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.

Iambic Pentameter’s “neutrality” & Annie Finch’s defense of non-Iambic Meters

double-troubleRecently, I got into an email discussion with the poet Annie Finch concerning my scansion of Robert Frost’s Birches. I added some of that conversation to the post itself simply because I thought it might be interesting to other readers. Unlike me, Annie Finch has actually made something of herself. She teaches in Maine and has published several books of poetry, one of which I reviewed here, and has also published a guide to poetry: A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She’s even earned her own entry in Wikipedia. The opening paragraph, as of December 2016, says of her: “Dictionary of Literary Biography names her ‘one of the central figures in contemporary American poetry’ for her role, as poet and critic, in the contemporary reclamation of poetic meter and form.”

So, she has some very definite opinions concerning meter and how poems should be scanned. And just as human beings can’t agree on so much as boiling eggs, we disagreed  on the scansion of Frost’s Birches.

But an interesting upshot of the conversation was her mention of an article she wrote for a book called After New Formalism: Poets on Form, Narrative, and Tradition, a compendium of essays she curated and edited. Her own essay is entitled “Metrical Diversity: A Defense of the Non-Iambic Meters”. What she’s “defending” non-iambic meters from is the generally accepted assertion that the cadence of the English language is predominantly, and in the most general sense, iambic, and that all non-Iambic meters are therefore ‘unnatural’ or counter to the prevailing cadence of English.

And I agree with this latter assertion.

I favor keeping things simple. Take any sentence in the English language in which there is only a monosyllabic subject and  verb and it will normally always be iambic.

I am. I think. I love. You drink. You ate. We sing. We dance.

Likewise, any  monosyllabic noun in combination with a definite article will normally always be iambic

The stick. The house. The beer. The hope. The dream.

Any combination of indefinite and definite article with a monosyllabic noun is assumed to be iambic.

My road. His house. Their beer. Our hope. Her dream.

Now combine these basic patterns, the most elemental building blocks of the English language, and you have a language that is, at root, naturally iambic.

I love my house. You drink a beer. We dance the dream.  I think therefore I am.

If one accepts that the grounding cadence of the English language is iambic, then all other accentual patterns can be understood as variations on that basic pattern.

I love my red house. You drink a warm beer. We dance a happy dream.

The anapest can be understood as fulfilling the iambic cadence with an extra syllable. The same can be said for the amphibrachic ‘I whittled’, in which the extra syllable follows the iamb. And though the absorption of French and Latin vocabulary added more variety in the cadence of our language—I contrived, she unraveled, they capitulated—the monosyllabic and iambic roots of English encourage us to hear the iambs in these combinations, rather than the trochees. We instinctively emphasize the second syllable in each verb, turning each example into an anapest or, as above, an iamb with extra syllables.

  • By contrast, in the Finnish language, words are normally accented on the first syllable  and so the writing of the Finnish Kalevala in a trochaic meter as as natural (or neutral) to their language as Paradise Lost’s blank verse is to English.

But watch what happens if I do this:

My road. His house. Their horse. Our hope. Her dream.

Suddenly the patten is no longer iambic but trochaic. At which point the devil’s advocate might interject: “Ah ha! You see! The iambic rhythm isn’t intrinsic, only contextual.”  However, the very fact that the articles need to be italicized (in order to be read as trochaic)  proves the rule, and that’s that the building blocks of all English sentences are iambic. One might endlessly quibble over trochaic, cretic and amphibrachic patterns, but the fact remains that the most basic syntactic units of the English language are far and away iambic and if they’re not iambic—emphatic formulations like Stop it! Hit me! Catch her !—they are emphatic precisely because they disrupt English’s normal iambic cadence. In short, anapests, trochees and amphibrachs are best understood as variations on an iambic ground. Even when reading non-iambic meters, the English speaking ear looks for iambs.

And this is why most audience members will listen to a recitation of Robert Frost’s Mending Wall and never realize that it’s relatively strict Iambic Pentameter. The basic building blocks of blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and the English Language are one and the same, the ear finds nothing immediately unusual about Frost’s blank verse (the only meter that can pull this off). And setting aside differences in Elizabethan and Restoration English, the same can be said for Shakespeare and Milton’s iambic verse, or Keats or Wordsworth.

As Finch herself concedes, “all but a tiny portion of poetry in English has been written so far in iambic pentameter” [p. 117]. That’s not sheer coincidence. However, Finch immediately tries to reframe that inconvenient fact. She continues: “…it is important to recognize that the iambic pentameter is not a neutral or essentially ‘natural’ meter. It’s connotations are distinct and culturally defined.”

And with that assertion Finch apparently considers her work done. She provides no explanation as to what she means by “distinct and culturally defined”. Apparently the obviousness of her assertion doesn’t merit an explanation. And that academically imperious phrase, “it is important to recognize“, does nothing to lend validity.

