Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Final Thoughts on Blogging

I'm pleased that my piece on the prevalent mode of discourse of poetry blogs got such extensive response. I don't expect it to change anything, but I'm happy to have at least started a conversation on an important topic.

Though most respondents were quite civil and thoughtful, even if they disagreed with me, I was surprised and dismayed that some others rather unself-consciously and even self-righteously engaged in the same sorts of petty nastiness and intellectual irresponsibility that my piece decried. I suppose, though, that indicates that I was onto something real.

I found a recent article about literary blogs in The New York Sun by poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch interesting with regard to my piece. Kirsch makes a number of rather uninformed sweeping generalizations about literary blogs (he is writing primarily of book review blogs, and seems unfamiliar with, or at least does not mention, poetry blogs in particular). For example, he writes that "the blog form, that miscellany of observations, opinions, and links, is not suited to writing about literature," and further asserts that "no blogger...even wants to achieve" "scope, complexity, and authority," though he does somewhat qualify this with the phrase "that I know." This lack of seriousness or intellectual ambition is obviously true of most bloggers, but it is also true of most print writers. But there are so many bloggers and no gatekeepers whatsoever, so this aspect is more conspicuous than with print.

A blog need not be merely a "miscellany of observations, opinions, and links," though in practice most blogs are. As those who trouble themselves to actually read it know, I treat my blog as a venue for my writing not different in kind than any other, though the immediacy and extent of response (usually, but not always, a good thing) is distinctly different. "The blog form," as Kirsch calls it, does not dictate the content or the shape of the materials it contains. Indeed, the blog is not a form at all, but only a public space, to be utilized in whatever fashion its owner sees fit.

While most bloggers do treat their blogs as private diaries (despite the fact that they are on public display), there is nothing about the blog as a medium that allows only for "bitesized commentary," and I can see no reason for assuming that there is. Nor are short pieces inherently substanceless. Many short print reviews are indeed “bitesized commentary," but this state of affairs is taken for granted. Certainly it is possible to say something in a pithy, concise manner, though it is harder than many people think. Ideally, such a short piece focuses on the essence of the work under discussion.

However, despite my disagreements with Kirsch's piece, I thought that this paragraph was an accurate description of the prevailing situation with regard to blogging.

“In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers—even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers—tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. [RS: This is a phenomenon that one saw in a virulent and extremely malicious form on Foetry.com, which I understand is now defunct, news I am quite pleased to hear.] As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog.”

Most people who start blogs do indeed think of themselves (not always justifiably) as outsiders, and nurse resentments of a sometimes frightening intensity toward what they see as the monolithic and exclusionary literary world that refuses to recognize their brilliance. But that is not the sum of the world of literary blogs. And there is more overlap between blog writers and print writers than Kirsch seems to be aware of.

Kirsch also closes his article on a very reasonable note.

“Still, it is important to distinguish between the blog as a genre and the Internet as a medium. It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages—ease of access, low cost, potential audience—are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications—like Contemporary Poetry Review (www.cprw.com), to which I occasionally contribute—that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose. But there's no chance that literary culture will thrive on the Internet until we recognize that the ethical and intellectual crotchets of the bloggers represent a dead end.”

These will be my last posted thoughts on this matter, as blogging about blogging is just a little too insular and self-referential. I would prefer to focus on more substantial topics.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Few Recent Posts of Interest

On his wide-ranging and always engaging blog, Robert Philen has several recent pieces dealing perceptively with music, popular, jazz and classical.

Arguing against the frequently apparent desire to valorize jazz by calling it America's native version of "classical" music, "Jazz Is Not America's Classical Music" focuses on the distinct qualities of American jazz and American classical music. To conflate the two, as he points out, is to miscontrue the nature of jazz and to misrecognize what's unique and valuable about it, as well as to marginalize America’s classical music tradition, one which includes such composers as Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland,Philip Glass, Charles Ives, and Steve Reich. Jazz doesn't need to be America's classical music. It is better to appreciate both in their own terms.

"The Experience of Live Music" addresses both the experience of seeing musicians produce the organized sounds we recognize as music and the differences between the experience of watching/hearing a live music performance and the experience of listening to a recording, even of the same piece of music. It also discusses the ways in which the two experiences interact with and inform one another.

"Generation Gaps, Popular Music, and Affluence" looks at changes in popular music tastes in an historical and social context, that of rising middle class affluence after World War II and of a changing conception of "youth" that was no longer restricted to the chronologically young, a change in the place of play and leisure in adult life which was made possible by that postwar affluence.

I encourage everyone interested in these topics to read these well-argued and well-written pieces.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Difficulty in Poetry: a revision

This is a highly revised amalgamation of two much earlier posts.

“What are these songs
straining at sense—
you the consequence?”

Louis Zukofsky, Anew 10


It’s been the fashion at least since the Modernists to complain that contemporary poetry has become difficult, and that this difficulty has alienated the readers who used to flock to poetry as they now flock to John Grisham novels and American Idol marathons. I am not sure what constitutes the easy poetry these people look back to: Shakespeare? Donne? Milton? I’m also not sure when and where this massive poetry audience existed. The great majority of the nineteenth century counterparts of those who now watch television and read pulp fiction were barely literate. They certainly weren’t seduced away from their immersion in Keats and Browning by the advent of the mass media. Conversely, Dylan Thomas was one of the most popular poets of the Nineteen Forties and Fifties, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his work is nothing if not “difficult” (and it isn’t nothing, though it is somewhat forgotten today). And both avant-gardeners and poetic populists are often too busy bashing T.S. Eliot to remember that he practically filled arenas when he gave readings. Today John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, whose work is usually considered to be challenging at the least, are among our most popular poets, prominent enough to have each been profiled in The New Yorker, a magazine not usually known for overly taxing its readers.

I don’t believe that the imaginary “average person” doesn’t want to be challenged and stimulated. There is, for example, a whole industry of verbal challenges that the so-called general public relishes, as evidenced by the popularity of crossword puzzles of all kinds.

In the perennially popular “death of poetry” discourse, there’s a consensus that people don’t read poetry because it’s too hard, too “elitist” (another word that should be expunged from the English language: it’s never descriptive, only pejorative). I’ve always thought the opposite, that most poetry isn’t hard enough, in the sense that’s it’s not interesting or engaging enough. It doesn’t hold the attention—you read it once or twice and you’ve used it up. That engagement I look for and too often miss is a kind of pleasure, in the words, the rhythms, the palpable texture of the poem. It’s the opposite of boredom.

Literary critic Vernon Shetley, who observes that most contemporary poetry has grown less, not more difficult, since the Moderns (perhaps it might be more accurate to say, most contemporary “mainstream” poetry), argues in his book After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America that “only by increasing the level of intellectual challenge it offers can poetry once again make itself a vital part of intellectual culture” (3-4). I would add that poetry’s challenges and pleasures are far more diverse than the intellectual, though I do believe that the intellectual is an essential element in poetry: to modify Eliot’s dictum, the poem must be as intelligent as possible.

Many years ago I sat in on a class of Ted Kooser’s in which he asserted that a reader wants to be led by the hand through a poem, that readers have no patience with being baffled, no tolerance for mystery. I had to interject that I hated to be led by the hand through a poem. I’d rather that the poet assume that I can make my own way through a poem, though I do prefer that there at least be pathways, even if they’re not paved and lit. I don’t object to being baffled, though I may not wish to remain in bafflement indefinitely. Just as mystery can be part of a person’s allure, so mystery in poetry can be a lure. Yeats calls this “the fascination of what’s difficult.” One wants to solve the mystery, or at least better understand its source. Sometimes one discovers that the mystery isn’t to be solved, but still that process of exploration has helped one to know it better, to experience it more fully. (Superficial mystery is merely shallowness posing as depth. As Howard Nemerov notes, some poets “wish to make common matters singular, easy matters hard, and shallow thoughts profound.”) Billy Collins has written that, “in the best of all possible worlds of reading, dealing with difficulty can be listed among poetry’s pleasures” (“Poetry, Pleasure, and the Hedonist Reader,” in The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry, edited by David Citino, 25).

What I cannot bear, as a reader or as a person, is to be bored. For a poem to be boring is much worse than for a poem to be baffling. In Marianne Moore’s words, “Paramount as a rule for any kind of writing—scientific, commercial, informal, prose or verse—we dare not be dull” (“Idiosyncrasy and Technique,” A Marianne Moore Reader 172). (Dullness is as much the enemy of poetry now as it was when Pope wrote.) Incomprehension and even frustration can seduce in poems just as they can in people: many objects of desire are obscure, but their outlines are clear. What does the sunlight breaking through the clouds that have hovered all day, then filtering through the leaves of the giant live oak tree in my back yard, “mean”? It is, I saw it, I felt in on my skin. You can see something too, feel that slight difference in the temperature when you step out from under that tree, your feet sinking a little into the thick layer of leaf litter. Too many bad poems, dull poems, are just meaning, with nothing or too little doing the meaning. I know what they mean, but I can’t be bothered to care. As Charles Bernstein notes, some poems are easy because they have nothing to say. Conversely, some poems are difficult for the same reason, in an attempt to cover up their vacuity. Poet Mark Granier points out that some poems are difficult merely in the manner of a difficult child, sullenly or gleefully sticking out their tongues at the reader.

