Remarkable article on art & Alzheimer's in Sunday NY Times.

[not sure if this link will work - if you get to the NY Times page, you can find the article by doing a search in past 7 days under "art alzheimer's"]

*** p.s. see Allen on this if you haven't already
Robert Archambeau tracks the futuristic world of Po-Sonar GPS Locomotion Engineering.
Looks like I'll be driving down to the Big Easy on Fri. I've been in touch with some Episcopal church relief people down there since Katrina.

Going to spend a week or so getting a building repaired/cleaned up, to house other volunteers in New Orleans. Should be an adventure - maybe I'll come back with some pictures.


In the lonely

the anti-poet plays anti-pop


This I like.


The new issue of Poetry arrived yesterday, always some kind of education.

The poetry in it, some of it quite sharp & talented. Makes me feel like a slowpoke yokel. The feeling, reading it, of an oscillation - between bright devotion to brilliant language & inventive, clever thought, on one hand, and then, on the other hand, an impression of spoiled green suburban rich kids & preppies, showing off their pseudo-experience, pseudo-profundity, pseudo-sophistication.

Poems on meditative themes : bats. wildflowers. so serious, so careful, so polished. "Life, friends, is boring."

Mr. Bones, you juss jealous maybe.

Kind of skimmed the essay by Mary Karr, on being a poet/neo-Catholic, may read it later. But I really liked the Milosz poem she quotes at the end.


Jack Birss, retired Cornell prof., must be one of the 1 or 2 people on earth to whom, upon meeting for the first time, I have actually said "I'm a poet."

(Sad to say, but strictly speaking, he is no longer with us "on earth".)
Jack Kimball notes amazing fact of new publication of some poems by Samuel Greenberg, very obscure New York poet, who died in 1917, at age 23, of TB, and whose work influenced Hart Crane (Crane actually stole some of his lines in the poem "Emblems of Conduct").

I have a copy of an early edition of Greenberg's poems. Once, back in the 70s, I was walking down Hope St (here in Prov.), wearing a pair of paint-spattered jeans (I had just been painting my apartment). An elderly gent, in passing, suddenly said : "A painter, I presume?" I said, "well, no, I'm a poet." He asked, "Who's your favorite poet?" Just for fun, I said "Samuel Greenberg." The fellow did a double-take. He turned out to be another Jack - Jack Birss, retired Cornell(?) english prof, rare book collector, Hart Crane aficionado (I noticed years later that he had donated a small privately-printed vol. of a couple of Crane's letters to the Brown library.) Birss knew all about Samuel Greenberg. We were both struck by the coincidence.


I guess my previous post by two tends toward a sense of the poet as some kind of Suprematist/Genius/Original. But let's not over-emphasize all that (nothing new there). What I'd like to express, instead, with this notion of anomaly or originality, is the sense of, for lack of a better phrase,

some irreducible subjectivity : like the blind spot we can't see through. & art & originality emerge from that subjective area of experience, & of necessity come out original & different - because they do indeed flow from that anomaly, that uncertainty situation, that never-before-known because never before realized or existent... shadowy region, Amazon jungle, unknown...

place of creativity & poems - of chasms & leaps -

& a GPS grid simply cannot place this particular but essential aspect of the whole deal.
Russian Bells on Mars; Cockadoodle Two
In order to improve on the Silliman Bi-Focal Theory of Contemporary Poetry, Robert Archambeau looks to an essay by David Kellogg.

Based on Robert's summary, however, I can't see how this is any improvement. The structure of the grid is the same, although Kellogg has added a dimension.

Poetry is assumed to be this product which flows out of culture in measurable quantities. You can establish fixed criteria for assigning individual pieces of the product to a grid : ie., "tradition" and "innovation" are already known & defined, "self" and "community" are items you can abstract without too much difficulty from any particular portion of the GNPP (Gross National Poetry Product). Voila : your poet is assigned a critical niche in the Standard Schema.

But what if the patterns of formative imitation which poets utilize are exactly the same - whether you're in either of the so-called camps? Innovators are imitating their 20th-century models; traditionalists are doing likewise. Both are claiming the mantle of tradition (the traditions of new & old, respectively). Add a further twist : what if the innovators claim to be new by going back to older models (epics, Native American songs, collective poetics, performance art, etc.) in order to be "new"? What if the models of the so-called traditionalists (rhymed iambic couplets, say) are of more recent provenance than those of the innovators (say, free-verse anaphoric lines)?

The fact of the matter is that originality is not informed by the artist's attitude toward stylistic change. In other words, there is no "new" model for imitation : every model - by virtue of being a model - is already traditional. Who is more traditional today than the poets who imitate the 20th-century avant garde?

[p.s. this statement needs refinement. Let me say this : actually, the original, inventive poet will pay very close attention to stylistic developments and what they might mean. But what makes for originality is not their capacity for consistency - ie. the consistent allegiance to whatever is considered the trend of the moment. Original poetry is invariably anomalous : it is original precisely because the poet does not "follow" any particular trend. Thus critical schemas which emphasize such trends, based on abstract invariables such as Kellogg proposes, inevitably distort the un-paraphrasable, empirically-complex literary reality.]

