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Plath as a Major Poet: A Thread from WOM-PO

By Annie Finch

A topic raised recently on the wom-po (discussion of women’s poetry) listserv caught my eye, and I got permission from the poster, Christine Hamm, to raise her question here on Harriet:  “Why is there so much resistance to seeing Sylvia Plath as a major poet”?

Sylvia Plath's Gravestone

Christine wrote, “I’m taking my qualifying exams at my university as part of my PhD, and when I asked to focus on Plath, I was told that she was considered a significant poet.  They let me focus on all the Confessionals as a topic, but not Plath by herself, since she’s not “major.”"

I had a related experience when I arrived at college thirty years ago and found my admiration of Plath treated dismissively.  But things seemed to have changed by last fall, when I was part of Plath’s 75th birthday conference at Oxford.  It was satisfying to see people there treating her as undoubtedly a major poet, and to see how her work rose so well to the occasion. I was particularly taken with a full lecture on one poem,  “Poem for A Birthday,” which helped me appreciate its power and complexity.

Are Christine’s committee members behind the times?   Is their judgment based on some objective factor, such as the limited amount of work Plath published (would George Herbert have made the cut?)   Or are there more disturbing forces at work? What does it mean now, to be a “major poet”?  Are race and gender still an implicit part of the “major” definition, as they were for so many centuriest?

Comments (306)

  • On April 2, 2009 at 6:38 pm R.L. wrote:

    I thank you for raising this question. Personally, I know I lean toward the more pessimistic side, which would argue for more “disturbing forces at work.” When we speak of “major” writers, we often seem to be speaking of those works of Literature (big L) that speak to or of the “human condition/experience.” But what is that experience? It would seem only a small percentage of people (read: men), historically, have the privilege to define it and, thus, speak universally for all.

    Even the other day while browsing Poetry Foundation’s site and coming across Mark Doty’s biography, I read this and cringed: “Doty’s utterings transcend the category of ‘gay poetry’ to appeal to a diverse cross-section of readers…”.

    What place are we–politically, artistically–that a gay-identified poet must “transcend” his nonnormative sexuality in order to receive due praise and that such a transcendence, itself, is celebrated, expected, necessary.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 6:42 pm billyD wrote:

    Here we go, again, Annie fighting the War on Xmas. Please–name one major anthology that Plath is NOT included in that she should be included in? Heck, name one contemporary poetry course at any university that doesn’t include her work.
    Please.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 7:19 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    Annie: Please post the university and department. They deserve to be publicly shamed.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 7:43 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I thought it was just his usual inability to actually read poems that led Silliman to recently opine that Lowell “used to be considered a major writer.” But maybe the disease is more widespread than I’d believed. I’d really like to know the university we’re talking about, too. Might explain a lot. Plenty of departments I can think of that are well disposed to this sort of ignorance. It’s so difficult to grapple with poems; why not just accept cartoon versions of the personalities involved in their production & make our judgments that way?

  • On April 2, 2009 at 8:01 pm Laura Carter wrote:

    I think that making peace with Plath and Sexton is a necessary action for any female poet. To ignore their influence is to refuse to acknowledge historical struggles and inequalities that feminism has worked to overcome. I used to be ashamed of my confessional impulses; now I see them as empowering.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 8:17 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    R.L., that is eloquently put!

    Ange and Michael, I have no idea which university it was, but I expect that Christine will be over here at some point and may be willing to share this. Lowell is an obvious contrasting figure here. And indisputably, he was considered a major poet in his own time. But I’m not sure whether the university in question would have considered him “major”–perhaps not.

    Laura, that seems like at least part of the definition of a major poet–a poet with whom a significant number of subsequent poets feel the need to “make peace.”

  • On April 2, 2009 at 8:47 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    W/out disputing a single thing anyone here has said, it seems that a confusion of categories or something is occurring.

    Is a major poet one with whom ‘subsequent poets feel the need to “make peace.”’? Is a major poet one who “… often seem to …speak to or of the “human condition/experience” as men are privileged to define it? Or as heteronormativity is privileged to define it? Or as anthologizers are so privileged? These are serious questions and deserve serious consideration.

    But to conflate those sorts of issues with what university departments do or think, well, as one who’s spent more than half his (now rather long) adult life on one campus or another, that’s a lot like believing Walmart’s CD section is a valid commentary on music.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 8:55 pm michael robbins wrote:

    A major poet is, apparently, one on whom serious scholarly work may be done in pursuit of a doctorate. I see no reason aside from sheer prejudiced ignorance (most likely of the post-avant variety) to exclude Plath from that category.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 9:03 pm R.L. wrote:

    For the purposes of the argument, we could use Plath as a sort of general symbol for women’s writing, its visibility or lack thereof, in the Canon (big C). Even while Plath herself may appear in numerous anthologies, as one commenter has made clear, enough to make the claim that she isn’t “major” ridiculous, this still isn’t an absolutely victory.

    How is tokenism ever a victory? How many anthologies has any one picked up to see ONLY Plath–and I won’t be too heavy-handed here, sure Sexton might appear, as well Stein and perhaps Brooks for a double-hitter–walled in by a myriad of male writers, as if to say “We’ve added one. We’re done.”

    So, yes, we’re at a complicated area where’s there’s ruckus when she be there, and ruckus when she ain’t. And by the very fact that, indeed, we’re “at this again” suggests we haven’t done much (or our best) to solve this riddle.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 9:22 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I doubt it’s a question of Plath’s sex. I would imagine it’s more a question of style: confessional poets as such are probably ruled not major enough.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 9:55 pm Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote:

    It’s a real shame any university would consider Plath “not great.” In order to truly appreciate Plath, you have to get past the most popular, anthologized poems, and read, for instance, the whole of Ariel. I’m afraid those university “people in charge of who is and who isn’t a major poet” may never have actually given her work any attention.
    When I was getting my MA more than ten years ago, it was impossible to find any of HD’s books, except as long-musty artifacts in library archives. Now her books have been re-released and she is being celebrated by a new generation of writers. Maybe Plath is due for a re-celebration, not for her “shocking, confessional” poems but for her skill with language, with allusion, with music.

  • On April 2, 2009 at 10:01 pm Ellen Moody wrote:

    Dear all,

    I first posted a somewhat different version of this on Wom-po partly because I couldn’t find the thread on Harriet blog. Having read a few of the postings here, I’ll add another thought:

    On Wom-po I partly replied:

    First, we have to define what we mean by major poet. Do we mean someone famous and often reprinted; it’s not quite the same thing as someone who has written great poetry? In other words, is it a social definition which leads to canonization we are after? Or do we mean someone whose poetry we can’t do without, who has written great poems, and if that’s the trajectory, Anne’s question of how many are necessary is germane. I can’t answer that except to say that in history only a very few are necessary: Oliver Goldsmith in the 18th century has a tiny oeuvre of poems; so too Samuel Coleridge in the 19th. But what they wrote made an impact (social criteria also comes in here) and is today still read and admired, and loved and respected, and perhaps influential. T. S. Eliot said Samuel Johnson would be considered a major poet had he only written “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”

    From my reading this past couple of months of Ingemor Bachmann, I’d say she’s a major poet too — though apparently her oeuvre is small.

    There is this problem of canonization. I would say the evidence shows without any qualification that it’s masculinist and class-oriented in outlook; critics, handbooks, scholars don’t value the women’s poems and feminist discourse is needed.

    It is true that like Plath, Bachmann has a reputation and wider audience because of autobiographical notoriety (there’s no other word for it when you consider what’s said in the public media). But I’d say that does not affect the poetry, which remains there. Yet the biography sullies and embarrasses readers, and that’s a problem for the Plath lover (and Sexton even more so). Many women don’t want to identify with what can be categorized as female complaints.

    Ellen

  • On April 3, 2009 at 5:32 am Amy Wack wrote:

    I think in time Plath will be seen to be as significant as Emily Dickinson- and perhaps time is just what will take care of this argument. Living in the UK, I’ve often come across this prejudice against relatively ‘recent’ authors. I remember at Oxford they didn’t consider anything in the 20th century to qualify as ‘literature’ yet!
    Amy Wack

  • On April 3, 2009 at 6:41 am Diane Kendig wrote:

    Well, I don’t think that any one English department is an indication of anything, but I do think there is resistance on other fronts.

    One is a small but famous and vocal contingent that seem to feel that because Plath isn’t Anne Sexton, she isn’t “as great.” Garrison Keillor has a schtick on this, and I recall at least one well-know feminist critic on Wompo suggesting the same.

    I think another factor relates to the Hughes’ family’s resistance to carrying on any Plath legacy. I have seen the families of other American poets of Plath’s generation donate the poet’s papers to institutions, publish volumes of letters or selected editions, or choose other people to do so, and be interviewed and show up at conferences, such as the one Annie attended. In Plath’s case and for decades, Plath’s family burned, hid, and compromised by elision and censorship those materials. Look how long it took us to learn that Ariel wasn’t the book she wanted published, but one Hughes created, one that sensationalized her death. One of Plath’s first serious biographers, Linda Wagner, had a heck of a time using even what was available. I mean, Plath wrote a whole novel that was considered lost and a draft was found fairly recently (at least exhibited fairly recently in NYC) on the back of Hughes’ poem drafts because the couple used to use the back of each other’s scrap paper. So the material is a long time coming.

    I definitely think her being a woman is a factor. (DGMS) And the messiness of her biography, a double edged sword which kept people interested but not necessarily interested in the poetry. I told my advisor in 1976, when my college let me write a master’s thesis on Plath, that I just wanted to say, “Shut up and look at these poems, will you?”

    But greatness succeeds in time, and Plath’s will too, I think.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 6:59 am Jane Holland wrote:

    I agree with Ellen that it’s still a question of biography and that ‘many women don’t want to identify with what can be categorized as female complaints’, though I suspect that the earlier comment by Michael Robbins – that her gender isn’t the issue – is not merely overly-optimistic but a touch naive.

    Prejudice against women poets, confessional or otherwise, can lurk and linger in the oddest places. I was speaking to someone recently, someone I consider intelligent, well-read and liberal in his views, who told me that he despised Plath and her work. He described her as an untalented hysteric. When I asked which poems of hers he’d actually read, he admitted that he knew very few. So it seems her reputation was the problem, not her actual poetry, and that her reputation – largely media-driven – is now forming a barrier between Plath and her potential readership.

    There is no doubt in my mind that Plath is a major poet and deserves to be treated as such. But without wishing to use the C word – conspiracy! – I do think there’s a danger that her biography may outweigh her serious study if steps are not taken to counterbalance that.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 8:28 am Mike Snider wrote:

    Most posters seem to assume Lowell is still considered a major poet and Plath is not AND that the difference is that one is male, the other not. How does that square with the (apparently) emerging consensus on the relative “greatness” of Lowell and Bishop?

  • On April 3, 2009 at 8:33 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Sad & moving op-ed piece in today’s NY Times, by the daughter of Anne Sexton, on the son of Sylvia Plath who recently committed suicide.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 8:49 am thomas brady wrote:

    I don’t think we can judge the university/department’s view on Plath until we see their whole philosophy on the matter. Are they simply taking the view that there’s only a few ‘major’ poets? That a doctoral candidate needs to cast a wider net?

    I do see a danger in too many major poets. Isn’t the whole business inflated enough these days?

    We might start asking, “Who, in your opinion, are the major poets?”

  • On April 3, 2009 at 9:23 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Interesting question. Who,in your opinion, are the major poets?

    Or, to back up a bit, for several decades now, the most common consensus, if there is any consensus, seems to have been that there aren’t any commonly-agreed on major poets, and that the whole idea may be unnecessary and oppressive.

    And maybe that’s the case. Who says we need commonly-agreed on canon that most people read? And even if there is such, who says this needs to be the basis of a university qualifying exam?

    But perhaps this few decades was a sort of intermission period. Perhaps, now that there has been some time for the canon to move around and reshape itself without immediate “major” pressure, it is time to reexamine this set of opinions. Perhaps people are getting ready to crystallize a bit again around the idea of certain poets as major.

    So I’ll give Thomas’ question a shot. I still think T.S. Eliot’s definition of a major poet is pretty useful, from “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Paraphrase: a major poet is one whose poems cast light on and illuminate each other, so that the work coheres and creates something larger than the sum of its parts. By that definition, limiting it to the twentieth century, for starters I’d list the following among the major poets: W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes.

    A couple of poets I’d rather like to include–Hart Crane and Edna St Vincent Millay–may not really be major by Eliot’s definition. Individual poems may grip me deeply and passionately, and often do, but perhaps I read them for their own sake, not for the sake of also exploring the ecosystem of the poet’s sensibility, as I might do with Frost or Brooks or Hughes or, probably, Bishop.

    By that definition, I think Plath might well qualify as “major”–more so than Sexton or Lowell.

    But is Eliot’s definition really objective in any way? Does any poet become major if they write enough, and if they interest you enough to read them in depth?

    I’m at a very noisy and exciting computer station during my first visit to the new Jetblue terminal at JFK, so please forgive me if anything’s odd in this comment!

    AF

  • On April 3, 2009 at 9:35 am Ange Mlinko wrote:

    I have to say, one woman’s experience with one unnamed department is just an anecdote. To jump to the conclusion that “there so much resistance to seeing Sylvia Plath as a major poet” is illogical. As another commenter mentioned, Plath is in just about every major anthology and critical survey of the period, if not the century.

    Furthermore, we live in an era where two of the major poetry critics are women (Vendler and Perloff); where Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, and Adrienne Rich, to name just three, are in — sports metaphor alert! — the top rank of players; a major organization, the Academy of American Poets, is run by a woman, as is the most famous writing program (Iowa).

    I feel like I’m stating the obvious here. While there will always be instances of sexism, you can’t really say it’s systemic in the poetry biz.

    While the department should be ashamed, I also think that 1) taking your problems to listservs and 2) hiding the identities of the people you’re complaining about can be construed as gossip. It’s not as constructive as, say, writing an article about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I suggest starting there.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 9:37 am Ian wrote:

    I have never liked the phrase “minor poet”. It makes them sound insignificant. There are many poets who I might not consider to be “major poets” but they are certainly not “minor poets”.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 10:10 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Definition of a major poet :

    A major poet is one whose poetry is so powerful, moving and captivating, that its readers are bathed anew in the waters of Lethe; they forget everything they ever heard about sports statistics.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 10:40 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Ange, thanks for posting. All that you say is undoubtedly true, and in one sense, as you say, obvious. And yet it doesn’t seem to account for the whole picture. While your advice to Christine is very practical, the particular anecdote in question is worth considering, not because it is necessarily typical of a widespread situation, nor because blogging about it is the best way to address the situation at that unversity, but because it raises wider questions that resonate with some readers of this blog.

    These are very recent developments you are talking about, and in the case of recent developments sometimes it can be hard to tell how much staying power they have, and how deep they really go. The story of women’s poetry is full of instructive examples. In the 19th century, Felicia Hemans was deeply envied by Byron because of her great international popularity and fame. Lydia Signourney was as much as or more sought-after than Longfellow. At that time I’m sure it seemed unthinkable that things would turn out the way they are now. Is Longfellow really so much a greater poet than Sigourney, worth being still widely read and acknowledged while she is almost entirely out of print? Perhaps, but until women critics,editors, and scholars have shaped our ideas of what poetry can and should be to an equal amount that men have, I for one will not feel comfortable trusting received wisdom on such points.

    In Plath’s case, the serious and dedicated scholars at the Oxford conference had numerous tough anecdotes to tell about the discouraging and dismissive attitudes they had encountered among publishers, funders, and conference organizers, and editors, in their pursuits of the various Plath projects that had gotten work on her up to that point. This was a subtext (and occasionally a manifest theme) of probably at least half of the papers—mostly from the older generation, it is true. But forces of the recent past still have power, and these stories may end up being of more practical value than we in our easy youth suspect. There was a distinct sense throughout that conference (which was almost equally devoted to Plath’s life and her work, the life being part of it to a much, much greater extent than I could imagine in the case of a male poet) that, though utterly wonderful, this conference was unprecedented–a cause for triumph but also for caution.

    It would be nice if things were as simple as your post suggests and we were simply beyond all that now. I’m certainly open to being persuaded. But my aspirations for poetry by women are very high. I would like women’s poetic voices to be as bedrock to our wider culture as any male poets have ever been. You mention Gluck, who I saw just a couple of years ago at a festival of Bollingen prize winners where she had the distinction of being the ONLY woman on the stage with twelve (white) men. And you mention Rich, who earned her reputation in large part by refusing to deny or ignore any part of the still-vast pervasiveness of sexism in our culture, and who I doubt very much would agree that it is no longer an issue worth discussing.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 10:45 am Desmond Swords wrote:

    A google check reveals Hamm is doing her Phd at Drew University in Mdison, New Jersey. I am assuming the programme will come under the aegis of the Casperson School of Graduate Studies at Drew.

    Looking at the faculty staff webpage listing the 22 academics and their associated disciplines, these are the literature profs:

    1 – ROBERT READY

    ~

    “Bob Ready is Donald R. and Winifred B. Baldwin Professor of Humanities and Professor of English. A member of the Drew faculty since 1970, he has been convener or co-convener of the Caspersen School’s Ph.D. programs and chair of the English Department in the College of Liberal Arts, where he was the NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor 1996-2000. Since 1996 he has taught an Arts and Letters fiction workshop and organized the annual A & L student summer reading. He is currently convener of the Arts and Letters Program as it enters a new period of growth on campus and outreach to the community.”

    There is also a poet on the staff:

    ~

    2 – ROBERT CARNEVALE

    ….who worked as Principal Literary Researcher for the 1988 PBS Voices and Visions series on American poets based on the series. Assistant Coordinator of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poetry Festival for six years, oversaw poetry in high school programmes, is translating a Russian pet with Drew Professor Carol Ueland – Aleksandr Kushner, some of which have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Agni, World Literature Today, and The Anthology of Russian-Jewish Literature. Benefited from a Literary Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Taught as Visiting Assistant Professor of English in Drew’s College of Liberal Arts and as Assistant Professor of English at Upsala College.

    ~

    3 – FRANK OCCHIOGROSSO

    Shakespearean scholar

    ~

    4 – VIRGINIA PHELAN

    A Joyce scholar interested in the link between mythology and modern, who “joined the Caspersen School’s Arts and Letters Program in 1992, became its Director (part-time in 1997 and full-time in 1999), and presided over the institution and development of the Doctor of Letters”

    ~

    5 – LIANA PIEHLER

    Teaches The Joy of Scholarly Writing and Victorian lit.

    ~

    6 – WILLIAM B. ROGERS

    Associate Dean of the Grad School, 19C American History and American/Irish Literature.

    ~

    7 – CASSANDRA LAITY

    20C British and American literature “founder of the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) and co-editor of the interdisciplinary modernist journal Modernism/Modernity (quarterly; Johns Hopkins University Press)”

    ~~~~

    I don’t know how these things go, but Ready seems the obvious candiate with the nod to Syl being major or not, as the convenor of the Phd programme. Then we have a heavily middle aged male bias, of poet Carnevale and a Shakespearean scholar.

    ~

    My own view on this is that Plath is a major, clearly as her final poems came from a place within most will never reach, she perfected her drama and it tipped into a terrible reality.

    Holland is right, the blokes can get away with patronising behaviour in private amongst themselves if they are so inclined. We only need to look at the poetry of the very recent past, and the way people like Larkin who is feted as a genius, is excused his misogyny and misanthropy and it hasn’t completely dissappeared as there are still plenty of cultural encoding mechanisms in play which portray cliched versions of the sexes.

    The UK TV is riven with it, a new and viciously uncivilised portrayal to re-inforce stereotypes of what they call the *working class*, in shows like Shameless, where the characters are layabouts, louts and everyone loose moralled, which started as comedy and original, but is essentially a one trick show and the novelty gone, ever more extreme plots are devised which seek to show the poorest in society as ignorant and feckless unintelligent morons.

    Another show is Skins, which is Lolita terriotory, think Dawson creek as soft porn, but with younger actors chosen for their childish faces, in a world where all the teenagers are experimenting with their sexuality, and what was groundbreaking and daring ten years ago, a lesbian and gay kiss, is now acclimatised into the picture.

    That’s British tv today.

    There is a debate as to whether TV takes it’s cue from real life or vice versa?

    Italian film director of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano who is in hiding and living as Rushdie did at the height of the fatwa, because of death threats from the Naples mafia due to the unromantacised and realistic way he portrayed them in his film – firmly believes we imitate the TV, and I think he is right.

    He said the gangsters in Naples, took their cue from Godfather and Scarface and proved it, by showing how the houses, fashion sense and mannerisms of famous actors playing charismatic gangsters, become aped by the real thing. This is not strictly on topic.

    ~

    Carol Rumens on the Guardian has been looking at another American poet, Elinor Wylie, who I don’t think can be classed as major, but does have some very good poems. Plath though, her work is major because it lives with you on reading. Her stuff I can remember, Ted Hughes, I cannot.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 10:54 am Don Share wrote:

    An important correction – Bachmann’s oeuvre is not small at all, it’s quite hefty, and fortunately a great deal of her work is available in decent English translations.

    One poet, as David Shaprio once remarked, hides another.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 11:00 am John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    What about Annie Finch and Ange Mlinko themselves, who may well be on the way to major-hood? My definition: a poet is major if I say to myself, I’d cut my arm off to have written that poem.

    And, to Henry Gould: tho sports stats are not necessarily part of major poetry, see Paul Blackburn, “Obit Page” below. Major, dunno, but it’s stuck in my mind 40 years or so, so it’s major for me. I think my point in both posts I’ve contributed here is this: Don’t give away YOUR power, people. Don’t let others decide what’s important and what’s not:

    OBIT PAGE

    O god.

    First the greatest right-handed hitter in history

    Rogers Hornsby

    (hit .424 in 1924)

    with a lifetime average of .358

    and now William Carlos Williams

  • On April 3, 2009 at 11:10 am Henry Gould wrote:

    John,

    Good poem! Point taken. But I was speaking metaphorically.

    My point was that the ranking mentality – the academic/hobbyist probem of lists, stats, membership qualifications, anthologies, surveys, tests…

    Ecclesiastes : “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

    … what I mean is, major poetry is a respite from the laborious culling & evaluation of same. & the labors themselves threaten to induce a sort of pedantic dullness & consequent inability to RECOGNIZE that very thing which the laborers seek…

  • On April 3, 2009 at 11:13 am thomas brady wrote:

    Annie, thanks for taking my suggestion seriously, and Henry, you are a ‘major’ wit.

    I don’t know if people realize how fastidiously Plath ranked herself; I was just reading her diaries before bed the other day and Plath mused that only Rich was serious competition, Marianne Moore had been surpassed (thanks to 8 poems Plath wrote the previous week during Spring break)and Dickinson was dead, etc.

    I wonder if any women poets today find themselves doing this? Rating themselves? I bet ALL the good ones rank themselves (and thus make themselves rank in our eyes!!)

    Perhaps the definition of a major poet is one whose notebooks contain poem revisions, not what they had for breakfast…

    Annie, Eliot’s criterion sounds hopelessly Ego/New Critical: why do a poet’s poems have to illuminate one another? That’s a really odd formula, actually. But I AM prejudiced: I think Eliot and all the Moderns were odd, and quite over-rated as critics and often as poets. I can’t believe, for instance, that someone would think H.D. ??? is a “major” poet. But again, that’s just me.

    Thomas

  • On April 3, 2009 at 11:22 am michael robbins wrote:

    Yeah, well, no. It is not naive to assert that sexism is no longer a huge problem in the canon now. It is an assertion based on deep experience within the academy. Adrienne Rich would certainly disagree, which is why she’s Adrienne Rich (at least she stopped excluding men from her readings: that’s real progress). The canon is completely flexible to shifting criteria for great literature: the brouhaha surrounding it in the last quarter of the last century masked its real function, which is to ensure the reproduction of cultural capital. The crisis was actually that literature as such is no longer a necessary form of cultural capital for success in the acquisition of economic capital. The canon has no trouble accommodating Toni Morrison or Jorie Graham, if that’s what it takes to ensure the reproduction of social relations within the university – notice that these developments are contemporaneous with the opening of the university to women & minorities in general. Reactions against Plath have historically been somewhat charged with sexism, but it’s simplistic & naive, especially with respect to current conditions in the academy, to assume such an easy explanation for her neglect today – neglect for which, as Ange notes, a single anecdote is offered. N=1, anyone? I’m a bit chagrined about my own overreaction earlier in the thread.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 11:34 am Daisy Fried wrote:

    I think the world of scholarship and the world of poetry ranking may be separate, if overlapping, spheres. Surely, the treatment of Plath varies wildly depending on where you’re studying her and with whom. It would be useful to know what mid-20th C. poets Hamm’s advisor considered major. Would s/he have approved Frank O’Hara for example?
    Somehow, I doubt it. But elsewhere, Plath gets treated like the only star in the firmament, which is equally silly.

    Ange, you say “Furthermore, we live in an era where two of the major poetry critics are women (Vendler and Perloff); where Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, and Adrienne Rich, to name just three, are in — sports metaphor alert! — the top rank of players; a major organization, the Academy of American Poets, is run by a woman, as is the most famous writing program (Iowa).”

    You’re right, there are plenty of laureled women contemporaries, and also (military metaphor alert!) armies of women in the middle and lower ranks of the profession, or art, or what you will. But a look at major prizes in the last few years might show a falling off, since the mid-90s, in the awarding, or more importantly, making finalists, of women. Lots more men in those finalist pools than women.

    An impression, not a fact. Maybe someone else could say for sure?

    Daisy

  • On April 3, 2009 at 12:13 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Mike’s point about Bishop and Plath is an interesting one. I’m still in the airport and have to leave soon but I will say briefly that it seems to me Plath is a useful test case/bellweather for this kind of question just because she is such a blatantly FEMALE woman poet compared to, say, Bishop.

    Plath’s themes and images are often explicitly female-centered (less so than Sexton’s, which may have something to do–I’m not of course saying it’s the only reason–with the fact that Plath’s poetry seems generally more respected than Sexton’s). And in her privileging of emotional directness and honesty, Plath is also much closer to the now-discounted “sentimental” women’s poetic tradition than is Bishop. I recounted the anecdote on another Harriet thread (Women Poets and Mentorship) of Plath and Sexton confessing their love for Teasdale’s and Millay’s poetry–it’s hard to imagine Bishop doing the same.

    That the Moore/Bishop aesthetic stance, witty and dry and intellectual as opposed to full of emotions and body fluids, is privileged seems a sign of the dominance of male-centered values, if not of male poets.

    And of course, this dynamic affects the reputations of male poets who write on the so-called “female” side of the aesthetic spectrum as well.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 12:16 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    Hi Annie,

    I don’t think it’s an issue “not worth discussing,” and I’m sorry if it came off that way. I do think that anecdotes need to be contextualized. Individuals and institutions may tell different stories, but let’s at least discuss them in tandem. Because you’re right: history is littered with the forgotten names of female writers, editors, taste-makers, etc. and it would be naive to think it couldn’t happen going forward. I was shocked to learn recently that in my son’s elementary school, of 18 kids in an extracurricular chess class, only one is a girl. What to think?

    Funny that you bring up Byron (one of my favorites!) in conjunction with Plath: don’t both their reputations suffer on account of their biographies? their supposed frivolities? To all English departments (ditto the “avant-garde”), frivolity is the enemy, whether it wears pants or a skirt.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 12:23 pm KateBB wrote:

    I’ve heard Sylvia Plath’s work disparaged time and time again, inevitably by men categorizing it as too “confessional”; then, without fail, they cite the poem “Daddy” for which they hold a special contempt. They hate everything about that poem: its tone of extremity, its treatment of fathers, its tropes — yet they don’t even know how to read it!

    I have no beef with confessinal poetry myself — indeed, it was my original intention to write such poetry. But Sylvia Plath ought not to be categorized as a confessional poet at all! I’ve argued this elsewhere (and I shall quote myself here).

    Along with personal poems, in Plath’s opus one finds poems of sheer description, ekphrastics, persona poems, nature poems, poems of retrospection that aren’t “tell-all’s,” poems based on objects or ideas. Even the infamous “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are obviously persona poems. I’ve always read them as theater pieces, comic soliloquies tinged with self-mockery and not a trace of self-pity. Recently, I felt vindicated in this unorthodox view, for Diane Middlebrook, in her recent biography of Plath and Hughes, Her Husband, describes Sylvia reading “Daddy” to a friend, whereupon both wound up rolling on the floor, laughing. We shouldn’t let Plath’s unfortunate end blind us to her considerable sense of humor.

