What Makes a Great Writer

An interesting article at The Guardian suggests that the late Philip Roth had a firm fix on the meaning of literary greatness—awards. Lots and lots of awards. The Guardian’s subtitle says it all:

Correspondence found in archives shows how ‘pushy’ novelist used ‘collusion, networking and back-scratching’ to win literary awards

In other words, his many awards reflected not the quality of his writing but the ethics-free tenaciousness of his self-promotion. The author of the article writes:

It might be assumed that his work spoke for itself in securing these plaudits, but previously unpublished letters reveal he was, in fact, a master of self-promotion, networking and mutual back-scratching.

And later, a biographer of Roth’s adds:

It was a bit disillusioning for me, as I thought – naively – that the great writer cared only for art, its integrity, its austere demands.

The obvious word that nobody in the article seems willing to use is dishonest. The simple fact that the activities of Roth and any number of editors and critics involved in these quid pro quos remained, for all intents and purposes, a closely kept secret until now, suggests that they all knew better. Why hide (or demurely fail to mention) something that one needn’t be ashamed of?

Of course, Dalya Alberger, the author of the Guardian article, quotes Berlinerblau as saying that Roth’s manipulations were “all the more surprising because Roth was such ‘a magnificent writer’”. But was he really? Doesn’t all this bring such claims into question? Is it any surprise that Berlinerblau would say this given that his forthcoming book is predicated on Roth’s “greatness”? (His book, The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race and Autobiography, is slated to be published by the University of Virginia Press this coming September.) So it’s fair to ask whether Berlinerblau’s praise for Roth might also be self-serving and dishonest. And given that many of those who colluded with Roth are probably still in the publishing industry, the argument could be made that it’s in Berlinerblau’s interest to rationalize his and everyone’s behavior as “in the service of a nevertheless great writer”. Why would Berlinerblue risk his connections by dissing Roth? Unfortunately, it’s fair to question any estimation of Roth (along with the currency of all those awards):

Berlinerblau also pointed to an extensive correspondence with a literary critic, which includes discussions about literature: “But mostly they’re talking about how they can help each other with this award, this position… It made me a little suspicious about the publishing world. There’s a lot of networking.”

In one letter, that critic – a close friend – congratulated Roth on receiving a prestigious literary prize, when he had actually headed the committee making the decision. Roth, in turn, helped him. The critic wrote to Roth: “I am also applying for another fellowship… So, may I ask you to dust off the letter you recently sent and send a version of it again.”

If you ask me, the damage to Roth’s literary reputation can’t be overstated (or the damage to the whole institution of literary prizes and awards); but it’s surely something all those involved in the industry would rather gloss over as “the game of publishing” (see below).

Sure, anyone can point to Roth’s readership and to the legion’s of readers who swear by him, but one can do the same for Danielle Steele and she (apparently for lack of having friends in the right places) didn’t win the Pulitzer. But why did Roth win the Pulitzer? Was it for the quality of his writing or because he effectively bribed the right people?

Roth understood, as any grifter and flim-flam artist understands, that if you tell enough people that your product is great (and in this case that you’re a great writer) they will read and treat you like a great writer. This trick of mass persuasion is especially pertinent in today’s political environment. The imprimatur of an award committee is little different than the sort of “trusted sources” that are used to manipulate the opinions of social media users. From the Scientific American article above, the same caution applies to any and all “Award Committees” including the Pulitzer:

[G]iven the lack of transparency, the privatized nature of these models, and commercial interests to over-claim or downplay their effectiveness, we must remain cautious in our conclusions.

Scientific American: Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion

So, what I’m getting at is this: How much of Roth’s readership like and admire him because he’s a great writer and how many like and admire him because they were told he was a great writer? Time will tell. And you have to wonder how many biographers and critics, like Harold Bloom, were taken in more by his reputation than his writing—and should have known better? Each generation is notoriously bad at distinguishing their genuinely great artists from their mediocre ones and that’s because the genius of the mediocre artist is, precisely, in their ability to speak to and celebrate the mediocrity of their era—which is why when the artist’s given era ends, so does their reputation. I confess that I haven’t read all that much of Roth’s writing, but what I have, I found mediocre. I expect we will see more estimations of Roth like this one. And those, we can be much more certain, are actually honest ones.