The issue of "self" & "community" is perhaps even more vexed, but I'm not going to get into that here.

I object to the abstract, generic quality of the grid approach to criticism. It's lazy thinking : pigeonholing, card filing. The uniqueness of interesting poetry swallows up every proposed schema : the talent of the great & gifted poet takes a certain essential aspect of poetry - its capacity for obliterating and transcending our habitual mental & philosophical categories - and multiplies it exponentially. Individual poets are always contradicting so-called trends & traditions : & then the new supposed traditions are established in their wake, by their imitators; & then, running a distant third, the critics come along with their cute little diagrams.

Even those poets who seem so middlebrow, mediocre, unable to escape the cliches and paradigms of their period styles - say, Longfellow, considered from the usual 20th-century perspective - if looked at closely and carefully, suddenly begin to reveal their inimitable qualities, their uniqueness. & then it's time for "reconsideration" : critics, prepare your outlines!!!!


some new guitar stumblings
More drafty drafts. I hope it lasts.


The dogwood leaves, suspended in the rain.
Clumps of drooping flesh-tones - treeflesh
(muted green, vermilion, purple, rust).
I'm whispering toward you again.


In the silence of his study, Lazarus
Posthumous leans close to the windowpane.
The glass harbors a cool gray sheen
from autumn sky (a harbor's emptiness).

His body is the dogwood's double. And
the window only grows more destitute as
winter draws nigh - cold, dark. It is
the entrance to a tunnel. Its command

a stark inscription : Here Descend.


The last bumblebee totters unevenly
through backyard jungle grass.
The little garden is a tangled mess
of dried-up stalks, vines, leaves

where sodden rags of an absent-minded
hurricane (the last of the cloud outriders)
spit their loads again, soaking the weirs
to the flood-brim. The storm never intended

to hurt anyone - the storm never intended
anything at all. And now the bumblebee
has vanished into his green and tiny
Amazon. Only starlings chortle overhead,

settling in crappy treetops, ratcheting
their raspy, cackling complaints, then
moving on. The homesteaders gone too -
summer's yodelers, warblers, who sing

themselves a cozy territory (comfortable,
responsive, mild). Lazarus faces cold.
The mellow season's growing old
and gray. Wind coils through the stubble.


The rainsoaked ground, the windswept sky, heaven
and earth exact their retributions. The grass
withers with a whisper across vast prairies
of catastrophe. Yet what has not begun

is yet to begin - even tonight, maybe.
The gift for which you did not dare to ask,
the phone call in the night (from Alaska,
say - Saskatchewan), the whorl of a stormy-

tender fingerprint. The human trace
a network penetrating to the roots
of time, space... where love waits
in a threadbare lair (for your embrace).


There once was a man, whose bones
were never found, collected in a lead-
lined box, a box that was lost when the dead
man's grave was exhumed : Blackstone,

William Blackstone
. Whose bones in a box
were dug up for a shopping center
(the first American shopping center)
and lost somewhere (bones among rocks).

And Lazarus Posthumous found them;
found them in the dead of winter, in a cave,
in a mirror, in his mind. When you have
a lead box full of whitened bones, Sachem -

a whited sepulchre, O Chief - you have
November coming in a costly casket,
autumn encapsulated, life's biscuit
in a basket - ocean in a wave (goodby).


A new mini-essay : Book Vs. Talk. Pigeonholers take note.
I have a lot of trouble telling the difference between Professionals & Careerists in this picture. Most of the hype is generated by professional careerists, whether they have MFA-type academic jobs or not.

Both need very much to get published, because they've been writing very hard for many years. Best of luck to them, I say. A lovely tree awaits your sees n' saws.

What this tells you about the quality of their poetry is not much, one way or the other.

Kind of similar situation with the SoQ/Post-Avant descriptor. Basically, it gives acquisitive collectors a handy cubbyhole for their collections, and loud trumpeteers a special key to punch on their polemic-horns.


I'd hate to give the soggy impression or do the saggy impression of some neo-bowtie stuffed shirt pseudo-critic. Hey, no way. It ain't me. Please you gotta believe me!!!

What I meaneth to suggesteth, ladies & goons, is that :

1. despite the fact that good art always transcends simple categories & critical abstractions & nostrums & such : even if & as it hews most faithfully to the generic requirements of certain traditional forms;

2. and despite the fact that our unprofessional off-the-cuff impressionistic personal insights & comments are of far greater practical & humane & spiritual value, generally, & usually, than systematic critical werke, generally;

3. nevertheless, there is a place for calling things by their right names, according to an open & explicit set of premises & postulates, designed by the professional critic, to establish differentiae of judgement : because such creative critical labor has its own proper sphere & center of gravity; & because, paradoxically, establishing such differentiae can help us to see, sometimes, how individual works & artists are part of larger ongoing communal projects & traditions.

Thus indie-crit, as I useta call it, is one way to comprehend (through one critic's sense of taste within a partially-perceived scale of universal aesthetic & ethical values) the equality & kinship of something we sense as the Beautiful - across vast variations of style & cultural background.
very interesting article on poet/conservative thinker Peter Viereck in this week's New Yorker.