For me, at last, the entirety of her essay falls apart with this assertion. One either accepts what she thinks the reader should recognize, or one doesn’t. And I don’t. I’m really not seeing any room for debate: the basic syntactic building blocks of the English language are iambic. Try it for yourself. See if you can come up with a monosyllabic subject/verb or definite article/noun combination that isn’t iambic.

Finch then goes on to observe that when iambic pentameter was first being established “it was characterized by no substitution at all, clumsy substitution, and ‘forcing’ the meter.” She asserts that “perhaps the early history of non-iambic meters is developing analogously with the early history of the iambic pentameter”.

What Finch fails to mention is that this early history of Iambic Pentameter barely lasted two decades—if that. Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc, the poster child for stiff Iambic Pentameter, was written in 1561. Between 1582 and 1592, Kyde produced The Spanish Tragedy and modern blank verse was underway. By comparison, as Finch herself states, non-iambic verse has “only”, quote-unquote, had “the past two centuries” to become “a barely accepted presence in English-language written poetry”. In what world are two decades in Elizabethan England analogous to two centuries?—and counting? I think, rather, what this firmly argues, once again, is that non-iambic meters are not “neutral”. Secondly, the reason for iambic pentameter’s initial strictness wasn’t because the ear was unaccustomed to the meter but because there was no history of blank verse when Norton and Sackville, for example, were writing. They were making it up and so, naturally, wrote a strict meter. After two centuries (and three or four centuries of metrical poetry in general), the same argument can’t be made for non-iambic meters.

The more traditional argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral” is that non-iambic meters don’t fare well with “substitution” (and by substitution we mean variant feet). Finch writes:

“Of the many questions that have yet to be answered about the nature of non-iambic meters, perhaps the most essential is the question of their hospitiality to metrical substitution. The prosodist Martin Halpern formalized in 1962 the idea, now a truism, that iambic meter is different from all the other meters because it alone can absorb substitutions with varying degrees of stress.”

This simply means that introducing a variant foot in an iambic pentameter line is less disturbing to the meter than doing so in a trochaic or dactylic line. For example, a dactylic poem:

And | where’s there a | scene more de | lightfully seeming
To | eyes like to | mine that is | blinded wi love
Than | yon setting | sun on the | steeple point gleaming
And | blue mist deep | tinging the edge | of the grove.

~ Song by John Clare p. 87 from Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters

Now let’s put in some “substitutions” (italics) and see how it works:

And |where’s there a scene more delightfully seeming
To |eyes like both of mine each blinded wi love
Than yon setting sun on the |steeple point reflecting
And |blue mist deep |tinging the edge |of the grove.

So, how distracting were the substitutions in the rewrite? If you say very, and most do, that (in a nutshell) is the argument against non-iambic meters being “neutral”. Because blank verse is built on the same iambic building blocks as the English language, it’s rhythm isn’t quite so easily undermined by so many substitutions/variant feet (italics):

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

To read dactylic meter is a deliberate act in a way that reading blank verse isn’t. This is because no sustained dactylic meter is ever going to sound like normal speech and this is because dactylic meters aren’t “neutral”. The same is true for anapestic meters and trochaic meters. And contrary to Finch’s vague assertion, this isn’t just a matter of cultural distinctions and definitions. This is why readers, when confronted with more  ambiguous lines (than mine above) are tempted “to force the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter”. For instance:

“All the wild-fowl sang them to him,
In the moorlands and the fen-lands,
In the melancholy marshes;
Chetowaik, the plover, sang them,
Mahng, the loon, the wild-goose, Wawa,
The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
And the grouse, the Mushkodasa!”

~ The Song of Haiwatha [Italics mine.]

Finch writes:

“As Timothy Steele puts it, ‘trochaics and triple meters… haven’t the suppleness and the capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, not do they tolerate the sorts of variations (e.g. inverted feet at line beginnings or after mid-line pauses) that the texture of iambic verse readily absorbs.’ Steele gives as an example a line from Longfellow: ‘The blue heron, the Shuh,shu-gah,’ and comments ‘it is unlikely that we would emphasize the two definite articles… but that is what Longfellow wishes us to do since he is writing in trochaic tetrameter.’ This line of reasoning constitutes a tautological trap in which to catch non-iambic meters; because the meter is trochaic, we assume the pronunciation is meant to be unnatural; then we damn the trochaic meter for forcing unnatural pronunciations. According to this common conception, “substitutions” in a non-iambic meter  do not substitute at all, but actually demand that we “force” the pronunciation of certain words to fit the meter. Non-iambic meters are held to be so overbearing that they can’t allow word-stresses an independent and counterpointing rhythm.” [pp. 119-120]