It’s often said that “difficult” poems exclude potential readers. I feel excluded by poems that give me nothing to do as a reader, that offer me no new experience and nothing I didn’t already know. It’s wearying to read such poems, it makes me want to watch music videos instead, where at least one sometimes gets some glimpses of shirtless guys with six-pack abs. Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences. T.S. Eliot wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood. I would say analogously that good poetry can and should give pleasure before it’s understood. As Wallace Stevens noted of his supreme fiction, it must give pleasure. It’s this pleasure that makes one want to understand the poem. Whether my poems are always immediately graspable in terms of subject matter, I’ve always tried to give the reader something, in terms of language, imagery, rhythm, etc., to make the poem a sensual experience. Understanding something can be a pleasurable experience (it can also be intensely painful), but in poetry as in life there are other pleasures than understanding. In Billy Collins’s words, “Surely, you can enjoy a poem before you understand it….The grasping of a poem’s meaning, however provisional it may be, is only one of the many pleasures that poetry offers” (op. cit. 29).

I don’t “understand” some of my favorite poems. I don’t know what they “mean,” but I know what happens to me when I read them; I know the experience I’ve had and its effect on me. Hart Crane has been one of my favorite poets for over twenty years, but until I taught him I didn’t “understand” “The Broken Tower.” I’m glad that I do now, but only because that understanding has enriched an experience I was already having.

Geoffrey Hill observes that “difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. If you write as if you had to placate or in any way entice their lack of interest, then I think you are making condescending assumptions about people. I mean people are not fools. But so much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools.” I don’t want to be patronized or condescended to, as a reader or a person; I would prefer that the poet assume that I am both intelligent and interested.

The ideal reader is on the one hand willing and alert enough to actively participate in the poem’s production of meaning and on the other hand demanding enough to insist that the poem provide the material with which to produce such meaning and perceptive enough to see whether or not these pieces actually do form some kind of gestalt, however unexpected its shape. The poem may not adhere to standard, linear logic, but it must have a logic of its own.


It’s always important to define one’s terms, and yet it’s so rarely done. In order to clarify my topic of discussion, I offer here my anatomy of difficulty in poetry. I present the several kinds of difficulty in order of ascending complexity.

There is, first, lexical difficulty: the poem contains words with whose sense we are unfamiliar, or words used at variance from or even contrary to their dictionary definitions. Hart Crane’s poetry is a perfect example of such difficulty, full both of arcane and recherché words (“infrangible,” “transmemberment”) and of words given idiosyncratic or private meanings: for example, the use of the word “calyx” to mean both a cornucopia (ironic, since the bounty is death’s) and “the vortex made by a sinking vessel” (Crane’s explication) in this stanza from “At Melville’s Tomb”:

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then there is allusive difficulty; the poem that alludes frequently eludes. The poet refers to something we’ve not heard of, assumes a piece of knowledge we don’t have. If one doesn’t know that Herman Melville wrote obsessively about the sea, then one won’t understand that the ocean itself is treated as his final resting place, though the man himself died on dry land. If one does not have “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” and the rest of “To His Coy Mistress,” in one’s ear, the relationship of poem and title of Archibald MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell” will appear rather opaque, and some of the poem’s sense of doom may be lost. Similarly, if one does not recognize the place names (“And Lebanon fade out and Crete/High through the clouds and overblown//And over Sicily the air/Still flashing”), one will miss the grim irony of darkness flooding in from the east, usually associated with sunrise, rather than from the west. Sometimes the allusion is implicit or indirect: one will miss some of the force (and some of the humor) of Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something,” if one misses the presence of Narcissus in love with his own image in a pool in its description of a man who sees “Me myself in the summer heaven” reflected in the water of a well. In this case, one must not only recognize the allusion, but notice that an allusion is being made at all. Poems considered difficult often allude to material outside the common literary or intellectual frame of reference. Modernist poetry is particularly difficult in its wide range and idiosyncratic, often inexplicit, deployment of allusion.

There is also syntactical difficulty, the obstacle of complex, unfamiliar, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax: one cannot discern or reconstruct the relations of the grammatical units. Swerving away from the conventions of prose syntax has long been an integral part of poetic practice: as Howard Nemerov explains, it is “precisely the sort of rhetorical and musical variation which properly belongs to poetry and distinguishes it from prose” (“The Difficulty of Difficult Poetry,” Reflexions on Poetry and Poetics 25). The long, Latinate sentences of Milton’s Paradise Lost are one example of this kind of difficulty; the fragmented, fractured syntax of much experimental poetry is another. In the case of Paradise Lost, one can parse the syntax with patience and careful attention; in many avant-garde poems, the syntax is intended to remain indeterminate, deliberately unparsable, resisting the reader’s desire to make it cohere.

There is also semantic difficulty: we have trouble determining or deciding what a poem says or means, we cannot immediately decipher or interpret it. (It is important here to remember that sense and reference are distinct: sense is internal to the poem, as it is to language itself. As linguist David Crystal elucidates in How Language Works, “Sense is the meaning of a word within a language. Reference is what a word refers to in the world outside language” [188]. From this perspective, it’s more useful to think of the poem as a field of meanings than as a thing that means something else, a container for or vehicle of meaning.) Semantic difficulty encompasses figurative difficulty, in which we can’t unpack the poem’s metaphors, or can’t determine what is tenor and what is vehicle, especially when, as is frequently the case, one or the other is omitted, or when the presence and process of figuration is only implied. (This might be called the difficulty of elliptical figuration.) Difficulties interpreting tone, determining the stance and attitude the poem takes and wants the reader to take toward its material, would also fall under the heading of semantic difficulty.

Semantic difficulty can in turn be broken down into difficulty of explication and difficulty of interpretation. Some poems present both kinds of difficulty, some only one or the other. In the case of explicative difficulty, the reader cannot decipher the literal sense of the poem: “What is this poem saying?” One encounters this in Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb,” and he wrote an extensive explication of the poem for Harriet Monroe, founding editor of Poetry. In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do. John Ashbery’s poems, usually syntactically and explicationally clear, often present this interpretive difficulty. In a different way, and because of their very simplicity and bareness, William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” or “Poem” (“As the cat/climbed over/the top of//the jamcloset”) present extreme cases of interpretive difficulty, in which the “what” is so clear as seemingly to preclude a “why.” To say that one doesn’t know what a poem means, if one understands its literal sense, is to say that one doesn’t know why it’s saying what it’s saying. The reader asks, “Why am I being told or shown this?”

It is semantic difficulty which readers are usually experiencing when they say, “I don’t understand this poem.”

Then there is formal difficulty, what John Hollander calls the difficulty of problematical form: one cannot ascertain the poem’s shape, cannot hold it in one’s head as a construct. Or one cannot determine what kind of poem it is, and thus doesn’t know how to read it, in much the same sense that one might try and fail to “read” a person. The reader cannot determine or recognize the formal contract (on the analogy of Hollander’s concept of the metrical contract) to which the poem asks him or her to agree. This difficulty is most commonly encountered with poems that play with or violate conventions and expectations, that try to break and/or recreate form: remembering always the intimate relation of form and content, which, as Creeley wrote, are extensions of one another. The question the reader asks is, “What kind of poem is this?”

In the case of formal difficulty, one could add the possibility that the reader understands the terms of the poem’s formal contract, but refuses or feels unable to accede to them. Many American poetry readers today, raised on free verse, find it difficult to read metrical and/or rhyming poetry. They can’t hear its shape, can’t feel its rhythms; its sounds don’t make sense to their ears. This type of formal difficulty can be called rhythmic difficulty.

Formal difficulty is a particular case of what George Steiner, cited by Shetley, calls modal difficulty, my final kind. When we experience modal difficulty, “we fail to see a justification for poetic form, the root-occasion of the poem’s composition eludes or repels our internalized sense of what poetry should or should not be” (Shetley, After the Death of Poetry 7). Steiner actually writes, “what poetry should or should not be about,” but I broaden his statement to encompass not just topic or occasion but the poem’s status and recognizability as a poem. The two poems by Williams mentioned earlier are prime examples of modal difficulty. To some readers, they are not poems at all, in the same way that Jackson Pollock paintings are not “art” to some viewers. This another way of saying that those readers lack a frame for these poems. (One often suspects that those same readers, if they accept “The Red Wheelbarrow” as a poem, only do so because it has been taught so often as one; they have been trained to look for its supposed hidden meanings.) Clark Coolidge’s poems appear as gibberish to many readers: they present both semantic and modal difficulty. In the case of modal difficulty, a reader asks, “What makes this a poem?”

