence of sounds and syllables, especially between words that are already balanced against each other.

Now one might object that Gorman’s “Poem” is not prose. But it is. A while back I coined a name for verse like hers called Syntactic Verse. Syntactic Verse is simply prose that has been lineated according to its syntactic and/or rhetorical units. I would wager a guess that the majority of free verse is syntactic verse. It’s easy to write and it provides a quick and ready rationale by which to lineate. One could take any of Lyly’s prose and lineate it according to its syntactic and rhetorical units and you would end up with a poem that looked just like Gorman’s and, apart from 400 years of English, would sound identical. All this is to say that Gorman’s verse is verse on paper only. If you didn’t know that she had lineated her prose or that she called it a poem, and listened only to her reading, you would have no reason to think it wasn’t especially euphuistic prose (though you might not know the term you would recognize the patterning). It’s the sort of rhetorical patterning that public speakers from the pulpit to the soapbox have availed themselves of since ancient Rome—though they never took it to the extremes of Lyly or Gorman. None of this, by the way, is meant to denigrate Gorman’s poem or poetry. It’s simply a description of what she’s doing and why there’s no difference between her writing and that of Lyly. They are both playing exactly the same game.

For example, lineated Lyly:

But alas Euphues, 
what truth can there be found in a traveller? 
What stay in a stranger? 
Whose words and bodies 
both watch 
but for a wind, 
whose feet are ever fleeting, 
whose faith plighted on the shore, 
is turned to perjury when they hoist sail

And Amanda Gorman:

but that doesn't mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside

The passages are so strikingly alike that they could almost be performed on the same stage with little disjunction. Both writers use the same rhetorical figures to the same ends: consonance, alliteration, conduplicatio, isocolon, paramoiosis, etc… And both John Lyly and Amanda Gorman weirdly share a predilection for the consonant ‘w’ sounds. Both engage in rhetorical questions. And neither has an alliteration off-switch. The last twenty or so lines of Gorman’s poem is a traffic-stopping crescendo of alliteration. If Gorman had deliberately set out to imitate the euphuistic style of the 16th century, she couldn’t have done a better job.

And here is The Hill We Climb in all it’s euphuistic glory:

My markings aren’t exhaustive and I know I’ve missed some rhetorical figures, but you get the idea. A prose passage by John Lyly would look exactly the same.

It will be rightly pointed out that her style of poetry is influenced by rap and hip-hop rather than John Lyly, but it’s also fair to say that she’s re-invented/rediscovered a style of writing that is nevertheless indistinguishable from the euphuistic Elizabethan style (just as Elizabethan writers re-invented Iambic Pentameter after Chaucer). Lyly’s style was popular for its time, but after a point it became an easy target for satire. As Wikipedia notes:

Many critics did not appreciate Lyly’s deliberate excesses. Philip Sidney and Gabriel Harvey castigated his style.

Lyly’s style, however[clarification needed], influenced Shakespeare, who satirised[clarification needed] it in speeches by Polonius in Hamlet and the florid language of the courtly lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing also made use of it, as did Richard and Lady Anne in Richard III. It was taken up by the Elizabethan writers Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Barnabe Rich. Walter Scott satirised it in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton in The Monastery, while Charles Kingsley defended Euphues in Westward Ho!Wikipedia on Euphuism

While I thought that Gorman’s poem wasn’t one for the ages, it was perfect for the occasion; and it was perfect because it exploited so many of the rhetorical strategies that every public speaker, from Cicero to Shakespeare’s soliloquies, used to persuade and ingratiate themselves with the crowd. Another poet might have written a poem with such unimpeachable academic poise and restraint as to be generic, like Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisitely forgettable inaugural poem—Praise Song for the Day. Not Gorman. All that alliteration at the close of the poem was like an explosion of confetti, faerie dust and birthday glitter. Irresistible. She knows how to bring down the house.

I only wonder how hard Gorman will ride this horse. Her later Super Bowl recitation, Chorus of the Captains, shows her to be in full gallop:

Let us walk with these warriors,
Charge on with these champions,
And carry forth the call of our captains!
We celebrate them by acting
With courage and compassion,
By doing what is right and just.

The poem—In this Place (An American Lyric)—likewise rhapsodically hails readers with an alliterative piling on of sloganeering. It will wear thin or she’ll be forever asked to write the kinds of poems one belts out before the battle of Agincourt (it’s no coincidence her poetry was featured before the Super Bowl). Hers is stylistically the poetry of public declamation. But she’s young, talented, and deservedly successful. Time will tell and I wish her all the best.

upinVermont ❦ February 12 2021

Reading The Winter’s Tale after the Trump Years

With my novel finished, I’ve gotten back to work on some languishing poems. To get my head in the right space, I decided to read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which I read years ago, and is replete with some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry. What immediately struck me, though, was how much I disliked both Leontes and Polixenes. In truth, we’re supposed to dislike them. Each, in their turn, is vicious, cruel and tyrannical, but what disturbed me now was less their viciousness than the assumed prerogatives of wealth and class that allowed them to act without compunction or consequence—ostensibly a play about two rich and entitled men who inherited their wealth (and haven’t we had enough of those these last few years)?