Once again Finch’s argument seems to fall apart. On what basis does a reader “assume” the pronunciation “is meant to be unnatural”? Before reading the poem? How would they know? And why would a reader “force the pronunciation” unless their assumption (if they made one) was confirmed?—in which case it’s no longer an assumption. The problem is in the way Finch frames the argument. She implies that the reader imposes the idea of “unnaturalness” on the meter. But since the reader normally has no way of knowing the meter before reading the poem, on what basis would a reader make such an assumption? The meter itself is what imposes expectations on the reader as they’re reading. This is Steele’s point. This isn’t about retrospectively “catching” non-iambic meters. This is a recognition that a trochaic meter, because it’s in tension with the English language’s normal iambic cadence, all the more forcefully shapes a reader’s expectations.

And as far as that goes, Steele is mistaken in asserting that “this is what Longfellow wishes us to do”. In fact, Steele has no idea. It’s quite likely, as Finch argues, that Longfellow didn’t intend us to read the lines as trochaic. But what Finch doesn’t acknowledge is that it’s the meter itself that creates this expectation (perhaps despite Longfellow’s intentions). That said, if the adjective “blue” and the first “shuh” is sufficiently demoted (un-stressed) I can almost hear the lines as trochaic. To be honest, the  first line of the extract troubles me more than the line quoted by Steele and FInch. The meter wants us to read it like this:

All the |wild-fowl |sang them| to him

I read it this way:

All the |wild fowl |sang them| to him

And if I’m trying to read the poem as trochaic, I definitely feel the variant feet much more so than if the line were iambic.

Lastly, Finch’s statement that “while some student poets write metrical poetry most easily and happily in iambs, and equal number (in my experience) write it most easily and happily in dactyls and trochees,” has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a non-iambic meter is “neutral”. With enough practice one may skillfully walk backwards, but no one would conclude that walking backwards is as natural as walking forwards. Our bodies have evolved to walk a certain direction and all the evidence thus far (including several centuries of metrical practice) argues the evolution of the English language has and continues to favor an iambic cadence.

But the most intriguing question, to me, is why Annie Finch is even making the argument?

Why does it matter, to her, that non-iambic meters be seen as neutral? Does she think students are discouraged from writing non-iambic meters? Does she think it will change how non-iambic meters are written? Is it because she thinks her own poetry, which is often non-iambic, suffers neglect?

One answer she herself gives:

“Prosodic systems which maintain that only iambs can form a metrical base for substitution deny these students who might enjoy non-iambic meters the chance to develop skill in modulating them.” [p. 121]

This reasoning, of course, reflects her belief that 600 years of metrical practice is solely due to connotations “that are distinct and culturally defined”. In other words, our favoring of iambics has nothing to do with the language but is solely arbitrary—nurture rather than nature. Given that set of beliefs, it’s no wonder she’d blame “prosodic systems” for discouraging metrical experimentation. I’m not buying it though.

I personally think there’s more promise in asking whether non-iambic meters have been, or ever were, in any sense subversive. One of the earliest and most famous examples of trochaic meter, interestingly enough, comes from Thomas Middleton’s addition (as modern Shakespearean scholars assert) to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The cant of the three witches:

1 WITCH.  Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH.  Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH.  Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH.  Round about the caldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
3 WITCH.  Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark;
Liver of blaspheming Jew;
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,—
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingrediants of our caldron.
ALL.  Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
2 WITCH.  Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

The whole archetype of the witch is nothing if not subversive—both in accusation and practice. And I think it’s cool as all get out that Shakespeare/Middleton flipped the meter. Is there another example like this in other plays of the era? Right now, I can’t think of any. And what’s really cool is that the witches continue to address Macbeth and Banquo in trochaics, and also later in Act 4.

But why would the playwrights continue to have them speak in trochaics?

The answer is that the meter was distinctive and immediately recognizable to Elizabethan audiences. Finch will write:

“Few if any poets in our own century have written non-iambic meters that are subtly modulated and meant to be read aloud with natural speech stress, according to our twentieth-century preference. The fact, however, does not necessarily mean it cannot be done.” [p. 118]

Despite the hedging and wishful “few”, we can safely say that no poets have done so. Either Finch knows of an example or she doesn’t. So while I would be hesitant to say it can’t be done, we do know that it hasn’t been done; and I would bet against it simply because the witches’ cant is just as startling, hair-raising, and memorable today as 400 years ago. Our perception of trochaic meter hasn’t changed.

Finch’s desire to make metrical substitutions in non-iambic verse “natural” is essentially an effort to normalize non-iambic meters. To which I say: Why? The beauty of trochaic verse, among other non-iambic meters, is precisely that it can’t be normalized, that it’s difficult to pull off, and that that’s what makes the meter immediately recognizable.

