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It might be assumed that his work spoke for itself in securing these plaudits, but previously unpublished letters reveal he was, in fact, a master of self-promotion, networking and mutual back-scratching.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

Reading The Winter’s Tale after the Trump Years

With my novel finished, I’ve gotten back to work on some languishing poems. To get my head in the right space, I decided to read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which I read years ago, and is replete with some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry. What immediately struck me, though, was how much I disliked both Leontes and Polixenes. In truth, we’re supposed to dislike them. Each, in their turn, is vicious, cruel and tyrannical, but what disturbed me now was less their viciousness than the assumed prerogatives of wealth and class that allowed them to act without compunction or consequence—ostensibly a play about two rich and entitled men who inherited their wealth (and haven’t we had enough of those these last few years)?

The aristocracy and royalty were the oligarchical billionaires of their day, and almost uniformly corrupt. The Europeans who fled to the United States in the 18th century were damned well fed up with these kinds of families. At the founding of the United States, the following was added to the Constitution:

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

If Prince Harry were to become a naturalized US citizen, he would have to renounce his title. But none of this has prevented the US from creating its own aristocracy. The only difference is that we call them one percenters instead of “Your Excellency”. And just as in the Europe of prior centuries, they wield outsize influence on the political process through their wealth and loyalists (read Royalists if you like). They are the Koch brothers, the Murdochs and the Trumps, rewarding their loyalists with the cash needed to maintain and share in their political power. The loyalists, in turn, reward these families with lower taxes, fewer regulations and the government levers needed to crush unions, depress wages, write laws that favor them or, more mundanely, seize federal lands for their own profit. The Trump years subjected the United States to a family who treated the US no differently than the various royals, aristocrats and theocratic mobsters of pre-20th century Europe—who asserted, in one form or another, their entitlement to rule and their entitlement to the wealth over which they ruled.

So when I read the first act of The Winter Tale, I felt like I was reading about a familiar family, class and wealth bracket. I was much less interested in their tender fates as compared to the first reading and wasn’t even sure I desired a happy ending for any of them. The play begins with Leontes suddenly seized by a rabid fit of jealousy that would have embarrassed Henry VIII. He suspects that his wife, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood friend, Polixenes. What does a rich and entitled man with unimpeded power do? He considers murdering her as though her life were nothing more than a formality to be relievedly dispensed with:

Say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.

Winter’s Tale Act 2.3: 7-9 | Norton Digital Edition

He orders that his erstwhile best friend, Polixenes be murdered first, by poison, then that his pregnant wife and child be burned alive.

A callet
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me. This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!

Winter’s Tale Act 2: 90-94 | Norton Digital Edition

It needs to be emphasized that Hermione, at this point, is nine months pregnant. Leontes’ comments are in response to Paulina, wife of a nobleman and vociferous defender of Hermione. What does Paulina get for defending Hermione against a rich man with absolute power? She’s all but called a bitch and her husband pussy whipped: says Leontes of Antigonus, “He dreads his wife.”

In short order, the character Hermione gives birth, off-stage, to Leontes’s daughter (presumably precipitated by the horror of Leontes’s jealous rage). When Paulina brings the newborn to Leontes, he also orders the newborn burned alive:

Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence
And see it instantly consumed with fire.
Even thou and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done,
And by good testimony, or I’ll seize thy life
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse,
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so.
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out. Go, take it to the fire,
For thou sett’st on thy wife.

The Winter’s Tale Act 2.2: 130-141 | Norton Digital Edition

So. Shakespeare really piles it on. It’s clear that we’re not meant to like or feel much sympathy for Leontes. However, the play is considered a romance in the sense that there will be redemption and a happy ending. This is where I get tripped up. After witnessing four years of cruelty, corruption, banality, and incompetence, and after being subjected to the sneering lies of Trump and the Trump family, I’m not interested in redemption or, as the party of Trump cynically labels it: “unity”. Before having witnessed this kind of corruption first hand, the characters of Leontes and Polixenes were fairytale-like figures—the kinds of stock characters that simply serve as foils. The fabulists and tellers of fairy tales who riffed on Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses didn’t do so out of any love for these people, but because they were the Marvel super heroes of their day. They possessed unlimited power—not confined by poverty or social class. The story teller didn’t need to explain how or why a given character had the freedom to do X, Y, or Z. If they were a prince or princess, their extraordinary privilege was assumed, along with the extraordinary trials that confronted them. What evil fairy princess, after all, is going to waste her time cursing the daughter of some serf or peasant? What Prince is going to give a damn if some peasant girl is buried alive in a glass coffin by a bunch of dwarfs?