Mark Scroggins on the old-style divide. One aim of the mini-essays I've been writing is to underline the difference between opinion (personal likes/dislikes, lacking any apparent principle of judgement) and criticism (in which ethical & aesthetic principles are somewhat clarified).


A new essay-effort : Art & Ethos


"We were as Danes in Denmark all day long."
In the twists & turns of the argument of Whittling, Whistling, I'm actually trying (among other things) to make room in the "theory" for modes of didactic, satiric poetry. Discursiveness, direct address. It may not seem that way... I may not have been very clear.

The idea is that these particular forms of poetry (along with all the other forms & modes) reflect the theatricality of poetry in general. I'm saying poetry & poets are inherently dramatic (hence the emphasis on those attributes noted by Aristophanes). That's why I call poetic language itself the main character, the protagonist : an exaggeration, meant to underline how the medium shapes the message.


A new proto-mini-essay : Whittling, Whistling
I'm a gemini, see. I keep two sets of books. And each of those keeps two sets of books. and so on. my poetry is a temporary cease-fire ("stay against confusion"), arranged between the two halves of my brain. (Is you there, Bluejay?)
Added an old review of Edwin Honig's collected poems over here. My apologies to those who have read this before. The thread of thinking about poetry's dramatic aspect brought the review to mind.


There's a new mini-essay over there : A Quick Nod in Words.


What's an essay for? asks Jordan.

I'd like to write them in order to precipitate out some of the jumbled thoughts I have on these poetry/poetics conundra. & by putting them in more formal language, make them more accessible to those outside the day-to-day po-blog conversations.

For example, with regard to the string of rambling comments I made earlier here on the issue of poetry & its ideological/critical paraphrasement. It's possible the Andrew Ford book will provide me with a sort of background with which to come to terms with all that.

Ie., perhaps poetry's janus face - 1. self-standing art-form, craft; 2. social/civic performance, political occasion - can be re-interpreted, without favoring one side by dismissing the other. Perhaps its a more complicated, interesting symbiosis. That would be a topic to "essay".
Reading more in the Andrew Ford book. The tension between literacy/text and oral poetry, back in old Greece. A lot of curious poems about statuary & funerary inscriptions (Simonides, Pindar...).

Funny when I think of my own recurrent floundering over the years, between writing & music, poetry & rockn'roll.


the curious thing here, for me, is again RS Crane's insight : that Aristotle's notion of such "self-standing" aesthetic form is not really text-based, but follows from an idea of the "poem" as an amalgam - a whole (which is not the same as its text) made out of time, action, suspense, character, spectacle, music, diction - all combined.

I'm reading Ford et al. to explore how other genres & modes of poetry relate to, stem from, this same action-performance nexus.
Following along on my Chicago School sea-lurches. Came upon another study - The Origins of Criticism, by Andrew Ford (Princeton UP, 2002).

RS Crane & the Chi-towners pointed to a dissonance between Aristotle's sense of dramatic form in poetry, and what came a little later, in the text/rhetorical emphasis of Alexandrians, Horace, et al.

What I'm getting from the Ford book (just on intro chapter now) is that the formal approach of Aristotle was a sort of culmination of a much earlier trend out of archaic times : moving from strictly oral performance and in situ, collective critique (in festive symposia - dinner & drinking feasts - verbal contests - early "slams"), toward literacy, reading & texts (when song & speech become "poems").

Aristotle's Poetics, while being as I mentioned the summation & foremost example of that new trend, still exhibits the traces of the earlier cultural situation.

Ford is interested in the difference between the later textual criticism's sole focus on aesthetics, and the traditional-archaic focus on the moral & social fitness of the speech. We can see this same dynamic (aesthetic autonomy, social relevance) playing out in debates about contemporary poetry.

The focus on the interior rightness of a text began early - Plato has a famous passage in the Gorgias in which "speakers are urged to follow painters, builders, shipwrights and other craftsmen who construct self-standing objects by 'compelling one part to suit & fit with another'" [Ford, p. 20].

self-standing objects. the advent of writing - & shipwrighting.


at one extreme, the solitary hermit/visionary/prophet. the scholar, the scientist, the sage. the light of contemplation.

at the other extreme, the song & dance, the give & take of communal festivals. the physical embodiments of harmonious nature. earthly delight & fellowship. music.

the poet's word occupies a middle ground, mediating between the two. the pleasure involved in surmounting aesthetic difficulties, meeting artistic challenges, solving puzzles & problems. bringing order to chaos and freedom to order; uniting contraries; taking pleasure in judgement & necessity (tragic mimesis).

Pindar, for example. or Sophocles.
Checking into some books about sources of poetry & criticism in ancient Greece. Andrew Ford, Origins of Criticism. In the intro he discusses the oral performance/communal culture out of which "professional" criticism evolved : song recitals were social gatherings, & criticism & comment were part of the occasion itself. Shows examples of this from Homer & early literature.

Aristotle was at the beginning of one era, but at the end of another, too. The archaic one shows some fleeting similarities with contemporary poetry culture (cd's, music, reading jaunts, tribes, etc.).

& perhaps Aristotle's structural analysis of mimetic, performative poetry reflects that earlier culture in a way which the (cf. R.S. Crane) Alexandrian, text-based, rhetorical mode of criticism does not.
Jack Kimball has a smart review of the recent Johnson/Mohammad matchup hereabouts.
I've started a new blog spinoff, called HG Essays+Reviews. The first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing series is titled A Note on R.S. Crane.


