About AI, Art, Music and Poetry

I’ve gotten into a number of conversations about this recently and I just wanted to throw my 2 cents into the ring. And the first thing I have to say is that I consider Artificial Intelligence to be a misnomer. It suggests notions of sentience and consciousness that, despite what some random and panicky Google employee might think, is never going to happen. I’m not going to go into why Algorithms ≠ Sentience and never will. That’s a rabbit hole full of quibbles and false equivalencies. It’s like arguing how many angels dance on a pin. Suffice it to say, science can’t even currently define sentience/consciousness, let alone create it “artificially”. AI is just a set of algorithms no different—and I can’t emphasize this enoughno different, practically speaking, than a pocket calculator. If you ask any calculator what 2+2 is, it will tell you. 4! My God! Artificial Intelligence! Sentience! Consciousness!


Correctly answering questions is not a sign of sentience. ChatPGT is just a glorified calculator. That’s all it is. Which is why I would call it algorithmic intelligence rather than artificial intelligence. Ask ChatGPT a question and you’re asking a calculator a question. The only difference between the two comes down to the sophistication of the algorithms used and the answer given. That’s all it is. You can unplug it or take out the batteries when you get bored with it. It’s just algorithms.

Now, onto the subject of algorithmic intelligence vs. art, music and literature. It ain’t gonna happen. Here’s why: Back in 2015, AlphaGo became the first computer Go program to beat a human professional Go player without handicap on a full-sized 19×19 board. AlphaGo accomplished this feat through the use of “Deep Learning“, what developers termed a “Neural Network”. The unfortunate upshot of all this terminology, like “neural”, is that it leads one to think that developers must have created something like a brain. But that’s not what they’ve done. What they’ve done is to write elegant algorithms that mimic perceived cognitive features in biological systems—and in a very limited sense. They’re not mimicking “consciousness”. They’re mimicking, at an algorithmic level, the way biological systems are perceived to organize and analyze information. I write perceived because AI is only mimicking one aspect of a biological system ascertained through observation. Neural networks in no way define or recreate “intelligence” or “sentience”. The reason that AlphaGo could master Go is because, though the algorithms were difficult to perfect, there was a fool-proof evaluation function that defined success. Either AlphaGo won or AlphaGo lost.


The same doesn’t work for producing art, a symphony, or poetry. Algorithmic intelligence, for example, has no way to evaluate the aesthetic/emotional success or failure of a poem. Given that human beings can’t even agree on what constitutes a great poem (mostly for lack of knowledge, ability or talent) an algorithm has no hope. I’ll occasionally be asked why I obsess over a definition of great poetry and why public appeal matters. It’s because public appeal is humanity’s version of an evaluation function; and it’s most effective when it functions over time. That’s why we can say that Shakespeare, Bach, Keats, Mozart, da Vinci and Beethoven are our greatest artists and why we can say that as an objective measure (despite all the hand waving among those who continue to insist that all art is subjective and a matter of taste). A work of art’s appeal, over time, is an objective measure. It’s the only one we’ve got.

The problem for algorithmic intelligence is that genius is rare.

This means that if Algorithmic Intelligence is tasked with creating a poem, its models—the thousands and thousands of poems it can sample—are going to be almost wholly mediocre. And because algorithmic intelligence has no concept of mediocrity, has no evaluation function pertaining to the artistic accomplishment of a poem, it will, at best, “learn” how to flawlessly mimic humanity’s mediocrity. By way of example, I get sent dozens of poems over the course of a year and, with few exceptions, they are all mediocre. But what is striking is how similar the mistakes of algorithmic intelligence are to the mistakes of mediocre poets. In short, algorithmic intelligence is rapidly “getting better at “learning to mimic” mediocre poets, and that’s because mediocre poets and algorithmic intelligence are both drawing from the same well. (Interestingly, part of what makes mediocre artists mediocre is they lack the ability to accurately evaluate their own output, called the Dunning Kruger Effect.)

You might object that if it takes time for humans to identify and agree on great art, then expect the same from algorithmic intelligence. The problem is that the next one hundred years are going to expose algorithmic intelligence to vastly more mediocre art, music and literature—along with a hundred years worth of confused human evaluation. That’s only going to make algorithmic intelligence even better at mimicking mediocre poets and readers. Ultimately, the mirror that AI will hold up to humanity, in terms of art, is not humanity’s genius but it’s bland mediocrity. And that’s because mediocrity, with rare exception, is what humanity produces.

To summarize, the only evaluative guidance algorithmic intelligence has as regards the “success or failure” of its art is human taste. God help it.

Pity the mediocre poet, composer or artist, because that’s who algorithmic intelligence is going to put out of business.

up in Vermont | March 22 2023

What’s selling…

I happened to be down at one of our “local” bookstores—this one being Books a Million. I don’t normally stop by because they don’t normally carry anything I’d be interested in, but they’re a great indicator as to what’s being read. The book store doesn’t pretend to be interested in literature. They’re strictly in it to sell; and that means knowing what’s on trend. They’re like a glorified airport bookstore. If you like those bestseller, glossy paperbacks with the cheap paper, that’s their specialty. In the fantasy section, for example, they don’t mess around. You’ll find several different collections of Tolkien and all of Christopher Tolkien’s various collections, and Game of Thrones. Sarah J Mass seems to be a hot ticket right now, but it’s hit or miss for other fantasy authors. The poetry section is a footnote, but I took pictures.

Apparently Bukowski sells well. I’d go so far as to say that, according to the popular readership, Bukowski is the great poet of the latter 20th century. I’ve written about Why I love Bukowski. I think what this demonstrates, above all, is that his popularity is durable. The same can’t be said for Robert Lowell, for example. He’s championed by critics like William Logan, among others, as the great poet of the post-modernists, but who reads him? I can’t remember the last time I saw a book of his in a bookstore. BAM isn’t buying. Bukowski is a story teller and connects with readers in a relatable and comprehensible way. And he has a biting sense of humor. Do I think he ranks among the greats? Maybe. If he can be, it’s not because of his skill in verse or language. He wrote lineated prose. But he arguably did it better than any other poet in the sense that readers remain affected by and interested in what he wrote. That’s also what poetry does. The poet W.S. Merwin wrote lineated prose that’s just as easy to read as Bukowski’s, but none of his books are at BAM. I find Merwin’s verse to be unmatchably generic and the content of his poetry dull as the day is long, and it looks like the general public does too. So it’s not just that Bukowski’s verse is comprehensible, but that he has something to say.

