my pbk. copy of Critics & Criticism (1971) Posted by Hello

Mississippi near St. Paul Posted by Hello

RR bridge over Mississippi at Twin Cities Posted by Hello


Two Acmeists on the right (Mandelstam, Akhmatova). Nadezhda Mandelstam, 3rd from right. w/friends & family.
p.s. if I were to re-write those comments quoted in Octopus, I would probably rein in some of the grand abstract claims about poetry & zeitgeist. Mandelshtam, Dickinson, Dante... each had their own unique, characteristic ways of expressing some of the metaphysical questions in relation to poetry. Mandelshtam, for one, made explicit in his essays that poetry-making & poetics are always a living, developing, changing process.

Yet I wouldn't renounce the comments entirely. Even though the insights of the Chicago critics, which I've been talking about over the last couple weeks, have helped me recognize certain critical distinctions - which, if they were put into play, would take the reading of poetry far deeper into the particulars of individual works - still, I think that those critics' forthright renovation of Aristotle's Poetics - after a hiatus of a few thousand years - chimes somewhat with my essay's theme of anachronism.
In the midst of the Festivites d'Hiver, mon dieu, HG Poetics is swallowed by an Octopus [see "Essays"]. Merci bien, Octopus!
something seasonal from The Grassblade Light:


...and there’ll be roomy enough for all the whirling
sand cricket dervishers and all the damsters and
dames in Amsterdam whipping up the food flood and
swizzling their ham-and-eggster-cage-roulade thing

– in the snowy distance out the window
William heard the carousel’s merry tinkling bell
at the carnival... quiet, meditating on Study Hill
with skull and candle, his heart’s coracle now

only flickering. The end draws near.
Early, he thumbprints his identity in ashes
on his brow. 28 fifths (diminished) plus
one funereal dirigible – Henry, propped up there

in his fragile flying egg. Bluejay – snowtrack
of a ghost dance only. The light shivers
behind the eye sockets, fixed. Hers.
Mother and child. Bruegel’s sack

of peasant colors – a city barge, at Paris level:
Blackstone goes from white to red to blue
and back to black – color of the night above you.
New Year’s night. Take it on faith: this carnival

beneath a farmer’s shed is where we are,
my prodigal. The mined heart of a minor hearth,
a scull turned coracle. A rude and ruddy berth.
And now that cushioned Czar called Balthasar

bows down, and on a plush pillow presents his gift:
one hoary green-gold Mexicano monkey nef.
See how the rainbow folds around that cleft
soul’s sword-point now. Behold her darkness lift.


Winter in St. Petersburg (picture found here: www.ed.spb.ru/spb/)


Finished Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry on a break this afternoon. Crane closes where he began, with a generous & sensible recognition of the basic value of variety in critical methods.

"Of the truth about literature, no critical language can ever have a monopoly or even a distant approach to one; and there are obviously many things which the language I have been speaking of cannot do. It is a method not at all suited, as is criticism in the grand line of Longinus, Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, to the definition and appreciation of those general qualities of writing - mirroring the souls of writers - for the sake of which most of us read or at any rate return to what we have read." (p. 192)

& etc.
R.S. Crane may sound like a voice from another era. Well, he is, but that doesn't mean he's not relevant. Not at all. He's a kind of undoctrinaire formalist - that is, he knows literature, he understands the formal requirements of genres, and he looks at what the poet is trying to do in terms of those generic patterns; yet he's not dogmatic or categorical ("that's a comedy" is not an explanation), and the focus is always on what particular choices make for effective and integral artistic wholes.

"...For the secrets of art are not, like the secrets of nature, things lying deeply hid, inaccessible to the perception and understanding of all who have not mastered the special techniques their discovery requires. The critic does, indeed, need special techniques, but for the sake of building upon common sense apprehensions of his objects, not of supplanting these; and few things have done greater harm to the practice and repute of literary criticism in recent times than the assumption that its discoveries, like those of the physical sciences, must gain in importance and plausibility as they become more and more paradoxical in the ancient sense of that word: as if - to adapt a sharp saying of Professor Frank Knight about social studies - now that everybody is agreed that natural phenomena are not like works of art, the business of criticism must be to show that works of art are like natural phenomena."
- The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, p. 180

- published in 1952. "paradoxical?" - boy, if he'd only known what was arriving a few decades later!
A few of the curious consequences of RS Crane's Aristotelian-inductive approach (ie. a kind of scientific-investigative process : you take poems one at a time, you ask questions of them having to do with what the poet was trying to achieve, and what kind of guiding or formative impulse shapes the work; you proceed by the method of "multiple hypotheses", weighing different possibilities rather than following some abstract, a priori schema or theory about what poetry in general "is"):

1. On the business of "form & content" in poetry (remember that?): the form turns out to be the complex poetic representation as a whole; the matter is the verbal material (like clay in pottery) out of which the form is developed. This is the reverse of the usual arrangement (whereby "form" is the language, "content" is the subject-matter).

2. The method shows a kind of impersonality which is bracing. Although no evidence can be ruled out when analyzing a poem, the method doesn't begin with the biography or literary development of the poet. Questions are asked of individual poems : is this an "imitative" or "didactic" work? If the former, what is being represented by the speaker? Is the lyric an emotional response to a situation? Or a decision or exortation to action (ie. Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress")? Or a meditation on a serious issue called forth by a situation (Gray's "Elegy")? From a variety of directions, the critic tries to get at what the impulse or motive for the poem is - what kind of impression or effect is the poet driving at?

Imagine a critical reading of contemporary poems which came at them in this way, using various analytical tools (genre, mode, literary history, creative impulse) to triangulate the measure of beauty or effectiveness of the work.

This seems so different from what we usually get in a critical article or review : a combination of taste and impressionism, which, because it lacks method and consistency, usually falls back on a stock of "in-house" references and vocabulary; ie., the reviewer, the poet & the reader must share a closed circle of acceptable discourse and knowledge to even make primitive sense of the values to which the critic refers. The reviewer leads in with a resume of the poet's background or past performance, or the "school" to which he/she belongs; perhaps a brief polemic about the parlous state of literary affairs and the salutary difference this poet makes; then a few hyperbolic remarks on the high points of the book under review, a few gentle hints or words to the wise about weaker examples; and that's it. Or perhaps we get a "close reading" of one of the poems in the book : we learn that both the poet & the reviewer have a veritably seraphic deep & special knowledge of some kind, or a genius for subtle triple-entendres, or a mastery of some arcane metrical technique - and this is offered by way of a general aesthetic assessment of the book. It's a wonderful amalgam of sophistry and pseudo-pedantry, which, at least in comparison with Crane's methodical approach, never gets close to particular poems at all.


on the road to Kenyon, Minnesota (Nov 2004) Posted by Hello
Jordan plays the acoustic Double Hyperbole:

"Poetic production (Supply) is in pretty good shape. I would say we're likely to start seeing more and more heart-stoppingly good work, especially as the country slides further into venality and barbarism."

The equanimous golden mean is somewheres in between?
R.S. Crane is the greatest. I love this book. Get it back in print!

The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, U. Toronto Press, 1953

(Not least in that he led me to 1770s poem by Sir John Henry Moore, called The Duke of Benevento - a riot)

What Crane does among other things in this book is debunk, in a wonderfully ironic tone, most of the criticism of the last 3000 years or so, focusing however on 2 strands of 20th-cent. criticism : New Critics, and "myth criticism" (the method of discovering hidden themes, symbols, layers of meaning, which explain how Henry IV or Hamlet are really recreations of archaic myth or the Jungian racial subconscious). He shows that both trends are reductive in different directions, and by the end of this book you'll see a lot of affinities between standard modern lit crit and medieval pedantry (pseudo-science, pseudo-theology).

His argument is that what these critical approaches miss is the substance of poetry-making itself. What poets are about is the fashioning of "concrete wholes" (poems); what this process involves is the shaping of a form, which coalesces around a dynamic, creative idea. Poets & artists recognize this process : they experience the inability to write or compose anything, until this shaping idea, this ruling spark, manifests itself - the catalyst, which triggers the coalescence of the whole thing. Crane talks about it as happening with the writing of critical articles as well.

He describes the Poetics of Aristotle, almost alone in the history of criticism, as focused on the how of the poetic process itself: laying out a kind of layering of "default mechanisms". It's not a simple symbiosis of "form & content": form dominates & suffuses everything, uniting the material into an imaginative whole - in the same way that wood becomes different built things, or clay is shaped into various forms, so language is shaped to the organizing concept - the "plot" in dramatic & narrative poetry, the "argument" in many other modes. These layers of "default" (this is my own terminology, not Crane's) - in other words, Crane, via Aristotle, describes how the verbal texture, the language itself, becomes the "material" of the "thought", the thought in turn is the "material" of the characters, the characters in turn are the material of the plot - kind of an overlapping or layered spiral of formal energy. (You could find analogues in the design of kinds of poetry other than dramatic : diction/concept/speaker/argument, etc.)

When you start considering individual poems from this approach, as particular formal inventions worked out from a unique set of "plot" instigations, shaped into a unitary, irreducible aesthetic entity - you really are looking at poems differently from those approaches which involve cataloging the poem's meanings based on an analysis of the vocabulary (usually, as Crane shows, applied with some simple set of oppositions - the famous New Critical "tension"), or installing the poem in a preconceived set of anthropological, psychological or mythological theories.

