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I want to do a bit of a meditation on the nature of voice and how the self is written into a poem.

When I first read Augustine’s Confessions, I felt I had discovered one of the hidden hinges of the modern “voice.” I was familiar with classical writing, and the coldness of the speaking voice in classical authors seemed absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps it was the fact that inflected languages do not always use a singular word to express “I.” The “I” in both Greek and Latin is snuck in by sticking an ending on the word, so grammatically the “I” stands out less.

Yet Augustine was radically different. Classicist, film scholar, and popular historian Thomas Cahill articulates it well:

Augustine is the first human being to say “I”–and to mean what we mean today….Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings–especially one that, like Bartlett’s, goes in chronological order–and let your eye pick out the I’s. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as “I.” Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptons stand out: a fragment (“The moon has set / and the Pleiades: / it is the middle of the night,  / and time passes, yes passes– / and I lie alone.”), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.

When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon’s standards the most enlightened emporer and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: “This being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs”–he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? “All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me.” For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.

It’s immediately clear why Augustine is often seen as the last classical and first medieval man. He marks the ultimate synthesis of classical rhetoric and sensibilities with the concept of self that marked the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cahill points out, the Psalms stand out among classical literature, as exceptionally personal. Augustine, says Ronald Heine, was “the undisputed master of using the psalms to lay one’s soul bare before God in the praise and confession of prayer….The psalms permeate everything Augustine wrote.” Rowan Williams points out that the very first sentence of Confessions is a quotation from the psalms. Augustine weaves them throughout such that we hardly know when the words are his and when they are not (a modern citation nightmare).

Consider a few selections from the Greek Anthology:

LECTORI SALUTEM

Reader, here is no Priam
Slain at the altar,
here are no fine tales.
Of Medea, of weeping Niobe,
here you will find
No mention of Itys in his chamber
And never a word about nightingales in the trees.

Earlier poets have left full accounts of these matters.

I sing of Love and the Graces, I sing of Wine:
What have they in common with Tragedy’s comic scowl?

~Strato of Sardis (trans. Dudley Fitts)

And this poem, which is more personal, but even the personal impulse is mediated:

TO HIS MISTRESS

You deny me: and to what end?
There are no lovers, dear, in the under world,
No love but here: only the living know
The sweetness of Aphrodite–
but below,
But in Acheron, careful virgin, dust and ashes
Will be our only lying down together.

~Asklepiades (trans. Dudley Fitts)

One of the more consistently “personal” poets I have found in the several (meager) collections of Greek Anthology poems is Meleagros:

REDIMICULUM PUELLARUM

O Love, by Timo’s curls,
by Heliodora’s sandal,
By Demo’s myrrhdrenched threshold,
by Antikleia’s slow smile,
By the dear flowers twined in Dorotheia’s hair–
O Love, Love, I swear
Your quiver is empty:
all your shafts
Have fled unswerving to bury themselves in my heart

~Meleagros (trans. Dudley Fitts)

In addition to Augustine’s unique “I,” I believe that Augustine is relatively unique in his relationship to his audience. His audience is God, the You of Confessions, yet really, we know it’s us. Homer and Virgil invoke the Muse, yet, I don’t get the picture that the Muse is their audience. No, the Muse is there mostly to help them get started. Ultimately, they have some other audience in mind. Augustine, though, intends for us to “overhear” (in the words of John Stuart Mill that Allan Grossman is so fond of citing) his lyrical unbosoming. He wants us to eavesdrop outside the confessional booth.

There is a fascinating double movement going on here. Augustine, himself weaving, imitating, and voicing the psalms, wishes for us to hear, so that we, presumably, can sympathize, but be moved to make our very own confession. Ironically, much of western art has imitated Augustine’s confession. We have a continual chain of imitation that stretches all the way back to one of the Ur-poets of our world: King David (or whoever wrote the psalms).

Yet even the psalms themselves are not single-voiced. Traditionally, it was understood that many voices are encapsulated in the psalms. Early Christians and Jewish interpreters recognized this (though they often disagreed strenuously on who was speaking). Ronald Heine captures the sense that one has while praying through the psalms: “When I read the psalms…alone, sometimes I am instructed or exhorted by the voice of the ancient author as he relates the stories of Israel; sometimes I myself am speaking, addressing God directly in the words of the psalmist; at other times I am directly addressed by God in the words of the psalm. The conversation may move back and forth within a single psalm.” When you add to this the layer of “inspiration,” and all the accompanying debates about it, it becomes clear that any attempt to unthread the twisted ball of connections will be completely futile.

So we have before us what seems like a contradiction, a swirl of voices that somehow manages to lay bare the angst of the single person. Toward the end of my time at Hunter, coming up on what I felt was a dry period in my writing, I decided to try and rewrite various psalms. Psalm 39 was the first. When picking a psalm, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of various voices. I was used to creating an overall emotional sense in my poems, something that was difficult with multiple voices. Psalm 39, however, was relatively uniform in its voice (or at least it seemed to me at that time).

This is how my poem came out:

Moth (Psalm 39)

Wanting to avoid your violent side, I tried to keep
my mouth shut when I saw the way you
rigged this game to destroy beauty—

and not just beauty, but the gaudy,
fast food smut that I hoard, too—
always savored by the hungry

moth. But you always hated the grudging
“Yes.” You made me broach the issue
of how you snatch away another’s beauty

in gloating silence, leave us bleached,
belly up, whales on the sand’s ecru:
Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?

It’s either you or vanity, vanity
So, you have my yes. True,
this might have been the point: your beauty

is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while I am consumed
by the blows of your hand, our beauty
—yours, mine—a moth, feeding, still hungry.

As you can see, it’s a villanelle built around two ending words (rather than lines): beauty and hunger. It became clear very quickly, though, that I would not be able to encompass all the ideas in the poem. Like Augustine, I was chopping and using what I could to fit into my own voice. But such decisions are hard to make. The psalms are often so layered with meaning and reference that it feels violent to cut any part while still doing justice to the psalm as a whole. In this case, the form worked as a way that dictated what to include and what to “evict” from Psalm 39: what worked went in.