I found it interesting that there were so many copies of The Odyssey. Do people buy it because it’s the Lord of the Rings of its day? Or because it’s assigned in classrooms everywhere—and always in demand? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I find it hard to believe that most people, sitting at home, would say to themselves: Today I shall read The Odyssey. Feel free to disagree with me if you have some life experience in this regard. I’d be interested in hearing it. Notice the book to the right: How to be Love(d), because this pertains to the next photo:

Notice all the books by devoue and Drake/Sin (and the yellow and purple books on the left all by the same publisher). These all fall, in my opinion, under the rubric of Instapoetry. There’s probably an apt description for the content of the poetry but I’d call it a combination of Self-help, Affirmations, and you’re-not-alonein-the-world greeting card verse. Devoue will write:

as women
everyone thinks we're fine
because makeup hides
the sleepness nights
and the tears we cry

The verse has zero (0), as in null, literary value. It’s just the mawkish poetry of affect. But, it’s what sells and what it demonstrates is that the general public is still in love with poetry and open to poetry that communicates. Full stop. The general public is emphatically not interested in the pointless obscurities that typifies too much poetry of the latter 20th century. There is a clear disconnect between what the editors at Poetry Magazine and the New England Review publish, and what the broader public wants to read. It’s been that way ever since Harriet Monroe, when she founded Poetry magazine, declared war on the popular taste in poetry. That said, I wouldn’t say that all poets should start writing instapoetic affirmations. Bukowski showed that a poet doesn’t have to write greeting card verse to engage the public. But the durable poets will be the one who can communicate and have something to say. There was also one book of Robert Frost and one of Mary Oliver. Notice TS Eliot on the right. There’s one copy of The Waste Land and several of Practical Cats. The modernist poets get at least one book each in BAM’s poetry section. Covering their bases.

There’s Oliver’s book on the right, but notice all the books by Lovelace. These all fall under the same instapoetic affirmational content as devoue’s verse. It’s strikingly similar and that’s probably why it’s popular and why BAM is stocking multiple copies:

she cries just as much when
she's completely happy
as she does when
she's utterly devastated.

(she likes to think it's enough to
water wildflower meadows.)

they may call her pathetic.
they may call her dramatic.
they may call her a baby.

but she thinks it's a blessing
to feel everything so much.
she cries just as much when
she's completely happy
as she does when
she's utterly devastated.

(she likes to think it's enough to
water wildflower meadows.)

they may call her pathetic.
they may call her dramatic.
they may call her a baby.

but she thinks it's a blessing
to feel everything so much.

The three light blue books on the left, by Shelby Leigh, are also instapoetry:

like an anchor
around my ankles
i can't escape the voice
in my head that says
you'll never be
anything but nothing. 

If you’re having trouble telling one poet from another, you’re not alone. I’d love your opinions, but my own is that all these poets have hit on a demand that is unquestionably aimed at and caters to a female readership. Between these books and the many Youtube bloggers also catering to the emotional seascape otherwise known as womanhood, I have a new-found respect for the tortured, emotional terrain of the female psyche.

And these books by Courtney Peppernell? I’ll give you one guess as to the kind of poetry inside:

Flowers on Your Doorstep

You deserve flowers on your doorstep
and coffee in the morning.
You deserve notes left on your dashboard
and ice cream sundaes at 3 a.m.
You deserve honesty every day
and to be kissed every hour.
You deserve to be reminded
how beautiful you are.
And if you let me,
I'll show you every day.
I promise.

This is from Pillow Talk, which is a bestseller at Amazon. If you see other multiple copies in the pictures above, books I haven’t mentioned, I’m willing to bet they’re also in the instapoetic affirmation genre.

So. This is what poetry sells. This is what the poetry section looks like at BAM. I know there are independent bookstores with more diverse selections, but how much of it do they sell? BAM wouldn’t be buying multiple copies if they weren’t selling them. I just find it interesting how clearly BAM’s poetry section demonstrates the disconnect between the poetry that sells and the poetry of the MFA and literary journals. None of the poems in any of the books above would ever, in your lifetime or mine, appear in Poetry or the New England Review. Let alone APR. I don’t want to write instapoetry,. myself, and I don’t admire instapoetry in any literary sense, but one must acknowledge that it’s offering something to readers that the vast majority of poets don’t—content that is relevant and meaningful.

One last comment. This sort of affirmational instapoetry isn’t new. Way back in 1987, a book called Emmanuel’s Book: A Manual for Living Comfortably in the Cosmos was offering strikingly similar fare. And if you go back further, Kahlil Gibran’s books and poetry are comparable. But that’s all I really have to say. You all deserve flowers on your doorstep.

up in Vermont | March 3 2023


So I was reading an article in the New Yorker entitled The End of the English Major. Which relates the sad decline of English majors in favor of STEM. And full disclosure, despite being a writer, poet and reader of great literature, I can’t tell you how happy I am that all my daughters are STEM majors, not English majors. I have read articles in the past, explaining the benefits, to an employer, of a major in “English”, but I can’t say as I’ve found them all that compelling. If you’re an English major who has parleyed their education into something more than being a struggling author, who didn’t end up in a completely unrelated career, or who didn’t perpetuate the pyramid scheme by producing more English majors, then let me know how it’s done and why you’d recommend a degree in “English”.


To me, it’s the cost/benefit ratio. Given the ruinous debt incurred by a college education, what student would want to obtain a degree for which there’s little to no demand? All the various articles defending the English major essentially appeal to the intellectual and spiritual benefits. But that don’t pay the bills. Besides that, the New Yorker article devotes one paragraph to the argument that the decline is due to the emphasis on criticism and theory rather than literature itself—feminism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, Marxism etc… (I can’t begin to name them all.)

~ Others, though, suggest that the humanities’ loss of cultural capital has been hastened by the path of humanities scholarship itself. One theory is that the critical practices have become too specialized. Once, in college, you might have studied “Mansfield Park” by looking closely at its form, references, style, and special marks of authorial genius—the way Vladimir Nabokov famously taught the novel, and an intensification of the way a reader on the subway experiences the book. Now you might write a paper about how the text enacts a tension by both constructing and subtly undermining the imperial patriarchy through its descriptions of landscape. What does this have to do with how most humans read?

Certainly, any high school student with an interest in literature will no doubt come across literary criticism, the kind made incomprehensible with academese—language that will be utterly inaccessible to anyone but members of the priestly class. They might, for example, stumble across the book American Poets in the 21st Century, an all but unreadable and stultifying book full of chestnuts like these:

  • “Central to Spahr’s work of moving the poem away from poetry’s implicit emphasis on individuals and toward collectivities is the understanding that collectivities are often composed against a constitutive outside.” P. 144
  • “Morris effectively valorizes somatic experience to dispossess and repossess the language of identity. This is no hairsplitting intellectual argument…” p. 226
  • “As the remainder of this essay will demonstrate, the “cobbled solutions” Wheeler devised in her own attempts to invigorate poetry’s radical cultural force involve foregrounding, both formally and in her poems’ content, the contemporary “problems” of “steamroller” consumerism/commodification and of artistic assimilation so as ultimately to recast them as opportunities and resources.” p. 306
  • “In other poems, performivity asserts the constructed identity over the essential self when poems speak from the male voices of Casanova…” p. 58
  • “She tests the potentials of the work she samples in relation to their points of contact and fracture — where the palindrome meets the merry-go-round. What happens to both structures upon contact and what futurities are proposed at the point of contact?” p. 284

These examples were taken from my own review. And I ask you, what high school student, on what planet, in what universe, would be inspired to major in English having read any of this word salad—this miserably written academese by people who profess to know something about writing? If potential English majors were made to read this book first, it would be the end of English departments. (And it occurred to me that there are also schools of poetry that have gone down rabbit holes like these, paralleling criticism, but since no one reads this poetry anyways, it’s beating a dead horse.) So.