For Crane, the matter hinges, as I've remarked earlier (yesterday), on whether the critic looks at poems as simply a special type of language use, or, on the other hand, poems are conceived as conceptual objects, formal events, the apperception and appreciation of which involves language to the same extent that we take an interest in the "clay" itself in pottery or sculpture.

This book came out in 1953. Much happened in poetry & criticism in the 2nd half of the century (Crane died in 1967). One way to look at the new movements of that time in American poetry (Lowell's Life Studies & confessionalism, "Deep Image" etc., NY School, Objective-Projectivism, Beats, etc.) as reactions against the pedantic, reductive methodologies promoted by New Criticism ("shape a beautiful object using formal diction & traditional technique which is self-contained and autonomous based on a skillful balance of opposing tensions"). But, as Crane shows, the overwhelming trend of literary criticism, since the Alexandrians and Horace, has been against the Aristotelian approach, & has favored philological and rhetorical analyses of the poem as a species of language, rather than, with Aristotle, as a type of art, an organic form, the mystery of the making of which can only be studied inductively, a posteriori. So that one can see, for example, that the Language poets' dialectical appropriation of Russian Formalist and New Critical philology, or the structuralist & post-structuralist resolution of literature into language codes and defunct language codes, respectively - that these "new" movements actually retain and repeat the ancient categorical biases : poetry is "decoded" as a rhetorical or linguistic phenomenon, and then recruited into whatever agenda the critic pursues.

Let's have a new approach, which focuses on the poem as conceptual whole, the product of a creative process - often a mimetic or dramatizing process - which involves forming an integral, beautiful representation, a unitary effect : irreducible to mere linguistic coding or critical appropriation. This is a theory for artists and poets, rather than for critics, philosophers & rhetoricians.


Went up for a break to a 3rd-floor library carrel, thinking about previous Virgil comments. Opened up my RS Crane book, started reading. Looked up at the books on the carrel shelf - & found that the carrel's collection was entirely devoted to Virgil's poetics. Art thou with me, dolce padre?

Virgil's 4th Eclogue contains the famous messianic passage, predicting the "virgin birth" of the Child who will bring the return of the Golden Age. So his pastoral is tainted with "history". (& the eclogue is echoed later in the center of the Aeneid, in the lengthy apostrophe to Caesar Augustus.)

Dante, self-appointed heir to Virgil, places his pastoral earthly paradise in Purgatory, a way station to the final refuge in Paradise; but that Paradise is full of earthly history - the center of the final rose containing the empty chair for the coming of the messianic Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VII).

Milton, the revolutionary Protestant and advocate of regicide, sets aside any merely earthly political authority : his Adam & Eve, before their fall, in Eden, are taught directly by angel-shepherds, and after the fall, political authority on earth is described as under apocalyptic judgement.

Eliot(monarchist) & Pound(fascist) - political authoritarians both - looked to Dante, rather than Milton, as their model. But for Dante, divine & earthly (political) authority were counterbalanced. For Eliot & Pound, the (medieval) balance was broken : the feebleness, or complete lack, of a desired spiritual authority, made political authoritarians of them both.

The world is still dealing with these problems (imposed, politicized religious ideology; authoritarian politics; spiritual anomie & despair).
The idea of juxtaposing two complimentary notions of pastoral - the pastoral eclogue vs. the "pastoral letter" - makes me think of the traditional "wheel of Virgil". This was a medieval description of Virgil's literary project : to begin with simple, arcadian-nostalgic eclogues, proceed to didactic Georgics, and synthesize with heroic-utopian-tragic epic (Aeneid). In this way Virgil circumscribed or synthesized both "pastoral" principles - within a "wheel" which contained all modes of poetic narrative (that is, excluding drama).
Josh responds to my "pastoral" comments of the 17th. Thanks, Josh.

I think I wouldn't characterize my original take as simply "Christian" or "too Christian"; I see it, anyway, as simply literary. I'm not promoting a particular version of pastoral; rather, I'm trying to understand how the literary mode called pastoral might be seen as combining both Pound's "eclogic" and his didactic impulses.

The eclogue or the pastoral may, as Josh says, evoke a fragile, trespassable, "synchronous", aesthetic (imagined) space; but I think the same always implies what has been rejected or kept outside (history, violence, etc.). & I think the trajectory of Pound's career indeed represents an attempt to fuse these contradictory/complimentary meanings of pastoral : his "epic" project itself was an effort to go beyond the closed circle of fin de siecle art-for-art's-sake; it was an attempt to fuse the aesthetic eclogue-pastoral with the rhetorical-didactic "shepherding"-pastoral. Unfortunately the authoritarian structure of his plans for world-renovation led him further & further into his own political anti-paradise. & I agree with you, that the partial peripeteia of this personal melodrama or tragedy appears in the Pisan cantos, when he's in the jail cage, looking at birds on the phone wires and ants in the sand.

(I say partial peripeteia, because Pound, like many a Sophoclean or Shakespearean tragic character, came to only a partial recognition of his mistakes. Yet even that partial recognition allowed him, sometimes, a new tone in the poetry.)
RS Crane (Languages of Crit. & the Structure of Poetry), again, emphasizes how Aristotle's Poetics differs in approach from most contemporary crit., even that which uses Aristotelian terminology.

In Winters, Ransom, Empson, Brooks & Warren, et al., the difference is clear right at the beginning, with their various opening definitions of poetry. As Crane shows, these critics define poetry as a branch of discourse. Aristotle defines tragic & epic poetry as a branch of artistic imitation. The poem is an "artificial whole" or "imitation". The imaginative wholeness of the poem evokes, by analogy, the wholeness of a particular action (beginning, middle, end). Aristotle doesn't try to define all poetry; he focuses on examples of a particular kind. Within this kind, the poem is a kind of imaginative simulacrum (mimesis) of an action. This is its substance ("plot is the soul of the poem"); language is the medium (there are other kinds of imitations - visual, musical - which use different media).

The relations between this particular kind of poetry (imitative : tragic/dramatic, epic) and other kinds (didactic, lyric) are not dealt with by Aristotle. But a criticism which takes as its subject the poem as aesthetic whole, rather than the poem as form of discourse, or merely verbal structure, is a criticism which is marking out a different approach to poetry as a whole. The notion of the poem as some form of relation or balance - in Aristotle's terms, a mean between extremes - a balance, that is, between logos & mythos, between medium and theme, between discourse and subject - a relation aiming at a fusion, an aesthetic wholeness, a complete impression, a fruition or fulness (Aristotle's proper "magnitude")... - this whole idea raises new perspectives, new plateaus, for critical reception of various kinds of poetry.
... am I just being divisive again, setting up my own teams system, like that other guy? Not necessarily. I may indeed differentiate between critical approaches - but I don't claim one is better than the other (though I may prefer one over another); and a new critical approach might find previously-unremarked values in poems from various, different "camps" - not just promote its own school.
I take my betes noirs very seriously.

It's possible to think critically about poetry & poetics, that is, in a disinterested way. Such thinking is a kind of creative activity. Some of that goes on here at HG Poetics.

Also, here, I talk a lot about my own writing. That can be viewed, correctly, as self-promotion, I guess - mostly silly & counterproductive, since the only way to advance your work is to find other people who want to publish it.

I guess since I blur these two activities here on the blog, it's my own fault if the first activity is not taken seriously. That's why I guess it would be better to write essays & reviews, rather than blog notes, about the poetics issues one takes really seriously.

With respect to the first strand (disinterested thinking), I would really like to see the development of a new stream of criticism, which takes some of the insights of these Chicago critics into account. Because there is a big & serious difference between those who promote poetry as a "verbal structure", and those, like these "neo-Aristotelians", who view the poem as something slightly other than the words per se: a kind of imaginative gestalt, if you will, an image-form (I'm grasping for terminology here), in which logos (diction) is fitted to mythos (story) in a holistic force-field. This concept of poetry's dual nature might be analogous to Mandelshtam's figure of the poem as always dual - fusing the "verbal material" with the "poetic impulse".


Interesting musings on Pound & pastoral mode by Josh. I guess if I were in his shoes I would start with two juxtaposed notions of the term: 1) pastoral as idyllic escape/union with sheltering landscape; 2) pastoral as in "pastoral letter" - didactic wisdom, prudence, guidance : the pastor, through wisdom, is a shepherd of the people.

Then I would investigate the intellectual frameworks grounding any particular pastoral idyll : the idea that every literary "Eden" (Biblical, Alexandrian, et al.) is framed by a prudential logic of loss and return - even the Epicurean versions (escape to pleasure for its own sake) are based on a logical assertion. In this perspective, the two definitions of "pastoral" always go together, depend upon each other : we do not return to the peaceable kingdom until we "return" inwardly, through conversion, repentance, discipline, struggle (personal/historical), etc. The road to the promised land leads through the desert : this is the ur-plot of pastoral. The pastor is the shepherd who guides through desert to pasture. Wisdom is expressed in speech, and thus the poet, the bearer of sacred speech, is the pastor.

Then I guess I would examine Pound's poetry & example using a kind of 4-fold diagram: on the horizontal, I would look at the development of "pastoral" imagery - identified using both definitions of the term, as described above - chronologically through the Cantos. On the vertical axis, I would: a) examine Pound's ideological commitments from 1918-1930, and b) look at what were the consequences of those commitments - what effect they had on his own life.