Later, at Tom Sleigh’s recommendation, I picked up Donal Davie’s To Scorch or Freeze, which, as fortune would have it, also included an adaptation of Psalm 39. Davie, you can see, is considerably less angsty.

The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted
Donald Davie

I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model.
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”

I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
very discomfiting.

Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a feever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:

“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.

One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.

Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.

(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)

Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.

I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)

Now give me a chance. I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”

When I was in my late teens or early 20s, I was at Rich’s Cigar Shop in Portland, Oregon, which had the best magazine selection in the city in those days, and I picked up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. The magazine had a hole in it, and a card insert with just a black spot on it, both of which were part of that particular issue’s design. I liked it. The subtitle was: “A Journal of the Mental Environment,” or something similarly boldly rhetorically Structuralist. I was surprised. I was excited. The articles were different, advocated for political agency in a way different than any I’d experienced. I felt that naïve vitality that, at 31, seems more and more difficult to kindle.

Today, I find Adbusters kind of stupid. Its lefty academicese smacks of the do-nothing superiority that masquerades as contemporary liberal revolutionary spirit. Honestly, Adbusters and your flock, what revolution has your “culture jamming” actually accomplished, other than inspiring many people to spend their money on your magazine and schwag and to read with a sense that they’re doing enough because they know enough to be in on the dark joke of the present? I enjoyed the snarky Obama-with-a-clown-nose cover, sure, but your magazine is a waste of time.

In any case, I was at Powell’s this week and saw another magazine which transported me back to the original geeky, excited tingle I felt when I saw my first Adbusters. This magazine, The Baffler, is less revolutionary in its rhetoric and sharper in its content than Adbusters. Volume 2: No 01, which I couldn’t help but purchase, contains an essay about what the Internet looks like, a follow-up to No Logo by Naomi Klein, images of “feral houses,” a “motor city elegy” written by a Detroit native, articles on finance, politics, social networking sites—the usual sort of upper middle class political stuff—and poems by Rae Armantrout, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jack Spicer, and Devin Johnston. Poems!

I leave you with encouragement to check The Baffler out, should you be in need of baffling (or in need reading for the train or plane), and the second section of Armantrout’s fine, “This Is”:

2

This is a five star trance

To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,

to get drunk on indifference,

to stare

at a bright succession
of crests

raised from nothing

    and flattened

A Green Crab’s Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like–

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
–size of a demitasse–
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this–
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

-Mark Doty

I’m currently in a class concerning Animal Studies in the Comparative Literature Department in which the word “anthropomorphism” is a swear word.  The argument is that anthropomorphism is anthropocentric, and thereby undermines the possibilities of the animal’s consciousness by placing the human in a superior (and dominating) role.  It should be noted that while I think this all well-argued and slightly interesting, when it comes to poetry—it’s a large load of nonsense.  We’d have to knock out some pretty significant poems in our extended canon were we to castigate anthropomorphism the way they are proposing. At least for me, and for a long trailing history of ancestor poets behind me, anthropomorphism is the stuff I (we) live for.  And if it’s a profane thing, then @#*& you, Comp Lit people. (It should also be noted I am the only poet in that class, and I am looked at at least twice during every session as if I were a really cool but leggy and crawly beetle that you’re grossed out by but can’t look away from.)

But you haven’t failed me completely, pedants.  You’ve brought into the sphere of my vocabulary a new term that I am finding far more interesting and applicable than the “horrors” of anthropomorphism: ZOOMORPHISM.  Of course it exists the other way around!  Why shouldn’t we, egotistical, dominating humans that we are, take animal traits and ZOOMORPHIZE ourselves to further some exploration of consciousness, personality, experience, etc.?  Now this—this is good.  And now that you bring it to my attention, my esteemed scholars across the way, it’s obvious that it’s zoomorphism that is the most interesting, and the poetry that has been most profoundly affecting for me is that which ventures to gain perspective by putting on another set of eyes entirely not human, kicks up the dirt with its daring hooves, flares its nostrils and doesn’t give a damn about drooling or snorting.

And then comes Mark Doty, with this genius little (enormous!) poem, which anthropomorphizes a crab shell to aid in the zoomorphism of the reader.  I mean really, the man has DONE IT.  My temptation to pass out this poem to my peers in Pedant Class as a semi-guerilla act of poetry warfare is barely tameable.  But I’ll refrain from my nerdling rebellious impulses and just be tickled by the possibilities of what once could have been in this grand ruin of a crustacean edifice that Doty has given me.  Beyond that imagining—beyond “what color is the underside of skin?”—just those remains, just that royal palace of a shell, with “such lavish lining!” is so enchanting, so incredibly enticing that I can’t help but want to go beach combing this instant and stare into a crab shell as I never have before (Wanting a reflection?  Wanting my own to make a home out of?).  This is the kind of poem that changes how you proceed in the world after you read it.  A crab shell is NEVER just a crab shell after this, nor should it ever, ever, ever be.  If you catch my (sea) drift.

If ever I was called a hermit crab by overly-social friends pressing me to leave my precious lair (and oh, it has happened!), I wish I’d rebutted with this poem. Who would ever want to leave their shell if it were anything like that shell? (Though Doty’s crab isn’t a hermit crab, probably just a common littoral crab. Still.)  Magical creature that he’s shown us!  Imagine it in life, scuttling around, clickety-clacking on shore pebbles, a little magician with electric green wands!  Sigh.  Call me crabby, call me (a) hermitic (crab), certainly call me crazy—but thank you, my dear Mark Doty: I forever welcome it all.

Armond White comments on the decline of film criticism:

Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.

Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.

Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this war between traditional journalistic standards and the new acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.

By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).