Needless to say, you gotta read da book to get da full treatmemt.

RS Crane quietly, succinctly surveys the last few many hundred yrs of poetry criticism, & finds that, despite all the excellencies, dey most of em summat missed the point.

Poetry remains an undiscovered moon.

Here's the conclusion to the section I quoted earlier:

"It is easy to see, therefore, why the critic who uses this language is necessarily restricted, in his selection of attributes for poetry or individual poems, to such characteristics as have clear counterparts or logical contraries in the non-poetic discourse which he takes as the other term of his comparison. This is not to say that the method is incapable of differentiating poetry, as poetry, from other things or of serving as a basis for practical criticism of a highly particularized and perceptive sort. It is, however, to say that the discriminations it permits between poetry and other forms of writing or between the various kinds of poetry are such - and such alone - as can be arrived at by asking what characteristics among those possible in discourse are here present and in what special modifications and combinations. It is not a method, in other words, that allows the critic, as Aristotle's method does, to consider poems in their peculiar aspect as distinct kinds of concrete wholes, of which the special character, as poetic wholes, is determined by internal principles of construction that have, at least as far as imitative poetry is concerned, no strict parallels in philosophy, science, rhetoric, or history." [pp.93-94]
"Jane" has some current thoughts related to this stuff.

Poetry certainly provides food for thought. What a criticism along the lines I'm mulling over here would do, though, is investigate & evaluate the poem as food-source rather than meal : the poem as many-sided living something. As evocative, resonant art-action-work.

Aristotle, according to RS Crane et al. anyway, offers some neglected tools for doing that. Neglected in part because of the critical assumptions (blinders) he outlines in the chapter I just quoted.
Here is a long quote from one of the summary-transition paragraphs of RS Crane's book. I think even without the examples & evidence he offers, you can see how the kind of a priori -theoretical "discourse-application" method he describes, sounds very familiar to us. This relates very much, I think, to what A. Mlinko was getting at, with regard to the problem of reading poems as extrapolated "arguments".

On the other hand, Aristotle's notion of [& method of investigating] an intrinsic, special structure & form of poetry, as "imitation" rather than as verbal discourse, holds, as I have been saying, some serious potential for the reception & interpretation of present-day poetry.

RS Crane, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (U. Toronto Press, 1953), pp. 88-89:

"It is thus correct to say of these other critics, as not of Aristotle, that poetry exists for them primarily in a "verbal universe." And this fact has consequences of the greatest importance with respect both to the principles on which their criticism is based and to the method by which these principles are discovered and applied. The principles of poetics, for Aristotle, we have seen to be principles peculiar to the art of poetry, as the distinctive art of "making" or "imitating" human actions and other experiences in words, or to one or another of the various poetic species; they are identical with the necessary and sufficient internal causes, or principles of construction, that must operate in the writing of a given poem if it is to be a beautiful whole of the particular form desired; they vary accordingly from species to species; and they can be discovered only by reasoning a posteriori from the inductively known nature of any given kind of existing poems to the conditions of artistic success or failure in poems of that sort. For the critics in the second tradition, on the other hand, the principles of poetic criticism are necessarily specifications of principles operative throughout the field of writing as a whole. The basic principles of poetry are therefore identical with the principles basic to all varieties of verbal composition; and of these the most basic, as Quintilian long ago remarked, are the two elements without which purposive speech of any kind could not exist - res and verba, things and language, a subject and the words in which it is expressed, a content and a verbal form; after which the next most important, in any discourse that goes beyond a single utterance, is arrangement. If poetry is to be studied in terms of its character as discourse, in a context of other modes of verbal statement, these are indeed the primary elements to which the critic must refer and upon which he must build - as the modern critics I have quoted clearly do - in his efforts to say what poetry is as a special mode of speech, to discriminate its possible kinds, or to determine the standards upon which it is to be judged.
"They are, it will be noted, the elements which Aristotle distinguished for rhetoric rather than for poetics, and hence, as principles of poetry, they are essentially reductive, in the sense that, unlike the distinction of object, means, manner, and "power", which applies only to imitative poems, they tend to assimilate the structure of poetry to the structure of any discourse, however "unpoetic", in which we can discriminate aspects of content, language, and arrangement. It is necessary therefore to look for other principles through which the meanings of these basic terms (and especially of the first two) can be so specified as to give us a distinctive subject-matter for the criticism of poetry; and this is what the definitions of poetry I have quoted and the many others like them in this tradition are designed to do. They are based on the assumption that poetry has no intrinsic nature such as can be known sufficiently by an induction of the conditions essential to the production of poems as special kinds of wholes but is something that participates, with a difference, in the nature of discourse in general, or rather what is taken, hypothetically, as the characteristic of discourse in general which appears to illuminate most satisfactorily for the critic the problems and values of poetry. This characteristic once selected, the next step is the determination of appropriate differentiae; and from the hypothesis thus formed the critic can then derive, by dialectical necessity... all the more particular terms he needs for the discussion of poetry and poems."
Crane & Olson. But a different C & O.