    Sylvia did write many poems that I would define as psychological poems, usually narratives, that conjure a state of mind: e.g., “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” “Parliament Hill Fields.” These poems work differently than confessional poems. There is more mystery in them; instead of telling the reader something outright, or confessing something personal, they bring the reader right into an experience. They are canny in that they do not reveal exactly what it is that evoked the speaker’s emotional state. That’s why they’re so haunting and so re-readable. I’m impressed by their combination of immediacy and universality, not to mention the beautiful flow of their lines.

    Overall, Plath’s craftsmanship is practically unparalled. She was a consummate formalist, with a special gift for syllabics and subtle rhyme; her late free verse, more unbuttoned, still bears the stamp of the technician.

    I would argue she is one of the greats, a canonical poet, albeit one who died tragically and, like that other canonical poet Keats, much too young.

    And it is most unfortunate that “Daddy” is constantly trotted out and anthologized; it is not typical of her oeuvre or her artistry.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 12:32 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    While I was mulling over the above post, I see Michael Robbins beat me to “cultural capital” and Daisy thinks the major prizes are still going to men. Doing a statistical analysis of recent awards is … something for an academic with a research grant, not me. We both know the Wallace Stevens epigones are busily at work on netting the big prizes, but hey, Matthea Harvey beat them to the six-figure K-T, at least!

  • On April 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm Martin Earl wrote:

    Daisy,

    They are separate but not inseparably separate, as you say. But I think the most important point you bring up here is about contests and major prizes. The awarding system has, by and large, taken over the canonization process from the scholars and the literary journalists. Traditionally the scholars created the canon and the reviewers took care of the more immediate problem of ranking (rank serving as a kind of purgatory, or staging point for the canon). But there are precious few reviewers left, or print outlets that will publish reviews of poetry, and the scholars seem increasingly to be avoiding not only contemporary poetry, but literature in general, in favor of theory and comic books. The prize-system has taken up the slack and made a mess of things – poets no longer have to wait until they’re dead to be included in the canon (which I think is a damn good criterion, if for no other reason than it’s so definitive); hell, they don’t even have to wait until they’re thirty.

    Plath would have been appalled at the inflationary fever that has settled over the world of poetry, especially U.S. poetry.

    Martin

  • On April 3, 2009 at 12:58 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Quoth Annie: “And of course, this dynamic affects the reputations of male poets who write on the so-called “female” side of the aesthetic spectrum as well.”

    Which explains why I can’t find a publisher for a sonnet about my step-daughter’s homework! It can’t be that it’s just not good!

    But I think Annie’s right that the themes of Plath’s work are more of a barrier than is her sex, and Ange Mlinko’s also right to point to Byron, frivolity, and biography. I’d add celebrity and notoriety.

    And I can almost imagine Plath reciting my favorite rhyme: “If you think ’twas philosophy that this did, / I can’t help thinking puberty assisted.”

  • On April 3, 2009 at 1:36 pm Daisy Fried wrote:

    Martin: “Plath would have been appalled at the inflationary fever that has settled over the world of poetry, especially U.S. poetry.”

    Do you mean that she was exacting in her judgments of other people’s poetry and knew what was good and what was bad? (I don’t know myself, I’m just asking.)

    But she is famous for being intensely competitive and envious, and so I wonder if she would indeed have been appalled by inflationary fever, or whether she’d have been sucked into it herself.

    Daisy

  • On April 3, 2009 at 1:50 pm Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote:

    Hmmm, I seem to recall some decent research being done about “whether more women are winning prizes, getting published, etc” a little while back – the essay “Numbers Trouble” in the Chicago Review by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young discussed gender iniquity in things like anthology showings, awardsm, and poetry jobs, and the Chicago Review editor included a very interesting statistics supplement that showed that many mainstream magazines have gone from publishing 13-17% women to 30-something percent in the last thirty years.
    Can’t find the links anymore – can anyone find them and point them out?
    Anyway, point is, gender is still an issue in poetry publishing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 1:56 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    KateBB hits the nail on the head and splits to the core of it.

    Men, the clever fellas, the Male mind-set, that has been doing the important stuff since the trinity of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle thought up all the important stuff and pontificated on existence as if God only gave man a brain, who like starting wars and sending out other men to go kill each other because of Respect – disparage Plath for being confessional, and yet go praise men poets for the exact same confessing of their deepest selves in print.

    Of all the female poets I have read, Plath stands out beyond the rest. I can recall her stuff because it is of an order far deeper and of a gravity I do not find in most other women. She is clearly feminine, yet also clearly singing from the ollamh zone, articulating the farthest reach of her psyche, and the male mind is resistant to according her the stature she deserves because to do so, would mean admitting Plato and the gang aren’t the infallable prophets we are sold them as. At the end of the day, we are all human beings, with the same brain and it is the hight of unintelligence to speak as if women are genetically less intelligent. But men still cling to their boyish idea that only they can think deeply.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 2:08 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Desmond, not all boys. Read, e.g. Derrida on Cixous. Or better, read Cixous herself. It’s no disparagement of Plath to suggest that Cixous, or Clarice Lispector for that matter, could stand up next to her without looking little.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 2:22 pm jspahr wrote:

    These numbers are so small, it would be hard to tell what they mean, other than they look very much like the numbers you get on gender when counting anthologies, etc. But, to Daisey’s question… calculating national book award, pulitzer, national book critics, and lilly finalists and winners since 1995 and then last few (here read as “five”) years as a subgroup:

    from 1995 to 2007…
    115 male finalists (includes winners); 70 female finalists, or 37% female
    27 male winners; 14 female winners, or 34% female

    and then breaking it down,
    from 1995 to 2002…
    65 male finalists; 46 female finalists, or 41% female
    22 male winners; 10 female winners, or 31% female

    from 2003 to 2007…
    47 male finalists; 23 female finalists, or 32% female
    11 male winners; 9 female winners, or 45% female

    No instance of anyone who does not identify as being either male or female. No math here double checked. Website lists used in calculation. All numbers should be used to tell only a small part of any story. etc.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 2:25 pm Tom wrote:

    There’s a kind of metonymy here that we should examine: Plath as woman-poet. She should be no more emblematic of women-who-write-poetry than, say, Lowell or Eliot is of boys like me. Or are we all essentially… essentialists?

  • On April 3, 2009 at 2:25 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Jeanine, here’s a link to some of the relevant info, in addition to Juliana’s above:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/author/ewarn/page/2/

  • On April 3, 2009 at 2:31 pm Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote:

    Thanks Travis – all the links I found were dead!

  • On April 3, 2009 at 3:22 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don’t relive, recreate it.” –Sylvia Plath (journals)

    Is Literature a Mental Hospital?

    Plato said poets were crazy. Was he right?

    America, in many ways, is a Platonic Republic, a highly pragmatic nation which fears poetry.

    The resistance to poetry ends in a prophecy coming true: the poets are mad.

    T.S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land” after a breakdown, Pound spent time in a mental hospital, “Howl” is a cry of madness, M.L. Rosenthal first used the term “Confessional Poetry” in 1959 to describe Lowell’s “Life Studies,” (which came out of a stay at McLean hospital) the same year Lowell taught Plath and Sexton in a workshop.

    Plath had been admitted to McLean in 1953; Sexton felt left out because she was NOT admitted to McLean’s (too expensive), had her first teaching job there, and got her wish in 1973 when she was finally admitted for a 5 day examination, and then killed herself the following year.

    It is unfair, really, to call Plath a “confessional” poet, since Petrarch, Shakespeare (sonnets), the Romantics, and countless other schools and writers are “confessional.” We don’t demean ‘Ode to A Nightingale’ or ‘Prufrock’ as “confessional” and “Daddy” is the same kind of poem.

    Plath was a highly conscious (and ambitious) poet who was quite capable of coolly looking about her and thinking, “there is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff.”

    There will ALWAYS be a “market for mental-hospital stuff.” Edgar Poe was a sober, sane journalist who knew “markets.” More through libel than anything else, Poe’s reputation aroused morbid curiosity and morbid curiosity, as Plath knew, and Lowell knew, and everyone knows, SELLS.

    The more Poe was reviled as a madman, the more famous he became. Once Plath committed suicide, her fame was assured.

    “Confessional” as a term needs to be re-examined.

    Only then, can we begin to judge our poets in a country where pretending madness and madness is the same.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm Martin Earl wrote:

    Daisy,

    I guess I mean both, although “inflationary fever” is probably not as precise as it could be. I’m sure you’ve read as many biographies of “great” poets as I have and competitiveness and envy are usually the least of their problems. I think we are, by nature, badly behaved and carry the basic gamut of human unpleasantness to it’s extreme (though perhaps younger poets are being educated away from this kind of behavior). I also think poets are no longer taught the art of “judgment”, or evaluative criticism…”good” and “bad” are simply not supposed to be the way we look at things- they are more apt to look at how poems work, the various contexts behind poems and at poets themselves, as, perhaps, one big happy family of the like-minded engaged in a collective project which will lift them all equally to whatever degree of importance poetry can still have in public life. Plath wouldn’t have abided this kind of community. She was simply too volatile, as a poet and as a person. Because she was such a fabulous poet, she would have known a fabulous poem when she saw one, and would have been dismissive of the less than fabulous. She drove herself harder than we can imagine. The terms you set up, I think, exacting in her judgments on the one hand and competitive and envious on the other, are two sides of the same coin. She would have spent that coin in a variety of ways, but she never would have lost sight of its value.

    We could elaborate on this, I’m sure, and perhaps I don’t have a correct view of poetry in America today.

    Martin

  • On April 3, 2009 at 4:44 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Plath wouldn’t have abided this kind of community. She was simply too volatile, as a poet and as a person. Because she was such a fabulous poet, she would have known a fabulous poem when she saw one, and would have been dismissive of the less than fabulous.”

    I agree with this Martin, and let me just say a word about competition and rank and all that.

    This might be a devil’s advocate position, but here goes:

    Ranking MUST be done, if you’re a serious poet.

    Think about it. If you, as a fairly mature poet, look around, and according to your judgment, there are thousands of poets better than you are, why should you push yourself narrowly as a poet? If, however, and this was Plath’s view, you look around and think to yourself, “I think I’m one of the best poets writing today,” then don’t you owe it to the world to get your poems out there?

    Ranking poets, then, is, on the highest level, pramatic, sensible, and vital, and it has nothing to do with artificial thinking, or sports metaphors, or ego.

    Thomas

  • On April 3, 2009 at 7:29 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Dear Thomas Brady–

    “Ranking MUST be done, if you’re a serious poet.

    Think about it. If you, as a fairly mature poet, look around, and according to your judgment, there are thousands of poets better than you are, why should you push yourself narrowly as a poet?”

    As a wiser man than me once put it, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

    But I guess you’re a member of the Vince Lombardi school of living and I’m not. So you might not think that man as wise as I think him.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 8:20 pm noah freed wrote:

    DNFTT. Kthx.

  • On April 3, 2009 at 9:39 pm Daisy Fried wrote:

    Hi Martin–I don’t actually see that there’s a necessary connection between exactingness of judgment and envy/competitiveness. They may often exist in the same place but it doesn’t follow that they’re necessary to each other.
    Best,
    Daisy

    p.s. I don’t actually read a lot of poet bios because I always get bored midway through their childhoods–children being fun to hang out with and boring to read about…

  • On April 4, 2009 at 4:46 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    I don’t know if it has to do with gender, at least not in a narrow sense. A couple of years ago, I taught a short workshop at an all woman’s college–and to my surprise it was the young women who rolled their eyes and were suspicious as I explained to them that Plath was a major and thoroughly unique voice. The look on their faces was, “we’re over that Plath-reading phase.”

    My take is that Plath is, to some extent, a victim of her own biography / biographical myth; perhaps like Dylan Thomas. There is a distrust of Plath– even among literati who should know better– because of what she has come to represent in the popular imagination. Her biography enabled news of her to reach a much wider audience, but it also encouraged a very thin, distorted and simplistic reading of her poems, especially the doubled tonality in those poems.

  • On April 4, 2009 at 7:50 am Annie Finch wrote:

    I think in Plath’s case, and perhaps in the case of the kinds of poets Martin is referring to, one might, somewhat idealistically perhaps, say that the seriousness of judgement comes first. It comes from complete devotion to the art of poetry. So, the same ferocious care that makes a poet like Plath write the kinds of poems she does, also makes her judge/rank other poets’ work with exacting and unsparing judgments.

    The envy and competitiveness seem to me not so much the other side of the coin as the result of the coin, and perhaps to be somewhat-understandable reactions to objective realities, not just personality flaws. So, when a poet like Plath, with such a clear sense of what good poetry is, and therefore a solid, objective sense of the worth of her own work, finds her own work unjustly undervalued-perhaps because of sexism, perhaps because of other kinds of aesthetic prejudices (I’ll never forget editor at the Oxford conference (I think it was A. Alvarez) recounting how he’d received a big batch of Ariel poems as a submission and turned them down–they were too over-the-top for him), envy and competitiveness would not be a surprising result.

    Perhaps her envy and competitiveness reflected a considered appraisal of the reality of her literary situation–a situation real enough that we are still talking about on this blog fifty years later.

    Maybe this kind of reality also underlies the infamous envy and competitiveness of another poet, Robert Frost. Frost had a hard time getting his start and had to publish in England; he was not part of the modernist critical canon and his critical reputation, like Plath’s, went through a time of misunderstanding. And he, like Plath, must have known very well the worth of his own work. Sure, starting a fire in the back of the room during another poet’s reading is taking it pretty far, but considerable frustration with the situation is understandable.

    Martin beautifully describes the dominant contemporary climate of cooperative poetic enterprise, fostered by a strong economy, a plethora of MFA programs, writing conferences, and publishers, and fabulous communication technology. It’s interesting to think what kind of space Plath would have taken up in this climate. Mabye she would have been sucked up into it, thrived in it and on it, as Daisy suggests. But I am sure that, even if she hadn’t been that successful in the moment, she would still have known her own rank.

  • On April 4, 2009 at 8:00 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Juliana, thanks so much for posting those numbers. Your work on Numbers Trouble was so valuable in bringing the po-biz gender factor into people’s consciousness. 1/3 seems to be the fraction that things have settled into for quite a while now as regards anthologies, etc.. It echoes that psychological study showing that in a mixed-gender group, when women speak 1/3 of the time, men perceive them as dominating the conversation as if they had talked more than half the time.

    I’d be curious to see the numbers not just for major prizes (the winners of major prizes, as we know, often fade and disappear) but also for what may be a more lasting sign of impending major poet status: signs that the work is being thought about such as critical articles, edited books about the poets’ work, and panels.

    I read through all the comments siting on a stoop this AM outside a wifi cafe in the west village that hadn’t opened yet…they are all fascinating. I’m still on the road and will check back in as soon as I have wifi again.

  • On April 4, 2009 at 8:52 am thomas brady wrote:

    Dear John Bloomberg-Risman,

    Lombardi said ‘winning is the only thing.’

    I didn’t say that.

    You’re missing my point if you think this issue is about sports.

    Life is short.

    There are many ways we can contribute and many ways to pursue those contributions. Poetry isn’t the only one.

    Knowing if you are one-in-a-million or just one-of-millions in any particular field is simply a HELP, a GUIDE, and there’s nothing wrong, then, with ranking. End of story.

    Now if you think that you should write poetry for the subjective joy of it, even though you are a terrible poet, well there is something stupidly romantic about this, I think, expressing the sort of naivite which will make one a bad poet in the first place!

    Oh, by the way, you might be interested…Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ has reached the Finals, and she’s about to face off against Millay’s ‘What Lips My Lips Have Kissed…’

    Thomas

  • On April 4, 2009 at 10:44 am Ellen Moody wrote:

    Last night I was reading an older book by Margaret Atwood: _The Door_. I was moved and amused and strengthened and all sorts of things by this book. I think she is a major poet, and would like to suggest that her lack of a sensational biography does make her less “viable” for fame. Men get this kind of fame too.

    What she has done is written brilliant literary criticism and is again and again on record defending Canadian literature as such (a thing apart from US American or UK British literature) and by so doing builds a persona for herself. Her cycle of poems reworking and bringing herself together with (instead of competing like Bloom says) Susannah Moodie is a beautiful art book too. Again she makes a splash or statement this way. Calls the right kind of attention to herself.

    Winning the Booker Prize for _Alias Grace_ didn’t hurt either. Now if only she had a movie contract …

    Ellen

  • On April 4, 2009 at 11:17 am John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Dear Thomas–

    I still don’t get your point. First, you say, “life is short”. OK. We agree. Then you say each us us should “contribute”. Again OK. I’ll agree because contribute is such an open ended word (I mean, we may disagree as to what constitutes a worthy contribution, but I bet we can agree to disagree on that; we’d still be in agreement that contribution in the abstract is something humans might wish to do).

    But then you say that it is stupidly romantic to do something that gives one subjective pleasure. That’s where you lose me. It’s not as if one can’t contribute **and** have fun, both in the same short lifetime. I don’t see why it’s naive to consider pleasure a value. Or why including some pleasure in one’s life necessarily makes one more likely to be a bad poet.

    I meant the sports reference to be, uh, ironically funny, by the way, given the drift of this whole conversation.

    Though, seriously, there is a relationship between the psychology (end economics) of ranking and the psychology and ranking of sports (cf. Bourdieu, who notes over and over that art-making is a privileged leisure activity, as is sports) whether you want there to be one or not. There’s also a relationship to market share and other aspects of commodity capitalism. But that’s a whole other story.I’ll leave it to each poet to decide whether or not they

    BUT – if what you are saying, at bottom, is that some artists are better than others (if only by the measure that we remember them over millenia, while others are not so remembered), and that anyone with a modicum of self-insight ought to have a pretty decent idea of how one’s work compares, well, we do agree. I know there are lots of poets better than me.

    Finally, thought, if we take ranking seriously, well, there’s Homer, and Sappho, and Du Fu and Li Bai and Bai Juyi, and Dante, and … well you get my drift. And then there’s the rest of us. Given your way of thinking, we all should quit, because we all suck.

    I don’t se why I have to quit because I’m not Sappho. If that makes me naive, I’m sorry.

    I was reading Walter Benjamin last night, a review of The Tower by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. After I put the book down I began to wonder: would he be considered a major artist, or not? I had no idea how to answer that question.

  • On April 4, 2009 at 11:21 am Jack Conway wrote:

    I think Jorie Graham is well onto her way to becoming a major poet. She has hit all the right bases so far.

  • On April 4, 2009 at 8:08 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    I think you’ve veered away from the point I was making.

    I said ranking was useful, that’s all, really, and you seemed to be disparaging it; perhaps I was mistaken.

    I was not objecting to subjective pleasure; one could be a successful poet either way: doing it for subjective pleasure alone, or doing it in a calculated manner to impress; EITHER WAY, ranking is still useful.

    This is not to say uncertainty will not exist concerning the whole matter–this is what makes the topic endlessly fascinating: our ignorance, our desire for objective truth.

    Imagine the gulf betwee a poet, like Dante, who is crowned by all humanity (well, a good portion of it) and a poet like Mr. Nobody whose poetry is a positive annoyance to his fellows. “Subjective pleasure?” It disappears into the gulf, does it not? Subjectively speaking.

    Thomas

  • On April 4, 2009 at 10:59 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Thomas, the more we talk the less difference between our positions, I think. Perhaps a comments stream’s not the best way to meet new people?

    What I responded to was your “If you, as a fairly mature poet, look around, and according to your judgment, there are thousands of poets better than you are, why should you push yourself narrowly as a poet? If, however, and this was Plath’s view, you look around and think to yourself, “I think I’m one of the best poets writing today,” then don’t you owe it to the world to get your poems out there?”
    It appears I misread you when I interpreted your “why should you push yourself” if there are thousands better as “if you’re not major you shouldn’t bother”. Now I get that that’s not what you meant. So, sorry.

    As for disappearing into the gulf, well, even Dante will, eventually. I mean we don’t really know anything about ancient Greek music. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t dance their asses off in joy. My issue with your Mr Nobody wouldn’t be that his work disappears quickly, it would be that he’s annoying.

    Finally, I have no problem with ranking, as long as no one takes it seriously. Ranks only signify within particular contexts, as the way you discuss Dante indicates. There’s nothing really “objective” about it, outside those contexts. To hopefully amuse you with one more sports bit, taking ranking seriously is a bit like thinking it **really matters* whether it’s Kobe or Lebron who gets this year’s MVP.

    But I do it myself all the time. I mean, I look at my shelves, and wonder which of the books I’m looking at will come to the old folks home with me.

  • On April 5, 2009 at 10:44 am thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    Exactly. Judgment is constant, and more ubiquitous than we realize. Humans don’t detect difference without also asking, consciously, or unconsciously, ‘which is better?’ Perception itself is driven by judgment, and it just gets worse (better?) with stuff like poetry. So why should we hide from judgment, and run from ranking, as so many do? You hear it all the time, especially from women…”Why can’t we just enjoy poetry, why do we have to say what’s best?”

    The ancient Greeks, as we know, had play competitions that were highly public and celebratory.

    Today, poets need to win some sort of privately run contest or prize before they are taken seriously, and the same people who quietly make note of creds (which is nothing but a kind of ranking) are the ones who say “I hate ranking and competition!”

    The hypocrisy runs deep.

    You have people who need to see ‘creds’ before they appreciate a single line of poetry, but these same folks at the same time are frightened to death by any ranking by merit; ranking is on their radar, and the ranking on their radar is of the most trivial type, and yet they are the first to protest at open, public ranking based on merit.

    I heard actors Dame Eileen Atkins and Brian Dennehy read T.S. Eliot at Harvard on Friday, and Josephine Hart, who hosted the affair, said “there is poetry before ‘The Waste Land’ and poetry after ‘The Waste Land.” This is a monumental ranking, and yet why is such ranking made so blithely and greeted with such casual acceptance? Is it because ‘The Waste Land’ is a truly great work?

    Not at all; to make the ‘The Waste Land’ a monument is to make a mockery of monuments; a ranking that invalidates all ranking is the most tempting sort for those who fear ranking by merit. As I sat and listened to ‘The Waste Land’ so ably read by Dennehy and Atkins, I was aware of how fragmentary the work is, how it does not hold together as a unity; the work gives no impression as a whole; it zigs and zags, obviously disparate parts thrown together, obviously a patchwork patched together by a mind unhinged. ‘The Waste Land’ ought to be ranked by ‘what it truly is,’ and, instead, it has been turned into a symbol for a ‘new kind of new poetry,’ which means it gets a very, very special kind of ranking that allows it to tower over every unique work; ‘The Waste Land’ is allowed to escape its own (failed) uniqueness and, instead, is now a symbol for an age–but this symbol is precisely what no one needs or wants: a license to fail in the name of some vague idea of ‘the new;’ it is a titanic attempt at ranking, a ranking of a ghost by ghosts. ‘The Waste Land’ dies on the cross of ranking; the spirit of ranking floats up to modernist heaven, and no modern poems after ‘The Waste Land’ need to be ranked again, for the ‘Red Wheel Barrow’ now equals the ‘Paradise Lost’ and glorified ignorance is truly and forever attained, amen.

    As to your comment, even Dante will eventually disappear into the gulf; no, never. I understand your fatalist feelings, and it is horrible to think how all that is human will be lost, and many a poem has cried out in anguish at this; but no, Dante’s greatness will never be extinquished, for its sprit, its effect, if not itself, will live forever.

    Thomas

  • On April 5, 2009 at 1:58 pm Gail White wrote:

    Frankly, I have noticed no such resistance. Seems like every time I turn around I am reading something more in praise of Plath, whose poetry has never really blown me away.

  • On April 5, 2009 at 2:24 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Thomas, without wanting to do damage to our newly discovered common ground, I must say that I agree with Gail in noting no such resistance; in fact this whole discussion was started by a woman and quite a few women have entered into the discussion re: why Plath’s status as major might be problematic.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 4:07 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    I’d like to add one less knot to this thread by invoking Plath herself. In her poem, “The Applicant” she shows me that along with the other feminist issues the poem speaks to with bite– Plath saw, and knew full well, her position in the scheme of things. Then, in time present and time past, and I’d say, in time to come. With irony and humor, she could write :
    “First, are you our sort of a person?
    Do you wear
    A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
    A brace or a hook,
    Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

    Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
    How can we give you a thing?
    Stop crying.”

    In short, as the poem goes on, the poet knew well– the perks and disasters of marrying well, of catering to her competitors, for the canon, or any other position,and she could find the irony, even grit her teeth and laugh at it. Tragic though later readers find her, she knew and she did her writer’s work. And she has by no means disappeared. If I look to the work and not to the biography, I find ample reason to place her in my personal canon, no need to make her into a competitor, or to compare apples and oranges–all that most competition achieves.

    It’s spring. Let her live a little.

    My two cents, and warm regards to you, Annie,

    Margo Berdeshevsky

  • On April 6, 2009 at 12:02 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    I agree with Gail, too. Plath gets plenty of attention, and most of it probably has to do with the ‘mental hospital stuff’ and her suicide, and the accompanying morbid curiosity which generates popularity, even high-brow renown; all of this I noted up-thread; none of us are in a position to argue with popularity; it is a fact; it is neither wrong nor right.

    Let’s be frank: Plath ‘creeps us out’ and this is why she’s popular. Is she a ‘major’ poet? Of course she’s not. Is she one of our most popular poets? She certainly is, and that’s all any poet can wish. The Cry of the Human wants to be heard. Her Cry was, and is, heard.

    Now, if we figure out what the Plath Cry is, we move into a critical territory occupied by those who feel uneasy at the very aesthetic criteria created by the Cry, for the Cry is not aesthetic, per se.

    “OK, then, Mrs. Cry, sit down here on this table and we’ll have a look at you.”

    “ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!”

    “Oh, dear!”

    It is not for us to judge popularity; it may indicate lack of ‘major poet’ qualities, or, it may indicate ‘major poet’ qualities, or it may represent either with a host of qualifications.

    It could mean the following, for instance: popular acclaim for X may be a looming cloud that blocks any appreciation of Y. X may be popular and enjoyed for non-poetic reasons and X may be the ‘true poet.’ In this case, X’s popularity may be a positive hindrance to poetry, but if Plato is correct and Y’s ‘poetry’ will only harm the Republic, X’s popularity may be the closest thing to ‘poetry’ that we are ever going to get, or that we deserve.

    In other words, even if, intellectually, in the name of a highly sophisticated appreciation of ‘poetry,’ we reject Plato’s formula, Plato’s rejection of poetry still may ‘play out’ in reality, in secretive ways.

    In other words, although most intellectuals have no trouble rejecting Plato’s formula, Plato ‘wins’ in powerfully unconscious ways.

    Also, a major writer and a major poet are not the same. A major poet who is not a major writer is a rather tenuous proposition in the first place.

    Thomas

  • On April 6, 2009 at 1:48 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Hi Thomas. What I was clumsily trying to say when I agreed with Gail, who’s “no resistance” I took to refer to the lack of resistance on the part of women to ranking, has nothing to do with Plath, but merely with the latter point, which I make solely based on this discussion, knowing it to be controversial in certain very respectable circles.

    I think the main place where you and I will continue to disagree is with the certainty one should accord to the status of poets. Since I’m not certain about much of anything, besides we should be nice to each other between now and the time we die, I sure can’t be certain about which poets might or might not be major. And, to return to my original entry into this conversation, I sure wouldn’t take too seriously what English depts might have to say about it.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 2:11 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,

    I am unsure what you mean by “(you) wouldn’t take English departments too seriously.” Who should we take seriously and why? The majority of a person’s introduction to poetry begins with English departments and the fine tuning of poetic appreciation is further conducted within the English department environments of colleges and universities. I still believe in what one of my professor’s told me long ago and I believe it still holds true: “If it’s not on the menu then you can’t have it.” Hence, the majority of poets (most not all) are sitting down at a poetic dinner set by English departments. For good or ill that’s the way it is and I doubt very much that disregarding English departments is a very sound stance.They do the ranking and rating and most follow suit. We are still teaching the “Era of Lowell,” which defines what poets engage themselves in poetically.
    Outside of the English departments I cannot begin to imagine who or what sets the priorities in a universal way.
    They (English departments) determine what we will read and study for the most part. And they are the environments from which major and minor poets emerge for the most part. I don’t see how they could possibly be ignored.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 3:22 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    If English departments “determine what we will read and study for the most part,” that is a very recent phenomenon and depends very much on just who “we” are – poets of Lowell’s or Plath’s generation are the first of whom it might be even partly true – and there hasn’t been time to discover whether it is now true they also are “the environments from which major and minor poets emerge for the most part.”