He continues by deriding the blogosphere:

This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”

Yikes. This isn’t the first time White’s burned all his bridges:

[Pauline] Kael’s cutting remark cuts to the root of criticism’s problem today. Ebert’s way of talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment, seemed to normalize film discourse—you didn’t have to strive toward it, any Average Joe American could do it. But criticism actually dumbed down. Ebert also made his method a road to celebrity—which destroyed any possibility for a heroic era of film criticism.

At the Movies helped criticism become a way to be famous in the age of TV and exploding media, a dilemma that writer George W. S. Trow distilled in his apercu “The Aesthetic of the Hit”: “To the person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game.

Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the still-convalescent Ebert. I wish him nothing but health. But I am trying to clarify where film criticism went bad. Despite Ebert’s recent celebration in both Time magazine and The New York Times as “a great critic,” neither encomium could credit him with a single critical idea, notable literary style or cultural contribution. Each paean resorted to personal, logrolling appreciations. A.O. Scott hit bottom when he corroborated Ebert’s advice, “When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it.” That kind of thinking made Scott’s TV appearances a zero.

While White regularly gets pegged as an intelligent troll, my personal take is that he usually hits the critical nail on the head, even if he comes across as disproportionately strident. On the other hand, his rage is perfectly understandable when you consider that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are allowed to fall into the same categories as most “critics” today.

In other news, my very smart and artistically talented friend, Gene Tanta, has started his own blog about…well, it looks like everything so far.

I. What Do People Do?

I’d caught glimpses of them before.  Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains.  Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega.  Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.

They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands.  Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon.  Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.

Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock.  Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs.  Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.

II. When Will It End?

My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep.  On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine.  I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps.  I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase.  The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”

My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided.  How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.

In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell.  The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.

“When will it end?”  I heard.  The businessman was looking at me.

He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established.  This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines.  When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?

I looked at him.  “Which thing?”  I said.

The businessman laughed.  I made the businessman laugh.  He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”

Then I laughed.

There was a pause.  The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling.  He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”

III. Is it really that simple?

I get coffee.  I go to work.  In the afternoon, I go for a walk.

IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?

“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.  On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay.  And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.  The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.  But being paid,–what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

V. Why Write?

MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else.  You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about.  This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?”  This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living:  If I have a job, I won’t be able to write.  If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then).  Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.

“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes.  It is ugly.  The people are sad.  How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?

Life consists of propositions about life.

—Wallace Stevens

I.

A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.

Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.

At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep.  The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.

That is, believe me, the easy part.

II.

Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate.  He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor.  A corresponding buzz would sound.  But nothing happened.  The gate, unwavering, would not open.

The student would have, then, three options:

1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.

2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.

3) Run.

3a) Away.

III.

Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.  To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later.  ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’  Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

(Let me interrupt for a moment.  This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry.  The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)

Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto.  But take note: I am powerful.  And I am only the least of the doorkeepers.  From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.  The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’

(Ok, sure.  This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker.  But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….

(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)

IV.

I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.

This is how we’d work it:

1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.

2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.

3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.

4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.

5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.

6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.

7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.

V.  Intermission

The Gate

by Marie Howe

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

VI. Sentimental Ending

Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings.  This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself.  That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong.  That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.

Ashbery:

…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

PROFESSOR: Mary Ann, would you mind reading your poem aloud so that we can hear it in your own voice?

MARY ANN: Absolutely.  Ahem.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
SHAFT!
Ya damn right!

Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
SHAFT!
Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
SHAFT!
Right On!

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.
THEN WE CAN DIG IT!

He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
JOHN SHAFT!

PROFESSOR: Thank you, Mary Ann.  Ok, class, let’s start with the things we like.  Then we’ll move on to the things we think could be improved.

[Long pause.]

AMERICAN STUDIES MAJOR [pensively]: I really appreciate how the poem argues with itself, even contradicts itself—“If I contradict myself,” it seems to echo Whitman, “I contradict myself.”  In fact, I find a lot of parallels between the chief persona in this poem and the Whitman/ Emerson/ Thoreau American Transcendentalist milieu, if you will.  This man, this John Shaft, I think we can all agree, would not exist without Emerson’s tenets so formidably outlined in “Self-Reliance,” am I right?  Am I right?  [Flashes a toothy white smile toward Romanticist.]

ROMANTICIST: [giggles]

[Modernist glares at Romanticist.]

SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) MAJOR: I disagree.  I think the most provoking contradiction in this piece is when the speaker asserts that Shaft is a ‘bad mother.’  This bends all our preconceptions of male/female roles in a domestic space.  That is the main dialectic at work here, not the juxtaposition of popularity versus existential alienation.

MODERNIST: Really?  So you’re saying that one gender-bending line overshadows the obvious post-modern Prufrockian slant in the entire piece?  I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that when the speaker asserts that no one understands Shaft but his woman, the speaker is being ironic, using indirect discourse to suggest that this is what Shaft has to tell his woman to assuage her concerns regarding her insecurities as a lover.

ROMANTICIST: [gasps, incredulous]

[Modernist glares at her.]

SWAG MAJOR: Um…well, considering where the line comes in the piece…

ROMANTICIST: Well, I for one don’t think [air quotes] His Woman [air quotes] is [air quotes] insecure [air quotes] about her abilities as a [air quotes] lover [air quotes] at all!  I mean, Mary Ann says—

PROFESSOR: The speaker says….

ROMANTICIST: [air quotes] The speaker says [air quotes] that John is a bad mother—can’t we consider what this means in terms of what kind of man John really is?  Mother…mother-love…lover…bad mother/bad lover…bad mother lover…bad mother-fuc…

SWAG MAJOR [continuing]: …the line is clearly the poem’s volta—yes, I would say this is the crux of the entire poem.  And I think it’s unfair to assume that Shaft is the most secure lover just because he’s male.  I mean, if that were the case, why all the verbal overcompensation in the poem?