The aristocracy and royalty were the oligarchical billionaires of their day, and almost uniformly corrupt. The Europeans who fled to the United States in the 18th century were damned well fed up with these kinds of families. At the founding of the United States, the following was added to the Constitution:

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

If Prince Harry were to become a naturalized US citizen, he would have to renounce his title. But none of this has prevented the US from creating its own aristocracy. The only difference is that we call them one percenters instead of “Your Excellency”. And just as in the Europe of prior centuries, they wield outsize influence on the political process through their wealth and loyalists (read Royalists if you like). They are the Koch brothers, the Murdochs and the Trumps, rewarding their loyalists with the cash needed to maintain and share in their political power. The loyalists, in turn, reward these families with lower taxes, fewer regulations and the government levers needed to crush unions, depress wages, write laws that favor them or, more mundanely, seize federal lands for their own profit. The Trump years subjected the United States to a family who treated the US no differently than the various royals, aristocrats and theocratic mobsters of pre-20th century Europe—who asserted, in one form or another, their entitlement to rule and their entitlement to the wealth over which they ruled.

So when I read the first act of The Winter Tale, I felt like I was reading about a familiar family, class and wealth bracket. I was much less interested in their tender fates as compared to the first reading and wasn’t even sure I desired a happy ending for any of them. The play begins with Leontes suddenly seized by a rabid fit of jealousy that would have embarrassed Henry VIII. He suspects that his wife, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood friend, Polixenes. What does a rich and entitled man with unimpeded power do? He considers murdering her as though her life were nothing more than a formality to be relievedly dispensed with:

Say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.

Winter’s Tale Act 2.3: 7-9 | Norton Digital Edition

He orders that his erstwhile best friend, Polixenes be murdered first, by poison, then that his pregnant wife and child be burned alive.

A callet
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me. This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!

Winter’s Tale Act 2: 90-94 | Norton Digital Edition

It needs to be emphasized that Hermione, at this point, is nine months pregnant. Leontes’ comments are in response to Paulina, wife of a nobleman and vociferous defender of Hermione. What does Paulina get for defending Hermione against a rich man with absolute power? She’s all but called a bitch and her husband pussy whipped: says Leontes of Antigonus, “He dreads his wife.”

In short order, the character Hermione gives birth, off-stage, to Leontes’s daughter (presumably precipitated by the horror of Leontes’s jealous rage). When Paulina brings the newborn to Leontes, he also orders the newborn burned alive:

Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence
And see it instantly consumed with fire.
Even thou and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done,
And by good testimony, or I’ll seize thy life
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse,
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so.
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out. Go, take it to the fire,
For thou sett’st on thy wife.

The Winter’s Tale Act 2.2: 130-141 | Norton Digital Edition

So. Shakespeare really piles it on. It’s clear that we’re not meant to like or feel much sympathy for Leontes. However, the play is considered a romance in the sense that there will be redemption and a happy ending. This is where I get tripped up. After witnessing four years of cruelty, corruption, banality, and incompetence, and after being subjected to the sneering lies of Trump and the Trump family, I’m not interested in redemption or, as the party of Trump cynically labels it: “unity”. Before having witnessed this kind of corruption first hand, the characters of Leontes and Polixenes were fairytale-like figures—the kinds of stock characters that simply serve as foils. The fabulists and tellers of fairy tales who riffed on Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses didn’t do so out of any love for these people, but because they were the Marvel super heroes of their day. They possessed unlimited power—not confined by poverty or social class. The story teller didn’t need to explain how or why a given character had the freedom to do X, Y, or Z. If they were a prince or princess, their extraordinary privilege was assumed, along with the extraordinary trials that confronted them. What evil fairy princess, after all, is going to waste her time cursing the daughter of some serf or peasant? What Prince is going to give a damn if some peasant girl is buried alive in a glass coffin by a bunch of dwarfs?

As it turns out, it’s just this dynamic that plays out in Act 4. In Act 2, Leontes orders Antigonus to take his newborn daughter (who he believes to be the bastard child of Polixenes) into the wild and leave her there (hopefully to be torn to shreds by a passing carnivore). As it turns out, the baby, Perdita, is rescued by a Shepherd. Act 4 moves us forward in time and Perdita is a marriageable, teenage girl. And as it happens, Polixenes son, Florizel, stumbles on her and straightaway falls in love. No one suspects that Perdita is actually the child of nobility and so Florizel’s amorous attention is a deadly threat to Perdita and she knows it.

