Poetics: Proving Your Rhyme

The submission guidelines for a journal I looked at read, “No rhyming poetry.”  I feel that rhyme is nevertheless justified in poetry, but that rhyme must justify itself.  In writing rhyming poetry, it must be clear why the poem is rhyming.  I’m not referring to hip-hop conventions.

I recently read Shelley’s EPIPSYCHIDION.  Shelley assumed by means of poetic convention that his epic must rhyme.  In fact, while I’m no Shelley scholar, I think that most of his poetry, maybe all of his poetry, did rhyme and employ metrics.  Wordsworth considered Shelley a master of style, perhaps the greatest stylist of the English Romantic period.  But in reading EPIPSYCHIDION, I found the language tortured in order to unite rhyme, metrics, and sense.  I’m afraid to say the same of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  But a baroque use of language is proper for a Renaissance poet.  It would not be appropriate for Frost, and Frost masterfully writes rhyme so liquidly that it reads like prose.

On the other side of this discussion is Carl Sandburg.  He privileged immediate expression and despised the reworking of an original impression in order to form rhyme and rhythm.  So we get a massive collection of insignificance.

Making a poem rhyme for no reason is a recipe for insignificance, too.  But then, there is sense that wants to rhyme and beat.  Blake’s THE TYGER has to be in rhyme and rhythm.  Otherwise the poignant line, “When the stars threw down their spears/And water’d heaven with their tears” wouldn’t be such a dramatic shift in voice.  And the energy of the tyger wouldn’t be there without the rhyme and beat that make the tyger burn.  I started to write a poem about flowers a while back, not that I’m a Blake or Shelley by any means, and realized that a poem about something pretty and delicate should be pretty and delicate, too.  A loose set of lines wouldn’t be as formally structured as a flower is.  So the flowers spoke in rhymed stanzas of meter.

Rhyming doesn’t go in poems that exhibit a deconstruction of language as do those of Wallace Stevens and others.  (I know that Stevens wrote before deconstruction was invented.)  In his poems, any word he fancies could be called into the mix of his abstract arrangements of language.  So rhyme would be meaningless.  Even if Stevens wanted to emphasize a couplet with rhyme, it would fail, since there is essentially no emphasis anywhere in his poetry.  That’s the whole point.

So I didn’t even consider submitting to the journal that prohibited rhyming poetry.  Rhyme and rhythm are as important to poetry as are free verse, deconstruction, or any other style persons prefer.  But today, rhyme isn’t a convention–perhaps the opposite.  And a poem must prove its use of rhyme.

Criticism, Opinion, and Contemporary Art

OK.  I have difficulty appreciating contemporary art.  I had difficulty appreciating disco music.  In the mid ’70’s it was disco or punk.  I had difficulty appreciating both the Bee Gees and Sid Vicious.  So in the mid ’70’s, I opted out of pop music.  For musical enjoyment, I retreated into the world of classical music in my protest/hermitage from pop culture.  And in large part, I’m opting out of contemporary art.  This includes conceptual art, much poetry, and fiction.  I can bear some contemporary music, probably because of all the arts, I understand music best.  But even in “music,” conceptual art such as John Cage is past my willingness to try to like.

Innovation gives birth to new art forms.  In high school, I didn’t understand Jackson Pollock, but like him now.  Fair to say, though, I wouldn’t hang his work in my condo.  My parents didn’t like rock music–disco or other any other form.  But I would argue that rock pushed an envelope that needed to be pushed.  And I’ll say that some classic rock is great in a pop sort of way.  I certainly wouldn’t want a world with only Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra.  So whatever contemporary art thinks it’s doing, it may be advancing the arts.  (Isn’t that generous of me?)  Few appreciated the Impressionists in their day.  But they did the art world a great service in moving painting beyond Gustave Moreau.  Maybe there’s something in the art that came through town which consisted of folding chairs interspersed with speakers through which a dreamy woman spoke about her dream of crows dying.?

