What are English Language Haiku?

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

Hakuist or Haiku Poet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or this by Buson:

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

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

Or Basho’s final haiku:

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

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

old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

upinVermont | April 20th 2019

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On Representational Poetry

The painting at right, if you can call it that, is quite famous, but only in the right circles.

If you’re not already familiar with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. then you may wonder why these are considered worthy of a museum wall. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to have to accept the critical construct from which their value is obtained.  That is, the artwork’s importance exists entirely within the critical framework from which it arose. Another way to think of it is that the artwork gives value to the critical construct, making the critical construct the work of art rather then the other way around and, in truth, much art of the 20th century probably falls under this rubric. “Modern” art never stopped being representative, but rather than immortalizing lovers, wealthy merchants or aristocrats, 20th century “abstract” artists immortalized ideas, values, schools of criticism and conceptualizations. The long and short of it is that without an appreciation of their historical and artistic context, Rauscheberg’s artwork is little more than nice canvasses on which to actually paint something. Or, to put it another way, without the accompanying essays explaining White Paintings, Rauschenberg’s work is meaningless. The same can’t be said for the Mona Lisa. No one disputes that the painting is of someone and it’s valuation can proceed from that alone (without a knowledge of DaVinci or the painting’s historical context).

The problem for poets is that poetry is about ideas and has been from the get go. But nothing kills a poem like turning it into a lineated five paragraph essay. 20th Century poets got around that (whether successfully is up for debate) by turning their poems into (to coin a phrase) Representational Poetry. I would prefer to call it Conceptual Poetry, but that parking place is already taken.  So, thinking big: One might divide poetry from the 20th century onward into Notional and Representational Poetry. By far the vast majority is the former.

Notional, among it’s other definitions, is defined as:

Consisting of, or conveying, notions or ideas; expressing abstract conceptions.

In, On a Definition of Poetry, I defined poetry as being more than it’s notional or semantic content. Poetry also emphasizes linguistic form, like rhyme or meter (as found in any Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme). Both traditional and free verse poems are notional but only traditional poetry emphasizes linguistic form. Representational Poetry, as I use the term, diminishes or entirely dispenses with the notional intent of language. You could think of Representational Poems as paintings painted with words. If Representational Poetry can be considered a continuum that starts where Notional Poetry breaks down, then I would argue that the most successful Representational Poet of the 20th century is John Ashbery.

He still uses recognizable words and one may understand individual phrasal units, but Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ashbery’s most famous poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is the best known because (if we accept close readings) it’s one of the few Ashbery poems that can be explained as a Notional rather than Representational poemwhich is to say, I have read analyses of Convex Mirror that explain the poem in terms of a congruent whole—as having a unified meaning. Another example of this sort of “weak” Representational Poetry, might be Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman (under the rubric Language Poetry):

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Naturally enough I turn to.
Some things are reversible, some.
You don’t have that choice.
I’m going to Jo’s for. []

An example of “strong” Representational Poetry” might be what’s called Typographic Poetry (and I’m guessing that Concrete Poetry falls into this spectrum):


Wherein even the minimally notional content of syntactic units, such as we find in Ashbery, is dispensed with. A similar example of concrete poetry from here:

O Pulsar

O Pulsar (The Pulsar), 1975, Augusto de Campos

In keeping with the definition of Representational Poetry as poetry that discards the notional intent of language (or verbal significance), consider Wikipedia’s definition of Concrete Poetry: “an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance.”


  • Representatoinal Poetry isn’t to be confused with Visual Poetry, Shape Poetry, Pattern Poetry or Picture Poetry (all being notional) which, if you’re the Poetry Foundation, is nevertheless precisely what you do. If you’re the Poetry Foundation, you call George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”, written in the 17th century, an example of 20th century “Concrete Poetry”.
  • The Princeton Encyclopedia defines Visual Poetry as follows: “In Visual Poetry, in the strict sense, the visual form of the text becomes an object for apprehension in its own terms…. Among devices for creating visual form that written language furnishes the poet [not available to oral poetry] are lineation, line length, line-grouping, indentation, intra- and inerlinear white space, punctuation, capitalization, and size and style of type. ¶ In general, the visual form of a poem may be figurative or non-figurative; if figurative, it may be mimetic or abstract.”
  • Free Verse is Visual Poetry in that free verse relies on its typographic appearance, unlike traditional poetry, to define it. Traditional poetry (arising from oral traditions rather than typographic traditions) relies on the audible effects of meter and rhyme to define it.
  • Representational Poetry is Visual Poetry that dispenses with the notional intent of langauge.

Representational poetry has far more in common with a Rauschenberg than Shakespeare. Appreciating the representational poetry means having a knowledge of the critical school and/or concepts which gave rise to it and which the poetry is “representing”. If you haven’t read up on Concrete Poetry, for example, then an example of the same is probably going to look like somebody’s bored doodling. That said, some representational poems can be appreciated as aesthetic works of art in and of themselves, as with “O Pulsar” (above) though, as a work of art, it may or may not be to your taste.

So, one reasons for this post is as a way to hang your hat on the efforts of an artist like Ashbery or de Campos. If you’re trying to read Ashbery as a notional poet, then it’s little wonder that your efforts will end in frustration if not exasperation. One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art. We view art, we don’t try to read it.  That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.

If one treats words,  phrases and language as a sort of painter’s pallet with which to turn pages into canvasses (divorcing words and phrases from any sort of notional congruence) then it’s a legitimate question as to whether such “poems” can be considered successful. But then that brings us back to the standards by which we judge such poems—as Notional or Representational? And if the latter, then that requires knowing something about the history behind the poetry. Like the blank canvass of a Rauschenberg, is the accompanying essay enough? To quote the critic William Logan:

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

Do Representational Poems, like the blank canvasses of Rauschenberg, have any  legitimate value if judged by standards other than their own?—if judged by standards other than those that gave rise to and define them?

Only time will tell.

upinVermont | April 19th 2019

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The Search for Meaning in a New Generation of Poets & Readers

So this post began with a number of titles, none of which I could decide on. The essence of my post is this: Why is Instapoetry so popular? But I didn’t want to limit this to instapoetry. I think there’s a fundamental shift in what readers are looking for in the 21st century. I was tempted to set off the youngest generation against establishment poets, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s a formal establishment so much as an established and shared set of aesthetics that have been taught, practiced and accepted by poets going back several generations now. And I think it was summed up, to a degree, by Vermont’s poet laureate, Chard deNiord. I asked him, in a public setting, to consider the success of instapoets like Rupi Kauer. Mr. deNiord has, in the past, taken a dim view of self-published poets, let alone poetry on the world wide web. So how to explain the success of a poet like Rupi Kauer, whose books sell in the millions?

Mr. deNiord’s response was what one would expect (and he’s hardly alone in his criticism). He answered that while Kauer’s poetry, and by extension Instapoetry, is popular, it lacks subtlety, imagery, metaphor, narrative capacity and irony. The durability of Instapoetry, he argued, will be short-lived.

For the most part, what Mr. deNoird said is true. Instapoetry does lack the figurative language, metaphor and irony of established poetry if only because of its brevity. In the case of Kauer, even when she writes longer poems, her efforts are lackluster at best. So what is it about her poetry that has earned her, and continues to earn her, a success that’s the envy of her critics?

The answer, as I wrote in my earlier post Of Instapoets & Instapoetry, is that she and other instapoets aren’t so much writing poems, but proverbs.

“My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.)”

