Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Who Killed Poetry?

I write as an occasional verse writer and constant poetry lover. Also one-time teacher of poetry in a writing course. Further, poetry reciter of great distinction according to my wife, though not given sufficient opportunity to display it. But what I am most concerned with is the state of poetry at present and the future it may or may not have.

And what exactly is its current state? Very sick, if you ask me. You see, I don’t believe
in free verse, too freely practiced in indiscriminate fashion as it nowadays is. I realize that mine may not be a majority position, but as a former film critic and persistent drama critic, I am used to being a minority voice.

What for me killed poetry is the reckless use of free verse, sometimes even written out as prose. But don’t get me wrong, I freely concede the rare but genuine ability of some to make poetry of free verse, and that in the theater, in good hands, it may prosper. My further point is that although many poetasters mistakenly think that anything in rhyme and meter is automatically poetry, and still more misguided souls think that their free verse is, as self-proclaimed, poetry. Most, though not
all, real poetry makes use of those wonderful devices, meter and rhyme.

Let me state who some of my favorite poets are. In Britain, Robert Graves, Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Dowson, D. H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney,  Harold Monro, Hilaire Belloc (with his splendid “Tarantella” and books of verse for bad children). Also the unjustly neglected Humbert Wolfe, John Pudney and A. S. J. Tessimond.  In America, it is Richard Wilbur, E.E. Cummings, John Crowe Ransom, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, James Dickey, James Wright, W,D. Snodgrass, plus an amazing array of women including Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Louise Bogan and Elisabeth Bishop. Also the unjustly neglected Kenneth Patchen.

There may be others who do not leap to my mind; may they or their ghosts forgive me. Some of the above wrote very good free verse when it pleased them, but most wrote formal verse as a rule. Ah, yes, rules. Whence my preference for formal verse? It’s like tonal versus atonal music. You probably know Frost’s famous definition of free verse as playing tennis without a net. It is true that some types of constraint benefit poetry, namely rhyme and meter. I could also compare formal verse versus free verse with elegant conservative clothes versus the kind of play or gym clothes that most people nowadays wear even in places where one didn’t use to.

Let me add that formal verse has the advantage of being easier to memorize, and certainly more fit for public declamation such as many  Russian poets lustily go in for. Think also of how many English poems are memorized and on occasion recited thanks to those aide memoires, rhyme and meter. I recall how during my brief military stint in the wartime barracks, after lights out, I was able to recite and hold the attention with poems by James Joyce and Sara Teasdale (interesting collocation). But, I can’t repeat it often enough, doggerel is doggerel, no matter how much meter and rhyme it flaunts, whereas at its best, free verse can score, as I have scored with two masterpieces.

One is Kenneth Patchen’s “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” A barroom scene in which the poet fantasizes his dead mother being welcomed by God, while  a homeless girl approaches him and wants to be taken home by him, but he himself doesn’t own a place he could take her to. The mastery of the poem lies in the way the two story lines interplay to form something bigger than the sum of the two individually touching parts.

The other is Tennessee Williams’s “Life Story,” about two gay guys on a one-night stand in a hotel, each obviously craving solace in sex, but each getting mostly a self-indulgent monologue from the other telling his boring life story, about which the hearer couldn’t care less. It is both grotesque and pathetic, and it’s all there, down to the wheezing elevator just outside.

But two  poems don’t make a spring, not even if I throw in a third, James Dickey’s “Falling,” based on a true event, a stewardess falling out of an airplane. Let me however come now to my real subject: Who Killed Poetry?

It all begins with the ‘’good gray poet” Walt Whitman, somewhat fewer than at most twenty shades of gray. He more or less invented free verse, with French poets called vers-libristes, such as Gustave Kahn and Francis Viele-Griffin,  emulating him even before Americans like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg climbed on the bandwagon. Sometimes Walt does hit it, though, notably with a couple of anthology pieces , “O Captain! My Captain!’” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but there are not that many lilacs among all those endless wilted leaves of grass. Yet it was enough for his form—or formlessness—to engender countless stillborn—or boisterous—progeny still with us. Just open “Leaves of Grass” at random and read a few pieces, and see where it gets you.