And I would think, given Finch’s use of non-iambic meters and her self-identification with Wiccan practices, she would want to explore their potential disruptiveness. Have non-Iambic meters ever been actively exploited politically? Has trochaic meter, beyond Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ever been purposefully identified with the ‘witch’, the magical being, the disruptive female?

I don’t know.

Interestingly, and as an aside perhaps, Longfellow wasn’t the first American poet to tell a story about native Americans using trochees. The poet Schoolcraft wrote a romantic poem called Alhalla, or the Lord of Talladega, also in trochaic tetrameter. In the preface:to the poem Schoolcraft wrote:

“The meter is thought to be not ill adapted to the Indian mode of enunciation. Nothing is more characteristic of their harangues and public speeches, than the vehement yet broken and continued strain of utterance, which would be subject to the charge of monotony, were it not varied by the extraordinary compass in the stress of voice, broken by the repetition of high and low accent, and often terminated with an exclamatory vigor, which is sometimes startling. It is not the less in accordance with these traits that nearly every initial syllable of the measure chosen is under accent. This at least may be affirmed, that it imparts a movement to the narrative, which, at the same time that it obviates languor, favors that repetitious rhythm, or pseudo-parallelism, which so strongly marks their highly compound lexicography.”

With Schoolcraft’s preface in mind, Longfellow was to write:

“Your article . . . needs only one paragraph more to make it complete, and that is the statement that parallelism belongs to Indian poetry as well to Finnish… And this is my justification for adapting it in Hiawatha.”

Who’s Bob Dylan?


So, Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature is, for me, a complete and utterly surreal event. To make an analogy, it’s like walking into a roomful of 60’s babyboom stoners waxing rhapsodic over the curvilinear genius of a spoon. It doesn’t seem to occur to them, as they move from the spoon to the butter knife, that maybe it’s not the silverware, but the marijuana that’s extraordinary. And Dylan’s music, what little I’ve heard (and judging by his fans), is marijuana at its finest.

  • “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars. This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.” Rabih Alameddine ~ Twitter

I’ve never listened, from beginning to end, to a single song by Bob Dylan. And if I’ve heard other Dylan songs, the only one I vaguely recall has something to do with a Chevy and a levy. But wait, that’s not Dylan. Catchy tune though.

Here’s the thing:  I regularly cycle through Monteverdi’s Madrigals and the Bach Cantatas. The interesting thing about the Cantatas is just how god-awful many (if not most) of the “lyrics” are (they called them librettos in those days). Fortunately, my German is far enough removed that all I hear is the music. Being curious though, I look up the lyrics from time to time and am floored by how Bach could turn the most banal poetry into musical masterpieces. Music, like marijuana, can do that to lyrics. Does anyone even give half a rat’s butt about Dylan’s prose poetry?

  • “Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician” NYT ~ Anna North

The various writers and editors at The Guardian have all but turned into gushing and starry-eyed fanboys & fangirls. They giddily praise the Nobel Prize committee’s citation as ‘admirably delicate’ (literary dilettantes who each year choose their jock of the week with the cliquish discretion of cheerleaders) .  The euphuistic prose is thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. Richard Williams (linked above) writes: “Essentially, in the work of Bob Dylan, the words and the music cannot be separated.” Exactly.

And besides that, yes they can be, and are—by yours truly; but am I the only one? When I read Dylan’s lyrics all I see are the words on a page—and none of the music. And what I see reads like a watered down Bukowski with a few effete rhymes—the poetry of an ambitious but mawkish high school sophomore:

“Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.”

The lyric stripped of music is an emperor stripped of clothes. As far as literature goes, they’re mediocre and amateurish. Which is to say, by the standards of the last 100 years, they really do deserve to be ranked with contemporary poems.

  • “Ah the patron saint of the 60s, gets a Nobel Prize. I guess this means in 20 years, we can expect Kurt Cobain to be added to this group when his generation takes over the voting. Joined by Beyonce, 20 years after that.” Comment at Rolling Stone Magazine

The lyric above is excerpted from another guardian post in which the author, or “we” (presumably all the Guardian fanboys and fangirls), present “Bob Dylan’s greatest lyrics” with no comment (as if their greatness were self-evidently obvious). For example:

Positively Fourth Street

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you.

All I can say is that you have to be stoned out of your gourd to think this is great literature. I’ve read better stuff from teary-eyed 13 year olds. But there’s also the New York Times.  The narrator of a video at the Times, Jon Pareles, reverently states at the outset that “we’ve known for half a century that Bob Dylan was a great writer”. Who this “we” is, he doesn’t say. And no, “we” have not known this for half a century. We have known that he was a great pop star. If it weren’t for his music, as the Guardian unwittingly asserted, everyone would be asking the same question: Who the hell is Bob Dylan? What about that collection of prose poetry Mr. Pareles? I notice he didn’t mention that, and that tells you something. But still climbing Mount Hyperbole, Pareles goes on:  “He can sling words together and make them explode in your mind.” Pareles’s example? “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. And its this, apparently, that merits a Nobel Prize. Pareles, who apparently doesn’t know Jack about literature, closes the video with the embarrassingly facile assertion that “he got the prize because he’s a wordslinger.”  Just think, sling words and you too will win a Nobel Prize.