    Poetry has always had a non-academic audience and until recently that was the largest part of its audience – the majority of readers didn’t go to college until after the G. I. Bill.

    If it is true, then I am very sorry.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 3:41 pm michael robbins wrote:

    One can lament the obvious truth that the canon is determined by curricula & syllabi within the academy, but one can hardly deny it. Everyone should read John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, which shows that what Bourdieu calls “the game of culture” is played within the “social function and institutional protocols of the school,” the place where the canon is preserved & reproduced. Before this, there were equally interested procedures for determining what we read & study. It isn’t a question of whether there is a non-academic audience; what that audience reads is determined by the school too. People seem to believe that there was a time when people decided what to read based on non-ideological principles, in a realm of purity removed from sociological forces.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm john wrote:

    As recently as the 1970s there was a popular poet not sanctioned by the academy — Hugh Prather. I’m not sure that there has been one since, outside of people who were famous already, like Jewel.

    I never encountered Plath in a classroom, in college in the early ’80s, but she circulated among poets and others; “The Bell Jar” more than the poetry. I don’t know whether students still discover writers among themselves and their peers; I’d be surprised if not. I don’t think Bukowski was in classrooms back then either, but we read him!

    Nothing against the canon, but a lot that’s good lies outside its boundaries as well as within. A lot, of course, has simply disappeared — literally. Thank the academics and un-credentialed scholars for preserving what they have.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 5:49 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Dear Jack–

    I don’t say ignore English departments, just don’t take them *too* seriously. No dept is the be-all and end-all. I don’t believe what your professor said, when s/he said “If it’s not on the menu then you can’t have it” if what s/he meant by the menu is her/his syllabus. There are dozens of presses (and now the web) which publish really fine poetry. Some are of interest to this dept, some are of interest to that dept, and others to a 3rd, and so on. I mean, if Harold Bloom taught a class, you’d get one canon. If you studied with Juliana Spahr, you’d get another. If you studied with Kenneth Goldsmith, you’d get a third. And, there are plenty of poets of interest to no academic, but whose work is still really fine.

    Who should we take seriously and why? Who do you respect? When I was a kid I met a publisher/bookseller in Berkeley who told me I ought to read the Pound-Williams-Olson line. Had he told me Lowell-Sexton-Plath I might have become a different somebody. But probably not, because I was already familiar with the Don Allen New American Poetry anthology (which I bought new, or nearly). So I read the beats, and the several generations of NY poets, and the langpo people, and so on … so if you were to take me seriously you’d have a different canon than if you took someone else seriously.

    But why take me seriously?

    Here’s my real answer. What do you want out of reading and/or writing poetry? Where can you get that? Who can help? Take them seriously. Then realize you’ve outgrown that initial position. Start over. “Fail again. Fail better.” As many times as you need to. Til the day you die.

    As someone said, “The way of poetry is eternal.” The way is wide. At least, there’s room for lots of great poets, not single file, but standing side by side.

    Dear Michael–

    You write: “what Bourdieu calls “the game of culture” is played within the “social function and institutional protocols of the school,” the place where the canon is preserved & reproduced.” That’s much truer in France (where you can still say “the school”) than in the US (where you have to use the plural); Bourdieu himself had admitted that France is a special case. This is not to deny “the game of culture”, or that academia isn’t important. Which I never meant to imply. It’s just to say that here in the US there’s a lot more going on that dreamt of in the schools. I’ll give you as examples three great women writers at least two of whom who are related to academia but whose viability is not dependent on having been accepted into the canon: Lisa Robertson and Dodie Bellamy. And, of course … drum roll … Kathy Acker.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 6:07 pm Manoel Cartola wrote:

    it is like saying kurt cobain is famous for his guitar ability and not for being “a significant figure.”

    we all have problems.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 6:28 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Oh, heavens. Popularity, of course, has nothing to do with it, nor does greatness. The idea is not that the canon is something you can be “accepted” into; it is what is reproduced in the schools, period. If you think Kathy Acker isn’t taught there, you’ve not visited one in a long time – ditto Lisa Robertson, whose work would be invisible if not for the academy (Chicago Review, anyone?). I’m not saying no one gets read but academy-sanctioned poets: nor could what I wrote be so misconstrued. There have always been poets read outside whatever institutional framework for the preservation of cultural capital happen to be in place at a given time: they don’t survive, though. Robert Service, anyone? Rod McKuen?

  • On April 6, 2009 at 7:27 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Robert Service is still in print. In hardcover and paperback. And when I tell non-academics that I write poetry, they’re a darned sight more likely to quote “The Cremation of Sam Magee” than “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Service’s hardcover collected is 52,918 in sales rank at Amazon; Pound’s Cantos in paper is 193,192 and in hardcover 584,137; his selected is 182,520. Just who is surviving?

    I’m not claiming Amazon sales rank as an indicator of quality, but Pound and Service are very near contemporaries, and 40-50 years on, despite the blessing of the canon, readers clearly prefer Service – and as Auden said, no work of art is unjustly remembered.

    Just for grins, the hardcover Collected Eliot is 14,022; complete Bishop is 6,440 (paper), her hardcover Library of America edition is 45,730; Lowell’s Collected paper is 55,213 and his hardback down in the half-millions; there doesn’t seem to be a collected Plath but the restored Ariel is 30,460 paper and 398,313 hardback.

    Lessee — that would make it Bishop, Eliot, Plath, Service, Lowell, Pound. Taking into account the recent buzz about Bishop and just how bad Lowell’s Notebooks and Dolphin are, I think that’s about right after all.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 7:49 pm john wrote:

    I don’t think Prather will “survive” either; only adding one more datum to the data-blast of poetry’s declining popularity. Glad to see that Service is surviving! I love “The Spell of the Yukon” and a bunch of others. Pound, few people remember, included James Whitcomb Riley, and some even more obscure 19th century popular poets, in his “Confucius to Cummings” anthology.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 8:11 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Michael–
    If what you are saying is that what’s reproduced at schools is what’s reproduced at schools, well, yeah. What I’m saying is that were all schools to close down, Robertson and Acker and Bellamy and many others would still have a readership. As for whose work will survive, well, I think we might both agree that 99% of what’s taught – and what’s not taught – won’t survive. So being in or out of the academic canon doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.

    My only point is that whether or not the academy thinks Plath is major has very little to do with anything. Stuff that’s taught may be artificially propped up a decade or three, but that’s about all.

    Oh, and as for survival as a measure of greatness, what about the lost works of Aristotle (his 30 dialogues, referred to by other authors, but lost in antiquity), scientific works by Archimedes, mathematical treatises by Euclid, philosophical work by Epicurus, masterpieces by the Greek poets Simonides and Alcaeus, erotic poems by Philodemus, lesbian erotic poetry by Sappho, the lost sections of Virgil’s Juvenilia, comedies by Terence, tragedies by Seneca and works by the Roman poets Ennius, Accius, Catullus, Gallus, Macer and Varus?

    Survival is usually a sign of something important, but loss may not be.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 9:14 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Exactly, John.

    Loss can be completely contingent on external events — we almost Catullus, as well as the others you mention, and Emily Dickinson’s family might well have disposed of her little bundles. But survival does mean something, in or our of the academy.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 9:16 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    The poem “The Man with the Hoe” by Edwin Markham (1899) was hailed by the public as “the battle cry for the next thousand years.” It was by most accounts the single most financially successful poem written in America. It was republished in more than ten thousand newspapers and magazines and translated into more than forty languages. Markham himself was celebrated as America’s greatest living poet. He and the poem had a vast and appreciative audience but barely anyone has ever heard of him today. That is in no small part due because he was not taught within the academic environments and hence there was no real shelf life for either the poem or the poet .

    Why college and university plays such an important role in the overall poetic landscape is based on the endless stream of students entering these settings every year. It is perhaps the only environment where people (students as potential poets and readers of poetry) are encouraged to read, discuss and write about poets and poetry in a controlled environment. College and university dictate the topics to the vast majority through this system, which means that if Plath or Jorie Graham or any other poet appears as part of a college or university syllabus then there is a great likelihood their work will be read and discussed, year after year after year. That process produces not only continuity in what is and who is read but more than likely lends itself to the ranking or order of poets.

    As far as major poets being products of the college and university system, it is what it is, from Ashbery to Collins and including even the most contemporary poets of regard, like J.D. McClatchy and C.K. Williams, the doorway to poetic achievement is within the structure of the academy. It might not have been that way but I can’t think of a major American poet who has not been a product of college or university.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 9:30 pm Daisy wrote:

    “It might not have been that way but I can’t think of a major American poet who has not been a product of college or university.”

    Jack–Louise Gluck, for one, I believe. Ron Silliman for another. Daisy

  • On April 6, 2009 at 9:38 pm michael robbins wrote:

    There are lots of major American poets who haven’t been products of the university.

    I’m not saying what’s reproduced in schools is what’s reproduced in schools. I’m saying that what you’re calling “survival” is a function of what’s reproduced in schools. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether what’s read today in schools is read in or out of schools in thirty years or three hundred. The only point is that whatever’s read will be read because of its reproduction in schools. To discuss ancient Greece in this context is, of course, irrelevant. The whole discussion is predicated on the obvious assumption that the reproduction of cultural capital is accomplished by different means in different eras.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 9:58 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Dickinson. Whitman. Frost didn’t graduate. Eliot studied philosophy and worked at a bank. Stevens studied law and worked for an insurance company. Williams was a doctor. Doesn’t seem to me the academic study of literature is really much of a requirement for writing great poetry.

    And since the academic study of literature at the undergraduate level or higher didn’t exist until the 19th century, I rather doubt the academy has had all that much influence in recognizing great poetry either.

    Plath studied Redbook. Hard. Why should people read poetry in a controlled environment? Has it really done them or the art any good? Seems to me John Bloomberg-Rissman had it right above:

    “What do you want out of reading and/or writing poetry? Where can you get that? Who can help? Take them seriously. Then realize you’ve outgrown that initial position. Start over. “Fail again. Fail better.” As many times as you need to. Til the day you die.”

    The academy is just one place to do that, and not the most important, at least not for all of us. I learned more framing houses and playing mandolin than in seven years of graduate school, teaching creative writing, for my sins. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 10:38 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Gluck, I believe when to Columbia and studied under Kunitz.
    I haven’t the foggiest who Silliman is.

    Mike, I couldn’t disagree with you more. Be that as it may we are not living in the era of Dickinson, Whitman and Frost. To counter that, then, Emerson did go to Harvard as did Thoreau.

    This is not tit-for-tat. The reality-check remains that colleges and universities play one of the most, if not THE most important role in producing poets and studying poetry.It is just a fact. More people are introduced to poetry, poets, the study of it and the discussion of it within an academic environment than anywhere else. And academic environments are the abitrators of poetic ranking. That may not be comfortable for some people but it remains nonetheless true. A simple check of any major contemporary American poet would indicate their association with or advancement through university or college. For Plath it was Smith where she later taught. And Sexton spent so much of her life wishing she had the academic credentials that everyone else had. As long as Plath remains on the syllabus of college and university level courses she will remain important.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 11:16 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Jack, don’t you feel the slightest bit abashed that you could make so many sweeping claims yet don’t know who Ron Silliman is? I mean, doesn’t that perhaps, just perhaps, indicate that you are taking a slice of the pie for the whole pie?

    Michael, whatever will be read will be read because of its reproduction, sure, but I’ll say the same to you as Jack, school’s only one place (and one reason) poetry gets reproduced. I mean, I turn to the poets and presses distributed by SPD to see what’s happening, not academic syllabi or the New Yorker. Since SPD’s been in business longer than some English Depts, so do plenty of other people, I guess …

    But, hey, what’s a little disagreement? Long live all kinds of poetry, however it lives … we’re all richer for it.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 11:19 pm John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    I have a question, then I’ll shut up. Considering this discussion was started by a women, included a number of women, and at this point is mostly propogated by men, where did it “go wrong?”

  • On April 6, 2009 at 11:24 pm john wrote:

    Service survives without university support — very heartening to learn that.

    Whenever I see a reasonably-priced (and they’re usually dirt-cheap) anthology of “popular poetry” from before about 1970, I pick it up. Lots of great forgotten stuff in there — like 19th century American ballads comparable to the Scottish Border Ballads. Or “The Face on the Bar-room Floor,” which Chaplin adapted for a film.

    I agree, though, that the academy is by far the most powerful factor in determining canonicity — and that survival signifies, while extinction does not.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 11:33 pm michael robbins wrote:

    >>And since the academic study of literature at the undergraduate level or higher didn’t exist until the 19th century, I rather doubt the academy has had all that much influence in recognizing great poetry either.

    It would be nice if you had read the part of my post where I say this:

    The whole discussion is predicated on the obvious assumption that the reproduction of cultural capital is accomplished by different means in different eras.

    Or the part where I say that different institutional frameworks do the work at different times. Then you would see that your assertion is a non sequitur. You can “rather doubt” all you want, it doesn’t change the fact that SINCE the rise of literary studies, the academy has served to reproduce cultural capital. BEFORE that rise, other institutions performed this function. Now it’s the academy. See?

    Also, the phrase “great poetry” gives the game away. I’m afraid it’s not “great” because it’s great. “Greatness” is a function that accompanies social capital, not the other way around.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 11:38 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Also, I’ll just go ahead & say this again, since it’s not getting through: we’re not talking about what people read at a given time. We’re talking about survival. What survives is what is transmitted through curricula & syllabi. If you truly believe that SPD’s hot sellers will be read a hundred years from now, then I can guarantee that that will be because they are distributed in the university. People read all sorts of stuff in the present that is only peripherally associated with the academy (although let’s not delude ourselves that SPD — of all presses!! — has no association with the academy, a press almost all of whose authors are in the university system in some way); that has nothing to do with anything.

  • On April 6, 2009 at 11:39 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Sorry, meant to say “the presses distributed thru SPD, almost all of whose authors &c.”

  • On April 7, 2009 at 12:48 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    But then one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which—but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. (Virginia Woolf)

  • On April 7, 2009 at 3:51 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    I concur, it may well be time to pause on John’s question…

    >”Considering this discussion was started by a women, included a number of women, and at this point is mostly propogated by men, where did it “go wrong?”

    It may be going awry because there’s fair amount of boys’ bashing going on, eh?

    I’d return to Annie F’s initial query,

    “Or are there more disturbing forces at work? What does it mean now, to be a “major poet”? Are race and gender still an implicit part of the “major” definition, as they were for so many centuries?”

    That question, to me, is of greater necessity than whether the academy is still in power. That’s been an issue artists of all eras have fought, no news there. But if indeed something more disturbing is going on, then all the grandstanding is obfuscating that more interesting, to me, question.

    One could return to a line from what I’d quoted of Plath’s, earlier in the thread: “First, are you our sort of a person?”
    Or, we might advocate for a newer and more respectful way to sense what is of importance, what is or will be major, than what the academy or even the present patriarchy has deemed.:) That, to me, might begin to address what has gone wrong, and what may, in our artistic lifetimes, be given more breath and find more “rightness” on behalf of poetry or any of the arts.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 6:42 am Jack Conway wrote:

    John,
    These are not sweeping statements. They are facts. And am I to take it that you think Silliman is a “major” poet? I hope you are not offended by the fact that I can’t find any evidence of such.

    More people get their introduction and ideas regarding poetry in colleges and universities. That is a fact. Tha is where people go to learn about it. Now if you can show me a place where more people are introduced to poetry other than colleges and universities I would be more than happy to entertain that. As yet, you haven’t.

    So I think it’ pretty much accepted that colleges and universites are where poetry for most is cultivated and developed. They control what we read and further they decide pretty much who survives. This is a simple law of supply and demand.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 7:36 am Jack Conway wrote:

    I apologise for veering off the original topic. Obviously in trying to address these questions I need to establish certain criteria regarding the tole of colleges and universities in detrmining who is or isn’t a major poet.

    “Are Christine’s committee members behind the times? Is their judgment based on some objective factor, such as the limited amount of work Plath published (would George Herbert have made the cut?) Or are there more disturbing forces at work? What does it mean now, to be a “major poet”? Are race and gender still an implicit part of the “major” definition, as they were for so many centuriest?”

    In trying to return to the original set of questions regarding Plath, I will assume my original premise that college and university are the environments where most people are first introduced to poets and poetry.

    Given that fact, and based solely on a cursory examination of the various textbooks and anthologies often used within the classroom, it is difficult to imagine Plath being left by the wayside. Of the dozen or so teaching documents I looked at, Plath, in one form or another appears either on her own or as part of the study of the Confessional Poets. “Daddy” seems to be the poem that appears most frequently.

    I would venture to guess that “survival” is at the heart or at least some recognizable part of the criteria of determining the title of “major” poet. If that is the case given the circumstances I just stated, I cannot see how Plath would not become or remain a major poet. Although she never wanted to be lumped into the category of being a confessional poet, along with Lowell, Sexton and Snodgrass, I doubt she will be able to escape that placement or at least a far as academic study is concerned.

    Aside from that, I would guess that her (Christine’s) experience regarding using Plath has more to do with personalities at play than the universal acceptance of Plath as a major poet. I would guess that he doctoral thesis on Plath probably would have been readily accepted by any variety of colleges and universities. Here are just a few of them from any variety of universities including Brown, Indiana, etc.:

    John Newton, (Melbourne) wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Sylvia Plath, and has continued to research and supervise in the broad area of American literature.
    Barnard, Caroline King: God’s lioness : the poetry of Sylvia Plath
    Brown University, Ph.D. 1973
    Berman, Jeffrey: Sylvia Plath and the Art of Dying: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
    University of Hartford Studies in Literature 10 (1978): 137-155.
    Boyers, Robert: Sylvia Plath: The Trepanned Veteran
    Centennial Review 13 (1969): 138-153.
    Broe, Mary Lynn: Recovering the Complex Self: Sylvia Plath’s Beeline
    Centennial Review 24 (Winter 1980): 1-24.
    Claire, William F.: That Rare, Random Descent: The Poetry and Pathos of Sylvia Plath
    Antioch Review 26 (Winter 1966): 522-560.
    Cleverdon, Douglas: On Three Women
    in Newman, The Art of Sylvia Plath, Indiana Univ. Press, 1970

    I should also note that students of poetry are being introduced to Plath at an earlier period of their study since some, not all, high school textbooks now include her work.

    I don’t think Christine’s experience is endemic to the overall state of academic study of Plath but rather an anomaly. As long as Plath is taught in high schools, colleges and university I think she will retain her place as a major American poet.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 9:29 am John Bloomberg-Rissman wrote:

    Dear Jack and Michael, I surrender. Given your definitions, your position (hope you don’t mind being conflated a minute) is inarguable. Dear Margo, thanks for reminding me that the real issue was never the academy, but rather whether Christine’s experience had something to do with race and gender. Sorry for veering off course. Only reason I did was to suggest Christine not surrender her own power to choose her own canon to those on her committee. Perhaps a foolish suggestion. But, to paraphrase Juliana Spahr, I’m interested (apparently foolishly) in everybody’s autonomy … and everybody’s fight to retain it.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 10:01 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    Prose maintained that the authorities in charge of these goodies [jobs, awards] still harbored the tacit assumption that “women writers will not write anything important — anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

    http://www.salon.com/books/review/2009/02/24/elaine_showalter/index.html

    Prose article: http://www.harpers.org/archive/1998/06/0059591

  • On April 7, 2009 at 10:03 am thomas brady wrote:

    Jack is right, of course. Today, in poetry, academia is where it all basically happens.

    This does not mean, however, that ‘academia’ is a monolith, or that it just kind of exists, or that it has no history, or that it is not comprised of unique, ambitious individuals, or that it is not stupid or corrupt sometimes, or that it will live forever in its present state, or that it cannot be changed from without and from within.

    But, yes, the thrust of Jack’s argument is absolutely correct.

    To paraphrase Poe, from ‘The Rationale of Verse,’ a thousand scholars can be wrong, first because they are scholars, and second, because they are a thousand.

    But I doubt even Poe could have foreseen the power of the academy as it exists today. Every kid wants to go to college, millions and millions every year do, and the poets taught there have a tremendous advantage in terms of being ‘major’ and surviving.

    Someone up-thread mentioned the G.I. Bill. We forget how Modern poetry was despised in the early 20th century,and how Modern Poetry was rescued by one guy, who, with his team of Agrarian/Fugitive/New Critics, made the Academy the Ship for what had been tossed overboard and neglected by the American public, for what had almost drowned, before World War Two: Modern poetry, the “New” Poetry of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Edmund WIlson, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, who gathered successfully, for a brief time, in a minor sort way, with money from guys like Scofield Thayer (whose uncle wrote “Casey at the Bat” and who Eliot met at Milton Academy) around Emerson’s old “Dial” magazine in the 1920s. This little band was taken up into the University almost single-handedly by one brilliant, well-connected American: John Crowe Ransom.

    Ransom says it all in his 1937 essay, “Poets Without Laurels”:

    “The poets I refer to in the title are ‘moderns”: those whom a small company of adept readers enjoys, perhaps enormously, but the general public detests; those in whose hands poetry as a living art has lost its support.”

    “Consequently I do not refer to such poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost, who are evidently influenced by modernism without caring to ‘go modern’ in the sense of joining the revolution; which is very much as if they had stopped at a mild or parlor variety of socialism, when all about them the brave, or at least the doctrinaire, were marching under the red banner.”

    “Poets used to be bards and patriots, priests and prophets, keepers of public conscience, and naturally, men of importance. Society crowned them with wreaths of laurel… But modern poets are another breed.”

    “…the poet’s traditional function on behalf of society [was] to make virtue delicious. He compounded a moral effect with an aesthetic effect.”

    “The name of the moral effect was goodness; the name of the aesthetic effect was beauty. Perhaps these did not have to coexist, but the planners of society saw to it that they should; they called upon the artists to reinforce morality with charm. The artists obliged.”

    “When they had done so, the public did not think of attempting to distinguish in its experience as reader the glow which was aesthetic from the glow which was moral. Most persons probably could not have done this; many persons cannot do it today. There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any useful set of ideas.”

    “But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land. He has performed a work of dissociation and purified art.”

    “A good ‘pure’ poem is Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’,,,”

    The poetry text which greeted the millions of returning G.I.s who went to college on the G.I. Bill right after WW II, was written by two of Ransom’s comrades, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (they had been reactionary Agrarians with Ransom back in the 1920s), “Understanding Poetry,” which served to canonize the “despised” Moderns.

    We can see in Ransom’s essay not only the 1930s ‘red’ rhetoric (Ransom was a very conservative fellow, had been an ‘Old South’ reactionary even a few years before) but more importantly, the ‘modernist’ rhetoric, saying things like a pure aesthetic had never been important before, when of course it had; think of Keats’ “To Autumn,” but it was the ‘modern’ push to be AGAINST the Romantics and FOR one’s living friends, like Wallace Stevens, Allen Tate, Eliot, Brooks, Penn Warren (who of course Ransom knew).

    Again: the Academy is powerful, as Jack has correctly stated, but The Academy has a history (an extremely recent one) which we should study as a subject in itself. This history is just as important as the poetry.

    Thomas

  • On April 7, 2009 at 10:21 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    If the academy is both arbiter and oppressor, albeit an interesting character, studying the academy may not at all be the the way out of the dark.

    Maybe better: begin to bless the child that’s got his own.

    thine in poetry,
    margo

  • On April 7, 2009 at 10:38 am Larry Sawyer wrote:

    Although I’ve always much preferred Sexton to Plath, I do feel Plath should be considered a major poet, as should Mina Loy, but neither will be. It surprises me, but in this instance I don’t think the issue is gender-related, it has more to do with the aesthetic effect of the work on the canonical crowd. If they don’t get everything on the menu, the work is written off as being “light” or else merely “significant.” Also, I don’t think sheer volume has much to do with it. But it does seem that if the poet in question started a new movement, as opposed to working effectively on the sidelines, then canonical status is assured. The ludicrous nature of assigning these types of designations is proven by the early resistance to Frost, whereas now he’s heralded as poet par excellence.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 10:53 am thomas brady wrote:

    Margo,

    I feel it’s important to study the “arbiter and oppressor.”

    I ‘got mine own’ as well.

    But no biggie if you want to focus on your ‘own.’

    I like to know which way the wind is blowin.’

    Just sayin’

    Thomas

  • On April 7, 2009 at 1:48 pm john wrote:

    Eliot was huge before the academy took him up — huge among other poets, anyway. Pound too.

    Poets make the canon — the academy confirms. It’s happening with Plath. Was she in the academic literature 30 years ago? (Maybe she was . . . ) She sure was circulating among college *students* — outside of the classroom.

    Charles Rosen argued this point about classical music: Players make the canon. Same is true with poetry, to a large extent.

    I know I’m switching positions here, but — hey — that’s what dialogue is for, right? Academy plays a huge role, but they follow the poets.

    I keep coming back to Pound, because, like him or not (and I don’t, much, but that’s irrelevant), he’s so interesting! I *have* to read him, because I love Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, H.D., Eliot, Moore — and Pound decisively influenced them all. (Maybe not Moore . . . I’m not sure!)

    “Major” is a word I never understood. Two criteria come to bear, it seems to me — range and intensity. If intensity alone is sufficient to reach “majority,” then Plath’s got it. If range is required, I’m not convinced. But it doesn’t matter! Because, even if one knows a poet’s oeuvre, and the whole corpus inflects one’s reading of each poem, one still reads one poem at a time — and all it takes is one poem to place a poet into one’s personal canon — all it takes is one poem to make a poet “major.” And, I agree with John B-R, one’s personal canon is of primary importance to oneself. I’m not saying that someone shouldn’t fight for the right to have Plath at the party — by all means do! Because it is political too — very!

    Regarding Margo’s point about boys bashing and point scoring, I thought of Nietzsche (tr. Kaufmann, Latin omitted) (and I don’t exempt myself):

    “There is a point in every philosophy when the philosopher’s ‘conviction’ appears on the stage — or to use the language of an ancient Mystery:

    The ass arrived,
    Beautiful and most brave.”

    I hope you all can forgive my braying.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 6:01 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    I don’t know if Pound was “huge” before the Academy embraced him.

    We make these statements all the time without really thinking of the actual history of the individuals, and as I investigate this more and more, I’m a little appalled at how people are satisfied to fall back on vague statements like Pound was “huge.”

    I’m not sure if you mean in terms of Pound as player, or poet.

    The obvious fact is this: Pound was important because William Carlos Williams was important because Marianne Moore was important because T.S. Eliot was important because Wallace Stevens was important because John Crowe Ransom was important because Allen Tate was important, and all these people are important because they found each other important, and yet beyond a sort of networking fog, there isn’t a lot of real sorting out of what’s what.

    We could pick any number of figures and make a kind of Pound mythos out of them; the whole thing is rather arbitrary. For a good part of his life, Pound attempted musical composition. But is Pound known for this? Pound took care of his parents in Italy. Pound met Mussolini. Pound made very sloppy translations which critics at the time condemned. Pound wrote some poems which no one read. Without a doubt, Pound made important connections. Was Pound “huge” in the 1930s, when Ransom wrote the essay I mentioned above? I don’t believe he was. When it comes to someone like Pound, I think we admire that he is ‘known,’ we are blown away by the spectacular ‘careerism’ and we envy his fame, and we romanticize it, but dividing the career and the fame and connections from the work is nearly impossible. We are starry-eyed. We don’t really know the true history.

    For instance, there are names which are rarely mentioned, but have the same ‘career significance’ as Pound’s, and who interconnect with Pound and every player in modern literature, yet they are virtually unknown.

    Ford Madox Ford, for instance, is known for writing ‘The Good Soldier,’ his tragic WW I romance, but not much else.