Oh, but sir,
Your resolution cannot hold, when ’tis
Opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King.
One of these two must be necessities,
Which then will speak that you must change this purpose,
Or I my life.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 35-39 | Norton Digital Edition

By “I my life” she doesn’t mean my life will be changed, rather, I will lose my life. But that doesn’t stop Florizel who, until meeting Perdita, has presumably lived a life of entitlement. Despite her protestations, he insists that not only will he marry her but that he would rather surrender all the benefits of his wealth and station than not marry. Shakespeare intends the audience to appreciate Florizel’s earnest love, though not, perhaps, his naïvety. Sure enough, his father, Polixenes, shows up in disguise and susses out what’s going on. Things don’t end well. Polixenese, who, until this point, had been the sympathetic and wrongly accused childhood friend of Leontes, turns out to be just as much of a tyrannical SOB:

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call. Thou art too base
To be acknowledged. Thou a scepter’s heir
That thus affects a sheephook? —Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. —And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou cop’st with—

SHEPHERD Oh, my heart.

POLIXENES —I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briars and made
More homely than thy state. —For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack—as never
I mean thou shalt—we’ll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood—no, not our kin—
Far than Deucalion off. Mark thou my words.
Follow us to the court. [to SHEPHERD] Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. [to PERDITA] And you, enchantment,
Worthy enough a herdsman—yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honor therein,
Unworthy thee—if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.

Winter’s Tale 4.4:408-432 | Norton Digital Edition

Polixenes has learned nothing from his experience with Leontes. First he declares that Perdita, who everyone still thinks is the Shepherd’s daughter, too low class for his royal and aristocratic blood. His son “thus affects a sheephook?” he asks. Next he declares that he will hang the Shepherd (the girl’s father), regretting only that the Shepherd is so old as to make the effort hardly worthwhile. After that Polixenes declares that he will have Perdita mutilated: “thy beauty scratched with briars and made/More homely than thy state.” How dare any mere commoner presume to marry into Polixenes’ aristocratic/royal family? He further declares that if Perdita nevertheless pursues Florizel, he will have her killed as cruelly as possible.

All the while, Shakespeare plays around with a common trope (found elsewhere in his other plays) that there is something intrinsically superior to the aristocratic/royal class. (It’s easy to see how this very prevalent attitude eventually led to the race “science” of the Nazis.) Earlier, both Polixenes and his advisor, Camillo, comment on Perdita’s aristocratic bearing:

POLIXENES This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever
Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.

CAMILLO [to POLIXENES] He tells her something
That makes her blood look on’t. Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 155-161 | Norton Digital Edition

She is “too noble” for this place. One need not imagine that the nobility of our own age fancy themselves intrinsically superior to the common run of human being. Trump has on numerous occasions made clear his contempt for dirty, low-class Americans (including those among the exceedingly gullible mob who stormed the capitol building); and has done so in just those terms. His family has also made clear that they share his contempt for the average American. There’s a reason Trump didn’t pardon a single protestor among those who stormed the capitol—they were dispensable. They weren’t worth his time. They were a means to an end (which didn’t materialize) and nothing more. They were like the easily dispensable peasants with whom European aristocratics waged war. True to form, Trump’s children all married within their class and station.

Florizel and Perdita flee, of all places, to Leontes (under the manipulative advice of Camillo who, literally, is merely looking for an excuse to see Leontes again). He couldn’t give a damn about Perdita, who, he well knows, will straightaway be murdered by Polixenes (once they catch up to the couple); but he knows that Polixenes will pursue Florizel and Perdita and so he’ll get a free ride to Sicilia. But what is that to the noble Camillo? As far as he knows (at this point in the play) Perdita is merely a dispensable means to an end; and once that end is achieved, she will be brutally and rightfully dispensed with. But so what? T’were as much as hang a dog from a tree. One wonders to what degree Shakespeare bought into all this. First thing to know is that this was not Shakespeare’s plot, but based on a story by Robert Greene (a deceased playwright and erstwhile rival). Was he just exploiting the literary tropes of the day? I think so. Shakespeare might have bought into the belief, to some degree, that class was intrinsic and not economic; but he was also keenly aware that the nobility didn’t behave any better than anyone else and wrote dozens of plays based on just that reality (Shakespeare had a keen nose for hypocrisy).

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 44

It’s my own belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets come closest to personal utterance. Those who exercise power without restraint, he suggests, though they might be deemed the very flower of their class and station, are “outbraved” by the basest weed in dignity. I personally doubt that Shakespeare would have had much sympathy for Leontes or Polixenes (neither could be said to have been like stone or to temptation slow) but he used the tropes of the day to dramatic effect. That said, it’s thought that Shakespeare endorsed the political hierarchies of the day. In his plays, at least, he comes down on the side of rule by aristocracy (which is really as much as to say that he preferred a functioning government—such as it was—to mob rule). Whenever Shakespeare gives voice to the common people they’re generally portrayed as a mob—as a dangerous and destabilizing force. That used to disappoint me, but having witnessed the mob instigated by the Trump family, I see it from Shakespeare’s perspective. It’s not that he thought particularly highly of the aristocracy, but he probably saw in them the closest thing to political and social stability that the Middle Ages had to offer. And why shouldn’t he? The enlightenment was still decades away.