When people call a poem difficult, they are generally experiencing either semantic difficulty (“I don’t know what this poem is saying” or “I don’t know why this poem is saying what it’s saying”), formal difficulty (“I can’t see/hear the shape of this poem”), or modal difficulty (“I don’t recognize this as a poem”).

Another way to divide up the field would be to distinguish between difficulties of explication (which would include lexical, allusive, and syntactic difficulty), difficulties of interpretation (which would comprise the several varieties of semantic difficulty), and difficulties of recognition (which would encompass both formal and modal difficulty). These categories, of course, can and do overlap to a certain extent.

All of the kinds of difficulty I have enumerated and described are violations of readerly expectations. All readers, no matter how catholic in their tastes and in their knowledge, come to poems with some or another set of expectations. Readers may and do vary widely in their expectations of a poem, and they may have different expectations of different poems and different kinds of poems, but it’s impossible to approach a poem as if one were a blank slate, as in the philosophy of John Locke. Shetley points out that “readers’ training, expectations, and knowledge have everything to do with whether particular forms of language are experienced as difficult….Different groups of readers have different skills and expectations; allusions familiar to one…audience may be mysterious to another, and received conventions that structure the sense of what makes an utterance a poem may vary widely” (op. cit. 6,9). Every reader encounters poetic difficulty of some kind at some point.


Difficulty is not equivalent to complexity. Despite their deceptive surface simplicity, Ben Jonson’s poems on the deaths of his children, “On My First Daughter” and “On My First Son,” are complex; but they are not difficult. Many of e.e. cummings’s more typographically wayward poems are difficult, but not complex. This is another way of saying that they are obscure.

There is a difference between difficulty and obscurity. All obscure poetry is difficult, but (contrary to popular opinion) not all difficult poetry is obscure. Obscurity is a lack of clarity; it is a flaw.* Difficulty is not a virtue in and of itself, but obscurity is always a defect. Marianne Moore wrote that “one should be as clear as one’s own natural reticence allows one to be” (“Idiosyncrasy and Technique,” op. cit. 171). This can be rephrased as, one should be no more difficult than necessary. But it may prove necessary to be very difficult indeed, although there are some poets for whom difficulty is an end in itself, either for the sake of a sense of superiority over the reader or other poets, or for the sake of a sense of rebellion or transgression. Some forms of “difficulty” are as rote as the most well-rehearsed stump speech. I never set out to be “difficult” in my poems, nor do I try to hide things from the reader. Moore asks, “How obscure may one be?” and replies, “I suppose one should not be consciously obscure at all” (“Humility, Concentration, and Gusto,” op. cit. 125).

I take Moore’s admonition to refer to the clarity of the materials, of the saying and showing itself, not of what it means or how it’s to be interpreted. This is the clarity of an experience: the poem is an experience the reader has, and though one doesn’t always know what the experience “means,” one knows what happened, what one experienced. But if what happened isn’t clear, then there’s no possibility of making meaning out of it. As poet and critic Joan Houlihan points out, incoherence is neither mysterious nor difficult: it’s just another source of boredom. Moore again: “Nor can we dignify confusion by calling it baroque” (“Humility, Concentration, and Gusto,” op. cit. 123). The poet should provide the reader with the elements out of which the meaning or meanings can be assembled or produced, and the pieces of the mosaic should be clear and distinct (like Descartes’ ideas), even if their relations to one another are not immediately apparent. “Sometimes it appears to candid reflexion that great works of art give no meaning, but give, instead, like the world of nature and history itself, materials whose arrangement suggests a tropism toward meaning, order and form” (Howard Nemerov, “The Difficulty of Difficult Poetry,” op. cit. 30).


“To read a poem should be an experience, like experiencing an act” (Stevens, “Adagia,” Collected Poetry and Prose 905). The idea of the artwork as an experience also produces a basis for aesthetic judgment. One can (and should) ask, Does this artwork provide a unique, distinctive experience, one that hasn’t already been experienced, known, understood? Walter Benjamin describes shock and distraction as the modern mode of consciousness (or unconsciousness), in which most of our experience is not really experienced, doesn’t actually exist for us at all. Although art should be the antidote to this non-experience of distraction, most of what we read simply repeats and re-presents what has already been experienced (or non-experienced). A real work of art makes us stop and pay attention. It breaks through our crust of habit and routine.

I believe that all artists want to communicate with some audience or another, though that potential audience may vary enormously in size and/or kind. If one truly cared nothing about making contact with others, however few or select (not every poem is for every reader, or even for the same reader at every time and in every mood), there would be no reason to make art. One could simply commune with oneself within the confines of one’s own mind. But the will to communicate does not define the what or the how of communicating. A poem can communicate itself, in the way that a classical Greek statue or a Jackson Pollock painting does. This is another way of saying that poems are, or should be, experiences in themselves, and not just accounts of or commentaries on experience; they should be additions to the world, not simply annotations to it. If people think of poems as merely road markers or sign posts to something else, it’s no wonder that they don’t want to read them. I’d rather go to a place myself than look at a sign pointing out the direction to the place.

Those who define or evaluate a poem in terms of its content are making a serious category mistake. Poems are utterances, but they are first and foremost aesthetic artifacts, events and occasions in language. They often contain propositional statements, but those propositions are, in Susanne Langer’s term, sheerly virtual, the form of content, the shape of saying. It is this which distinguishes poetry from most other modes of discourse, in which the expressive or communicative function of language is dominant and in which the materiality of language is suppressed or ignored, or at best used only instrumentally to produce a desired effect in the reader or listener.

As Howard Nemerov has written, “The flat statement that poetry is or ought to be communication, even if it happened to be true, would be uninteresting. Some poetry, not necessarily the most interesting sort, has the clear intention of communicating—meanings. Other poetry has the clear intention of deepening the silence and space about itself…. Meanings, generally speaking, are derived from the world and meanings are communicable, but is the world communicable? The work of art imitates in the first place world, it does not immediately imitate meanings except as these occur in the world” (op. cit. 30).

Walter Pater famously asserted that all art aspires to the condition of music, and the musical analogy is very suggestive. On the one hand, music is intensely expressive, and on the other hand it’s hard (at least with instrumental music) to pin down exactly what is being expressed. Also, music is by definition organized and ordered, or it isn’t music, just noise or random sound, and the “meaning” of a piece of music is inextricable from its structure. Similarly, a poem means as much through its form, its shape in space and time, as through its content or “subject matter.” Poetry is a way of happening, as Auden wrote. The what of saying, though hardly insignificant or irrelevant, is something that poetry shares with any other mode of discourse or expression: it’s how a poem happens that sets it apart.

A destination is also an end, but as Nietzsche wrote, the end of a melody isn’t its goal. Too often understanding is the prize you get after you’ve consumed the poem. Now that you’ve taken it apart to get the decoder ring, you’re done with the poem, you can throw it away. I don’t see poems as things I want to get over with, any more than I see life as something I want to get over with. The end of life is death, and we start dying from the minute we’re born. But on the road to the contagious hospital there are muddy fields full of new growth if we just take the time to look closely. We’ll get down that road soon enough. Death is contagious, people are always catching it; the time we don’t take will be taken from us. There’s no need to hurry oneself along.

I will allow Howard Nemerov the last word. “If poetry reaches the point which chess has reached, where the decisive, profound, and elegant combinations lie within the scope only of masters, and are appreciable only to competent and trained players, that will seem to many people a sorry state of affairs, and to some people a consequence simply of the sinfulness of poets; but it will not in the least mean that poetry is, as they say, dead; rather the reverse. It is when poetry becomes altogether too easy, too accessible, runs down to a few derivative formulae and caters to low tastes and lazy minds—it is then that the life of the art is in danger” (op. cit. 30).

*Vernon Shetley offers a different distinction between obscurity and difficulty, “using the former term to refer to those elements of language that resist easy semantic processing, and the latter for the reader’s response to those elements. Obscurity, then, refers to features within a text, such as allusion, syntactical dislocations, and figurative substitutions, while difficulty refers to something that occurs between reader and text, one kind of possible response to textual obscurity” (After the Death of Poetry 5-6). Shetley does not make clear why his terms could not just as easily be reversed (a reader could find a text obscure, hard to see, hard to read, because it is difficult).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What Is Progressive Art? revision

This piece is quite substantially revised from its original appearance on this blog several months ago. Though I replaced the original with this revision, I doubt that many readers have had occasion to go back to it.

The concepts of aesthetically progressive or reactionary art, of avant-garde or rearguard art, depend upon a teleological idea of history that derives from Hegel and has been mostly fully developed in relation to the arts by the art critic Clement Greenberg and by the philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, who writes, in very Hegelian terms, that “it is possible to read twentieth-century art as the collective quest for the essence and nature of art” (“Approaching the End of Art,” The State of the Art 204). I would like to offer a brief sketch of the history of this teleological notion of the history of art, in order to better illuminate what such terms as “progressive” or “avant-garde” art might mean for us today, especially given that, as Adorno points out, “the concept of progress is less directly applicable to art than it is to technical forces of production” (Aesthetic Theory 296). This is in no way intended as a comprehensive survey, nor do I necessarily endorse the positions laid out here. I present them for consideration, as an historical perspective is often missing in discussions of the avant-garde. This discussion also raises the point made by Dana Arnold "that setting up the idea of artistic progress...implies that there is an end" to the history of art, an implication whose ramifications and consequences are worth considering.