Moving on.

This whole post was begun to share a single sentence from the New Yorker article that— I don’t know. Was it some kind of performative irony? Because I tell you, I’ve reread it a dozen times and it’s completely above my pay grade. It follows in the same paragraph quoted above:

Rita Felski, whose book “Uses of Literature” is studied in Adams’s A.S.U. class, has argued that the professional practice of scholarship has become self-defeatingly disdainful of moving literary encounters. “In retrospect, much of the grand theory of the last three decades now looks like the last gasp of an Enlightenment tradition of rois philosophes persuaded that the realm of speculative thought would absolve them of the shameful ordinariness of a messy, mundane, error-prone existence,” she wrote. “Contemporary critics pride themselves on their power to disenchant.”

To which I can only say: Wut? I briefly tried to look up “rois philosophes” but, nah, forget it. I don’t know what in the hell she’s talking about. None of it. And I just think it’s supremely ironic that even the critics of the critics have made themselves incomprehensible, and then wonder why undergraduates have decided that organic chemistry and fluid physics are far easier to grasp. Do any of you understand what she said? If so, educate me.

In the meantime, to help you count sheep tonight, here is a paragraph from an Atlantic article entitled The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing:

~ The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.


After unloading on Modernism I felt—guilt. What boorish behavior, I said to myself. Why can’t you just get along? Why can’t you be like Edward Hirsch? He just published The Heart of American Poetry, where he writes “deeply personal readings of forty essential American poems we thought we knew… exploring how these poems have sustained his own life and how they might uplift our diverse but divided nation.” Why do I find this insufferable? How am I any less insufferable? Instead of my blog nourishing our diverse and thriving ‘community of poets‘, I oil my axe. Even here in Vermont, I pick fights with former Vermont poet laureates—and in the local paper no less. I guess I enjoy blood-letting. In the clash of arms there’s more to be learned about poetry (for me) but probably not for the vast majority of readers who prefer to simply enjoy poetry, not dispute it. Robert Frost once wrote that “No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body.” Same here.

That got me thinking, why am I like this?

The answer, strictly in terms of poetry, is that I might be more like Ezra Pound than not. Pound had little patience for the generation of poets preceding him, and neither do I. I find little to admire in the poetry of the latter 20th century. Like him, for better or worse, I have opinions about how poetry should be written. For Pound, the aesthetics of Georgian poets made him grind his teeth. He struck out anything resembling it from Eliot’s The Waste Land. Britannica has the following to say of Georgian poetics:

~ …taken as a whole, much of the Georgians’ work was lifeless. It took inspiration from the countryside and nature, and in the hands of less gifted poets, the resulting poetry was diluted and middlebrow conventional verse of late Romantic character. “Georgian” came to be a pejorative term, used in a sense not intended by its progenitors: rooted in its period and looking backward rather than forward.

Pound played his part in that characterization. When Frost came to England, he said he had ‘come to the land of The Golden Treasury. That is what I came for.’ Pound referred to that same anthology as ‘that stinking sugar teat’. Pound’s objections to Georgian Poetry were both political, he bristled at their insular British imperialism, and aesthetic—what he perceived as their roots in Victorian verse and sensibility. Interestingly, when Poetry’s Harriet Monro planned the series of anthologies called Georgian Poetry, she originally meant to include poems by Frost and Pound. They were excluded at the last minute when Edward Marsh decided to keep the anthology a purely British anthology. That might have contributed to Pound’s contempt, but his aesthetic differences were nonetheless very real.

If it’s possible to set aside Pound’s antisemitism, which TS Eliot shared by the way, and Fascist collaborating; if it’s possible to consider his ambitions and inestimable generosity in isolation (to writers and poets including Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot, Yeats, and Robert Frost) then I admire him as a poet. Even if the execution of his vision was flawed, The Waste Land wouldn’t exist in its current form without him. To quote Hollis, who was referencing Hemingway, “He witnessed their wills and he loaned his own money, and encouraged in each of them a fortitude for life. ‘And in the end,” said Hemingway, “a few of them refrain from knifing him at the first opportunity.'” [p. 319, The Waste Land, A Biography of a Poem]. He had an eye for greatness in other poets and writers, and knew where to find it even when the writers themselves didn’t. Pound didn’t accomplish what he did by writing glowing encomiums. He picked fights. He made enemies. While there’s a place for those who think every poem is precious, I like the Pounds of the world. I’m of the mind, as I’ve written before, that it’s the responsibility of every generation to smash the sacred icons of the generation before. There hasn’t been enough of that in my opinion. Despite the unqualified praise that has anthologized many latter 20th century poets—they’ve produced little that holds a candle to Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Cummings, etc… Freed by an elder generation from the conventions and mannerisms of the 19th century, they turned modernism into their own mannered conventions. There are latter 20th century poets who stand out, but they aren’t, by any stretch, among the great poets.

So maybe this post is partly to further clarify what I wrote in Matthew Hollis & the death of The Waste Land. I meant, not the death of The Waste Land, but the death of the mannered and conventional poetics that grew from its example. I like and admire the modernist poets. The Waste Land itself, along with a number of other poems by Eliot, rank among the very greatest. Pound, on the other hand, was no Eliot. His Cantos fail the test of first rate poetry but, to his credit, he was truly original and was attempting a poetry equal to his vision. In my show of penitence, I decided to finally buy my own copy of the Cantos (the full text is available online). And it was this copy that spurred this post.

The book was discarded by the Chandler/Gilbert Library in Arizona. What made me feel like I ought to revisit Ezra was the due date slip. The book was only checked out once, due back on April 24th 1990. The book was printed in 1986. So, arguably, the book was only read/checked-out once during its 37 years at the library. Pound himself recognized the inaccessibility of the Cantos and worried that his poetry would be forgotten (despite Eliot’s reassurances). Inasmuch as Pound himself is integral to the story of modernist poetry, his own writings won’t be forgotten. But they may be seldom read. The same fate awaits most, if not all, of the better known poets of the latter 20th century.

I also picked up Pound’s Personæ, an original hard cover printed in 1926. More of my making amends.