When Perdita’s pedigree (as Leontes’s lost daughter) is finally revealed/discovered at the end of Act 4, then everything changes (though nothing about Perdita has changed). She was still raised by the Shepherd who discovered and saved her life (demonstrating incomparably greater integrity and kindness than any of the noblemen). Not only does Leontes recover his daughter (who he had threatened to burn on the very day of her birth and/or strangle with his own hands) but he also recovers his wife, Hermione—revealed to him by Paulina in the guise of a statue. (This is the same Leontes, in the same act who would have killed Perdita at Polixenes bidding prior to discovering her identity). All in all, I find it an undeserved happy ending for Leontes and Polixenes—or any of their venal hangers on (apart from Paulina). That said, if there’s a difference between Leontes and Trump, it’s that Leontes had enough self-awareness to spend his life, until his discovery of Perdita, regretting his wrongdoing and expressing humility. Trump isn’t even intellectually capable of the insight granted to a fictional pre-Christian King portrayed by a dramatist of the middle ages.

All this is to say, reading Shakespeare after the Trump years has changed everything. I now have a little taste for what life must have been like for those in the Middle Ages—ruled by entitled fools along with their retinue of corrupt courtiers, hangers on, grifters and opportunists. Some part of me still buys into the fairy tale tropes, but the greater part is not so inclined to overlook the venality of the nobility in The Winter’s Tale. If Leontes and Polixenes had accepted Perdita, as a Shepherd’s daughter, prior to discovering her true pedigree (probably an inconceivable outcome in Elizabethan England) then there might be some measure of redemption, but there is none. Both tyrants only accept the outcome after they get what they want. The prerogatives and entitlement of both men is reinforced rather than examined. That’s not redemption. No lessons are learned. I do recognize that Shakespeare’s job was to write a successful play and that involved fulfilling certain conventions and expectations. The Winter’s Tale should probably be read or watched as a kind of implausible fairy tale; and it’s success or failure should likewise be premised on its dramatic effectiveness rather than its moral or ethical assumptions. In that regard, I do get the sense that Shakespeare’s heart wasn’t really in it or that he was conflicted. He gives Paulina, who excoriates Leontes, all the best lines; so much so that the other characters comment on her unrealistic bravery (but maybe she speaks for Shakespeare). By the fifth act, rather than dramatize the revelation that Perdita is really Leontes’ daughter, Shakespeare assigns the revelation to a conversation between two Lords who rattle off the occasion with efficient and workmanlike prose. Should we read Leontes and Polixenes as little more than fairy-tale absurdities? One of the arguments Oxfordians put forward is that Shakespeare too accurately portrayed the court and court politics to have been, well, Shakespeare. But, as better scholars have pointed out (including near contemporaries), Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nobility and the court was patently inaccurate:

It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example — old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a “nobleman” bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate “realistic,” or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely “romantic,” or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, “a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince,” as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William’s father’s friends.

“The Social Background” | A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison.

So, one could treat Leontes’ and Polixenes’ entitlement and murderous threats as more figurative than literal (if one were to act the play as a contemporary city drama); and I could accept that. On those grounds I might let the play’s “happy ending” slide (and the poetry of Florizel and Perdita’s love for each other is to die for); but taken at face value? No. We don’t live in the Middle Ages. I’m not feeling the happy ending of The Winter’s Tale any more than were the corrupt billionaire Donald Trump to escape the consequences of his crimes.

up in Vermont | February 6th 2001

Turning a New Leaf

Not since Barack Obama has the United States been represented by the will of the majority—and by that I mean the majority of voters. I’m happy to say that with the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Government of the United States once again reflects the will of the people. I no longer need to write:

We in the United States, as in any other country, aren’t always represented by who governs us. So long as you afford to others the dignity and respect for life and liberty you would afford yourself, it doesn’t matter to me where you’re from, what language you speak or what truth you believe in. You’re welcome here.

I look forward to a government that no longer treats the dignities of fairness, tolerance and compassion as weaknesses, that no longer considers truth, reason and civility to be unnecessary inconveniences. I look forward to the United States once again rejoining the community of responsible nations. We have work to do as regards the climate; defending human rights; and serving as an aspirational example granting no legitimacy to corruption, tyranny or authoritarianism: the insistence that the rights and freedoms of the individual—freedom of thought, speech and association—are self-evident and paramount.

The deep thoughts of Louise Glück

So Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature and can now join the ranks of such literary giants as Bob Dylan (who, I’m told, writes songs on the side); nominated by the same committee who, at their most tone deaf, nominated Peter Handke just last year, a man who is/was a supporter of the genocidal mass murderer Slobodan Milošević (having offered to testify in his defense) and who sprinkles his literary output with implicit defenses and denials of the Bosnian genocide. (When this was pointed out by Handke’s many critics, the Nobel Prize bristled with their own denialism.) This isn’t a group of people whose literary judgement, let alone political judgement, I hold in high regard, but the bauble that is the “Nobel Prize” is apparently irresistible. But I also confess that I don’t hold any literary awards or prizes in high regard, finding them to be popularity contests and (too often) politically-driven sideshows meant to burnish and aggrandize the agendas of the prize givers.