In Hegel’s theory of history, outlined in his Introduction to the Theory of History, published in 1832, the course of history is the progress of Spirit (Geist) coming to consciousness of itself as Spirit, of consciousness coming to awareness of itself as consciousness. History is the self-realization of Spirit. Freedom is Spirit’s essence, and its goal is the complete realization of freedom, which Hegel defines as full self-consciousness: Spirit’s unique capacity both to know and to be what it knows, to be simultaneously the object and the subject of knowledge. Every civilization represents Spirit’s partial self-knowledge, and each civilization is superseded as Spirit moves on to a fuller self-realization. Though I will be using the term Spirit throughout this piece, in keeping with the standard translations, Geist can also be rendered as Mind, or even as Consciousness.

In his Philosophy of Fine Art (published posthumously from lecture notes in 1835), Hegel works out this historical theory in terms of the arts. The history of art is the history of Spirit’s search for material embodiment, seeking out forms that can physically manifest its inner tensions and resolutions. As Danto writes, “The story of art is the story of art’s role in the grand history of the spirit” ("Approaching the End of Art," The State of the Art 211).

In symbolic art, Spirit is only half-expressed, attempting to assert itself against its antithesis, matter, and finding expression in architectural forms like the Egyptian pyramids. At this stage, Spirit has not found a proper or adequate relationship to matter, is still unable to fully shape what Hegel calls “the purely material substance of nature.” Thus, the relationship between object and meaning, matter and Spirit, is abstract and arbitrary. Spirit overflows and cannot be contained within its material embodiment.

In classical art, in Charles Altieri’s summation, “the emphasis shifts to celebrating the integration of spirit with sensuous matter,” the consecration of the sensuous, which we see in the idealized yet meticulously realistic figures of classical Greek sculpture, in which the body is raised up to the level of the sacred while still remaining wholly body. In classical art we find the perfect balance between idea and embodiment, content and form, Spirit and matter: as Hegel writes, “It is, in fact, the free and adequate embodiment of the idea in the shape which…is uniquely appropriate to the idea itself.”

Finally, in romantic art, art becomes its own medium, the expression of Spirit in art itself, not merely in the objects represented in art. Just as symbolic art is exemplified by architecture and classical art by sculpture, Romantic art is exemplified by painting, music, and poetry, in ascending order of freedom, idealization, and self-realization. Poetry is the highest art form, for its sensuousness is created by the mind, not by its materials. “In this way romantic art must be regarded as art transcending itself…in the form of itself.”

In symbolic art, Spirit both overflows and is overwhelmed by matter. In classical art, Spirit finds its perfect embodiment in matter. In romantic art, Spirit triumphs over and withdraws from matter, moving from the external to the inner world. (Thus symbolic art and romantic art mirror one another: in each case there is a disproportion between Spirit and matter.) In Hegel’s system, at this point art is superseded by philosophy, in which Spirit achieves its full and final articulation as Idea. So for Hegel, the history of art ends in the nineteenth century—not coincidentally, with the advent of his own philosophy. “According to Hegel, art was once the adequate mode of expression for spirit but has since ceased to be so” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 297). But the end of the history of art is not the end of art. In Hegel’s words, “One may well hope that art will continue to advance and perfect itself, but its form has ceased to be the highest need of the spirit.”

Hegel writes that “Poetry is…the universal art of the mind, which has become essentially free, and which is not fettered in its realization to an externally sensuous material, but which is creatively active in the space and time belonging to the inner world of ideas and emotion. Yet it is precisely in this its highest phase, that art terminates, by transcending itself: it is just here that it deserts the medium of harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from the poetry of imaginative idea into the prose of thought.” That is to say, as Spirit abandons the external world for the inner world, it also abandons the realm of sensuous embodiment, which art represents, for the realm of abstract thought, represented by philosophy.

Given the current debates regarding avant-garde, post-avant, or progressive poetry, it’s interesting to note that for Hegel poetry is the most progressive of the arts. Indeed it’s the end of art, both its culmination and its conclusion. Architecture is less ideal than sculpture, which is less ideal than painting, which is less ideal than music (which doesn’t represent objects but sheer temporal order), which is less ideal than poetry, which eschews physical sensuousness for mental, virtual sensuousness. Thus poetry is the most philosophical of the arts. Since philosophy, dealing as it does with pure concept, is in turn more ideal than poetry, it then succeeds and supersedes poetry. This list represents both temporal succession and synchronic distinction: the movement of Spirit is continually from embodiment to articulation.


For Clement Greenberg, the modern history of visual art is constituted by each medium’s search for what is intrinsic and essential to it and each medium’s discarding of all that is extrinsic and inessential, in particular whatever is shared by other media. “It seems to be a law of modernism—thus one that applies to almost all art that remains truly alive in our time—that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized…. And it is understood, I hope, that conventions are overhauled, not for revolutionary effect, but in order to maintain the irreplaceability and renew the vitality of art in the face of a society bent in principle on rationalizing everything. It is understood, too, that the devolution of tradition cannot take place except in the presence of tradition” (“‘American-Type’ Painting,” Art and Culture 208-209).

Interestingly, Greenberg sees the history of literature, in this sense, as having ended before that of painting: “This process of self-purification appears to have come to a halt in literature simply because the latter has fewer conventions to eliminate before arriving at those essential to it (op. cit. 208). It is not clear to me what Greenberg refers to here, but literature ill-fits this model of the reduction of the medium to its essence. The possibility that progress in literature has ended earlier than in other artistic media is grounded in the limitations of such a process in the literary field, and in the field of language as such. Those limits were reached early in the twentieth century, in such experiments as Dadaist and zaum sound poetry and concrete poetry.

Language, the medium of literature, has no essence: it exists as and in relation, liminality, it is all betweenness. Language is neither marks on a writing surface nor sounds in the air, in the ear; nor is it pure thought or feeling. It is the interaction and interrelation between these states. To what essence would literature reduce itself, when it can be said that everything about language is extraneous? Language can abandon neither sense and reference (not the same thing) nor physical presence and still remain language. This presents an insurmountable obstacle to progress in literature as Greenberg defines it.

The history of modern art is also the story of the shedding of what is conventionally called subject matter, the elimination of representation: “Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself” (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,"
Art and Culture 6).

The history of modern painting is the story of the abandonment of sculptural effects (just as modern sculpture abandons pictorial effects) and of the illusion of three-dimensional space. The painting reduces itself to the flat picture plane. For Greenberg this reduction is also an expansion: “The picture plane as a whole imitates visual experience as a whole; rather, the picture plane as a total object represents space as a total object” (“On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,” Art and Culture 173). This process culminates in abstract expressionism and color field painting, in which the paint literally sinks into and becomes one with the surface of the canvas. After these come pop art and conceptual art, which for Greenberg are simply not part of the history of art at all.

Greenberg’s most succinct and comprehensive summation of this view of the history of modern art is to be found in his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” in which he writes that “What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.”

Though Greenberg does not discuss Hegel, this is a clearly Hegelian notion: the history of art is the history of art coming to consciousness of its essence as art, and of each medium coming to consciousness of its essence as a medium. It is the history of art’s progressive self-consciousness and self-awareness.


The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto has further developed this Hegelian model. Whereas for Greenberg the history of modern art is the story of each medium discovering and reducing itself to its essence, for Danto that history is the story of the pursuit of the smallest distinction between art and life, the zero degree of difference. For Danto, this zero degree was reached with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, which posed the question of why one object is art when objects identical to it are not.

I’m not sure why Duchamp’s readymades, most famously his 1917 Fountain, didn’t pose exactly this same question, or how, as an actual urinal exhibited in an art gallery, it failed to embody the zero degree of difference between art and non-art. Danto acknowledges this in The Abuse of Beauty, in which he writes that “there is a metaphysical question in distinguishing between Fountain and the urinal it consisted of, not altogether different from distinguishing between a person and his or her body” (12). In Beyond the Brillo Box, Danto writes that “Dada believed itself a form of artistic freedom but in fact was merely a style” (9), but doesn’t explain what he means. Perhaps the difference is that Duchamp took an actual utilitarian object from the quotidian world and placed it within the frame of art, thus both asking us to look at this mundane object as art and asking us to question what art is and what can count as art. Warhol, on the other hand, produced an aesthetic object that is indistinguishable from the utilitarian object in the quotidian world: he made something that one might call a perfect simulacrum. Duchamp’s urinal really was the object; Warhol’s Brillo box was an artwork identical to the object.

