Reconsidering past writings... don't want to be too negative! Unless I have to be.

The long poems... in their context (with other like-minded long journey-poems or life-poems) - maybe, anyway, have their good points...

Reading more in & about Ezra Pound lately. Feel some connections between themes in later Cantos & what I'm trying to do or think about these days...

"can you enter the great acorn of light?"

Long time ago I wrote a longish poem called Spring Quartet, which actually included a kind of "ideogram"... it was a sketch of a small wooden toy bathtub boat, which my mother had made for me, christened "Sophie" - all white and light blue. In the center of the boat was an acorn. It was represented as sailing into Providence (the city)... eventually I gave the boat to Elena Shvarts (the Petersburgians have a serious historical thing about boats). It was destroyed several years later in a massive apartment fire in her building... I wish I'd taken a photo of that little toy.

I'm definitely in the Whitman endless-poem bunch. Interesting to me that Anny Ballardini is acquainted with Pound's daughter (Mary de Rachewiltz), over in Italy - and gave her a copy of our bilingual In RI.


But now, somehow, I need to write a more objective kind of poetry. Not leaning so much on "long poem", "sequence", Henry's improvisatory musical daydreaming & repetitive symbols. More free-standing, clearer.

Somehow. Maybe.
Dog days at the old HG blog. Enjoying being done with Fontegaia poem. Trying to re-evaluate things, write or not-write in a different way.

Reading Christian Moevs' great book again, Metaphysics of Dante's Comedy. & Richard Farina, Been down so long it seems like up to me. I feel like I met each one of his (fictional) characters back in the 60s.

Whenever I'm in one of these transitional phases, I start thinking about Mandelstam again. My quirks & obsessions.

M's Voronezh poems at a certain time (10 yrs ago) not only gave me some ideas, "themes". Something in the tone of those poems set me free from my own hesitations, over-conceptualizing. A kind of cozy mumbling, gemutlichkeit. A sweetness. "My sadness is luminous" (Pushkin). Permission to improvise (for better & worse, I guess). That was the beginning of 10,000 quatrains.


One way to bring together obscure imagery and real, particular things is, oddly enough... through allegory. Montale does something like this : tying together a network of allusions, so that what seems like a private or fictional story is actually a statement about contemporary events.

& thinking of Montale today... I suppose one reason my poetry has been dismissed or ignored by my contemporaries is that I come across somewhat like Montale's counterpart, D'Annunzio - the self-absorbed, egotistical, super-productive, narcissistic, reactionary individualist...

well, maybe. But today I see vague outlines of cultural-intellectual work to do... maybe. "The time is out of joint."
Perfect summer day here, walking around on coffee break... have been through these "self-evaluations" before (see previous post). 10 yrs ago, when the qua-train started down the track, it was Mandelstam who provided the antidote to that same obscurity he had previously helped set in motion... his last poems, from Voronezh - fusion of that image-music with clear expression of real landscape, the "black earth"... listening to that, & connecting it suddenly with Orpheus-Eurydice-Persephone story, I was able to come up with a plot... & a sequence of poems really set in time & place & history (Stubborn Grew...).
Since the ol' Quatrain Express seems to have finally come into the station, I've been pondering about the general basis of my ways in poetry... so it's been quiet around here.

Thinking about my deep attraction for "Deep Image" kinds of things... Mandelstam & Crane's riddles, hermetic imagery, some of that in Pound's Cantos & elsewhere... it's a kind of imagism-symbolism, visual music... Poe's "vagueness"...

but now I'm thinking about it as a kind of limitation...

wondering if there's a psychological/intellectual aspect to it. Like nostalgia for home or childhood instilling a subconcious hunger for vision - which is perhaps temporarily appeased by the striking, un-paraphrasable image, like a gong sounding...

(speaking of gongs, I think Yeats went through something like this, a re-examination of his style... not that I'm doing anything so systematic or dramatic here)

So the challenge for me might be to find a way of writing which I can take to, which involves something more like direct discourse, statement... Maybe.