And what do proverbs do? Proverbs are meant to instruct. They are pithy pieces of didacticism. The online Collaborative International Dictionary of English defines a proverb as follows:

“1. An old and common saying; a phrase which is often repeated; especially, a sentence which briefly and forcibly expresses some practical truth, or the result of experience and observation; a maxim; a saw; an adage. -Chaucer. Bacon. [1913 Webster]”

Now the interesting thing is that this, across cultures, can be applied to the best and most memorable poetry produced by those cultures. When you think of Elizabethan Poetry, the Sonnets of Sidney, Spencer and Shakespeare are nothing if not proverbial. The Shakespearean Sonnet’s final couplets, as perfected by Shakespeare, offer us one proverb after another. Consider Sonnet 129:

 The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The final couplet could easily be made a proverb or instapoem. Elizabethan poets liked to make arguments. Donne’s poems are full of argument, debate and point making. When the later metaphysical poets weren’t busy making sly arguments in shorter poems, they’re longer poems were bestowing instructive narratives upon the reader. The Sonnet itself, is essentially a poem of argument, and that tradition was carried through, for the most part, to the end of the 19th century. That said, it was the early 19th century, with the Romantics, that one begins to discern a less didactic, instructive, or proverbial intent in poetry. Poets like Keats begin to put greater emphasis, in effect, on projecting the poet’s subjective experience. For example, there’s no argument being made in Keats’s Ode to Autumn. There’s no debate or didactic intent. Though the period in which he lived helped to create Keats, Keats innate genius allowed him to translate his subjective experience into great poetry. I think one could argue that Keat’s last poems created the template for the poetry of the next two centuries. Helen Vendler wrote a whole book on Keats’s Odes, and Ode to Autumn, and still couldn’t explain why it’s a great poem. We innately recognize and feel the genius behind the poem, but ask any reader what point or argument Keats was making, and the whole poem begins to feel like a zen koan. Can a poem be great without making any point whatsoever? Keats’s poem speaks to our experience of the world—and our experience of the world exists happily without the need of explanation or justification. One could even go so far as to argue that Keats’s aesthetic removed God from poetry. That is, rather than find truth in God, as with so many poets before him, Keats found truth in beauty—that is, our subjective experience and enjoyment of the world.

Without turning this post into a book length thesis, I would argue that the poetry of subjective experience, Romanticism, became the dominant mode of expression in the 20th century. (The Victorian era, meanwhile, was the last gasp of a didactic aesthetic that had lasted hundreds of years—a didactic bent that was, perhaps, closely allied with the by then rigid formalities of meter and rhyme.)

The problem is that by the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, what Victorian Poetry was to the didactic impulse, contemporary free verse was to subjective experience. We have seen a hundred years of poetry that has been reduced to, in many ways, the equivalent of mood music. I recall attending writing classes in which students, upon being asked why they wrote a given poem, couldn’t answer the question. They might defiantly answer that their poems didn’t need a reason. And these students are now in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and they’re still writing poems, I would argue, that are little more than naval gazing travelogues of their own emotional terrain. I recently looked at a copy of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. His massive book, and it is massive, struck me as nothing more than an aimless reliquary of a poet’s meandering inner life. Like anybody cares. (And apparently not that many do.) It’s no secret that poetry since the modernists has been a slow fade into irrelevance and obscurity. Could it be that nobody cares how poets feel about their feelings? Is it no longer enough for poets to share their inner (at the risk of redundancy) emotional landscapes? Is it possible that poets, by in large, just aren’t that interesting?

And this finally brings me back to instapoetry and Vermont’s Poet Laureate Chard deNiord (and other critics of instapoetry) who, to a degree, rightfully point out that instapoetry is artless. Or as Rebecca Watts put it: “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.” So, again, why is that? Why is this “artless” poetry selling in the millions? The answer is that Instapoetry, for all its deserved criticism, is doing the one thing that poetry over the last hundred years hasn’t been doing: making an argument, offering pithy insights, and giving the reader a nugget of truth to walk away with. I’d say that Rebecca Watts misconstrues (self-servingly) the reason that poetry like Kauer’s sells. It’s not because its artless, which it is, but because Kauer’s poetry has a message. The handful of poems by Watt’s, those that I’ve read, don’t. They’re more like abstracted expressions of “interiority”. Likewise, when I read Chard deNiord’s poem Confession of a Bird Watcher, I find it to be a perfectly charming poem, artful in every way, metaphorically capturing the poet’s feelings about his feelings. To that extent, deNiord’s poem (confession is in the very title) is in many ways the pinnacle of 20th century poetic sentiment—the distillation of the poet writing about his own subjective experience. But if instapoetry’s success is any indication, the tide has turned. The poetry of the last few decades is already like the Victorian poetry written in 1919—a caricature of itself. Like mood music, the poetry is evocative but also all but meaningless. (To be provocative, I would argue that Keats transcended the relative “meaninglessness” of a poem like Ode to Autumn through the genius of his aesthetic vision; and few poets since Keats have possessed that kind of genius.) If instapoetry’s success is any indication, readers are looking for poetry that makes an argument, has a message and that communicates a meaning and significance beyond the poet’s own experience. They’re no longer willing to search for a poem’s meaning if that means divining what the poem meant to the poet writing it. The days of the self-absorbed poet are over.

I suspect that as the 20th century recedes from memory, just as the 19th faded in the early 20th, we’ll see a resurgence of this new/old way of writing poetry. If they want to stand out though, instapoets are going to have to write more than three line proverbs (and some are). They’re going to have to turn their proverbs into artful poems. As it is, artless poetry with a message sells, but eventually that’s not going to be enough. There’s probably only room for a handful of poets like that, and I suspect those slots are already taken. Newer poets are going to have to write artful poetry with messages. Lucky for them, they have a millennia of poets (prior to the 20th century) to learn from.

All in all, I’d say we’re finally seeing the beginning of the end of 20th century poetry (and I couldn’t be happier to see it go). Time for something new and different. I look forward to poetry that, to paraphrase Frost, stakes out its lover’s quarrel with the world.

upinVermont | March 13th 2019

The Future of Poetry

futureSo off and on I’ve been getting emails from aspiring young poets. They all suffer from the same flaws—inexperience, mawkish sentimentality, guileless clichés, the urge to tell rather than to show, and a lack of humility. I was no different at that age—and that’s a good thing. A certain arrogance, impatient, defiant self-confidence, and heedlessness is good and necessary when you’re young.  For the record, I’m no less self-confident now, but perspective and a sense of humor have done wonders for my other and sundry sins. Age, ideally, has that effect on us.

I remember being furious with criticism of my poetry.

My first reaction was always to conclude that my critic was a damned fool and couldn’t recognize genius if their lives depended on it. I then consoled myself with the indisputable analogy that I, like Keats and Beethoven, was misunderstood in my own time. (With maturity, I’ve limited my analogy to Keats.) But that kind of youthful anger and indignation is also a good thing if the poet channels it. After a suitable period of rage, I would recognize the kernel of truth in the criticism (and the only thing worse than being criticized is being correctly criticized). The good kind of rage is the kind that makes you determined never to be criticized like that again. That’s the way to improve.

As I’ve written before, the most devastating and corrective piece of criticism I ever received was from Thomas Lux, who said of my youthful poetry: “There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically.” And in the interest of full disclosure, this is the poem that prompted the comment:

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water Lilly
Adorning the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone the deep lucence of a turquoise sea—
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
··Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
··The shadings are stark on a winter’s day
··Though budding colors are never far away.