Vermont’s poet laureate, Chard DeNiord, recently asked: “So what to make of the marginal status of poetry in America, where so many crave poetry for its essential, memorable expression[?]”. The answer? It only takes Dylan’s music. Put your mawkish and mediocre verse to Dylan’s music and you too will win the Nobel Prize for literature.

If nothing else, Dylan’s Nobel Prize is a beacon of hope to an entire generation (or two) of mediocre poets.

Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

This is a book that was brought to my attention and sent to me by James Geary, who has written an introduction to Feinman’s Complete Poems. Being a poet in Vermont, Geary corruptedthought I might be interested. Having been a summer student at Bennington College, and learning that Feinman taught there, also piqued my interest.

Feinman seems to have been reluctantly public. As Geary writes, “Alvin was reticent about his own work.” It’s tempting to write of him, and myself, that poetry was our first and only love; and to write a good poem, and only that, was reward enough. Our argument was with ourselves—all the work we needed. But I don’t know. In his waning years, Feinman was asked “if he ever thought of starting a family or being a more traditional breadwinner”. “No,” he said, “I thought of nothing but poetry.” He shared his love of poetry with students at Bennington College. I do the same at PoemShape.

In their introduction to Feinman’s Unpublished Poems, Geary writes:

Early on in the process, I asked Deborah what Alvin would have thought of what we were doing. After all, he chose not to publish those poems while he was alive. Why should we? ¶ Deborah felt strongly, as I do, that Alvin’s work deserves a much wider audience than it has so far achieved.

So if you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Alvin Feinman, this is partly the reason.

Feinman’s poems remind me of the poetry I was reading at The Mountain School (Vershire, Vermont) when it was a full time high shool—poetry of the seventies and early eighties. Feinman was very much a poet of that era. The difference? His poetry’s clarity of language—a language that allows for a complexity of thought and argument when, all too often, poets bed a paucity of thought and argument beneath a veneer of complexity.

Feinman’s poems are short, compressed, and the collected book amounts to what many modern poets would consider, merely, a substantial first book. Geary, for example, notes that Feinman could spend several classroom sessions on the simplest of poems, this one being by an anonymous 16th century poet:

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my lover were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Geary writes that “Alvin slowed things down. He wasn’t finished with a poem until every line, every word was scrutinized, every punctuation mark felt.” I too can find more beauty and sympathy in this little poem than in pages and pages of exposition. It seems to me that this love of the briefly and exquisitely spoken informs all of Feinman’s poetry. That is, it’s no coincidence that he could spend days on such a short poem. He probably labored over his own with equal devotion. He was a poet of beautifully crafted brevities.

But here’s what I like most about Feinman, it’s that though he writes free verse, he writes like a poet. You won’t find the flavorless discourse of a W.S. Merwin—the apotheosis of 2oth century generic poetry.

This Face of Love

Nor prospect, promise   solely such
Breathed honey    as in breathing
Clamps the lung    and lowers life
Into this death    the very dying
Meaning of that breath    that beats
To black and beating honey   in an air
Thrown knowledgeless    imageless
Or only the wet hair    across her eyes.

How do I read the poem?—sublimely erotic and as fearless as any of EE Cummings erotic poems. Feinman’s meaning resists analysis, preferring to be understood intuitively like an elusive and allusive chain of haiku.

Or consider one of his unpublished poems:

Snow. Tree tranced. O silent
It would be outside. Dark it would be
And caged in moonlight. Half afraid,
To go, and needing to, to know, not
Knowing what to know, to stand
And need the words, and need to not
Need words for white and cold, and far
And lone, and lovely sighing dark
Like nothing, like a leg,
A cheek pleased in the cold,
A furred eye flaking into light.

As with This Face of Love, Feinman’s poem resists summarization. The  pointillist of poets, look too close and Feinman’s poem vanishes. In poems like these, few because of his modest output, Feinman is at his best and unique among 20th century poets. If Debussy had written poetry, they might sound like Feinman’s—impressionist interludes without opening declarations or concluding summaries.

I remember wanting to write like this, and did, in my way

But there are more reasons to recommend Feinman’s poetry. He was never satisfied with the easy adjective or adverb. He seems always looking for new ways to express sense, thought and emotion. In the poem Snow:

The light snow holds and what
Its bodyable shape
Subdues, the gutter of all things
A virgin unison….