And now here comes the major modern poetry killer, John Ashbery, hailed, worshiped and emulated the world over. I knew him, reader, back at Harvard, if only slightly. The closest I came was years later, when I ran into a common friend of ours who was off to visit John in the hospital and persuaded me to tag along. I forget what Ashbery was ailing from that had bedded him, as well as what may have been said in that threesome.

More perpendicularly, he proved amiable but distant the rare times we may have crossed paths, as amiable, I imagine, as when he smilingly murdered poetry. This September 4, it was his turn to check out, and the Times obituary began on the front page and continued inside, with a full page and pictures on both. The headline read “Pulitzer-Winning Poetic Voice Often Echoed , Never Matched,” and the glowing text by David Orr and Dinitia Smith quoted some of his poetry as follows:

All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.

Which is worse: the menu or the poetry? No wonder Ashbery has told us he would be writing a poem when getting a phone call for some gossip, whose content he would blithely insert into the poem. So what do we have here?

Of course all things seem mention of themselves, what else can they seem? But their names branch out to other things. How do they branch out and what are these other referents? So spring is hugely here, but is it so in space or in time?? And why the dust on the weigela, a deciduous shrub, and just what is its thing? Holding up the dust? And what is fire-hammered air? Perhaps hot air, of which this poem is full? And who heaves the garbage cans against what railing, and why? Is it the railing around the tulips? And why are they already shedding just when the weigela is doing its thing? Have they been whacked by the heavy garbage that perhaps was partly heaved over the railing?

And what is the significance of Monday and Monday’s meal?  Hardly digested, must we already also get the Tuesday menu? Not very appetizing. What names have we (we?) stolen and why? Stolen from whom?  And how could any names, stolen or not, remove us?  Then how could we have managed to move ahead,  past them, even a little? And how long will we have to wait for those slowpokes to catch up? Or for whom the hell else?

So this, you see, is great poetry. And what do reviewers say? In the Times Book Review, Steven Koch calls Ashbery’s work “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.” Try to visualize, never mind comprehend, that. How is the incomprehensible intelligent, and how is a watery drink (drought) made up of  obscurity and languor, two irreconcilables and neither of them potable. The reviewer as disciple and imitator?

Gibberish, I say. And on goes the obituary: “It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about," i.e., it feels terrific but I have no idea what it means.  “And Mr. Ashbery relishes that uncertainty,” i.e., leading us by the nose. A British poet and reviewer, James Fenton, speaks of times when “I actually thought  I was going to burst into tears of boredom [does boredom produce bursting tears?]” and, while respecting the talent, “not the resort to sad shadows,” so shadows have feelings, too. These reviewers sure sound influenced by the reviewee.

Another poet, Louis Simpson, was not amused  “to see a poet sneering [apropo their concern with the Vietnam War] at the conscience of others,” to which Ashbery replied that he didn’t. But obscurity risks painful misunderstanding. He said he was “ always trying to get back to this [which?] mystical kingdom.” But don’t expect much lucidity from a poet on whom the atonal compositions of John Cage “had a lasting influence.” Also one according to whom “the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse.” What some oceans will do!

Two days later, on September 6, the Times published an Op-Ed tribute to Ashbery by Rae Armantrout, a poet and professor. Ashbery’s poems, she writes , “are like involved daydreams from which, as with real dreams, there is no obvious exit.” Awakening, I would say, is a pretty obvious exit from both dreams and daydreams.  “Ashbery is the one poet who can somehow be simultaneously elegiac and playful, even goofy. . . . If you could find the impossible space where Franz Kafka overlapped with the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, John would be sitting there happily grinning like the Cheshire cat.” Aren’t these words something that could come directly from an Ashbery poem? There “the action is always in transit, always hovering somewhere between the last line and the next in a sort of quantum superposition.”

Well, isn’t that space between lines exactly where John could sit and grin? A quantum superposition, to put it a bit more obscurely. And Rae quotes something that she avers could be a fitting epitaph.

I still remember
How they found you, after a dream, in your thimble hat,
Studious as a butterfly in a parking lot.
The road home was nicer then.
Dispersing each of of the Troubadours had something to say about  how charity
Had run its course and won, leaving you the ex-president
Of the event . . .