What information might I draw from this grid? An image might emerge which would show how Pound's commitment to enacting the pastoral mode - ie., taking on the role of an actual pastor leading an actual flock, through actual history toward a possibly real Earthly Paradise - had at least a couple of results: first, Pound sort of took his writing beyond "art" (the Cantos are a kind of palimpsest, a mumbled personal farrago of texts); second, this text he created provides a sort of photo-negative of pastoral. The moral blindness of some of his commitments led him into his own personal hell (madness, treason, incarceration, silence). The continuance of the praxis (making the poem) forced him to represent not only his visions of various forms of Paradise, but also some of his own failures & mistakes. This blend, the Cantos, is the resulting scar tissue : aestheticized (fascistic) dream-history replaced by the haltingly-narrated revenge of real history upon his own hubris.
...thus, note carefully what Crane is saying here : the ultimate criterion of poetic value is its lastingness, the perennial quality of its beauty and interest.

If true, this should make us revise our notions of literary tradition and development. Not to say that there are not productive advances in literary forms, or that the canon is a fixed collection of past classics. (As Crane points out, Aristotle might have found King Lear a more complex & interesting example of tragic poetry than Oedipus.)

It is to say, however, that beauty is the criterion, which subsumes both pleasure & instruction. The criterion is not merely formal or aesthetic in an exclusionary sense - it's probable that ethical, moral & political values will inform our notion of the beautiful. But poetry also has its own scale of inherent expressive values - originality, elegance, rightness, clarity, eloquence, etc. - which make up the beauty of the work as a whole.

If beauty is the criterion, the critic will have to shun polemics and special pleading of every kind. Claims of novelty, "experiment", marginality, "progressiveness", political relevance, etc., are all partial claims, which - if not related to the final cause and the ultimate criterion (lasting beauty) - actually fall outside the realm of critical judgement.

With these things in mind, maybe readers can begin to distinguish for themselves between general "poetry business" (promotional activities of the entrepreneurial or socio-political kinds), and genuine criticism.
I could quote RS Crane all day (Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry). In one passage, he talks about how, with Aristotle anyway, it's useless to consider "pleasure" in the abstract, as an "end" or purpose of poetry. Pleasure is always conjoined with particular forms of activity, and is characterized by them. Then, in a paragraph, he telescopes the historical development of mimetic poetry, from basic human pleasure in imitations & mimicry, to the moral distinction between imitation of things admired ("better people") and things satirized ("worse peope"), to the practice of a Homer, in which a complete, integral form has been found to subsume many forms of imitation:

"...finally to have eventuated, with Homer, in self-contained works of art the final cause of which is beauty rather than either the general pleasurableness or the moral utility of imitations... It is indeed a final end in two important senses - in the sense that it is an end peculiar to the poetic art rather than one imitative poetry shares with other arts or activities, and also in the sense that it subsumes the other ends of pleasing and instructing, and goes beyond them. For it is distinctive of poetry such as Homer's that it utilizes the pleasure we all take in imitation and rhythm, and the vivid interest we have in other human beings and especially in the moral issues in which they can be involved, in order to make objects which we can continue to appreciate, after our first curiosity is satisfied, for the sake of their intrinsic rightness and beauty. This therefore is where poetic theory, in its normative aspect, in general must begin..." (pp. 64-65)
Dear friends, you can do me a favor: email Spuyten Duvyil & ask them to reissue Stubborn Grew.
Seems that among the Chicago School notions I've been following, the one that interests me the most is this concept of the poem as an artificial-imitative construct. RS Crane makes it clear that Aristotle, anyway, is being very specific in the Poetics - is not talking about all kinds of poetry. And "imitation" does not equal "realism" - does not mean an attempt to "faithfully reflect" a stable external reality. Mimesis in poetry is a verbal artifice or autonomous creation, reflecting the poet's inner concept of an action (the plot) and its consequences & implications. Part of the interest (pleasure, etc.) derived from such a production does involve our ability to identify & understand the action, and the characters involved - thus it requires an element of verisimilitude (the characters are either "better than us" (epic, tragedy), "worse than us" (comedy), etc.). But there is no simple equation of experience and the art work; the poem is a selection & recreation of events - real or imagined - in a completely artificial medium.

We might be able to extrapolate, from the ways an audience absorbs & responds to a dramatic poem or an epic poem, to the action(s) or purposes of poems in general. This seems to be what's happening when Elder Olson or RS Crane talk about how the diction & verbal texture are only one element - and perhaps not the most important one - of a poem's structure. They refer to Coleridge's criticism - the way he balances considerations of verbal effects with the nature of the poem's argument, theme, "thought" - the images & concepts evoked by the words. Like Aristotle, Coleridge thinks about poems as imaginative wholes or unities - this unity as being perhaps the foremost structural element, the formal resolution, of its overall beauty, radiance, claritas. Here the notion of fitness or decorum comes into play: the verbal texture in each of the poem's parts must relate fittingly to the subject-matter & contribute to the total effect. (Coleridge distinguished poetry from prose as having pleasure, rather than truth, as its end, and as being beautiful, not only as a whole, but independently in each of its parts.)

A "didactic" poem does not imitate an action. But mimesis plays a role in all poetry, lurking in the imaginative indications, implications, inferences, suggestions of every figure & trope.

So if we start thinking about poems as imaginative/conceptual/mimetic wholes - representing & imitating actions and "mental actions" (choices: decisions about things) - then, it seems to me, this opens up new ways to read. & I mean read whatever little book of poetry you have in front of you.
Good background article on the Chicago School.

Most of them seem more interested in fiction than poetry, but not all (I want to look for the study by one of the "3rd generation" Chicagoans, Adena Rosmarin (Power of Genre, on 19th-20th cent. poetry). Implications of their general approach might be worth exploring. RS Crane in the book I'm reading (Languages of Crit. & Structure of Poetry) writes about how Aristotle's Poetics is not about the social or political aspects of the subject, but is an investigation of how "good poems" (in the mimetic mode - tragedy, epic) get written.

On a side note, I've mentioned here before how the opening of Stubborn Grew - which, by the way, appears to be out-of-print now at Spuyten Duyvil - was generated in part by the Poetics. I was reading a study on it, which argued that the Poetics "does what it says" in a sort of para-poetic way. This gave me the idea that a long poem could open with sketches exploring the concept of writing a long poem, of telling stories. Gives it sort of an echo effect, a reflexivity.


"Blake test" has a very special meaning for me. I attended Blake School, grades 4-12. (So did Allen Grossman, 10 yrs before).

(My kids attended the same middle school as Clark Coolidge did, here in Providence. No wonder I can't figure what they're talking about sometimes.)
...read this review this morning. Here again is that mainstream/alternative divide, except in Britain. I like the layers of complexity the writer (David Kennedy) brings out. A review should note the provenance of the book under review, however. Not to do so seems to underline the ingrown nature of the poetry toenail.

This "binary", this divide, this line in the lime... if you started with an economic analysis of the poetry world (which Kennedy touches on), and then observed the different ways various poets, critics & reviewers manipulate that economic situation (ideologically, professionally), you'd probably come up with something resembling a pale replica or minor offshoot of the political left/right divide in general (1. capitalists, 2. workers, 3. intellectuals = 1. professional published poets, 2. unpaid "marginal/progressive" poets, 3. "critics").

Kennedy remarks on the complacency trap which both sides of the divide tend to drop into. I suppose Bourdieu & American Poetry Wax Museum have probably covered this stuff with more discourse than I could ever assimilate. The professional rewards are real (academic jobs, grants, awards, royalties, fame), on the one hand, and yet the constraints (ethical, practical, aesthetic) on poetry careerism are equally real, and this contradictory situation creates all kinds of weird phenomena in the realm of poetry's critical reception (blurbism as criticism; tactical ideology as criticism; buddy networking; etc.).

Pushkin thought poets should be treated as independent literary professionals, whose "market" is the general public - reviewers, bestowers of honorary positions, and interest claques be damned. It's a nice idea, sort of like western civilization.
slow goin' here at HG Powetics. hectic at work & spaced out otherwise.

walk right in
sit right down
baby let your mind roll on

(old jug band lyric)

I will rev up some day, & shake the dust from my feets.


& then after you done did all that, Gunga Din, Dina Dinga Ling, & the holidays are in place, presente, in effetto, actualidadittdadadistica - then go here.
& after you've read, digested & fully absorbed Aristotle, Coleridge, & the Chicago School... then relax, go over here, & see how it's done by a practical do-it-yourselfer. & do all this before the holidays really get underway. is that clear?
there was a great, great passage in the RS Crane book (Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry), which I came across a couple weeks ago, in relation to Jonathan's notes a while back on fitness(decorum). I'll try to locate it.
"Ain't it a little late in the day," you ask, "to bother with criticizing the "'New' Critics?"

First of all, you shouldn't use "ain't" unless you need a rhyme for plaint. Secondly, this here Chicago School, it seems to me, clears the ground, enlightens the region, establishes some first principles, or reminds one of existing principles for which you don't need to re-invent the refrigerator magnet.

Relevant it is indeed to such contemporary issues in this wee corner of Blogistan such as:
1. how the heck can I ever read all them poetry books?
2. how can I get around that current can of ards which asserts that poets today ain't got no theory?
3. how can I get beyond this plague of simplistic labels, pigeonholes, clubs & sandwiches?
4. what is a literary critical method anyway?
5. can I be a critic too?
6. what is the relation between poetry & reading public? is it really a closed system or "guild"?