Reading poems of Anthony Hecht lately. Very strong, very impressed. Elephant in the playroom. Enjoying it a lot. Hecht's blank verse narratives, like "Venetian Vespers", with their plot twists and (sometimes) surprise endings, offer fine examples of R.S. Crane's & E. Olson's Aristotelian principles.


An alternative history of "innovation in poetry" in the last 100 yrs might focus on the displacement of meditation, and meditative poetry, by other forms of intellectual activity : prose or dramatic mimesis (novels, plays, film), music per se, and science. Thus the "radical changes" offered by Modernists and postmodernists alike might be seen as motivated primarily by "displacement anxiety", the urgent desire to maintain position - to keep up with the times.

Thus Ron Silliman's notion (on display again in his post of today) of "quietude", and a "School of Quietude", can be understood, ironically, as an unwitting acknowledgment of this state of affairs. "Quietude" as the return of the repressed.

Meditative poetry dramatizes an act of cognition or intellectual choice. It dramatizes or symbolizes an intellectual action. This kind of action is what remains after the forms of mimetic poetry (in Aristotle's sense - the imitation of a believable action and its moral & other consequences) have been divided up, shared out among other media and other arts, separated from poetry per se.

The frenetic activity around superficial aspects of style & form, the obsession with secondary techniques, the fascination with melodramatic poet-personae : these seem like symptoms of an art-practice which has lost its bearings, lost its position among the other modes of artistic representation.

Meditative poetry is only one branch of this art; but it's the remainder, the leftover of what used to be a much broader and more confident set of means available to poets who want to reflect experience and reality. R.S. Crane's book (mentioned here recently) - by way of a deep and exquisite review of Aristotle's method in the Poetics - offers some real avenues to explore, in new ways, old ways of making poetry.

The formal beauty of mimetic poetry is what pleases us : and this form involves the efficient and proportional synthesis of parts into whole, resulting in a moving image of experience we recognize as true in a new way. Crane shows that Aristotle points toward something more profound and essential at work here, than the old cliche about "delight & instruction". Pleasure and instruction are not poetry's final ends : they are by-products of humanity's interest in and admiration for the beautiful itself. And this formal beauty of a "true representation" is the practical aim of (mimetic) poetry. Its modes or means of achievement, specifically in dramatic poetry, in Aristotle, are 6 in number : primarily thought, character, and plot; secondarily diction, melody and spectacle. But we also find their analogues in mimetic kinds of poetry other than dramatic. Narrative poems; poetic dialogues; soliloquies or meditations; elegies, hymns or panegyrics on particular events or experiences; odes on specific topics or events - all these and many other types of poems exhibit mimetic aspects akin to those of dramatic poetry.

One of the key things Crane emphasizes is how the formal beauty of poetry is a synthesis of elements, of which the language or diction is only one, and not even the most important. Elder Olson also writes about this. To me this is an essential key to opening up a new way of reading and making poems today.

It's not as though some poets of this generation aren't exploring and practicing different aspects of these modes, at a very high level. I think what Crane's and Olson's approach can do, among other things, is to help make clearer what sorts of contemporary poems and styles have some weight, force, and elegance, and what kinds seem to be merely examples of stylistic solipsism, narcissism, and superficiality. They do this by giving more importance to character (ethos), narrative (plot), and subject-matter, than they do to diction and melody. Not that these last are not important, or can be discounted from the beautiful whole which is the ultimate aim : but the center of gravity is shifted. The poem is a tensile "complex" toward which these secondary elements contribute.


Very absorbed in new writing endeavor, trying to see if it will stick... hence my falling-off at the blogwheel, lately.

Also reading, again, R.S. Crane's 1953 book, The languages of criticism and the structure of poetry. Love this book, getting more out of it the 2nd time. This book should be re-issued, read, absorbed, comprehended, memorized. It's very, very rich.


All right, so maybe my enthusiasm for Elder Olson is over the top... or maybe not. A scholar named J.M. Gray wrote a critical article on Olson's Aristotelianism back in '63 (published in Comparative Literature, vol. 15, no. 2, Nov 1963 - may be available to you here), pointing out some logical flaws & weak spots in his analogies - but Gray doesn't try to explore what might be valuable & valid in Olson's approach, in which poetic form is something other than simply its language.