    Ford Madox Ford, however was “huge” in ways that even Pound was not. FMF’s grandfather was Ford Madox Brown, a member of the pre-Raphaelites, who were very instrumental in ‘discovering’ neglected artists like Walt Whitman, for instance; FMF worked for the War Propaganda Bureau, he ran the English Review, which published Hardy, H.G. Wells, Conrad, Henry James, Yeats, W. Lewis (Pound’s “Blast” friend) & DH Lawrence, ALSO the Transatlantic Review, which pubished Joyce, Hemingway, G. Stein, Pound, Jean Rhys. FMF also traveled to the U.S. where he worked with Allen Tate and Robert Lowell.

    None of the writers mentioned above were moving about in a lonely orbit, all were working together to some degree, and one cannot mention Pound’s importance without also mentioning Ford Madox Ford and about a hundred others.

    It sort of works like a string of Christmas lights; whoever manages to touch Pound (Olson, Bishop) lights up, and we forget all the people Pound touched and got juice from. Modernism was like a corporation, a single organism, a string of Christmas lights, T.S. Eliot and Ransom the godfathers. No was really “huge.” There was too much interdependence.

    Where does Plath fit into this? I think she sensed that Hughes was ‘in’ and she was not, or she was slipping away, when Hughes left her, and ‘Daddy’ and her suicide was a gesture of fantastic desperation.

    Thomas

  • On April 7, 2009 at 6:03 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I call post #100!!

  • On April 7, 2009 at 6:27 pm noah freed wrote:

    John, you seem to be willfully misreading Michael’s posts. He’s said many times that the point isn’t that the academy confirms popularity in the present. Whether anyone was “huge” at a given time is irrelevant – all sorts of poets are huge at any specific present moment. Those who go on to remain “huge” after their moment do so only because they are confirmed in and by the academy. This is not an argument that Michael is making up; you really should read the Guillory book he recommends before you just decide arbitrarily on your own how history works.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 9:46 pm john wrote:

    Braying alert! Point-scoring alert! Boy bashing alert!

    (People uninterested in such, please be warned.)

    Thomas and Noah,

    I said that Eliot and Pound were huge — among *poets*.

    Who’s talking about popularity here? Not me. If you all want to, that’s fine, that’s great. I’m talking about canon formation.

    Noah, the academy has enjoyed its canon-confirming role for a very short historical period. The academy does enjoy it now — but historically, right now, what the academy does, right now, is follow the lead of poets when choosing the canon.

    Example: Eliot, Pound, the modernists. Poets made them important before academics did.

    Example: Sylvia Plath. Poets made her important before the academy did.

    Example: Poets don’t read Service (much); he doesn’t influence (many) poets; the academy doesn’t canonize him.

    Michael’s belief that the academy determines which poets of the past we read is simply, factually, wrong. Example: Robert Service. Buyers of books buy more of his books than those of many canonical poets.

    Noah, I would guess that you don’t mean to imply that current social formations have been here forever and will be here forever, but when you use phrases like “how history works” to describe how it has (partially) worked for a very short period, I’m not sure.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 10:51 pm noah freed wrote:

    Fact: whose books are bought is, of course, not at issue, not for Guillory, for Michael (I would guess, reading his posts above), or for me. We were discussing “major” poets. No? If so, then the entire damned point is that the academy determines who is canonical, and the question of who is popular is irrelevant. NOBODY HAS EVER SAID THAT THE ACADEMY DETERMINES WHO WE READ IN THE SENSE YOU USE HERE. OBVIOUSLY what was meant is that the academy determines who is read in the sense of who is “major.” Try to keep up. You’re very clever, John: you deny that popularity is at issue for you, then you hold up Robert Service as someone who disproves Guillory’s thesis. How does he do so? Uh, he sells more books than canonical poets do (by the way, NOT ANYMORE he doesn’t). So popularity IS the issue! Very clever.

    Fact: “how history works” is through social formations. Of course these formations change over time. Uh, I thought we were discussing the ones in place over the last hundred years ago. Let me go back and read the thread again. Yep, that’s what we were discussing. So … I guess you’re saying that “history” includes everything but the present? Or everything except the “very short period” that just happens to be the period under discussion in this thread? Very convenient.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 11:04 pm john wrote:

    I haven’t read Guillory. But it’s always a pleasure to be berated by people who tell me I don’t have the right to talk to them unless I’ve read the same books that they have. So, I’m not disputing Guillory. I’m disputing what Michael wrote, which was, the academy determines who gets read, which he then clarified thus: the academy determines who gets read after their moment has passed. I took “who gets read” to mean, you know, “who gets read.” (And, Lord, you, and Michael forgive me if I’ve misquoted his exact words; this paraphrase is close.)

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The academy wields immense power in determining the canon. But, two caveats.

    First, the academy has wielded this power only for the last . . . what, at most, 70 years? OK, maybe that’s not “very short,” but it is not much more than a few percent of the recorded history of written poetry.

    Second, the academy follows the poets. If you have evidence of the academy canonizing a poet that other poets have no interest in, please bring that poet forward now. If you have evidence of a poet, who had a lot of influence on other poets, and whom the academy did not go on to canonize, please bring that poet forward now. Maybe I’m wrong! It would be interesting to learn something.

    If you don’t have such evidence, by all means go on shouting.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 11:28 pm john wrote:

    By the way, I agree — I *was* talking about popularity in the second part of my post. I was responding to your statement that I had willfully misread Michael. Very keen of you to know my will. Unfortunately you’ll have to take my word for it that you’re wrong. If I misread Michael, it was unintentional.

    Here’s the sequence. People were talking about the power of the academy — a point which I had made in a previous thread, which Michael then took pains to deny. Michael said that the academy determines not only what the academic audience reads, but what the nonacademic audience reads as well. Someone lamented that. I mentioned that as recently as the 1970s, a non-sanctioned poet — Hugh Prather — was widely read, but that I didn’t know of any widely read, non-sanctioned poets since then, besides Jewel, who was famous before publishing. Michael said that he hadn’t meant the academy determines who gets read now, it determines who gets read from the past. Someone said that Service outsells Pound, Lowell, and other canonized modernists. I said that I liked Service, and that I was glad that non-canonized poets still get read.

    Now, you say that Michael didn’t mean to say that the academy doesn’t, after all, determine who gets read from the past, but that it determines who gets canonized. OK, fine. Maybe that is what Michael meant — you’re probably right. That I took him to mean what he said isn’t an act of bad faith on my part. That we had a misunderstanding about the power of the context (canonization, but also posthumous longevity — the context, in my view, was slippery) to determine the denotation of his words is not an indication of bad faith on his part or on my part. But to accuse me of willfully misunderstanding what people say is wrong.

  • On April 7, 2009 at 11:58 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Noah is correct that by “what gets read” I intended a very specific set of readers; obviously what gets read in, like, the world includes lots of poets not sanctioned by academe (my students read Saul Williams & Sapphire & Bukowski, a few years ago it was Henry Rollins – I’ve read all of them & ugh).

    Things gets too heated here’s on th’Harriet. Mine own fault too. I am gone retire from this’ere forum. But I shall be reading! Love to all!

  • On April 8, 2009 at 7:19 am Jack Conway wrote:

    This argument that college and university are not the arbitrators of poetic ranking and rating is silly and ridiculous. Of course they are. There is no argument.

    In order to even have an argument you must have a reasonable difference: the operative word being “reasonable.” In order to even have a reasonable difference there must not be a factual conclusion, but there is. The numbers and the history demonstrate clearly that college and university dictate what most of us study and read and hence rank accordingly.

    The notion that this is just a recent phenomenon is silly and wrong. Harvard was founded in 1767 or thereabouts; Yale, 1640 and Brown, 1769. They begin this process, so it has not been a mere 70 years. One of the first presses originated out of Harvard as did many presses and it was the university that decided what would get published. I cannot imagine where on earth such a militant refusal to recognize this comes from. It just is not true.

    Does anyone really believe that farmers laid down their pitchforks at the end of the day and arbitrarily picked up a copy of Emerson’s Nature? No. It was the evolutionary process of moving from the field to the classroom that determined what poetry was being read.

    It is one thing to argue whether they should have such power, as Thomas Brady so articulately demonstrated, but it is another thing entirely to militantly refuse to recognize it.

    The example of Robert W. Service is very shabby. As far as Robert W. Service goes I would be more than willing to wager that his work is NOT bought by poets during serious study, but rather by Moms and Dads buying the illustrated versions of their children. I would not hold children up as part of a serious readership of poetry, not as an example. I could be wrong but I doubt it.

    University does not follow the lead of poets. That is simply not true. I am stunned that anyone would even imagine such a thing. On what basis would someone even make such a statement?

    In order to move along you have to accept the huge and influential role college and university plays in determining these things. It is just a silly and wrong-headed notion to do otherwise.

    So is it possible to get over this relentlessly silly and cyclical unfounded bias. Accept it. Recognize it. And learn to live with it.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 8:56 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    Said Oscar Wilde, in “De Profundis” : ” He is the Philistine who upholds and aids the heavy, cumbrous, blind, mechanical forces of society, and who does not recognise dynamic force when he meets it either in a man or a movement.”

    And, one could add that had impressionist painters who bucked the French academy (or others) just “Accept(ed) it. Recognize(d) it. And learn(ed) to live with it…” there might have been no forward momentum in that art, no Salon des Refusés of 1863, no progress or modernist thrust to the arts in a more general sense, in years to come.

    No, we’re not condemned to bite the bullet, to let the “blind,mechanical forces of society,” have our artistic lives. Not at all. One can recognize the existence of the forces, as I’ve tried to say, (despite the braying,) without being cowed by them.

    But I suppose there are some who like to be told what to believe, and to uphold status quo, at the peril of some more tolerant future. Too bad.

    Margo

  • On April 8, 2009 at 9:05 am Jack Conway wrote:

    I agree.

    Apples and oranges.

    Recognizing THAT it exists is uniquely different from accepting it or trying to change it.

    But first there HAS to be the recognition that it DOES exist and permeates all the many parts of poetry.

    I do believe that is what Thomas, Michael, and others, myself included, have been trying to get down to.

    Whether we accept it or desire to change it is another story.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 10:02 am john wrote:

    Jack,

    As I said, I could be wrong, but from what I’ve read, poets in the 20th century determined, by their enthusiasms for other poets, which poets the academy would later canonize. If you can think of counterexamples, that would be great — that would be an argument!

    This would be a counterexample: A poet who held no interest for other poets in his time, whom the academy then went on to canonize.

    This would be a counterexample: A wildly influential poet whom the academy did not canonize.

    Again, I could be wrong, but my understanding is that poets recognized the centrality of Pound, Eliot, and Plath (to name just three) before the academy did.

    Whitman would be another example.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 11:41 am thomas brady wrote:

    “Thomas, I said that Eliot and Pound were huge—among *poets.*”

    John,

    I took issue with Pound being “huge,” not T.S. Eliot–much more respected than Pound, simply because Eliot presented himself to the world as a learned, sober, gentleman.

    Secondly, Pound being “huge among *poets*” is about as impressive as being huge among *dishwashers,* and perhaps less significant—I sincerely believe no poet improves as a poet when exposed to Pound’s eccentric, badgering criticism or his uneven poetry. Pound had a certain élan which made him attractive to a certain rough-and-ready-but-looking-for-respect *type* of poet; I doubt Pound was ever “huge” even among a significant number of *poets.*

    As for T.S. Eliot, who *was* “huge,” as Jack correctly points out, the Academy existed well before Eliot’s career began. There did occur a sea change in the Academy—it accepted Modernism—around mid-century; but Eliot was brilliant in many ways, fitting into Modernism, but also the Old Guard as well.

    As more proof of Jack’s thesis, Oxford University trained the New Critics (and New Criticism was an inevitable, modernizing, specializing process marked by a professional rebuke of romantic amateurism within the Academy) very early in the 20th Century; T.S.Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren all studied at Oxford University, the latter three as Rhodes Scholars. Also, Paul Engle, who started the Iowa Writers Workshop in the late 1930s, was a Rhodes Scholar, and thus studied at Oxford, and Allen Tate, who was part of Ransom’s Fugitives, started a Writers Workshop at Princeton in 1942.

    Modernism, then, often portrayed as a ‘rebel’ movement, is Academy born and bred.

    The last giant outside the Academy was Edgar Poe, who made a quixotic career out of taking on poets like Longfellow, safely ensconced at Harvard University.

    Emerson’s radicalism did upset the Harvard Divinity School for a time, where Emerson went to school with T.S. Eliot’s grandfather, but Harvard took Emerson back into their arms after the Civil War.

    William James, who knew Emerson, taught Santayana at Harvard, who in turn taught Eliot, as well as Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein, at Harvard. E.E. Cummings also went to Harvard and eloped with the wife of Scofield Thayer–who published Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in Emerson’s old “Dial,” which presented Eliot ‘The Dial Prize’ in 1922.

    Every poetic movement in the 20th Century, every poetic idea in the 20th Century, had its beginnings and sanction in the Academy, mostly at Oxford or Harvard.

    Thomas

  • On April 8, 2009 at 12:46 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,

    Exactly what is your point? It has already been readily established that college and university play THE role in determining who most people read and discuss and thus the ranking. There is no argument here. It is fact.

    You don’t have to accept facts but that leaves you in a very precarious position to even dream of discussing poetry logically. Time to stop beating a dead horse and jousting at windmills.

    There is no counter example or argument. What is, is and even if you don’t want to accept it, it still exists and is accepted by just about everyone somehow involved in poetry. Once again, you can go over this again and again but you’re wrong and no one is buying your premise.

    If you want to discuss poetry I suggest you familiarize yourself with the history of it and stop fabricating some ill-advised idea. The colleges and universities play THE most important role in the dynamics of poetry. That’s it.

    No one would accept your premise because it is just not true. So please stop engaging in this counter productive argument. What is it you are so militantly trying to prove? If you’re trying to prove you’re wrong, you have succeeded. If you are trying to prove you believe in an imaginary poetic system, you have succeeded. Otherwise please. You are perpetuating a foolish opinion that just isn’t true. Enough already. You are beginning to sound like a spoiled child who has just been told it’s time for bed. You keep wailing that it isn’t but it is.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 1:19 pm john wrote:

    Thomas,

    yes, it appears that the majority of 20th century American and English poets went to college, and that many of the innovators went to Top Schools. That is no argument against my proposition: That poets make the reputation of other poets, and the academy follows the judgment of the poets.

    O’Hara is a good example. He graduated from Harvard, and won a prize in grad school at the University of Michigan. But despite his prize, my impression — which, again, could be wrong, but nobody’s bringing the evidence — is that his work wasn’t embraced by the academy until long after many poets made it central to their own work.

    You might be right about Pound not being “huge” among poets. That he had the respect — and, in many cases, deep love — of Eliot, MacLeish, Frost, Williams, H.D., Cummings, Zukofsky, Oppen, Bunting, MacDiarmid, Moore, Olson, Rothenberg, Eshelman, Bernstein, Silliman . . . well, I’ll quote Hayden Carruth, in “The Voice That Is Great Within Us,” the great 1970 anthology that finds room for all sorts of traditionalist poets: “Today few working poets could be found who do not regard him [Pound] with veneration and affection.” But who knows? Carruth could have been wrong.

    That so many academics today despise the Slam movement is a good indication that its reputation will grow and it will eventually make it into the canon. Only time will tell!

    The Slam movement is interesting in light of your proposition that all movements begin in the academy. Wikipedia doesn’t say whether Marc Smith, founder of the Poetry Slam, went to college — it says he spent most of his young adulthood as a construction worker — but Smith has always been well read, and he knew the roots of what he was doing, explicitly citing Sandburg (who didn’t go to high school, much less college). But the poets who were central to bringing the slam to NYC — Bob Holman and Miguel Algarin — had academic credentials — Holman graduated from Columbia and Algarin was a prof at Rutgers.

    All very interesting!

  • On April 8, 2009 at 1:38 pm john wrote:

    Jack,

    As I’ve said again and again — maybe I’m wrong! Is that a “militant” thing to say? Militantly . . . conversational?

    Yes, I am militantly in favor of conversation!

    Asserting your belief and throwing insults teaches me . . . that sometimes people lose their composure when they meet an unfamiliar idea. But it doesn’t persuade me that my idea is wrong.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 1:55 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    I’m enjoying this discussion. You’re a good sport. Anyway, I’m going to disagree with you once or twice, more.

    You wrote:

    “You might be right about Pound not being “huge” among poets. That he had the respect — and, in many cases, deep love — of Eliot, MacLeish, Frost, Williams, H.D., Cummings, Zukofsky, Oppen, Bunting, MacDiarmid, Moore, Olson, Rothenberg, Eshelman, Bernstein, Silliman . . .”

    We should never mix literary judgment with a ‘social register’ or ‘clan of buddies’ reality. We do it all the time, but that doesn’t make it right.

    Pound ordered Eliot’s father to lend his own son money. The close relationship between these two–they were like brothers and Pound helped Eliot a great deal–should never be given as proof that Eliot had ‘deep love’ for Pound–as a Man of Letters. Eliot and Pound were friends to such an extent that no aesthetic judgment may honestly enter in. Frost was a frustrated, unpublished poet until he sailed for England and met Pound. Pound was the first American to write a favorable review of Frost’s work. H.D. was Pound’s girlfriend. Williams, an old friend, as well. Olson and Zukofsky’s careers were helped when they associated themselves with Pound–they both were among the many who called on Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. Pound enjoyed the attention, they enjoyed rubbing against someone famous– everybody was happy. Bernstein and Silliman–who cares? They favor Pound because they think it will help *their* careers, and so on. Such a list is utterly dishonest.

    Judgment may turn out well for Pound, but it needs to be done honestly. We need to be professional about our judgment, and separate out the player/friends from the poet/critics in making our judgments.

    “…well, I’ll quote Hayden Carruth, in “The Voice That Is Great Within Us,” the great 1970 anthology that finds room for all sorts of traditionalist poets: “Today few working poets could be found who do not regard him [Pound] with veneration and affection.” But who knows? Carruth could have been wrong.”

    Yes, I believe Carruth was wrong.

    When Professor Jorie Graham starts showing up at Slams, Slam may get some respect, but until then, I’m afraid not.

    Thomas

  • On April 8, 2009 at 2:15 pm john wrote:

    Thomas,

    If I may quibble . . . Zukofsky and Pound’s friendship pre-dates his incarceration by many years. Regardless of the friendship between the poets, I *see* Pound’s influence in work of Zukofsky, Olson, early Williams, “The Waste Land” — and all of this is different than my own judgment, which likes little of Pound’s poetry. But because I love the others mentioned, I’m interested in Pound’s work too, and I can approach an understanding of the influence. I trust the sincerity of (the much younger poets) Olson & Zukofsky’s interest in Pound’s work — that it wasn’t mere careerism, but a genuine poetic interest; that the motivation for the friendship was the poetic interest.

    I’m not arguing that anybody else should love Olson, Zukofsky, or any of the others, just that I do (as do many others, including the academy).

  • On April 8, 2009 at 2:54 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,

    No one is throwing insults. You are digging in your heels and will not concede what is obvious. THAT is being militant. You continue to nitpick around the edges as if it will somehow change the obvious. It doesn’t. No one is losing their composure but I am certainly losing my patience in regard to this constant ill-advised harping.
    There is practically universal agreement that colleges and universities, historically dictate what is read and discussed. It is one thing to have a conversation but it is another thing to go round and round about something that is settled already.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    “When Professor Jorie Graham starts showing up at Slams, Slam may get some respect, but until then, I’m afraid not.”
    LOL

  • On April 8, 2009 at 3:30 pm john wrote:

    Jack,

    If you have actual evidence that I’m wrong, please share it. Telling is not showing. Insistence is not an argument.

    I am surprised that you don’t consider this an insult:

    “You are beginning to sound like a spoiled child who has just been told it’s time for bed. You keep wailing that it isn’t but it is.”

    All I can about that is, you and I have very different understandings of language.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 3:49 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,
    it seems to me you are arguing for arguing sake. Please, simply do the math. Where do people go to get an education? How many people go each year? How many of them take English as a required course? Do they study poetry in those classes? Who decides what they’ll read and study?Hence MORE people get their education regarding poetry within college and university and those within colleges and universities dictate who will or won’t be read and studied. This is not rocket science.

    That is the logical argument to this illogical hodgepodge. The sheer numbers alone should suffice. I am very sorry you took offense but you are a broken record on this thing. No one is buying your contention and yet you continue to talk endlessly about it. It is begining to sound like a rant.

    On top of that when people show you evidence to help you, you simply continue bathering on. You should learn when to back away from an argument that is based of faulty logic, conjecture and has no merit. I’m sorry but once again you are wrong about this and no matter how much you continue to post irrelevant things it won’t change. Do you really think if you say it often enough it will become true?

  • On April 8, 2009 at 3:54 pm john wrote:

    By the way, Jack, I’ve already agreed, more than once, that the academy transmits the reading list. All I’m saying is, they follow the poets in establishing the reading list. So, yes, we disagree — the academy does not “dictate” the reading list. The academy collates it.

    At this point I feel fairly safe in assuming that neither Thomas, nor Noah, nor you, Jack, have any evidence that I’m wrong. I’m sorry it makes you so mad. Or maybe you just didn’t understand what I was trying to say. That’s been known to happen!

  • On April 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    That the academy decides who gets read in the academy is a tautology. Whether the academy’s decisions on the poetic canon matter much outside the academy is a much more interesting question.

    Poetry’s not like science or math, where at the bleeding edge of thought only a select group of highly trained colleagues (in math, that group may just 1 or 2 people, or even none, for a while) can follow what you’re doing. On the contrary, if virtually no one without serious academic training in literature or literary theory can appreciate your poetry, your poetry’s no better than the drawings your mother put on the refrigerator.

    Poetry is, or ought to be, the most democratic of the arts. You don’t even need paper and pencil to make a good poem, much less expensive mandolins or paints and canvases or marble and stone-working tools, and you certainly don’t need anything resembling an MFA. You may need the MFA to make contacts, to produce more MFAs, or to consolidate your position in the academy, but not to make poems. Poets face nothing like the daunting theoretical and physical work necessary to make music in a serious way.

    What you do need to do is convince people to read or listen to your poems.

    One way to convince at least one class of people to do so is by way of the academy. That’s the way chosen by the vast majority of poets writing now, in the US at least. For one thing, you get paid a little to think a lot about poems, maybe even your poems. And, with a little luck and a lot of persistence, you’ll get a slim book or 6 out of academic presses and maybe one of them reviewed in The New Republic. Maybe even a poem in BAP one year, or a dozen in Poetry (they pay better than most). You’ll have a lot of friends at conferences. And you don’t have to have written anything anyone will remember.

    Outside the academy it’s much tougher to find the time to work on poems, but it’s no tougher to get your poems into the magazines if you’re diligent about sending them out. It’s harder, too, to find people willing to talk with you about your poems, although that may be an advantage – it was a smart bunch of folks who talked each other into the Bay of Pigs. Nobody organizes readings for you, so you have to make do with open mics at libraries independent bookstores, or bars. That may also be an advantage, since you learn to grab and hold the attention of people not much like you, maybe even Jorie Graham’s attention should she happen to be in the neighborhood. You may even learn to write memorable verse, since you’re much more effective as a performer if you’re not shuffling paper around. And if you make memorable verse, people may even remember you and buy your homemade chap, or your contest-winning first book.

    But I forgot. The academy has been such a good shepherd for poetry that no one not in a writing program will ever see your contest-winning first book at Barnes & Noble, since it’s tucked away in the corner farthest away from the restroom doors, where the traffic is.

    So I guess the academy’s decisions on what should be taken seriously in poetry are indeed powerful.

    At Kenyon I saw John Crowe Ransom water his lawn a few times – he gave his last public reading before I got there. I’m told that at that reading he was asked if he had any advice for young poets. His answer was “Climb to the top of Pierce Tower and scream against death.”

    So much for the purification of poetry.

    I’ll keep reading this thread, but I have probably brayed enough.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:13 pm Feltner Fugue wrote:

    It’s too bad no one wants to actually learn anything in this thread — say by reading John Guillory or Pierre Bourdieu or Louis Althusser or Raymond Williams Fredric Jameson. Better to simply assume that we already know everything we need to know about how poetry gets transmitted through history, and then excoriate others for failing to provide “evidence” that our intuitions might just not tell the whole story. Or we may simply assert from a romantic-cum-moralistic p.o.v. that the academy as such violates the very spirit of poetry. Superstition, naivete, and magical thinking come in all sorts of varieties — poetry accrues its own set, which is not the largest problem it faces.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:25 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    I am glad that’s over with.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:26 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John
    We gave you the evidence but you just are not listening, so the topic is mute.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:28 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Poetry is, or ought to be, the most democratic of the arts.”

    Mike, I agree.

    But…Academia doesn’t really like democracy…

    John,

    To make a small concession: there IS a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ aspect to our discussion. Does ‘the academy’ follow ‘the poets,’ or do ‘the poets’ follow ‘the academy?’

    Even Robert Frost, the New England wood-chopper: Robert Frost taught college from 1921 to 1963. He got honorary degrees from Harvard and Oxford. I have already given a great many examples of academic associations and the 20th century canon: it’s rather inescapable.

    ‘The poets’ blend so much with ‘the academy’ that it’s really useless to deny ‘the academy’ as THE force in American poetry.

    Here’s a corresponding trope:

    Here’s why T.S. Eliot’s ‘difficulty’ formula, leading right into the New Criticism of Ransom and co., is such a vital part of Academia and Modernism.

    Re: the idea that poems now need ‘experts’ (professors) to explain a poem’s meaning, Colin Ward asked on another thread: how successful would a comic be if he needed his jokes to be explained to the audience?

    Precisely.

    The solemnity required by an academic atmosphere is guaranteed if poetry is heaped in difficulty and requires explanation at every turn.

    There’s no way to tell if the ‘explanation’ is the important thing, or whether the crucial thing is the atmosphere of solemnity which follows.

    We could ask: which is the greater enemy to academic decorum: bogus explanations of obscure, poems OR, an atmosphere lacking in studious puzzlement, but no answer, could, with certainty, be returned.

    It’s a checkmate for T.S. Eliot, the Modernists, and the New Critics.

    It may be an impossible ‘chicken or egg’ question, but the result, finally, is that poets are the grist and academia is the mill.

    Thomas

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:31 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    So now that it has been established and agreed upon that colleges and universities play the most important role in what is chosen to be read and since colleges and universities make the decision on textbooks and since many textbooks include Plath and the Confessional Poets, I think we can safely assume Plath will be around for along, long time.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:42 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I was reading in Plath’s diaries how she and Ted attended a lecture given by a poet who believed that poetry should be accessible and democratic, that a poem could mean whatever you wanted it to mean: Ted and Sylvia were horrified and disgusted.

    They met at Cambridge University.

    Sylvia and Ted both believed in the difficult, private symbol that had meaning for the reader, which had to be worked at, and worked for, by the poet and reader. In other words, they were both tuned in to the prevailing academic criteria–Ransom’s New Criticism, which was dominant at that time.

    Poetry required work, a balance between public and private truth, and a certain New Critical authority was the only thing that could unlock it.

    “Daddy” by Plath changes the rules a little bit.

    Had Plath lived, would she have attempted to publish “Daddy?”

    I don’t believe she would have; for her taste, it would have felt too ‘street,’ and not ‘academic’ enough.

    I think we are struggling with whether Plath is a major poet or not precisely because the jury is still out–in academia.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 4:59 pm john wrote:

    Thomas,

    Your point of view is interesting: That the poets begin at the university, then many of them leave it, and establish themselves as poets without university guidance or sanction, all in the hope that the canon, which the academy, for the time being at least, manages, will reabsorb them. That might be right.

    (Ginsberg, Columbia, poetry hated by Ivy League denizens [such as Hollander], eventually absorbed back into academe.)

    Certainly the list of non-university-educated poets is smaller than the list of university-educated poets.

    How does the academy choose which poets to absorb into the canon? By listening to the poets — who, in your view, Thomas, are already academic whether they admit it or like it or know it.

    I’ve been trying to understand the process by which Ginsberg (for example) goes from being hated by the academy, to absorbed into it. From what you say, the academy . . . just decides one day, in its power. I’m saying that the academy follows the (to you, already academic) poets in choosing.