What RS Crane, for one, emphasizes, is that both Aristotle & Coleridge established grounds for evaluation on several bases, & in so doing, allowed for a criticism which resists reduction to some totalizing analogy or reductive principle (ie. Empson : poetry = linguistic ambiguity; New Formalists : poetry = traditional metrics; Language School : poetry = denatured diction). So there's a lot of poetry out there. Say you find something that grabs you, and you want to read it with certain practical purposes in mind, like mapping its territory or explicating its virtues. With some of the knowledge provided by the Chicago critics, you can begin to develop your own means & methods of evaluation & appreciation - on a vastly different, & independent, philosophic &/or aesthetic basis.
"Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving. Adams answered, for one, that he did not know, but would try to find out. On reflecting sufficiently deeply, under the shadow of Richard Hunt’s architecture, he decided that the American people probably knew no more than he did; but that they might still be driving or drifting unconsciously to some point in thought, as their solar system was said to be drifting towards some point in space; and that, possibly, if relations enough could be observed, this point might be fixed. Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there." - The Education of Henry Adams

"I had come to hear that great things might be true. This I was told on the Christopher Street ferry. Marvelous gestures had to be made and Humboldt made them. He told me that poets ought to figure out how to get around pragmatic America. He poured it on for me that day. And there I was, having raptures, gotten up as a Fuller Brush salesman in a smothering wool suit, a hand-me down from Julius. The pants were big in the waist and the shirt ballooned out, for my brother Julius had a fat chest. I wiped my sweat with a handkerchief stitched with a J."
- Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift
p.s. they have a lot of good things to say about Coleridge's critical methods, too.

Remarkable critical disestablishmentations (take-downs) of William Empson (7 Types of Ambiguity), Cleanth Brooks (Well-Wrought Urn), other New Critics.
Who were the "Chicago School", or "Chicago critics"? A group of scholars/critics, several affiliated with U. Chicago, who shared an interest in the philosophy of Aristotle, esp. his approach to criticism outlined in the Poetics. Published around mid-20th century. They rate about a column & a half in the Princeton Encyc. of Poetics. Elder Olson, R.S. Crane, Richard McKeon, et al.

Not finding a whole lot about them off the bat, here in Bruno Library. I suppose their approach got a bit lost in the shuffle of jazzier 60s-80s stuff, like post-structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, new criticism, etc.

Trends that (very roughly speaking) they seem to follow from Aristotle's lead:

- lit. criticism a branch of philosophy
- criticism not an exact science since based on human productions rather than nature
- there is an empirical, inductive, "differential" approach to examining any subject, which pays great attention to the particular line of inquiry into its object of study; said object can be seen from a variety of aspects, depending on the approach, & doesn't fall neatly into larger systems of abstraction
- poetry can be approached from various aspects & lines of inquiry; the Poetics approaches it with respect to its specifically artistic ends or purposes
- criticism appears in many guises & methods; often conflicts & disagreements arise, not due to genuine disagreements or contradictory positions, but because different critics are working from completely different frames of inquiry
- poems and poetry are two different things
- poems are not reducible to language as such; rather, they are artificial forms or constructs which organize plot (action), character, thought, diction, & "ornament" into an aesthetic unity or system (form).
- the meaning of a poem is not reducible to its lexical, etymological, thematic, etc. coordinates : rather, a poem creates a kind of inference-producing form or system. The audience infers from the verbal evidence, and its inferences have emotional/aesthetic/intellectual consequences, which represent the formal impact of the work
- a poem is an aesthetic whole or unity, within which the verbal material or diction appears as one part among others. One measure of a poem's quality comes through an examination of how well the various parts of a poem are coordinated in creating the totality of effect or aesthetic whole.

Of course I'm bowdlerizing a great deal. Encourage exploration of RS Crane & Elder Olson essays. What I like about what I'm discovering is a kind of historical awareness & systematic approach to some of my own vague tendencies over the years toward "realism", ie. the balance between the verbal texture of poems & the representations they effect. I find very refreshing - startling, even - some of the comments of these critics on the distinction between philosophies which view poetry as a distinct productive activity, on the one hand, and philosophies which view poetry as simply a special form of language or discourse, on the other. Also their inductive approach to reading, analysis & critique.


"Nowadays when the nature of poetry has become so uncertain that everyone is trying to define it, definitions usually begin: 'Poetry is words which, or language which, or discourse which,' and so forth. As a matter of fact, it is nothing of the kind. Just as we should not define a chair as wood which has such and such characteristics - for a chair is not a kind of wood but a kind of furniture - so we ought not to define poetry as a kind of language. The words are of the utmost importance; if they are not the right words or if we do not grasp them, we do not grasp the poem. In another sense, they are the least important element in the poem, for they do not determine the character of anything else in the poem; on the contrary, they are determined by everything else. They are the only things we see or hear; yet they are governed by imperceptible things which are inferred from them. And when we are moved by poetry, we are not moved by the words, except in so far as sound and rhythm move us; we are moved by the things that the words stand for."

- Elder Olson, from "An Outline of Poetic Theory", first published in 1949

Sounds a little paradoxical, huh? Sounds a little against the grain of the last 50 yrs? More later, hopefully.
Hi folks. I'm back in circulation. Check me out. Return in 3 weeks, or pay overdue fee to Grand Fenwick Royal Library.

Spent vac time plowing through most of Critics & Criticism, Ancient & Modern, ed. by R.S. Crane (ca. 1952). Hope to write essay on this. Chicago School : the poetics that time forgot.

Forget about New Critics, New Americans, Langpo for a while. Chicago School is on the money.


Getting back to Jonathan's "decorum", just some square-hole-in-a-round-peg thoughts...

thinking of an intellectual economy of various decorii. Imagining an imaginary literary culture, obsessed with codes, styles, formats, fashions, pecking orders, which nevertheless fails to meet a foundational or primordial fitness test, having forgotten the first principles of the decorum of its particular calling.

Poets set the benchmarks or patterns, by means of which they attune all the little elements of fitness to their sense of fitness as a whole : how a poet fittingly behaves on this straw-strewn threshing-floor.

Who in modern US poetry applied him or herself to Dante's fitness test? In relation to the poet's response to the challenges of the present?

Pound had the grandiose ambition & the social indignation. But observe the contrast between these two paradigmatic exiles.

I have the feeling that contemporary poetry fails a fitness test, in two or three basic directions, at least:

1. failure to acknowledge the difficult technical challenges to good writing in general.

2. failure to recognize the serious themes of great poetry : magnanimity, justice, vision (Dantean terms).

3. assumption that poetry is a means and not an end : a means to social conformity & worldly success.

4. assumption that poetry is a means and not an end : a means toward expressing sour, narrow-minded resentments, rather than exploring paths toward the amelioration of conflict & suffering.

I feel stuck between the sub-cultures of #3 and #4. The former exemplified in the MFA industry, magazine verse, the various cliques of youth-Kult "party poetry", etc.; the latter exemplified, just to use a small current example, in Dale Smith's implying a similarity between contemporary US & Nazi Germany (here). I know this wasn't the main thrust of Dale's point : but it's the typical coin of the realm among the cult of poesie du ressentiment.
Enjoyed today's lecture at the Hotel.

I keep thinking of the Middle Ages. Must be the time of year or something. I don't idealize the Middle Ages; I'm just vaguely, sleepily aware of some affinities.

Sienese painting as opposed to Florentine realism.

John writes about change & its dominion... I think about the force of time & seasons - as regulative, urging us back into a round. I think about peasants & farmers & Bruegel & my ancestors. The oxen of Saturn. Reading in Mazzotta's Dante book about the dual character of Saturn - its influence over the sort of dry leaden durability & materialism of workers in the earth, on the one hand, and its mystico-spiritual influence over theologians & poets, on the other (the "Age of Saturn", the Golden Age, the Edenic time of Adam & Eve the gardeners).


I sense that Jonathan, on decorum, fitness, is onto something that could be productive.

The concept presupposes that a literary text occupies a place in a larger field, a context. That it is necessarily both an echo, to some extent, and a mode of address or indication toward something else.

Maybe most shifts in style depend on a new sense of decorum. That is, if there's a fitness in relation to experience or reality, then, as our general sense of reality changes, the old styles or old forms of decorum will no longer ring true. (Maybe some forms of decorum never change, though - built as they are on our direct responses to certain basic kinds of experiences. Laughter in comedy is just a special application of humor in general.)

Complex artworks are structured around complex forms of decorum. I remember reading an essay about Melville's Confidence-Man, which argued that the thing is a fantastic meditation/spoof on the generic expectations of literary forms.

Complex critical projects are probably built around systematic and layered senses of decorum.
For example, here's what I do : I start over. & over. Walking down the road. Another start of something.

In early December, near the end of autumn,
leaves rustle in the twilight along Prospect Street
and dark limbs of the maples shape a twisted
colonnade. I walk through tender gloom

toward home. Lost in a tumbledown frame
of this fading season, I think of you again -
invisible now, behind a sheet of chilly rain
- silvery rings of hide and seek your game.

[p.s. What was I thinking of? Of a particular person. Also of Nicholas de Cusa's treatise Game of Spheres (De Ludo Globi), in which the spiritual life is figured as a sort of game - trying to reach felicity, at the center of nine concentric circles drawn in the dirt, with a lopsided ball). & of Mandelshtam's comment in one of his essays, that the work of artists after the Redemption is a game of hide and seek with God.]
The Tribune in the Woods on prose versus versus. Responding to Laura Carter on lines & line-breaks.