ROMANTICIST: Exactly.  That’s what I was [air quotes] saying [air quotes].

SYSTEMS ENGINEERING MAJOR [louder than necessary]: See, I read that line, line 13 differently; it seems to be street slang that is then cut off by the secondary voice—or voices—that bring the refrain in each quatrain, those responsible for the majusculated expostulation, “SHAFT!” and the like.  I feel quite strongly, given the way Mary Ann read her piece, that “mother” is part of a longer phrase that undergoes interruption by the voices of the refrain.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that this issue of punctuation be fixed, and the problem can be remedied quite easily by “mother” being followed by an em-dash.

CLASSICS MAJOR: I mean, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty obvious that the secondary voices interacting with the primary lyricist compose the chorus of the piece, yes?  I think Mary Ann need be praised for reinventing this age-old tradition in an entirely fresh way.

MARY ANN: Thank you.

PROFESSOR: Ok, before we move on, any last comments?

ROMANTICIST: Well, I just want to praise the quite visceral interjection we get in the end—[air quotes] “John!” [air quotes] Mary Ann—excuse me—[air quotes] the speaker [air quotes]—cries out.  [air quotes] “John Shaft!” [air quotes], as though, before, we the readers, as well as the populace of the poem, did not know this impervious persona—never really knew him—until this ultimate line, coming after the penultimate, which is also incredibly moving.  Who can possibly understand this [air quotes] “complicated man?” [air quotes]  [air quotes] “No one understands him but his woman.”  [air quotes] [Looks imploringly at Modernist.  Trembles.] No one!  [air quotes] [Weeps.]  [Flees classroom.]

[Long pause]

SLOW IRONIC HIPSTER GUY [to no one in particular]: Hey, ya know what?  I think I’ve—yeah, I’ve definitely heard this somewhere before….

Canada, it’s spring-break time. We’ve already got trees budding. Actually, many schools have gotten the whole Winter Olympics off for two or three weeks of extended spring break drunkenness. I’ve been glued to CTV for the last week or so, watching my new favorite sport: curling. No joke, this game is intense. It’s the skill of bowling with the strategy of chess. Not to mention, curling and hockey are two of the few things that get Canadians riled up (they go from passive agressive to just plain aggressive).

In the spirit of breaks from routine (are two weeks of blog posts long enough to be considered a routine?), I figured it would be good to take a break from the Grossman inspired posts and do a little reflection on a recent article in Wired magazine: “How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web.” And in the spirit of Spring, I want to see if I can connect it to W.C. Williams.

Ever since I read an article on cloud computing and Google’s ability to translate web pages based upon its database alone (that is, nobody programmed the various language rules in it; it literally translates via algorithm), I’ve been interested in Google’s relationship with language. Now, any of you who have used Google Translation know it’s pretty awful, but the idea alone is impressive, and there’s no telling where improvements will take it.

This particular article goes under the hood of Google’s search engine, and we find out the real difficulties lies not so much in web crawlers, page ranking, or any of the stuff Google is known for (although, that is certainly a feat), but rather interpreting the desires of the Googler:

“We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

Did you catch that? Google uses Wittgenstein…Holy Mother of all snake-eating-its-own-Postmodern-tail!

Google, of course, is probably at the forefront of product innovation. Google has created an environment where failed ideas are OK, a sort of decentralized and messily creative workplaces that capitalizes on an excess of time and resources. Knowledge workers rejoice! (See here and here)

But that wasn’t what caught my attention most of all. It was this:

One unsuccessful search became a legend: Sometime in 2001, Singhal learned of poor results when people typed the name “audrey fino” into the search box. Google kept returning Italian sites praising Audrey Hepburn. (Fino means fine in Italian.) “We realized that this is actually a person’s name,” Singhal says. “But we didn’t have the smarts in the system.”

The Audrey Fino failure led Singhal on a multiyear quest to improve the way the system deals with names — which account for 8 percent of all searches. To crack it, he had to master the black art of “bi-gram breakage” — that is, separating multiple words into discrete units. For instance, “new york” represents two words that go together (a bi-gram). But so would the three words in “new york times,” which clearly indicate a different kind of search. And everything changes when the query is “new york times square.” Humans can make these distinctions instantly, but Google does not have a Brazil-like back room with hundreds of thousands of cubicle jockeys. It relies on algorithms.

The Mike Siwek query illustrates how Google accomplishes this. When Singhal types in a command to expose a layer of code underneath each search result, it’s clear which signals determine the selection of the top links: a bi-gram connection to figure it’s a name; a synonym; a geographic location. “Deconstruct this query from an engineer’s point of view,” Singhal explains. “We say, ‘Aha! We can break this here!’ We figure that lawyer is not a last name and Siwek is not a middle name. And by the way, lawyer is not a town in Michigan. A lawyer is an attorney.”

This is the hard-won realization from inside the Google search engine, culled from the data generated by billions of searches: a rock is a rock. It’s also a stone, and it could be a boulder. Spell it “rokc” and it’s still a rock. But put “little” in front of it and it’s the capital of Arkansas. Which is not an ark. Unless Noah is around. “The holy grail of search is to understand what the user wants,” Singhal says. “Then you are not matching words; you are actually trying to match meaning.”

My current job is teaching upper level writing to ESL students who are entering graduate school. Most of them will go on to do MBAs, but I try to give them a heavy dose of the liberal arts, which many of the students (especially ones from China) are lacking. It’s an incredibly frustrating process, at first, but it has turned into the best kind of reward, as I get a glimpse of my own language and system of thought from an outside (alienated?) perspective. For as many discernible, overarching truths and rules about the language, I often find the same number of beguiling nooks and crannies, particularities that indicate a long history of human choice and situation enshrined in our very words. Almost everyone knows this about language, but to actually encounter it on a regular basis is a bizarre experience.