But what about Glück’s poetry? Apparently each Nobel Prize comes with a brief quote explaining why the award was given, in Glück’s case it is: “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” A quote which is about as anodyne and generic as you can get. It also reminds me of the great scene in Shaffer’s play Amadeus when Mozart is asked what he thinks of Salieri’s music: “One hear’s such sounds! What can one say but, Salieri?”

Salieri’s music is also unmistakable.

But what to make of “austere beauty”? I have some opinions about that; and it was this absurdly gushing post that pushed me over the edge. The writer calls Glück’s poem Crossroads a “subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.” And that was only after the equally gushing title: “Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to the Love of Life at the Horizon of Death”. As it turns out, Glück’s quote-unquote “serenade” is all of 13 lines. If there’s anything austere about Glück’s poetry, it’s in weeding out anything that might be called poetry.

Crossroads

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

Or another poem by Glück:

Intentions

The memories of my family outings are still a source
of strength to me. I remember we'd all pile into the car — I forget
what kind it was —and drive and drive.

I'm not sure where we'd go, but I think there
were some trees there. The smell of something
was strong in the air as we played whatever sport we played.

I remember a bigger, old guy we called "Dad."
We'd eat some stuff, 
or not, and then I think

We went home. I guess
some things never leave you.

Just kidding. The latter poem is not by Glück. But if you notice striking similarities that’s because there are striking similarities. The latter poem is a Deep Thought from Saturday Night Live’s “Jack Handy”. Let’s take a look at what these two “poems” have in common.

The first is that both poems are “austere”. Neither poem avails itself of the language that historically made poetry poetry. A ways back I wrote a post offering a definition of poetry drawn form Poetry.Org, a site that beautifully summed up what poetry has traditionally been in a single paragraph:

Poetry… is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.

1.) Both poets, Glück and Handy, write verse purely for its notional and semantic content. Neither attempts to exploit the aesthetic qualities of the English Language.

2.) Both poets dwell in generic abstractions.

In Glück’s poem, she starts out by telling us that she remembers what love was when she was young, then follows that with (practically speaking) bullet point abstractions that strike me as a poet too lazy or too unimaginative to actually describe what love was like.

…so often foolish in its objective…

Love is “foolish in its objectives”, she writes. A commonplace that appears at least once in every Elizabethan play ever written and is the groundwork for many of Chaucer’s stories (who actually bothered to write stories based on the truism).  Though Handy forgets what kind of car he piled into, he at least gives us something more concrete to imagine.

…its choices, its intensities...

Glück then reminisces about love’s “choices” and “intensities”, whatever those are. They were apparently demanded in advance—and vaguely. And then, further drawing us into her soft-focus haze, Glück states that “too much was demanded in advance” but apparently it was nevertheless not too much that could be promised. Did you catch that? I suppose there are readers who will make hay out of this seeming contradiction. It strikes me as a mistake or unearned pretentiousness. As with the rest of the verse, one can’t be certain. The more that one reads Handy’s poem, the more it reads like a satire of Glück’s poem, and in its way it is. He too can’t remember anything, but assures us, in his vague way, that it was all very important. He thinks there were some trees and remembers smelling something.

…so fearful, so violent…

Glück continues on her vague way, and perhaps now we get a sense for what the Nobel Prize Committee unwittingly meant when they said that she makes the “individual existence universal”. Glück’s landscape is so bland, vague and generalized that she all but wipes out “individual existence” in a Gaussian blur. She writes that her soul has been ‘fearful and violent’; and we as readers, I suppose, are meant to decide what Glück means. To paraphrase William Logan, she passes the burden of making meaning from the poet to the reader. At any rate, she doesn’t tell us. She assures us that she’s forgiven it’s “brutality” (don’t ask) and then descends into such a haze of imprecision that the reader has no idea who the “you” is in: “my hand moves over you cautiously”.  It’s anyone’s guess and everyone’s guess is surely valid.  She could be referring to her body, to her soul, or to a lover’s body or soul—or to the reader themselves. The lines that follow in no way clear up who she is universally referring to as “you”.

…expression as substance…

By the final stanza abstraction all but abstracts abstraction. Glück doesn’t want to give offense (for what?) and leaves it to the reader to construct whatever reasons the soul or body would have for taking offense. She is only “eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance”, though we have no idea, at this point, who is speaking or what is meant by “expression as substance”. Could it be the soul who touches the body or the body who touches the soul? Who is speaking? And who will miss who and why? Will the soul miss the body, rather than the earth, or is it the body that will miss the soul, once that conduit to earthly sensation departs the body? I suppose there are some who will laud this confusion as intentional and part of the poem’s genius, but that strikes me as the Fallacy of Imitative Form (in which a poet defends the confusion of the poetry by claiming it enacts the confusion of the narrator). As William Logan succinctly wrote of her, one gets the impression that she’s “a poet used to meaning more than she can say,” and Crossroads is certainly a pristine example of this kind of imaginative deficit. Apparently, Glück is so moved by her experience of the earth that she can’t muster a single concrete example. But I guess some things never leave you, right? Rather, the earth is little more than a hazy abstraction that her soul has, “I guess” (as Jack Handy might put it),  been brutal with. In her poem The Traveler, and in a self-revelatory moment, Glück even acknowledges as much, writing that “I treated all experience as a spiritual or intellectual trial.”