Bodyable. That’s the kind coinage Shakespeare reveled in, called anthimeria, and one of the most linguistically inventive figures available to poets. The vast majority of contemporary poets never or rarely use it, including Ashbery, but it’s a sure sign that you’re dealing with something other than the run-of-the-mill, generic poet. When Mark Edmundson, in his Harpers Essay “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Poetry” described being taken by Robert Lowell’s lines in “Waking Early Sunday Morning”—by “the artistry of the lines, by their subtlety and their melancholy grace”—he could have been describing any number of passages from Feinman’s poems.

For the sun hangs
····like a leaden crust
········weary of color
cold and skeletal as desire in an idiot’s palm.

Neither speech, nor vision…

For the day crumbles
····into ciphers
words litter the streets like dirty snow…

~ For Lucina

Feinman, despite being sparsely published, was an ambitious poet and yet, that said, he mostly stuck to the conventions of free verse. Criticizing him for that, I suppose, is a bit like criticizing a stone mason for not being a wood worker, but I can’t help wonder what the range of his abilities might have produced. Though Harold Bloom, self-effacing as always, laments there is nothing in the unpublished collection of poems equal to the book “he [Mr. Harold Bloom] helped to foster”, I’m not so sure.  You see some effort on Feinman’s part to fit his pointillist, discursive style into something other than free verse:


Water buds in the water-tap
Words bubble up within the mind
The highways curve across the map
The light crawls down the blind

A diamond splinters in the sink
The nouns digest their verb
Collision closes like the rose
Two moons are kissing at the curb.

This, in its way, reminds me of the little anonymous 16th century poem Feinman so lovingly scrutinized. Feinman must have prized the poem for its contrasting simplicity and power; and I wonder if that’s not the way he would have liked to go, and if an inability to do so curtailed his output? How to reconcile a rich and discursive style with the simplicity of a song? In Feinman’s poem Song, each line is end-stopped. They follow each other the way the refrains of a song might, as if each were its own performance. Though the effect might be deliberate, the poem is a bit child-like and rudimentary. If the imagery remains original, reminding me of Pablo Neruda’s surrealism, the imagistic language seems uneasy with the kind of clarity that made the 16th century poem so powerful.

Feinman demonstrates a more flexible use of form in other “unpublished” poems:

…the mocked brain consecrates
your art—though eyes go blind
within this woman-will your blaze creates

as scadent shadows cleave
the evening all to probe
cold stone, in vain to re-enact, believe…

~ Natura Naturans

According to a brief internet search, scadent is Romanian, meaning “due to expire”. I love that Feinman used the word. Nothing so typifies the Elizabethan writer and poet as the eagerness to colonize languages, to take the best words and import them, to mix them into their vocabulary the way new spices might be sprinkled in old recipes.

I hope Feinman’s book finds a broader readership. When so many contemporary poets are writing nothing more than lineated prose, Feinman is the poet for lovers of language and imagery. But he’s also, and strikingly so, our modern Coleridge, a brilliant and formidable mind outstripped by the poetry he imagined writing—a tragic figure, perhaps, whose first works were his last, and whose final unpublished poems were riddles without solutions.

Alvin Feinman’s collected poems were released August 3rd, 2016.

upinVermont | September 19th 2016

On Vermont’s Poet Laureate & Reputable Publishers


A new anthology of Vermont Poets will be published in 2017. The anthology will be curated by Chard DeNiord and Vermont’s previous Poet Laureate, Sydney Lea.  The anthology, by Green Writers Press, will be a wonderful opportunity for the poets included and I wish them all success and a wonderful reception. And that would be that—if not for the Poet Laureate’s utterly baffling qualification:

“After seven months gathering poems from round the state by poets who have published at least one book of poetry by a reputable publisher.”


To be clear, Vermont’s current and previous Poet Laureates are within their rights to apply whatever criteria they want. They could have written: We will only publish poets with fuscia book covers. That’s their business. They could have written: The self-published need not apply; or bloggers; or they could have used the slightly more dismissive 90’s sobriquet, “Vanity Press”.

Okay, too bad for me and others like me. The mystery is why Vermont’s Poet Laureate felt compelled, in the Close-Up section of the Valley News, to use the term “reputable publishers”—implying that all the rest are disreputable. It’s an entirely gratuitous comment. Are their disreputable publishers in Vermont? Who cares? And since when have readers ever demanded poems that were reputably published? Don’t readers read for quality, or am I mistaken? And it’s dismissively insulting, besides. Based on DeNiord’s prior defense of Academia  (and Sydney Lea’s revelatory dismissal of me as a self-published poet) I think I know what he has in mind.