I have never submitted my writing, poetry or otherwise, to any kind of prize or award committee for all the reasons above and more. I don’t begrudge anyone who does. As Roth demonstrated, it’s a great way to shape your reputation and further your career. In certain respects, I’m the fool for not pursuing the same strategy. But the next time you come in second, third, or forty-third, it may not be because your writing isn’t up to snuff, but because the fix was in. The judge needed a letter of recommendation from the winning author and only a fool wouldn’t prefer and further their own career over something as trivial as your career.

All that said, graft, corruption and dishonesty in the publishing industry is nothing new (though hopefully limited). It’s just gratifying to see it exposed despite Roth’s wish (as suggested by The Guardian) to have the evidence destroyed after his death. The next time you read something like this:

Another leading scholar, Ira Nadel, author of Philip Roth: A Counterlife, said: “It’s absolutely true. He was a great self-promoter from the beginning. I’m not sure he didn’t need to do it. He played the game, the game of publishing. He knew self-promotion was the key to keeping your name out there and getting your books both published and sold.”

Ask yourself what leading scholar Ira Nadel got out of it. Why is he a “leading scholar”? Whose back did he scratch? Who scratched Nadel’s back? After all, as Nadel (the “leading scholar”) says: It’s all about getting your books published and sold.

A Writer’s Life: Deafening Silence

Nothing to report this week. No agents have responded to my queries and I suppose I’ll send out another round this coming week. My queries, I think, continue to improve, even if my novel doesn’t. That said, in an effort to demonstrate that I’m not a prima donna who thinks his words are writ in gold on gold plate, I’ve been editing my novel and have already removed around a thousand words from the first four chapters.

I picked up The Poet’s & Writer’s Complete Guide to Being a Writer. The book is 480 pages printed on acid-drenched, grocery-bag paper but is nevertheless comprehensive and, I think, a worthwhile purchase (if one wants an overview of the many particulars to writing and publishing). This book and Before and After the Book Deal might be the only two guides one really needs (at the outset at least). Beyond that, I thought I might make a couple quick observations. Every source off- and online stresses the care, etiquette and consideration with which a prospective writer should approach an agent. In an effort to, as accurately as possible, illustrate the relationship between prospective writers, agents and publishing houses (a picture being worth a thousand words) I prepared the following meme:

If you have any questions as regards this diagram, feel free to query in the comment section. Additionally, all of the various sources that I’ve read go to great pains to emphasize the importance of clean, clear, typo free and grammatically correct prose (on paper preferably dipped in myrrh and frankincense) when addressing an agent. As an example of the kind of query/synopsis no agent would consider, the following can be found online:

You’ll notice that the author has egregiously misspelled astronomy as astonomy. No agent worth their salt would ever consider a book from an author who can’t be bothered to spellcheck their synopsis. And rightfully so. I’m not sure if this author’s book was ever published but clearly the author is an amateurish hack. Let this synposis be a lesson to any writer in search of an agent.

Also, agents and editors have years of experience in the publishing industry and if and when they’re willing to volunteer advice to aspiring writers, the writer should always carefully consider what they say. Given their years of experience in the book industry, they’ve no doubt developed a sense for the marketplace and what kinds of books readers are looking for. To wit:

This was for the Cuckoo’s Calling, a book by the little known author Robert Galbraith. One can only hope that Mr. Galbraith followed the publisher’s advice and successfully placed his work elsewhere. Every aspiring writer should carefully review what topics, themes and books any given agent, editor or publisher is looking for along with what books they’ve already published. They know what sells. Lastly, any aspiring writer would do well to read all of an agent’s/publisher’s books before submitting their own manuscripts.

And that’s all for today.

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-

The age old pastime goes back to King Lear’s quote and before. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s star rises? Who’s falls.

I’ve been enjoying an email discussion in which an opinion was made that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s reputations may be solidifying as the best of their generation: rising above the likes of Jarrell, Berryman, Schwartz, and Wilbur.

That was news to me, although there’s no reason why it should be. I have no inside spies in the court of public/academic/critical opinion. The question really raised by such speculation is: How do we know the best poets of a generation? Can we? And who decides?