3.) Both poets are “poets” of sentiment, sentiment being defined as “a thought prompted by passion or feeling; a state of mind in view of some subject; feeling toward or respecting some person or thing…” Whereas Glück takes sentiment as the endpoint of profundity, Handy sees it as the starting point of satire, calling his poetry “Deep Thoughts“. The line between the two is very, very, very thin, so much so that whereas others gush over Glück’s profundity, I see Deep Thoughts.

Beyond Crossroads, reading Glück’s other poems is a field trip into a mediocre world of generic abstractions., redundancies, clichés, platitudes and dull similes. In her poem “In the Café” one finds such redundancies as “new discoveries” (because “discoveries” aren’t already, by definition, “new”). You will find fields that are flushed with “dawn light” because you might otherwise think that dawn and light are two separate events. In Reunion you will find prosaic and well-worn adjectives like “deliciously wry”, “eager openness”, “broad tolerance”, “profoundly different”, “hovering terror” — the stuff of run-of-the-mill writing. Or the platitudiness, deep thought, closing her poem The Past:

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

A variation on the question: Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? — a transparently pretentious reach for profundity that, at least to this reader, crosses into Jack Handy territory.

All in all, Louise Glück’s literary reputation will no doubt go the way of so many honored and esteemed poets of that long ago Victorian Era—whose names are no doubt at the tip of your tongue. She has and will have her defenders and close readers who are and will be deeply moved by her poems, poems like practiced flower arrangements whose”poetic insights” appear in all the proper and expected places. She’s light reading. Her profundity is that of rhetorical and narrative gestures rather than real profundity. She expects little to nothing from her readers and, like so many of her generation, treats poetry as nothing more than conduits of sentiment—precisely the kind of pretense so beautifully skewered by Saturday Night Live.

Related:

 

The Racist Trope of Stephanie Burt

So I wonder what readers would think if they began reading a review that opened like this:

Jazz is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Jazz  can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you hear jazz, and it depends on what piece. To quote a young performer, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat jazz is how we let only old black people have it.” What’s true for jazz in general is no less true for particular kinds of techniques and forms. And if that’s true for modern music and for music in new forms, it’s no less true for music in earlier forms—blues most of all.

They might start looking for the exit. And yet this is exactly the rhetoric with which the Harvard professor, poet and critic Stephanie Burt begins her Slate review of Terrance Hayes. She writes:

“Poetry is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Poems can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you read them, and it depends what poem. As America’s youth poet laureate, Kara Jackson, has recently written, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat poetry is how we let only old white men have it.” What’s true for poetry in general is no less true for particular kinds of poems, techniques, and forms. And if that’s true for modern poems and for poems in new forms (say, those that resemble text messages), it’s no less true for poems in very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all.”

In quoting Kara Jackson, Burt dispenses with Jackson’s intent, and uses her quote as a springboard for an entirely different argument. The point Jackson was making was that in growing up, she wasn’t just exposed to the poetry of “old white men”, but to poetry written by poets like her—and speaking to her own experience. But Burt has an agenda. She uses Jackson’s quote as a stepping stone with which to overlay another layer of identity politics that is as old and trite as mid twentieth century politics: the association of artistic expression with skin color and political affiliation. It’s venal and insidious.

But first to Jackson’s comment. I get it. In a country that is struggling with racism to the degree that the United States is, where a black couple picnicking at a public park has a gun drawn on them, where racial profiling by police remains endemic, where the leaders of our institutions and government continue to fan racism for political gain, I do get it and I don’t doubt I would have written the same in her position. On the other hand, I hope she someday feels that Shakespeare doesn’t belong to old white men any more than Duke Ellington’s piano or Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet (simply because white men invented the instruments). But maybe she already does. Burt, on the other hand, is a Harvard professor and should know better.

Burt begins innocently enough, almost with something like a disclaimer, applying Jackson’s comment to “poetry in general”, then to techniques and forms, then to “modern poems” and “poems in new forms”.  All this begs the question: How exactly does Burt square “modern poems” and “poems in new forms” with “old white men”? Forgive me for thinking so, but Burt’s rhetoric is either poorly considered or disingenuous. Everybody knows who’s being referred to by “old white men” and it’s not Eminem, and it’s not “modern poets” writing in “new forms”. But Burt makes clear what she really means by old white men (and what we all already know), writing: “very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all”. Yes, all those sonnet writing, old, white men like Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Keats, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Maria Smallpiece, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rosetti— Wait…what?