(As I've noted before here someplace...) I was reading a monograph on Aristotle when I started Stubborn Grew.
Helped me add sort of an introductory echo effect (talking, in the poem, about what the poem was going to do).
Looked again (on coffee break) into RS Crane, Languages of criticism and the structure of poetry (U. Toronto, 1953). This is the real deal, esp. the third essay ("The languages of contemporary criticism").

Seriously, this will change your way of seeing things.

If I have time to quote some passages, I will.

Aristotle saw things differently.

Crane shows how the standard method of 20th-cent. criticism was so pervasive, you couldn't se that there were other approaches.

The standard method assumed "poetry" is one big thing, a kind of discourse, and you defined "it" by differentiating it from other kinds of discourse (but all these kinds are still cousins : all "discourse", "language-usage").

Aristotle saw these very unique & specific activities which people did which came to be called "poetry". Tragic, comic, epic were sharply differentiated from one another, & from other genres. They weren't "modes of discourse" : they were forms of an art of imitation.

Then he investigates their structure & shape, to discover how they create that specific power & beauty he calls "imitation".

I'm really not succeeding here in transmitting Crane's very valuable insights.

The "art of imitation" (in dramatic/epic poetry) is structured, not with discourse, but upon the armature of plot.

[I know I'm repeating some things I tried to describe a few months ago. I'm just going back in that direction.]
Sorry for the long-windedness yesterday. Looks now like a hodge-podge proto-essay, which somebody else will write if I don't get crackin'.

& the "list of paradigms" is not very gripping, much less complete. I'm going back to RS Crane's book Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry.

As I was taking my shower this morning, was thinking that the real focus of interest for me here, what woke me up at 3 a.m. the other day, was this :

By going back to Aristotle, the Chicago people found a way to re-frame a formalist criticism (ie. one that focused on what & how the poem does what it does - as opposed to thematic or other kinds of readings). Instead of reifying the poem in isolation - a la New Criticism - this framework creates a holistic sense of poetic form : not only text, but performance; not only an internally-balanced aesthetic object of beauty, but a dramatic shape, which has specific techniques for creating particular rhetorical effects and evoking particular responses in its audience (emotional, interpretive).

Not only text, but living expression - an offshoot of the living poet & his or her dramatis personae. (Goes back to places in this blog's archive where I thought about the difference between prose fiction & poetry.)

This is not really new : Horace developed a practical criticism which analyzed the poem's rhetoric. But Aristotle seems more fully-rounded : he can distinguish these rhetorical effects, yet in symbiosis with the analysis of the poem as a formal shape, a kind of verbal sculpture.

What I'm thinking is that a framework which includes both text & performance - both objective shape, and its effects, its resonance - could be generated as kind of a general platform for developing a new critical vocabulary to apply to contemporary work.

When you look less to the model of New Critical "close reading" of the internal texture of the diction, and more to the meanings and effects projected in the dramatic action which is the poem, you might find a more capacious fit between meaning & expression, style & its effects.

With some such framework, you might be able to talk about the seemingly odd & baroque expressive techniques of contemporary poets, in a way which shows their affinities, differences, inheritances from past poetries.

& it might give poets more confidence in the motivations which impel them to offer their artistic activities as some kind of contribution to society at large. If poems are art works - not texts to be "processed" into their ideological paraphrases; not exercises in some dys-Platonic scriptorium, but forms which absorb text, in order to unite writing with dramatic presence - we might have a new sense of the symbiotic relationship between style & theme, between diction & Aristotle's trio of powers (ethos, pathos, logos).


OK Henry, class is over, the kids left an hour ago, you can go home now...

Here's a paragraph from the conclusion of Olson's "An Outline of Poetic Theory":

"Thus far we have proceeded on the supposition that the imitative poetic arts have as their ends certain pleasures, produced through their play upon our emotions. Certainly, these are ends of art and such as any consideration of art must embrace; but to suppose that art has no further effect and that it may have no further ends relative to these is vastly to underestimate the powers of art. It exercises, for example, a compelling influence upon human action - individual, social, or political - for among the causes of the misdirection of human action are the failure to conceive vividly and the failure to conceive apart from self-interest; and these are failures which art above all other things is potent to avert, since it vivifies, and since in art we must view man on his merits and not in relation to our private interests. It is not that art teaches by precept, as older generations thought, not that it moves to action; but clearly it inculcates moral attitudes; it determines our feelings toward characters of a certain kind for no other reason than that they are such characters. The ethical function of art, therefore, is never in opposition to the purely artistic end; on the contrary, it is best achieved when the artistic end is best accomplished, for it is only a further consequence of the powers of art. The same is true of any political or social ends of art, provided that the state be a good state or the society a moral society. To reflect on these things is to realize the importance and value of art, which, excellent in itself, becomes ever more excellent as we view it in ever more general relations."
So let's cut to the chase here, Hank - what's it all about, this rambular delving amongst the Chicago School tie?

As my better Ange is choristering over there today, in the same key with my squawks - it has to do with a search for a descriptive language for what poets are doing (today). A context.

Poetry reviewers do this naturally - improvising, more or less. But how to picture the wide-screen hysterical landscape?