Sydney Lea’s pedigree (Vermont’s prior Poet Laureate) includes professorships at Dartmouth College, Yale University, Wesleyan University, Vermont College, Middlebury College, Franklin University Switzerland, and the National Hungarian University. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. The current Vermont Poet Laureate’s pedigree includes Master’s Degrees from Yale and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He’s currently, according to Wikipedia, a professor at Providence College and has been a Poetry Fellow at Sewanee Writer’s Conference (The University of the South) and an Allan Collins Scholar in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (Middlebury College). Is it any wonder Vermont’s Poet Laureate glowingly praised the previous Poet Laureate’s “New England Review”?  We can assume the latter is a reputable publisher.

For all aspiring poets and bloggers in Vermont, your current and prior Poet Laureates’ attitudes are clear. You’re not welcome if you’re not reputably published. Forget it. Let’s not forget that Vermont’s current Poet Laureate compared the Internet to weeds. And if you expect to be a Poet Laureate, or just want a little back-scratching, it’s pretty clear in what circles you’d better start circling. Don’t think you can get anywhere by publishing your own works.

For instance, we can speculate that both Poet Laureates would have turned their noses up at William Shakespeare’s first book of poetry, Venus and Adonis, published in 1593. The wildly popular book was discouraged at Oxford University (students reportedly hid it under their beds) because Oxford academes considered it distracting and pornography. In a word? — disreputable. And both Vermont’s Poet Laureates might have felt quite at home with the aristocrats (and Puritans) who considered the whole playgoing  business disreputable. Certainly, neither poet laureate would have touched Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Though scholarly debate continues, the publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, is thought to have disreputably acquired the poems. If true, thank God for disreputable publishers.

Neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given New England’s Emily Dickinson a second look. Not only did she not publish a first book, but when her poems were finally published, and posthumously, the whole affair was anything but reputable.  Ironic that Mr. DeNiord should opine, in a previous Valley News article, that there might be other Dickinson’s out there. I can’t fathom how either poet laureate would ever discover her.

And Robert Frost? DeNiord discusses Robert Frost’s Mowing, but doesn’t mention that the poem was written in 1900. The poem wouldn’t appear in print for another 15 years. In fact, a first book by Robert Frost wasn’t “professionally” published until 1915, when he was 41 years old (nearly half his life behind him); and only because he had left New England (which had ignored him) for England. If DeNiord and Lea had been around in 1910, they wouldn’t have given Frost or Mowing a second look.

Frost’s first book was a self-published collection of poems called —Twilight. The book contained the poems: My Butterfly, An  Unhistoric Spot, Summering, The Falls, and Twilight, and was a gift to Eleanor Frost. Thank goodness he only printed two copies, neither of Vermont’s Poet Laureates would have given him the time of day for that unsavory little book. And then there’s Walt Whitman— self-published and who disreputably reviewed Leaves of Grass under pseudonyms. And then there’s EE Cummings, another self-published poet and, incidentally, no great friend of academia. But I sound like a broken record.

What a shame that Vermont has somehow chosen two Poet Laureates so utterly tone deaf and hostile to an otherwise thriving community; and who intentionally or otherwise confirm every cliché of a literature curated by an elite, ivory tower cabal. (I’d be surprised if DeNiord ever advocated for a return to poetry in Newspapers.) Vermont’s poets deserve better.

DeNiord closes his Valley News article noting that Frost, in Mowing, combines “two opposites, dream and fact”, and then admiringly goes on to comment:

“While contradictory  on the surface this line [The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows] captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald — perhaps American’s most poetic prose writers — called ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence.. the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I’d have to say that Mr. DeNiord ought to try that test. Or if he has, he hasn’t been doing so well. He might, for a little while, consider the possibility that great poetry has, can, and will continue to happen in the most disreputable of places. He only has to look.

upinVermont | September 11th 2016

“Stranger Things” & the Duffer Bro’s Epic Mistake

Just taking a brief time out to express my admiration for Stranger Things, but also my great disappointment. Imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had killed off Watson in the third story, or if JRR Tolkein had bumped off Samwise.

We still, probably, would have two great works of literature, and no one would think of them in terms of what could have been. But the same hasn’t worked out so well for the Duffer Bro’s Stranger Things. The difference is that everyone from mural artists, to Jimmy Fallon, to essayists and countless viewers know exactly who went missing. She left a hole in the plot and heart of the series the size of Indiana.


Someday the decision to serve up Barb as “monster fodder” may well be viewed as one of the single most epic screen writing mistakes of all time. I say that based on the seemingly universal reaction to the character’s death and the near complete obliviousness to her absence among the town’s police, the high school students (who can’t even remember who she is), and the bizarre indifference and nonchalance of the character’s mother. Even Nancy, ostensibly her best friend, seemingly has to remind herself that Barb is also missing.

The miscalculation is so egregious that Jimmy Fallon can make a joke out of it.