When bookstores dotted the land, my exceedingly unscientific method of deciding which poets were in and out was by seeing what poets were represented on the bookshelves. College bookstores, like the Dartmouth Bookstore, used to have an extensive collection, an entire wall. As to whether those books were being curated by academic taste or by reader interest, I would say the former. Poets in academia, in my experience, foist on their students all those poets who are most like themselves. But when the Dartmouth Bookstore began shedding its inventory before eventually closing, the first section to be gutted was the poetry section. By the time they were done, the poetry section had gone from an entire 8X16 foot wall to a sparsely populated waist high bookshelf about three feet wide. Who were the poets shelved there? Whitman. Frost. Stevens. Yeats. Mary Oliver. Moore (maybe). Bishop (maybe). Cummings. Flavorless translations of Rumi. The various poets teaching at Dartmouth. Shakespeare. Eliot. Sundry anthologies and whatever books about poetry or Collected Poems had been most recently published. You get the idea— poetry’s eminences accompanied by a ragtag of hopefuls.

Now that most bookstores are gone, we have online bookstores.

And the only/best? way I can think of to tease out who’s in and who’s out is by the number of raiyngs/comments an author or poet receives—the closest equivalent to Rotten Tomatoes but for books. And, to me, how many stars a given author receives is less important than that he or she is being discussed. But, knowing that one can’t assert anything, ever, without someone disagreeing, I’ll just assume there will be a coterie of readers who dismiss “comment counts” as trivially meaningless. Maybe so, and I’m open to suggestions. There’s also Amazon sales ranks to consider:

  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 50,000 to 100,000 – selling close to 1 book a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 10,000 to 50,000 – selling 5 to 15 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 5,500 to 10,000 – selling 15 to 25 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 3,000 to 5,500 – selling25 to 70 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 1,500 to 3,000 – selling70 to 100 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 750 to 1,500 – selling 100 to 120 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 500 to 750 – selling120 to 175 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 350 to 500 – selling175 to 250 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 200 to 350 – selling 250 to 500 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 35 to 200 -selling500 to 2,000 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 20 to 35 – selling 2,000 to 3,000 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank of 5 to 20 – selling3,000 to 4,000 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank of 1 to 5 – selling4,000+ books a day. 

The website from which this list comes, makeuseof, makes clear that this solely pertains to books—which is perfect for our purposes.

So, Robert Frost’s leather bound collection of poems has garnered 867 ratings and currently has a sales ranking of 10,015. If you ask me, that’s impressive; and for a poet who’s been dead for over half a century. He’s selling roughly 15 books a day. There was a time when the critical consensus ran against Frost, asserting that his poetry lacked the “textual/critical difficulty” and “originality” of his peers (both supremely prized attributes of 20th century poetry), but critical consensus was wrong insofar as Frost’s durability goes. Any critic still dismissing Frost’s standing as one of our great poets, if not the great poet of the 20th century, is on the losing side of history.

  • And that assertion is going to rankle any number of readers who do not accept public appeal as tantamount to an artist’s greatness. I agree in the short term that public acclaim is a double-edged sword. Best selling poets, in the long run, as my correspondent pointed out, “rarely figure in the history of poetry, except as a joke”. However, for those poets who are still best sellers in the long run, the joke is on those who critically dismissed them. In short, what defines greatness has to be something like universal appeal—an artist’s ability to appeal to audiences across time and cultures. If one is going to assert that public appeal has no relevance (and I notice there’s always an element of sour grapes from those who disagree with the verdict of history) then the idea of genius or greatness has no meaning. And some do argue that, arguing that all artistic valuations are relative/subjective, that there is nothing that objectively separates so called “great art” from so called “mediocre art”; but I find those who make such assertions to be so blissfully ignorant of the evidence as to be comparable to Flat-Earthers.

TS Eliot’s most commented collection, Collected Poems, has garnered 361 comments with a sales rank of 132,563. So, Eliot is selling something less than a book a day. I have a hunch that the critical consensus would put Eliot and Stevens before Frost, but I think that reflects the biases of the 20th century critical apparatus. What’s clear is that Eliot and Stevens, or any of the other modernists, fall short of Frost’s appeal even after half a century and more has gone by. Having written that, I do hold that Eliot and Stevens both wrote enduring poems—poems that will endure in our collective memory as surely as Frost’s.