    I think you’re giving “the academy” too much reach. I see your point, but in the moment, poets outside of the academy — even if they were educated there, which not all were — don’t see themselves as part of the academy — and neither does the academy. There’s a real, genuine, lived, experienced, political friction there. It’s interesting to propose, as I believe you are doing, that that friction is marginal and not meaningful; in a certain sense I see your point, but I believe that my point holds as well, and that the distinction between the *official* academy and the unaffiliated poets who may have gone there (and in most cases did go there) does have meaning.

    And like you say with chickens and eggs — it may be undecidable.

    Jack,

    Since you have no trouble saying “you’re wrong” over and over again, your delicacy in not wanting to present evidence that you’ve, allegedly, already presented is unconvincing.

  • On April 8, 2009 at 6:43 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Clearly there is a preference for Plath’s “Daddy.”
    It is impossible to choose a textbook or anthology being used in college-level courses or for that matter, in high school, that does not include it.

    I am not as deeply involved in her work as I was (and remain) with Lowell. Similarly, I have noticed a propensity for these same books to include Lowell’s “Waking in the Blue,” as opposed to “For the Union Dead,” which I personally think is a better poem.

    Still and all, regardless of the individual poets, Plath or Lowell, the study of Confessional Poetry, remains alive and well within academic circles, which should have positive and lasting implications for both Plath and Lowell.

    Without a doubt, for the most part, Lowell is considered a “major” poet with lasting qualities, whereas Plath seems lately to be a part of the whole (Confessional Poets) rather than an entity unto herself.

    Clearly, the Bell Jar is still popular among the youthful suicide cult and remains a “pot-boiler,” which is what she intended to write anyway.

    Had she lived and matured as a writer there is no telling what esteemed place in American Poetry she might have held. She is however still widely read and discussed and unlike poor Christine’s experience, there are a plethora of doctoral dissertations being written about her, which is a very good sign.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 10:17 am thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    Larger social and political issues work their way through the academy, too. The academy is not so much an ‘authority,’ as a ‘laboratory,’ where a great many minds share knowledge. After the excitement has died down, after the concert, after the movie, after the stock market crash, after the war, after the fearful headlines, the university settles aesthetic and social and political questions and passes judgment in a (relatively) calm manner.

    The scientist lives in his lab at the university, the poet lives in his lab at the university. Gone are the days when poets were sages, seers, priests, heroes, or rock stars, appealing directly to the people. Poets appeal now to the academic committee, who serve like a team of scientists. This has less to do with poets and more to do with the fact of modern life.

    Cultural continutity is crucial to an academy; when historical consciousness in a nation is such that its old history becomes the legend of children’s stories, a poet like Shakespeare can arise, and Shakespeare’s excellence becomes the Academy’s excellence; with an example like Shakespeare, ‘the poets’ make ‘the Academy,’ but ‘the Academy’ is All poets accumulated through time, and this is why ‘the Academy’ is bigger than ‘the poets.’

    This is so self-evident that Jack becomes frustrated when called on to point it out.

    The longer a continuous cultural history survives, the more important ‘the Academy,’ which is a vessel for that history, becomes. In addition, America is a modern Superpower without any significant internal academic divisions–an English Department in California or Tennessee teaches pretty much the same thing and bascially agrees with an English Department in Massachusetts–and therefore ‘the Academy’ is even more important, due to historically significant continuity and unity.

    What the Academy lacks in ‘being there’ on ‘the street’ where the historically significant events are actually happening, it gains in judgment aided by time and distance.
    The University does not have ‘Women’s Rights’ departments; it has ‘Women’s Studies’ departments. The key word is ‘study.’ Study and reflection are virtues in themselves, and study implies a lasting quality which any poet (no matter how ‘street’) seeking immortality should relish.

    The Academy is not immune to events and spectacle which occur outside its walls; the Academy bargains all the time with gambits from the non-academic sphere. “If you give us X and Y,” they say, “we’ll let you in.”

    The reason Ginsberg has been embraced by the Academy and Bukowski has not, is simple: Ginsberg as a poet made overt gestures to poets in the Academy like Blake and Whitman, and Bukowski did not.

    You can be a rebel, but you’ve got to be a well-read one.

    You can throw bricks at the museum itself, as long as you’ve first studied (with a certain amount of affection) what’s in the museum.

    The Academy wants to be able to bend, but not break. Well-read rebels help the Academy ‘to bend.’

    Meanwhile the curators and historians will always be valuable, since they help the Academy to live, to flourish, ‘to be.’

    Thomas

  • On April 9, 2009 at 10:34 am Jack Conway wrote:

    ibid

  • On April 9, 2009 at 1:03 pm john wrote:

    Feltner,

    I’m sorry I missed your comment — you’re funny!

    “Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence! It is vulgar to sully our heroes’ theories by testing them against an actual case or counter-observation.”

    Thomas,

    The Academy makes it very clear that it is precisely NOT “All poets accumulated through time.” That’s exactly what’s at issue here — how poets get admitted to the syllabus.

    There are more things in the heaven, earth, and hell of poetry than are dreamt of in the academy’s philosophy.

    Since the academy hysterically insists on its power to make exclusions, I could see how its members might have a stake in devaluing that which the academy has excluded.

    And yet the excluded continue to be read — and valued! — if only in small numbers. Maybe the fact that the excluded get read at all is what rankles Jack, Noah, and Feltner so much. I don’t know.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 1:24 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,

    No. What rankles me is your inability to comprehend the obvious and admit you are so far off base. It’s completely childlike.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 1:29 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Seriously, John, just for my own edification: Have you gone to college? No offense meant. I’m just trying to understand your militant inability to comprehend how college and university controls poetry.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 1:57 pm john wrote:

    Seconds after posting, I knew someone would accuse me of being “anti-academic” or maybe even “anti-intellectual” — oh dear. I’m sorry.

    Yes. I have a B.A. Glad to have it. Glad I went. Learned a lot. Grateful.

    Jack,

    Either you don’t believe that poets found value in Ginsberg’s work before the academy accepted it, which is simply historically, factually wrong; or you believe it doesn’t matter, which is simplistic, or you have a more nuanced view which you would rather withhold in favor of calling me “childlike,” but that’s up to you.

    Please forgive me if I’m remembering wrongly, but was it you who said it was shabby to bring up Service? That’s what got me thinking that there seems to be an intense investment in believing that the poets whom the academy has excluded have no value.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 2:07 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    Aren’t you overstating your case a bit? Are there really a great number of significant poets who are “excluded” by the academy? The academy gives out doctorates today in which the thesis is your own poetry! How is this exclusionary? The Academy bends over backwards to be inclusive. Numerous programs allow students to create their own courses–on whomever. As for the canon, do you think just anyone should be admitted? Just in terms of logistics, that would be impossible, never mind in terms of aesthetic merit.

    If there are things not dreamed of in the Academy’s philosohpy, think of how much more is not dreamed of in some individual poet’s philosophy, who is bellyaching that the Academy is leaving them behind.

    The Academy isn’t perfect. Also, change, even radical change, within the Academy is possible. Look at what the Moderns who were led by Eliot, working with the New Critics who were led by Ransom, did. Within their own lifetimes, these guys significantly altered literary scholarship and the study and production of poetry. The Academy is malleable, as Jack and I have said, and that’s just one of its many strengths.

    I sympathize with your beefs with the Academy. We all have our beefs. I certainly don’t like those who hide behind pedantry, which our Feltner seems to be doing: if Feltner wants to bring those writers he cites into the discussion, he should QUOTE THEM and bring them into the discussion on his own, rather than hectoring from the sidelines.

    Thomas

  • On April 9, 2009 at 2:11 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,

    You didn’t read Thomas Brady’s post. He debunked that myth you have created about Ginsberg entirely. It has been addressed. There is no use giving you examples only to have you disregard them.

    What I said about Robert W. Service was that he was NOT being purchased for the purpose of academic study but rather for children’s reading. If you think THAT makes him somehow an example of how the academy doesn’t work, you are wrong. In fact it demonstrates just the opposite. BECAUSE the academy doesn’t recognize him as a serious source of study, he is relegated to illustrated children’s books.

    John, you can believe whatever you want. It’s a free country, but I would suggest, if you want to carry on any serious discussion about poetry with anyone that you keep that notion of yours about the academy to yourself, because no one will take you seriously.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    Your Ginsberg point is a great example.

    If Ginsberg had not been belatedly embraced by the Academy, I doubt many people would be talking about him today, and “poets” would not be recounting today how he “influenced” them and “changed their lives,” etc. If the Academy forgot Ginsberg, the “poets” would soon forget Ginsberg. Also, Ginsberg was published in anthologies compiled by PROFESSORS when he (Ginsberg) was still a fairly young man. We forget this little fact, just as we forget that Frost was an academic and so were the Modernist ‘rebels.’ Have you ever heard Ginsberg talk? He sounds like an academic.

    Thomas

  • On April 9, 2009 at 2:28 pm john wrote:

    Thomas,

    I actually don’t have a beef with the academy. I was reading this discussion, and agreeing that the academy controls the canon, when I thought of an article I read in “New York Review of Books” by Charles Rosen, the classical pianist who is better known for having written an authoritative account of the period dominated by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in his book “The Classical Style” (which I haven’t read). In this article, Rosen argued that musicians determine the canon because they play it! And it occurred to me that poets play a similar role in poetry. Yes, the (poetry) academy is malleable — and it’s poets who do the shaping. In a previous thread, I mentioned how Eliot brought Donne into the canon, and how Winters didn’t succeed to nearly the same degree when he attempted to bring Googe into the canon. (Who? I couldn’t quote a line of Googe’s either.)

    I even said — hey, I’m changing my position! (Which I’m guessing is a taboo in academe — a sign of . . . weakness?) And I said — another taboo, I’m sure — I could be wrong.

    Noah, Jack, and Feltner all responded with insults, and with exactly zero counter-evidence. No big deal — it’s the internet, right? — and I got huffy too, alas.

    What’s going on here? Why did my proposition explode three apparently intelligent people’s brains and make them incapable of responding either logically or civilly? I speculate for reasons, but that’s actually unkind of me and none of my business, and I apologize.

    To answer your question: I am a fan of 19th century popular poetry, and some 20th century popular poetry as well, which the academy by-and-large despises, and which does not get included in the anthologies or the syllabuses. (Service is an example.) No big deal. I’m not arguing for it — I’m just saying it exists, and I’m glad, and the academy doesn’t have a monopoly on worthwhile poetry. I think the anthologies would be more interesting if they included pop poetry, but I don’t expect them to, and I have no interest in arguing for it. Maybe I’ll argue for it later — because I change too!

    So — do I overstate? I’m sure I do. Don’t remember the exact quote, but Wilde said something very much like: “Do I exaggerate? I hope so. For without exaggeration there can be no love, and without love there can be no understanding.”

    Thank you for your thoughts and observations, Thomas. I have enjoyed thinking about them.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 2:36 pm john wrote:

    Jack,

    They sell Service’s books at national parks — to tourist adults. He’s not just for kids. Your argument is speculative.

    Thomas,

    The academy would not have embraced Ginsberg if other poets hadn’t first.

    I’ll put the call out again:

    If anybody can think of a poet whom the academy has canonized, when other poets had no interest in that poet first, please bring that canonical poet forward.

    If anybody can think of a poet who was influential with a large number of fellow publishing poets, and whom the academy did not go on to canonize, please bring that influential but non-canonical poet forward.

    Until that happens, I will rest. Thank you.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:10 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Jack, you have absolutely no evidence concerning why Service is being purchased, and since the edition (one of many) which outsells anything of Pound’s by orders of magnitude (and is in the middle after Plath and ahead of Lowell) is a hardback with no illustrations, it’s quite unlikely that it’s being bought to be read to children – and the children’s librarian who plays trumpet in a band with me says it’s not used that way in the local library. You don’t need to tell me that that’s not a scientific survey, but it is a kind of evidence, and sales rankings at the world’s largest bookseller are pretty good evidence. Like John, I still await evidence from you for anything beyond the fact that a lot of famous poets went to college.

    When you get past your impulse to insult and belittle those who disagree with you, try thinking about what it would mean it you were right about Service. Just what would it mean for poetry if Pound, arguably the most influential (though certainly not the most capable) English-language poet of the last century, is read by many, many fewer people than a minor poet used to entertain the kiddies? What do publishers and booksellers do with data like that? When Knopf and Harper-Collins are owned by Rupert Murdoch, do you think they’ll keep publishing the poets Harvard thinks they should?

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:16 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Snider,

    “When you get past your impulse to insult and belittle those who disagree with you, ”

    Nobody is doing that. You appear to be imagining things, similar to imagining that the academy does not control poetry.

    The sales ranking is to who? Kids. Moms and Dads. This isn’t academic work or study. Sorry.

    I never told anyone what to believe or think. I simply told them the truth: They are wrong.

    If that is belittling someone then you have a lot to learn.
    Now stop with all this foolishness. You are beating a dead horse and it’s beginning to smell.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    “Noah, Jack, and Feltner all responded with insults, and with exactly zero counter-evidence. ”

    That pure hogwash! I find your continuied attempt at trying to become a VICTIM of some verbal assault completely and cosmically foolish.

    If you can’t adjust to sokeone telling you you’re wrong without pleading for mercy and claiming people are picking on you, then please, forget debating.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Amazon.com Sales Rank: #922,008 in Books -Service
    Amazon.com Sales Rank: #706,228 in Books -Pounds Cantos

    So where does that leave the beloved Service?

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm noah freed wrote:

    John, I remain completely baffled by your inability to understand arguments that have been spelled out again and again: someone explains the argument to you ONE MORE TIME, and you misconstrue it again. I think this must be willful, no?

    Try to listen this time: NO ONE is saying that poets not sanctioned by the academy have no “value.” NO ONE is saying that there are no poets read that the academy has not sanctioned. What is being said is that the academy decides which poets will merit “serious” study and a readership within intellectual communities of artists and scholars; whatever his merits may be for general readers, Service’s poetry is not considered canonical, which is a determination made within the academy.

    Furthermore, and this comment answers others besides John, NO ONE is making a valuation of this truth, declaring that it is a good thing or a bad thing. Doubtless in many ways it is to be resisted. Guess what? That’s irrelevant to the fact that this is how things work today. And the worst misreading of all once again rears its hapless head: the idea that to assert that institutions have certain functions is to imply that individuals need be aware of and consciously directing the institution’s aims toward those functions. The reduction to conspiracy is the resort of those who cannot understand basic sociology.

    And the fetishization of “evidence” is hugely entertaining, since it is based on a belief that John’s anecdotal “evidence” constitutes empirical proof of something. The point of invoking Guillory, Bourdieu, Williams and others is, OBVIOUSLY, that these folks have provided all the evidence you’ll need, John, if you’d only take the wearisome step of reading them so at last you’ll have some idea what you’re talking about instead of just believing yourself capable of determining the workings of literary history all by yourself, as if the question hasn’t been explored at length by better minds than yours (or mine) for generations now. No need to actually look at the evidence, in other words, right?

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:29 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Noah

    ibid

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    My tastes tend towards the populist and 19th century as well.

    Academy v. the Poets is not really the argument.

    When Ginsberg first hits our radar screen, we have to ask ourselves, OK, what is this, exactly? What exactly is this which is hitting my radar screen? Is Ginsberg hitting my radar screen because “poets love him?”

    He’s certainly not hitting my radar screen because *I* love him, because I, or you, John, don’t make people show up on radar screens. I think Ginsberg first showed up on my radar screen in the form of his poems in Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry 1945-1960,” which managed to fall into every undergraduate’s hands. Allen’s anthology was basically the poems of a few Beat poets–and all their friends. It was a party guest book anthology and reflected a cultural shift from a certain point of view, a romantic pendulum swing away from the New Criticism, and also an indication of the dawn of the ’60s, and all that entailed.

    Anyway, one could go into biography and sociology and publishing, here, but the point is, Ginsberg shows up on your radar screen not necessarily because ‘poets love him,’ but for all sorts of reasons which have nothing to do with poetry, and more to do with parties and sex.

    But these sorts of things are eventually studied, and sorted out, and put into perspective–by The Academy. That’s what it’s there for. That’s why it exists.

    Thomas

  • On April 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Wrong edition Jack: http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-Robert-Service/dp/0399150153

    sales rank: #53,233 in Books

    And he’s not beloved by me.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 4:21 pm john wrote:

    Noah,

    Michael said, whether he “intended” to or not, and he later clarified/retracted, that the academy determines which poets the non-academic audience reads, and Thomas said that the academy is made up of All previous poets. So to say that NO ONE said these things is simply wrong.

    I never denied that the academy controls academia.

    And when have I ever implied that academics are conscious of their role in the grinder? Unconsciousness seems to be a running thread here . . .

    I haven’t read the writers you name, except a tiny bit of Williams. Invoking their names does not constitute an argument. It’s quasi-intellectual posturing. I’m not proud of not having read those people, but I haven’t. You are free to share insights that you have gleaned from having read those writers, or you can stand on their names and . . . do what exactly? Ask me to take it on faith that they’re right and I’m wrong? Asking me to read those books first and then get back to you is, I’m afraid, impractical for present purposes. If you are serious in that request, then please follow the link to my blog, which has my email, and email me so that I can get back to you when I have read what you have asked me to. If you do that, then I might take your reading suggestions more seriously.

    I frankly don’t understand your contempt for evidence. Maybe it’s considered naive in the academy now, but I thought that the purpose of a theory was to illuminate experience and observation. From what I’ve read, the poets whom the academy has canonized are those poets whom other poets have found important and influential to their own poetry. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — maybe my proposition is wrong.

    I know I said I would rest until someone brought forth a counter-argument, but . . . the vociferousness of the responses woke me up!

    Jack, I don’t give a rolling donut that you persist in calling me “childish” and such, but if you don’t realize that such use of language is insulting, then you have a very poor understanding of how language works. You say you are interested in truth, and unafraid of its emotional consequences, so there it is. You don’t understand the emotional connotations of adjectives. Good luck.

    Insults and invocations of idolized names are not arguments, people. If you can’t do better — then I’m very sorry about the state of the academy!

  • On April 9, 2009 at 4:28 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    “never denied that the academy controls academia”
    What?

    Believe what you want. You are wrong but you have every right to be as wrong as you like.

    But please, save yourself the embarassment of discussing poetry with anyone remotely associated with education.
    It will simply crush you.

    Enough with the poor victim routine. I hear that enough with my students. You’re not my student so I really don’t give a hoot what you want to believe or how victimized you pretend to be. Poor you.

    No such luck. Not here.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 4:29 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    never denied that the academy controls academia?
    What?

  • On April 9, 2009 at 5:22 pm michael robbins wrote:

    John, I “clarified” because you were confused, not because I ever implied that the academy “controls” anything, much less whether people read shitty poetry. There is a world of professional poetry, wherein Ezra Pound is taken seriously, Rod McKuen not – nobody holds that the academy has anything to do with the world wherein people read Rod McKuen and write bad valentine poems for their local newspapers! Nothing I wrote could in good faith be construed the way you construed it. So you’re pushing an open door: I said “what gets read” & everyone else understood my intention: what gets read by “us,” the intellectual communities of poets & critics, is determined by its canonicity, which the academy determines. I wish you’d read that Guillory book, I really think you might enjoy it. You haven’t actually presented an argument, just weirdly irrelevant propositions that are unrelated to the question under discussion, so I don’t get this posturing of yours, the lone defender of empiricism amid a crowd of sophists. I doubt that you disagree all that much with the gist of what I, Jack, & Noah have been saying: you just feel the need to be contrarian, asserting, for instance, that poets lead, not the academy, whatever that means, without presenting any “evidence” yourself. I said I’d retire from this forum, & I’m going to, but yr continued refusal to engage what people say is vexing. I’ll have to agree with Noah: “the academy controls academia”?! Huh? Did you even read what Noah wrote? Only someone uninterested in understanding one’s interlocutors could actually construe his post that way – or someone acting in bad faith.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 5:32 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Oh, & as I’m teaching a seminar next spring on Allen’s anthology, I do want to suggest that Brady’s wildly off comments about it reveal a little too much about his grasp of poetic history (not to mention clear up the question of his antiquarian tastes). The anthology was certainly not “the poems of a few Beat poets – and their friends”! Sheesh, where to begin? Frank O’Hara, who couldn’t stand the Beats, & vice versa? John Ashbery? Jack Spicer? Robert Duncan? Charles Olson? Robert Creeley? The New York School, the Beats, Black Mountain – it’s all a wash, right? A lamentable falling away from the holy write of E. A. Poe? I count a few Beat poets – & a bunch of folks who had nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with the Beats. I mean, one stands in disbelieving awe at the sorts of claims that get thrown around on harriet.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 5:33 pm michael robbins wrote:

    *writ, not write

  • On April 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm michael robbins wrote:

    To expand a bit: John, the post was about whether Plath is a “major poet,” remember? I think it’s fair to assume I was writing within the context established by the discussion! As for “academia controlling the academy”: Can you really not understand that the question of canonicity exists beyond the academy? For instance, here at the Poetry Foundation? Or in The New York Times Book Review? Or at The New Yorker? Or on NPR? If the game of cultural capital were confined to the university, there would be no need for the university to distribute cultural capital. Plath has it, Pound has it, Ashbery has it; Service doesn’t, McKuen doesn’t, that bestselling poet from the seventies that Kent Johnson brought up weeks ago doesn’t. We are not talking about the academy’s role in deciding what academicians read! We’re talking about its role in assigning cultural capital to works and authors for the larger artistic culture, but by that culture we obviously exclude what used to be called “lowbrow” art. Not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with lowbrow (there may be, but I’m not getting into that) but because that’s not the level at which the discussion is taking place. The New York Times isn’t the academy, but you can bet the critics who write for it don’t assume Robert Service is part of the conversation unless they’re making a point about popular poetry. So can we stop pretending that every point everyone else makes against yr position reduces to tautology? The academy has effects beyond the academy; it should come as no surprise that it has no effect on uneducated readers who view inspirational, New Age verse as good poetry.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 6:41 pm john wrote:

    Michael,

    I don’t understand your need to feel affronted when someone doesn’t understand what you wrote.

    I wasn’t the only one who misunderstood you. I wasn’t even the one who brought up Robert Service! (I’m pretty sure it was Mike Snider.) It wasn’t bad faith. Just a misunderstanding.

    So, to the discussion at hand. You can believe that I “haven’t actually presented an argument, just weirdly irrelevant propositions that are unrelated to the question under discussion,” but that’s bizarre. The topic at hand was *how* poets make it into the canon. I made a proposition as to how it works.

    You are free to respond if you want. Or you can snipe at the margins of my undoubted misstatements along the way. That’s the way these “debates” usually work.

    Never admit you’re wrong!

    Jack hit it, I think when he alluded to Conan the Barbarian and told me that engaging with academics would simply crush me. I keep thinking — hoping! — we’re having an exchange of ideas, a discussion, a conversation — even an argument or a debate — but nope! We’re having a macho puff fest.

    Fine. I can do that too.

    By the way, Jack, the actual Conan quote is, “What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

    Still waiting for a counter-argument to my proposition.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 6:55 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Actually, if you’ll look, you’ll see that I was the one who brought up Robert Service, precisely to refute the notion that what we were talking about was what poetry is popular.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 6:57 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Dear Jack, Michael, Thomas, John, please forgive me for not following the ins and outs of this argument. I’ve been out of town, and in reading over the posts, honestly I am having trouble figuring out what the problem is that these posts are all revolving around.

    When I started the WOM-PO list, a major reason was that the existing poetry discussion lists would end up, almost invariably, turning into feuds between a very small number of men. Women (as well as many men) didn’t feel very comfortable posting their thoughts about poetry in that environment.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to open up the discussion so a wider group of people will feel comfortable posting?

    best,
    Annie

  • On April 9, 2009 at 6:59 pm Heather Kozaks wrote:

    Does the thread on Wom-Po about Sylvia Plath also feature quotes from Conan the Barbarian?

  • On April 9, 2009 at 7:23 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Annie: No. And this is precisely why I’m not going to post on Harriet anymore (beginning any day now, I swear!). These things become stupid pissing matches. But your not-so-subtle hint that it has something to do with male ego is not too helpful, I’ll bet. Funny how I’ve read hundreds of similar thread dissolutions involving women. Not to, like, rattle your prejudices or anything.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 7:46 pm john wrote:

    Annie,

    My apologies for contributing to the negative atmosphere.

    Thanks for raising the question — and for the post. I’m sorry not to have a solution.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 8:49 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Trust me, if Sylvia was alive today and got a look at this, she’d probably stick her head in an over again.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 9:16 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    “…even an argument or a debate..”

    I will repeat this: you CANNOT have an argument over a FACT. In order for a “debate” to take place there must be reasonable differences. A reasonable difference means there is NO final solution. If we were to argue about the population of New York City, we can resolve it: hence, no argument.

    John, it seems, wants to argue FACTS. You can’t. The issue was and is and will always remain that as long as Sylvia exists witin the good graces of the academic environment, she will survive BECAUSE colleges and universities exert THE MOST influence over what we read and discuss. End of story.

    John doesn’t seem to be able to live with that FACT, hence his constant and what I beleve, ill-advised proclamation, based solely on God knows what, that the academcy DOES NOT influence what we read and discuss. This, I am afraid, is unsubstantiated in the face of cold, hard FACTS. Numbers alone didctate the enormouse role and influence colleges and universities have over poetry.

    John militantly refuses to accept this FACT based on exactly what, no one seems to know. When confronted with the FACTS, John calls foul claiming a series of attacks on him that he hopes, I think, will portray him as a victim, and hence someone, somewhere, might look kindly on his wrong-headed belief that has something to do with Robert W. Service being read by kids that indicates colleges and universities DON’T have that much influence. Hooray for Robert W. Service. Nobody in an academic enviroment gives a hoot about him. I find his attempts to portray anyone including me who has tried to explain that his childish notion is laughable as attacking him obnoxious.

    Lookit, I’ve been teaching for 21 years. Trust me. If I attacked or insulted you I promise you, you’d know it.
    Saying someone is being childish is not an attack. In this case, it’s a FACT.

    Even when told by just about everyone that his notion is wrong-headed he persists in harping on it. Even when told he can believe whatever wrong-headed idea he wants, he continues to harp on it. And when warned that such a wrong-headed notion will be laughed at by anyone remotely educated, he continues to harp on it.

    Personally, I see no reason to consider engaging in any discussion about poetry with John, given his militant stance against the obvious. It would be like arguing with someone about the weather who militantly refuses to believe the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. How do you discuss anything with someone who will not accept the most basic premise? You can’t.

    I think we are at this stage: John can feel free to think anything he wants. Nobody cares. The FACTS remain the same: colleges and universities have the most influence over poetry, poetic study and poetic ranking.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 9:21 pm john wrote:

    Forgive me, Annie, but — it’s driving me crazy. People getting so mad about honest misunderstandings — I honestly don’t know what to do. Why do people get so mad about all of this? I have no idea.

    Example, Michael said:

    “There have always been poets read outside whatever institutional framework for the preservation of cultural capital happen to be in place at a given time: they don’t survive, though. Robert Service, anyone? Rod McKuen?”

    I took that to mean that Michael was talking about the impossibility of posthumous longevity without canonization by the academy. I wasn’t the only one to take Michael to mean that. People accused me of bad faith and willful misreading for taking that quote to indicate that Michael believed that Robert Service was popular no longer. Now — maybe that’s what Michael meant — but how should I respond to accusations of bad faith and willful misreading? Even after I concede, “OK, I probably did misunderstand him, what’s the big deal?” — which I did say — and I *still* got accused of bad faith after that.

    I confess, to my shame — such accusations do piss me off. And then I get pissy too. And I’m very sorry. But — I’m really, truly stumped!

    The question of canon formation is, clearly, pretty touchy! Should I just avoid joining such discussions in the future? Maybe so.

    Is such touchiness part of how the academy defends its turf? The question might be worth considering.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 9:24 pm john wrote:

    Jack,

    I’ve said all along — yes, the academy transmits the canon.

    I don’t know you don’t understand my proposition:

    When determining the canon, the academy chooses poets whom other poets have already deemed important.

    Keep wailing away, Conan. Puff puff puff.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 9:25 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,
    You are wrong again. Please, I’m asking you. Stop trying to enagge me in your foolishness.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 9:33 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Guys, whatever else Annie’s comment conveyed, I think a halt to this particular argument is clearly in order. No?