As it turns out, it’s just this dynamic that plays out in Act 4. In Act 2, Leontes orders Antigonus to take his newborn daughter (who he believes to be the bastard child of Polixenes) into the wild and leave her there (hopefully to be torn to shreds by a passing carnivore). As it turns out, the baby, Perdita, is rescued by a Shepherd. Act 4 moves us forward in time and Perdita is a marriageable, teenage girl. And as it happens, Polixenes son, Florizel, stumbles on her and straightaway falls in love. No one suspects that Perdita is actually the child of nobility and so Florizel’s amorous attention is a deadly threat to Perdita and she knows it.

Oh, but sir,
Your resolution cannot hold, when ’tis
Opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King.
One of these two must be necessities,
Which then will speak that you must change this purpose,
Or I my life.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 35-39 | Norton Digital Edition

By “I my life” she doesn’t mean my life will be changed, rather, I will lose my life. But that doesn’t stop Florizel who, until meeting Perdita, has presumably lived a life of entitlement. Despite her protestations, he insists that not only will he marry her but that he would rather surrender all the benefits of his wealth and station than not marry. Shakespeare intends the audience to appreciate Florizel’s earnest love, though not, perhaps, his naïvety. Sure enough, his father, Polixenes, shows up in disguise and susses out what’s going on. Things don’t end well. Polixenese, who, until this point, had been the sympathetic and wrongly accused childhood friend of Leontes, turns out to be just as much of a tyrannical SOB:

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call. Thou art too base
To be acknowledged. Thou a scepter’s heir
That thus affects a sheephook? —Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. —And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou cop’st with—

SHEPHERD Oh, my heart.

POLIXENES —I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briars and made
More homely than thy state. —For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack—as never
I mean thou shalt—we’ll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood—no, not our kin—
Far than Deucalion off. Mark thou my words.
Follow us to the court. [to SHEPHERD] Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. [to PERDITA] And you, enchantment,
Worthy enough a herdsman—yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honor therein,
Unworthy thee—if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.

Winter’s Tale 4.4:408-432 | Norton Digital Edition

Polixenes has learned nothing from his experience with Leontes. First he declares that Perdita, who everyone still thinks is the Shepherd’s daughter, too low class for his royal and aristocratic blood. His son “thus affects a sheephook?” he asks. Next he declares that he will hang the Shepherd (the girl’s father), regretting only that the Shepherd is so old as to make the effort hardly worthwhile. After that Polixenes declares that he will have Perdita mutilated: “thy beauty scratched with briars and made/More homely than thy state.” How dare any mere commoner presume to marry into Polixenes’ aristocratic/royal family? He further declares that if Perdita nevertheless pursues Florizel, he will have her killed as cruelly as possible.

All the while, Shakespeare plays around with a common trope (found elsewhere in his other plays) that there is something intrinsically superior to the aristocratic/royal class. (It’s easy to see how this very prevalent attitude eventually led to the race “science” of the Nazis.) Earlier, both Polixenes and his advisor, Camillo, comment on Perdita’s aristocratic bearing:

POLIXENES This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever
Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.

CAMILLO [to POLIXENES] He tells her something
That makes her blood look on’t. Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 155-161 | Norton Digital Edition

She is “too noble” for this place. One need not imagine that the nobility of our own age fancy themselves intrinsically superior to the common run of human being. Trump has on numerous occasions made clear his contempt for dirty, low-class Americans (including those among the exceedingly gullible mob who stormed the capitol building); and has done so in just those terms. His family has also made clear that they share his contempt for the average American. There’s a reason Trump didn’t pardon a single protestor among those who stormed the capitol—they were dispensable. They weren’t worth his time. They were a means to an end (which didn’t materialize) and nothing more. They were like the easily dispensable peasants with whom European aristocratics waged war. True to form, Trump’s children all married within their class and station.