I have a hand-written book full of poems like these—and worse.

At that age Keats was already writing his first masterpieces. I was falling behind. But it’s a lesson every young poet needs to learn—and until they do the advice is like a Zen Koan. What does that even mean? There are other pieces of advice that are like that, one that I just offered a correspondent: “The art of writing about yourself is to not write about yourself.” There’s a lot of experience that goes behind that koan, but the day it makes sense it will strike like satori.

But the coolest thing about the poetry I’ve been getting are the rhymes and rhythms of hip hop. Given the moribund ubiquity of free verse, it’s good to see literary poets once again playing with language. But here’s the challenge: How to combine the rhymes and rhythms of hip hop (where beat and performance drive language and content), with literary poetry in which content shapes the rhyme and rhythm? And how will young poets combine the dense figurative language of literary poetry with the direct and explicit momentum of a hip hop lyric? I hope that some among the youngest generation take it on. He or she will have to have a foot in both worlds, in Eminem and Shakespeare.

I see the potential. We just need a poet with the arrogance, impatience, self-confidence, heedlessness and genius to take it on.

upinVermont | January 22nd 2019

The Life in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

mary oliver

Angel Valentin for The New York Times

I started this post with a different title, but death is an illusory thing. What’s important about Mary Oliver is the life in her poetry. She put the earth in her lines more so than any poet since John Clare (or the Japanese poet Issa). Both poets, and there are surely poets in other languages, were careful and loving observers of the natural world, and found within it our humanity.

She was also, as far as I know, the only English language poet of the last 50 years able to make a living as a poet. That is, she wasn’t a glorified “court poet” under the protective patronage of a college or university press. She actually sold the poetry she wrote. The reasons for that are many, and none of them foremost, but all parts whose sum exceeded the whole. She was comprehensible, nearly always created a time and locale in her poetry, and possessed a gift for the furtive and original metaphor. Her best book, in my opinion is What Do We Know, and so I’ll take most of my examples from there. The book has always struck me as feeling like a unified whole, an encapsulation of her art, more than just the latest collection.

But for an example of the kind of furtive metaphor of which she was a master, here is the opening to Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks:

What is so utterly invisible
as tomorrow?
Not love,
not the wind,

not the inside of a stone.
Not anything.
And yet, how often I’m fooled—
I’m wading along

in the sunlight—
and I’m sure I can only see the fields and the ponds shining
days ahead….

The first two verses are fairly ordinary, but we already get a feel for where we are—wind, a stone, and her musing on the inside of a stone. She already plants our feet on earth. But then there’s that furtive metaphor, “wading along in the sunlight”, a line that would never occur to the vast swathe of contemporary poets, and the reader breaths the clear waters of Oliver’s poetry.  She will talk about ponds, and her poet’s imagination infuses her lines with the metaphors of water. She continues:

I can see the light spilling/like a shower of meteors

And later her legs are “splashing over the edge of darkness”. It’s figurative language like this that enriches her poetry and is the lifeblood of poetry. The magnificence of earth, and life on earth, makes itself felt not just in description but in the very lineaments of her figurative language. This was a trick of Shakespeare, Keats and T.S. Eliot. And you will find it in all of her poetry (all italics are mine):

the palavering wind/is walking/through the pines [p. 48

The death went into her
like lightning
in slow motion,
it mashed her knees,
it ruined the red glove of her heart [p. 49]

The latter prepositional construction is a kind metaphor for which Oliver possessed a genius. Even when her imagery skirts the clichéd, she finds ways to breathe unexpected life into the commonplace:

the snowy tissue of clouds pass over [p. 5]

Or describing rainfall:

…I fall to my knees and then the flowers cry out, and then the wind breaks open its silver countries of rain

Or when describing the sea:

oh bed of silk,/lie back now on your prairies of blackness your fields of sunlight

In any other context “fields of sunlight” would be clichéd, but as a description of the ocean Oliver breathes new life into the collocation. If she had simply written  “snowy clouds”, one might rightly call it clichéd, but the collocation “snowy tissue of clouds” breathes just enough life into the commonplace that the reader pauses. And when describing a hummingbird she writes:

He is a gatherer of the fine honey of promise… [p. 14]

Most other poets would have written “promise of honey”, but how easy to give new lungs to the trite and clichéd with a little turn of phrase. There’s much that her generation could have learned from her, but didn’t.

The gentleness of her poetry can belie her clear-eyed and unflinching assessment of decay and death—and that dying can be cruel. Describing an owl:

…this beast of a bird
with her thick breast
and her shimmering wings—
whose nest, in the dark trees,

is trimmed with screams and bones—
whose beak
is the most terrible cup
I will ever enter.  [Beauty, p. 13]

She could as easily be describing Baba Yaga. And None of this describes the owl but describes what was in Oliver, and in us, who see the owl.

Those who treat her poetry as little more than tittles for the gardening column of Ladies Home Journal fail to recognize the inner life of her poems. They’re not just about the natural world, but a kind of metaphorical landscape of her (and our) inner life. They do so humbly. They don’t invent a new grammar or syntax. The don’t contort themselves with typographic hand waving. She makes no grand claims for her poetry. Her poems are like prayers. And in the poem Praying, she all but describes the artistic principle guiding her poetry:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

[Devotions, p. 131]

That she made a living as a poet speaks to her appeal among readers who also avoid elaboration, who draw no contest between poets, and who enter poems as doorways into gratitude—and joy. There can be a plainly adolescent joy even in Oliver’s last poems. What amazes is that where a lesser poet’s effort inevitably unravels in flights of mawkish sentimentality, Oliver grounds her exuberance in our senses. She never lets the earth further than she can touch, or smell or inhale:

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,

what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again

in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,

smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches…

[Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, p. 36]

And if there are lines by which I’d choose to remember her I would pick the closing lines of the same poem:

…my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars

and the soft rain—
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.

Mary Oliver died January 17th, 2019.

upinVermont | January 21st 2019

Of Instapoets & Instapoetry

So, last night I was contacted by a publicist hoping that I would interview an instragram poet by the name of Nicholas Denmon. I’m not familiar with Denmon’s efforts but am familiar with instapoetry and even bought Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. In case you’re not familiar with the term Instapoetry, it refers (if contemptuously in some circles) to free verse poems that are as little as two lines or as epic as twelve.


They have nothing to do with haiku and at worst are little more than declarative sentences. At right is one of Kaur’s better known examples and typifies the ‘form’, if it can be said to have one.

But what a kerfuffle I’ve missed these last six months. Turns out there are a number of poets and critics who have written some scathing reviews of Kaur’s poetry—and Instapoetry in general.  Foremost among them, as far as I can gather, is Rebecca Watts, who wrote a fairly damning review in PN Review.

Momentarily setting aside Watts’s diatribe, I didn’t read Kaur’s book for its mastery of the arts of language and poetry. On that count, I think, a two or three line instaresumé would suffice. But she does have one skill set shared by other “masters”, and I use that term loosely, of the instapoem. Take the instapoem above. What’s clever about it is what makes it memorable. It’s a species of rhetoric, what’s called a figure of repetition. It’s an example of isocolon. Possibly also scesis onomaton and some other less pronouncable rhetorical figures I’m too rusty to recall. Isocolon is defined as “a rhetorical device that involves a succession of sentences, phrases, and clauses of grammatically equal length.” Strictly speaking, the two phrases aren’t of equal length, but close enough.