Olson & the Chicago School offer a strong counter-weight to the reigning methods of both practice & criticism.
Some of the Chicago School's essays on poetry can seem dry and abstract. They focus on method, on the criticism of criticism; there's a high degree of theoretical abstraction. But it's worth the effort to work through them. Elder Olson's essay (found in Critics & Criticism), "William Empson, contemporary criticism, and poetic diction", is absolute gold.

American poetics of the latter part of the 20th century was all about language, vocabulary, ambiguity, diction, spearheaded by the "alienation effect" of the Language poets' critique of all the other styles then current. In this the LPs were in line with the New Critics.

The popular image of the NCs is that of old white academic fuddy-duddies, the establishment against which the Projectivists, Confessionals, New Americans, Beats, Afro-Americanists, Deep Imagists - all the movements of the 50s & 60s - were in revolt. But the NCs were actually radical innovators in their own right. It's the Chicago School which represents something like a true return to classical poetics - they are the real old fuddy-duddies. & they are so old-fashioned that now, in 2008, their ideas sound, at least to this poet, very radical indeed. I say that anyone who reads & digests Olson's piece on Empson will discover a whole new way of thinking about and responding to poems. Notions of poetic language, and the meaning of "meaning" in poetry, will be sharply revised.

Olson was interested in the poem, not as language, but as ACTION. In this he curiously chimes with his near contemporary, that other Olson! Charles Olson, the great scourge of Western philosophy, would be mortified to find how Aristotelian he seems, through the lens of Elder Olson. Charles O. also thinks of the poem as ACTION - but he envelopes his sense of the poetic act in the feathery mantle of the pompous Magus-Poet. A kind of suprematism - the Act of the Breath of the Line makes a Micro-Cosmos... the Instauration of the Local Epic World-Body of Bodies in Action... thus Charles went to the extremes at either end - the limits being the (Poundian) beak of his Ego, and Epic. Elder, on the other hand, understood beauty as an Aristotelian mean between excess and deficiency. He was interested in the action of the poem as mimesis or imitation. (& I don't mean to make too much fun of Charles O., though he certainly deserves it - would be more interested in exploring ways Charles actually fulfilled Elder's conception of poetry - & challenged the NCs - than in contrasting the two of them at Charles's expense. Maybe Charles is to Elder somewhat as Whitman was to Emerson!)

How is it these Chicago critics never had much influence in poetryland? Perhaps they fell through the cracks between the instauration of the New Criticism in academia, which I guess ran through the 50s (Understanding Poetry was their big textbook - which I need to take another look at), and the rise of the Confessionals & New Americans et al. The "mainstream" slice-of-life poetries of the 60s and 70s were mocked and derided by Langpos & NY School alike, for lacking theory and self-reflexive irony; they had a master critical school just sitting there on the shelf, which might have been applied in their defense.

But everything you need, to put away for good most of the language-oriented poetries of the 80s & 90s, is right there in Elder Olson. Read it and leap.

(It makes you wonder what they've been teaching in MFA programs, and what the public pontificators on poetry over the last 3 decades have been doing. I never heard about this in my English or writing classes, back in the day. They all get an "F" for ignoring the theoretical work of the Chicago School, as it applies to poetry.)


Michael Theune very kindly sent me a copy of his book, Structure & Surprise, which I received today. Have started reading it.
Here is just a sample of what the Chicago Critics can do. It's a footnote from an essay called "An Outline of Poetic Theory", by Elder Olson, which first appeared (in book form) in a collection of essays titled Critics and Criticism, ed. by R.S. Crane, published in 1952 (the year I was born!).

It's a rather long footnote, but I'm going to transcribe the whole thing, because I firmly believe that if & when these sentences are read carefully, and their implications are fully understood, the outcome could be a revolution in the critical climate of reception for contemporary U.S. poetry (at least on its "revolutionary" wing, anyway).

"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 chair is not wood but wooden; poetry is not words but verbal. In one sense, of course, 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.