  • On April 9, 2009 at 9:34 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Agreed.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 10:54 pm john wrote:

    Annie didn’t ask us to stop our argument; she asked us to think about ways to open it up so that others would feel comfortable posting.

    I have a proposal.

    Try not to get mad when someone misunderstands you.

    Try not to get mad when someone proposes an idea — even if you think it’s completely wrong-headed.

    Try not to sling insults. (I’m guilty of it too.)

    Try not to make threats. (I’m sorry to pick on you, Jack, but when you said, “Trust me. If I attacked or insulted you I promise you, you’d know it,” you were deploying the language of threat. Not a tangible threat, but, I suspect, off-putting to people in exactly the way Annie was talking about.)

    Try to focus on points of agreement. (I forget to do this too.)

    Act as though everybody is acting in good faith.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 11:07 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    John,

    I think Michael Robbins was on the right track with all this including the way Annie was talking about it.

  • On April 9, 2009 at 11:44 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “The issue was and is and will always remain that as long as Sylvia exists within the good graces of the academic environment, she will survive BECAUSE colleges and universities exert THE MOST influence over what we read and discuss. End of story.”
    – Jack Conway

    Of course, that could be the very reason why poetry is now dead to the general public.

    My father was not much on literature. He was an airline pilot and more inclined toward mathematics. His two favorite poets were Robert Service and William Shakespeare.

    Go figure.

    You’re all full of beans!

  • On April 10, 2009 at 12:50 am john wrote:

    Jack,

    That’s fine. No harm in trying.

    I would like to close on a note of agreement. Michael was right that the academy’s influence extends beyond academia. I get the impression from the way the literary media talks about him that Sandburg’s academic stock is way down — probably has been for a long time — probably decades! One of the most remarkable books of the 20th century — Sandburg’s anthology of folk songs “The American Songbag” from 1927 — got reprinted in 1990 with a new introduction by Garrison Keillor, who took pains to disparage Sandburg by claiming that he saw his competition as Robert Service and Edgar A. Guest (“it takes a heap o’ livin’ to make a house a home”). I don’t know Sandburg’s bio, so maybe the claim is right, but it strikes me funny, because the poetry indicates that he saw the modernists as his peers — he has poems addressing Stevens, Pound, Williams, respectfully, affectionately. Certainly “Poetry” magazine saw him as a modern! But yeah — more agreement — there’s Service being used as a brickbat by a non-academic poetry commentator.

    When Dylan’s memoir came out a few years ago, the NY Times reviewer automatically assumed that Dylan had been kidding when he praised Sandburg, but a cursory knowledge of Dylan’s and Woody Guthrie’s bios would indicate that Dylan wasn’t.

    So long, fellas.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 10:17 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks all, for many constructive responses to the request to open things up a bit. I for one already feel more comfortable joining in. Acting as if everybody is speaking in good faith seems to sum it up!

    Re the question under discussion, it seems to me that good poets in the “popular” vein can survive without academic approval. Robert Service has survived, and so has John Masefield, and so has Edgar Allan Poe who is as far as I can tell not the slightest bit respected as a poet in the academy, but who sells plenty of copies of his poetry. Same with Longfellow. (this is assuming the poets are good to start with, in their own vein). Plath was in this category for a few decades. Then eventually the pendulum swings, or the academy gets bored with its previous canon, or political and other pressures finally have an influence, and some of these fallow poets are plowed into the academic field at last. That seems to be happening with Plath now. And it might be starting to happen with Longfellow too, based on several new academic books on him and on the excitement over his bicentennial conference at my university last year.

    So maybe a model of give-and-take between popular taste and the academy might be useful.

    I’m heading home today and will be posting soon about some of my poetic experiences this trip.

    Annie

  • On April 10, 2009 at 11:09 am john wrote:

    Thanks Annie.

    It turns out I do have a Guillory essay on my shelf, in a book of essays on canon formation edited by Robert von Hallberg, that I bought extra-curricularly when I was in college and have read in periodically since. I hadn’t read the Guillory, which is on Eliot & Brooks’s influence over the canon. Kenner has an essay which I had read and forgotten, where he quotes Borges to the effect that authors create their ancestors — authors create a canon that reflects well on them, according to him. This seems to shed light on part of what Eliot may have been up to.

    Reading this reminded me of something on point. I got my copy of Eliot’s Collected when my great-aunt died. (She had been a professor of social work and a state board member of the ACLU; I remember her telling me that during the McCarthy era the Girl Scouts, of which she had been a local leader, had voluntarily suppressed their handbook “Common Human Needs”!) Anyway, in her copy of Eliot, which nobody else in the family wanted, is a loose sheet with a handwritten pop poem that somebody had copied from a literary journal on Eliot’s changing his position — on Milton! So — a pop poem in a literary journal commenting on canon formation! I’ll quote the handwritten note in its entirety — it’s a trip.

    “Paradise Rehabilitated

    Experiment has lost its savor,
    Pentameter is back in favor,
    So though your taste be Joyce or Hilton,
    No longer blush for reading Milton,
    The blinded bard who sang of Tophet
    The Time[s] says, may be read with profit,
    While Time agrees that he’s OK,
    For followers of Miss Millay.

    His homily once more we’ll preach
    In lands of Anglo-Saxon speech.
    He may achieve — oh, strange fruition!
    A shiny pocket-sized edition.
    In railway station we’ll obtain
    The tome to read it on the train,
    Or find his works in five and dime stores
    Who justified, God’s ways to rhymesters.

    James Gidney
    Sat. Review of Lit. July, 1947

    Ref: Time Magazine
    May, 1947.
    Eliot again sanctions Milton.”

  • On April 10, 2009 at 12:28 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Michael,

    You do realize that Allen Ginsberg was a Beat?

    Ginsberg knew EVERYBODY; including everybody in Donald Allen’s anthology; Donald Allen’s anthology is Allen Ginsberg’s party. The Beats were huge when that anthology came out; ‘Life’ magazine followed them to Paris.

    It doesn’t take away from whatever achievements these other writers may have accomplished, but that doesn’t mean your indignation isn’t silly, or that you are not simply wrong to indignantly dismiss what I wrote.

    As I’ve said before, we should NOT mix literary judgment with party lists; it’s simply bad practice.

    Your idea that I am “antiquated” because I like Poe is imbecilic. I like lots of writers. You don’t know me well enough to know who I like and dislike. I suppose you think I live in a castle and wear armor? And since “antiquated” is a pejorative for you, I assume you wear clothes manufactured in 2009, that you own nothing that is old, that you read nothing that is old, and your house is plastic and was made yesterday. Good for you. At least you’re not “antiquated.”

    Barry Miles was Allen Ginsberg’s close friend and biographer. Let me quote you, if I may, from Miles’ book ‘The Beat Hotel.’ Ginsberg, in the excerpt below, was corresponding with Leroi Jones in 1957, well before the Donald Allen anthology (which included Jones, of course) was published:

    “Once Jones had published the Beats in his magazine, Allen [Ginsberg] began to suggest other poets he should publish. According to Jones, ‘Ginsberg also hipped me to the San Francisco School (old and new, some of whom were known as the Beats), the New York School (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, James Schuyler) and a host of other young people. Older poets like Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Trendsetters like Robert Creeley and all kinds of other names. Kerouac and Burroughs of course. John Weiners, Ron Loewinsohn, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Jack Spicer…’ Allen was in contact with all of them, putting them in touch with one another and with editors, sending poems and receiving news.”

    Thomas

  • On April 10, 2009 at 12:52 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Allen Ginsberg always had academic connections, really.

    Mark Van Doren, Ginsberg’s professor at Columbia, was a crucial contact going back to the 1940s; Van Doren helped Ginsberg avoid jail time (the Beat criminal Herbert Huncke did jail time instead).

    Also, professors and academics testified for Ginsberg at his obscenity trial, which helped to make the author of “Howl” more famous than “Howl” itself did.

    The Academy did change rather radically in the 20th century; scholars who tended to exaggerate the importance of “antiquity” took off in the other direction and soon literary scholars were known for the opposite, exaggerating the importance of the new.

    Plath’s biography played into the ‘headline’ character which was invading the Academy at a fearful clip in mid-century.

    In that regard, Plath was in the right place at the right time. Being married to Hughes certainly didn’t hurt, either.

    If others want to join this discussion, I’d love to hear what they have to say.

    That’s the beauty of a thread like this.

    One good post can take it in a whole new direction.

    I do think we are exploring important issues here–just my humble opinion.

    Thomas

  • On April 10, 2009 at 2:30 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    John, thanks for posting that verse. I find it fascinating for so many reasons. For one, the feeling of relief that old-fashioned poetry was back–as early as 1947!–when the experiments were settling in for the long haul. For another, unless I’m misreading, it equates Millay with modern experimental poetics–how different from her reputation now.

    Thomas, I’m a Poe fan as well–and a fan of other poets many consider antiquated (Teasdale, Swinburne). I’ve decided, perhaps out of sour grapes, that “antiquated” is not such a bad word really- in fact it has the virtue of being rather refreshing in the age of relentless aesthetic “progress.” I for one have given up fighting that battle.

    Ginsberg did seem to have plenty of connections with the academy, for all the populism. While not an academic poet in the usual sense, he knew how to use the academy on his behalf.

    Funny how networking skills, which can seem so transitory, sometimes do end up affecting poetic reputations, though probably only in very unanticipated ways (Ginsberg being helped by his academic connections more than Robert Hillyer).

  • On April 10, 2009 at 3:04 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    I believe that colleges and universities have managed to tighten their grip as the arbitrators of poetic choice and discussion through a variety of methods, not the least of which are the plethora of college and university manuscript contests and publications.

    Places like, Breadloaf at Middlebury, Wesleyan Poetry Series, Northeastern University’s
    Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series, University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series, University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series, University of Evansville, Richard Wilbur Award and the granddaddy of them all: Yale Series of Young Poets, have solidified their grip on the future (and past) poetic icons.

    Obviously if they are acceptable to the academic community they will be absorbed into the process, in one form or another.

    Will there be aberrations to this process? I’m sure they will be. Will they be studied and discussed in great numbers. Very unlikely since the process begins in the classroom and between the professors who decide on what is going to be read and studied and the university presses that will decide who will be published, I think we can rest assured that the huge and vital role the college and university plays in grooming the poetic landscape will remain in tact.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 5:47 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Annie,

    Since when is “antiquated” synonymous with “antiquarian”? It’s a bit amusing to be so badly misinterpreted all the time, but it’s not so amusing when it’s the same people over & over. As someone who’s publicly called for a wider reading in the tradition many times, including Swinburne, who was ten times the poet Poe was, I can hardly be accused of making fun of people who read verse written before the contemporary moment. I just got done re-reading “The Rape of the Lock.” My point was, if anything, the obvious: some people feel the need to disparage contemporary verse without understanding it, seeing, for instance, modernism’s breaks with the tradition as evidence of failure. The belief that Poe is an endpoint is rather different from a taste for Poe. If we really need to have guidelines around here, I’d suggest actually reading what people write, thinking about it, & responding accordingly, instead of just making stuff up as you go along, making points that sort of have something to do with the kind of thing someone like the writer in question might have said.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 5:48 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Should read, “My point was, if anything, the obverse.”

  • On April 10, 2009 at 6:10 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Robert Service sold so well when he was finally published, that he quit his day job.

    Service was British and spent a lot of time in Canada. He’s not really a good poet to compare to Pound, Eliot, or Plath, who were American.

    Plus Service was about 15 years older than T.S. Eliot, which is pretty crucial; the Modernist/New Criticism revolution not only rejected story-telling poetry, but the Modernists ‘came of age’ at the same time.

    Ransom and Eliot were born in 1888.

    Another poet who also became very popular, who was on the outside looking in for a time, who was left out of the Modernist revolution, was Robert Frost.

    Both Frost and Service were born in 1874.

    Thus, when ‘The Waste Land’ was published, Frost and Service were pushing 50.

    Also, the Modernist revolution featured poets who really DID NOT SELL. Service, because he did sell, would have been made the Modernist poets uncomfortable, just for this fact alone.

    The example of Service may have even been an incentive for the Modernist revolution itself: the revolution may have known what it wanted by looking at Service and saying: not that.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 6:29 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Damn it, I really want to let this go, but Thomas continues saying demonstrably false or irrelevant things.

    Frost was not “left out of the Modernist revolution.” He is widely considered a modernist. See Lentricchia or Poirier, for instance.

    It seems, alas, necessary to say this one more time: the question is not about sales. Can we try to hear this this time around? It sure as hell isn’t about sales made when the poets were actively writing & before their canonization!

    All right, I really have to shame myself into quitting this board. So: no more. I promise.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 7:18 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Michael,

    “… Swinburne, who was ten times the poet Poe was…”

    You are endlessly amusing.

    “…some people feel the need to disparage contemporary verse without understanding it, seeing, for instance, modernism’s breaks with the tradition as evidence of failure.”

    But defenders of modernism see its break with the tradition as evidence of its success.

    One is not allowed to disparage “contemporary verse” without being accused of being hopelessly “antiquated,” etc.

    If poetry which prevents us from understanding it demands that we understand it, I don’t see how calling on ‘the tradition’ either in terms of a break or a continuation is meaningful, and I find the whole gesture dishonest.

    No one defends ‘the tradition;’ everyone defends *their* tradition–even those who are anti-tradition.

    It’s a red herring to say that ‘contemporary verse’ is disparaged because it breaks with ‘the tradition’ and is thus considered a failure. That motive is a fantasy, since ‘the tradition’ is never really defended as ‘the tradition’ but as ‘what you and I subjectively find important or pleasing.’

    “The tradition” does exist ideally, but no one hates potential additions to this *ideal* tradition merely because something new is being added–such “hate” or disparagement, as you call it, is a phantom in your mind, and in those minds who defend contemporary verse in this manner.

    “The belief that Poe is an endpoint is rather different from a taste for Poe…”

    Poe died in 1849. How could Poe be an “endpoint?” Do you have a writer who is an “endpoint?”

    Poe is crucial because of his immense influence, and ‘tradition’ certainly ought to be defined in this way: an elevation (both popular and critical) of Letters above where it traditionally resided; absolutely Poe succeeds in this manner–as scientist, journalist, critic, inventor, and craftsman.

    Thomas

  • On April 10, 2009 at 7:30 pm noah freed wrote:

    Ridiculous.

    Modernism broke with tradition in several ways, but no one is suggesting that its success in some way obviated the tradition. All the central modernists (Frost, Stevens, Moore, Eliot, Pound, Stein, Joyce, for example) venerated various predecessors — but did not feel that they could write like them any more. Not that earlier poets were failures but that their modes of writing were no longer adequate to contemporary social conditions.

    As for “If poetry which prevents us from understanding it demands that we understand it, I don’t see how calling on ‘the tradition’ either in terms of a break or a continuation is meaningful, and I find the whole gesture dishonest,” this is what we call begging the question. To continually assert that modernism “prevents us from understanding it” as if that were a given, rather than a cry from the depths of stupidity, simply perpetuates threadbare stereotypes that sensible readers discarded long ago when they actually read the work in question instead of fulminating loudly about it. Modernist poetry prevents us from understanding it? it has been understood!

    “It’s a red herring to say that ‘contemporary verse’ is disparaged because it breaks with ‘the tradition’ and is thus considered a failure.” Um, OK. But no one has said this, so this is a red herring – Michael was obviously referring to your assertion in an earlier thread that modernism constituted a failure.

    Finally, Thomas, do you ever get tired of being right? Have you noticed that you aren’t interested in learning from others, only in braying your own superiority?

  • On April 10, 2009 at 7:42 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Michael,

    I believe I quoted this up-thread, but I’ll quote it again from John Crowe Ransom’s remarkable 1937 essay, “Poets Without Laurels.” This essay is reprinted in the recent anthology of essays of New Criticism called “Praising It New,” edited by Garrick Davis, which I strongly recommend. Ransom was the de facto leader of the most significant Modernist movement in the United States in the 20th century, in both theoretical and practical terms.

    (By the way, the young and talented poet, Ben Mazer, who recently edited John Crowe Ransom’s Collected also re-discovered Landis Everson–the first winner of the Emily Dickinson Prize.)

    Here is the beginning of the 1937 essay by Ransom. Frost at this time was 61, and the University Workshop culture was just cranking up a notch, thanks in part to the work of Ransom himself. Ransom lays it out in terms which cannot be mistaken:

    “The poets I refer to in the title [Poets Without Laurels] are ‘the moderns’: those whom a small company of adept readers enjoys, perhaps enormously, but the general public detests; those in whose hands poetry as a living art has lost its public support.”

    “Consequently I do not refer to such poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost, who are evidently influenced by modernism without caring to ‘go modern’ in the sense of joining the revolution…”

    –John Crowe Ransom, “Poets Without Laurels”

    Robert Frost. Not Robert Service.

    Thomas

  • On April 10, 2009 at 7:48 pm noah freed wrote:

    Michael Robbins recommended that very anthology in the thread about Zapruder’s article, Thomas. And I will note that just because Ransom said something don’t make it so.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 8:22 pm Former Berkeley Girl wrote:

    Fascinating. This thread is like a petri dish of venom.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 8:27 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Thomas is all right. He just doesn’t know when to shut up.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 8:46 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Noah,

    Ridiculous yourself.

    You say,

    “Modernism broke with tradition in several ways, but no one is suggesting that its success in some way obviated the tradition.”

    Exactly my point.

    “All the central modernists (Frost, Stevens, Moore, Eliot, Pound, Stein, Joyce, for example) venerated various predecessors — but did not feel that they could write like them any more. Not that earlier poets were failures but that their modes of writing were no longer adequate to contemporary social conditions.”

    Again, I never disputed what you say here. I never said Modernism is defined by its (Modernism’s) saying that “earlier poets were failures.”

    You risk a real ‘blah, blah, blah truism’ here: Modernism was a break, but it also built on various predecessors, so it wasn’t really a break, social conditions changed, no failure is involved, per se…etc etc

    This wasn’t the issue.

    Michael posited that Modernism is disparaged BECAUSE it breaks with tradition.

    Here’s exactly what Michael wrote: “some people feel the need to disparage contemporary verse without understanding it, seeing, for instance, modernism’s breaks with the tradition as evidence of failure.”

    The “failure” of certain works of Modernism is failure of a more universal kind; it has nothing to do with “breaks with the tradition,” which, as you point out, are not complete breaks, anyway. Michael was throwing out a red herring.

    “To continually assert that modernism “prevents us from understanding it” as if that were a given, rather than a cry from the depths of stupidity, simply perpetuates threadbare stereotypes that sensible readers discarded long ago when they actually read the work in question instead of fulminating loudly about it. Modernist poetry prevents us from understanding it? it has been understood!”

    I was speaking in terms of “failure.” I wasn’t saying, and have NEVER said, that ALL works of modernism are failures. You are guilty of the same absurd pigeon-holing as Michael. My point was that, IF a modern work is a failure, it is not a failure because it breaks with tradition. Sometimes a poem JUST FAILS.

    ““It’s a red herring to say that ‘contemporary verse’ is disparaged because it breaks with ‘the tradition’ and is thus considered a failure.” Um, OK. But no one has said this, [Um, Michael did] so this is a red herring – Michael was obviously referring to your assertion in an earlier thread that modernism constituted a failure.”

    Oh, really? Michael is “obviously referring to your assertion in an earlier thread?” An “earlier thread” In which I “asserted” that “modernism constituted a failure?” Please show me where I said that. I have no idea what you are talking about. I’m flattered that you and Michael both aspire to reading me in such a fastidious way, but I’m afraid you’re mistaken.

    “Finally, Thomas, do you ever get tired of being right? ”

    Nope.

    Though, honestly, it really isn’t so much a case of me being right, as it is a couple of gentlemen, who I am currently befriending, being every now and then, wrong.

    Thomas

  • On April 10, 2009 at 8:52 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Jesus. No, Thomas, I didn’t say that. “Michael posited that Modernism is disparaged BECAUSE it breaks with tradition.” No, I didn’t. Noah is right.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 8:58 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Noah,

    I’m glad Michael Robbins recommended that anthology. That’s fine and dandy. So I suppose this means he will be all the more receptive to Ransom’s “Poets Without Laurels,” which I quoted.

    Former Berkeley Girl,

    Why is a good, lively debate a “petri dish of venom?”

    I feel no venom. I feel something closer to amusement. I’m hope the venom you feel is not causing you any great harm.

    Michael and Noah are terrific guys because they care enough to speak their minds.

    It’s not even close to venom.

    Thomas

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:00 pm noah freed wrote:

    “Using 20/20 hindsight, we assume that modernist ‘masters’ were eager to subvert the Tradition as babes, but common sense should tell us that all of them, Pound, Eliot, Williams, et al. first strove to sound like masters in the Tradition, failed, got caught up in the ‘revolutionary’ fervor of the times, and calmly allowed the world to believe that ‘like a patient etherized upon a table’ was always what the Muse had in mind. Before you accuse me of heresy–modernist results occasionally had value; I am merely taking a more sober and realistic look at the process involved.”
    - Thomas Brady, March 18, 2009

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:11 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Better venom than a sleeping potion. And let’s all keep this in perspective…it’s just poetry, after all. You want nasty, you should check out some of the political blogs.

    I, for one, have learned a lot here. Fascinating stuff for the poetically inclined. Too bad Michael Robbins is such a wuss and checked out early.

    :-)

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:11 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    I rest my case. I sure wish he’d rest his.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:13 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Jeez…in the time it took to write my post there are five more!

    Sorry, Michael. Hang in there, dude.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:15 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Gary,

    Michael Robbins did what any sane educator/professor would do in a like situation: let the unenlightened fight it out among themselves since this is NOT where it truly matters.
    I’m sure that the students in Mike’s Beat Poets class won’t really give a hoot about what Thomas thinks or says. In other words, Gary, Michael holds all the cards. It’s his opinion that will change minds. This stuff obviously doesn’t. Do you see that?

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:18 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    This is simply one-up-manship at its worse.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:42 pm Former Berkeley Girl wrote:

    That’s just it: I am amused. This thread has become the Energizer Bunny, and the participants are demonstrating a striking inability/unwillingness to let it stop. I find that funny.

    As for the venom, the tone has often seemed spiteful & condescending. In my book, that’s not a characteristic of a good & lively debate.

    Michael R. summed it up so well: “These things become stupid pissing matches.”

    FBG

  • On April 10, 2009 at 9:42 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    But fun as hell for the rest of us.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 10:31 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Michael dear,

    I fully agree with you about the importance of wider reading in the tradition, whether you use the word antiquarian or antiquated (I haven’t been able to sort through the comments to find that original reference and i have a new post to write).

    And, the phrase “male ego” was entirely your own addition to the thread. I merely said that on the three poetry lists existent in 1997 when Wom-Po was founded, men were dominating the discussion in that particular way. I never made an implication as to why. I’m sure that women or men engage in this kind of discourse for good reasons, from providing entertainment to defending positions they believe in. But whatever their motivation, this mode does eat up disproportional chunks of what is intended as shared, common discussion space.

    You say that “If we really need to have guidelines around here, I’d suggest actually reading what people write, thinking about it, & responding accordingly.”

    This is well put and well taken. And this useful guideline of yours (which I, for one, was forced to disregard by the sheer number and length and of posts when I tried to rejoin the conversation from a wifi station this morning with limited time) would be a lot easier to put into practice if, before commenting, people would keep, to add to the useful guidelines posted earlier, the following considerations in mind:

    Make sure your post is

    1. Respectful in tone (so people not engaged in the debate will feel comfortable joining the discussion, and so you will not push buttons that will lead to fruitless side arguments)

    2. relatively succint (so people with more limited amounts of time for Harriet than yours will not be discouraged from participating)

    3. relevant in some perceptible way to the original topic, responds to what others have actually said, and seems necessary (something not said earlier and not likely to be said).

    That said, I’m glad people are finding this thread a hospitable place for discussion, even with the caveats FGB has expressed, and which are probably shared by many, considered. My feeling is that we are building and developing something of a posting culture on this blog, and I really appreciate your, and everyone else’s, energy, honesty, and flexibility as we get to know each other and to hopfully figure out a workable balance between honest and strong engagement, and respect and civility.

  • On April 10, 2009 at 10:37 pm Former Berkeley Girl wrote:

    Annie,

    I heartily second the motion for #1. Lively is lovely, but tone is the key to encouraging/discouraging participation, imho.

    FBG

  • On April 11, 2009 at 1:32 am john wrote:

    People, I think we’re writing a book here.

    Or maybe a movie!

    A B-horror movie . . .

    The Harriet thread that ate Chicago . . .

    Go go go!

    Jack, what you posted this afternoon is like, so a hundred years ago, but I appreciated your account of how poets get taken up in the canon. My impression is that few poets get taught after only one book, but I could be wrong. I’m curious to know how and why the syllabus-writers decide to add a poet to the list. I had an idea about it, once upon a time, that proved controversial . . .

    Thomas, Interesting points about Ginsberg’s well-connectedness. I think it’s worth noting, though, that many academics hated his stuff (John Hollander comes to mind); and though Ginsberg liked to display his learning, he didn’t write prose in an academic style at all.

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, at least one modernist did sell well: Sandburg. I think popularity is germane to all of this, because the “pop” split off from “poetry” at about the same time it did from “serious” music as well — the modernist moment; so that now, popularity can be used as a strike *against* someone’s entrance into the canon, as witnessed by Garrison Keillor’s remarks on Service & Sandburg.

    Annie, your remark about the canon changing over time is right on. Frank Kermode has written a book about this, if I’m not mistaken, but I don’t remember the title.

  • On April 11, 2009 at 7:10 am thomas brady wrote:

    Noah,

    Good one. It appears I have taken a hit. I did once speak of a “failure” on the part of Modernist masters.

    But let me put what I said in context:

    I believe, as *young men,* when they first tried to write poetry in the Anglo-American Tradition of Shakespeare/Milton/Keats/Tennyson, BEFORE they discovered LaForgue and Whitman, who were not on the radar before WW I, when Eliot and Pound were in college, BEFORE Modernism had hardened into a movement, with its manifesto of ‘musical phrase and not metronome’ and ‘no abstractions,’ etc, I believe that all of them took a stab at writing iambic pentameter, etc IN THE TRADITION, and discovered, fortuitously for them as it turned out, that they couldn’t quite pull it off, and, subsequently this contributed to various ‘revolutionary’ formulations and works.

    I don’t really see how any reasonable person could deny my thesis. Eliot and Williams tried to shoot baskets in their backyard as kids, missed a lot, and, as a result, changed the rules of the game. Beethoven could do Mozart, but Williams and Eliot and Pound could not do Shakespeare. Williams and Eliot and Pound could write lines as good as Shakespeare, but they quickly found they couldn’t sustain the effort, they couldn’t put it to use and create finished works of critical, popular worth. Why they ‘gave up’ their attempt, I’m not prepared to say. That doesn’t matter. No big deal here. The “failure” I speak of is understandable, since not anyone can write like Shakespeare; Ben Jonson and other Shakespeare’s contemporaries couldn’t write like Shakespeare. Obviously Williams, Eliot and Pound were not attempting Elizabethan drama; to say as young men they “failed” at Elizabethan drama is of course unfair to say, even as speculation; but, if we wish, we could substitute any other major figure in the tradition: Tennyson, perhaps, if we need a figure closer in time. William Carlos Williams could NOT do Tennyson. Eliot perhaps could, at the peak of his powers, for a stanza or two, but no more. Pound could not do Tennyson except in very short bursts, and it is absurd to think the Modernists, in their youth, did NOT try to write in the tradition which was still, at that point, ALL AROUND THEM, and that they failed. Such failures propel our world. This is all I said. I do appreciate that you were good enough to include the part where I said some success by the Modernists did occur as time went on, which is all we as readers could possibly hope for, anyway.

    So, the “failure” in my quote which you found is a rather ordinary “failure” and a “failure” ONLY in terms of PROCESS and ORIGIN. It IS true that the Modernists were woefully unpopular, and that they eventually found success in the university where it doesn’t matter whether one is popular, or not. Obscurity soon became a badge of honor. Some modernist influence could be seen as troubling in this regard.

    Now, unless you are prepared to say that the Modernist canon is successful in all its parts and none of it contains any failure, then I don’t think you are prepared to dispute anything I have said, which is a banality, really, a truism.