My two cents: a line-break is a break in the sentence flow. If you break the line where there is no natural pause in the sentence, you emphasize the break: you juxtapose the "natural", ordinary flow of a sentence with the artifice of the poem.

This may be a way to heighten the intensity, by creating kind of a special, demarcated space. But "unnatural" breaks, after a while - especially if the actual sentences are not all that interesting - become simply annoying, or emphatically boring.

I usually like to "work with" the line-break. I use it to try to give more music (rhythm) to the sentence. I use odd or "unnatural" line-breaks rarely, & in conjunction with a particular meaning the sentence is conveying. What I like about line-breaks is that in addition to adding rhythm to the sentence with a pause, they also fortify the rhythmic unity of the individual lines. So these 2 things - the unity of the line & the rhythm of the break - work together.

But my aim & my practice is to get to the point where I don't have to think about this stuff. Because I'm really more interested in the overall momentum, and in the coalescence of a larger content or argument as a whole. Make it natural, make it flow. Then the real original content & diction will appear, almost magically, on its own.

This is probably the most conventional approach to these issues. But perhaps there's some advantage to developing a kind of natural, thoughtless practice, one which fits your own thoughtless nature. Natural, anyway, for thoughtless people like me. Painstaking poets will take a more painstaking approach.

p.s. this issue is complicated by the fact that a "natural" line-length does not always correspond with a "natural"-sounding break. This is where rhyme comes in very handy. Rhyme adds a 3rd layer of interest, like from a new direction, to (1) rhythmic unity of line and (2) rhythmic interest of the break. Rhyme is like the mortar used by masons, except you have to imagine a mason who erects some fantastic structure which follows the inclination of the mortar rather than the structure of the bricks.


Jonathan in the vein of decorum. Interesting.

Decorum, in one way, seems like a kind of reality principle. Style to fit the subject : but how do we know what fits unless we know something about the subject? (Reminds me what Frost said once: something like - only amateurs try to tell us something we don't know in poems; the pros stay with what everybody knows.) (I've probably mangled that into oblivion. Ne'er so well-express'd & all that.)

But then there's the decorum of style itself, & styles. Fashions quickly build their own boilerplate template collections. This is decorum in the one-way mirror, I guess.

more later?
Just getting into Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare bio, Will in the World. One thing that strikes me is how Shakespeare's ability to observe/remember/recast his own experience granted him a certain freedom - a semi-independent place to stand, on the ground of poetry itself. A Proustian talent. Despite the counter-pressure applied by the struggle to survive in a highly controlled/hierarchical/tense society, & of his own ambition to become the "gentleman", the all-important social status his father didn't quite achieve.

Capacious character; powers of empathetic/critical observation. Curious parallels/contrasts with Dante, with what Dante made of similar talents.

Force of character added to artistic talent & training, added to a mode of popular entertainment undergoing a vast renovation (mystery plays & royal pageants become sophisticated machines of elite/pop culture).

Freedom from snobberies & authoritarian controls of various kinds. The poetry reached an audience by becoming broader than any particular audience. Because it drew upon both folk culture & elite programmes.

One problem with the paranoid theory of a dual poetry culture in the US (post-avant vs. mainstream) - analogous to leftist criticisms of the economy in general, I might add - is that it effaces the huge factor of individual responsibility and initiative.

Poetry, in a sense, is always unnecessary - until a necessary poet comes along : someone who finds a way to synthesize knowledge, history, politics, language, experience, and art so as to make it "relevant" again.
Have to get back to RS Crane's great book one of these days (Languages of Criticism & the Structure of Poetry). When he writes about differences between general critical approaches - between, on the one hand, a more inductive stance, taking the literary object in all its particularity & evaluating how it "works" or doesn't - and on the other, a more "abstract" approach, starting with a general paradigm or theme & seeing how a particular piece fits the paradigm - I say when he writes about this, I'm reminded of old Pigeonhole Ron over there, the great Prestidigitator of Group Theory, the great Master of Phlogiston, griping that one New Jerseyan (R.Pinsky) got to edit the selected poems of another New Jerseyan (WCW), denouncing this as a mixing of teams, a miscegenation of Quietude with Squealitude, etc. etc...

Give me indie-critical responses to particular poems any day, as over at Cosmopoetica. Give me Grand Fenwick any day, over that stinkin' pothole of resentful literary churls & squats, that post-avant pissant passel of noisy mishmashmongers, that querulous squaddle of noodling squib-nabobs...


Me back from the national midriff, busy, busy. readin' Stephen Greenblatt's fascinatin' Will in the World (Shacks-pear biographie). Will's (& his father's) coat of arms:

"Gould, on a Bend, Sables, a Speare of the first steeled argent. And for his creast or cognizaunce a falcon, his winges dispplayed Argent standing on a wreath of his coullers."

Gould, on a bender. Sweet old Will - always thinking of me!


So long, friends - off to the Land o'Lakes. Back on Tuesday Nov. 30, if not before.
Tu dunque, che levato hai il coperchio
che m'ascondeva quanto bene io dico,
mentre che del salire avem soverchio,

dimmi dov' è Terrenzio nostro antico,
Cecilio e Plauto e Varro, se lo sai:
dimmi se son dannati, e in qual vico».

«Costoro e Persio e io e altri assai»,
rispuose il duca mio, «siam con quel Greco
che le Muse lattar più ch'altri mai,

nel primo cinghio del carcere cieco;
spesse fïate ragioniam del monte
che sempre ha le nutrice nostre seco.

Euripide v'è nosco e Antifonte,
Simonide, Agatone e altri piùe
Greci che già di lauro ornar la fronte.

Quivi si veggion de le genti tue
Antigone, Deïfile e Argia,
e Ismene sì trista come fue.

Védeisi quella che mostrò Langia;
èvvi la figlia di Tiresia, e Teti,
e con le suore sue Deïdamia».

Tacevansi ambedue già li poeti,
di novo attenti a riguardar dintorno,
liberi da saliri e da pareti;

e già le quattro ancelle eran del giorno
rimase a dietro, e la quinta era al temo,
drizzando pur in sù l'ardente corno,

quando il mio duca: «Io credo ch'a lo stremo
le destre spalle volger ne convegna,
girando il monte come far solemo».

(from Purgatorio XXII)

(translation, by James F. Cotter:)

"You, then, who lifted up the covering
That hid from me the great good I described,
While we have time remaining yet to climb,

"Tell me where our ancient Terence is,
Caecilius, Plautus, Varro, if you know;
Tell me if they are damned, and in what region?"

"They, and Persius and I, and many others,"
My guide replied, "are with that Greek to whom
The Muses gave more milk than to the rest,

"In the first circling of the darkened prison.
Often we converse about the mountain
On which our nurses always have their dwelling.

"Euripides is with us, Antiphon,
Simonides, Agathon, and many more
Greeks who once wore laurel on their brows.

"We see there of the people whom you noted
Antigone, Deiphyle, and Argia,
And Ismene, as sad as she once was.

"Hypsipyle, who showed men Langia’s spring,
We see there; Thetis and Tiresias’ daughter,
And there Deidamia with her sisters."

Both the poets had by now grown silent,
Intent once more on looking all around,
Free of the climbing stairs and of the walls;

And by now the four handmaids of the day
Were left behind, and at the chariot-pole
The fifth still steered its fiery tip upward,

When my guide said, "I think that we three should
Turn our right shoulders to the outer edge,
Circling the mountain in the usual way."
My personal concept of what a poet is & does, allows for a different definition of "reader, reading"... like the old medieval technical term, lectio, lector. A "reader (lecturer)" in theology, philosophy, etc. The poet as solitary, hermit - making poem, making book. The poetry reading as a late event in life or career.

No one wants to go back to that subdued era when poetry was limited to verses in print, & middle-aged profs mumbling at a lectern; nevertheless, I think the pendulum could afford to swing back a little now.

The term "poetry" covers an enormous range of activities & forms of writing/performing. I guess that theory of poetry appeals to me which sets the bar at the highest level of human doings, I mean just under prayer & acts of charity. Dante & Shakespeare & Dickinson & Whitman - their language art places them somewhere at the "brow of reality", so to speak - capable of engaging directly with, & on a par with, all the other forms of spiritual, intellectual & practical activity. Eliot was right when he said that this doesn't happen without the expenditure of great labor & devotion - no matter how much talent & facility the artist starts out with.

In this context I find something slightly jarring in the atmosphere which uses poetry as means to advance improv comedy acts, literary funfests, "scenes". Sorry, that's just how I see it. (I suppose I need to get out more. It's just that I find most poetry boring & narcissistic, & most artists vain & pretentious. & I include myself in that category.)


I think I understand the "non-difficulty" role of poetry as Jordan outlines. I wouldn't want to be a gatekeeper, oh no, not me! I recognize ptry-fr-its-wn-ske.

The formula which I was addressing, though, was "difficulty". If you are going to talk about this particular noun with respect to poetry, I think it has, as I said, less to do with technique than with ethics.