There’s a rugged quality to Pound’s versification that I like, despite or because of his contradictory predilection for archaic grammar and poeticisms—thees and thous, hasts and haths, -ests and -eths. And yet it can work. I like it most of all in his poem, The Seafarer. The idiosyncrasies of Pound’s versification feel perfectly suited to the rugged and ancient Anglo-Saxon he was translating. It is, frankly, a breath of fresh air next to the generic and characterless versification of contemporary free verse. Pound left off, as he called it, the “platitudinous address to the Deity” which, some argue, was added later by a separate author. My own opinion is that the Christian moralizing of the final third are nothing like the first two thirds of the poem. They possess none of the evocative poetry but read like the self-satisfied bloviating of a third rate theologian. You can read a complete modern translation here. Pound was right to omit the final lines, in my opinion. Based on the quality of the poetry and the complete shift in tone, it’s hard to imagine that the poem, as we have it now, is by a single author. My own completely evidence-free speculation is that the original Anglo-Saxon Seafarer concluded with a possibly similar but more secular, if not ambivalent, note. The original poetry certainly would have been much better. But this was entirely inadequate to the sensibilities of some secondary author who couldn’t resist closing the poem with a pompous and aphoristic sermon—much like the prim Victorians who loved nothing better than a closing moral. If I’m correct, then the secondary author probably also touched up earlier portions of the poem. Pound was having none of it.

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews' singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides ’mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart's thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight
Nor any whit else save the wave's slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not —
He the prosperous man — what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ’mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after —
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth ’gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ’mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Cæsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe’er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth’s gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.

Pound’s translation, or transliteration, can’t be beat. His archaisms somehow perfectly capture the flavor of the source. In some ways the poem itself reminds me of Tennyson’s Ulysses. Maybe the original Anglo-Saxon, if there was an original, ended somewhat like Tennyson’s poem. “No man at all going the earth’s gait, But age fares against him,” Then better for the seafarer to return to the sea, to strive, to dream and to perish in his “self song’s truth” than in a grave strewn with gold. There is no treasure hoard but to live life to the fullest. Maybe I’ll write that ending myself.

up in Vermont | February 27th 2023


So I was just reading this article The husband-and-wife forgers who fooled the art market — and made millions, and thinking to myself: there’s no greater historian or critic than the forger. In order to produce the kind of forgery that can fool anyone but a chemist, one has to be greater expert and historian than any of the experts and historians examining your forgery. Not being an artist, I can only marginally imagine what goes into producing a convincing fake: what colors were available; how they were produced; brush strokes, the thickness of the application, the canvass itself, how it’s aged, etc… Literary forger happens too. the Britannica discusses literary forgery here. It’s not just a matter of imitating the poet or writer’s style, but one has to also (as with art forgeries) use the right paper and ink. My sense, reading the entry in Britannica, that if one is going to forge Steinbeck, for example, the smart money is on forging correspondence rather than a short story or novel. The reasons are obvious. It takes far less artistic competence to forge a letter than to forge a literary work. To judge by the success of art forgeries, it’s apparently easier to forge art than literature. Then again, a far more mundane explanation might be that there’s far less money in forging poetry or novels.

There have also been musical forgeries. You can find a discussion of that here. And I’m frankly disappointed that there aren’t more musical forgeries. That said, there are white hat forgers and black hat forgers. The white hat forgers are the ones like Robert Levin and Timothy Jones, who are so knowledgeable of Mozart’s composition that they can “forge” completions of Mozart’s incomplete works. And then there’s Rudolph Lutz. He goes a step further by creating entire compositions, from the ground up, in the style of JS Bach. Lutz’s understanding of Bach’s compositional technique is astonishing. But it’s more than that. Lutz composes. He has the knowledge and he possesses the compositional genius to make music out of that knowledge. As an example: Cantata 145. The original first movement is missing, so what did Lutz do? He wrote an instrumental introduction in the style of Bach. You can watch it here. Not only that, but Lutz also wrote an entire Cantata in the style of Bach, and it’s incredible. You can listen to that here.

There was the black hat forgery of Haydn’s piano sonatas that were so good they fooled the “great” quote-unquote Haydn historian Robbins Landon, who (when I was an 18 year old and naïve idealist) told me that the only reason he wrote his mammoth Haydn biographies was for the money. I kid you not. “Why, for the money! he said.” The forgeries also fooled the great pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. You can listen to Badura-Skoda playing them on Youtube: Hob XVI:2a – Keyboard Sonata No. 21; Hob XVI:2b – Keyboard Sonata No. 22 ; Hob XVI:2g – Keyboard Sonata No. 26; Hob XVI:2d – Keyboard Sonata No. 24; Hob XVI:2e – Keyboard Sonata No. 25; Hob XVI:2c – Keyboard Sonata No. 23. (Sadly, you won’t find these on Spotify because the whole affair probably embarrassed Badura-Skoda.) None of these sonatas are by Haydn but they’re very good. When I first heard them I thought they were oddly redolent of CPE Bach, but I didn’t put too much thought into it after that. Haydn was a great admirer of CPE Bach. Haydn, like Mozart, kept a catalog of the music he had written. In the case of these sonatas, he had written down four measure incipits (the theme on which each sonata was written). The sonatas were lost and only the incipits remained. So, all the modern forger had to do was to write sonatas, in Haydn’s style, based on Haydn’s own themes. I personally think they’re pretty good. I have no trouble listening to them and enjoying them. Even knowing they’re rank forgeries, I include them in my Haydn playlists. They fit right in. The most famous musical forgery, which really was a forgery intended to fool the recipient, was Franz Xaver Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem. Mozart died before completing the Requiem. In need of the money, Mozart’s wife commissioned Mozart’s hapless student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to complete the Requiem. Pity poor Süssmayr, a composer who Mozart once characterized as clueless as a duck in the thunderstorm, having to forge the music of one of the greatest composers who ever lived. In all honesty, and given his limited skill set, he did okay.

I’ve dabbled in forgeries myself. I understand how poets write. I see how they think and how they use language, similes, metaphor and imagery. I’m good at that. One of my “white hat” forgeries would be Sunday, which is not meant to fool someone into thinking it’s by Wallace Stevens, but imitates his habits of thought. It’s meant to be, in its way, an answer to his. Another would be Ulysses in Burlington Vermont, which riffs on Tennyson. I did, once, forge Shakespeare. I did such a good job that I was banned from the Shaksper Listserv (this would have been in the 90s). I typed the anonymous The Wisdome of Doctor Dodypoll “into the internet” and, because the devil whispered in my ear, I added a touch of “Shakespeare”. I’m an easy mark for the devil. For years, this version of Doctor Dodypoll could be found on the internet. Even when I wrote to websites telling them that they had reposted the forgery of a con artist, they didn’t believe me. Can you spot me?