Rather than put the poem in a bottle of battling-balancing textual forces (New Critics), or read poetry in terms of some other (non-poetic) level of critical discourse (everybody since 1975, more or less), the Chicago critics developed a formalist criticism : the formal terms of which, however, open out toward the wider, deeper connotations and consequences of art.

The history of American poetry/poetics for the last century takes an hourglass shape. The early moderns blew the top off the bottle of style, diction, form, et al. Eliot, Pound, Cummings, Stein, etc. etc.

Toward mid-century, the bottle narrowed into the methodological funnel of the New Criticism : poem as self-contained object.

Just at mid-point, the glass began to bulge out again : Projectivists, Beats, Life Studies, translations, free verse, & so on toward the open-ended flarfy fin-de-siecle.

When Elder Olson, RS Crane & the other Chicago critics began (toward mid-century) to differentiate themselves from the New Criticism, I think they discovered a useful set of "paradigms" (my very partial unofficial paraphrase/list) :

1. Critical pluralism allows many approaches & methods equal validity : walk in fear of over-extended critical universals (misapplied abstractions & categories of judgement).
2. Poetry is not described or defined simply by an analysis of diction or verbal texture. The words are not the form, but the material : the wood which takes the form of the toy ship.
3. Said form includes the cognitive and emotional resonances felt by the poem's readers & audience (ie. the "action" of the poem is not merely autotelic, self-contained, self-reflexive. It has measurable aesthetic consequences & contexts).
4. It's possible to distinguish aesthetic methods and effects, in the process of responding to & interpreting a poem's meaning(s), purpose, motive, impact, etc. & this seems like a sensible place to begin, since a poem is, first of all, a work of art.

2 essays which focus most directly on these issues are by Elder Olson (in the volume Critics and Criticism, ed. by RS Crane):
"An Outline of Poetic Theory"
"William Empson, Contemporary Criticism, and Poetic Diction"
another interesting background find in my digging around the Chicago School.

The trouble with this argument is that the aesthetic is simply evaporated or absorbed by the ethical.

Sure, criticism should investigate & evaluate the ethical aspect of works of art - no doubt about that! But a work of art sheds light on moral issues by means which are aesthetic. Our response, & its purpose, are an indivisible synthesis of the two (aesthetics & ethics). Yet, by the same token, the aesthetic criteria of beauty are not measurable using ethical categories (wouldn't 'Arrystotle agree?).
In order to forestall some objections to previous post:

Simply to name something a symptom rather than a cause is only a beginning, obviously; otherwise, we're just playing with words, setting up another supposed defensive barrier for our aestheticism.

Social conditions are in part the result of political platforms & programs, which themselves project from ideologies & worldviews. When you see suffering & injustice & social pathology, the moral thing is to seek the right name for the problem & take positive political steps to correct it.

The 20th century was, for one thing, a worldwide laboratory for testing policies and programs at all levels of government; for every problem there's a program (except in many cases the right idea & the right action have not been invented yet). If you believe in government control of the market, you can advocate for that; if you believe in dog-eat-dog Darwinism and the inevitable failure of all public problem-solving initiatives, you can advocate for that; if you believe in a symbiotic balance between government policy and private initiatives, you can work for that; if you see consistent oppression of the poor & exploitation by the rich, if you see multifarious attacks on public governmental authority on behalf of powerful private interests, if you see egregious fraud & greed in high places, you can take action, participate in the political process.

No one is inhibited from political activity of some kind. But it's not the same thing as artistic work. Again, in the last century, we witness the swings in critical (& artistic) attitudes, from attacking art (for its indifference to social problems) to defending art (for its unique values) - like a constant pendulum channeling the inherent outrage & frustration with exigent reality. The consequences range from blaming the victim (artists themselves) to defensive camouflage ("political" artists) to aggressive indifference ("art for art's sake").

"Political" artists make poetry out of theoretical-systemic solutions - verbal abstractions - applied to ornery, many-sided, complex, intractable problems. (cf. Ange Mlinko's comments about the tendency to interpret poems as paraphrases of political arguments.) For the ideological poet, everything is grist for the mill : there's such heroic poetry in Utopia!

But just as our experience is a many-layered reality of symptomatic fault lines & corrosive chaos (not always amenable to simple "translation" into verbal signs & systemic solutions) - so the complex pleasure/insight amalgam of the art work offers pathways to draw closer to it : offers an image of it which we recognize as authentic.
I think Ange Mlinko is thinking along an adjacent meander this morning (see her comments on political reactivity-response).

"If there's a solution to this quandary, it lies in treating poetry
other than as a vehicle for argument
. Matisse was not a decorator
of living rooms; he was a painter solving painters' problems. What are
poets' problems -- that is, ours alone?"
Digging around for more background on the Chicago critics, came upon this excerpt from Richard Ohmann (1976).

I can't pretend to be much of a lit historian, but this essay seems to appear toward the beginning of another generation of radical critique, based on a Marxist interpretation of culture. Ohmann seems even-handed & careful about New Critics, interesting overview here of the mid-century theories about nature & purpose of poetry.