We may laugh, but there’s truth behind every joke. And the truth is that the Duffer Brothers screwed up, epically; and their reaction has been of the deer-in-the-headlights variety. They had no idea Barb would be so popular. They tell us that there will be “justice for Barb” in season 2, but that’s like footnoting a flawed novel. The damage is done. And they weakly rationalize their decision to kill the character by explaining that Nancy needed a motive to involve herself in the “search”, but they could have accomplished the same by sending Steve into the upside down.

Then we would have had Barb and Nancy searching for Steve—my heart breaks at the lost opportunity. Instead of a story about a girl clinging to her venal  boyfriend (and, yes, the show has taken some deserved heat from feminists), the writers and the Duffer brothers could have and should have recognized in Shannon Purser, the actress who portrayed Barb, a far more compelling narrative and star. When they killed the character of Barb they killed the show’s heart. Instead, we have a brilliant and incredible 80’s themed, horror movie, theme-park ride, but it’s a ride without heart. Steve is never very compelling and Nancy’s continued fawning over him is both unconvincing and conventional. The relationship between the boys is cute and endearing, but it lacks the counter-balancing depth that a relationship between Nancy and Barb might have had.

I know there will be disagreement but one only has to Google Barb and Stranger Things to understand that such voices are a minority—and that tells you something. You don’t even have to be a writer to recognize when other writers screw up. They did, and royally.

They sent the town off looking for a boy with whom viewers had few reasons to connect (at an emotional level) and perplexingly killed off the one character they so beautifully captured with just a few light and deft touches—the one character with whom we emotionally bonded and with whom we identified. Indeed, the one descriptor that appears barb2.jpegagain and again is real. Why did she feel real? Because the other characters, to a greater and lesser degree, all align with  their predictable and conventional tropes—the predictable friendship of the outcast boys, the boy-crazy Nancy, the haggard and divorced chief of police with the (wait for it) deceased child, the  over-the-top and clichéd bullies.

Barb stood out because her character didn’t belong in this coterie of the popular, the obsessed, the naive or the damaged. She was just—Barb. We recognized that instinctively. We knew immediately that she was loyal, caring and smart. What a story it could have been if she had joined Nancy in a search for Steve.

Feeding her to the monsters will always be the Duffers brothers epic mistake.

Just ask Jimmy Fallon. While the Duffer brothers obsessed over Will, the rest  of us obsessed over Barb. That tells you something went very, very wrong—both in the character’s demise, in the story telling, and in the way the script treated the character afterward. Praise Stranger Things for everything it does right, but it’s also irreparably flawed. A great series could have been incomparably better.

When Barb was lost to the demogorgan, so was my heart.

upinVermont | September 6th 2016

My ongoing feud with Vermont’s Poet Laureate

Chard Deniord’s latest submission to the Valley News.

And my opinion as submitted to the Valley News:

After his last essay in which Chard Deniord blamed readers for poetry’s neglect, his most recent essay “Swimming in the drowned river” opts to specifically address the dazed and confused—whom he calls the “lost and intimidated” (because, you know, poetry’s 6.7% favorability rating says more about the reader.)

But okay.

He forthwith veers into a defense of academia. He tells us that “the so-called ‘professional poetry bubble’ resonates more as a ‘facile shibboleth” and then, without the faintest hint of irony, demolishes his own assertion with a list of largely academic publications (that have “cornered the market”) and a number of poets who, I suspect, made it on the list because Mr. Deniord networked with them in an academic setting—[cough] Dartmouth?

But not content to defend academia (which is all well and fine) he once more lays into that ugly little step-child: the self-published (and that wretched hive of scum and villainy—the Internet). He writes: “Desktop publishing and the Internet have now made it possible for anyone who wishes to publish their poems to do just that.” And in the very next sentence equates the whole unseemly business with weeds in a garden (presumably a superbly coiffed Harvard Yard).

Deniord can’t think of a single Vermont poet besides those in academia or those published by “professional” editors (as opposed to, his words, “amateur editors”). Nope. Not one. No, Sir. Not a single, solitary Vermont poet. All Mr. Deniord can do is to hope that the work of “those geniuses who are writing beautifully but secretly, like Emily Dickinson… comes to light in time” (presumably published by a “professional” editor in a glossy first edition). Then maybe Deniord will notice. (Never mind that it was a professional editor who was oblivious to Dickinson’s genius.)

But here’s a thought: My favorite discovery, when renovating a house, is an old newspaper. If I’m very, very lucky, I’ll find a poem. If our Vermont Poet Laureate really wants more readers, why not use his position to get poetry back in the Valley News? Why not? Don’t send readers off looking for semi-demi-annual poetry anthologies. Give them something with the news.

upinVermont | August 15 2016
Limited to 360 words by request of the Valley News.