Leander. My Lord, he fears that you will be angry with him.
Alphonso. You play the villain: wherefore should he fear?
I only proved her virtues for his sake,
And now you talk of anger. Aye me wretch,
That ever I should live to be thus shamed!
Alberdure. Madame, I swear the Lady is my love;
Therefore your highness cannot charge my father
With any wrong to your high worth of her.
Constantine. Sister, you see we utterly mistake
The kind and princely dealing of the Duke:
Therefore without more ceremonious doubts
Lets reconfirm the contract and his love.
Katherine. I warrant you my Lord – the Duke – dissembles.
It is not love doth speak, for such strong terms
Hath ever love. Dear Sister, do but note
The fruit tree giveth not that is not pruned
For nature teacheth us th’extravagance
Of outward show doth sap the inward stock
In substance and of worth. It is love
That like the gentle drop of rain speaks not
Its name unto the earth yet calls from forth
The ground the weary seed. (Nor yet the voice
Of angels can amaze the knotted bud
As doth a single drop of rain from heaven.)
And so true love should do, for that speaks not
That does in deeds what words may never do.
Alphonso. Here on my knees, at the alter of those feet,
I offer up in pure and sacred breath
The true speech of my heart and heart itself.
Require no more if thou be princely born.
And not of rocks or ruthless tigers bred.
Katherine. My Lord, I kindly cry you mercy now,
Ashamed that you should injure your estate
To kneel to me; and vow before these Lords
To make you all amends you can desire.
Flores. Madame, in admiration of your grace
And princely wisdom, and to gratify
The long wished joy done to my Lord the Duke,
I here present your highness with this cup,
Wrought admirably by th’art of spirits,
Of substance fair, more rich than earthly gems,
Whose value no man’s judgment can esteem.
Alphonso. Flores, I’ll interrupt the Duchess thanks
And for the present thou hast given to her
To strengthen her consent to my desires,
I recompense thee with a free release
Of all offenses twixt thyself and me.
Flores. I humbly thank your excellence.
Katherine. But where is now unkind Earl Lassinbergh,
That injures his fair love and makes her wear
This worthless garland? Come, Sir, make amends,
Or we will here award you worthy penance.
Lassinbergh. Madame, since her departure I have done
More hearty penance than heart could wish,
And vow hereafter to live ever hers.
Katherine. Then let us cast aside these forlorn wreaths,
And with our better fortunes change our habits.

Unfortunately for me, my forgeries have not made me a millionaire. Or maybe that’s a good thing. Looking at my Dodypoll forgery after 30 years, older and wiser, I know I could do better. The syntax wouldn’t fool a real Elizabethan/Shakespearean scholar, but now I’m betting I could. My only regret is that my forgery isn’t better. One of the best ways to learn how to write poetry is to imitate, and in truth it’s how most poets start out anyways—whether they know it or not.

The other question that forgeries bring up, and that others have discussed elsewhere, is if a forgery is good enough to fool the experts, then doesn’t that make it a work of art? If someone were to forge Mozart’s 28th piano concerto, and fool the world’s musicologists, wouldn’t that make the piano concerto as great an accomplishment as the 27th? The same question was asked of the Haydn forgeries. What does it mean to be a sonata by Haydn? Why should we treasure one and not the other? What, in truth, makes a work of art valuable? Getting back to the original article from CNN, why should Wolfgang Beltracchi’s forgeries be considered works of art? Shouldn’t they be? Isn’t the art of forgery an art in and of itself? Why not a Wolfgang Beltracchi exhibition a hundred years from now? Consider Salvator Mundi by Leonardo daVinci. Question Mark.

Most believe it to be by daVinci, but others don’t.

~ The British art historian Charles Hope dismissed the attribution to Leonardo entirely in a January 2020 analysis of the painting’s quality and provenance. He doubted that Leonardo would have painted a work where the eyes were not level and the drapery undistorted by a crystal orb. He added, “The picture itself is a ruin, with the face much restored to make it reminiscent of the Mona Lisa.” Hope condemned the National Gallery’s involvement in Simon’s “astute” marketing campaign. ~Wikipedia Feb 15th 2023

Before it was identified as possibly being by da Vinci, it was bought for $1,175. After being claimed as a Da Vinci (and being “touched/cleaned up”), it eventually made the rounds until it sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 for $450,312,500. That’s right. You read that right. The same painting went from being worth just over a thousand dollars to almost half a billion. ‘But it’s a da Vinci!’ you say. But it’s also the same painting that was bought for just over a thousand dollars. What are you really paying for? The name or the art? The answer is obviously—the name. The same is undoubtedly true of the Haydn forgeries. They may be quite good, musically, and might do Haydn no shame, but they’re not “a Haydn”. Could you imagine if poetry sold like art? I’ve often thought that I should offer to sell my individual poems, written by me, by hand, on something like a canvass (or on the best paper money can buy). And framed. Should I? They won’t be cheap. There will only be a limited number. They will be “a Gillespie”—the poetry of the poet written in his own hand. Make me an offer because, you know what? They’re going to be valuable. I’m not famous now, but I will be. Whether that happens when I’m alive or dead is a whole other matter. Bet on dead (if you’re the betting kind).

When somebody bothers to forge my poetry, then I’ll have made it.

Matthew Hollis & the death of The Waste Land

I’m still reading, at my slow pace, Hollis’s book The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, which gets mixed reviews (from me). Hollis spends at least half, if not more, of Part I discussing Ezra Pound and his poetry. And yes, Pound’s editing was essential to the development of The Waste Land, but Hollis’s discussion of Pound fails to elucidate his editorial process or, really, The Waste Land itself. Hollis seems to assume that discussing Pound and his poetry is enough, but it’s not. One could start the book on Page 219 (Part II of the book), where Hollis actually begins his “biography” of the poem, and the book wouldn’t horribly suffer. The first 218 pages are largely scene setting and, of that, the same could have possibly been accomplished with a third as many pages. We don’t need to know how much Eliot paid for rent, how many times the water swept over the estuaries of Bosham Channel, what Virginia thought of Vivien, or who attended this or that boozy dinner party.

But here’s what really struck me about the book (and I in no way dispute The Waste Land’s greatness), it reads less like a centenary celebration of the poem and more like an unwitting elegy to the era. When I read Pound’s poetry, especially his poetry, and the development of the modernist aesthetic, it all strikes me as tired and exhausted. We’ve lived in the fallout of the modernists all our lives. And sure, Pound wrote a handful of anthologizable poems, but so did any number of serviceable poets in the centuries prior to Pound. Pound was nothing exceptional in that respect. And yes, Pound was an original poet. His Cantos were original. His poetic ideas were original. But originality, as the 20th century has amply demonstrated, isn’t enough. By no stretch of the imagination are the Cantos a first rate poetic achievement. They’re the uneven product of a troubled visionary. There are moments of rigor and beauty, but also the banal masked by inaccessibility.