This could be an epitaph? It may be that the stuff would make more sense in context, if a context weird enough could be found. Who is wearing the thimble hat and is studious as a butterfly? And how studious can a butterfly get if it seeks enlightenment in a parking lot?  And who were these dispersing troubadours on a  nicer road? When and to what home? Each of them had something to say about what race that charity had won? Since when was charity a racer? And what race has a presidency, of which one can be left the ex-incumbent? Perhaps it would make more sense on a tombstone if only it could fit on it.

To quote Professor Armantrout [what a Wagnerian moniker!]: as also for Whitman, “nothing was too incongruous” for John. I could suggest something: one of his poems. Or what poetry has brcome,  nonsense being as good as death,

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


In Brecht’s “Galileo” we read, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes . . . No.  Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” An amusing paradox, but coming from Brecht, a coward and opportunist, not surprising. Brecht’s personal meanness can be matched only by that of another theatrical genius, Richard Wagner, a fellow German. Isn’t it wonderful that two of the greatest wizards of the musical theater should both have been nasty Germans?

But it is perfectly understandable why Brecht considered heroes de trop. He would have preferred a country of mediocrities from which he could stand out with all his imperfections to one that had heroes to eclipse him. Look at what even one hero or heroine could do for a country—the way Joan of Arc still provides a kind of lodestar to Frenchmen (and women), fifty million of whom cannot be wrong.

Poor burned Joan—could it mean that to be a hero (or heroine) you had to die, preferably in a grandiose way, on the battlefield or at the stake? Is Lord Byron, who came to the aid of the embattled Greeks, but had to die far from the fighting, ill and in bed less heroic? And is there not something louche about Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy,” which might seem more appropriate to Stan Laurel? Ah, those British grandees, all with their homoerotic Achilles heels. Le vice anglais, as the French, homies of Verlaine and Rimbaud, would sneeringly call it.

Apropos the French, their greatest hero, greater even than Marshal Foch, was Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. His bravura, the Larousse dictionary tells us, earned him the title Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche , knight above fear and blame. Yet that was in the early sixteenth century, when knighthood was in flower, and the prevailing type of combat lent itself to heroism. Even so, Bayard was outstanding, and could only be killed from afar by a dastardly shot of harquebus. Heroism, to some extent, thrives on distance in the past and on epics such as the Iliad, which of course is fiction.

What, however, of those heroes of modern battle, Americans who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor? Surely their survival doesn’t diminish their acts of heroism. Somehow, though, medieval armor is more heroic than contemporary armament. The past, a.k.a. history, burnishes the achievement. The Roman heroes of Virgil’s day would have had scant use for Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” in which the pragmatic Swiss antihero has it all over the heroics of the swaggering Bulgarian officer, however dashing.

Without being Shavian, we tend to be suspicious of heroism. Already in 1340 the Oxford English Dictionary locates the first use of the word foolhardiness, for which Greek or Latin, I dare say, has no equivalent. “Hero worship,” too, is a modern, belittling concept, dating from the ascendancy of latterday skepticism, which views much, but not all, heroism with suspicion.

It may be that the name of Nathan Hale and his famous alleged dying words are even now drilled into our elite schoolchildren, but who, young or old, can cite the parting words of a twentieth- or twenty-first-century patriot? Or have modern heroes become tongue-tied?

Execution, to be sure, elicits heroism and heroic last utterances, but we no longer execute heroes, or, if we do, are careful not to record their final words. A Raleigh or Essex no longer ends with his head on the block, or if he does in some third-world country, no one hears, let alone records, his farewell. The gas chambers, at any rate, are not supplied with sound equipment, and death rows seem not to harbor verbal artists.

Still, best is the military death. Even if by friendly fire, as in the case of Stonewall Jackson. And we may celebrate it even if it is that of a heroic enemy, as in World War Two Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, a great German general, who, earning Hitler’s undeserved disapproval, chose to commit suicide. And perhaps the best exemplar of surviving heroism and postwar triumph is General and subsequent President Charles de Gaulle, while there are many such a questionable examples as that of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill.

Meanwhile every country seems to have its favorite hero: Andreas Hofer for Austria, Miklos Toldi for Hungary, Emperor Dusan for Serbia, Admiral Nelson for England, William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart, as in his movie by Mel Gibson) for Scotland Skanderbeg fo0r Albania, and so on. Persia’s heroes, as far as I know, were its rulers (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes), even if they were the oppressors of conquered nations. Thus it was King Leonidas of Sparta who, in 480 B.C., with a mere 300 Spartans (his allies having deserted) opposed the huge Persian army at Thermopylae for a couple of days, afterwards slaughtered along with his soldiers. He, too, has had his cinematic tribute.