I think my experience teaching is the same experience that Google’s engineers must deal with: Why do we associate certain things, and what complex process takes place in our brain that allows us to instantly recognize them? The question of lines in poetry adds a layer of complexity to this question. Grossman says that “lineation” is one of the defining qualities of poetry (even prose poetry is defined by its lack of lines, isn’t it?). As I was attempting to write poetry for the first time in high school, I remember obsessing over my lines. I could never understand why I wanted to break a line here one day and there on another day. As I write, I feel pretty confident about cutting my lines. That isn’t to say I still don’t play with line breaks, but I have a pretty intuitive sense of when to hit the Enter button. Sometimes I break a line for the sake of a playful slight rhythm, but usually it comes as a sense of whim–it just seems right. Is this an intuitive sense that has a core? Or is it really just whim?

This leads me to my question: How would Google parse a poem like W.C. William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow?” It reminds me of a passage from a paper I wrote in the beginning of grad school:

Even though this poem is essentially a sentence, each image is carefully isolated by means of juxtaposition. Each stanza contains images that are a juxtaposition within itself according to the line breaks: “depends” versus “upon” (two directional words going in opposite direction), the particulars of the wheel barrow (its redness and wheel[ness]) versus the wheel barrow in its wholeness, the glaze of rain versus the rainwater, the chickens versus their own whiteness. The details of the things are pulled apart and highlighted, bringing out a rich multi-faceted view of each object. Williams’ accomplishment is almost that of the cubists, allowing the reader to see these objects in many different ways, from the different angles of detail. Yet despite this almost excessive juxtaposition, the poem has a unity. It does not communicate the same fractured nature that a painting like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Rather, this poem explores the unity of objects, their interconnectedness, while also evoking the particularities of objects and, in some sense, how they vie with one another. What is even more striking about this poem is how commonplace it is. These are objects that many Americans in Williams’ time could see on a regular basis. For Williams to find so much juxtaposition and still unity, to be so common and yet absolutely metaphysical is a feat. More important here, we can see the way he perceives language. Each word is isolated either visually or by juxtaposition in the same way each imagistic object in the poem is isolated. This is one thing Williams does often in his poetry: isolate each word visually, either through an extreme sparseness of form or by simply leaving a word on a line by itself. What would today be considered gimmicky by most MFA students, Williams accomplishes with verve in a way that is not gimmicky in the least. This is because Williams largely helped pioneer this technique, but also because the reader senses the whole power of idiom behind Williams’ language. Its commonality is the source of its power. The idiom arises from the commonplace here. And more importantly, Williams communicates this idiom through objectness.

That passage contains perhaps one of the most absurd phrases I’ve ever written: “the chickens versus their own whiteness.” (No post-colonial analysis, that!) But no matter what you think of my analysis, the question of where these words are “broken” from one another and why is a question that I suspect Google could never answer in the form of an accurate search. Google can tell when “little rock” means the capital and not a small pebble (or some sort of midget music genre), it’s true, but humans are capable of something even more complex than that: breaking things apart and still recognizing the relationship. As the passage from my paper indicates, I believe this ability stems out of idiom (in William’s case, the American Idiom).

Ironically, Google sees everything as fractured. When you search johnny cash hurt, Boolean logic looks for johnny and cash and hurt. Google uses modified Boolean logic and has accomplished the ability to tell when certain words probably go together.

Now for the second order language intelligence of poetry: can Google understand line breaks? Could Google help us become better writers?

Suppose you are reading Levinas, having a nice Cuban sandwich, minding your business, thinking about the self, the other, the other self, the otherness of self, the selfishness of other, etc, etc, and the sun slants across the legs of a woman you pretend to have a deep rapport with—striping them apricot. What do you do? It’s a question of ethics. She is eating half a plate of seasoned fries. The meal is over priced. The Cuban sandwich is on the wrong sort of bread—the kind of bread they put Cuban sanwiches on when they are over charging you (sour dough). It is spring, or maybe it isn’t: maybe it is fall, the last truly warm day in fall. Yes. You are sitting in the wrought-iron chair, outside, on the last warm day in fall, with Levinas in your lap, and the beautful woman has Kafka in her lap. The sun has decided to place an apricot hue over her legs, legs which have been shaped by only eating  half plates of seasoned fries, and nothing else until, later that night, when she is naked in the arms of a man who also reads Levinas, but is much better looking, she eats a canoli—the whole thing, and says something meaningful to him in French.

Ah, you know you are a fraud. Levinas is a fraud. The only truly genuine thing in this universe are her legs, and they are attached to her by reason of genetics, and attached to you by reason of desire. The man with whom she sleeps is surly. He can afford to be surly. His hip-to-waist ratio is perfect. His teeth are white, but not overly so. When he sprawls naked on a bed, he seems intelligent. She desires him. Even though she has him, she wants him—which makes her fairly stupid in his presense. He will equivocate. Those with the proper hip-to-waist ratios may equivocate. He is like Adonis, and she is Venus panting over his sprawled splendor. He is you in another alternate universe. He is the you who does not beg like a seal clapping for fish. She speaks:

“How is the Cuban sanwich? May I have a bite?”

Every time you meet her for lunch, she takes a bite of your sandwich. When shrikes seek a mate, they impale bumble bees, and little baby sparrows to locust thorns and allow the prospective partner to dine. A shrike has a special “tooth” inside it’s maw for tearing and rending frozen flesh from bone… or is that a wolverine? Shrikes are also called butcher birds. They inhabit Northern fens. They implae prey to thorns, barbed wire, various sharp protruding things: whatever may suffice as a skewer. By giving her a bite of your sandwich, you will be reduced to the level of a shrike. And worse… The shrike gets laid. You will show how inteligent you are concerning the self, the other, the other self, the selfless other, the mystery of the other, the aporia by which self, other, shrikes, and cuban sandwiches are utterly beside the point. You demur. You have never demurred before. You withold the immediate gratification of her biting into your lunch. You stand firm—in so many ways. You say:

“No. Finish your fries!”