"A gifted British poet, G.S. Fraser, has objected to these remarks on diction ('Some Notes on Poetic Diction', Penguin New Writing, No. 37 [1949], pp. 116 ff.): 'I think, on the contrary, that criticism should pay a very close attention to diction. I agree with Mr. Allen Tate: 'For, in the long run, whatever the poet's philosophy may be, however wide may be the extension of his meaning... by his language shall you know him.' And I do not find that Mr. Olson's sturdy-looking piece of reasoning stands up very well to my regretful probing. In what sense is it true that we are simply 'moved by the things that the words stand for', and not by the words themselves? Certainly not in any sense in which other words would do as well; in which the fullest paraphrase, or the most intelligent exposition, would be a substitute for the original poem. And certainly not in any sense in which the situation that the poem refers to, if we were capable of imagining that without words - if, for instance, we could draw a picture of it - would be a substitute for the original poem, either. Not, that is, in any sense, in which 'the things the words stand for' means merely the kind of physical object, abstract concept, or emotional state at which the words point. The pointing is the least of it.'

"I willingly concede what I have never debated: that diction is very important to poetry; that, as Tate suggests, distinction of language is an important index of poetic power (although I cannot agree that it is the sole index or even the prime index); that criticism ought to pay the utmost attention to diction; that, as T.S. Eliot has said, the poet is likely to be extraordinarily interested in, and skilful with, language; that we are not 'moved by the things that the words stand for' in any sense that would allow us to dispense with the particular words by which the 'things' are constituted for us; and all similar propositions. The point is not whether diction is important; the reader, if he does not grasp the words, cannot grasp anything further, and the poet, if he cannot find the appropriate words and arrange them properly, has not written a poem. In another respect, however, the words are the least important, in that they are governed and determined by every other element in the poem. There is agreement on all hands that words 'function' in poetry; there should be no difficulty therefore, no matter how we conceive of the structure of poetry, in seeing that words must be subordinate to their functions, for they are selected and arranged with a view to these. Mr. Fraser himself has no difficulty with this fact, although he is disturbed by my statement of the fact; for he goes on to discuss (pp. 121 ff.) 'a wide-scale current use of poetic diction in a really vicious sense to disguise a failure of choice, a confusion of character, or a lack of clear thought'; and he also remarks (p. 126) that 'one cannot ask people to express themselves as confusingly as possible, in the hope that their confusions will prove to have a clear underlying structure; for, as Mr. Schwatz truly says, 'If this were the only kind of poetry... most poetry would not be worth reading.' ' " (Critics and Criticism, abridged ed. 1957, pp. 21-22)

Elder Olson : "words... are governed by imperceptible things". In this regard, again, Mandelstam : "The Word is Psyche".


Have been reading Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, one of those great things you should have read in college... & have Peter O'Leary to thank, by circuitous way of his comments on poet Frank Samperi...

the labyrinthine/byzantine Neo-Platonic/Christian theological history of late antiquity is something I'd like to know more about... those old complex speculations, articulated by Plato & Aristotle, on God, Being, Nature, Person actually might have some relevance for literary criticism, & the idea of developing a "General Criticism" for US poetry world...

(of course it's all old hat for the Postmoderns...)

say for example the Aristotelian idea that individual things (including persons), in their individuality, are, strictly speaking, unclassifiable... - this might have some relevance for the way a critic would want to evaluate an individual poet...

But we have a homegrown school of criticism (The Chicago School, 1950s-60s - R.S. Crane, Richard McKeon, Elder Olson & others) who did some profound exploring in this area - researches on method, & the relation between criticism, literary history & philosophy...

might provide a basis for a new "General Criticism"...


...another jab over at Harriet...

" "Aestheticism" probably carries too much polemical & lit-historical baggage. "Art for art's sake" as a program tried to draw the magic circle around aesthetic experience - but the magic should be left to the art itself. The magic only happens, in any case, when the border between art & life is porous, ambiguous, etc.

I would think that criticism, also, has to reflect the same balancing act. Edmund Wilson in "Axel's Castle" has a lot to say about all this. You can't put art in a special box when the very terms of experience and its reflection are being resolved in a new way in the work itself.