A while back, I thought that my ideas about art were bona fide criticism.  I thought that my understanding of art constituted a critical stance and I thought that others should heed my critical positions.  But I now see that as ego.  My critical stance is really opinion.  I’ll validate my opinion that much in contemporary art is not worth my time.  But I won’t say that it’s bad art.  All I can say is that I don’t like it, don’t get it, don’t wish to take the time to get it.  What passes for art today may well be advancing forms that the children of my generation will love.  Or it might be like disco, and die out.  I don’t know.  Don’t think anyone can know.  What I can know is that my position is opinion.  I’d like to think it critical theory and call down the Harpies of the art world on everything I don’t like.  A few months ago, I would have.  Now, call it humility, maybe, but my preferences are mine alone.  Which frees me up to shrug off what I don’t think deserving of my time.  And to laud those who are doing things I don’t get.

Two Narratives about English Literature

My Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary degree in Religion and Literature.  When I was in school, there were only two Religion and Literature departments in universities: U Chicago, and U Virginia.  Religion and Literature is a strange major that neither discipline wants.  Religion departments don’t understand why one of their students would study literature.  And I have been called an “interloper” by a professor in the English department.  The reason I wanted to study Religion and Literature is due to my conviction that literature conveys meaning.  Most sacred literature, including the Bible, is written in literary forms (also the Rig Veda, the Koran, and the Songs of Milarepa).  Many of the prophets use poetry and metaphor, the Psalms are lyric poems, and much of the other books are stories.  It was, and is, my belief that Hemingway says something about life, about reality, and about meaning or the lack thereof in existence.  So did T.  S. Eliot.  So did Samuel Taylor Coleridge–especially in his famous poem, THE EOLIAN HARP.  And Coleridge certainly said something about existence and thinly disguised religion in THE RHYME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.  But I need to be clear, I was not interested in religious literature.  Rather, I sought statements about life in all literature.  I suppose I was making a Swedenborgian connection not everybody would make.  Swedenborg writes, “All religion relates to life, and the religious life is to do good.”  So for me, statements about life are religious statements.

Unfortunately for me then, and now, the keepers of English literature do not think that literary art is about meaning-making.  I’m not at all sure what English literature does or is for them.  But two narratives point to what literature does or is, today.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is located, I ran into a fellow student from the English department in a bar.  I asked him what he was writing about in his dissertation.  He said he was writing about the process by which the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  He alluded to T.S. Eliot’s remark that Hamlet “is the Mona Lisa of literature.”  He said that in his dissertation he makes a lot of that remark by Eliot.  We were on friendly terms, and I was interested in his doctoral work.  But I wondered why someone in the English department was writing about how the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  I think that my colleague was writing critical theory.  Making judgments about the value of art is something critics do.  But I thought that what he was writing on would be more appropriate in the art department than in the English department.  This was due to my presuppositions about English literature.  You see how out of sync I was, and am still?

My second narrative isn’t direct personal experience.  It is a conversation I had with an English professor at a charming coffee shop where I live now.  She has a friend who won an award, she thought, for a poem her friend wrote.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop related her recollection of the process her friend went through in writing the poem.  She said that her friend wrote out in prose a narrative about her parents’ murder-suicide.  She may have also included the guilt she felt as their child.  Then, the poet either physically or conceptually cut up the narrative into phrases and segments.  Then she rearranged the parts out of sequence, out of grammatical order, and the final product is unintelligible.  The final product is called a poem.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop said she was unable to read the poem.  And she believes that her friend won an award.

I think that these two narratives show what is going on in humane letters.  Criticism plays a prominent role in English literature.  That’s what my first narrative says.  Although criticism didn’t really come of age until the 17th Century, it seems to be alive and well, today.  Deconstruction, which I thought was a passe brand of philosophy, dominates contemporary literature.  That’s what my second narrative says–I think.  For I think that disassembling and reassembling a story is a form of deconstruction.  I’m guessing here, I I may be wrong.  But what I do think, is that the poem in question is a lie.  If a narrative is first written out in prose, that is the truth being expressed.  Cutting it up and rearranging the parts into an incomprehensible word salad is a lie.  Why rearrange the sentence fragments?  Or, more importantly, why write out the story in plain English first?  Isn’t the plain English story the reality and the cut-up poem a falsification of the story?  And I don’t think that rearranging words into salad is art at all.