We’re almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century and modern poetry is still largely 20th century poetry—and it’s exhausted. One senses a public desperate for poets to move on, to let go of the 20th century and its facile conflation of “difficulty” with originality, depth and artistic worth. Think of Rupi Kauer’s poetry. Think of it as minimalist poetry—as if all the junk and excess of 20th century poetry had finally been jettisoned from the living room. And think of her incredible success! Consider how strange that Mary Oliver’s poetry, the most successful and widely read of the latter 20th century, still needs defending while John Ashbery’s poetry, with only a fraction of the readership, is already published in the Library of America. While he was still writing! The difference is that Oliver didn’t write the “difficult” poetry that is still consistently favored by poets, academics and critics. As the New Yorker puts it:

~ By any measure, Oliver is a distinguished and important poet. She published her first collection, “No Voyage and Other Poems,” in 1963, when she was twenty-eight; “American Primitive,” her fourth full-length book, won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1984, and “New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Award, in 1992. Still, perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times. In the Times capsule review of “Why I Wake Early” (2004), the nicest adjective the writer, Stephen Burt, could come up with for her work was “earnest.” What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand

The difference is that the editors (and poets) who decide these things have a stake in exalting the aesthetics of the last hundred years (themselves being acolytes of modernism and its various offshoots—Acmeism, Imagism, Free verse, Futurism, Objectivism, Dada, Postmodernism, Surrealism). But one gets the feeling that they’re at war with 21st century readers. Readers read poets like Oliver and Kauer in the millions all while being subtly (and not so subtly) told that the great poets are the “difficult” poets—poets they have little interest in reading. There’s a clear disconnect. That’s okay if you’re an artist, have a canvass to sell, and can auction it off to the 1%. If success is defined as living off your creative work, then artists optionally don’t have to care whether the general public likes their work. They only have to appeal to a narrow coterie of critics, taste-makers and the auction house. Poets don’t have that luxury.

But really, getting back to The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem— It’s the exhaustion. It’s how Pound and Eliot’s novel ideas, to me, sound spent and worn out. The last hundred years have run their innovations into the ground—along with being misunderstood. When poets lacked the talent to make their subject matter new, they turned from content to medium. “Make it new” meant hiding mediocrity behind a veneer of “difficulty”—the pointless obscurities, the superficial complexities in verse and language, the vapid “profundity” signaled by abstruse and obscure allusions. Joyce recognized the academic appeal of “difficulty” when he wrote that Finnegan’s Wake would “keep the critics busy for 300 years.” He perfectly understood his audience. Think of academia as a secret society and academics as the high Priests of inaccessible 20th century texts. Only through them, their books and their classes, can the keys to the obscure text be found. Is it any wonder they champion these texts? Do you want the keys to Pound’s Cantos? Then how about A Companion to the Cantos by Carroll F. Terrell, Pound’s Cantos Declassified by Philip Furia, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, Revised Edition, by William Cookson, etc… Without their keys the Cantos are inaccessible to even the most sophisticated reader. They would have to speak multiple languages and simultaneously be familiar with extensive biographical trivia concerning Pound’s life and times. But it’s in the interest of a variety of editors, critics, and poets to give the impression that literature is great when and because it’s difficult. It’s their livelihood after all. But one wonders when the 20th century will end for poetry? Maybe we’ll know when it no longer feels necessary to write New Yorker articles defending a poet who was the most successful of her generation from critics championing poets who remain among the least successful of their generation.

Did Poetry Die 100 Years Ago This Month?

There was an interesting guest editorial in the NY Times today by Matthew Walther, the editor of The Lamp. His essay reminded me here and there of my own essay Let Poetry Die. In my own essay, I argued that contemporary poetry’s failure to engage the public was due to poets no longer having to write for the public. Contemporary poets are essentially writing for each other in a system whose poetics are self-reinforcing. That is, the poet’s ambition may be, nominally, to appeal to the public but must be, practically speaking, an appeal to their peers and the pursuit of competitions and positions at colleges and universities where they can achieve financial stability (and be published by those same schools).

The harm is to those poets who write outside this patronage system—poets like me. They will find it far more difficult to compete for public recognition and I doubt that Walther has ever heard of me or read my poetry. The days when someone like Frost could “get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands” are largely over. The circle has been institutionalized. None of this would be a problem for poetry’s popularity if the prevailing poetics appealed to public taste but, much to the irritation of “that circle”, the public wants to read poetry with memorable language (think rhyme and meter) or poetry that speaks simply and meaningfully (think Rupi Kauer or Mary Oliver). Kauer’s breakthrough success, to judge by the snarky critiques laid at her feet, was especially resented and unapproved.

At any rate, Walther’s argument is very different. Walther writes:

~ “We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so.”

He goes on to blame “modern life, which [has] demystified and alienated us from the natural world.” That’s a peculiar assertion being that the aforementioned poet, the late Mary Oliver, was popular enough with the public to make a living from her poetry—and the only poet of her generation to do so. Her poetry did nothing but celebrate the mystery and beauty of the natural world. It was her bread and butter. So I’m not really sure what Walther is talking about. And don’t forget the unabated popularity of Robert Frost’s poetry—who was nothing if not a poet of woods and field. But he goes on to quote some poetry by the early 19th century poet Southey:

  Aye Charles! I knew that this would fix thine eye,
  This woodbine wreathing round the broken porch,
  Its leaves just withering, yet one autumn flower
  Still fresh and fragrant; and yon holly-hock
  That thro’ the creeping weeds and nettles tall
  Peers taller, and uplifts its column’d stem
  Bright with the broad rose-blossoms.

Of this passage he writes: “Admit it: Your eyes, so far from being fixed, are already glazing over.” And he uses this observation to validate his assertion that we have been alienated from the natural world. Given that Southey, even in his own day, was considered an overstuffed mediocrity (by the likes of Shelley, Byron and Coleridge among others) I would argue that Southey’s passage only demonstrates that we’re alienated from mediocrity, not nature. If Walther had picked a passage from Keats’s Ode to Autumn (Southey’s contemporary—you may have heard of him) the modern reader might be a bit more attentive. Even so, one really needs look no further than the late Mary Oliver to flatly refute Walther’s claim.

But Walther has a point to make, rather than the problem being our disconnect with mediocrity, it’s our disconnect with nature. And instead of writing about nature, we write about “the feelings of unease within ourselves; [and] draw our images from the detritus of consumer civilization — an empty plastic bottle, an iPhone with a cracked screen.” And now that Walther has nicely established the premise, he pounces on the conclusion: we’ve been doing exactly this and it’s “thanks in large part to [TS] Eliot” and, problematically, nobody did or does it better than Eliot and therefore poetry died the day Eliot published The Waste Land. Thank you for your time.

~ The problem is not that Eliot put poetry on the wrong track. It’s that he went as far down that track as anyone could, exhausting its possibilities and leaving little or no work for those who came after him. It is precisely this mystique of belatedness that is the source of Eliot’s considerable power. What he seems to be suggesting is that he is the final poet, the last in a long unbroken line of seers to whom the very last visions are being bequeathed, and that he has come to share them with his dying breaths.

I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.