However, Danto notes in The Abuse of Beauty that Warhol’s Brillo Box was in fact not identical to the object, but only a copy, though he doesn’t seem to recognize the ways in which this fact undermines his argument. Warhol’s Brillo Box was made of painted plywood, whereas industrially produced Brillo boxes are made of printed corrugated cardboard. Danto writes that Warhol’s Brillo Box “looked enough like the commercial cartons in which Brillo pads were packed that a photograph of one would look entirely like a photograph of the other” (23-24). But this does not mean that the objects themselves looked entirely like one another, only that, hypothetically, representations of them would (and not even that they actually did or do)—a very different thing. I have not seen Warhol’s Brillo boxes in person, but I doubt that a close visual inspection would find them identical to commercial Brillo boxes. And sight is not the only sense. The texture, the smell, and even the sound of the boxes when tapped or thumped would be different. So in fact, they are not identical, not indiscernible, at all.

Danto shows himself to be a true Hegelian when he asserts that at this point, the occasion of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box exhibit of 1964, “the history of art attained that point where it had to turn into its own philosophy. It had gone, as art, as far as it could go. In turning into philosophy, art had come to an end. From now on progress could only be enacted on a level of abstract self-consciousness of the kind which philosophy alone must consist in…. Painting does not stop when it ends like this. But it enters what I like to term its post-historical period” (“Approaching the End of Art,” The State of the Art 216).

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno, writing also from an explicitly Hegelian position, makes an argument that proleptically rebukes Danto’s: “a consistently rational and elaborated work, because of its absolute autonomy, would tend to level the distinction between art and empirical being, assimilating itself to commodities without directly imitating them. It would be indistinguishable from perfectly functional creations except in one respect: it would have no purpose, and that would speak against it” (310). Contrary to Danto’s assertion, the art object indistinguishable from the empirical object would be inferior to the utilitarian object, because it would have no function, while simultaneously it would have lost or given up art’s purposive purposelessness. That would be the end of art in a wholly negative sense. The artwork would simply become a failed, because useless, commodity.

For Danto, the history of art is over, which is a kind of liberation: one is no longer a prisoner of progress as either an artist or a spectator. The end of art history means, among others, that it is now possible to practice and appreciate a wide and eclectic range of art practices, that all the artistic modes, genres, and techniques of the past are now fully available to the contemporary artist, since he or she need no longer be ruled by concern over his or her contribution to or place within the forward march of artistic history. It means that the artist is free, that everything and anything can be admitted into the realm of art. In Danto’s summation,

“this means returning art to the serving of largely human [and/or individual] ends…. It is no mean thing for art that it should now be an enhancement of human life. And it was in its capacity as such an enhancement that Hegel supposed that art would go on even after it had come to an end. It is only that he did not suppose happiness to be the highest vocation to which a spiritual existence is summoned. For him, the highest vocation is self-knowledge, and this he felt was to be achieved by philosophy. Art went as far as it can in this direction, toward philosophy, in the present century. This is what he would have meant by saying [that] art reaches its end. The comparison with philosophy is not intended as invidious. Philosophy too comes to an end, but unlike art it really must stop when it reaches its end, for there is nothing for it to do when it has fulfilled its task” (“Approaching the End of Art,” The State of the Art 217, 218).

For Wittgenstein, contrarily, philosophy’s task after the end of philosophy (which of course ends with him) is to enrich, clarify, and enlighten human life, the same task that Hegel and Danto assign to art after its demise. Progress is never straighforward.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Danto, Arthur C. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2003.

_____________.Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992.

_____________. The State of the Art. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987.

Frascina, Francis, and Charles Harrison, Eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1982.

Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1961.

I’d like to thank my partner, Robert Philen, for his insights, which have much improved and enriched this piece.

Revised Thoughts on the Long Poem


I am much occupied with the question of the long poem and major poetry. It has always been my goal not just to be a poet but to be an important poet, to be a poet that matters. I’ve never seen the point of doing anything if one is only to be competent at best. Inevitably then, the question arises: Must one write a long poem in order to be an important poet, let alone to be a major poet? It seems these days that everyone is writing a long poem of some kind of another: a sense of project, of continuity, of writing by the book rather than by the poem, is de rigeur in certain circles. As Jasper Bernes, a former student, a friend, and a wonderful poet, whose kind words on his blog about me as a teacher are much appreciated, has written, “We are in a historical moment…where the collection or miscellany of poems/writings has had its star dimmed by the long poem, the serial poem and [the] proceduralist or mixed-genre book.” This moment seems interestingly parallel to that of the mid- and late-nineteenth century, when it was incumbent upon every poet who aspired to major status to write a book-length poem, preferably an epic of one kind or another.

On the one hand, I have always longed toward the longer work, lusted after the architectonic sweep of “the major poem.” While my attention span has lengthened (when I was a teenager I had trouble extending a poetic thought beyond a single line), I am still a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner; my arcs exhaust themselves, especially given my detailed attention to word set next to word. I envy those who can go the distance, who can stay in the race for page after page. On the other hand, I’m suspicious of the American obsession with size. Bigger is not always better, as in personal tragedies or even daily irritations, and concision is a virtue in any kind of discourse. Often in reading a long poem I think, “were all these words really necessary?” I’m all too aware of the pages going by, each more slowly than the last, until I’m mired in the middle of a muddy track with no final goal post in sight. As Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, no one ever wished it longer.

Perhaps one can say of the cult of the long poem what Adorno wrote of the nineteenth century cult of the majesty of nature: “Such a cult is a reflex of the bourgeois delusion of grandeur, of the social preoccupation with quantities and record bests and also of bourgeois hero worship” (Aesthetic Theory 103).

Since the early nineteenth century, that is to say since Beethoven, the culture hero of classical music, the symphony has been regarded as the pinnacle of the composer’s art. To be able to sustain a musical idea over the arc of a symphony has been the test of a great composer. For the arch-symphonist Mahler, greatness meant monumentality. But a symphony is not defined merely by length, but by its integral structure; it excludes the extraneous in a way that tone poems, for example, do not. By this criterion, few modern and contemporary long poems would qualify.

However respected they may be, those who chose not to write symphonies, like Debussy, or who worked only on the small scale, like Satie, whose claims to unseriousness should perhaps not be taken seriously, or Webern, whose seriousness is not in doubt even among his detractors, are often regarded as somehow lesser, diminutive not just in the length of their productions. (Webern did write a piece he called a symphony: it lasts less than ten minutes.)

Debussy did, however, write an opera. From the seventeen hundreds, before Beethoven, through at least the nineteen thirties, opera has exerted a magnetic pull on composers, and composing an opera can also stake one’s claim to majority. This has especially been the case in the wake of Wagner, whose reinvention of opera almost displaced the symphony from its place at the pinnacle of the classical music hierarchy. Interestingly, while a single opera can suffice to accredit a composer as major (just as a single long poem, “when that long poem is good enough, when it has within itself the proper unity and variety” [Eliot, On Poets and Poetry 44], can credential one as a major poet: whatever their merits as poems, how many actually read Milton’s Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes?), one needs to have written more than one symphony for one’s symphonizing to count toward major status. One needs not just to have composed a symphony, but to be a symphonist.

Why is a lyric poet so often considered “mere” when compared to a writer of the long poem? There is an element of the will to power in the will to write a long poem, a macho aspect (for both male and female poets) that’s both alluring and repellent. Writing a long poem, a book-length poem, proves that one can tough it out over the long haul; to be a writer of brief lyrics is a little wimpy. Some might consider the long poem to be patriarchal, authoritarian, an assertion of phallic power and domination. Thinking of the long poem as the attempt to take hold of a major theme, to make a major statement and stake one’s claim on greatness, I’m reminded of Adorno’s admonition: “It is silly to think that art can augment its dignity by dealing with some august event or other. More often than not this augustness is the upshot of an authoritarian ideology, specifically of respect for power and magnitude” (Aesthetic Theory 214-215). Viewed more positively, the will to write a long poem shows ambition and scope; the capacity to carry out that ambition shows determination and strength. In Milton’s words, “Fame is the spur.” (Thanks to Henry Gould for reminding me of this quote.) But James Longenbach points that, if done out of obedience to the necessities of the poem (some poems ask to be sonnets, some ask to be epics), rather than to the demands of the poet’s ego, writing a long poem can be conceived of as an act of humility.

As Jasper puts it, more neutrally (and, probably, more fairly) than I have done, “writing a wonderful poem turns out to be, in the end, not all that hard…. Producing an object that lies between two flaps, though, whether a collection or a ‘book,’ seems somehow, in my experience, more difficult.” I am much less sanguine about the abundance, let alone the over-abundance, of good poems, let alone “wonderful poems,” but I take Jasper’s point that on a certain level the short lyric can be seen as less demanding, of the writer and the reader, than the long poem. There remains the question of whether those demands justify themselves in the rewards that the poem yields, for either party. In fairness, Jasper also acknowledges this question, without attempting to answer it: “the drawback to the popularity of the book over the collection is that that book’s concept, idea, base may be used as an apology for…tedium without recourse to any of the arguments for the value of tedium.”