However, I do think U.S. poetry could use a focus on some kind of General Criticism, some general principles which put the logic of aesthetic and critical response on a stronger, mutual footing. It seems to me that the "logic" which presently divides the so-called poetic schools and tendencies is only a kind of pretend-logic, tendentious and polemical.

Is it true that one of the distinctive characteristics of U.S. poetry & poetics USED TO BE, anyway, a suspicion of theory, in fact a suspicion of the whole classical-academic tradition inherited from Europe? Doesn't American literature display a striking UNEASINESS about writing per se? The poet stuck in a jam between native wilderness (and Native languages), and Puritan strictures on art, and overbearing Mother Country (England)? Isn't the subsequent keynote of American poetry this very colonial awkwardness, uneasiness, a DISLIKE for scribbling & inaction?

The Moderns & their late-20th cent. heirs would like us to believe that the key characteristic of American literature is invention and renovation; hence the high value accorded "experiment", avant-garde, etc. But the deeper character of US poetry is rooted in this wilderness unease and alienation, this native awkwardness.

Look again at Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Pound, Stephen Crane, Hart Crane........... central to all of them is the whole issue of imitation, of how the US poet grows into or relates to the inheritance of the past, and thus grows as an artist - this is, I repeat, not the business of some simplified 20th-cent. "progress in the arts". It's a deeply anachronistic situation on many levels."


Scattered thoughts toward an essay I will probably never get around to writing :

Pity the critic trying to make sense of contemporary poetry in the United States (as a single, whole object of study, that is).

We don't usually pity critics, rather we commiserate with the objects of their criticism; but in this case we might want to make an exception.

I can't really take on such a study myself, since I have trouble sustaining the necessary amount of interest in reading so much verse...

but I'll toss out a few partially-formed ideas here, anyway...

One thing that strikes me about this "field" or phenomenon is that it is somehow lopsided or asymmetrical. It resembles a tilted cone or gibbous moon. In order to explain this, I would, in turn, rotate (90 degrees) Ron Silliman's much-remarked distinction between "school of quietude" and "post-avant".

At one end of this ovoid ellipse I would place the QUIET. At the other end I would place the LOUD. But I mean to apply these adjectives, not, as in Ron's sense, to a certain manner or set of traditions, but rather, to the actual volume of critical discussion, gossip, debate, promotion, talk-about, etc.

The LOUD end of the spectrum might be described as the "range of aspiration" (or exhalation).

Who lives at the quiet end? Established, successful poets, for the most part; also a wide range (though not all, by any means) of the modest workers in the field of academic writing programs.

Axiom # 1 : there is an inverse ratio between a U.S. poet's level of professional success and the amount of talking or writing they do about poetry in general - ie., criticism. (I guess I myself am the most perfect example of this fact.)

What are the reasons for this situation? I'll have to do some more pondering about it before answering : but off the cuff I can think of a few possible reasons :

1. the traditional reticence of artists and craftspeople with respect to explanation. Some artists actually believe this is not their business.

2. professional prudence. The less you say, the less you rock the boat, the less enemies you make, the less you offend.

3. the great difficulty in saying anything useful or true about the field as a whole (not only because of its great diversity & its many mutual antagonisms & jealousies - & not only because characterizing the art of an era requires a high degree of taste, knowledge and acumen - but also because of this very quiet/loud asymmetry itself!).

It seems to me that this quiet/loud divide fosters and promotes other divisions - such as between "progressive" and "conservative", "experimental" and "traditional", etc. Because of the paucity of a general criticism, these tendentious, partisan bracketings and brandings spread like weeds to fill the void.

There are poets who are "quiet" merely out of prudence & caution, or lack of imagination. There are others who are quiet out of necessity : because they have no words to explain what they're doing. This is not always a weakness or a fault.

In fact, again contra Ron Silliman's "quietude/experimental" binary, I would suggest that deep in the shade of the "quiet" end of the spectrum or cone I have been describing, there are poets undergoing the quiet labor of refinement, of refining their art. & I would here re-emphasize something I noted in a recent post : poetic excellence is anachronistic. Literary development is not chronologically progressive; it is logically metamorphic. It is a flowering, not a development in time. Why? Because excellence in art is the conjunction of 2 things : the individual artist's inner growth with the perennial resources of the chosen medium.