Does she know what is on your mind? To what degree is Levinas an unsuccessful make out device? How many graduate students are sitting even now on the plains, and in the mountains of American Academia, attempting to seduce each other with the complete works of Levinas? Just last week, you realized you were being replicated. There were thousands of fractal “yous” inhabiting the various over-priced eateries of towns both large and small. What would Levinas think if he realized you were using him to show how smart you are?

Her hand, her pretty left hand, the one with the blue nail polish, is reaching for your Cuban sandwich. She has decided to ignore your firm resolve not to be a shrike, and she is going to taste your meat. This has become a question of ethics. She is using you. You are co-dependent with her eating disorder. For her sake, and for your own, for the sake of the genuine, the real, the authentic, you must not let it happen. You grab her hand. You have been wanting to grab her hand for two years. What sort of coward needs a show down? She has one grey eye, and one green one. Her long legs were crossed, but now they are planted firmly in the “I will have a bite of your sandwich” position. You realize now that Levinas is right. We can not know the other. We can not know the self. You say:

“No.”

And so you do. You say no. She says: “Why are you being such a prick?” You say: “Did you ever think I might want the whole sandwich?” Her hand retreats: ice floes, thousands of years of approach and retreat. You pick up the check, leave an overly large tip. You are the wrong kind of shrike. The waiter will not like you any better for leaving him 25 percent. You are courting everyone. You keep hoping the universe notices that Levinas is in your lap. You are hoping they will say: “Oh… you read Levinas? Can I mate with you?”

Her name is Trudy. She has translated Kafka into Welsh. She has the sort of thick, dark hair that gets dented in the morning rather than messy. All she has to do is push out the dents, and she’s ready for the day. She is genuinely smart. You have a dream in which a poster of Simone Weil is attached to her naked legs. Her one flaw is her name. Who names their child Trudy? You certainly would never name a daughter Trudy. Perhaps you would name her Simone, or Clare, or Helen. You get an A on your paper concerning Levinas and the sociopathy of corporatism. You remember kissing a girl who liked Martin Buber. What happened to her? How did it all come down to this? Even now, as you walk away from the cafe, and Trudy heads for her part time job, and all is forgiven, and you give her the hug and perfunctory smooch they often give on talk shows, you feel terrified. This must not be your life. You will find the girl who liked Martin Buber, and kiss her again. She is somewhere in the world—perhaps in the far north. She lives in a little cabin, alone, thinking of you. The days pass, and Martin Buber brings back fond memories of your mouth on hers. You can see the little cabin in the woods. A light is on. It is dusk, and the bleak cry of the jay contrasts with the welcoming light.You have fire wood hosted on your shoulder. You are singing a merry tune in Canadian French: something about little loves who have dancing eyes. You are remembering the Robert Browning poem in which he rows a boat at night towards his love. Your heart is uplifted. Trudy is not the right girl for you. Who cares what Kafka sounds like in Welsh? You have fire wood, and six Cuban sandwiches stowed away in your back pack. There is recompense. There is salvation. You can throw Levinas away. You can build a fire, and discuss Martin Buber while lying naked in that sweet girl’s arms. What is her name? She was demur. She had heavy eye lids, and spoke in a vital whisper. You do not see the shrike. It is impaling a fox sparrow to a thorn. It lives in the brambles behind her cabin. You are too big for it to eat, utterly beside the point.

We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)

MORE RESPONSES FROM POETS AND CRITICS


That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.

That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.

And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.

Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.

All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.

Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.

I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.

—Robert Kelly, February 2010

The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway.  For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.).  No one was going to out-sophisticate them!  Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his  “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency.  Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.

Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.

Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense.  The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn.  This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all.  What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate   imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed.  But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.

The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time.  It’s the execution that makes the poem special.

The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato.  Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds.  Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art:  the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.

It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending.  Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson.  The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold.  So much for sentimentality.  And so:

The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.”  This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.

One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:

If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.”  In other words:  real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.

—Bill Wadsworth

I don’t much care for flarfing, spoetry, or any of the pedantic ballyhoo and giggling that attend these “avant-garde” or rather more absurd, “post-avant-garde” little poetry-world eddies, but I am interested in the arrival of a message in my “Spam” folder that does not clearly connect to a commercial aim—text that is literary, in some sense, but displaced from its usual context in a way that makes my thoughts teeter and bend toward sublime confusion for a moment.  For example, on a whim I recently checked an email address I’d abandoned to find an inbox full of Spam messages advertising prescription drugs, West African swindles, on-line casinos, virility aids, etc., yet also the following, without any immediately transparent commercial purpose:

Says that the Russians once anchored here and hunted sea-otter before the first Yankee trader rounded the Horn, or the first Rocky Mountain trapper thirsted across the “Great American Desert” and trickled down the snowy Sierras to the sun-kissed land. No; we are not resting our horses here on Humboldt Bay. We are writing this article, gorging on abalones and mussels, digging clams, and catching record-breaking sea-trout and rock-cod in the intervals in which we are not sailing, motor-boating, and swimming in the most temperately equable climate we have ever experienced. These comfortably large counties! They are veritable empires. Take Humboldt, for instance. It is three times as large as Rhode Island, one and a half times as large as Delaware, almost as large as Connecticut, and half as large as Massachusetts. The pioneer has done his work in this north of the bay region, the foundations are laid, and all is ready for the inevitable inrush of population and adequate development of resources which so far have been no more than skimmed, and casually and carelessly skimmed at that. This region of the six counties alone will some day support a population of millions. In the meanwhile, O you home- seekers, you wealth-seekers, and, above all, you climate-seekers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor. Robert Ingersoll once said that the genial climate of California would in a fairly brief time evolve a race resembling the Mexicans, and that in two or three generations the Californians would be seen of a Sunday morning on their way to a cockfight with a rooster under each arm. Never was made a rasher generalisation, based on so absolute an ignorance of facts. It is to laugh. Here is a climate that breeds vi

This message’s subject was “, who has started to g,” and it was sent by “Allcock” <leveraging@streetguide.com>.  A quick Googling of the first line suggests it was culled from Jack London’s story “The Human Drift,” available in ebook form at Project Gutenberg.  The attached file, which I have not opened, is probably a virally infected advertisement for something related to the moniker, “Allcock,” but we will never know, as it has been permanently deleted.