Because I am not that kind of writer, or have not yet been that kind of writer (I can hardly predict the writer that I will be), the question troubles me. Is it a failing in me that I haven’t written a long poem, that I proceed from poem to poem, that I don’t have a project? Is the lack of such a project equivalent to the lack of a poetics? (I leave aside, for now, the question of what it would mean to “have” or “not have” a “poetics,” or whether it’s even possible not to have one of some sort or another, articulated or not.) And what about the possibility that the project replaces the poem, that, as so often happens, the idea overtakes the object, the text is read as intention rather than as aesthetic experience. Jasper’s ruminations conclude with this admonition: “let’s not confuse the book with poetry, and let’s not forget about the possibilities that the individual, and even [the] short, poem (or piece) offers—however much the weak minded have asked us to believe that such a notion is inherently bourgeois.” (Perhaps because I’ve never been bourgeois or even close, it’s never been clear to me what’s so bad about it.)


In his essay “What Is Minor Poetry?” T.S. Eliot allows that a poet may be accounted major even if he or she has not written a long poem. His example is George Herbert, but another obvious example (to us if not to Eliot) would be Emily Dickinson. He also points out that we would consider John Donne a major poet even if he had never written his epistles and satires (indeed, those are probably the least-read of Donne’s works), and would likewise so consider William Blake had he never written his prophetic books. On the other hand, while Eliot writes that “The difference between major and minor poets has nothing to with whether they wrote long poems, or only short poems,” he goes on to say that “the very greatest poets, who are few in number [he names only Shakespeare and Milton], have all had something to say which could only be said in a long poem” (On Poets and Poetry, 47).

Following on Eliot, Henry Gould points that the long poem is not only a formal but also an intellectual construct. The long poem is one outcome (not the only possible one) of what James Longenbach calls “the big hunger,” the will to grapple with the largest possible questions. Mahler believed that the symphony should contain and/or construct an entire world. Many long poems seek to encompass or create a world, perhaps even the world.

While most poets considered major have written at least one long poem, to write a long poem, a book-length poem even, does not in itself suffice to make a poet major. Otherwise Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia (a poem Eliot mentions with childhood fondness), would be a major poet. All that’s required to write a long poem is stamina and a good dose of chutzpah. To write a good long poem, on the other hand, a poem worth the reader’s investment of time, attention, and energy, is quite another matter. In Eliot’s words, “It might seem at first simpler to refer to the minor writers of epics as secondary, or still more harshly as failed great poets. They have failed, certainly, in the sense that no one reads their long poems now: they are secondary, in the sense that we judge long poems according to very high standards. We don’t feel that a long poem is worth the trouble unless it is, in its kind, as good as The Faerie Queene, or Paradise Lost, or The Prelude, or Don Juan, or Hyperion, and the other long poems which are in the first rank” (op. cit., 41). To write a very long poem which is worth reading is undoubtedly a major accomplishment, even if it does not necessarily make one a major poet but, again, to be a major poet doesn’t mean that one must write a long poem worth reading.

As Eliot indicates, though, it is not necessarily the case that a long poem is what makes a major poet major, or even important. (I’m writing as much of reputation as of intrinsic quality: my focus is on what confers “majority” upon a poet.) While In Memoriam is undoubtedly a major work, it’s not to The Idylls of the King that we turn when we turn to Tennyson. Browning’s The Ring and the Book was always, I think, more admired than read, and now it is not even that. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Owl’s Clover,” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (all of them long, none of them quite book-length) are all fine poems, though “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is a bit discursively expository, and there are sing-songy aspects to “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “He held the world upon his nose/And this-a-way he gave a fling.//His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi—/And that-a-way he twirled the thing.” But it is not primarily for them that we, that I, at least, treasure Wallace Stevens. Ezra Pound’s debatable standing as an important poet rests much more on his short lyrics (and by no means even most of those) than on The Cantos, let alone on “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” or Homage to Sextus Propertius. (His importance as a literary figure, an editor, theorist, and propagandist, is beyond question.) It’s not because of Paterson that we read William Carlos Williams; indeed, that poem is hardly read in its entirety at all. Though H.D.’s Trilogy is full of lovelinesses, and attracted a great deal of attention at the time, largely due to its wartime themes, it’s not now the basis of her reputation. (Considering the presence of lines like “Evil was active in the land,/Good was impoverished and sad://Ill promised adventure,/Good was smug and fat,” perhaps that's for the best.) Nor is her Helen in Egypt, though I'm quite fond of it. But of the American Modernists and their immediate successors, few did not at least attempt a long poem, if not an epic of some kind: only Louise Bogan (wedded to “the stripped, still lyric” as she was), e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, and Marianne Moore come to mind.


Critic Joseph Conte writes that “The long poem has been the measure and the lifework of many significant 20th-century American poets. Yet the term long poem is a notoriously vague descriptor applied (by poets and critics alike) to poems of vastly different lengths and forms. One can discriminate, however, between those long poems in the 20th century that maintain the organizational structure of the epic and those that adopt the random and incomplete process of seriality. Epic poems by 20th-century poets adapt or renovate forms whose theoretical and structural underpinnings were set in earlier periods. The series, or serial poem, is remarkable for being the long form that is entirely new in 20th-century poetics” (“Long and Serial Poetry,” in The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry, edited by Burt Kimmelman, 283).

In his essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Eliot writes that “Tennyson’s long poems are not long poems in quite the same sense as those of his contemporaries. They are very different in kind from Sordello or The Ring and the Book….Maud and In Memoriam are each a series of poems…. In Memoriam is unique: it is a long poem made by putting together lyrics” (“‘In Memoriam’,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode 241, 243). If we conceive of the string of lyric poems comprising Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a series (M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall consider the poem too discursive, too meditative, and too thematically consistent to qualify under their definition of a poetic sequence), or if we think further back to the sonnet sequences of the English Renaissance, from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella to Spenser’s Amoretti, and not excluding Shakespeare’s sonnets, I’m not sure how new the series or serial poem really can be said to be. Like Conte’s postmodern serial poem, these also accede to flux and mutability; indeed, many take it as their topic. But Conte’s schema, though too centered around the specific concerns and claims of his book Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry, is still useful.

Conte also points out, in attempting to account for the turn toward different models of the long poem than the epic, that “The [failure] of several modernist epic poems to cohere or achieve their goals, including The Cantos and Paterson, and the distaste for the hierarchical structures and belief systems that frame them [I question this easy elision of forms and their significances] has led many postmodern poets to serial composition” (op. cit., 285). Conte also notes the discontent with and restlessness within the confines of the short poem that Jasper Bernes discusses: “Poems written in many loosely associated parts also signify the impatience of poets with the short personal lyric” (ibid.).

In somewhat different and strikingly broader terms, for M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall, the genre they call the modern poetic sequence is “the modern poetic form within which all the tendencies of more than a century of experiment define themselves and find their aesthetic purpose….The sequence has been [our major poets’] great vehicle for discovering the full possibilities of dynamic interplay among poems and fragments conceived under the same ultimate psychological pressure or creative impulse” (The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry vii). Rather than being organized narratively or thematically, the modern poetic sequence is based on what they call lyrical structure: “The modern poetic sequence, then, is a grouping of mainly lyric poems and passages, rarely uniform in pattern, which tend to interact as an organic whole. It usually includes narrative and dramatic elements, and ratiocinative ones as well, but its structure is finally lyrical. Intimate, fragmented, self-analytical, open, emotionally volatile, the sequence meets the needs of modern sensibility even when the poet aspires to tragic or epic scope” (op. cit. 9). Rosenthal and Gall cite Whitman’s Song of Myself as the first modern poetic sequence, but also look back to Tennyson’s Maud, though in their view that poem does not quite shake off the constraints of plot: it occupies “the very meeting point of long poem and sequence” (op. cit. 19).

If Conte’s categorization seems too arbitrarily restrictive, Rosenthal and Gall’s seems overly capacious. Though they make a (not very clearly defined) distinction between the long poem and the poetic sequence, every extended poem of the last hundred years or so, or set of poems that is not strictly and solely narrative, even every book of poems that can in some way be seen as linked or unified, qualifies as a modern poetic sequence, whether so presented or not (though their rather hefty book includes no mention of Oppen or Zukofsky, nor of masterpieces of black modernism like Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred or Melvin B. Tolson’s Harlem Gallery). They sweep so much into their category—including Dickinson’s fascicles, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, Yeats’s Words for Music Perhaps, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn,” Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies, Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, David Jones’s The Anathemata, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Lowell’s Life Studies and Day by Day, Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Sylvia Plath’s last poems, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, and many individual poems that are only a few pages long—that it loses all descriptive value. It’s hard to see what all these very different works share besides taking up more than a few pages.