Now, I will admit that if everyone’s poetry (and Walther seems to presume this) is essentially another poem by T.S. Eliot, then, yes, poetry ended with T.S. Eliot. The problem is with Walther’s premise. He is flatly and demonstrably wrong that contemporary readers are disconnected from the “natural world”. There are certainly gobs of poets who took and take their cue from Eliot’s example and will never do it as well as Eliot, but the same can be said for all the modernist poets: Williams, Frost, Stevens, Cummings, etc… But, for whatever reason, Walther seems to consider T.S. Eliot the apotheosis of English poetics and so confuses writing like Eliot with poetry in and of itself—as if poetry isn’t poetry if it doesn’t do what Eliot’s verse does. I could just as easily make the same argument for the other modernist poets, each in their turn. No contemporary poet has equaled Williams, Frost or, above all, Wallace Stevens. Did poetry die the day Frost wrote Mending Wall or when Stevens wrote Sunday Morning? The only defense I can imagine Walther making is that these poems aren’t as good as The Waste Land. (In his Twitter threads he does exactly this.) And yes, if you’re trying to write like Eliot or only want to read more poems like Eliot’s, then nothing will be as good as The Waste Land. Long live poetry.

It’s been 100 years since the publication of The Waste Land and his legion of passionate readers are out in full force trumpeting the poem as the “most significant of the 20th century” and for them it is. But outside of them, significant to who? It’s not everyone who wants to write like Eliot or even read him. But let Eliot’s readers have their birthday cake. Don’t tell them that The Waste Land makes a good many eyes glaze over—and I’m not saying that it should. But don’t tell them. You know how it goes with truth and handling it. It won’t kill poetry but it might kill them.

And as for all the forgettable verse that’s been written since the modernists, it bears mentioning that poetic genius is rare. Every generation elevates their own but genius isn’t a generational entitlement. Poetic genius skips whole generations. The horror! One can go decades if not hundreds of years and have only gradations of mediocrity to show for it. And the last hundred years of mixed, if not forgettable, talent is hardly an anomaly. Was poetry dead after Shakespeare? Milton? Keats? Maybe the next great poet won’t show up in your lifetime. Then again, maybe you just have to know where to look.

me from Vermont | December 30th 2022

Self Pity and Other Works of Art

Being of Sound Mind and Body

My grandmother, who raised me, used to joke about the Will she’d leave behind. It would say: Being of sound mind and body I spent it all.

Nice People

My father died this summer. We were and weren’t close. We saw each other maybe once a year. With the invention of email, we eventually kept up a regular correspondence, but only talking politics. He was a beautiful writer but his clean and concise prose went into translating technical documents from German into English. He wrote with greater clarity and concision than I do, but he had no gift for creative writing. (To his dying day he was correcting my grammar.) If there’s such a thing as tone-deafness as regards poetry, he had it. Might as well sell a raincoat in the desert than give him a poem. He may have read a handful of novels. I don’t know. He loved the precision of Kafka’s prose for Kafka’s flawless German. He also had a copy of the 1001 Nights translated by Richard F. Burton. As far as I know he didn’t read a single story. He kept them because of Burton’s introduction. Burton skewered the moral pretensions of translators who delicately edited out the best parts of the 1001 Nights—understood to be the uninhibited erotic parts. Of which there are many. My father, and his parents who raised me, detested nice people. I was never sure what they meant but they probably meant the kind of nice people who Richard Burton dismantled. To be on the safe side, I decided to dislike everyone; which is to say, I’m an introvert. I deeply get Wednesday Addams (if you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Netflix series). People are exhausting, especially nice people.


When my father died I finally realized that I probably would too. I looked at my possessions and thought to myself: What in the hell are you thinking? Why am I buying anything? I’ll probably be dead in another twenty to thirty years—maybe sooner. Who knows? The thought of death doesn’t disturb me at all. The thought of all my possessions? Deeply disturbing. What’s the point? But my most valued possessions are my stories; and I’m going to give those away as generously as I can. Those stores include some from my family. I’ve already snuck some of them into my novels and poems.

Don’t you want to say, Hello?

My grandmother grew up in a family of ten children equally divided between girls and boys. Two of the boys, my Uncles, were bomber pilots in World War II. There was a rule that if a pilot flew ten or twenty (I can’t remember) sorties, then they wouldn’t have to fly any more. There was also a rule that relatives couldn’t fly on the same plane. My Uncles George and Bill both had one more flight and decided, violating all the rules, that they would fly their last sortie together. They were shot down by the Germans and captured.

Being Pilots/Officers, they were, initially at least, valuable POWs.

The German interrogator brought them in, one by one. You’re both Kremers he would say. Good German names! Why are you fighting against your fatherland? But George and Bill would only answer with their names, ranks and serial numbers. This must have gone on for several days and the interrogator decided that maybe he could play each against the other. Bill had the character of Bob Hope, ready with a quip, gregarious and a lady’s man. George was the quiet, serious and stone-faced brother.

The interrogator brought them both in.

He sat behind his broad desk. Bill and George were marched out and each stood quietly facing the interrogator. They stared straight ahead, neither acknowledging the other. They knew better. Behind the interrogator was a blond bombshell, the kind of uniformed blond bombshell that’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. The interrogator said to George, who was standing next to Bill: Don’t you want to say, Hello? George answered giving his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator impatiently turned to Bill and asked: Don’t you want to say, hello?

Bill turned to the blonde bombshell and said: “I’m Bill. I didn’t catch your name.”

And as the family story has it, George sighed heavily exclaimed in exasperation: “He means me, Bill!”

Sticky Fingers

I decide to go for a walk and, wouldn’t you know, here comes the Devil the opposite way. That’s the Devil’s way, always to go the opposite way. He’s mumbling to himself and throwing up his left hand, now and again, as though shooing away whatever thoughts are nipping at his heels. For no good reason, he carries a cane behind his back.

“Up to no good?” I ask.

“You might expect as much,” he sighs.

“Best laid plans?” I ask.

“A mouse!” he shouts, then as though confiding: “There is not a single mouse in hell. Did you know? There are cats and dogs, but no mice. What does that tell you?” His expression changes to one of disappointment. “I nabbed another soul. A wretched soul. A selfish and petty soul. She loved no one and was a benefit to none.” He inhaled, held his breath, eyes closed, as though savoring a newly poured glass of chardonnay. “She detested children. Horrid little things. She lived alone, hoarded her wealth, hid it away where no one would find it. She was a mintage coined from my own heart.”

“You have one?”

“Does the nightshade have berries?”

“What about children?” I ask.

“Yes,” the Devil sniffs, “but only in hell to torment their parents.”

“Why so glum?”

“God!” shouts the Devil with a disgusted flourish of his hand, then calmly adds: “He of unbounded love and beneficence. Couldn’t leave well enough alone. What should happen to the old shrew’s house but God, in his bounty, makes a gift of it (of course the selfish old bat didn’t have an heir). A couple with their newly adopted child bought the house at auction—for a song and a dance. God’s reward for their good deeds. But that’s not enough. God elaborates. He sends them a stray puppy. A puppy! Nauseating. But it was the nice thing to do. And to celebrate their gratitude to God, they bake him a cake and light him a candle. The instant their backs are turned, the wretched little puppy eats the cake and knocks over the candle. God’s little gift burns down the house. Burns it to the ground.”

“One misery after another!” I say.