And what about Robert Lowell and Elisabeth Bishop? Lowell’s Collected Poems (a giant book) has so far received 58 ratings and has a sales rank of 850,689. Maybe that’s less than 1 every couple months? His selected poems, having less ratings but costing much less, has a ranking of 751,636. Not much better. There’s an argument to be made that Lowell is of a later generation and so hasn’t had as much time to steep as the modernists, but Lowell only died 11 years after T.S. Eliot and 15 years after Frost. He was writing his best poems roughly contemporaneously with theirs. So, if we treat Amazon’s online bookstore somewhat like Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus on Lowell may be high, but the audience consensus isn’t that great. And how about Elizabeth Bishop? Her best book, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, has 131 ratings, close to three times that of Lowell, and has a sales rank of 196,323. That shows considerably more appeal than Lowell. Does that mean she’s a better poet than Lowell? Maybe. I was just reading John Carey’s new book, “A Little History of Poetry“, he writes of her: “For a major American poet she had a small output, barely a hundred poems. But she has a wider range of tone and feeding than any other modernist, even Eliot.” (p. 243), and that probably applies to Lowell as well. Carey praises Lowell’s Life Studies, but otherwise repeats the critical and negative assessment attached to his other works: “Seemingly random images and memories are common in Lowell’s poems, making them hard to follow. They also strive to enhance their significance by strained allusions to religion, mythology, and literature.” (p. 264) Micheal Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes of Lowell that he “wanted to be known as the greatest poet in America, and he was.” (p. 819). But, like Pary, while Schmidt gives Life Studies high praise, he also calls Lowell’s earlier verse “formally congested, opaque”, having “a forbidingly bricked-in quality” and “semantically overheated”. He closes his passage on Lowell by describing his final poetry “eloquent but formulaic, like those endless and relentless fourteen liners, a form that will spin out two lines worth of occasion or boil down fifty…” (p. 818) Schmidt samples more of Bishop’s poems, even quoting Lowell’s praise for her and ends writing: “Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop.” As far as these two authors go, I would have to say that the critical consensus favors Bishop over Lowell, corroborating what we see as far as ratings and sales rank goes. Bishop’s star is rising (or has risen) and Lowell’s star, contrary to the assertion of my correspondent, has faded and settled somewhere below that of Bishop’s. If he was considered American’s greatest poet when he died, then he’s no longer considered such by the reading public—if greatness is in any way related to public appeal. The critical consensus is mixed.

And this brings me to Kaur. Anyone in disagreement with what I’ve written so far will immediately point to Rupi Kaur (as I’ve already done here and elsewhere) as the signal reason this doesn’t work. But, citing Kauer isn’t the killer counterpoint one might think it is. But why mention Kaur? Here’s why: Rupi Kauer’s most commented collection Milk and Honey, has so far netted (are you sitting down?) 32,445 comments. In Lowell’s favor, he gets 5 stars instead of Kaur’s 4.5. But then there are Kaur’s other two books. Her sales rank is, as of today, 374.

What does this tell us?

If you take everything I’ve written at face value, it means that Kaur is God’s gift to poetry—a full-blown Mozart.

But more seriously, it means one can’t argue with her appeal or popularity, and so one is forced to grouse that “serious poetry” never has great sales (serious poetry being a euphemism for literary, difficult, stylistically ambitious and/or great poetry). But, let’s unpack that and see what comes of it.

First, is it true that serious poetry never has great sales? No. Absolutely not. But only with this proviso: It depends on how one defines serious poetry. If one defines serious poetry in ones own image—ones own poetry and ones own tastes in poetry—then there might be solid self-serving reasons to make that assertion (because if ones tastes aren’t as popular as one might like them to be, it must be because the masses don’t like serious, read real, poetry.) That is: the answer isn’t that ones own tastes in poetry are questionable, but that the unwashed masses aren’t up to ones standards. And fortunately for poets in the grip of the Dunning Kruger effect, there is an argument to be made that popular taste is indeed fickle and mediocre. The indispensable geniuses of each generation fill the next generation’s landfill. Carl Sandburg, for example, rivaled and often exceeded Frost’s reputation, but Sandburg is a thoroughly mediocre poet now relegated to a small coterie of readers (such as most poets may depend on) who will fiercely circle their wagons when their poet is maligned. Note: I look forward to my own coterie of readers.

So who decides what gets to be called serious poetry?