It seems to me that there are three ways to proceed into and through a longer poem. Though in a different context altogether, the critic and poet James Longenbach has summed them up well: “We know how to move forward depending on the syntax we employ, and if the word ‘because’ puts one foot purposefully in front of the other, if the word ‘and’ permits us to wander, the word ‘or’ forces us to stagger” (The Resistance to Poetry, 83). I would say that “because” corresponds to narrative, something following from something in a line, however curved or crooked: in E.M. Forster’s example, the king died and the queen died of grief. The word “or” corresponds to digression, casting out and circling back: the king died in his sleep, or a tornado struck city hall, or the day of his death was a cold dark day, or somewhere someone had lamb stew for lunch, or I can’t remember what I meant to say, but I’m sure it had something to do with the king: wasn’t lamb his favorite meat? “And” would correspond to segmentation, the poem in sections, the serial poem, this and then this and then this: the king died one Saturday at noon, and the queen died on Monday at three, and the bells rang all weekend and then rang all week, and the day of the king’s funeral was rainy and in the fifties, and several of the courtiers caught cold and were bedridden, and the day of the queen’s funeral was not that same day, and the castle was painted green except in those spots painted blue. Unless they were yellow. Both digression and seriality or segmentation are variations of what Longenbach has called disjunction.

And so there are three modes by which to move and be moved through the long poem. There is narrative, raveling the thread of story (the word ravel means both to wind and to unwind), finding our way out of the labyrinth or feeling our way deeper within, hoping that there’s an Ariadne at the end of the thread, or at least an interesting minotaur. (As Bugs Bunny says in his hairdresser persona, “In my line of work you meet lots of interesting people, but the most interesting ones are always the monsters.”) Narrative is the oldest mode of the long poem, threading from The Epic of Gilgamesh and unspooling in various forms through The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queene (these last two are as much philosophical allegories as stories in verse), Paradise Lost, and so on and on and on. Wordsworth’s The Prelude may be considered as a psychological narrative, with plentiful digressions, the story of the creation of a consciousness. (Indeed, Wordsworth can be thought of as having invented subjectivity as a subject for English language poetry.) Though it seems that almost every Anglophone poet in the nineteenth century attempted a book-length narrative of some sort or another, the long narrative has been considerably less popular since the advent of the Modernists. One might fit James Merrill’s Ouija board epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, which digresses within a strongly narrative frame, here. Vikram Seth’s 1986 The Golden Gate, momentarily popular as a novelty item, is a three hundred page verse novel about San Francisco Bay Area yuppies. I’m reminded that what was remarkable about the dancing bear wasn’t its skill or grace, but that it danced at all.

While finding one’s way in and/or out of the labyrinth can sometimes be exhilarating—the thrill of meeting the minotaur a revelation (if one survives), Ariadne’s kiss a rapture—in my reading experience too often the narrative poem just leaves one with a handful of used string, not good for much of anything and of no interest in itself. Here I am, at the heart of the labyrinth or at its door, and what do I do now? Perhaps we’ve simply been through too many labyrinths by now: the thrill of winding up that spool of string is gone.

Digression is another way to proceed, dropping one thought to pick up another, beginning and then beginning again, but always on some trail or another, leading to another trail and so forth. Flow Chart by John Ashbery, our supreme poet of progression by digression, is the perfect, and perfectly lengthy, contemporary example. Digression ultimately derives from Freudian free association and Joycean stream of consciousness. The assumption is that there is some significance (in both senses of the word) to the elements that come to the mind and the order and manner in which they do so. Otherwise, it’s just rambling and blathering, like that of a senile grandparent. The pleasure of digression is wandering and stumbling upon, as in the Surrealist calculated drift through unfamiliar urban neighborhoods or the Situationist dérive, noticing how certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind and desires. I wonder as I wander.

The pleasures of getting lost are balanced against those of finding one’s way home. When it fails, digression can feel pointless and aimless (activity is not action), an extended getting nowhere: true randomness is always boring, as is the willed wackiness so common in contemporary poetry. To misquote Longenbach quoting the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, if it is a joy to be lost, it is a disaster not to be found. As Adorno writes in Aesthetic Theory, “‘Origin and destination are the same’: if there is any truth in this statement at all, then it must be in the field of art” (98).

Even if you retrace your steps and take a different branching of the road, you’re never taking the same trip twice. Beginnings are always the most exciting part of a journey, the parts most full of promise and surprise. Stay with them too long and the promises are either broken or prove stultifying (is that what I wanted?), the surprises stale (oh, that again). But to travel by veering, to move forward sideways, to wander and see what you stumble across (best to walk slowly, you might miss something on the way, or miss your footing at least)—that’s always an adventure.

Another way, the most popular in our age of distraction and the short attention span, is to break the journey into stages, to take several journeys at once: the serial poem or poetic sequence, the poem in sections, some of which follow, some of which are simultaneous in time or place or both, some in different voices, some different perspectives on the same object, looking at it in the round. Many of the longer poems I admire are made up of accretions, constellations, series or sequences of smaller units, rather like life, in which we never see the whole picture, are told the entire story. (What omniscient narrator could tell us that, even if we were around after our own deaths to hear it?) Ideally, their collocation forms a gestalt, a result greater than the sum of its parts. When such a poem is unsuccessful, the elements just pile up like dirty dishes or bills one doesn’t want to open, or just one of those endless lines of traffic lights that each turns red just as you get to it: one damned thing after another—again, like life at its most tedious. Conte writes that “the series is an ongoing process of accumulation,” but seriality can feel like mere listing, the mere accumulation of things that multiply but don’t add up, this and then this and then this ad nauseam.

For Conte there is something new under the poetic sun, and it is the serial poem. Though I question Conte’s claims for its uniqueness or special suitability to our times, almost all of what are considered the major long poems of the Modernist period and beyond are serial or at least segmental in form and method. Though Conte accounts The Cantos as epic and not serial, on ideological rather than aesthetic grounds, and with Mussolini trotted out for sensationalist effect, the poem is clearly serial in form. Perhaps works like The Cantos and H.D.’s Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, among others, might call for a new category of the serial epic. Conte cites such diverse examples of the serial poem as Williams’s Spring and All, which mixes verse with rather skewed prose essays on poetry and the imagination, George Oppen’s Discrete Series (not, in my view, a book-length sequence, though published as his first volume: it takes up only ten pages in the second volume of the Library of America’s American Poetry: The Twentieth Century), and open-ended series such as Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, and Robert Duncan’s “Passages” (I would add “The Structure of Rime”), which are not bound within the confines of any single book. Many more examples of the modern and contemporary serial or segmented poem could be adduced, though I will not do so here. Suffice it to say they are sufficient to the day.


And so I return to the questions with which I began. Is it necessary for a poet to write a long poem to be a major, an important poet? And why is there such a strong perceived connection between length and importance?

My sometime ambitions and my habits and tastes are somewhat at odds with one another. I ask myself, “Why do you want to write a long poem when you don’t in general want to read long poems? Is it sheer envy of the boys (and girls) with bigger toys?” Neither as a writer nor as a reader am I an exponent of the long poem. In general I find the experience of reading a long poem burdensome; it wearies me. My commitment is to the numinous lyric. I am an adherent of Keats’s directive that the poet load every rift with ore, but it’s impossible for the extended lode of the long poem, at least of a through-composed long poem, to be all gold. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe denies the possibility of the long poem, which he holds to be at best a series of short poems strung together. (This is an accurate description of at least one species of the genus “serial poem.” Hart Crane said that The Bridge was not an epic, but a "long lyric poem, with interrelated sections.") T.S. Eliot questions this view in his essay “From Poet to Valéry,” in which he points out that the parts of a long poem

“can form a whole which is more than the sum of its parts; a whole such that the pleasure we derive from the reading of any part is enhanced by our grasp of the whole. It follows also that in a long poem some parts may be deliberately planned to be less ‘poetic’ than others: these passages may show no luster when extracted, but may be intended to solicit, by contrast, the significance of other parts, and to unite them into a whole more significant than any of the parts. A long poem may gain by the widest possible variations of intensity. But Poe wanted a poem to be of the first intensity throughout” (To Criticize the Critic and Other Essays, 34).

To return to the musical comparison, the “less poetic” parts of a long poem may be compared to operatic recitative, less immediately thrilling than the big showpiece arias, but necessary to place and set off those arias. An opera that was all arias would grow exhausting. Strauss’s Salome and, even more, Elektra come close, but both are very short by operatic standards. And yet, a poem hits one less viscerally than music; one is more able to modulate and moderate its impact. Hearing a good live performance of “In Questia Reggia” from Puccini’s Turandot, one’s body vibrates with the force of the voice.

Thus rightly rebuked, I might view my stance as a limitation turned into principle: this is how Eliot views Poe’s position. On the other hand, in the same essay Eliot writes that “the poet’s theories should arise out of his practice rather than his practice out of his theories” (op. cit., 42). So perhaps I am not so far astray after all.