“The Devil’s work!—they say. The flames! The flames! The Devil’s work from beginning to end!”

“And you weren’t delighted by all that misery?”

“No,” the Devil sniffs. “The wretched little cheapskate. She hid all her money in the walls of the house. How was I to know? When the house burned down, there it all was. Piles upon piles. Silver coins. Gold coins. Bars of silver. Bars of gold. They built themselves a splendid new house. They gave to one insufferable charity after another. All my handiwork? They took it all. And what did they say? God works in mysterious ways! Praise be to God! To God alone the thanks!”

“Why don’t you like children?”

“Sticky fingers.”

~ For my father, Gordon Gillespie, who detested nice people and who, when asked why he detested children, answered “sticky fingers”.

What is contemporary Poetry?

Just published was an article in the Guardian entitled “The best poetry books of 2022“. I thought it was fascinating not because of what the author, Rishi Dastidar, discusses, but because of what he doesn’t discuss. To wit: Nowhere is there a discussion of the actual poetry. Quoting a line or two from any given poem is not the same. Rishi recommends collections of poetry according to their subject matter and he might as well be recommending cookbooks which, to be honest, seems to be how (the commodity known as) contemporary poetry is largely treated by poets, readers, editors and publishers of poetry. Do you want ‘queer poetry’? Well, try this book. Do you want words about the male gaze and the violation of pornography? No? How about the pain of black communities? Not that? How about resistance to Colonialism? I’m not saying these aren’t important subjects, but important subjects aren’t necessarily the same as good poetry, and to judge by the extracts, the poetry is pretty mediocre stuff. For instance, in another article by the same author from June 3rd, he praises “The Lascaux Notebooks by Jean-Luc Champerret:

~ The book presents a plausible, imagistic recreation of prehistoric living, its quieter moments and dangers, especially when bison are roaming: “We crouch behind the cover of the trees / watching their every step / burning inside with fear”.

The line is shopworn from beginning to end. What hunter doesn’t crouch or do so under the cover of while also burning inside [as opposed to bursting into flames I suppose] with fear. The poetry sounds like generically uninspired prose. Maybe it’s not? I don’t know. Maybe that was just a poor example. The problem is that the poetry was never brought up, just the semantic content of the verse. Or if you’re looking for philosophic fragments, consider the following example from Unexhausted Time:

~ “There is no other life, but there are so / many lives … Thank you / for rescuing me with your words.”

This is the collection where you will find “the ramifications of the male gaze”. But without any context, the example above would make a comically effective “Deep Thought” for Saturday Night Live. But my impression is that the actual poetry of the verse is so far removed from the review’s concerns as to be irrelevant. He serves up the various collections of verse based on their content much as we’d purchase a cookbook according to its ethnic cuisine. What used to separate poetry from prose was poetry’s fusion of semantic content with the aesthetics of language—the way language rhymed and the way one could create rhythms/meter out of English’s natural stress patterns. There is also what one might call the arts of rhetoric—highly patterned and figurative language, metaphor and poems wholly constructed from a single conceit. These are also a part of the arts of language which poets elevated in a way that writers of prose (with different aims) largely didn’t. That’s no longer the case. The only thing that separates the majority of contemporary poetry from prose is lineation—and the lineation of contemporary poetry is simply a typographic “sign” indicating that a given set of words is meant to be read like a poem. There is no prosody of free verse lineation. Free verse lineation is an arbitrary aesthetic decided by the individual poet.

So, what is contemporary poetry?

To judge by reviews like those at The Guardian, poetry is no longer an intellectually rigorous fusion of content with the aesthetics of language, but a species of short-form prose where modern writers go to emote over given themes and subject matter. It reminds me of the transition from the baroque era to the rococo or early classical period. The great composer of the baroque era (and of all time really) was JS Bach. In the manuscripts of Bach, all the arts of music were fused together. Bach wasn’t just about writing a good melody, but in every composition he set out to demonstrate, to the greatest extent possible, the art of music—the degree to which elements like counterpoint, augmentation, diminution, harmony, canon and fugue didn’t just augment the emotional impact but created a work of art that transcended its utilitarian origins. Art for arts sake. Nothing more typified this than his Art of the Fugue. No one knows why he wrote it and Bach didn’t even specify what instrument or instruments should perform the music. The Art of the Fugue is pure music—a kind of summation that, perhaps, we’re meant to contemplate like Michelangelo’s David—in silence—a final summation of his life and era. The next generation discarded all that in favor of the melody. Likewise, the modern poet, reader and reviewer have discarded the arts of language in the name of content. Just as melody reigned supreme, content reins supreme. The contemporary reviewer of poetry doesn’t review the poetry because there’s nothing to review. But what would he make of poetry written for poetry’s sake?—like Keats’s Ode to Autumn, of which the subject matter is the least important element?—a poem that, in its exploitation of the arts of language—rhyme, meter, imagery and figurative language—utterly transcends its subject matter?

It’s too much to say what contemporary poetry is. Easier to say what it’s not—and that is art for art’s sake. It’s as though the modern poet has given himself over to erecting statues dedicated to messaging—monuments to themselves, to statesman, to this politician or that cause—and has discarded the notion that sculpting can be an art in and of itself. Given the world and the way it is, it’s possible no one would want to read any other kind of poetry—and so no one writes or publishes it.

By contrast, no one knows why Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue. There’s no message. It wasn’t commissioned by anyone. Its justification is itself. The final notes, left unfinished by Bach’s death, are the notes B♭–A–C–B♮, spelling out BACH in German musical notation, like a final breath before the last notes vanish into eternity, staves empty, the remaining music forever beyond our hearing.

Written in CPE Bach’s hand: “Über dieser Fuge, wo der Name B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.” (“While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH in the countersubject, the composer died.”

Is it me?

Be honest.

I just received my first rejection for 2022. The agent, who I really thought would click with my novel (and had specifically requested magical realism) wrote that she just didn’t feel the “spark”. That made me feel like a konmari’d pair of socks. But didn’t I used to spark joy? Did I not kiss your feet?yours and only yours? Does that mean nothing? To be fair, her rejection letter was one of the loveliest I’ve gotten.

In the meantime, I’m back on the official Manuscript Wish List and #MSL website. I ran across this on Twitter: “Okay, so about 70 percent of the editors at this speed meeting event want magical realism. ME TOO. Where is it?? #MSWL“.

Hello? I have two ready-to-be-published Magical Realist novels. Two. And they’re good novels. Where are you? Are we two ships passing in the night? Am I hanging out with the 30 percent who run around in bare feet? Am I wool? Am I hole in your heel? Are my toes blown out? Oh wait, I’m just noticing that the agent who wrote this isn’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Well. That explains it. Where is it? asks the agent who isn’t accepting manuscripts from authors like me.

Just sayin’.

And have I mentioned how finding an agent is like online dating? We go into this thinking we’re irresistible—who wouldn’t love us?—until we see ourselves the way everybody else sees us.

[Image of fool upper right-hand side: Self-Portrait]