But anyway, during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, one of the rationalizations used to defend free verse was that traditional poetry was the work of the oppressor: white, European, imperialist, bourgeoisie males. Never mind all those women writing traditional poetry. Never mind that America’s first published poet was a woman. Never mind that the world’s first novel was written by a woman. Never mind that the earliest poet recorded by name was a woman. Never mind any of that. Traditional forms and techniques are the oppressive artifacts of old white men. And it’s not enough for woke critics like Burt to specify gender, but it’s also important to include age and skin color. And in case there was any room for doubt, Burt spends the next paragraph enumerating the sins of old white men: rhyming, couplets, the volta. Just to emphasize how old those white men and their “techniques” are,  Burt writes: “you probably also know that they’re centuries old.” So much for modern poets and techniques.

According to Burt, anyone who writes a modern sonnet is, by definition, ‘talking back to the past’ because, you know, you can’t write a traditional sonnet without being oppressed by the past. And having established the oppressive, old, white identity of a sonnet, Burt can then laud Terrance Hayes, a black poet, for having written “a primer on how to reshape an old form”.

To be clear, what bothers me is not that Terrance Hayes chooses to write free verse sonnets, but that Stephanie Burt chooses to laud Hayes’ poems as a rejection and reshaping of “old white” poetry. This is just as venal and insidious now as it was in the mid-20th century, and that’s because it associates artistic expression and medium with class, race and political ideology. There’s no question but that the content of a sonnet can be used for political ends, but the traditional medium of poetry—meter, rhyme and form—has nothing whatsoever to do with race, class or political affiliation. Traditional forms are a tool, no different from a piano or a trumpet.

And why is it venal and insidious? Because Burt’s comments perpetuate the very ideologies, like racism, that she’d surely claim to disown. She arbitrarily inserts identity politics into otherwise neutral modes of artistic expression and medium; such that choosing a mode of expression, no matter the artist’s race, is to affiliate oneself with a given political ideology. It is, among other things, a racist trope (why else mention skin color?) intended to exert control over the terms by which art is discussed and created. By negatively associating one kind of sonnet with old whites, her intent is to elevate the poetry of Terrance Hayes (insofar as he rejects the sonnet’s more traditional “white” medium). Frankly, Hayes’s poetry isn’t well-served if this is the only way Burt can find to compliment it.

Why associate a given mode of artistic medium and expression with gender and skin color? There’s simply no justification for it. Let artists, and young artists especially, decide for themselves how to use the artistic mediums available to them. Writing a Shakespearean Sonnet verses a Hayesian Sonnet is not a political/ideological statement. It’s a matter of artistic expression.

Leave the ideological tropes of the mid-twentieth century in the mid-twentieth century.

    What are English Language Haiku?

    One of the reasons I wanted to write my post on Representational Poetry was as a prelude to this post, asking the question: What are English Language Haiku? I originally toyed with the idea that English language haiku are like Representational Poems, in that appreciating them depends on a familiarity with the precepts and aesthetics of Japanese poetic tradition. I changed my mind and both posts changed as a result. The ideas are also influenced by a conversation I’ve been having with Michael Dylan Welch.

    Hakuist or Haiku Poet?

    To use the term Hakuist is fraught. When I first started writing haiku I briefly corresponded with the late William J. Higginson, an influential writer and editor of English Language Haiku. He didn’t like the term Hakuist, saw no reason to use it, and preferred (as do other poets) the sobriquet: Haiku Poet. But this has always struck me as awkward and begs the question,  then why not Sonnet Poet, Free Verse Poet or Blank Verse Poet? Or just Poet?

    Part of the reason is the perhaps unstated feeling that writing haiku is a different undertaking than just writing poetry. And along with that, there are rules that apply to the writing of haiku that don’t apply to ‘western’ poetry. What are those rules? You’ll have to consult a millennia of Japanese poetic tradition and culture. You might want to know the difference between yugen, wabi, sabi, shasei, karumi, mono no aware, and iki for example. And why is that important? Because there’s a sort of split in the way English language haiku are appraised.

    Is an English haiku-like poem to be appraised the way any other western poem is appraised?—or is every English language haiku, in a sense, a translation? I lean toward the former, that poems written in the English language may be haiku-like but they aren’t haiku and cannot be appraised like Japanese haiku. Which is to say, for instance, that I’ve never read a convincing defense of English language haiku within the context of the Japanese literary tradition.

    Japanese haiku aren’t just a kind of empty “three line form” that can be imported. They’re intimately bound to the way the Japanese language is spoken and written, their literary tradition and philosophical culture; these facets cannot be imported and cannot be superimposed on an English speaking public. For western poets or critics to appeal to Japanese tradition in defense of their poems is an admission that their poetry has, in one way or another, failed.

    But, you say, times change and new aesthetics arise. Every great artist builds on the aesthetics of the past while traditions introduced from other cultures renew and define the history of art and literature. The sonnet wasn’t originally English, after all, but an Italian import. In fact, apart from the limerick or Anglo Saxon alliterative poems, almost every English poetic form is, at some level, imported. But what we seldom did, and never with success as far as I know, is to import the literary and philosophical valuations of another culture (like those out of which the haiku developed). Ben Jonson, perhaps, tried when he attempted to import the classical unities into Elizabethan drama. Dryden followed suit but their efforts were largely ignored and didn’t produce compelling literature on that basis.