This is why I like Amazon’s comment section. Put enough people together and over time we begin to see which artists might endure. Take the Beatles. There’s always going to be the coterie who insist that [pick your 60s band] were and remain the greater band, but the weight of performances, recordings and comments are on the Beatles’ side. It’s not even close. The latent genius in all of us has decided. The same goes for Mozart and Salieri. And it’s in this sense that the assertion that serious poetry doesn’t sell simply doesn’t hold water. Is one going to claim that Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver (2806 ratings with sales rank of 1400—100 to 120 books a day) aren’t serious poets? Maybe the problem isn’t that serious poetry doesn’t sell well but that ones ideas of serious poetry need revision?

And that brings me to poets like Rupi Kaur and Atticus.

If their thousands of comments aren’t an indicator of their writings’s value, then they’re nonetheless an indicator of their appeal. That can’t be ignored. Kaur does something that a great many serious/contemporary poets don’tshe has something to say. And it’s to the discredit of “serious poets” (ironic quotes) that they don’t have something to say, make affect their message or have decided (like many poets of the latter 20th century) that serious poetry isn’t about anything at all—but is rather a textual performance devoid of any notional or semantic content. In this context, I see Kauer and Ashbery as the endpoints of two extremes in contemporary poetry. With Kaur you have an author with something to say and who says it with little to no artfulness or intellectual vigor while with Ashbery you get a voluble poet with little to say (or who is at best incomprehensible) but who was a master of textual performance (his poetry was the peak achievement of his generation’s aesthetics.) With that in mind, if there’s a reason that serious poetry isn’t as read as Kaur, it’s because serious poetry probably fails to do the one thing that all literature must do, like it or not— and that’s communicate. None of this makes Kaur better than her generation’s “serious poets”, but it also doesn’t make them better than Kaur.

But having written all that, I suspect that Kaur and Atticus will go the way of Emmanuel—an invention of Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton (whose poems are essentially Kaur before there was a Kaur). (Because time and the durability of an artist’s works must also be weighed.) My thought is that most critics/academics would define serious poetry by its literary and stylistic ambitions (as do I); which would exclude Kaur’s poetry. She displays neither literary nor stylistic ambitions. In fact, as I’ve argued previously on my blog, I don’t consider what Kaur writes to be poetry. As I wrote here, “My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs.” That will fly in the face of a contemporary poetics that considers anything that calls itself a poem a poemla!—including a comic strip, (see the periodical Poetry) but there you have it. That’s not to diminish her appeal or accomplishment but rather to say that we really shouldn’t be comparing her to an Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell or Mary Oliver. She’s writing in a different genre with different goals. So, in my view, bringing up Kaur is apples and oranges. You can do it, but then let’s include novels as prose poems if we’re going to go that route.

Anyway, that’s my probably too long foray into sussing out what’s going on in the court of poetry.

Despite knowing that not everyone enjoys these games of who’s in and who’s out, I, like Lear, enjoy them and find, if nothing else, that they can lead us down informative and productive side-streets.

  • Incidentally, Wilbur exceeds Lowell reputation in the court of public opinion. His ratings are slightly less than Lowell’s but his sales rank, for his Collected Poems, is 113,588. He’s not far from selling a book a day, far in excess of Lowell and exceeding Bishop. Randal Jerrell’s Complete Poems rank at 246,482. John Berryman’s Collected Poems at 230,703. Delmore Schwartz’s most commented book, Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, ranks at 182,693. It was hard to find Lowell’s best selling book but it seems to be Life Studies at 452,981.

upinVermont | May 8th 2021

In defense of William Logan’s criticism

Eight years ago I wrote a review of Logan’s poetry and part of the reason was that while Logan has made a career of critiquing contemporary poetry, and infuriating just about every last contemporary poet, his own poetry, for whatever reason (though I have my suspicions) seems all but ignored (though I did find a review of Rift of Light here).

“William Logan is widely admired as one of our foremost masters of free verse as well as formal poetry; his classical verve conjures up the past within the present and the foreshadowings of the present within the past.  In their sculptural turns, their pleasure in the glimmerings of the sublime while rummaging around in the particular, the poems in Rift of Light, Logan’s eleventh collection, are a master class of powerful feeling embedded in language.”