Modern Persia, i.e., Iran has also occasioned heroes, mostly filmmakers who have made movies that condemned them to exile, which, to be sure is rather better than execution, only I don’t recall their names. As for pre-Revolutionary Russia, Emperor Vladimir, who defeated the Teuton knights (memorialized by Prokofiev) was its supreme hero, until the Revolution spawned several others too numerous to mention. The same must be true of various countries of the Near and Far East, as well as Africa, about which I know little or nothing.

Fame, in any case, is whimsical enough. Take the antithetical destinies of two British nurses. In World War One, the Germans executed Nurse Edith Cavell as an English spy; surviving was Nurse Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War, and the mother of modern nursing. Why does nobody remember Cavell, but  most people know who was Nightingale. Could it be merely her avian moniker?

There have been countless heroes in the various arts who resisted and overcame intense adversity. Take the great painter Vincent van Gogh, who never sold a single painting during his lifetime, save one that his brother bought for a pittance, yet Vincent persisted until his ultimate suicide. Here I must mention Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the fearless novelist steadily persecuted, and the poet Anna Akhmatova (whose ex-husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was indeed executed),  whose own poetry did not seem quite so threatening to Stalin, and who in 1960  published the ironically titled volume “Poem Without a Hero.” Her brave life was  heroic enough.

In Hungary, I note the poet Miklos Radnoti, whose collection, “Keep Marching, You Who are Condemned to Death,” speaks loud through its mere title, and the somewhat less engaged but valiantly struggling poet Janos Pilinszky. There are several Czech, Slovak and Polish writers who defied their governments, but about whose identities I leave the word to Philip Roth. I would also argue for the heroism of some sports figures, notably Arthur Ashe, and a good many others, about whom I am insufficiently knowledgeable. But I do know about writers who assumed the burden of being ahead of their time, such as Franz Kafka (although he wanted his executor, Max Brod, to destroy his manuscripts, which Brod smartly didn’t) and James Joyce (although he had the insolence of claiming it should take the reader of “Finegans Wake” as long as it took him to write it).

And now, though I clearly realize that my two tiny acts of courage do not qualify as heroism, but upon which I look back with a modicum of pride. First, as a small boy in Abbazia, an Italian resort on the Mediterranean, where my family would vacation each Easter. A little girl who had a butterfly net tried to fish with it, only to have the Adriatic wrest it from her hand. She was desolate, and I, who was smitten with her  but not yet knowing how to swim, lept into the water fully dressed to retrieve it. I did not take note of how deep the sea was there, and it did indeed reach my chin, but the girl got her net back. My parents were absent, but a friendly lady, terrified, carried me off to her hotel room for a good dressing down, both literal and figurative. I can’t remember what dry things she wrapped me in.

More recently, in middle age, my then girlfriend and I were attending one afternoon a movie near Times Square. It was called “Theatre of Blood,” and concerned an actor avenging his adverse reviews on a series of critics by murdering them. As if that were not enough, there were in that otherwise empty theater, at the other end of our long row, a black pimp with his white hooker. They were, loudly talking, having a late lunch, noisily unpacking and variously rattling their victuals. Which even at some distance was disturbing.

So I made my way halfway through the row, called to the noisemakers to desist, and returned to my seat. Next thing I knew, there was this huge, threatening black man, towering over me, and accusing me of interfering with the lunch of two hungry people. I, though shaken, kept my cool, and responded that they could eat all they want so long as it wasn’t noisy. With a final furious remark (I forget exactly what) the man went back to whence he came. To make matters worse, as we were leaving, my friend whose nickname for me was Raccoon, audibly congratulated me with “Brave coon!” I did not stop to verify any possible reaction from the pimp.

I still feel that Brecht was wrong. I still believe that acts of courage, especially those of major heroism of whatever kind, have a beneficial effect on a society, if not an entire country, this even if recognition was considerably delayed, as Shaw’s “Saint Joan” powerfully reminds us. When the heroine, now sainted, posthumously exclaims, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints [and, I would add, acknowledge Thy heroes]? How long, O Lord, how long?”