    Thomas

  • On April 11, 2009 at 8:00 am thomas brady wrote:

    Annie,

    For the sake of women and Plath, I think it should be pointed out here that the Modernists and the Beats and the New Critics were extremely sexist.

    If you were a woman like Edna Millay or Vivian Haigh-Wood or Sylvia Plath, you tended not to thrive in the major 20th century poetry circles.

    As Barry Miles, intimate friend of the Beats and Ginsberg’s biographer, says in his ‘Beat Hotel, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso in Paris 1957-1963:”

    “The Beat Generation was virtually an all-male society where women had no role except as wives or ‘chicks.’ Their experience as wives was generally a disaster.”

    One learns in Miles’ book that Ginsberg and the boys also hung out with Auden’s secretary, Alan Ansen, Harvard grad, poet, and scholar who read in 17 languages; Ansen gave the Beats skin trade tips. Ansen was a bridge between the Beats with the New York School. The Beats/New York School was merely the unruly child of the Modernists; hardly a different school at all.

    So Ransom, in his 1937 essay, specifically excludes Frost (b. 1874) and Millay (b. 1892) from the Modernist revolution.

    The only women of any stature in the Modernist revolution, like Moore, or Stein, were not sleeping with the men; they were like ‘one of the boys.’ Bishop is an extension of this.

    Women like Millay would have disturbed the modernist universe–she would have been sleeping with all the men. Vivien Haigh-Wood did sleep with Betrand Russell and helped Eliot with his poetry, but we know what happened to her.

    Plath, in her diaries, says at one point, slightly drunk at a party (around 1957) that she felt very turned on and wanted to have sex with a hundred men, but then turned and looked at her husband, Ted, and felt grounded again–he was all she needed.

    Of course, that didn’t last.

    In Modernism, men’s wandering ways came first.

    Ford Madox Ford, a Poundian figure in the early Modernist movement, who published all the modernists (the English Review, The Transatlantic Review) and was extremely well-connected, knew them all: Joyce, Yeats, Hemingway, Hardy, Lawrence, Swinburne, the pre-Raphaelites, was published in the Imagist Anthology of 1930, and also knew Allen Tate and Robert Lowell, Ford is much overlooked as a Titanic Modernist force…

    …And, not surprisingly, Ford’s life was full of wives and philandering.

    Plath is an interesting case because she is in many ways a 1950s wife-type, a powerfully heterosexual female in love with one man, attempting to fit into the voracious, philandering, male dominated world of Modern Poetry. This may, in fact, more than anything else, be Plath’s “story.”

    Thomas

  • On April 11, 2009 at 9:43 am Jack Conway wrote:

    “If you were a woman like Edna Millay or Vivian Haigh-Wood or Sylvia Plath, you tended not to thrive in the major 20th century poetry circles.”

    Thomas, this is a HUGE assumption,again,on your behalf, especially as far as Millay is concerned. She (Millay) began in 1917 with her first book and received the MALE dominated Pulitzer Prize a mere six years later with her fourth book. I’d call that pretty much thriving.

    It took Frost nine years to reach that from his first in 1915 to 1924 for New Hampshire: A Poem With Notes and Grace Notes.

    John,

    I presumed we were still on Plath’s role and place and how she will remain there. If that is somehow obsolete than I guess I just missed that memo. That is what I presumed the thread was about, hence the shoring up of why colleges and universities have such control over what we read and study and how that impacts Plath’s role.

    The syllabus question has to do with a deep, dark conspiracy by college and university professors to exclude those who do not fit the mold. LOL.

    I have no idea how it is done in other places but my experiecne is that it is predicated on the textbooks chosen for the course. I don’t think a course titled– Treadmill to Oblivion: Poets You’ve Never Heard About and Why They Have No Bearing Whaetsoever, would attract many students.

  • On April 11, 2009 at 12:09 pm john wrote:

    Jack,

    Thanks, yes, of course — anthologies. I impute the creation of the canon to no conspiracy; just trying to understand the process. My hunch is that the anthologists, when looking at contemporary poets especially, tend to choose poets who are highly esteemed by other poets. But maybe *that’s* a tautology, in that it’s hard to think of a widely-published poet whom other poets don’t respect. Success breeds worldly respect.

    That’s partly why “New American Poets” is so unusual — many of the poets included hadn’t published much at all. I’m sure studies have been done on the relative recent reputations of its poets compared to the poets in the more academically-connected “New Poets on England and America” (introduction by Robert Frost) from a few years before; my understanding is that the NAP-ers by and large have greater reps now than the NPoEaA-ers.

    What’s interesting about all this is how reputations change over time. The American poet George Meason Whicher (1860-1937) published in “Harper’s” and “The Nation” and several books; was a classics professor who published books of translations, a member of the Poetry Society of America, and secretary of the New York Archaeological Society; was in at least three anthologies in his lifetime and edited a fourth; and was mentioned in his lifetime in at least two histories of his home state, Iowa, as a native son who had become a famous poet. An altogether busy, well-connected, and successful life on the Treadmill to Oblivion — and, not a pop poet, but a formalist academic who often wrote on classical themes.

    George M. Whicher is still in used bookstores and has a presence on Google, which is where I found all this out, but I’d be surprised if anybody reads him now. I got curious about him because his son, George F. Whicher, included a good original poem by him as an epigraph to a volume of Horace translations. George F. Whicher wrote a Dickinson bio in the ’30s, which was mentioned recently in the “Slate” article on Dickinson’s love life; and, in addition to volumes of Horace translations, including one done completely in collaboration with his father, also translated the delightful volume “The Goliard Poets” for the modernist house New Directions — and dedicated it to Robert Frost. George F. also blurbed Cleanth Brooks’s “The Well Wrought Urn,” that canon-making modernist study that cleverly begins with a discussion of Donne’s “The Canonization.”

    Thanks again.

  • On April 11, 2009 at 2:29 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    “…My hunch is that the anthologists, when looking at contemporary poets especially, tend to choose poets who are highly esteemed by other poets…”

    John,

    This gave me a chuckle. Most poets don’t like any poets except themselves.

  • On April 11, 2009 at 4:18 pm Robert Donohue wrote:

    Modernism was a boy’s club; I don’t think anyone would try to deny this. The avant-guard writers’ world was more open to women in Victorian times than it was in Modern. Oscar Wild edited a woman’s magazine and promoted the work of many woman writers, as did the critics Arthur Symons, Edmund Gosse and William Michael Rosseti. Almost all of these writers have fallen into obscurity although they where important players in the literary life of their times. Plath was considered an important writer at the time of her death; Arial had a preface by Robert Lowell and I don’t know how well it sold but a first edition is not a hard book to find. That she is not considered a major writer in the Academy is news to me, but it seems to fit a pattern.

    As to popularity, Plath’s poems are not written in a popular style but the tragedy of her life has captured the poplar imagination; there’s been more than one movie and a lot of media coverage concerning recent events. I don’t think this should effect her reputation as a poet, but I think it does.

    As to Beats and popularity, they simply demand on having it both ways. Junky, by William S. Burroughs, a key beat text, was an Ace paperback original sold to titillate the young adult market. If they are the subjects of scholarly attention they are also the subjects of comic books, one of which is reviewed in today’s New York Times.

  • On April 11, 2009 at 7:18 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Hell, Frost hated everyone, especially women poets.

  • On April 11, 2009 at 10:11 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Most poets don’t like any poets except themselves.”

    Unless they are not really poets–like Peter Orlovsky, (included in the New American Poetry anthology.)

  • On April 11, 2009 at 10:22 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    He’s not? Did someone revoke his poetic liscense? For what, using a metaphor in a simile only zone?

  • On April 11, 2009 at 10:25 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Thomas, this is a HUGE assumption,again,on your behalf, especially as far as Millay is concerned. She (Millay) began in 1917 with her first book and received the MALE dominated Pulitzer Prize a mere six years later with her fourth book. I’d call that pretty much thriving.”

    Jack,

    Millay was sleeping with Edmund Wilson, who was probably on the Pulitzer Committee. She was a wild gal; swung both ways. And she wrote some pretty amazing poetry before she was 30. Millay never would have fit into the Modernist All-Male Club.

    Frost won the Pulitzer the next year (1924) and won it a total of 4 times.

    Thomas

  • On April 11, 2009 at 11:25 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Sorry to distract here, Thomas, but, being the Poe afficionado that you are, I’m surprised you haven’t yet responded to Jason Guriel’s post about horror poetry.

  • On April 12, 2009 at 8:05 am thomas brady wrote:

    Jack,

    The New American Poets Anthology was Ginsberg’s date book.

    I’m sure I don’t have to tell you Orlovsky was Ginsberg’s lover before he wrote a word of poetry; Orlovsky’s inclusion in that anthology gives the game away.

    Also, since this is a Sylvia Plath thread, I might point out the following:

    In Donald Allen’s well-perused anthology,

    NOT ONE woman poet is included who is read today.

    If you look up “clique” or “men’s club” in the dictionary, there is a picture of the cover of The New American Poets anthology.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not grumbling about this. It’s just the way things are.

    After all, a book of poems is a product of labor, like anything else, which has a history, an origin, etc.

    A book of poems, then, is not just ‘poems.’

    Anyway, I don’t have to defend my approach (which of course is not the only one); the whole thing, after a moment’s research, is self-evident.

    Thomas

  • On April 12, 2009 at 8:08 am thomas brady wrote:

    Gary,

    Thanks,

    I’m on it.

    As someone who really knows Poe, I don’t associate Poe with horror, but I’ve already began thinking about a marvelous ‘Horror Poems’ anthology.

    Thomas

  • On April 12, 2009 at 10:13 am john wrote:

    Thomas,

    “NOT ONE” is accurate only by a witticism — “three” is indeed “NOT ONE.”

    People still read Denise Levertov, Barbara Guest, and Helen Adam. (Adam got in the anthology, if I recall correctly, only on the recommendation of Robert Duncan.)

    Not defending Allen’s gender balance here, or arguing against your basic point that the NAP reflected a social scene.

    Why wasn’t Bob Kaufman in it? That’s mystifying!

  • On April 12, 2009 at 10:56 am Mike Snider wrote:

    I’ve loved Denise Levertov’s poetry for years — and I was very pleased to hear Richard Wilbur, in reply to a question last year at West Chester, name her as one of the poets whose work he particularly admired.

  • On April 12, 2009 at 11:19 am Jack Conway wrote:

    I dunno, there are a plethora of women poets in a majority of the textbooks.

    And here I always thought Millay was awarded the Pulitzer based on her talent. LOL.

    Does that mean that every poet awarded the Pulitzer was sleeping with Wilson? Was Frost? Naw. Conjecture, Thomas. You should be very careful of that as it promotes faulty logic in your arguments. Implying Millay only received the Pulitzer BEFORE Frost because she slept with Wilson is really unfounded.

    It could have been, as most would agree, simply that her work was brilliant and accepted by the majority.

    I find it amusing Thomas that you will go to any great lengths to try and prove you are right — even to the point of dreaming up some far-fetched notion in your head that someone slept with someone to win a prize.

    Would you care to provide some proof or evidence to substantiate this far-fetched claim? I would be very interested in seeing what would compell you to make such a strnge and seemingly sexist claim, especially in light of no proof.

    Exactly what reasoning brought you to this conclusion of yours? Wilson slept with Millay. Wilson was on the jury. Millay won the prize. Hence Millay won because she slept with Wilson? Is that it? lol. I hope to hell not.

    If I recall correctly, didn’t you have the same such argument regarding Jorie Graham’s rise to fame and forture?
    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  • On April 12, 2009 at 12:55 pm noah freed wrote:

    So, so weird, Thomas. To think Barbara Guest is not read today! Whose collected poems were published last year by Wesleyan, who is anthologized more than ever, to whom Chicago Review devoted a special issue recently! And Denise Levertov? Not read? Not read by you, I guess…

  • On April 12, 2009 at 7:12 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    And then there’s this, simply for argument’s sake:

    “Despite adverse comments on both sides, it would be an exaggeration and too one-sided a view to speak of a ‘war of the words’ between the sexes. There were attacks, but there was also admiration, and it was not always problematic. Neither was there an evident declaration of war, nor do the examples of negative criticism suffice to speak of war, even of cold war. The praise and attacks on both sides rather show that modernist women poets, on the whole, were not excluded from the dominant (male) literary world at the time.”

    From:
    Artistic Outlaws: The Modernist Poetics of Edith Sitwell, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein and H.D. by Sonja Samberger

  • On April 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Was it something I said?

  • On April 12, 2009 at 10:07 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Jack,

    What did I say?

    “Millay was sleeping with Edmund Wilson, who was probably on the Pulitzer Committee.”

    Hey, I love Millay.

    Her Pulitzer doesn’t change the fact that Modernism was a Men’s Club, so it really makes no difference whether my speculation here is proven correct, or not.

    Edmund Wilson was probably a great guy to know, but Millay deserves her fame; she’s a tremendous poet.

    Thomas

  • On April 12, 2009 at 10:16 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Helen Adam is delightful and Denise Levertov’s conscience will be missed, but I stand by what I said re: Donald Allen’s anthology.

  • On April 12, 2009 at 11:50 pm noah freed wrote:

    You can “stand by it” all you want, but it won’t prop you up.
    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090323/schwabsky

  • On April 12, 2009 at 11:52 pm noah freed wrote:

    Short version: more people are reading Guest than ever before, & her readership has grown enormously since her first publication in NAP. She is now one of the most read of that anthology’s poets.

  • On April 12, 2009 at 11:53 pm noah freed wrote:

    Modernism: a men’s club. Except for Stein. And Moore. And Woolf. And Loy. And Niedecker. And, and, and.

  • On April 13, 2009 at 7:04 am Jack Conway wrote:

    Thomas,
    You are a hoot. Now, whatever should we do with all the scholarly work that demonstrates otherwise?
    I’m not qute sure what rhetorical stance and appeal you have taken on this matter. It’s not logial, ehtical or emotional. Shall we add a new type of appeal for such an “argument?” Logos, ethos, pathos and what????
    Bombastic-os?

  • On April 13, 2009 at 1:43 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Noah,

    Thanks for ‘The Nation’ link. Don’t you recognize a puff piece when you read one?

    Are you really trying to tell me that Barabara Guest is a widely read author?

    So 15 men to 1 woman is not a Boy’s Club?

    And Jack accuses *me* of bombast…

    Thomas

  • On April 13, 2009 at 2:51 pm Jack Conway wrote:

    Thomas,

    I wouldn’t be so, well, bombastic, as to accuse YOU of being bombastic.
    Yrs.
    JC

  • On April 13, 2009 at 8:51 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Don’t you guys have jobs?

    Don’t you ever sleep?

    Just curious.

  • On April 13, 2009 at 10:06 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Gary,

    My job is to make you curious.

    I sleep 8 hours a day, mostly. I don’t watch late night TV, and when I read in bed, I fall asleep within 15 minutes.

    Thanks for recommending Harriet, by the way. It’s a great place.

    Thomas

  • On April 13, 2009 at 10:37 pm Jilly wrote:

    Dang I knew “200+ comments on Plath as a major poet” seemed too good to be true when I clicked on it.

    But I had hopes.

  • On April 13, 2009 at 11:13 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Jilly:

    If I interpreted your statement correctly, then you should read this thread again. Most of these comments are very serious and knowledgeable observations about Sylvia Plath. A tangent here and there, yes, but mostly dedicated poetry, and Plath, lovers here.

    I think this response alone (200+) demonstrates that she is a ‘major’ poet.

  • On April 14, 2009 at 3:07 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Jilly,

    Sorry your “hopes” were dashed.

    I had “hopes” for you, too, but *your* post wasn’t very interesting.

    Live and learn!

    Thomas

  • On April 14, 2009 at 4:08 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    From the Chronicle of Higher Education: Elaine Showalter on the cnanon and Plath ( http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=yq3wny99v1lhxh68w9y811tljpqq9pt8 ):

  • On April 14, 2009 at 4:10 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    well, block quote didn’t work. here’s the relevant Q & A:

    Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?

    Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a “sister”: That doesn’t sanctify her work. We can criticize it.

    I look with a critical eye at contemporary poetry, too. There are a great many talented woman poets today, but I don’t think any of them measure up to a Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. I don’t feel any male poets do either.

  • On April 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm Jilly wrote:

    I’m not going to apologize for expressing my desire to read on-topic material, Thomas. No need to make a personal insult.

  • On April 14, 2009 at 4:29 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    and a bit more on relations between academic and popular poetry, including some comments form Donald Hall and Dana Gioia on slam poetry: http://www.standupoet.net/APR.htm

    Does anyone here actually know whether Jorie Graham has ever been to a slam?

  • On April 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    I remember in the late 70s early 80s that students in the graduate creative writing classes I took (before ubiquitous MFA programs) were much more interested in Plath and Sexton than were the teachers, and that a (very) few of the women seemed to be more interested in Plath in particular as victim than as poet. That, and Showalter’s ranking of Plath and Rich as the two best English-language poets of the last half century, makes me wonder if any academic resistance there might have been to Plath’s canonization as a poet was caused by her previous canonization as a popular and feminist icon, rather than by any consideration of her poetry on its own term – some may have felt she was being pushed forward prematurely for extra-literary reasons.

  • On April 14, 2009 at 6:26 pm Jilly wrote:

    Thanks for that link Mike, I’m going to post it tomorrow.

  • On April 14, 2009 at 7:03 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Glad to be of service, Jilly!

  • On April 15, 2009 at 2:08 am john wrote:

    Mike,

    thanks for that link to the article on Slam. I agree that from Slam’s point of view, the divisions between Donald Hall and Charles Bernstein (to pick two emblematic names) are moot.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 2:18 am john wrote:

    Not that the differences are moot, but that the poetry gangs signified by “Donald Hall” and “Charles Bernstein” share common approaches and interests distinct from Slam. The Hall/Bernstein gangs both focus on the page — they’re page-centric; and both gangs agree that Slam should be kept out of the canon.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 10:29 am thomas brady wrote:

    Slam fails because it assumes there is a difference between its ‘performance’ poetry and other types of poetry, for ALL poetry is ‘performed,’ even when one person is reading a poem silently. The overly emotive slam poet simply doesn’t get it, doesn’t get how much they are over-doing it, how awful and in bad taste, they are.

    Live audiences are too easily made into rabbits, and certain slam poets take advantage of this.

    This does not mean a slam poem cannot be great; the point is, there is no distinction, really, between a slam poem and any other poem. Those who don’t see this, are bound to be working at a great disadvantage.

    T.S. Eliot mumbling his poems is Slam. All poetry has an out-loud, or Slam element. But Slam, per se, is not poetry.

    Slam, as self-consciously performed, is mostly poetry blown up into bad taste.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 10:35 am thomas brady wrote:

    There are, but have never been called as such, ‘stanza poets’ and ‘line poets.’

    The old poets tended to be ‘stanza poets,’ Pope, Landor, etc

    Whitman and most 20th century practitioners are ‘line poets.’

    By using the terms ‘line poetry’ and ‘stanza poetry, we might save ourselves from a lot of carping and hair-splitting over the differences between prose, poetry and verse.

    A ‘stanza poet’ is usually a formalist master, more so than any ‘line’ poet is, yet the ‘stanza poet’ has traditionally been demeaned with the ‘verse’ label.

    Meanwhile, ‘line poets,’ who often insist they are writing poetry and not prose, can no longer necessarily escape the ‘verse’ label.

    For a long period the ‘line poets,’ have enjoyed a reputation never tainted by the artificial insinuations of ‘verse,’ and yet a ‘line poet’ may be more of a ‘versifier’ than a ‘stanza poet,’ who unquestionably writes poetry and not prose.

    “Verse” has come to be associated with the artificial and the quaint, and since Modernism, ‘line poets’ have managed to escape this taint, unlike their counterparts, the ‘stanza poets.’

    By using the simple terms above, a harmful prejudice will disappear at once, and a cloud of confusion regarding poetry, prose, and verse will be lifted.

    Plath, unlike many of her contemporaries was instinctively a ‘stanza poet.’

    “Daddy,” her masterpiece, is brilliant and ground-breaking in its use of stanzas–which keep their character while displaying brilliant, nuanced variety.

    Early Plath uses stanzas in a plodding, imitative manner; the Plath of October, 1962 is stunning, by comparison.

    Plath was moving into ‘major’ territory at the end of her life.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 10:39 am Don Share wrote:

    I’m just going to say that I think The Colossus should not be underestimated in comparison to the Ariel poems. It’s like saying that Lord Weary’s Castle sucks because Life Studies was more innovative. (I know people do say that.) Coming from anyone else, Plath’s first book would be regarded as a marvel, which it still is today. Just my opinion.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 11:34 am thomas brady wrote:

    Don,

    I think “Ariel” did signify a major break.

    Early Plath is a girl learning her craft, and the imitations of Roethke, Auden, for instance, are palpable. The poems often suffer from obscurity, vagueness, and an attempt to please the New Critical school with ‘symbolic complexity’ which plays out in a wooden, redundant, manner.
    She’s writing with the eyes of others, mostly, in those earlier poems.

    Ted’s betrayal of Sylvia woke her up and released her genius, which maybe she would have found anyway.

    Thomas

  • On April 15, 2009 at 11:47 am Don Share wrote:

    A “girl”? Ouch. And again the “New Critics” shibboleth!

    No, her genius was released by sharp study and long toil, the way it always is.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 2:25 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Don,

    I agree “sharp study” is crucial, but the word “released” is more appropriate for what happened to Plath quite suddenly.

    New Criticism was huge mid-century.

    Thomas

  • On April 15, 2009 at 2:46 pm Don Share wrote:

    Plath didn’t hang out with New Critics, huge or otherwise, nor write for them. Her development wasn’t sudden at all. She worked for it. But I’ll duck out now so others can say a word or two.

  • On April 15, 2009 at 8:49 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Plath was *soaking* in the New Criticism.

    The Beatles didn’t hang out with Little Richard and Chuck Berry, either, but they sure were playing their music.

    Sylvia wasn’t writing the loose, experimental, clear-image, Pound-Williams stuff, self-conscious modernism was not her thing; she sure as hell wasn’t writing like Rupert Brooke, and she was certainly not letting it all hang out like the Beats.

    What do you think that formalist, over-wrought, symbolist, abstract, obscure, text-meaty stuff WAS that she was writing?

    She was trying to impress the tweedy New Critics! She was eating tweed with her eggs for breakfast.

  • On April 16, 2009 at 10:37 am Don Share wrote:

    The Beatles did hang out with Little Richard and Chuck Berry!

    Q.E.D.

  • On April 16, 2009 at 11:01 am thomas brady wrote:

    Yes, *after* they were famous Beatles and had long imitated their music…

    One can be influenced by people one does not ‘hang’ with.

    That’s sort of obvious, isn’t it?

    Did Plath hang out with Roethke? She certainly imitates him all over the place…

  • On April 16, 2009 at 11:09 am Don Share wrote:

    For the first time since Harriet was invented, I’m unable to follow an argument. I’m going back to the parody thread.

  • On April 16, 2009 at 11:31 am michael robbins wrote:

    I think this is the parody thread.

  • On April 16, 2009 at 12:54 pm Don Share wrote:

    And to think I imitated Roethke without ever having met him!

  • On April 16, 2009 at 1:06 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I imitated Don imitating Roethke hanging with Plath adoring fascists who are bigger than Jesus.

  • On April 16, 2009 at 1:39 pm Don Share wrote:

    That’s how MR got into the New Yorker in fact.

  • On April 16, 2009 at 2:23 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Plath didn’t hang out with New Critics, huge or otherwise, nor write for them.”

    I’m a bit confused, myself.

    Don, perhaps when you explain what you meant by this, which got the ball rolling, we’ll be all set!

  • On April 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Michael,

    That’s brilliant!

    The honor of the 300th post is reserved for you!

    Thomas

  • On April 16, 2009 at 3:07 pm Don Share wrote:

    Let’s see, taken out of context it does sound odd. So:

    Sylvia Plath did not hang out with New Critics, nor did she write for them.

    Better?

  • On April 17, 2009 at 5:43 am Annie FInch wrote:

    These recent comments (love the parodies!) inspired me to dig out my notes from the Oxford Plath’s-75th-birthday conference (http://www.plathsymposium2007.org/)and I found a quote from Hughes which I believe was cited by Judith Kroll in an excellent paper on “Poem for a Birthday”–a poem Kroll said was indeed strongly influenced by Roethke. Hughes said that “in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, the autobiographical details function like masks” (ie completely different from the way they function in Lowell and Sexton).

    I don’t think it is far off to say Plath was writing for the New Critics—or perhaps for descendents of the New Critics who hadn’t been born yet, but brought the same kind of highly serious attention to the details of poetic language. Her poems can sustain very complex and attentive readings. In the new book Multiformalisms there is a superb essay by Irene Praitis called “Plath’s “Daddy” and the Dynamics of Form” that uses “Daddy” as a model poem to reconceptualize the relationship between form and content as one of active negotiation (not just as form “expressing” content as the New Critics would have it). The reading sheds wonderful light on “Daddy” and how it works. Plath would, I think, have been pleased.

    Smith College, by the way, held a spinoff conference from the Oxford conference last spring.
    http://www.smith.edu/libraries/fyi/plathconference.htm#schedule

    A glance at the program shows that like the much bigger Oxford conference, it was rich in the different kinds of of approaches to Plath. There aren’t many poets who inspire this combination of depth and range of engagement.

  • On April 17, 2009 at 8:57 am thomas brady wrote:

    Thank you, Annie!

    A voice of sanity….

    I thought I fell through the rabbit hole…

  • On April 17, 2009 at 10:57 am Don Share wrote:

    Pretty tenuous link to the N.C.’s there, I’d say. To which of them was she writing for? I’d love to know. Not that it matters, ‘cos it doesn’t.

    Explain, too, why it’s bad that she imitated Roethke in some way. At Yaddo, she checked out his books from the little library they have there, and was plainly interested in him. And tons of other poets, too, a salutary and natural thing. She was diligent.

  • On April 17, 2009 at 11:03 am thomas brady wrote:

    Don,

    New Criticism was the dominant trend in English and American literary criticism from the 1920s to the early 1960s.

    “To which of them was she writing for?”

    ?????

    Do you need a photo of John Crowe Ransom with a whip?

    Thomas

  • On April 17, 2009 at 11:07 am thomas brady wrote:

    Don,

    “Explain, too, why it’s bad that she imitated Roethke”

    ?????

    I absolutely never said it was “bad” that Plath was imitating Roethke.

    Reading Plath, Roethke jumped right out at me. It’s right in her work; I didn’t even need to consult a source, the influence was so obvious to me…

    Thomas

  • On April 17, 2009 at 11:15 am Don Share wrote:

    Is this “obvious” influence bad? Is it OK? I don’t get the point being made about Roethke and Plath, sorry.

    Don’t need a photo, just a demonstration of just how she wrote for New Critics, and for which of them (surely they aren’t interchangable) she was writing. That’s all.

  • On April 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Don,

    Since you seem anxious to play student, OK, I’ll play teacher:

    Literary influence takes roughly two forms: One can be influenced by other poets, or one can be influenced by critics, or critical trends.

    The dominant style of English/American poetry, the Romantics thru Tennyson thru Millay did not simply end.

    Critical trends are replaced by something else; they don’t simply stop on their own.

    Imagism was a tiny, eccentric critical trend that fizzled out in the early 20th century, and probably had its widest influence in haiku workshops for kids in grade school in the 50s and 60s.

    The critical trend of New Criticism, see “Understanding Poetry,” the college text by Brooks and Warren, the critical essays of T.S. Eliot and Ransom, etc formed *the* Critical Trend which replaced the previous dominant style mentioned above, the Romantics thru Tennyson thru Millay.

    If everyone’s reading Tennyson, the poets, in 99 cases out of a hundred, will write like Tennyson.

    The poets will not stop writing like Tennyson until a new Critical trend comes along.

    Critical trends are powerful influences, but they influence in a far different manner than do the poets.

    The poet (Tennyson) provides a positive model on how poets should write (like Tennyson).

    The critic provides no such positive model; criticism cannot be imitated. The critic chiefly influences the poets by saying, ‘It’s time to stop writing like Tennyson.’

    The New Critics created an atmosphere. They commented on various works. There was nothing there for Plath to imitate, per se, but she was clearly influenced by the New Critics, as most poets writing in the mid-20th century were.