    But if applying Japanese precepts like wabi, sabi, or karumi to western poems is a dead end, then it’s fair to ask: what is a successful English language haiku?

    Aesthetic relativism being alive and well, one answer might be that if a poem has value to you, then it’s a valuable poem. That’s okay. But that doesn’t mean a poem has literary value. You may just have poor judgment. The more interesting question is this: What makes a poem valuable to a preponderance of readers? Why do we value the haiku of Basho, Issa and Buson above others?

    So, by the end of the year, I’ll have written around fifteen hundred haiku. Individually, I think a handful of haiku might be collectible—maybe—but if they have any literary value, then it will probably be as year long cycles—each a sort of seasonal narrative. Having written so many, I have developed a sense from what might constitute an effective and powerful haiku. Inasmuch as the best Japanese haiku survive translation, they do so because they transcend their own literary and cultural points of reference. Likewise, the most memorable English language haiku will have merit for the same reasons. Among the finest Japanese examples, the following by Issa comes to mind:

    In this world
    We walk on the roof of hell
    Gazing at flowers

    Or this by Buson:

    The piercing chill I feel:
    my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom,
    under my heel.

    (The poem was written while Buson’s wife was alive and well, and that tells you that Buson saw haiku as poetic craft rather than a daily transcript of zen-like experiences.)

    Or Basho’s final haiku:

    Sick on a journey,
    my dreams wander
    the withered fields.

    A western reader needs no understanding of Japanese literary culture or tradition to appreciate the effectiveness and beauty of these poems. It’s the reason that I reject the assertion that haiku are somehow “extra-literary”; that they require a specialized knowledge to make them work. Or, inasmuch as this is true for any poetic form, it’s not more true for haiku. Haiku work for the same reason any poem works. But the Japanese are naturally going to value some haiku that we won’t if only because of the literary allusions and cultural references unavailable to us. Basho’s famous haiku of the frog jumping into the pond is an example.

    old pond
    a frog jumps into
    the sound of water

    You wouldn’t think a frog could be a turning point for Japanese literature, but you might if you were knowledgeable of the way poets treated frogs prior to Basho. The effectiveness of Basho’s most famous haiku is also bound up with what might strike a westerner as fussy and arcane discussions of Zen. Take the following from here:

    Profound inquiry placed the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and his exacting focus brought him to the serene inner setting where the simple incident of noticing the morning star could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in the Buddha’s case. ¶ In Bashô’s haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal’s energy and immediacy. Plop!

    None of that is going to register with the vast majority of Western readers.

    But there are English language haiku that accomplish the same within the context of our own culture. The following haiku-like poems by Richard Wright are better, and have more depth, in our own literary tradition, than Basho’s haiku.

    In a drizzling rain
    In a flower shop’s doorway,
    A girl sells herself.

    In the falling snow
    A laughing boy holds out his palms
    Until they are white.

    The first haiku is a masterpiece. I think of an Edouard Léon Cortès painting, grey streets slicked with rain, and a Parisian flower shop. I can’t say why except that I know that Wright had moved to Paris by this point in his life. The real power of the haiku is in its association of the girl with the flowers being sold in the shop—herself like a flower. The rain that nourishes the flowers paradoxically adds pathos to the girl’s condition. Neither the girl nor the flowers were ever really meant to be sold or to even be there.

    The second poem is apt to have less meaning to a Japanese reader. The astute Western reader, knowing that Wright was black, will immediately grasp the allusion to race (and our history of racial tensions and Wright’s own struggles) when the laughing boy’s hands turn white. The observation would be far less striking were the boy’s hands white or were the poet white. In short, Wright’s haiku does what the greatest Japanese haiku do in their respective culture.

    Attempts to overlay Japanese precepts on English language haiku include not only aesthetic precepts like Wabi, Sabi and Karumi, but also syllable count, the use of metaphor, seasons words (kigo), the absence or the inclusion of the poet within the haiku.  There is a school of poets, for example, who dismiss English language haiku because they don’t follow the 5/7/5 syllable pattern of Japanese haiku—despite the fact that counting syllables in Japanese is very different from the same in English. Other poems are dismissed for their use of metaphor despite Japanese poets clearly exploiting metaphorical ideas. Conversely, western haiku that otherwise fall short are defended for their adherence to a given Japanese precept. This is no way to critique or defend English language haiku.

    When I first began writing haiku, the only thing I knew about them was from a handful of translations, foremost among them the series of books by R.H. Blythe. Fortunately for me, I suppose, I didn’t much care for Blythe’s opinions, but very much enjoyed his translations. To the extent that western writers of haiku ignore all the noise concerning what the Japanese would or wouldn’t do, I think that’s good and encourage it. And if one reads an anthology like Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, the impression is that  western poets are doing just that.

    Good.

    We have our own tradition now (a hundred years isn’t bad) and a thousand plus years of poetic tradition perfectly capable of sorting the good haiku from the bad without reference to the Japanese. Our haiku are our own and I like them like that.

    upinVermont | April 20th 2019