Jordan's "proxy" notion seems a little thrown, if you ask me. Almost a Horatian approach (its function is to succeed in expressing its audience's wishes & desires for it). I guess I'm more aware of the poet working to formulate his or her own dilemmas & puzzles ("out of the quarrel with ourselves..."). It becomes accessible, because both poet & reader recognize that our dilemmas are shared. & if someone is pleased/edified in the process - well, that's literary history in the making.
The literary pleasure principle is tempered somewhat by the fact that civilization, which sustains it, is itself sustained (in ways both great and small) by vows, labor, and self-sacrifice.

This is a good thing for literature, in the long run. "Time silvers the plow, and the poet's voice." (O. Mandelshtam)
Josh responds, in part:

"Henry, I need some clarification here. Are you saying that "difficulty" in poetry stems simply from the fact that words don't mean what they say—that difficulty stems from the gap between form and content? Doesn't that apply, potentially to any utterance? Or are you arguing for the importance of the framing that happens off the page—the question of poetry as an institution (Mike would double-damn it as a homogenous institution)—and deeming inadequate any approach that doesn't either attack institutionality or expand its mandate?"

Form & content(!)... let's pass on that. The difficulty I'm referring to - the generative difficulty - is that people, not words, don't mean what they say. (Art complicates this further by offering a symbolic speech, the "factual" truth of which is irrelevant.) The fact that the gap in question (between persons & truth-speaking) does apply to any utterance, is actually what places ethical difficulty at the center of literature's social relevance.

I would not, as you do here, Josh, simply align "the framing that happens off the page" with "the question of poetry as an institution". Dilemmas of personal and social ethics do not have simple institutional correlates. Rather, humanity is confronted with social, political, environmental, personal, psychological, experiential and philosophical riddles and dilemmas of such depth and complexity, as to result in ethical demands for which many people around the world sacrifice their personal well-being and their very lives. It is this experiential context which limits the general interest in poetry, to those relatively rare works which grapple with these demands in a substantial way.
Following interesting chit-chat among Josh, Jordan & Mike.

I have some trouble with both Josh's & Mike's formulations. Josh makes "difficulty" sound easy. Just another of those sophisticated pleasures we arty intellectuals share, part of the general joie de vivre. It's a sunny perspective.

Mike faults poets for not recognizing the coterie problem, the extent of the challenge involved in finding a way for poetry to "break in" to the awareness of the ordinary reader of fiction & non-fiction.

I guess my reservation about both arguments hinges on the nature of difficulty. Basically I think it's kind of a "boundary problem", a question of the framework. That is, the kind of difficulty we think we have in mind - the sort of problematic that grips the reader in an unshakeable wrestling hold, from which they will never get free - this level of difficulty is, fundamentally, not a literary question. That is, it is not something that can be finessed by aesthetics or rhetoric. In fact, it stems from the core of a difficulty with words & word-mongering itself: that words & deeds are not always the same thing; that life & literature are incommensurate; that promises and vows can be emptied of content, become vehicles of illusion, vanity, hypocrisy & deceit.

From this perspective, literary relevance, impact &/or difficulty is more of an ethical rather than a technical-aesthetic issue; it remains difficult even for the most sophisticated & talented writer, since it reaches into human commitments rooted beyond the literary "making" itself.

The art which most compels a readership seems often to emerge from a seemingly insoluble impasse or crisis or dilemma - a dilemma which, through the talent of the poet, results in a representation which has meaning for both the poet and for "society". It may stimulate a radical re-working of literary style & subject-matter. We are talking about a phenomenon which does not follow either from exhortations to the literary community to "work harder at it" (ala Mike), or from mere literary sophistication (ala Josh), which takes pleasure in arcane works, but shuns the ethical implications or demands that words sometimes entail.



These letters, rolled like drops of sap along the spine
of a spindly cedar (hardened into crust). My letters
to you – you, who have no need of letters
among your mirrors and lights. They seep
toward you, and love you, sensing
you love them just as well.

The moon
was faint tonight, behind a smoky cloud.
Pale, bloodless, not quite round, yet
shining anyway, it lingered: held
in the branches of a willow tree
like an empty goblet. Silver
leaves lay down below – a crowd
of masks, a flock of repentant souls
from a Sienese fresco (surging around
the Rood of Heaven).

Without you,
dear, my knowledge disintegrates, a new
encyclopaedia of dust. All pledged
to rigid silence, under useless stars.

But if you were here... you would point
to the warm lights of a house nearby. And
your other hand would reach for mine
like the sun.



We were walking through the cemetery.

It was about this time of year, as I recall –
when the earth itself seems only a graveyard.

We heard a far-off sound (pattering rain,
puttering pigeons, mute piano notes?).

We saw, over the river, the silhouette of a figure
throwing dead branches on a tall bonfire.

Perpetual twilight.

And in those days, it seemed, everyone wore masks –
except for you and me. And now I see only masks.

Halloween never ends, it seems –

unless you come back again, unless we retrace
our steps over the grassblown graves.



In mid-November, a dark autumnal day,
leaves shuffle underfoot, drift in the wind.
Each leaf a little hand stretched out –
a letter, inscribed with tiny branches,
limbs. A letter from a tree gone bare,
expecting no reply. Soon snow will fall.

Each day I walk down Dove Street
with your shadow – talking to you,
talking to myself. Drab gray alleyway
cluttered with crooked telephone poles...
here gray pigeons waddle, wavering
and purring, across gray asphalt,
underneath gray skies.

of turtle-doves, wings flitting overhead;
glimmer of gold oak and maple leaves;
desolate, diminished Jack o’lanterns
huddling with crazy smiles against
gray doorsteps (lumps of faded orange).

Hidden in the twilight season, camouflaged
in gray, whispering down a hidden street
with you, my phantom (leftover from
Halloween). Toward the harbor – where
dim light from a low star threads
across gray water, and doves collect
along the iron rail, and shuttling leaves
float, mutter... whirl against the pier.


Busy plus tired today, plus I just can't decide where to play shuffleboard - near the Ashbery Scenic View, or over by the James Tate Swingset? So more belated Ron Watch for me...

today he's focusing on the discontinuities of experience (a hyper-realist in disguise?). Very disjunctive-elliptical of everything to be so. But some might say discontinuity is the problem set before us, the puzzle to solve by way of knowledge & vision & most of all, poetry. Read Giuseppe Mazzotta (Dante's Vision & the Circle of Knowledge).

Poetry as the trivium & quadrivium activated, synthesized, turned into an ethical topology. Liberal arts - "liberal" meaning they free the mind... for what? Truth, contemplation of the whole, wholeness, unity...

Looking for the ground & the continuum, the form & the telos. Encyclopedic knowledge shaped into harmonic, playful vision - image of grace (Dante).

The play of all plays, the act of all action. The You, the double You, the W.

ie., "zigshaggin yo own sweetblack rizebury W" [or something like that - quote from memory], sez Bluejay.


- that Russian poet. (Imago, imago, imago.) Here's a link to one of Karen Donovan's poems (from her bk-lngth ms. Clay Tablets). Come to think of it, Karen's poem is something of a midrash on the notion I was asserting earlier (that the word is infused with impulse - formative, indicative - from the beginning).

She's a strong poet, don't you think? (The epigraph in italics at the beginning is a quote - Clement of Alexandria, maybe?)
Still reading R.S. Crane, Languages of criticism and the structure of poetry (1952). Chicago School critic. How differing conceptual frameworks, and different logical approaches (inductive or "abstract"; inside/outside frames) result in diverse evaluations & interpretations of the same literary works.

This is a good place to start if you want to write criticism.
17.3.4 And so HENRAH with his onions set forth from Berrymn-lond by the myth of the Missingsippu. & he carried his lancelets & his flaming windup wand on his back; & he canoed from thence to Rode-Island. & when he had set foot ashore in that place, immediately he posted upon a Tree his Papyrus of Verses, which he had copied out, with his bare hand, 40 years hence, from out of a Boke of bare bodkin Berrigans. And he sate down there to wait for the people of the tribes who dwelt therein (of the tribes of Oddiense).

17.3.5 And he waited there further.

17.3.6 And so he continually waited thus, twiddling his thumbs, and reporting to his minions upon the Nephilim (Giant Space People from Atlantis) which he had seen thereabouts.
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)


Here I compost my difference.

If we accept the R. Formalist 6-sided model, still, we say, language is not dicing. The simple hexagonal formula elides an implication of the fact that the addressor is one of its facets: the implication that motive, impulse, is inextricable from the actuality of language.

"Words are fossil poetry", says Emerson (Thoreau?). The word from its origin is gestural, indexical, representational, mimetic. The "inner image" of the word (Mandelshtam's Potebnia, the anti-R. Formalist) is a complex made up of its etymological-gestural roots.

Imagine, not a six-sided die, but a sword turning every way.

A sequence:
1. the primitive word points to that.
2. the primitive word-maker inches toward self-consciousness.
3. the primitive word takes on the tincture of same (self-consciousness).
4. the primitive word becomes a polished mirror, a flashing sword.
5. the primitive word-maker points toward his/her Maker.
6. the primitive word turns every way.
7. and the primitive word saw that it was good, and rested.

For the (Mandelshtamian) Acmeist, the poetic word exults in liberation from necessity, it celebrates its inner free-standing harmonics, it honors the creative nature of which it is a part, it acknowledges the origin of its freedom in the "historical fact the the Redemption". Thus the primary border is not between past & future, as with the Futurists, but between time & eternity, or heaven & earth, which the intervention of the Divine Word fused together, and which the poetic word echoes & celebrates.