Florizel and Perdita flee, of all places, to Leontes (under the manipulative advice of Camillo who, literally, is merely looking for an excuse to see Leontes again). He couldn’t give a damn about Perdita, who, he well knows, will straightaway be murdered by Polixenes (once they catch up to the couple); but he knows that Polixenes will pursue Florizel and Perdita and so he’ll get a free ride to Sicilia. But what is that to the noble Camillo? As far as he knows (at this point in the play) Perdita is merely a dispensable means to an end; and once that end is achieved, she will be brutally and rightfully dispensed with. But so what? T’were as much as hang a dog from a tree. One wonders to what degree Shakespeare bought into all this. First thing to know is that this was not Shakespeare’s plot, but based on a story by Robert Greene (a deceased playwright and erstwhile rival). Was he just exploiting the literary tropes of the day? I think so. Shakespeare might have bought into the belief, to some degree, that class was intrinsic and not economic; but he was also keenly aware that the nobility didn’t behave any better than anyone else and wrote dozens of plays based on just that reality (Shakespeare had a keen nose for hypocrisy).

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 44

It’s my own belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets come closest to personal utterance. Those who exercise power without restraint, he suggests, though they might be deemed the very flower of their class and station, are “outbraved” by the basest weed in dignity. I personally doubt that Shakespeare would have had much sympathy for Leontes or Polixenes (neither could be said to have been like stone or to temptation slow) but he used the tropes of the day to dramatic effect. That said, it’s thought that Shakespeare endorsed the political hierarchies of the day. In his plays, at least, he comes down on the side of rule by aristocracy (which is really as much as to say that he preferred a functioning government—such as it was—to mob rule). Whenever Shakespeare gives voice to the common people they’re generally portrayed as a mob—as a dangerous and destabilizing force. That used to disappoint me, but having witnessed the mob instigated by the Trump family, I see it from Shakespeare’s perspective. It’s not that he thought particularly highly of the aristocracy, but he probably saw in them the closest thing to political and social stability that the Middle Ages had to offer. And why shouldn’t he? The enlightenment was still decades away.

When Perdita’s pedigree (as Leontes’s lost daughter) is finally revealed/discovered at the end of Act 4, then everything changes (though nothing about Perdita has changed). She was still raised by the Shepherd who discovered and saved her life (demonstrating incomparably greater integrity and kindness than any of the noblemen). Not only does Leontes recover his daughter (who he had threatened to burn on the very day of her birth and/or strangle with his own hands) but he also recovers his wife, Hermione—revealed to him by Paulina in the guise of a statue. (This is the same Leontes, in the same act who would have killed Perdita at Polixenes bidding prior to discovering her identity). All in all, I find it an undeserved happy ending for Leontes and Polixenes—or any of their venal hangers on (apart from Paulina). That said, if there’s a difference between Leontes and Trump, it’s that Leontes had enough self-awareness to spend his life, until his discovery of Perdita, regretting his wrongdoing and expressing humility. Trump isn’t even intellectually capable of the insight granted to a fictional pre-Christian King portrayed by a dramatist of the middle ages.

All this is to say, reading Shakespeare after the Trump years has changed everything. I now have a little taste for what life must have been like for those in the Middle Ages—ruled by entitled fools along with their retinue of corrupt courtiers, hangers on, grifters and opportunists. Some part of me still buys into the fairy tale tropes, but the greater part is not so inclined to overlook the venality of the nobility in The Winter’s Tale. If Leontes and Polixenes had accepted Perdita, as a Shepherd’s daughter, prior to discovering her true pedigree (probably an inconceivable outcome in Elizabethan England) then there might be some measure of redemption, but there is none. Both tyrants only accept the outcome after they get what they want. The prerogatives and entitlement of both men is reinforced rather than examined. That’s not redemption. No lessons are learned. I do recognize that Shakespeare’s job was to write a successful play and that involved fulfilling certain conventions and expectations. The Winter’s Tale should probably be read or watched as a kind of implausible fairy tale; and it’s success or failure should likewise be premised on its dramatic effectiveness rather than its moral or ethical assumptions. In that regard, I do get the sense that Shakespeare’s heart wasn’t really in it or that he was conflicted. He gives Paulina, who excoriates Leontes, all the best lines; so much so that the other characters comment on her unrealistic bravery (but maybe she speaks for Shakespeare). By the fifth act, rather than dramatize the revelation that Perdita is really Leontes’ daughter, Shakespeare assigns the revelation to a conversation between two Lords who rattle off the occasion with efficient and workmanlike prose. Should we read Leontes and Polixenes as little more than fairy-tale absurdities? One of the arguments Oxfordians put forward is that Shakespeare too accurately portrayed the court and court politics to have been, well, Shakespeare. But, as better scholars have pointed out (including near contemporaries), Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nobility and the court was patently inaccurate:

It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example — old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a “nobleman” bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate “realistic,” or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely “romantic,” or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, “a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince,” as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William’s father’s friends.