The most memorable lines in poetry, let alone Shakespeare, are commonly pristine examples of various rhetorical figures. Here’s Shakespeare’s use of isocolon from Sister Miram Joseph’s compendium Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language:

“Your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.” [p. 60]

You might also observe that Kaur’s verse is an example of grammatic parallelism, something which virtually defines Walt Whitman’s poetry. The point I’m making is that part of what makes Kaur’s verse memorable (along with good inspirational quotes and add copy) is her knack for rhetoric. This isn’t something to be lightly dismissed. While her Kaur-2Instapoetry will never be confused with great literature, it’s worth trying to understand some of the elements that make it work and make it appealing. At left is another example.

This instapoem pirouettes nicely, and meaningfully, on the pun of ‘spine’ (a pun is a rhetorical figure). While I’m in no way comparing Kaur to Shakespeare, this is the sort of game Shakespeare often played, and it works. Hence the appeal of Kaur’s poetry.

Instapoetry can be, to a degree, a rhetorician’s playground. The best examples, and the most memorable, I’m willing to bet, are those that skillfully, if unwittingly, make use of rhetorical figures, puns, figures of repetition, amplification, balance, antitheses, etc… Although I’m not going to exhaustively review Kaur’s poetry to prove or disprove my point, my hunch is that her own instapoetry, as compared to her peers, is the most skillful in that regard, and is amplified by subject matter that is, in fact, meaningful to a great many readers: immigration, domestic violence, sexual gratification along with sexual assault. Out of curiosity, I googled Tyler Knott Gregson’s favorite poems and landed here. Many of these poems contain examples of rhetorical figures found throughout poetry, though not as condensed as Kaur’s. All this is to say that when I read Rebecca Watts’s criticism of Instapoetry, I think her criticism of the verse form is rather shallow. I’m tempted to write more on that but a sufficiently thorough and effective response to Watts can be found here.

Among other criticisms, the most curious is the following:

“From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords”

This assertion deserves some skepticism. Above all, correlation does not equal causation. Just because these short verse forms coincide with social media’s ‘short-form communication’ doesn’t mean the former is a result of the latter. Are we to blame the entirety of Japanese literary tradition on the invention of the Internet?—the five line Tanka and the three line Haiku? But setting aside Japan, what about Martial’s epigrams? These are nothing if not instapoems.

The bee enclosed and through the amber shown
Seems buried in the juice which was his own.

Compare the following by Martial:

You never wrote a poem,
yet criticize mine?
Stop abusing me or write something fine
of your own!

To the much wordier Tyler Knott Gregson:


And Ben Jonson also took up Epigrams. Was this turn to short-form communication also a result of social media?

XXXIV Of Death

He that fears death, or mournes it, in the just,
Shewes of the resurrection little trust.

[The Complete Poetry of Ben Jonson, p. 16]

Compared to Rupi Kaur:

“when death
takes my hand
i will hold you with the other
and promise to find you
in every lifetime”

Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers

So, apart from its name, I’d argue that instapoetry isn’t anything literature hasn’t seen before. Despite Watts’s criticism of instapoetry as “artless” — “The short answer is that artless poetry sells.”— Kaur’s verse is firmly within the century-long aesthetic manifesto of free verse. The instapoem by Ben Jonson is metrical and rhymes. The instapoem by Kaur is free verse. If artlessness is a lack of metaphor, figurative language, meter (let’s say), rhyme, or any of the “Arts of Language” associated with poetry prior to Ezra Pound, then artlessness equally applies to the entirety of the free verse project. There’s really little difference, at all, between a poem by Tyler Gregson and one by W.S. Merwin. Merwin, of all poets, anticipates the “artlessness” of instapoetry (if it’s to be labeled “artless”). To be blunt, there’s not a single criticism that Watts levels at instapoetry that can’t also be leveled at Watts’s own poetry (let alone the poems in the same publication, in the selfsame issue, that printed her critique). Not one. To whit: A poem of hers, Turning, published at The Guardian begins:

Now it’s autumn
and another year in which I could leave you
is a slowly sinking ship.

The first stanza is a declarative statement ending with a clichéd metaphor. In isolation, its virtually indistinguishable from any number of Kaur’s instapoems. That said, here’s a poem by Kaur:

i know i
should crumble
for better reasons
but have you seen
that boy
he brings
the sun to
its knees
every night

Kaur’s passage, “brings the sun to its knees”, is a much more original and powerful metaphor than Watts’s trite “sinking ship”. Watts does better, though, as her poem goes on. She makes an effort: “The air has developed edges”;  “…the brazen meadow no longer/ presumes to press its face to the window/ like an inquisitor.”; “even the river will evince a thicker skin”; “…my breath each morning will flower white…”; “all of summer’s schemes will fly like cuckoos”; “Bonfire smoke/ between us like a promise lingers.”

How do instapoets compare? Watts personifies the “brazen” meadow (as an inquisitor via a simile) that presses its face to the window—an example of prosopopoeia. This isn’t bad, as far as things go, but the simile “like an inquisitor” gilds the lily. Compare this to an instapoem by K. Towne Junior:

sometimes a heart must be
broken to slip through the bars of
its cage

K. Towne Jr’s prosopopoeia is nearly identical to Watts. The only difference is that K. Towne Jr possessed the wisdom not to add the extenuating simile, like a prisoner.  Watts writes that “even the river will evince a thicker skin”. This and the metaphorical “the air has developed edges” and “my breath…will flower white” are, I think (again, being a little rusty), examples of catachresis. A good definition of catachresis comes from here:

Catachresis is a figure of speech in which writers use mixed metaphors in an inappropriate way, to create rhetorical effect. Often, it is used intentionally to create a unique expression. Catachresis is also known as an exaggerated comparison between two ideas or objects.

Do instapoets use mixed metaphors like catechresis? Here’s Tyler Gregson, even using the same imagery, combining catachresis and prosopopoeia:


The parallels aren’t exact but close enough to say that Watts doesn’t do anything, as far as the “art” of poetry goes, that instapoets like Gregson and Kaur don’t. So either their verse is as artful as hers, or hers is as artless as theirs. And that begs the question, if artless poetry sells, why is contemporary poetry in such a miserable state? As it happens, a number of observers ascribe the criticism to nothing more than envy and resentment. How is it that an MFA graduate, having spent thousands to obtain a degree in the “art of poetry”, molders in the obscurity of barely read poetry journals while an artless versifier like Rupi Kaur, never published in an important journal and lacking the grateful connections afforded by academia, amasses a following of tens of thousands and sells over a million copies of her book? She hasn’t even been published <gasp> in the American Poetry Review! How is it that that once living synechdoche of everything the late 20th century poetry establishment stood for, the inscrutable John Ashbery, is already fading <understatement> into the obscurity of two (2) reviews at Amazon while rupi kaur’s Milk and Honey has already garnered five thousand eight hundred and eighty (5,880)? The establishment poets of the last 50 years are left like Anthony whistling i’th’marketplace, while the crowds run off to gawk at rupi’s riggish Cleopatra. And rather than give them pause, they have drawn the only possible conclusion: It must be because their poetry is so artful whilst the poems of the instapoets are so artless.

Ask me and I would say that the free verse manifesto of the last hundred years has become the serpent biting its own tale. Poets can’t declare, as England’s Poetry Society did, that:

“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

Then point a trembling finger at instapoets proclaiming that their verses are not poems and their authors are not poets. But, to the embarrassment of pots and kettles everywhere, they do.