Mandelstam wrote that, ironically, the revolution broke the spine of cultural chronology stemming from the Incarnation (the Christian calendar), and in doing so, led not into a utopian future but a kind of inert state, which he mocked as "Buddhist Moscow".

(Obviously, here, I'm taking Mandelshtam in my own direction, building on certain strands of his oeuvre; I'm not presenting an objective/scholarly version, but a Henry-adaptation.)

To summarize: in poetic language, impulse & representation are inherently meshed & fused with the "verbal material"; there is no toss of some dice-object; rather, language is a human creation which is surrounded by & points toward its maker-matrix. The langpo/futurist/modernist emphasizes chance & formal reconstruction; the acmeist/modernist emphasizes historical fate, the inextricable cultural context. Futurism is construct; acmeism is embodiment & image.
Un Coup de Des Jamais N'Abolira le Hasard

Antithetical memes of the blogosphere strike again. Oftentimes when I ponderifurcate laboriously on the roots of my praxismo literario, if then I gallumph over to here, there is somebody, somebody goin' in the opposite dierection.

Just a coupla russian Gorby dolls - dolls-within-dolls, that is. Or two bowling pins, bobbling on their bases, simultaneous-like.

RS sez it helps to know what you're dealin' with - like applied mechanics (linguistics). I have no problem with this, except that, as RS Crane teacheth (Language of Criticism & Structure of Poetry), we work within different frameworks.

RS lays out a genetics of langpo going back by way of Russian Formalism & Russian Futurism to a new & true-blue re-do of Modernism (Habermas). Poetic language (& all language) is a kind of 6-sided die, turning & revolving one side or another (addressor/addressee, signifier/signified, contact/code).

So inside the Russian doll of understanding poetry via linguistics sits the littler doll of understanding langpo via formalism/futurism/modernism.

Language is a throw of the dice, or a twist of the facets, based on the game plan of the neo-Modern avantistadora. The duality here is between the renovating motive of the modernist, and the functional matrix of the neutral langue-parole. The primary divide, the locus of artistic action-praxis, is between a revocable past and the avanti!-future.

Here I interpose my difference.
... SO, poetry reflects that special embodiment, that embodied freedom-authority... & as such the messengers of that special space often come up against the other authorities. Thus July, the 3rd of Forth of July, ends on March 5th, the date on which both Stalin & Akhmatova (avatars of these two distinct powers) died.

& anyway, all this providential history is a work-in-progress. So the unpublished history poem In RI deals more directly with Roger Williams & his unique state-founding. & this has been translated, wonderfully, into italian by Anny Ballardini. I'll be a Dante yet.

& what I mean by this "embodiment", in part, involves all these threads I've been tying (plowing?) between my rows of verse, and the "rose" of Rhode Island. Thus I first came from the midwest to this state on the merit of my college application essay, which was a group of Ted Berrigan (of Cranston, RI) imitations. & though my roots are in Minnesota, I've discovered a lot of family background right here. There's a little island in Narragansett Bay called Gould Island, named after Thomas Gould, the nephew of my gr-gr-gr-grandfather Zaccheus. Tom Gould was a friend of Roger Williams, & rented him a field on that island, for raising hay.
Did you follow all that, all that I posted on Friday? The eyes blur over.

It's blurry, I know. The idea is that poetry is a special kind of "embodied" speech, analogous to incarnation. An end in itself, as well as a representation of something else.

& the concept of incarnation stems from a metaphysics, if you will, which includes both divine & human; not one without the other. A religious perspective which includes BOTH divine will and human self-will, human freedom. This is the general idea that underlies Renaissance christian humanism, Dante's polemic for a balance between Pope & Emperor, Roger Williams' demand for liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state.

When I look back at the poem (Stubborn Grew, etc.) I see it as expressing a position in the middle, facing 2 ways: first, by celebrating Roger Williams & echoing Dante in certain ways (the "octagonal" design described on Fri.), it represents this humanist stand for freedom of conscience & the separation of political & religious authority; second - especially in the 3rd book, July - it represents the distance between present-day dispositions of political power ("Julius" - military-state force) and a utopian future ("Jubilee").


...& all of this is emblematized, miniaturized, in the 2nd chapter of Stubborn Grew, titled "Ancient Light". Henry goes to London, and stands before the great painting by Hans Holbein, "The Ambassadors"; he sees a vision of the medieval unity crumbling under the pressure of that other secular power, Henry VIII (the ambassadors in question were on an embassy from the Pope to resolve Henry's marriage/divorce problem - which also finds its echo in the poem to follow).

I too try to "embody the word", in a poetry way. Here's an inkling of the "number, weight & measure" involved. (I'm sorry to repeat myself again on this blog - but I'm trying to outline a particular personal framework for poetic "embodiment".)

I wrote Forth of July in Rhode Island. The guiding spirit of this place is Roger Williams, founder of Providence; RI is considered the first political entity founded explicitly on the separation of Church & State.

Williams' worldview rhymes (roughly, an off-rhyme) with Dante's perspective, in the Divina Commedia and the essay De Monarchia. Dante believed that the Holy Spirit provided a legitimate role for secular humanity, secular government, in the providential historical process leading toward the renewal of the earth, the "Earthly Paradise", corrupted since the Fall. Rome, and the Holy Roman Emperor, he considered the true authority under which this renovation would occur. At the end of the Commedia, in the Paradiso, in the center of the heavenly Rose, Dante placed an empty throne, destined for the messianic Emperor who would oppose Papal pretentions to secular authority, restoring Italy, the Empire, and thus the whole world - Emperor Henry VII.

As Stubborn Grew/The Rose moves into its central volume, a certain numerical structure crystallizes (and then expands in the following volumes), based on 7/4 (4th of July), 5/28, and 5/29. The central volume (Grassblade Light) consists of 7 chapters (actually 8 panels - the center chapter containing a double panel). Each chapter is made up of 28 poems, each poem containing 28 lines (7 quatrains). At the center of the 28 is a 29th poem with a kind of square structure (16 quatrains total). (This is the template - & though there are slight variations in some chapters, the total line count for each chapt. is almost exactly the same.)

I designed this octagonal structure after the shape of a castle in southern Italy built by that great opponent of the Pope, (Holy Roman) Emperor Frederick II, which has 8 sides, and squarish towers at each angle.

The following volume, July, is designed as a mirror-image to the 1st vol., Stubborn Grew. It comes in 2 halves: the first half consists of 5 chapters, each containing 5 poems of 28 quatrains each. The 2nd half of the book has a very complicated structure (again using poems of 7 quatrains) which I won't get into here.

William Blackstone, RW's friend, Anglican preacher-in-exile, planter of the first known apple orchard in the New World (in Cumberland, RI), & figure in these poems, was buried on his property on 5.28.1675. His property ("Study Hill") was burned to the ground the next day, 5.29 (this was during King Philip's War).

5.29 is my birthday, and RI Statehood Day.

The entire poem (Forth of July) was finished on 5.28.2000, with this line :

"the nef rows, rows... palms, heartbeats, light."
I placed the mask firmly over my face: the mask I had been fabricating & fiddling with for the previous 20 years.

& then Russia, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Brodsky, Pushkin, "white nights" Petersburg, Elena Shvarts (ie., "shining/black") became a master theme-&-variation, through the next 1000 pp. of that poem (Forth of July, in toto). Mandelstam = "almond branch". (I found out about Celan's parallel interest later.) The almond - the tree that flowers in January. Eliot's "midwinter spring is its own season". The Biblical branch. Magdalen, amygdaloid. The embodied, the rooted Word. The other one, the ghost, the Bride, the J. The meteoric stone fallen from heaven, placed in the otfe (bedouin tribal camel-tent shrine) as tablet of the Law.

& you have to recall that the "narrative" plot proper began on Halloween, with a search for a "lost black cat" (Berryman sidekick?) named Pushkin.
New writing has been slow going for me since about 2001, with many false starts & stops, for a variety of reasons, most of which I don't understand. Probably you steady sloggers of this blog have had an inkling of that, considering how much I dwell on things written in the previous millennium.

While continually pondering what to do & where to go with it lately, it struck me once again how, exactly, the longest of the long poems got started, at the beginning of working on Stubborn Grew (around 1998 or so). It struck me again how decisively the whole thing began with an act of mimicry. Any Russian poetry-reader, I'm sure, would find no such echo there, since it was a kind of fantasy, a role-playing, rather than a careful form of copying or transposition. But I was trying to re-write Mandelstam's Voronezh poems - both theme & style. That is, it was, first of all, the earthward, earthy, black-earth theme of the Voronezh poems which I picked up on - the landscape - both as leading toward a sort of Orpheus re-do, and as something I felt connected with personally (rural Midwest). Secondly, I tried to channel a certain tone I heard - a talky, informal, intimate, sweet-happy-melancholy tone. Of course it led off in another direction... but that was the sound I was "listening" to as I started writing.


Reading matter of rabid Bush moron:
Dante, Poet of the Desert, by Giuseppe Mazzotta. I come back to this author's books every few years, one of my favorites. Much about rhetoric & history & theology & what Dante does with them.

Perhaps the red/blue state phenomenon, the right/left, the rep/dem drama, is the result of the difference between rhetoric (the intellectuals) and history (the business class). David Brooks, the middle-of-my-road-anyway pundit for NY Times, wrote an op-ed along these lines a while back.