Have trouble accepting the underlying premise, however, which seems to be: that social injustices are systemic in nature; that we understand what that system does; that the intellectual classes, the bourgeoisie in general, create their own self-protective ideologies which blind them to reality, etc. etc. [Here we note the parochial bias against business, entrepreneurialism, individual & family enterprise - all those economic activities which structure much of past & present world social economy.]

I don't deny the pervasive & insidious presence of injustice & evil. Nor the forces of conformity & exploitation which structure & process the social reality we inhabit. But I question whether the appropriate interpretation of this reality is a purely econo-political one. That is I think of injustice and inequality - & the seemingly entrenched patterns of oppression which they assume - as symptoms, rather than causes.

Taken as causes, the logic leads to the denunciation of bourgeois property rights, capitalism, the rule of law, democratic institutions, private enterprise, and so on; it leads to the moral disenfranchisement of independent cultural activity (academia, art, literature) - its chastisement for complicity in the "system" (cf. Ohmann's analysis).

If taken as symptoms, the entrenched injustices and inequalities of various nations & societies may have very different systemic shapes & developments; there may be no simple "answer" (Marxist, socialist, nationalist, ethnic, religious, etc.) which provides utopian solutions to the underlying causes : ie. the greed, selfishness, bigotry, aggression, malice, hatred, cowardice, fraudulence, intellectual/moral blindness of human beings, persons, individuals.

Understood this way, we might recognize the ethical value which sometimes accompanies (& enhances) those independent (semi-guilty) aesthetic pleasures & enjoyments (of various degrees of intellectual insight & innocence) which we give & take - in the midst of social corruption, injustice & cruelty. It's a value contained in the moral representation of realities for which we have no simple, abstract, systemic solution, no bureaucratic assignment of moral duties. This is a value in addition to the natural & inherent values offered by beauty in general.


more floodwaters from July:


Gray clouds like a heavy wave across the sky.
Washing over the last of the reddish-gold
maple leaves. Mysterious, water-logged
Thanksgiving – quiet, solitary. Aches

it, perpetual. Slowly. Slow mist of soul –
almost medieval, out the cool window.
Distant sound of Flemish dancing, down-
wind. (Through the mirror's modest pulse.)

(Blurring. Astigmatism.) The distance...
in Louisiana... in a wide flat space,
uttering joyous leaves
... it seeps
like a woodland scent. Standish?

John? Speaking for yourself? Or maybe
turpentine, or linseed oil? Solitary
Harry the Minnesota turkey rattles
pardoned neck-whiskers a-beam

the Presidential podium, today. Today.
Heavy roasting odor hangs in the quiet air
of empty streets. A green spar, or sprig
in the lonely room of one gray doting

solitaire, uttering a different scent
(oak sap? Sperm oil?). Today, knave –
in an old house in Paris, covered with vines.
Taste and see, crumblette. River-nets

and trawlers – nascent Crescent.
City. Rio del Espiritu Santo. Flows
one Mardi Gras, 300 years ago – wolfs
down your flood of tears – one tessera or

tesseract. One cataract. One dome
petrified, and buried in your muddy delta
being born, borne upside-down – an addled
ark, ancestral crossroad – mode

of darkened prairie – storming sky
gone black. Pitch-black. And winded.
In your mother's living room – painted node
of bent grass, purple air, skewed sticks

of weathered telephone poles, still standing.
Empty meeting of two roads – three –
in the presence of the wind only – earth
droning, murmuring – under a distended

whining, whistling – call put through too late
to nobody
– bent vertical, invisible there
in the frozen painting, at the vortex – ether
calling – switchback – rattler's tale.

Where the serpent curls in the headwaters.
Where the alligator opens wide the gates
of ivory, and all the mistaken messages – Tagus,
Thames – Neva, Yangtse – the whole tawdry mess

merges – emerges – spread and disappear...
bobbing, soaking, sinking – papers, cigarettes,
summer nightloads of confederate rags,
money... toiletries and crockery-of-paradise,

the whole production... handicraft, hand-painted...
as though the scattered basketry of breezy
implausibilities – mere silverfish zebra-
script – tongued a J2 temperate

perfected buoyancy – your oh and ah
along a London flank – Finnish, complete
and seaworthy – a curious token temple
of adhesive animale compagnevole

the cup or crown of long-forsaken Baptistry.
Longing through the serpentine meanderings
to the spread-wide grand finale of a Mardi Gras
out of Lenten snowfall, backward, forward – stippled

beast, graven, to apple-pied, applied
beatitude – Jonah to Joan in
an arc or surge of stone-dislodged
desire, afloat now, Archimedean –

you reckon, Huck? – you see-saw, Jim?
Acrest to the brim of your Shakespearean
deluge-dodged mad-hatter's reaper's
close-shaved bardic midget's

gunnelled whaler's rim-rhymed absoluted
Absalom, my boy! And they whispered
under the hanging moss, among the wide-spaced
live-oaks, drifting with the curving tumbles

of the banks, rafted and bound together,
logging the current and the depth
with little stones – their pithy thud
sounding token icons, registers

of greater gulfs – further up ahead, downstream.
Mica and aluminum, pings in the soil –
bubbles in the level. Gneiss loss -
binoculars (measuring a missing distance).