My own opinion of instapoetry is that of amusement. It does take a certain kind of talent to write them—though maybe not poetic talent. I have a collection of books that I love, all of them collected proverbs. In Vermont, for example, we might say of some: He’s so crooked, he could hide behind a corkscrew. If we’re impatient: He’s slow as a hog on ice with its tail froze in. In my dictionary of American proverbs: A Wolf may change his mind but never his fur. Another proverb (worthy of Kaur): A friend by your side can keep you warmer than the richest fur. If you’re feeling put upon: The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Two other books I have: Shakespeare’s proverb lore, because Shakespeare loved proverbs and sprinkled hundreds throughout his plays (many of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are actually inspired by proverbs), and another is of English proverbs prior to 1500: Leave not an old friend for new. Prior to 1500 we might say: The habit does not make the monk. Nowadays we say: He’s all hat and no cattle.

My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs. Poets who criticize and satirize them, I think, misunderstand the nature of what writers like Kaur do and the reasons they’re so beloved. It’s not clear that Kaur herself understands but she clearly has a genius for proverbs. (Poetry and proverbs are kissing cousins.) And you can trace that genius in other poets and writers. Kahlil Gibran, who Kaur reminds me of, was beloved by readers, considered a poet, and was a wellspring of proverbs:

“You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore but let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of heaven dance between you.”

Visiting a Pinterest site I came across this instapoem which, again, is really a proverb (and worth waking up to every morning):

We are all bad in someone’s story.

But if all this isn’t enough to mollify the critics of instapoetry, then the best I can do is to paraphrase one of Rupi Kaur’s poems:

the world
gives her
so much pain
but here she is
making gold out of it


You have no excuse.

I’ve struggled with what to write, knowing that I can’t be silent. Joseph Brodsky once wrote that “what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” And that’s the problem. What does one write when one’s fellow citizens are responsible for the evils in one’s country?

I look back at horrible events and passages in history and wonder if I would have had the guts to defy the wrongs and evils of a given time. To do so was easier in some times and places than others. To speak out against the evils of the Nazis, Kmer Rouge, Moaism, Stalinism or North Korea’s ‘dear leader’ meant and means certain death—for the lucky ones. We like to think the danger resided in a given leader, government or faceless ideology, but the greatest danger always resides in the citizen.

The evil that tears nursing babies from a mother’s breast; that steals children from the arms of parents; that concentrates those children in cages is the kind for which there is no rationale, no justification, no excuse; and yet rationalizations, justifications and excuses are being daily expounded by America’s citizens—in homes, media, political office. Do we argue against the ideology or do we shame the citizens expounding it?

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt wrote:

“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

I will not comply. I will not remain silent, if only so that my children’s children don’t ask why I said nothing. What is being done in the name of the law, supported by the citizens of the United States, is not just evil but banal in its malevolence—in it’s ignorance of the law and simple human decency. You might say we don’t live under conditions of terror and if so that merely argues you’re not the one being terrorized. You might say the law is the law. Then you are willfully ignorant of the laws that enslaved fellow Americans, laws that slaughtered tens of millions in Germany, Russia, Cambodia, China. Living in a civil society means tolerating insult. Living in a civil society means possessing the resilience demanded by freedom of speech and expression. Living in a civil society means stating unequivocally: If you continue to vote for and support—whether for prejudice, expedience or willful ignorance—a media, politician and party that continues to cruelly and maliciously victimize fellow human beings, don’t think that later generations will excuse you.

You have no excuse.

out of the mainstream…

FenceSo I got a press release via email concerning the launch of Fence Magazine’s digital edition. There are both individual and institutional subscriptions available.

The press release that I received comments that Fence was “First conceived by Rebecca Wolff in 1998, each biannual issue of Fence pulls together an eclectic selection of poetry, fiction, art and criticism, seeking to shed light on literature that goes against the mainstream.”

So that piqued my interest. And then I got to this:

“Founded in 1998 by Rebecca Wolff, Fence is a literary journal that publishes both experimental and avant-garde original work as well as critical and journalistic coverage. Published bi-annually, it seeks to encourage writing of poetry and fiction that might otherwise have difficulty being recognised as it does not conform to the mainstream. Its book publishing arm Fence Books, which was launched in 2001, publishes poetry, fiction, critical texts and anthologies.”

And that’s where I lit my bridge-burning match. Here’s the thing: If a publication is going to claim they’re devoted to publishing original work that doesn’t “conform to the mainstream”, it’s nothing short of risible to state or imply, in the same paragraph, that their primary focus is on experimental and avant-garde poetry.

As I wrote to the publicist, the notion that “experimental”, close-quotes, or “avant-garde”, close-quotes, poetry is in any way out of “the mainstream” is to be in utter denial or to be breathtakingly ignorant of the last hundred plus years, starting with Poetry Magazine’s claim to do just that in 1912. To whit:

“The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine—may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. Nor will the magazine promise to limit its editorial comments to one set of opinions.”

And from Fence’s website:

“Founded in 1998 by Rebecca Wolff, Fence is a biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art, and criticism that has a mission to redefine the terms of accessibility by publishing challenging writing distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence rather than by allegiance with camps, schools, or cliques. It is Fence‘s mission to encourage writing that might otherwise have difficulty being recognized because it doesn’t answer to either the mainstream or to recognizable modes of experimentation.”

Both of them state that they will be free, almost using the same words, from any allegiances or alliances with camps, class or schools. The thing is, Harriet Monroe, writing for Poetry Magazine in 1912, could, some some legitimacy, make that claim. Not Fence Magazine. I mean, if you’re restating, almost word for word, a founding resolution (written over a century before your own) you can’t very well claim to be undefiled by any agenda.

  • You are the clique.
  • You are the agenda.
  • You are the mainstream.

Again, and to whit, I have two directories of poetry publishers. The first is The Directory of Poetry Publishers 24th Edition 2008-2009. If I turn to the subject index at the back of the book, there are 85 publications listed under Avant Garde. That’s huge. But more sought after than Avant Garde? Wait for it… Wait for it… Experimental. 91 publishers are looking for “Experimental” poetry. When you combine these two subjects they represent the most published poetry of any other subject, including Free Verse at 180 publishers, the single most published verse “form” in the directory. How is that not mainstream? If you really want to be out of the mainstream, try writing and publishing a sonnet. In The Directory of Poetry Publishers, there are only 29 publishers interested in your work, compared to 180 publishers of Free Verse and 176 looking for avant garde/experimental poetry. So, traditional poets net 29 listings, while all those poorout of the mainstream” avant-garde and experimental poets net three hundred and fifty six combined listings.

And then there’s Poet’s Market 2017.  Poet’s Market doesn’t have subject headings for Experimental, Free verse, or Avant Garde,  etc… (since that’s presumably assumed) but their subject index still reveals what really is, in point of fact, out of the mainstream. Want to go there? Then write erotic poetry. That’s experimental. That’s avant garde. According to Poet’s Market, you have six, yes (6), publishers to choose from (seven if you write and speak Russian). The Directory of Poetry Publishers lists 31 publishers of erotica (less the Russian language publisher). Two more than if you write sonnets! In fact, if judged by Poet’s Market, the most non-mainstream poetry you can write is erotic and traditional poetry. (And if you really want to go rogue then write erotic, traditional poetry—write an erotic sonnet.) Is Fence listed as publishing erotic poetry in either publication? No. Traditional poetry? No.

Want to read a poet out of the mainstream?

Go to the top of my blog and click on My Poetry. You will even find erotic poetry in the mix.