This kind of "quiet" can appear really at either end of the literary scene, viewed in its social aspect. Which is why the really good poets seem always to destroy the neat categories set up by commentators to explain them. They have of necessity outgrown their origins, their parochialism, their "school".

The trouble is, there is so much QUIET at the established end, and so much aspirational NOISE at the chatty end, that a sense of our era, of the poetry of our time, is shrouded in a kind of a-symmetrical, highly-professionalized & heavily promoted, haze...

... or maybe it's just me - my own fog...


A comment I posted over here at the Harriet blog :

"I don't think poetry-writing per se is a privileged occupation. Some poets can make a profession out of it, and others may view that as expression of privilege or some other form of social elitism. But poetry-writing per se is a kind of work as well as play. There's nothing inherently privileged about creative activity. Seems rather puritanical to think so.

The US poetry scene does seem to have its share of confusion... but perhaps that's in the eye of (this) beholder. Perhaps the problem is not so much with the poetry scene(s) as with the climate & methods of critical and aesthetic judgement.

My own feeling today, & I hope to write something more substantial about this, is that the US focus on groups and schools - and also the mode of vision we have inherited from the 20th century, which analyzes art in minute and pedantic detail solely in terms of progressive changes in technique and style, developed in turn to keep up with rapid transformations of history in general - that these two standard approaches to critical judgement are missing something essential.

Reginald Shepherd has picked apart some of these problems, by carefully reviewing some of the history. But I think maybe we need to have a fundamental change in the way we exercise aesthetic judgement and critique. There are a couple of basic categories which the critic or commentator applies : classification and evaluation. And for the most part, contemporary reviewers seem to apply a method we might call "non-judgmental classification". It's enough to outline for the reader what school or tradition the contemporary poet represents, and then enthuse over what seem to be the clever high points of the technique applied within that specific genre or style.

I think we need to get back to evaluation of quality per se, rather than generic/historical classification. When you start to consider aesthetic quality, the first characteristic which jumps to the fore is the poetry's distinctiveness, its originality, its uniqueness. The "new" here is not a function of clever application of supposedly new techniques; it's the synthesis of original and previously-unseen aesthetic wholes. It's the successful poetic expression of new problems and new subject-matter. This phenomenon always requires that the individual poet outgrow, SURPASS the tradition or school from which he or she proceeds. And in fact I think the most effective means of achieving such a level of style is by outgrowing one's parochial beginnings, into the broader, global tradition of poetry, going back to ancient times. & IF THIS IS THE CASE - this fact has serious implications for notions of "progressive" changes in aesthetic styles; because it means that in order for a poet to reach a certain level of quality, he or she has to grasp & apply techniques and modes of address which HAVE ALWAYS EXISTED.

Thus there is a paradigmatically ANACHRONISTIC aspect to aesthetic quality. & I would say that a critical approach that forcuses on the evaluation of individual quality, rather than genetic classification, would be a possible element of a future climate of rfeception for poetry in the US - something I wouldn't want to call either neo-classical or neo-formalist, because these imply a far too narrow set of styles - but maybe "new classicism". (cf. Osip Mandelstam, again, for his similar notion of a sort of "classicism of the future".)

"p.s. I guess "neo-classicism" and "new classicism": are pretty much the same thing.... what's a better term? Perennialism? Permanent poetry? Recapitulationism? Antidisestablishmentarianism? ??"


Back from my new nephew Inigo's baptism, in beautiful Puerto Rico, in a little Catholic church with a metal roof, and an altar which illustrates the sacred scenes almost entirely by way of pelicans (which sail over the beach there). "The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down."

Seem (who knows) to be done with my 10 yrs of quatrain mining. Feeling of lightness. Hope to find something new & interesting to do now.

Enjoyed today's post by Robert Archambeau, on the Cambridge School poets, reading vs. consuming, etc., the battle of the Brits (similar to many of our clashes by night over here).


Here's a version of Rest Note in a slightly larger format. I think of this book as a companion to Forth of July - which also comes in the larger size.

(The pocket-size edition is still available too.)