In this same scan of spam missives, I noticed that “Jerome Alford” sent me the following message, attached to an ad to get Cialis on-line without a prescription:

He had heard that before. This is a dream bridge. The orders on this are very clear. Pilar has got in trouble there. There is bound to be much firing. He put his hand on her shoulder.
But why should they bring planes? You couldn’t do it. Maria is with thy material. El Sordo did not hear them. That is for a doctor to say. No one should ask him anything. No matter what. But you can’t take them both. I’m very proud of your family.
Much more than likely. There is where the true evil lies. It irritated him a good deal. It is very simple. Daughter of the great whore of whores. Their reward was at hand. Who is ready now? Have you heard aught of this? It is not true?
Open at All Hours. That it should start. That is _really_ nonsense. Take care not to vomit. Is not this manifest? The _civiles_ looked at one another. Gredos is safer country than this. Floyd do next? Pablo for that. That is all. We go when he comes. He is very smart.

It appears to be chopped up bits of text readily available on the Internet, a collage of verb tenses, registers of diction, and so on.  Now, I’m no flarfer, no spoet, certainly not a part of any ridiculously dubbed “post-avant” or “post-avant-garde” or “avant-post” movement, but I’m fascinated by the mind’s process when facing such unconventional texts in unconventional contexts.  As opposed to the new best-selling novel, the predictable, measured sentences of a fine memoir, the easy pleasures of most poems in the New Yorker, sometimes the textual composition without commercial aim is just what I need to revive me from the narcotic effect of conventional language.  Really, is it possible that there is joy in the struggle to make meaning of language that perhaps has practically no meaning at all?  I can’t wait to check my Spam folder again in a month in order to ask myself this question again.

Friends, please post any good Spam you’ve received below, and please resist flarfing.

I probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.

In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.

By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:

Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.

And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.

In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”

In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.

I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.

I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.

It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.

OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).

Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?

Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.

Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.

A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:

Poet laureate Robert Bridges sparked the debate when he argued:

The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.[47]

Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.”[47] The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:

On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.[48]

Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:

I am at first included to agree … But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.[49]

In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”[50]

Cleanth Brooks defended the lines from critics in 1947 and argued:

We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.[51]

M. H. Abrams responded to Brooks’s view in 1957:

I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.[52]

Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:

Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?

Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.

For now, we seem to have enough riches before us to ponder. My utmost thanks to Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Frances Whistler, Dara Wier and Richard Zenith for their thoughts.

POETS, CRITICS AND READERS RESPONSES

I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.”  Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes.  So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice.  The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn.  The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made.  So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging.  Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True.   An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know.  We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.

Alfred Corn


To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”

Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.

A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.

Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.

As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another.  One truth may conceal another, too.

I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.

As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.

Don Share


Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.

Frances Whistler


Beauty is Truth

An epitaph in tone

One can see it inscribed on a deathmark

A funereal inscription

On a tombstone

On an urn filled with ashes

Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends

Another circular instance

Keats was always dying

Keats never was not

Like Stein’s a rose is a rose

As a hope, as a denial

Would be that all were circular always

Like all poetry is

Or makes it up as if it were

Dara Wier


A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.

Richard Zenith


I worry about graduate students. When intention, and goals, and focus outstrip the accidental, the possibility of falling into exactly what you need to trip over, you ought to take stock: what do you just allow to happen? Some students will say, “Easy for you. You have a job.” They’re right. But I never planned my lifeever, and I think anyone who knows me, knows this is true. I’m not advocating that any one be as accidental as I am, but there needs to be some carelessness. The true power of money, or fame or talent is that it gives wiggle room for carelessness. I’ve been poor most of my life—sometimes dangerously so, and what I felt most deprived of was the right not to give a rat’s ass. A writer needs carelessness to a certain degree. They need to write just for the hell of it—without the pressure of publication, or work shopping,or a grade, or because it’s “worthwhile.” No child kicking a can wonders if it’s worthwhile. Can kicking is a value in its own right. So I like to instill in my students a sense of “just for the sheer white hell of it.”

This is what Flannery O’Connor was getting at when she spoke of developing a “habit of art.” So much of the industry of poetry is about “Work.” Being goal oriented, and focused can be detrimental, if taken too far. As my grandmah always said: “A dog chasing his tail, loses the yard.”I hate work. My idea of a meaningful life would be to recieve a spell that allowed me to lie down beside a beloved in a field of timothy grass, sans the bugs, and, every so often, she would tenderly ticikle my cheek with a blade of grass, and we would make out until ourl lips were swollen, and then walk hand in hand through blue chickory and ascend to the bed room where we’d have sex for six hours, in perfect bliss, fully realizing the tantric ideal, and then there’d be a movie, and perhaps a beverage, and the last rays of the sun would fall upon our noses just so, as we lay naked and tangled in each other’s limbs in abject splendor, and angels came with rock glasses full of Jameson– perfect little ice cubes that maketh sweet melody! Oh yes! Being short, and bald, and utterly untantric, I am forced to write this, rather than live this, which brings me to the point of my rant: writing is a compensatory act—an augmentation to a life that is not lived. It is what is missing. It is a void through which the hand moves, and, when the hand moves just so, the void allows the faces and landscapes to appear. to be vivd for a moment until they fade, and are replaced by bills, and obligations, and the voice of the world telling us to keep busy. Oh busy, busy world which hath not love, nor hope, nor Jameson: what does it avail thee? My true motto: “Lighten up and despair!”