So, Fence is about as mainstream as you could possibly get, probably more so than the American Poetry Review. All that said, and setting aside their spurious claim to the cutting-edge, I wish them well. Their presentation and the benefits of the digital format are well worth a look if you enjoy mainstream poetry, art, and articles.

Digital Launch of Fence Magazine

Bach, Mozart & the Language of Music

JS Bach

JS Bach by Pascal Moehlmann

So, this is going to be a diversion from my usual subject matter, mostly. My original ambition was to be a composer. I studied for two years at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and studied composition, but soon and somewhat reluctantly decided my real talent was in writing.

Anyway, the question that prompted this post arose during a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Samuel Andreyev.  Jordan Peterson, if you haven’t already heard of him, is a Canadian Professor and Clinical Psychologist (currently famed for his critique of neo-Marxism in, as he labels it, academia’s radical left). He brings Joseph Campbell’s knowledge of mythological archetype to a psychologist’s perspective. He offers fascinating insights regarding the nature of being, rationality, intuition, religion, mysticism and, quite simply, how to be in the world. He recently published a book on just that subject called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I haven’t read it. But he’s a gifted lecturer and well worth listening to. Samuel Andreyev is a composer, poet and teacher entirely unknown to me prior to the interview.

What makes a composer great? What is it about Bach’s music, or any great composer’s music, that survives their lifetime?

Andreyev’s answer struck me as circular in it’s reasoning.  At about the 47:40 mark:

Peterson: How do you decide what you should continue to listen to?

Andreyev: (….) Works that are no longer able to communicate something vitally important—that [only address] a present concern—trend to fall out of favor. History is merciless. (….) Think of the tens of thousands of composers that were active during the baroque period. How many have we retained?  There’s maybe a dozen figures that are still regularly performed and discussed and generally known to the public. There’s an absolutely ruthless selection process that goes on(….) And of course one of the fundamental difficulties of addressing contemporary or modern forms of art is that that process of selection hasn’t taken place yet(….) There is an overwhelming likelihood that what you’re going to hear might not be of the highest standard. If you figure that there are a hundred thousand composers active in the world today, how many of them are geniuses?—how many of them are producing work of the highest order? It’s going to be a vanishingly small percentage.”

So, what exactly is “vitally important” isn’t addressed by Andreyev. He calls it “something”, but he establishes the notion that it is communicating something. Peterson will pick up on this assertion, characteristically thinking of it in mythological terms . But first he makes one of his memorable quips (which is why he’s so enjoyable to listen to).

Peterson: As an avant-garde listener you’re more likely to be killed, so to speak, as the avant-garde in the battle.”

You can take this two ways: Either contemporary art’s greatness will be so far ahead of your own vision that you will be archetypally “killed” (somewhat like peeking into the Arc of the Covenant) or, alternately, that it’s mediocrity will accomplish the same. I’m not sure which death is preferable.

Peterson goes on to ask:

Peterson: What does it mean that Bach still has something to say? It’s the same as Shakespeare I suppose, but it’s isn’t obvious what it is that remains to be said, I don’t get that, it’s got to be something like: The culture has not fully incorporated all of the perceptual genius that that person had to offer. Bach hasn’t been transformed into cliché or implicit into assumption assumption, or something like that. But I think that one of things artists do, visual or auditory, is that they teach people to see or hear.

This is where Peterson picks up on Andreyev’s assertion that great works of art are communicating something that transcends present concerns—that they have something “to say”, as if there were some hidden and mystical “message” to be found in their “art”. Unfortunately, I think this sort of framing is a dead-end mainly because, as happens with Peterson, you next begin asking yourself just what Shakespeare or Bach were communicating?—or, as Peterson puts it: offering. But I think that’s the wrong question. The music of genius and mediocrity are both communicating the same things, it’s just that genius is better at it. It’s not that Bach was communicating something that his mediocre rivals couldn’t comprehend, it’s just that he translated his comprehension into music in a way that, for instance, Scheibe and Mattheson (contemporary composers critical of Bach), never could.

Peterson goes on to ask:

Peterson: Do composers teach us to hear? And once we’ve learned everything they have to say, do we not need their lesson anymore?”

At this point I think Peterson goes somewhat off the rails, equating great composers with, I suppose, great college lecturers (equating their musical compositions to lessons). But why not? Mathematicians are endlessly flattering themselves with their proclamations that Bach was really a great mathematician just like them! Why shouldn’t a gifted Canadian University professor compare himself to Bach? (Is it coincidence that Peterson chose the opening to Bach’s Goldberg variations as the theme for his podcasts?)  The answer is that there isn’t some hidden message in Bach’s music. There’s no “lesson”.

But anyway, more to the point:

Peterson: It still doesn’t answer the question of why those people in particular [survive]…

Andreyev answers:

Andreyev: The great composers are the ones that fundamentally: They own their material more thoroughly and in a more, deeply personal way than other composers. In other words, there’s a minimum of neutral material in their music—material that already exists; that is almost like found material in a sense; and that you don’t have to work very hard to fashion into something resembling a coherent piece. A great composer invents forms. they invent a language. They invent a universe. They take enormous risks.”

Now I think that gets closer to what’s really going on. He goes on to say:

Any composer you can think of that is considered today to be among the greats has at some point been horribly denigrated and humiliated and spoken badly of by the public of their time. That’s just a permanent feature of music history.

Well yes, but that comes with a considerable caveat. Mediocre composers were also “horribly denigrated and humiliated”. Just think of Salieri. While the events in the play Amadeus are fictional, the conspiracy theory that Salieri murdered Mozart was absolutely not. Even on his deathbed, Salieri felt forced to deny that he’d murdered Mozart out of jealousy. No “great” composer was ever denigrated or humiliated like that—and on his deathbed. I think those less conversant with music history prefer the notion that geniuses prevail against all odds, but much of what you read about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others being ignored in their day simply isn’t true. Bach was famous and recognized as a great composer in his own day. Consider Johann Mattheson’s own comment regarding “the famous” Bach: “I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Herr Joh. Sebastian Bach, both for the church and for the hand that are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly.” If not recognized by all, and not like we do, so what? There are still audiophiles who prefer Telemann to Bach. But Bach was in fact so well-regarded that he was invited to Potsdam by no less than Frederic the Great where no sooner had he stepped out of the carriage than he was made to perform (so eager was Frederick, and the attendant musicians, to hear the great composer). Many years later, long after Bach had died, Mozart visited Leipzig and played at Bach’s organ. An old man, who still remembered Bach, was said to have stated that it was like old Bach had returned. Not only did this old man recognize Bach’s genius, but he recognized Mozart’s as well.

Peterson goes on:

Peterson: It’s what you’d expect too though because someone who is, let’s say, going in the right direction but who is way ahead of everyone else(….) It’s very difficult for them to communicate what they’re doing and it’s very difficult for them to distinguish themselves from the naked emperor.

Again, yes and no. This somewhat buys into the myth of genius, which Andreyev also seems to endorse. Yes, Bach’s music was called turgid by critics, and yes, Mozart’s music was sometimes criticized as too complex, but don’t forget that both composers also had their fierce, and I do mean fierce, defenders and advocates. The city of Prague begged Mozart to leave Vienna. Haydn begged Mozart to come to London where London’s musical patrons were fully prepared to pay Mozart’s way.  Were Mozart and Bach artistically way ahead of everyone else? Yes. Was it very difficult for them to communicate what they were doing? I’m not so sure. If the ability to communicate what they were doing was the barrier to success, then many a lesser composer with a gift for doing just that, as with Bach’s son Johann Christian, wouldn’t have died in poverty.