Wallace Stevens captures some of this ambivalence in a letter to Harriet Monroe, though he ultimately comes down in favor of the long poem (and affirms the requirement of variety that Eliot invokes), not for the sense of major accomplishment some take it to represent (he explicitly dismisses that), but for the unexpected or otherwise unavailable possibilities and potentialities it offers: “I have no desire to write a great deal. I know that people judge one by volume. However, having elected to regard poetry as a form of retreat, the judgment of people is neither here nor there. The desire to write a long poem or two is not obsequiousness to the judgment of people. On the contrary, I find that this prolonged attention to a single subject has the same result that prolonged attention to a senora has according to the authorities. All manner of favors drop from it. Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes one feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants to feel like an Italian” (Letters of Wallace Stevens 230).

Raising once again the question of how one defines a long poem (how long is long?), The Waste Land, an epic with all the boring bits left out, and the only “long poem” I count among my favorites, is about the longest poem that I can hold in my head more or less at once. And is it “really” a book-length poem? Eliot had to pad it out with notes, fascinating though they are, to fill a printed volumes. Certainly in scope and range it must be accounted major: whatever Eliot’s demurrals, it seeks to respond to the condition of an era.

The long poem is a relative concept, both in terms of sheer size and in terms of type. Is X “long,” being only, say, twenty pages? Is Y a single poem, made up as it is of many distinct units? As one commenter who identifies himself only as Jonathan points out, often the difference between a collection of poems and a long poem is a matter of presentation: a set of lyrics can be strung together into a serial poem no more ambitious or capacious than the standard poetic miscellany. In positive terms, this is the long poem as an accretion of parts also readable in themselves as short lyrics or brief lyric sequences (many serial poems are broken down into sets of smaller serial units).

Despite its moments of luminous intensity, I’d trade The Cantos for Cathay, though there are several individual Cantos I’d keep if I could, among them I, II, IV, XVII, and CXX, with its beautiful confession of failure. This brings up another aspect of the serial poem, its tendency to fissure into discrete lyrics with all the force and presence of free-standing poems. The serial poem is endlessly excerptable. The poems embedded in Williams’s Spring and All, are better known individually than as parts of a rather incoherent whole, and lose nothing when read separately. Zukofsky’s A 11 can satisfy almost endlessly (“River that must turn full after I stop dying/Song, my song, raise grief to music/Light as my love’s thought”). The serial poem frequently raises the question, “Why are these parts linked together? What larger whole do they comprise? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?”

It’s not for The Age of Anxiety that I read Auden, though I’m quite fond of The Sea and the Mirror, a series of lyrics (“My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely”) and one prose meditation (Caliban’s, of course) strung together to build an arc, one heavily dependent upon Shakespeare’s Tempest. It’s only for some of The Dream Songs, a serial poem if ever there was one, though not, I believe, discussed by Conte, that I read Berryman; “The Ball Poem” is probably my favorite work of his. But I am taken by “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.” At sixteen pages in his Collected Poems, including notes, does it count as “a long poem”?. And then there are the many poets I love, from Sir Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Campion to Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam, who never wrote a long poem at all, never even tried. I’ve never wished a Lorine Niedecker poem longer, and not for lack of love.

Thus I conclude with equivocations instead of stands, questions and conundrums rather than answers, preferences and predilections in place of positions.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Some Thoughts on Online Discourse

Please note: I have revised this post to remove all personal references, and I have also deleted all comments associated with those references, so as to better focus on my actual topic, which is not any particular individual. (Let me emphasize that this removal implies nothing about the comments themselves.) I should have realized that such individual mentions would detour the conversation.

This may not be a novel observation, but during my relatively brief sojourn in the online poetry world, I have been surprised and often dismayed by the level and type of discourse found there. I don’t refer to the fact that most blogs consist of their authors' ramblings about every passing notion or personal event, no matter how banal or trivial. It’s to be taken for granted that, in print and online as well as in life, people talk much more frequently than they have anything to say.

I recently read a rather contentious article in the Los Angeles Times by critic Richard Schickel in which blogging was described as a form of speech rather than a form of writing. Though this was meant as a disparagement, many who engage in blogging seem to subscribe to the same viewpoint. Some bloggers believe that revision, even for the sake of correcting factual errors, violates the informal spirit of blogging.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that is very far from my approach. I carefully compose even my briefest posts, and I frequently revise them after posting, in response either to my own second thoughts or to reader comments (or just for the sake of stylistic polish). I was a well established writer for many years before starting a blog (indeed, I only started it by accident). I consider my blog to be another mode of publication, not different in kind from any other, though it has the advantage of receiving much more timely and frequent feedback and response. While I have no desire to read other people’s journals, online or otherwise, such exercises in personal display do the world no harm. Since they’re online, they’re not even killing trees.

I am referring more specifically to the level of vitriol, bile, and petty viciousness I find so often online, in which discussion is regularly reduced to ad hominem attacks, often among strangers. I have read people more or less threaten one another physical harm. I have read people attacking other people they knew nothing about as corrupt and dishonest merely because of the schools their targets attended. I read have individuals’ mental health questioned because they expressed a different viewpoint from that of the person attacking them. I have read individuals admit that they have taken pleasure in attacking others online. It surprises me that so many blog owners permit or even seem to encourage such online brawling, as if they were trying to draw a larger audience with the expectation of fistfights and car crashes.

I do not tolerate that kind of personal attack on my blog, nor do I devote the kind of space in any of my writings, online or in print, to attacking and/or dismissing other writers that some others do. Some people believe that such activities are a normal part of poetic ambition, that impugning and denigrating others is just a way to stake out one’s turf and make a name for oneself. They think that everyone engages in such activities as a matter of course. I don’t subscribe to such a cynical viewpoint.

The lack of reasoned and rational discourse and the prevalence of ad hominem attacks are not the only problems in the discourse of the online poetry world. There is also the problem of intellectual irresponsibility, even among the most prominent bloggers. For example, I have read bloggers critique works they clearly and sometimes admittedly have not actually read. Both problems seem to stem from a refusal to think through and be held to account for what one writes online.

This negligence about what one writes often extends even to a disregard for correct grammar or spelling. There is rarely much apparent awareness that one is contributing to a public forum. People often take blog comments in particular as the occasion to ramble on about their personal obsessions or just whatever happens to be on their minds at the moment, whatever its relevance to the topic at hand. I have read someone write that he feels no need to take responsibility for his comments, to think them through or consider them at all, because writing blog comments is just a form of “slurping and spilling” online.

Obviously, this phenomenon is at least partially elicited by the relative safety and anonymity of online communication. People feel free to say and do things they would never do in real life, where there are actual consequences to one’s actions. They see the online world as a place to vent. However, in my experience, this relative safety can also be the means to a greater degree of trust and communication than many people allow themselves in their daily lives. They feel more free to open up to one another, to let themselves be vulnerable in ways that would be too dangerous in real life. Too often, though, the freedom the online environment provides is only the freedom to bully without the possibility of effective retaliation. And many people put their names to their diatribes, attacks, and fulminations, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the things they say may come back to haunt them in both predictable and unexpected ways.

I would like to make clear that I don’t think that everyone needs to agree with or approve of everyone else. I certainly don’t do so. But there is nothing wrong with civility, and everything right with it. The possibility of social life depends upon it, in fact. Civility does not exclude principled disagreement or even heated argument; indeed, civil society is premised on the possibility of such discussion and debate. But some people involved in the online poetry world believe that personal attack (usually on people they don’t know) is an effective or legitimate mode of argument. They seem incapable of holding a position without attacking the persons (as distinct from the ideas) of those with different positions. Conversely, some people (often the same people) take reasoned disagreement as a form of personal attack, and respond accordingly.

Ironically, in my experience of the online poetry world it is those who consider themselves to be avant-garde who are most likely to engage in this form of attack. For adherents of a standpoint that valorizes transgression, subversion, and opposition, many of those who call themselves avant-garde are remarkably intolerant of any dissent, disagreement, or simple non-conformity with their party line. The insistence on dismissing everyone not in the club with the pejorative epithet “School of Quietude” (a phrase I have never encountered in print) is the most egregious symptom of this.

The situation I discuss is but a minor and marginal example of the general degradation of discourse in contemporary American culture (what Al Gore calls the assault on reason), a process seemingly designed to disengage people from sociality. In this case, however, I would like to point out that the enemy, if an enemy is required (as it seems to be), is not other poets, however different their aesthetic dispositions, but a culture and an economy of scarcity—of money, of resources, of attention, of recognition professional and personal—that pits people in the society as a whole and in any given social subset against one another in a zero-sum competition for crumbs of a shrinking economic and social pie precisely in order to prevent them from cooperating in changing the reward/withhold/punish system some profit from, some rail against (some of these are actually suffering and some just don’t want to admit that they’re profiting too), and most are actively harmed by. Those engaged in the constant turf wars with which the online poetry world in particular is rife might do well to recognize that their mock battles in tempestuous teapots are the direct result, indeed can accurately be described as symptoms of, this economy of scarcity. The energy expended in these toy gladiator contests might be put to more productive uses.