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 discriminated against 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” rather than “of an age”). 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.

Related:

 

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.

out of the mainstream…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from Fence’s website:

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

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

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

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

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

Want to read a poet out of the mainstream?

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

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

Digital Launch of Fence Magazine

John Ashbery Dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Vermont’s Poet Laureate & Reputable Publishers

 

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

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

Wut?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

upinVermont | September 11th 2016

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

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

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

Barb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

upinVermont | September 6th 2016

My ongoing feud with Vermont’s Poet Laureate

Chard Deniord’s latest submission to the Valley News.

And my opinion as submitted to the Valley News:

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

But okay.

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

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

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

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

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