So all this interests me because defining genius, or greatness in art, has always fascinated me. Defining what makes poetry great is why I blog. So why am I talking about music? Here’s why: Because I have a background in music, have loved music (and Bach in particular) since I was two years old, and because I also love poetry and language. I gradually came to a recognition that music and language are deeply interrelated in a way that, I don’t think, has really been recognized or explored yet—or understood. Andreyev touches on it when he says: “A great composer invents forms. they invent a language.”


Robert Frost liked to say that his poetry was about capturing “the sound of sense”. He liked to say that if one stood outside a door and heard a man and woman argue that, even if you couldn’t make out the words, you might get the gist of the argument solely by the sound (the cadences) of their speech. This is vitally important. What Frost was saying was that speech isn’t just about words. It’s about the cadence and intonations that underly those words; and though every language has its own intonations and cadences, I’m willing to assert, sans evidence, that there are also universal cadences and intonations that underly all our languages; that even were we to hear a couple arguing in Chinese or Swahili, there would be that “sound of sense” that we would innately understand. That ability is ancient and human. It’s evolutionary.  It’s that capability, I’d argue, that is part and parcel of a human being’s ability to learn language.

A baby isn’t born understanding the meaning of words. What a baby is born with, I’d argue, is the ability to perceive the sound of sense. First comes the sound of sense, then, as the baby develops, the meaning of words are understood in relation to the sound of sense underlying them. Mothers instinctively grasp this when they communicate to baby’s using “nonsense words”. The words may be nonsensical but the “musical” sound of sense underlying these nonsense words is instinctively grasped by the child. Rob the human child of the ability to perceive the sound of sense and, I’d argue, you greatly impede, if not make impossible, her ability to discern the meaning of words. One might object: What about a child born deaf? I’d respond that because a child is deaf doesn’t mean he or she isn’t still wired to perceive the sound of sense. Deafness is only an impediment. That said, a deaf person’s speech will always and noticeably lack that underling sound of sense. A deaf person, for example, will have great difficulty learning how to reproduce the inflections of sarcasm. But there are other psychological impediments that impede not just the ability to communicate the sound of the sense, but to perceive it—Autism for example.

But what does this have to do with music? I’d argue that music is the abstraction of language’s sound of sense. Music abstracts not just the sound of words (the ability to differentiate between the different sounds of words) but the falling and rising intonations that characterize the “soundscape” of language—the meaning of its sounds, cadences, inflections). Consider that the same word can have an entirely different implication, even meaning, depending on the sound of sense that underlies it—sarcasm, inquiry, relief, curiosity, anger, happiness, etc… These emotions aren’t communicated by the words but by the cadences that underly them. Humans are quite good at expressing all these meanings without words. The cadences of speech give words context: reinforce, undercut, or alter their meanings in unexpected ways.

Music, I’d argue, is quite literally our residual, childlike, perception of language before we comprehended words.

So then, to answer Peterson’s question: What makes Bach or Mozart’s music great?

I’ll stick with Mozart (though I think the same assertions could be made of the Beatles for example). It’s often said of Mozart that even when he was writing instrumental music, he remained an operatic composer. (The vast majority of Bach’s music, not coincidentally, was vocal, as was Schubert’s.) What’s meant by that is that there’s always the feeling, in Mozart’s music, of the declamatory—the notion that the music imitates the patterns of speech or of someone singing. All this, I think, is just another way of saying that the sound of sense characterizes even Mozart’s instrumental music.  In order to be a great vocal composer, the composer must innately graft not just the word’s meanings to the music, but also the sound of sense that underlies the words.

This is what separates the great composer from the mediocre composer. Where the mediocre composer, with greater or less success, grafts the music’s grammar to the meaning of the words, the great composer is able to translate not just the meaning of the words into music, but musically translates the sound of sense underlying those words. We know it when it happens. We instinctively recognize it without being able to put words to it because it’s a recognition of language that precedes words. It’s what brings us back to composers of genius again and again. They light up that pre-verbal neural pathway in a way that mediocre composers don’t. Listen to Mozart’s instrumental music (and I have listened to his music many times over and have read his music in score) and you begin to hear the sound of sense in every musical phrase (what others like to call his operatic musical phrasing). Mozart (like other great composers) possessed a genius for translating the sound of sense into music. (The Beatles  do this too, by the way.) Musical phrases feel declamatory, as though they’re questioning, arguing, curious, assertive, reluctant. It’s because Mozart was able to translate the evolutionary scaffolding of language into the abstraction of music. Bach, using the musical language of the Baroque, did the same thing. He once said, in fact, that a piece of music should sound as if the instruments were in conversation. Few pieces of music typify this assertion more so than the Brandenburg concertos. Bach’s musical phrases are like declamatory assertions (assertions possessed by the feeling of sense and emotional content) traded, expanded, debated and explored within the confines of the music’s form.

How is it that a musical phrase can evoke the sound of sense?—sorrow, anxiousness, anger, excitement? Through a combination of melodic and harmonic inventiveness that inevitably defines a composer’s genius—and personal musical “language”. Certain modulations, certain chordal progressions, produce an almost universal and concomitant set of emotional responses.  For instance, a minor chord universally produces a different set of emotions than a major chord, and that emotional response, I’d argue, is universal in its commonality. The great composer, among other gifts, possesses a far greater sensitivity to what different harmonies, cadences, and modulations can produce in the listener, and possesses the melodic and harmonic genius to achieve that understanding. The more mediocre or difficult a piece of music is, the more it will be divorced from that declamatory scaffolding, that abstraction, of language’s sound of sense. Though we can learn the language of extremely dissonant music, for example, it will be difficult precisely because it is so distant from the intuitive sound-phrasing that underlies all human language.

In short: The periodicity of a musical phrase, in its likeness to the periodicity of the linguistic phrase, combined with a genius for the harmony underlying the phrase, abstracting and imitating the sounds of sense that universally underly all languages, is what characterizes musical genius and what answers Peterson’s question. If this ability to recognize the abstraction of language’s sound of sense weren’t universal, then we might expect Bach and/or Mozart’s music to be meaningless to speakers of Japanese or Chinese.

You might object that if I’m right, then why aren’t we all listening to Bach and Mozart? The answer is partly straightforward—musical taste. But having said that, I’d argue that within each musical tradition—classical, jazz, country, rock—audiences will, overtime, gravitate toward those composers and musicians most able to abstract language’s sound of sense within their own musical vernacular. Music is, in a way, a linguistic art.

And how does any of this apply to poetry? Perhaps only obliquely. Where composers are working with the sound of sense that underlies language, poets are manipulating the language itself. Poets and composers are both, in a sense, linguists, though their exploitation of language proceeds from a very different place. Music, I think, appeals to an ancient developmental place before words (and which human beings still experience as children) which is why it’s universal. Poetry (Traditional Poetry using meter and rhyme) proceeds from the sound of the language itself. Some might call it the music of the language, but I would be careful not to conflate what poet’s and composers are doing.

