About AI, Art, Music and Poetry

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


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

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


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

The problem for algorithmic intelligence is that genius is rare.

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

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

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

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

up in Vermont | March 22 2023

Matthew Hollis & the death of The Waste Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is contemporary Poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

So, what is contemporary poetry?

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

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

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

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

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’ve been reading novels of Magical Realism. Since I’m writing my own in the genre, I thought I should see how other authors are managing it. My original post was entitled “Four Magical Realism Novels” but here I am, in Berlin, without any of the novels for reference. They’re all in Vermont. So I’ll have to write that post when I’m back in Vermont. I bought Ness’s novel from a little English Bookstore on Kastanienstraße. You might ask why, being in Germany, I’m not reading Magical Realism by German authors. I tried. Turns out, there aren’t any. For whatever reason, German authors haven’t taken up the genre. A number of Spanish and American authors have been translated into German, but that’s as far as it goes. Rather than wait until I’m home to include this bit of opinion in a larger post, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it on its own.

“A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness may be the story that has struck the nicest balance between “magic” and realism (among those I’ve read)—meaning that the story didn’t create alternate universes but remained firmly in our own reality. The magic was the right measure of maybe real and maybe not. That is, one wasn’t quite sure if the “magic” was imagined even as it seemed to effect the “real world” in tangible ways. My personal opinion is that stories that veer toward outright magic as a manipulable force (along with alternate realities) veer more toward the fantasy genre than “magical realism”.

My main complaint as regards “A Monster Calls” is stylistic. Ness is capable of writing beautifully descriptive prose, as when he describes the Yew Tree’s transformation into a monster, but I all too often felt that he was “writing down” to his audience. He seems to adopt the kind of amateurish (and sometimes clichéd) overstatement and vernacular one would expect from the thirteen year old main character, not the author. It’s possible Ness wrote like this to ingratiate himself with a YA audience but I’m not sure. If it was deliberate, then pick one or the other. Don’t write like an experienced novelist one moment, then a thirteen year old at the next. Otherwise, one ends up with paragraphs like the following:

“Every time the monster moved, Conor could hear the creak of wood, groaning and yawning in the monster’s huge body. He could see, too, the power in the monster’s arms, great wiry ropes of branches constantly twisting and shifting together in what must have been tree muscle, connected a massive trunk of a chest, topped by a head and teeth that could chomp him down in one bite.” p. 49 [Italics mine.]

It’s those very last words that roll my eyes. The majority of the description finds us firmly in the hands of an experienced and evocative writer. Does he really need to wrench me into the vernacular of Conor, aged 13, by then observing that the monster sure could chomp him down in one bite! That sure is one heck of a monster there! Those words belong in Conor’s mouth, not the narrator’s.

Or an example of overstatement:

“It laughed louder and louder again, until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.” p. 83

It sure did. It felt like the whole sky itself—not just the “sky” but the “sky itself” might tumble right down. And sometimes it wasn’t just the school but “it felt like the whole school was holding its breath, waiting to see what Conor would do” (179) And when the monster sat on top of Conor’s grandmother’s office it “placed its entire great weight on top”. Not just its weight, not just its great weight, but its entire great weight. The reader will find this sort of empty and mannered overstatement throughout the book, all in pursuit of something resembling “authenticity”. That is, Ness might think he’s writing like a 13 year old but none of my 13 years olds ever talked like this. Who did? Children in 1950s and 60s movies did. Too much of his writing sounds like the kind of nonsense put into the mouths of child actors by gin-sipping screen writers who went home to cigarettes and noir:

“The whole room was like a museum of how people lived in olden times. There wasn’t even a television.” (108)

Not just the room, but the “whole room”, and who doesn’t go to museums of how animals looked before the whole world was totally obliterated by a rock so big it was even bigger than the biggest mountain ever? And there weren’t even televisions! And who doesn’t go to museums of how people painted way back before you were even alive? And they didn’t even have printers! And “olden times”? Who talks like that? And the characters themselves, by the way, too often behave more like clichéd caricatures—as though Ness not only adopted the worst of Hollywood’s script writing but also their “Lord of the Flies” vision of education. There’s the predictable bully, the bully’s snickering sidekicks and the usual social dynamics that plague all Hollywood schools. Another trope that’s gone stale.

But maybe this is really the way Ness writes? All in all, as a stylistic matter, the best writing occurred when the monster appeared (though later in the book the descriptions flirt with repetitiveness) and during the close of the book when the subject matter’s emotional weight means, apparently, that Ness doesn’t have to try so hard. And while the writing then is at its best, simple and direct, even that is marred in the closing chapter by Ness’s all too earnest and explanatory moralizing. He can’t just let the story speak for itself but flirts with an almost Victorian fussiness.

My other criticism, which is more arbitrary, concerns the first story/fable told by the monster (who declares he will tell three stories, then demand a fourth from Conor). I noticed that readers on Amazon who disliked the story objected to its subject matter: sex and murder. They felt it didn’t belong in a YA novel. That’s not what bothered me. I did find the story silly and forced (even granting that it was deliberately absurd) but that’s not what bothered me. Oddly, it’s that he made the story about Kings, Queens and Princes. Aren’t we done with stories about the aristocracy? Hasn’t Disney done enough to drive that genre into the ground? And while I do get why he did it, I’d argue that Ness could have told the same story without recourse to a worn out trope.

All in all, I wanted to like the novelette more than I did. It possesses all the gothic elements I love. Just look at my poem “Into the Woods” (written, by the way, before I read Ness’s novel). But regardless of what I think, it’s an immensely popular book that’s been made into a movie with none other than Sigourney Weaver. And the reason for the book’s success is no doubt because Ness ultimately tells a good and meaningful story despite its flaws (the book is no masterpiece), interspersed with evocative imagery and an evocative monster. The book tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother’s battle with cancer. To anyone who wants to be a successful author the moral is simple: Writing well is optional. Writing a good story is a must.

by Me

Berlin, August 4th 2022

What Makes a Great Writer

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

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

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

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

And later, a biographer of Roth’s adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific American: Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this tell us?

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

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

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

So who decides what gets to be called serious poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

upinVermont | May 8th 2021

Something to Think About

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

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

Why I love Bukowski

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

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

The Animals
By W. S. Merwin

All these years behind windows
With blind crosses sweeping the tables

And myself tracking over empty ground
Animals I never saw

I with no voice

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

Saying yes

Saying look carefully yes
We will meet again

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

Not Bukowski.

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

Tom O’Bedlam reading Bluebird

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

upinVermont | April 11 2021

The Piety of Formalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I can say is: Good grief.

Poetry, Politics & Position Papers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a good look.

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

upinVermont | March 6 2021