In the first half of Stubborn Grew, the flow of actual (local) history is narrated by a fictional character (actually, a ghost). In the 2nd half, the obverse is the case. The fictionalized (failed) process of writing an epic/history poem is framed by, inset within, the "documentary"/confessional image of an actual individual (the author).
Met last night with Karen Donovan, editor of Paragraph, at the Red Fez (Prov. restaurant) to talk about a her ms. "Clay Tablets", a sort of long-poem/ceremony set in ancient Mesopotamia. A talented poet, with background in biochemistry, which is coming back into her writing. Cell-division, fertility & creativity. Working now on a new poem-project which links the 20 amino acids with the 20 letters in the Ogham tree-alphabet. She looks like a cross between Anna Akhmatova & Bertolt Brecht (thin, thin face, bright blue eyes, short straight black hair combed forward). Life goes on in Grand Fenwick.
It's an odd path I traveled to election day. I don't believe in military solutions to human problems. I don't believe in one nation imposing its will by force on others. I think there is a disconnect, as well as a relation, between American wealth and power, on the one hand, and the world's poverty & social oppression, on the other, which no amount of imposed political ideals, in themselves, can ever ameliorate. Only social justice and an effort to address grievances and basic economic problems can do that. I believe there is a fundamental contradiction in the notion that a few nations, armed to the teeth, can police the other nations, with respect to weapons of mass destruction : only further & universal disarmament will bring real security in that regard.

All that having been said, however... I hold another set of views, perhaps contradicting myself in the process. I think there is a global terrorist network & movement, dedicated to a mix of tyrannical politics and Islamic-fundamentalist expansionism ("the Caliphate"). I think for about the last half century, the Middle-Eastern Arab nations have chosen the path of authoritarianism and violence; and while the colonial powers of the West bear much responsibility for this outcome, the primary responsibility lies with the choices of the Arab governments themselves. I think that the events of 9/11 left the US government no choice but to deal with the problem of global mass terror in a systematic way, and I think the Bush policy of confronting state sponsors of terror, as well as the terrorist networks themselves, made sense. I think the nature & practices of the Saddam Hussein regime fit the category of state sponsors of terror. I think Saddam brought his downfall down on his own head, when he thought he could respond to US demands with belligerence and stalling. I think Iraq and the Middle East will be better off with the Saddam mafia out of power, and an elected government. I think the response of the anti-Bush peace movement and the European governments was blinkered by a kind of self-righteous and naive attitude of appeasement, in an untenable and unjust situation, in which Saddam manipulated the sanctions system to benefit himself & punish his own people.

Much of my progress to this position came about as a kind of dialectical protest against the attitudes and propaganda of the politicized "poet-networks".


My decision to vote for Bush never was & is not easy on my mind, or simple. I remember before 9/11 I was angered & bothered by Bush's Supreme Court victory, & the hubristic foreign policy attitudes which followed. But I would say the vote came after a gestation period which began when I saw the Left's, & most of the world's, reaction to the Bush policy toward Iraq & the sanctions problem. I was struck at that time by the ideological rather than the pragmatic nature of the response. I saw a lot of Vietnam-spectre hand-wringing; I saw a lot of purely partisan Bush-bashing; I saw a lot of sanctimonious pacifism, willing to appease, and indeed collaborate with, the Saddam regime, in order to avoid holding him to account. I saw the UN willing to do almost anything besides actually enforce the sanctions; I saw Europe gladly join hands with the Baathists rather than support the US in bringing down that neo-Stalinist regime.

I already know the rebuttals that readers of this blog are thinking & perhaps preparing to post. There's the argument that the US should have been more patient with inspections. Then there's the argument that even if the war was justified, the aftermath has been botched, with horrific consequences. I understand the merit of these arguments, and of many others; but in the end they are not strong enough to convince me that the Bush long-term strategy of pushing democracy in the Middle East is fundamentally mistaken. Rather, I think the critics and the naysayers have got history wrong; they remind me, to a degree, of the people who opposed Lincoln in the Civil War, as a matter of fact.

History, fortunately or unfortunately, is not a clear glass displaying the clean triumph of good over evil; nor is the US exempt from deep wrongs of its own. But I happen to believe this particular cause is just.
Some John's son has been reading (sub rosa, or sub orchida, I should say) Ben Jonson (which, come to think of it, means "son of John's son").
My machine at home is on the blink, & I am busy at work, which is why HG Poetics has wagged sommat desultory lately. Besides which the new role as political idiot has added yet another layer of plastique to my status as Hon. Official Elite Bad-Wind Outsider Runt of the Blue Regions of Poesy.


I don't want to upset anybody, or stoke the fires. Will be glad to return to philology, soon. I learned at the start of the Iraq war that, by jiminy, not all poets think alike.
Some traditionalist churches are pushing for a ban on gay marriage, since they define marriage in their own "religious" terms. Bush pandered to them for their votes, and this was a low, low pitch. But he's also spoken in favor of civil unions for gay people, & for rights & respect in general. You can brand him a bigot if you like. To me this is just more of the same rhetorical overkill which stupid politics tends to trigger automatically.

The po-bloggers on the left, and there are lots of them, seem to be just as blinkered by paranoid fear, resentment & hate as any whackos on the right. Try to get real. I'll be glad to get back to Grand Fenwick, where people are almost as sane as Minnesotans.


Rhode Islanders just think differently. That must be it. While I was doing my strange voting behavior in the polling booth, RI's true-blue old-line liberal Republican - Lincoln Chafee - was announcing to the public that he would not be voting for his party's President - because of the Iraq war.
So the election is over, but the culture war, clearly, is not. Shrill keenings & cries of woe from poetry bloggers on every side. Joseph Duemer one of the more articulate ones among those I've seen.

Politics in America is, or has been, mostly a two-party struggle for power. The struggle involves framing issues & concerns, sharpening differences. It's a mistake, though, simply to take the partisan frames at face value, and impose them on the portion of the electorate that voted differently from you. Guess what, people in the red states are complex animals too; some of them may be even less like "true believers", chanting partisan mantras & slogans, than you are. Imagine: some of them may be reasonable, intelligent people.

Why should I accept that? you ask. They swallowed the vicious right-wing propaganda, the kultur-kampf which has been strengthening on the right for decades. They don't share my values, you say.

Actually I think it's more complicated. The story of the 2-party system is not a matter of decades, but of more than a century. The Republican Party has been an organized force to reckon with since the Civil War. Yes, it failed the country at the time of the Depression; yes, it followed Nixon into 8 more years of war in Vietnam & Cold War support for repressive regimes around the world; yes, it made a devil's pact with the southern bigots & Dixiecrats in an attempt to turn back racial justice; yes, it followed Reagan's hard right ideology into a new conservative era. This is a reactionary record, and that's the reason I've voted Democrat since I came of age.

But guess what: the Republican Party has also stood for some positive things, during various periods of American history. Two in particular: freedom (against slavery; against tyranny) and reform (particularly under the 1st Roosevelt). And many of the voters in the red states have affiliations with that party going back generations. Democrats love to mock the "values" orientation of their opponents, seeing them as manipulated pawns, trapped by their own reactionary, "atavistic" religious beliefs. But when a majority of them said "values" was the deciding issue, it may be wrong to jump to the conclusion that this was simply homophobia. I think a lot of church-going red-state voters were deeply offended by the morals of the Democrats' vaunted standard-bearer, Bill Clinton; I was offended myself to see the Oval Office turned into a porn site. & there was Bill, out campaigning for Kerry - a slick, ambitious, & opportunistic issue-spinner. When Republicans told pollsters that "values" were the pivotal issue, some of them were saying that while they were troubled by the economy and Iraq, in the end they decided that Kerry wouldn't make things much better on those fronts anyway, and that at least Bush set an example of personal integrity & decency, which they didn't think Kerry & his rich celebrity friends could ever do.

I believe the Republican right's socio-religious platform is deeply Macchiavellian and uncharitable - victimizing - at its core. And this must be opposed. But Joe Duemer's analysis - that Democrats are enlightened free-thinking non-religious persons, while Republicans are backward, superstitious bigots, and we share no values, and we must sharpen the differences between the parties almost on a theological level... I think this is a strategy for further widening of the culture divide, more polarization, more stereotyping, and ultimately more ignorance and misunderstanding.

The Democrats who will remake their party are those who actually understand and in some cases share the traditional religious background and value-system of the other side; it is they who will be able to interpret history and politics and economics for the electorate, in a way that doesn't demean or deny their religious beliefs, but which challenges that reactionary, deeply uncharitable, partisan spin, which feeds parasitically on those values from the far right. I am not saying that Democrats must follow Republicans into some kind of hypocritical religious pandering. (I live in Rhode Island, for Roger Williams' sake!) I'm saying that it is probably those on the left who have at least a "liberal", non-judgmental awareness of the role of religious belief in human society, who know something about the foundations of Western faith-systems - it is these people who will be able to challenge the religious bigots on their own ground, and suggest a different set of foundational values for a just and free civic order.

At this point I should say, to be brave & foolish, that after standing in the polling booth for at least 10 minutes, I voted for Bush. My reason for doing so, despite my complete rejection of many of the Republican positions on social issues, the economy, and the environment, was because I think we are actually doing the right thing in Iraq. But that's a debate we've had before in this corner of the blogosphere, and I am not going to get into it now. I suppose I've lost about 35% of my blog audience by saying this (2 people, I reckon).