Greatness in poetry depends on a different sort of genius, one that transcends content. Great poetry, I’d say, is transcendent in its language, its memorableness, and lastly, its content. When Peterson asserts that Shakespeare, like Bach, “still has something to say”, one can interpret that literally or figuratively. If interpreted literally, I would have to disagree with Peterson’s premise. What Shakespeare had to say really wasn’t all that different from what his contemporaries were saying. Shakespeare, in fact, liked to copy, almost word for word in some cases, his source material. What made the result a work of genius was not the content—not what he had to say (which had already been said by Plutarch or North)—but in how he said it (in his sublime poetic alterations). That’s a much tougher nut to crack, but well worth the effort—Shakespeare’s transformation of the proverbial and commonplace into the sublime solely through the arts of language is astonishing. It’s an art that his contemporaries, and our own, remain largely incapable and ignorant of. But Keats understood it; and so did T.S. Eliot, among others.

Saturday February 10th 2018 | up in Vermont

Addenda | February 11th:

MozartMy, I’m-not-making-this-stuff-up addenda.

Just had an interesting email exchange with Samuel Andreyev. Encouraged me to fetch some links that, I think, lend credence to my hypothesis—not yet a theory I guess. A really fascinating and recent study, The Inherent Gender of Names, finds for instance that there’s a universal predilection, across languages and cultures, for differentiating between male and female names by sound. The link above is to a Scientific American Article discussing the study.

So, one could postulate, based on that, that there are musical themes, instrumentations, or chord progression that might feel more masculine or feminine. Did you know that in 70 percent of languages, questions are asked with a rising intonation? The question is why. Is there some neurological basis? Evolutionary? Is it simply linguistic? The preceding link tries to answer that. You can find further information on this question and further studies at Wikipedia.


Another paper from the Canadian Center of Science and Education closes with the following paragraph:

“The universality of emotional colours appears in general intonation characteristics of positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions are, as a rule, characterized by the higher tone registers unlike the negative ones, which have the lower tone level. Those words, which bear emotional load, are pronounced with the higher melodic melodic tone.”

So, again, I think one begins to perceive the fundamentals of our capacity for music in these studies—from what it arises and the mechanics of how it affects the human brain. My assertion that musical genius (among other heightened traits) is characterized by its use of musical intervals (harmony) to abstract the sense of sound that characterizes all human languages, finds some evidence in a study found at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, entitled Musical Intervals of Speech. The abstract includes the following:

“Throughout history and across cultures, humans have created music using pitch intervals that divide octaves into the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Why these specific intervals in music are preferred, however, is not known. In the present study, we analyzed a database of individually spoken English vowel phones to examine the hypothesis that musical intervals arise from the relationships of the formants in speech spectra that determine the perceptions of distinct vowels. Expressed as ratios, the frequency relationships of the first two formants in vowel phones represent all 12 intervals of the chromatic scale. Were the formants to fall outside the ranges found in the human voice, their relationships would generate either a less complete or a more dilute representation of these specific intervals. These results imply that human preference for the intervals of the chromatic scale arises from experience with the way speech formants modulate laryngeal harmonics to create different phonemes.”

The study demonstrates that these intervals are not random but apparently a universal feature of human language which, again, explains why Japanese and Chinese speakers easily comprehend the musical “language” of Bach, Mozart, or Pink Floyd. And that invites the question: If music reflects the ‘intonational’ foundation of all human languages, then can different languages likewise exert an influence on the music of those same cultures. Indeed, apparently, they can and do. An article at NCBI entitled Effects of Culture on Musical Pitch Perceptionexamines just that question, and the answer is yes:

“The strong association between music and speech has been supported by recent research focusing on musicians’ superior abilities in second language learning and neural encoding of foreign speech sounds. However, evidence for a double association—the influence of linguistic background on music pitch processing and disorders—remains elusive. Because languages differ in their usage of elements (e.g., pitch) that are also essential for music, a unique opportunity for examining such language-to-music associations comes from a cross-cultural (linguistic) comparison of congenital amusia, a neurogenetic disorder affecting the music (pitch and rhythm) processing of about 5% of the Western population. In the present study, two populations (Hong Kong and Canada) were compared. One spoke a tone language in which differences in voice pitch correspond to differences in word meaning (in Hong Kong Cantonese, /si/ means ‘teacher’ and ‘to try’ when spoken in a high and mid pitch pattern, respectively). Using the On-line Identification Test of Congenital Amusia, we found Cantonese speakers as a group tend to show enhanced pitch perception ability compared to speakers of Canadian French and English (non-tone languages).”

And that’s that. That should provide anyone with enough links to further explore this subject on their own.

Monday February 12th 2018

John Ashbery Dies

AshberyMost of the news outlets I frequent have commented on the death, yesterday, of John Ashbery. The Guardian quoted Harold Bloom’s declaration from the mid 1970’s:

“No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.”

And now we get to find out. The Library of America, back in 2008 , impatiently decided to declare his canonical status while the canonball was still warm in the canon. (They’ll have to re-issue the second book to include whatever poems he’s written since.)  But it’s never been for the poet’s own generation to immortalize a poet. They nearly always get it wrong.

History is replete with dozens and dozens of Ashbery’s crowned in their day and forgotten the next. For example: William Cowper. Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time. Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”. Who reads Cowper these days? What about Robert Southey? He was widely read, more popular than Keats, Shelley and, arguably, Byron, and was poet laureate for 30 years, from 1813 until his death in 1843. There’s no doubt that Library of America would have published a two volume collection of his poetry in 1835. He would have been awarded a Pulitzer (though the Nobel would have gone to some singer). Who knows? My point is that contemporary fame is no guarantee. In fact, it’s very often a sure sign that the poet is a minor poet—anthologized at best and forgotten at worst. Why? Because any given generation tends to lionize the poets who speak most directly to their immediate concerns and aesthetic principles (almost always devalued and superseded by the next generation). They’re “of an age”. Jonson (who, in his day, was more highly regarded than Shakespeare) nevertheless recognized Shakespeare’s genius. He put it this way:

He was not of an age, but for all time!

Is Ashbery for all time? While every other eulogy rightfully notes his lists of awards, his reputation among contemporaries, and his influence (like Cowper’s), I remain skeptical. I don’t doubt that Ashbery, like Cowper and Southey, will always have his readers and fierce partisans, but I suspect his legacy will be that of a once highly regarded but minor poet. Being esteemed by professional colleagues simply isn’t enough once they follow the poet into the light.

I do think Ashbery deserves to be anthologized and it’s fair to call his poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror a masterpiece. I admire it too. Would that he had written more like it. Similarly, it’s fair to call Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, his masterpiece. Minor poets do write masterpieces which deserve to be read and remembered.

Nearly all the friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve discussed Asbery read him for his reputation rather than the lure of his poetry. Few have read any more than a handful of his poems or more than a single book. And less can remember any. The problem is typified by the reviews, at Amazon, of Library of America’s first Ashbery. The problem isn’t that they’re mixed, the problem is that there are only six. Library of America’s second Asbery book has none. By way of comparison, Library of America’s Wallace Stevens has 29 reviews; their Robert Frost has 36 reviews; their Walt Whitman has 623.

The critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke once suggested it was better “not to try to understand [Ashbery’s] poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music”. And that’s because the semantic content of Ashbery’s poems is indecipherable. But for the rare exception, there simply isn’t any. But the comparison to music is a poor one. Music has its own recognizable syntax and grammar—chord progressions—no matter the era. When the music ignores those expectations, listeners generally ignore the music. A rough equivalent to Ashbery, for the music listener, might be Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgard Varèse. Try their musique concrète. There’s also the Beatles’ Revolution 9 on the White Album. No one does covers of Revolution 9. Right?

Well. Long live John Ashbery. May he inspire many a future poet.