This leads me to a writing prompt called “despairing more deeply into joy. All you need to do in this writing prompt is be undignified. James Tate is never dignified. He indulges himself. That’s why he’s famous: You need a cookie for this writing prompt, or anything you might eat when you miss someone– a cookie, rice pilaf, whatever. You need to realize life is both beautiful and hopeless, that, even if you win the Pulitzer, wrinkles will come, and body parts will fail you,and you’ll become King Lear and insist utterly false people kiss your warty ass until you drop dead, and they forget you.. If you’re lucky, you’ll be hot for about 20 years, and your reign of terror will be extended. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be less than hot,and that will mean you’ll have to be really smart or very kind to all sentient creatures just to get a little taste of what hot people get by simply breathing. Yes. Life is unfair. Ho hum. You have been cheated. You were born for greater things! Why doesn’t anyone realize it? Get yourself into a state of absolute indignity.  Right now. You can begin this prompt with any of the following three lines:

“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”

“You sat naked on my sofa, all except for your glasses, and you asked me to remove them.”

“Why is that fig in your hand, instead of me?”

When I think of snow, I think of a navy blue P coat because I once loved a girl who always wore a navy blue P coat, and, in my warped mind, a couple flakes of snow are always falling into the darkness of her coat, and disappearing. I see her sometimes in dreams, and she is wearing the coat, and a little knit ski cap, and calling me : “Booshi!” I touch her hair. It is damp and wren brown, and it makes me feel wierd, and tender, and sadder than I have ever felt in my whole fucking life. Every time I go to touch her hair, and feel the damp, and watch the snow melt into her coat, she undoes the buttons, and lets me put my hands around her waist, and then she disappears. This is easy to do, this dreaming awake. I have given up all control of what  should happen, and yet I am the only creature of what happens. Writers are often introverts who secretly want to rule the world with an iron fist. They need to stop trying to control everything, and then they will have the absolute power of a hollow pipe through which the wind blows, and little children peer to look out the other side.

Anyway, by now, you are probably wondering where the prompt is. It is in the lines: Let’s look at the first line:

“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”

Okay, we know someone is snow (not uncommon in a poem). We know it is “that year.” We know the snow fell on the speaker of the prose poem, and it appears to happen in the morning. What’s an odd hour? Perhaps we can do without the word odd, but odd sounds nice. We shall see:

If you choose this prompt, pick a year in your life that the reader need never know: 1991, or 1967, or whatever. List three things that made that year significant : You got laid for the first time, you came to know God, your father had a heart atack in his lover’s bathroom… whatever. Anyway, list. Put the list to the side. Now, consider snow in terms of all the five senses:

Sight: how is it falling? Is it swirling? Are they fat flakes, little icy pellets? Is it lake effect snow and blowing sideways? Does it fall in a still semi-darkness of winter, 7 Am. Does it fall under the street lights? Are you noticing how vividly green and red and amber the traffic lights are during snwy days? IS the wind blowing?

Smell: wet wool perhaps, the smell of the cold (We know it has a smell. What is it), a smell of wood smoke, etc.

Taste: Is the snow salty, sooty, Icy metal? Did you suck wet wool as a child (I did)? Children are always tasting the world. They’re like catfish.

Touch: does it sting your face slightly? Does it fall on your hair, so gently yet somehow perceptible? If someone should suddenly put cold hands on your face, would it piss you off?

Sound: And has God put a mute in the trumpet of consciousness? Is the snow like a damper petal? Have you ever stood in silence on the porch, and tired to hear ne snow flake among thousands?

Now, the good news is, you don’t have to use any of this stuff. This is what I call gathering. You’re stalling. Your picking up strays. The main purpose of this is to build the thing inside you– to trust that the truth of this dream is growing.” Fell” can be aggressive: it can mean attack, or affectionate ambush, or passion, or playfulness. In this one line, you have a lot to work with. I’ve been gathering by helping you gather. I have a blue cup full of coffee to my left. My heat is working. I am ready!

Prose Poem

You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning. I came to rely on it, and took my blue knit ski hat off, and let you sting my ears. But tell me, if we come to rely on being ambushed, is it ambush? The snow falls now. It isn’t you. Perhaps it is someone else’s dead. Perhaps it’s become the fingers of a clumsy child, a child who can’t button her coat, and must  pretend for the rest of her life that she likes being cold. How many things since you stopped being snow have I pretended to like? I put my hands over my ears. I don’t want to hear myself. This is sad. This is always sad. I stand at the bus stop, expecting you to fall, to touch my bare neck—to give me the good pain. I say “cut it out.” In the language of sad this means: “Come here!” Look! The traffic light is more green more red, more amber than it has ever been. It is a record traffic light! I am sick with love. Terrible things happen to people, or maybe they don’t. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking because a truly terrible thing would give me full permission to cry. I need permission. Something is locked inside my scarf—something that trembles, and smells of wet wool, and doesn’t know the lock is broken. It could come out—if it wanted to. If it  was that child, I would offer to button her coat. I would kiss the dark wool where the flakes were disappearing. No wonder I lose scarves—all those prisoners inside them! I can’t bear it any longer. Whatever it is, I want out. The bus is coming. Inside, in the still semi-dark, the green yellow ancient light of the bus, and slushy foot prints, and somber morning faces. Fall on me. My hands are cold. The buttons won’t obey. I am wide open. I refuse to listen. My hands are over my ears.
What is it I am so afraid of hearing? There is nothing terrible happening—nothing anyone can see. That’s what makes it so terrible. That’s what makes it snow.

Okay, so try one of these, and give yourself permission to digress, and, if you are a busy human being, give yourself permission to digress even further. Digression is nine tenths the law. Fuck the manuscript. Fuck the curriculum vitae. We serve them bitterly. We have to work, but it isn’t our  true kingdom. It isn’t snow.