“The Social Background” | A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison.

So, one could treat Leontes’ and Polixenes’ entitlement and murderous threats as more figurative than literal (if one were to act the play as a contemporary city drama); and I could accept that. On those grounds I might let the play’s “happy ending” slide (and the poetry of Florizel and Perdita’s love for each other is to die for); but taken at face value? No. We don’t live in the Middle Ages. I’m not feeling the happy ending of The Winter’s Tale any more than were the corrupt billionaire Donald Trump to escape the consequences of his crimes.

up in Vermont | February 6th 2001

The deep thoughts of Louise Glück

So Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature and can now join the ranks of such literary giants as Bob Dylan (who, I’m told, writes songs on the side); nominated by the same committee who, at their most tone deaf, nominated Peter Handke just last year, a man who is/was a supporter of the genocidal mass murderer Slobodan Milošević (having offered to testify in his defense) and who sprinkles his literary output with implicit defenses and denials of the Bosnian genocide. (When this was pointed out by Handke’s many critics, the Nobel Prize bristled with their own denialism.) This isn’t a group of people whose literary judgement, let alone political judgement, I hold in high regard, but the bauble that is the “Nobel Prize” is apparently irresistible. But I also confess that I don’t hold any literary awards or prizes in high regard, finding them to be popularity contests and (too often) politically-driven sideshows meant to burnish and aggrandize the agendas of the prize givers.

But what about Glück’s poetry? Apparently each Nobel Prize comes with a brief quote explaining why the award was given, in Glück’s case it is: “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” A quote which is about as anodyne and generic as you can get. It also reminds me of the great scene in Shaffer’s play Amadeus when Mozart is asked what he thinks of Salieri’s music: “One hear’s such sounds! What can one say but, Salieri?”

Salieri’s music is also unmistakable.

But what to make of “austere beauty”? I have some opinions about that; and it was this absurdly gushing post that pushed me over the edge. The writer calls Glück’s poem Crossroads a “subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.” And that was only after the equally gushing title: “Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to the Love of Life at the Horizon of Death”. As it turns out, Glück’s quote-unquote “serenade” is all of 13 lines. If there’s anything austere about Glück’s poetry, it’s in weeding out anything that might be called poetry.

Crossroads

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

Or another poem by Glück:

Intentions

The memories of my family outings are still a source
of strength to me. I remember we'd all pile into the car — I forget
what kind it was —and drive and drive.

I'm not sure where we'd go, but I think there
were some trees there. The smell of something
was strong in the air as we played whatever sport we played.

I remember a bigger, old guy we called "Dad."
We'd eat some stuff, 
or not, and then I think

We went home. I guess
some things never leave you.

Just kidding. The latter poem is not by Glück. But if you notice striking similarities that’s because there are striking similarities. The latter poem is a Deep Thought from Saturday Night Live’s “Jack Handy”. Let’s take a look at what these two “poems” have in common.

The first is that both poems are “austere”. Neither poem avails itself of the language that historically made poetry poetry. A ways back I wrote a post offering a definition of poetry drawn form Poetry.Org, a site that beautifully summed up what poetry has traditionally been in a single paragraph:

Poetry… is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.

1.) Both poets, Glück and Handy, write verse purely for its notional and semantic content. Neither attempts to exploit the aesthetic qualities of the English Language.

2.) Both poets dwell in generic abstractions.

In Glück’s poem, she starts out by telling us that she remembers what love was when she was young, then follows that with (practically speaking) bullet point abstractions that strike me as a poet too lazy or too unimaginative to actually describe what love was like.

…so often foolish in its objective…

Love is “foolish in its objectives”, she writes. A commonplace that appears at least once in every Elizabethan play ever written and is the groundwork for many of Chaucer’s stories (who actually bothered to write stories based on the truism).  Though Handy forgets what kind of car he piled into, he at least gives us something more concrete to imagine.

…its choices, its intensities...