This is the ad copy from the back matter of the book. Like so many poetry books these days, the ad copy has become so overstated as to defy satire—each having to outdo the last with ever more grandiose claims of unrivaled importance. The staggering testaments to heartbreaking genius are legion. But I can tell you with staggering certainty that Mr. Logan is not widely admired as one of our foremost masters of free verse nor, heart breakingly, as a master of formal poetry. Of the public who has read Logan’s critical work, I would be surprised if more than a small fraction knew that he is also a published poet; and that fraction probably represents every poet he has ever barbecued.

And what does it even mean to be a “master of free verse”? There’s an argument to be made that one can be a master of formal poetry because there’s a prosody attached to traditional forms like rhyme and meter. One can objectively compare one poet’s skill with rhyme and meter with another’s, but the same can’t be said for free verse. There’s no prosody of free verse. Each poet makes up their own “prosody” along with their own valuation of said prosody. In short, to be a master of free verse is akin to making up ones own quiz and scoring an A+. Are we shocked? William Logan himself beautifully addresses this very sticking point:

If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.

With a traditional poet, one can say that while the content of their poetry may be compelling, their skills as a formal poet are mediocre. Avoid. But all that’s left to free verse is the poem’s content. What else is there? Is the critic going to critique the lineation? There are other arts common to both poetry and prose, all the various techniques of figurative language including simile and metaphor, but if the writer of lineated prose (as is generally the norm) bypasses figurative language too, then there really isn’t anything to critique other than content. And that’s precisely Logan’s meat and potatoes. Logan is a bitingly brilliant critique of content. And that also probably explains why so much of his criticism can feel personal. It’s one thing to be told that your rhymes are clichéd and your meter thumps like a dog’s hind end, but another that not only is your clever repartee as dull as dried paint, but you are too. Take Logan’s opening paragraph on Billy Collins:

Bill Collins has a sideshow owner’s instinct for hoopla and a taste for one-ring-circus ideas; but his poems are gentle, mild, and awfully dull. It’s like finding that the weightlifter is an accountant and the bearded lady a housewife. He has an unthinking passion for nature that makes you long for a few polluters—his is a nature of continuous and helpless loveliness. In his peaceable kingdom, the mourning doves look like Robert Penn Warren and the titmice like Marianne Moore. Desperate Measures p. 133

I mean, yes? Logan nails Collins; and surely anybody not named Billy Collins has to laugh at that devastating coinage: “one-ring-circus ideas”. Everything after that is piling on. Logan could have stopped there secure in the knowledge that he had summed up the corpus of Collins’s works. That said, Collins gets the last laugh. Americans must love one-ring-circuses. Collins is one of only two contemporary poets, to my knowledge (the other being the late Mary Oliver), to make a living writing poetry. In the late 90’s Collins snagged a six-figure contract from Random House, surely due to the fact that Collins was one of the few poets to write with a sense of humor (hence Logan’s circus-jibe); (and also Kim Addonizio who is fun as all get out). But Collins would probably make a dull critic—much too nice. Logan’s sense of humor is a lowdown dog, a dog that knows just where where the ass-end of his victims’ pretensions are, and how to make us all laugh when he bites. We like that in a critic. We do. In a sense, I suppose, one could argue that the very poets who complain the most bitterly about Logan are the ones most responsible for his creation. And this is my point (and defense of Logan): 20th century poetry, with its naval gazing insistence on the primacy of content—as opposed to the aesthetic qualities of a poem’s language—makes the ideal hunting ground for a critic like William Logan.

But if I were to object to that last paragraph, I would write: Come on. When have poetry critics not addressed the content of poetry? But there was a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) difference. Take Blackwood Magazine’s hostile reviews of Keats, Hunt and the other, as they called them, Cockney poets. The reason for the hostility had to do with the “pretensions” of poets like Keats and Hunt (who had the temerity to think that they could write among the ranks of the nobility, think George Gordon Lord Byron or the aristocratic Shelley). The criticism of Blackwood was an attack on their lower class, cockney, background. That said, the criticism was couched in terms of their poetry’s formal features and less their content—their choice of rhyme and diction. When Coleridge critiqued his erstwhile friend Wordsworth in his Biographia Literaria, it was largely for Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and poetic diction. If you go back further, to the Restoration, you will find Alexander Pope more concerned with technique that content:

    And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
    While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
    With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
    Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
    In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
    If Crystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
    The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.[5]
    — lines 347–353

He criticizes lazy rhymes, pat images, and clichés like “crystal streams”. During the Elizabethan Era, Jonson took umbrage not at the content of Donne’s poems, but that Donne’s Iambic Pentameter was too fast and loose. But getting back to the primacy of content in 20th and now 21st century poetry, there’s an added twist. It’s when the content of a poet’s work is so identified with their politics that critiquing their poetry is tantamount to critiquing their politics and identity. I notice that Logan has never reviewed Maya Angelou. He has reviewed Rita Dove and Logan is very careful to keep his criticism strictly confined to her poetry. He gets her prerogatives as a black poet but her poetry really isn’t that good. Anymore.