    As Jarrell argued, New Critical Modernism was really not that great a break from Romanticism. Roethke, who influenced Plath, was a kind of John Clare, a member of the ‘madness’ school, which is a Romantic one, and leads right into the Confessionals, etc

    Thomas

  • On April 17, 2009 at 12:14 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m not your student, and you didn’t answer the question. Over and out.

  • On April 17, 2009 at 12:16 pm michael robbins wrote:

    It’s yr own fault, Don.

    Saying Plath was “influenced” by the New Critics requires ignoring her actual practice – you’ll note Brady adduces no readings to support his position. But we do get more dicta passed off as critical analysis. All such fiats simply invite the uninterested response: O RLY?

    Jarrell was hardly the first or last to see modernism as an extension of romanticism, but it’s a bit more complicated than the caricature presented here.

  • On April 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm john wrote:

    “By the 1950s, modernist antisentimentality had acquired, through the influence of the New Critics, something of the status of an orthodoxy. Although Plath does locate herself in relation to female models of writing (both high and low), it is the canonic male modernists Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Lawrence, Stevens, Auden, many of whom were still publishing when Plath began to write (in 1952 . . . ), in addition to older contemporaries such as Roethke, Wilbur, and Lowell, who preside over elite literary culture. As Adrienne Rich . . . points out in her 1971 ‘When We Dead Awaken’, women poets of the 1950s had to apprentice themselves to authoritative male models if they wanted to be taken seriously as poets.” — Christina Britzolakis, “Sylvia Plath and the theatre of mourning”

    “Sylvia Plath is indeed a rare talent and a consummate craftsman . . . her powerful poems crackle and smoulder with energy.” — Guy Owen, blurb on the back of “The Colossus”

    The crackling and smouldering, the compacted energy — which I feel in the poems too — call to mind Lowell more than Roethke for me; but in any case, I think it’s fair to say that the New Critics had a large influence on the mainstream poetic milieu of the 1950s, and that Plath’s was writing in, and for, that milieu. This is no complaint against Plath — her stuff does smoulder and crackle — it’s terrific stuff — and it worked in that milieu.

  • On April 17, 2009 at 2:05 pm Tom wrote:

    Ugh, hindsighty litcrit (which still doesn’t make the case).

    But Lowell, yes: and no New Critic, he.

    Still, we know better than to be reducing poets to a milieu, don’t we??

  • On April 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “But Lowell, yes: and no New Critic, he.” –Tom

    ????

    Robert Lowell camped out on Allen Tate’s front lawn.

    Allen Tate? You know, him, right? The NEW CRITIC Allen Tate?

    And you accuse *me* of reductionism…?

  • On April 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm john wrote:

    Who’s reducing?

    No, Lowell wasn’t a New Critic. But, from what I’ve read, the New Critics’ then-recent canonization of Donne had an impact on his early poetry. Usual caveats apply: I could be wrong!

    Sorry you didn’t like the example. Thomas’s observation seemed to be unexceptionable to me (as it seemed to seemed to to Annie too); Don and Michael seemed to be asking for some documentation or verification; I googled “Plath” and “New Critics,” and the first quote came up near the top of the list.

    My case:
    1. New Critics influenced the mainstream poetry milieu of the ’50s.
    2. Plath was writing in and for that milieu.
    3. This is slightly different than saying that “Plath was writing for the New Critics,” but it’s reasonably related.
    4. This is also different than saying, “Plath’s work was determined by her adherence to the orthodoxy of her milieu.” It wasn’t; if I implied as much, I didn’t mean to.

    You don’t agree, that’s fine. Please feel invited to say why!

  • On April 17, 2009 at 3:53 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Here’s more:

    Robert Lowell transferred from HARVARD (2 yrs) to KENYON COLLEGE (2 yrs) to study under JOHN CROWE RANSOM. Lowell also took graduate courses in Louisina with ROBERT PENN WARREN and CLEANTH BROOKS.

    “Lowell, yes, and: no New Critic, he”

    Riiight. Lowell had nothing to do with the New Critics!

    LOL

    Uh…you might want to check again, Tom.

    There’s seems to be a creeping ignorance around here about 20th century American poetry…

    Thomas

  • On April 17, 2009 at 4:04 pm Tom wrote:

    Pardon me: I did not say that Lowell had nothing to do with the New Critics. I said he was not one. Read closely! Oh, yeah, that’s a new critical approach, sorry, Prof. Brady!

  • On April 18, 2009 at 9:35 am Annie Finch wrote:

    I jumped into the New Critical thread without reading back to how it began (the new site’s system of hiding a chunk of middle-of-the-thread comments makes that tempting).

    When I read back and saw how that discussion started–the way the New Critics were first brought in as a way of condescending to The Colossus–I regretted a portion of my post.

    When I said that it seemed Plath was writing for literary close readers, the type of reader represented by the New Critics at that time, I didn’t mean that in any condescending way. And I don’t think The Colossus a journeywork at all, but a strong and marvelous book.

    Just for the record.

    Roethke, by the way, is one of those rare male poets who, like Poe and Longfellow, had a strong, real interaction with, respect for, and influence on women poets—and not just female poets who happen to be women, but female poets who identify with women’s poetic tradition. For that matter, he has influenced me quite a bit also.

  • On April 18, 2009 at 4:08 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Annie,

    I apologize if I’ve given the impression of denigrating Plath for following the New Critics. This was never my intention.

    It is not condescending to say that Plath was influenced by the New Critics. The New Critics were gods during the time when Plath was learning her craft and attempting to succeed as a poet.

    Yes, Roethke was very influential mid-century.

    Tom,

    Robert Lowell’s extraordinary pilgramages to New Critical shrines, aggressively thrusting himself before the tutelage of Tate, Ransom, (leaving Harvard to study with him) Brooks, and Warren is not something to be avoided with a glib, ‘well he was not a New Critic.’ As I’ve said before, New Criticism was the atmosphere these poets swam in; and as much as a critical philosophy can exist, and can be said to be influential, New Criticism was it, and Lowell dove head-first into the pool; obviously one would never point to a line of Lowell’s and say, “Ransom told him to write that,” but if one is unable to see the influence of New Criticism on various writers, and to ponder it as a philosophy which is still influential today, and one must rely on encyclopedias to identify the ‘New Critics,’ (like collecting baseball cards) then one simply does not belong in a discussion such as this.

    This is not to say that the New Criticism is perfect; far from it, nor am I saying that personalities and cliques and ambition were not a factor among these men and their followers, but that’s for another discussion.

    Thomas

  • On April 18, 2009 at 6:29 pm Abby Millager wrote:

    I find it fascinating that the question of whether Plath is a major poet instantly devolved into convoluted handwaving over her influences. Why is that?

    1) Because no one dares weigh in, for or against?

    2) Because Plath was extremely self conscious as a writer, so somehow, fussing over the poetry establishment of the time seems appropriate?

    3) ?

    I’ve never written on this board before, so I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out.

    For me, (and this is mega generalization) Plath’s earlier poems are interesting but overwrought–obviously self-conscious. The diction is amazing and worth study on its own, but it’s as if her perfectionist self worked those poems over so hard, she drained all the life out of them–lost the original impulse, I don’t know. They lack something–spontaneity? Authenticity? They may be clever, but they try too hard and they don’t make me care

    UNTIL

    around 1961, the hospital poems–”Tulips” (My husband and my child smiling out of the family photo;/Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks) and “The Surgeon at 2am” (Gray faces, shuttered by drugs, follow me like flowers.)

    But there are still self conscious poems and I always put “Daddy” in this category. I know it’s supposed to be some big feminist anthem, but to me it’s just way over the top. I’ve never been able to buy into it.

    It’s only at the very end, ’62-’63 when I feel Plath quits caring so much what others will think (though she always always has an audience in mind) and starts writing for herself, or almost becomes detached from herself (generally unhinged) and starts writing anonymously, that I really start to love her. For me, then, she finally becomes human.
    But to actually answer the question– OF COURSE SHE’S A MAJOR POET, WHY IS ANYONE EVEN ASKING THIS?

    Because–I think she scares the heck out of people, particularly men. She creeps people out. She’s depressing. She has become a cliche of a particular type of poet from a particular time. Her writing is very direct–unfeminine, in the traditional sense (and she occasionally writes about stuff like placentas.) We still have the same situation now–if you’re a powerful, forceful woman, you are a bitch. Voila. Plath was ambitious, unflagging, and (on paper) loud. Brash. Competitive (with her husband! omg.) And very good at what she did. So she was screwed. Ted Hughes’ being part of the Brit establishment certainly couldn’t have helped her reputation in GB. IMO, her work is fascinating and instructive and unique. Everybody’s work is somewhat the product of an era. dwi.

  • On April 19, 2009 at 8:36 am thomas brady wrote:

    Thanks, Abby.

    You’ve echoed most of the sentiments I’ve already expressed.

    I think “Daddy” is her best poem.

    And you’re right, and I think I used the same term earlier, ‘She creeps people out.”

    Not men, necessarily, “people.” She creeps people out, because when she became a great poet she was going through a harrowing experience which was not fit for children.

    Here’s the deal, and here’s what T.S. Eliot and the New Critics were grappling with. Let me put it in real simple terms.

    New Criticism is simply another name for the first, real, modern, academic, subtle, rigorous examination of what the hell poetry was, where its appeal lay, what value did it have, etc.

    My examination of Plath’s influences is not meant to condemn her or belittle her. She was a professor, she was living in a world of the New Criticism, which was 1) academic, i.e., fusing poetics with a high intellectual charge 2) ambitious, i.e., professors, lecturers, poets were looking out for each other and 3) highly conscious of the ‘great poet’ whose ideal was fading but was still possible.

    Shakespeare is a major poet because he appeals to professors and children. A Robert Penn Warren, who lectured at Princeton in 1941 on “Pure and Impure Poetry” can enjoy a play by Shakespeare, but can so can bright, sensitive, 7 year old child.

    All sorts of complexities and ironies are presented by Shakespeare in his plays, as well as different types of poetry; the bawdy cynicism of Mercutio sits side-by-side with the sweet verse of the lovers, etc.

    Juliet plays New Critic to Romeo when she says, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,/that monthly changes in her circled orb”

    Robert Penn Warren: “The lady distrusts ‘pure’ poems, nature spiritualized into forgetfulness. She has, as it were, a rigorous taste in metaphor, too; she brings a logical criticism to bear on the metaphor which is too easy…”

    Here, in a nutshell is the New Criticism. How does that great, amazing Shakespeare do it? Ah, I see, Juliet is a critic…poetry is criticism, criticism is poetry…

    No shame at all in being critically self-conscious in this manner; it is not speculation that those who think most critically are the great poets; it is a truism. Eliot’s criticism made him a great poet.

    Shakespeare as playwright had tremendous advantages, however. It is no wonder that Eliot wandered into playwrigting, that Keats wrote a play, that Poe, the poet and critic, succeeded wildly as a short, popular prose writer…

    Now, you had all these professors pulling out their hair over lyric poetry. Lyric poetry! You had sophisticated adults adducing what was great in poetry, a self-conscious academic orgy, and it led them all down a path of despair, since how could a professor writing poetry for other professors ever compete with the guys they were studying, like Shakespeare, who could present such complexity in his Romeo, Mercutio, Juliet, his high, his low, his pure, his impure poetry, his ironies, his everything? And a bright 7 year old child can appreciate the wild juxtapositions, since Mercutio is there, right on stage, and then so is Romeo, a few minutes later, with Juliet, all the complexity presented in the form of dramatic persons.

    Plath reaches major poet status ONLY when “Daddy” presents a DRAMA in which she is one of the persons in her own harrowing life.

    New Criticism was a triumph in its rigor and self-consciousness, but a failure for the same reason; it became an over-analysis because it began to seize upon its own discoveries as profound and worth indulging in; the New Critics forgot Shakespeare and began to love what they had discovered in Shakespeare by taking him apart, and then qualifying this and qualifying that, and finally the pieces lay everywhere, and Academia today has still not put them back together again.

    A major poet appeals to the simple, child-like element in humanity.

    After the New Criticism, that is impossible. Plath is very much a product of New Criticism; her triumph is that she finally, to some degree, at least, resisted New Critical “resistances.”

    Thomas

  • On April 19, 2009 at 11:22 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks Abby for your succint and energetic post! I hope you will continue to be part of this conversation.

    Irene Praitis’ essay on “Daddy” which I mentioned earlier does a great reading of the rhythmical complexity of the poem and how it works with the meaning on many levels to create something much greater than the surface.

    It occurs to me that in Daddy she might be using the conscious artificing of the earlier poems combined with the passion of the later poems, for a powerful combination.

    maybe that’s why the poem is so famous and also why you find it feels forced.

    personally I don’t mind apparent artifice in poetry in the right circumstances, though sometimes it takes me multiple readings to get below the surface and appreciate the deep power artifice can offer.

  • On April 19, 2009 at 12:45 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Annie,

    I’m blown away by the stanzaic precariousness of “Daddy;” it’s one thing to play with the reader’s expectations of line (which is much easier, since a line is easy to end, or break, and even medicore poets pull that trick all the time) but Plath threatens to kill her stanza-order all through “Daddy” while rescuing it in new ways–I don’t think there’s anything quite like this performance in all of poetry.

    Thomas

  • On April 19, 2009 at 4:25 pm Irena Praitis wrote:

    Hello Everyone,

    Like Abby, I’ve never posted on this site before. However,I find this discussion fascinating, and so I’d like to jump in.
    Plath is a major poet, in my opinion, because she reworks the possibilities of language. I sense, in her strongest work, a tension played out not only through harrowing subject matter, but through poetic forms.
    In the poem “Daddy,” for example, Plath pressures language itself and the roles language plays in establishing, defining, and limiting our culture and our self-identity. The haunting (or childlike, or irritating, or sarcastic, it’s been described many ways) “oo” sound recurs unceasingly throughout the poem. Through that sound, Plath unhinges language from its definitive, contained, oppressive-promoting role, and unleashes its connotative potential. That we are unable to pinpoint the exact effect of the sound is testament to just how liberated the sound becomes in direct defiance of the strained, tense, and highly crafted verse. As Plath releases the potential of sound from the pressures of definitive meaning, she reveals that as much as a society employs language to oppress, trap, and limit identity and reality, inherent within language (in its sound, its rhythm, and its multivalence-in its “poeticness”) is the potential to free identity and reality.
    Plath’s work with sound in “Daddy” is just one of the poetic features in that poem she builds upon and redraws. She makes use of rhyme, puns, meter, and other poetic elements and then expands their potential (or highlights it, or puts it into play in such a way that the language itself feels dangerous and new).
    The last word of the poem “Daddy,” is the word “through.” Not only does the word offer the last “oo” of the poem, it also, in its potential for multiple readings (I’m through/finished, I’m through/I’ve broken out), reveals that language, and poetic language in particular, is a means of continually re-imagining our selves and our realities.
    I haven’t even mentioned her revolutionary work with synecdoche and how it reclaims the possibilities of the body!
    Thank you, everyone, for the interesting posts. It’s been fun to read this thread!

  • On April 20, 2009 at 9:31 am thomas brady wrote:

    Irena,

    I’m glad you like the discussion.

    True, so true. The “oo” sound is “Daddy’s” musical leitmotif; it sort of reminds me of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” where he intentionally builds “The Raven” around the “or” sound of “nevermore.” Poe understood how important shape, sound, length, duration, repetition, tangible physical properties, contibute to music and the music of poetry, things so obvious they often escape the nuanced poet/reader.

    You speak of the oppressive, defining qualities of language. Yes! One uses these qualities to ‘break through.’

    Poe knew what presses down on us is true.

    Sylvia Plath at last discovered this, too.

    Thomas

  • On April 20, 2009 at 10:13 am Mike Snider wrote:

    A confession: I haven’t read Plath in 20 years because I used to have to work very hard to avoid trying to write like her. Didn’t seem to me that was going to work out very well. This thread has convinced me to pick her up again.

    And here’s a sidetrip on the New Critics as a boys’ club, a 1991 NYT obituary headline: Laura Riding, 90; Poet and Founder Of New Criticism.

  • On April 20, 2009 at 10:27 am Tom wrote:

    Sounds like anybody can be called (tarred, feathered?) a New Critic. Don’t people read what they talk about anymore?

  • On April 20, 2009 at 11:12 am thomas brady wrote:

    New Criticism is not merely theoretical; it has a highly practical element, as well.

    John Crowe Ransom originated the term New Criticism. You begin with the Fugitives/Southern Agrarians around Vanderbilt who were mostly Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, picking up the English scent which T.S. Eliot (same age as Ransom) was following.

    The practical element was this: Ransom said criticism needed to be professional and it needed to be learned in the academy. (see Ransom’s 1937 essay “Criticism, Inc.”)

    This is crucial. For Ransom and his followers like Allen Tate, journalists and professors who taught literary history were not acceptable as critics of poetry, especially new poetry. Thus began a sea change in the Academy, which sought to train the ‘professional critic.’

    One can view Ransom’s move cynically, a takeover of the academy and its little magazines and its subsidy and its classroom laboratories and p.r. etc by a modernist clique who were not getting a lot of genuine popular attention, or as a virtuous attempt to make criticism a science unsuitable for “amateurs,” as Ransom called them. In any case, Ransom and his followers, such as Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Paul Engle (Rhodes Scholar who got the Writers Workshop industry going at Iowa) succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

    New Criticism was the conservative, American wing of Modernism which took over the Academy; Pound and William Carlos Williams, for instance, certainly were not able to do what John Crowe Ransom was able to do.

    Anyway, this is just one important way of approaching the New Criticism.

    After all, when Imagism, and all these silly little manifesto movements led by Pound, fizzled, and he took off for Italy to eventually work for the Axis powers, who do you think kept moving forward in a practical manner? That’s right, the Fugitives, who morphed into the New Critics.

    Thomas

  • On April 20, 2009 at 2:02 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Irena, I’m delighted to see you here since I am such a fan of your essay in Multiformalisms. I love your take on the language of “Daddy,” which I guess can extend to many aspects of “poetic” language in general. It seems to offer a powerful way out of some of the binary traps that poetry can get stuck in, such as reference versus abstraction.

    Wow, Mike, that’s quite a headline about Laura Riding! Reading the article, I discover that she and Robert Graves are credited with founding New Criticism together through a magazine they edited. Who knew! This is certainly not the way most people think of Graves nowadays, when they think of him at all, nor of Riding.

    “what presses down on us is true”–
    ooo!!

  • On April 20, 2009 at 9:04 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    Annie, it is a pretty strange piece. But there’s another NYT article, by Louis Simpson, reviewing Graves’ nephew’s book about the relationship between Graves and Riding. Simpson makes a case for her influence on Auden, and also connects her with the New Critics:

    She published poems in The Fugitive, a magazine in Nashville to which John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson also contributed. They found her formidable, a woman of definite and strong opinions.

    .

    He goes on to compqre her to Salvador Dali.

    And Graves’ 1975 Collected is one of my favorite books, though I don’t much like the poems derived from the White Goddess stuff. I blogged about it yesterday.

  • On April 20, 2009 at 9:10 pm Mike Snider wrote:

    That could have been formatted better.

  • On April 20, 2009 at 11:32 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “She published poems in The Fugitive, a magazine in Nashville to which John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson also contributed.”

    ‘to which John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson also contributed????’ It was THEIR magazine. This article sounds a little dubious, like it was written under the naive impression that every literary credit is an accident.

    Graves and Ransom had begun a life-long correspondence before Riding was publised in ‘The Fugitive.’ Tate brought Riding briefly into the fold, but Ransom didn’t like her.

    I found this from an essay by Barbara Henning on Riding:

    She [Riding] was recognized early on by the Fugitives who published her in their journal and gave her a national award. Allen Tate expressed hope in a letter that Riding would be the one “to save America from the Edna St Vincent Millays”. In a private letter to Tate, however, John Crowe Ransom complained, “She had neither birth, subsistence, place, reputation nor friends, and was a very poor little woman indeed”. Her collaboration with the fugitives was brief; she was too difficult, low class, bohemian and experimental.

    ‘Save America from the Edna St Vincent Millays???’ This betrays the prejudice, I think, that the ‘little magazine’ modernist school had for those who were truly popular. Hugh Kenner, Pound’s man, also despised Millay, but more publically.

    Graves and Riding would go on to write ‘A Survey of Modernist Poetry’ in 1928, essentially covering the poets of ‘The Dial’ clique of the 1920s, Moore, Pound, Eliot, and Cummings.

    Riding didn’t stick with the New Critics; Ransom thought her too low-born and experimental, and she, together with Graves, of dropped out of the mainstream modernist poetry scene after a while.

    Like Plath, Riding and Millay didn’t fit into the Modernist Men’s Club.

  • On April 21, 2009 at 4:52 am thomas brady wrote:

    It sounds like the Fugitives should have been more careful about burning their letters.

    This is a glimpse into a John Crowe Ransom which I’m sure he would rather the world never have seen:

    “She had neither birth, subsistence, place, reputation nor friends, and was a very poor little woman indeed”.

    Creepy.

    Nor Allen Tate, this:

    “to save America from the Edna St Vincent Millays”

    Not quite as creepy because it could be seen as a mere aesthetic judgment–albeit an poor one.

  • On April 21, 2009 at 3:48 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    “Save America from the Edna St Vincent Millays”–and worded as if only another woman could do the job. Weird indeed.

    Just think how weird we will all look in the future, our “letters” online; burning any of them will be out of the question . . .

  • On April 21, 2009 at 4:09 pm Don Share wrote:

    Just came across this, by Rosanna Warren in the new Threepenny Review:

    “My brief against Plath was long. In poem after poem, genuine drama devolves into overstatement, a rhetorical boosterism that cancels imaginative trust. [...] Repetition and exaggeration can be artful resources. Over and over, Plath squanders those chances. I wonder if she is responsible for setting into circulation the many counterfeit coins of the word “terrible” which have flooded the market in recent years. Almost every poem of Plath’s suffers from a “terrible,” until the word is no more than a nervous tic: “a terrible fish” (“Mirror”); “the terrible wind” (“Among the Narcissi”); “their terrible faults” (“Berck-Plage”); “more terrible than she ever was” (“Stings”); “the terrible brains” (“Getting There”); “and in truth it is terrible” (“Totem”); and so forth. She is similarly profligate with blood and shrieks.

    And yet. I have forsaken my forsaking of Plath. I went back to her, this year, to see how she was keeping. I found her gift to me, this time, to be the opposite of what inspired me in my youth; now it is her deadpan quiet that moves me. Her understatements, her ellipses, her aphoristic compression. These moves—along with her elemental image-making—retain essential drama, and nel mezzo del cammin I find myself chastened and instructed by poems I had long avoided.”

    Full article here:
    http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_warren.php

  • On April 21, 2009 at 4:14 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Yeah, well, if you actually pay attention to Plath, you see that her “overstatement” is deliberate, ironic, undercut at almost every junction with humor. No one notices how funny Plath is. The poems that are supposed to be so self-dramatizing are alive with an awareness of their own ridiculousness. Seidel reminds me of her sometimes; just about no one else does.

  • On April 21, 2009 at 4:29 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m with you, MR. The Seidel comparison is pretty interesting, now that you mention it. I always thought that the Harvard reading of “Daddy,” which is stunning, lays bare both her ingenious prosody and some very dark humor.

    http://www.learner.org/catalog/extras/vvspot/video/plath.html

    And for fun:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=183617

    & some “reception” -

    http://www.english.illinois.edu/Maps/poets/m_r/plath/daddy.htm

    http://www.literaryhistory.com/20thC/Plath.htm

  • On April 21, 2009 at 4:46 pm michael robbins wrote:

    That Harvard reading is classic.

    I was composing a response to Annie’s point about our letters being now inflammable — to the effect that ones & zeroes are actually much easier to burn than paper, & that I doubt we will have to wait long for a huge data crash (might not be such a bad thing where my harried Harriet history is concerned) — when Harriet reverted to its old template, with March 29′s post. The internet has a sense of humor.

  • On April 21, 2009 at 8:43 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Fifty years from now, when we’ve completely forgotten how to even make electricity, we’ll all be back to books and horses, won’t we?

    Internet letters, my arse!

  • On April 22, 2009 at 11:17 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Yay, I get the 300th post!

  • On April 22, 2009 at 11:05 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Gary,

    “Books and horses.” Does that mean a lot of books on horses? I don’t think I could stand it!

    Annie,

    Woo hoo.

    300!

    Thomas

  • On April 23, 2009 at 8:50 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I would describe a ‘major’ poet as one who has touched a large number of people as opposed to one who has simply influenced other poets (or maybe both).

    300+ posts, here. Yes…Sylvia Plath is a major poet, don’t you think?

  • On April 24, 2009 at 7:51 am KateBB wrote:

    Once again, above, we hear the old argument about the great leap between The Colossus and Ariel, while the great “bridge” poems published in Winter Trees and Crossing the Water get short shrift!

    This week’s Prose Feature on Po Daily by Rosanna Warren is a personal piece about how the extreme Ariel poems appealed to her in adolescence and then fizzled for her when she matured. Once again, in that piece, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are received in deadly earnest, rather than as the darkly humorous dramatic monologues they are. Later, Warren found some other Ariel poems to admire instead; sure, that’s an option — but still the best of Plath’s opus remains, well, unread, it seems, its range and variety unheralded.

    I do agree that Plath’s life story has been too much of a driver for her fame. Had Plath survived her final depression, who knows if she would have even kept some of the more extreme Ariel poems, with their suffering, suffering, suffering?

    I fear I will go ungently to my grave flailing and screaming, read the entire Plath opus, read, read it!

  • On April 24, 2009 at 9:31 am thomas brady wrote:

    Katebb,

    I agree, read all of Plath.

    Some of her work suffers from obscurity, and sounds like someone with a gift for words with not a whole lot to say.
    But she had a gift, there’s no doubt.

    I rather prefer some of her so-called juvenilia, which actually has more clarity, such as ‘Never try to trick me with a kiss,’ to her somewhat blandly tricky early and middle periods when ‘respectable’ Plath was writing ‘respectable’ poems for ‘respectable’ journals in the 50s, pleasing the ‘knot-untying’ New Critics with tortured hints of doom over-stuffed into over-half-rhymed conventional stanzas.

    “Daddy” was not just an expression of a woman unhinged; it has technical merits (as I mentioned before: the highly inventive, driving, stanza scheme) which surpassed what she was doing before.

    There was an unspoken rule among the New Critics (who Plath was naturally in thrall to for a time as an ambitious poet of the 50s) that one should use form, but not jingle too much, and that one should err on the side of complexity rather than clarity; “Daddy” was not only a great big F__ you to her father and Ted but, unconsciously, I think, and driven by her personal despair, a great big F__ you to the tweedy, respectable New Critics: I’ll f*cking jingle and say exactly what I feel if I want.

    Thomas

  • On April 25, 2009 at 8:02 pm Terreson wrote:

    Annie Finch I am persuaded that the resistance to acknowledging Plath’s place as a major American poet is not entirely on the up and up. Having been tarred and feathered as a Confessional poet, and with a certain animus still in place against all the poets included under the label, recognizing her genius is simply not permissable, contravening a certain party line register.

    Nobody seems to get that the term confessional was coined by a critic of Robert Lowell’s “Life Studies,” intended pejoratively then and used pejoratively now. (One M.L. Rosenthal in 1959.) The poets themselves who have been lumped together never even considered the descriptor. They could have cared less about a critic’s opinion. But the prejudice keeps alive and well.

    As for whether or not Plath is a major poet, she can speak for herself. On You Tube I have found five or so links to Plath reciting her own poetry. Go to the links, follow her recitations with each poem on the page open in front of you. Her mastery of diction, rhetoric, metrical stress and musical pause, all the tools in a poet’s bag of tricks immediately, immediately come through. Then, of course, there is the duende her poetry possesses, the one thing without which no amount of verse accomplishment matters.

    Plath is a master all right, one whose poetry has had to answer to a certain prejudice against her for longer than John Keats, the Cockney poet, had to endure.

    Terreson

  • On May 24, 2009 at 3:10 am Justine wrote:

    I honestly feel that one doesn’t have to touch a certain number of lives to be considered “major”. If one poem, one stroke of the pen on paper speaks to one person other than the poet/writer, then in my humble opinion, the desired effect has been obtained.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 2nd, 2009 by Annie Finch.