Glück then reminisces about love’s “choices” and “intensities”, whatever those are. They were apparently demanded in advance—and vaguely. And then, further drawing us into her soft-focus haze, Glück states that “too much was demanded in advance” but apparently it was nevertheless not too much that could be promised. Did you catch that? I suppose there are readers who will make hay out of this seeming contradiction. It strikes me as a mistake or unearned pretentiousness. As with the rest of the verse, one can’t be certain. The more that one reads Handy’s poem, the more it reads like a satire of Glück’s poem, and in its way it is. He too can’t remember anything, but assures us, in his vague way, that it was all very important. He thinks there were some trees and remembers smelling something.

…so fearful, so violent…

Glück continues on her vague way, and perhaps now we get a sense for what the Nobel Prize Committee unwittingly meant when they said that she makes the “individual existence universal”. Glück’s landscape is so bland, vague and generalized that she all but wipes out “individual existence” in a Gaussian blur. She writes that her soul has been ‘fearful and violent’; and we as readers, I suppose, are meant to decide what Glück means. To paraphrase William Logan, she passes the burden of making meaning from the poet to the reader. At any rate, she doesn’t tell us. She assures us that she’s forgiven it’s “brutality” (don’t ask) and then descends into such a haze of imprecision that the reader has no idea who the “you” is in: “my hand moves over you cautiously”.  It’s anyone’s guess and everyone’s guess is surely valid.  She could be referring to her body, to her soul, or to a lover’s body or soul—or to the reader themselves. The lines that follow in no way clear up who she is universally referring to as “you”.

…expression as substance…

By the final stanza abstraction all but abstracts abstraction. Glück doesn’t want to give offense (for what?) and leaves it to the reader to construct whatever reasons the soul or body would have for taking offense. She is only “eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance”, though we have no idea, at this point, who is speaking or what is meant by “expression as substance”. Could it be the soul who touches the body or the body who touches the soul? Who is speaking? And who will miss who and why? Will the soul miss the body, rather than the earth, or is it the body that will miss the soul, once that conduit to earthly sensation departs the body? I suppose there are some who will laud this confusion as intentional and part of the poem’s genius, but that strikes me as the Fallacy of Imitative Form (in which a poet defends the confusion of the poetry by claiming it enacts the confusion of the narrator). As William Logan succinctly wrote of her, one gets the impression that she’s “a poet used to meaning more than she can say,” and Crossroads is certainly a pristine example of this kind of imaginative deficit. Apparently, Glück is so moved by her experience of the earth that she can’t muster a single concrete example. But I guess some things never leave you, right? Rather, the earth is little more than a hazy abstraction that her soul has, “I guess” (as Jack Handy might put it),  been brutal with. In her poem The Traveler, and in a self-revelatory moment, Glück even acknowledges as much, writing that “I treated all experience as a spiritual or intellectual trial.”

3.) Both poets are “poets” of sentiment, sentiment being defined as “a thought prompted by passion or feeling; a state of mind in view of some subject; feeling toward or respecting some person or thing…” Whereas Glück takes sentiment as the endpoint of profundity, Handy sees it as the starting point of satire, calling his poetry “Deep Thoughts“. The line between the two is very, very, very thin, so much so that whereas others gush over Glück’s profundity, I see Deep Thoughts.

Beyond Crossroads, reading Glück’s other poems is a field trip into a mediocre world of generic abstractions., redundancies, clichés, platitudes and dull similes. In her poem “In the Café” one finds such redundancies as “new discoveries” (because “discoveries” aren’t already, by definition, “new”). You will find fields that are flushed with “dawn light” because you might otherwise think that dawn and light are two separate events. In Reunion you will find prosaic and well-worn adjectives like “deliciously wry”, “eager openness”, “broad tolerance”, “profoundly different”, “hovering terror” — the stuff of run-of-the-mill writing. Or the platitudiness, deep thought, closing her poem The Past:

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

A variation on the question: Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one there to hear it? — a transparently pretentious reach for profundity that, at least to this reader, crosses into Jack Handy territory.

All in all, Louise Glück’s literary reputation will no doubt go the way of so many honored and esteemed poets of that long ago Victorian Era—whose names are no doubt at the tip of your tongue. She has and will have her defenders and close readers who are and will be deeply moved by her poems, poems like practiced flower arrangements whose”poetic insights” appear in all the proper and expected places. She’s light reading. Her profundity is that of rhetorical and narrative gestures rather than real profundity. She expects little to nothing from her readers and, like so many of her generation, treats poetry as nothing more than conduits of sentiment—precisely the kind of pretense so beautifully skewered by Saturday Night Live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

upinVermont | March 13th 2019

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.