Logan has never criticized Maya Angelou, that I’m aware of, and that’s probably because he doesn’t consider her worth reviewing. Another reviewer, Helen Razer, has though. Razer goes to great pains, for example, to reassure the reader that she greatly respects Angelou’s courage, intelligence and activism but, let’s face it, her poems are “almost uniformly shit”. Razer spells it out:

…if I don’t mention how great Angelou the activist thinker was, someone will have me admitted to a hospital for the dangerously miserable. And I won’t effectively urge you to critically read her poems, which are almost uniformly shit. Unlike her activism.

I agree, by the way, with Razer’s estimation of Angelou’s poetry. Every time I hear someone swoon over her poems I cringe for the sake of the art. And yet many do swoon and one has to wonder whether it’s because they know so little about poetry or simply praise the poem because it’s “an Angelou”. One gets the sense that to criticize her poetry is to criticize Angelou unless, like Helen Razer, one goes out of their way to separate their admiration of the person from their condemnation of the poetry. With poets making poetry about themselves, is it any wonder then that they take Logan’s criticism personally? In some sense, can he really even avoid it? In the 50s and 60s confessional poetry was coined both as a genre and as a sobriquet. Poets learned to make their personal lives grist for their poetry, to expose all; and that confessional element continues to inform contemporary poetry. But do poets then get to complain when their personal lives are critiqued? It’s not an ad hominem attack to criticize a poet’s character if that poet has made their character the subject of their poetry. To restate, it’s not resorting “to ad hominem accounts of poets’ personal lives” if those same poets have made their personal lives their poetry. Many poets point to Logan’s ad hominem attack of Stephen Dunn: “Stephen Dunn is a rational man, probably a good husband and father, a generous and genial neighbor, homo suburbanus at his best.” But isn’t this precisely the confessional portrait Dunn has cultivated in his own poetry? I would give examples but Logan does so himself in The Undiscovered Country, p. 184. Likewise, one can’t critique a poet like Sharon Olds, if one gives the least attention to the content of her poetry, without critiquing the poet herself.

Missapplication of intensity is her cardinal vice: everywhere brute shock is taken as a sign of honesty (shock eventually makes the reader shockproof); finally, it becomes just a form of self-promotion. Olds has as many teases as a strip show, and the psychology that drives her poetry is dourly exhibitionist: that is, a form of punishment and abasement. “Loot at me! Look at me!” the poems say, poems of someone never loved enough. ~ The Undiscovered Country pp. 99-100

So, this is in some sense a defense of Logan’s criticism—which I mostly agree with (I do not agree that Frost’s Birches is sentimental tripe for example). If a poet writes formal verse, as AE Stallings does, then Logan will largely critique the verse, but if all a poet gives Logan is their own lineated psychodrama, then their psychodrama shall be Logan’s main course. And rightly so.

upinVermont | April 27, 2021

Something to Think About

No writer should expect their reader to work harder than they do.”

This was a comment I came across, reminding me of my post “Fetishizing Difficulty“. Something every writer and poet might want to think about. There might be readers willing to work harder than the writer, but not many. One can think up exceptions—T.S. Eliot comes to mind. But T.S. Eliot wrote very few poems in his lifetime and had a reputation for working very hard at them, writing wholesale revisions upon revisions. And so if Eliot’s poetry expects much from his readers, it can also be said that Eliot expected much from himself. If ones poetry is simply a cascading string of allusions to autobiographical effects, experiences and literary/artistic footnotes that no reader could possibly be familiar with without reference to the poet’s life and sources, then good luck to that poet finding a reader willing to work harder than they did. The poet who works hard is the one who makes their solitary existence universal and worth the reader’s effort.

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 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 assert, 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: 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, 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