Just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves,
shadowy inscrutable and serene, against
that turgid background of a
... bloody
mischancing of human affairs
. Vikings and

Dallas Cowboys... Lincoln saw ahead,
LaFarge, Degas (fils de New Orleans) –
beyond the blue-gray looming snarl: blagodar-
(mingling with blood and oil). Anointed

stonemason geysers from the throat
with nadezhda – all across black
44. Odessa jail – pale in a cab
in Brooklyn - theater of troth

bonded with a bondsman's muscled arm:
yea, though I walk through the valley of death
– psalm, solemn love-bubble, thread
of overflowing burst from Roman

candle's bronzen breast-coccoon: another
fluttering monarch of my soul (meek
Indian summer colors – merged akme
Sumerian marks and crane bone theremin).

Oswald fingered a Cuban .44, scrawled
limply, languorous. Sport of nature (sick, ef-
feminate f.m.c., flushed under a doctored kiss).
Democracy (grand seeming, scheming: reckless

gamblers: emboldened lambs). In Creole
haunts, headwaters mingle with the ghosts
borne slowly (through a muddy All Souls'
mist) into the gulf... one live-oak leaf.

11.25.99 (Thanksgiving)
just got back from Kent Johnson & K. Silem Mohammad reading, downtown. should have hung around to say hello to Kent, at least, but was feeling shy & unsociable. spoke to poet Karen Donovan there, & CD Wright, briefly (we talked about Angola prison, near New Orleans). shook hands with friendly Michael Gizzi.

enjoyed hearing them - maybe write more about it tomorrow.

Kent's poetry projects a lot of heart & emotion - but at a slant, in a game. His clear unaffected writing style is a good vehicle for the larger set of weird rhetorical fun & games. but people miss the heart part, perhaps.

sometimes he does understatement very effectively : other times he could use it more - like when he (unfortunately) hammed up the Jaime Saenz translation he read. that should have been done in understatement.

the broad strokes, the hammer-blows - say in the Abu Graibh poem - might be looked at as coming out of Hispanic rhetorical tradition he's familiar with, but we're not so used to. but it was appropriate to the situation (ie. the prisoner abuse)

Kent has a real inventiveness, a particular scene-setting talent, that blends so well with the directness, the simplicity of his sentences, his style. it makes for dramatic poetry. unusual in the arch atmosphere of post-avantism. he can write political poems.

(nevertheless the recurrent obsessional object - insider po-biz culture - is not really worth the excessive obsessiveness - tho it makes a nice target for satire sometimes, I guess)

I liked Kasey's "Forest Ranger" poem best, tho even in that the comic persona was a bit derivative. It was very funny though, I was laughing away.

Otherwise the poetry didn't interest me too much, the flarf in-your-face too baroque for my taste.
I like quite a bit of the new Poetry issue. Don't have it in front of me, so can't say what.

the Don Paterson "aphorisms" - clever, but tending toward the painfully sour.

enjoyed Garry Wills essay on translation of Grks & Rmns.

liked some of the poems -

Amit Majmudar (featured poet) : have to say I skimmed them. didn't like much.

Patty Seyburn - FUNNY - but unfortunately the 1st 2-3 stanzas were the best.

Mike White - haven't read yet

Rachel Hadas - a very nice poem, though I feel like the set-up has been done before (the plot). Liked it though

Gillian Allnutt - very interesting, impressive, terse. Unusual phonics, syntax shifts. but a little derivative (Celan, G. Hill)

Wilmer Mills - I think I liked this one a lot but can't remember it now (read them last night). (helpful, aren't I??)

John Surowiecki - OK, maybe a little facile

Frederick Feirstein - nice : but kind of a genre poem. You have to do something very unusual with this for it not to sound like previous poems

Elise Partridge - original, confident, unusual. sets up situation & plays with it -very accomplished, quick. Too bad both poems have exactly same structure (imperative address to poems' protagonists at the conclusion)

Robert Wrigley - funny! good poem. again, though, it weakens toward the end, sort of fizzles

Robin Ekiss - haven't read yet. (sorry, bored with any titles that go : " [fill in the blank] In Love"

Mark Halliday - this guy has his chops down COLD. rueful fun - pieces of fluff

JD Whitney - haven't read yet

Daisy Fried - review of Camille Paglia's book of poetry crit. Nicely done, funny.

Garry Wills - worth re-reading


are we in a sort of Jazz Age??? the period style is witty, clever, comic, light, sharp, hard, ironic, anti-ironic ironic.

younger readers perhaps don't realize - or they realize much better than we old-timers do - how different this sounds from 25 yrs ago. the days of the wistful-stentorian laid-back free-verse rambles.

I know, I'm way behind the times. this probably started happening about 20 yrs ago, right???
the Robber Barons reviewed in NYTRB last weekend.

does Henry + Bluejay = Jay Gould ??

I don't think so.
Back in town. Woke up at 3 am this morning, with ideas for essay on Chicago School critics (Elder Olson, RS Crane et al.). I should get away more often.

Plan was triggered by a letter in the new issue of Poetry, from Stephen Stepanchev, in which he describes a class he took with RS Crane back in 60s, & advocates for "Chicago" approach. Exciting! That's what I been talkin' about! (Even though he doesn't get it quite right - the Chi School was not a branch of New Criticism, by any means. It was a critique of that trend.)