Finally, the subject matter of the so-called poem is also telling about the direction in which contemporary art is going.  Of course her art would be about something horrible.  Contemporary art is not allowed to be about happy, pretty, joyful subjects–especially about the glory of God and God’s works.  Only a few years back a movie called No Country for Old Men won several Academy Awards.  That movie is about a serial killer.  The movie narrated him murdering people.  He got away with his killing as Woody Harrelson, the sheriff, was also murdered.  (A generation ago The Sound of Music cleaned up at the Academy Awards.)  Another acquaintance of mine at the same charming coffee shop told me about her experiences in art school.  She said that someone made a painting of an animal torn open.  Then, the artist covered the frame in pig’s blood.  I went to the art gallery in the city I live in now.  There was a display composed of about 20 speakers on stands, with folding chairs set among them.  I sat on a chair, and there was an audio loop of a woman describing a dream of crows dying.  No eagles soaring upward into the sky.  No baby crows hatching into life.  No hummingbirds and flowers.  Crows dying.

I come up with these ideas about art because I still believe that art makes statements about life.  I believe, too, that my view of art is disjunct from how the contemporary keepers of art view it.  I have already expressed my inability to appreciate contemporary art.  And, indeed, my disinclination even to try.  I have made a decision, though, that in my artistic endeavors, I will express my own vision of art.  I will not attempt to assimilate contemporary trends.  And whether there is an audience or receptivity for what I do is not of my concern.  I think that artists who matter, held similar positions about creativity.  Critics debated Frost’s value all his life.  Andrew Wyeth never was considered a real artist.  And Hemingway’s mother never liked his fiction, nor did Gertrude Stein.  Of course, I’m not situating myself in such august company.  I’m just saying.

Criticism: A Lament for Wyeth and Frost

Go to Wikipedia and search under 20th Century Art and you won’t find anything about Andrew Wyeth.  All through Robert Frost’s life, an ongoing debate raged as to whether he was a legitimate poet.  There are those still today who do not recognize the legitimacy of Frost.  These two artists have one thing in common.  They were accessible.  People love their work.  A person can understand Robert Frost’s poetry, and a person can recognize the objects that Wyeth paints.

In Frost’s day, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dominated the poetics of the modern era.  People forget that Pound reviewed Frost’s first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will.  And Pound liked it.  And typical of Pound’s arrogance, he was amazed that Frost made himself modern without any instruction from himself.  Eliot’s epic THE WASTE LAND required footnotes so that readers could understand what Eliot was trying to do.  Eliot was happy to append them to his published edition.  He didn’t attach footnotes to Four Quartets.  And still, nobody knows what to make of that collection.  Then when Eliot turned to theater, his artistic career was over.  Robert Frost said jovially that modern poets need typewriters instead of pencils.  Frost wrote lyrical poems, of moving sentiment and deep truth.  And he did this by means of keenly described pictures–mostly imagery from the farm he owned during his most productive period.  With Frost, it is easy to remain locked in his pictures and to think he is writing only about trees and snowy woods, pale orchises, and Rose Pogonias.  But Frost captures the pain inherent in living; he questions–but leaves open the question–of a universal Providence in the universe.  Sometimes it is as if Frost is crying out against the universe.  What gave critics pause about Frost is that Frost uses the sound of common speech, that Frost uses rhyme, and Frost uses meter.  And Frost’s poetry doesn’t need footnotes.  That’s why people like Frost.  Frost mastered these artistic techniques and all this is why he is a great poet.

In Andrew Wyeth’s day, art was dominated by abstraction.  Maybe Jackson Pollack epitomizes this trend in that he poured paint onto canvasses without any intent to depict something.  Andrew Wyeth painted ultra-realistic images.  When you look at Wyeth’s paintings up close, you see that the fine detail is rendered through a rather impressionistic technique that blends into breathtaking realism a few steps back.  The composition of many of Wyeth’s paintings are made of abstract shapes–the realistic pictures form abstractions if you forget that they are about the farm he lived on in Pennsylvania.  Wyeth even expressed in print that mixing realism with abstraction would be a great feat of art.  He did just that.  In an age in which critical theory praised art that represented bare color, form, and hue–or something like that–Wyeth gave the world beautiful images we can recognize.  Wyeth, in other words, bucked the trends in modern art.  And modern art critics hit him back.  When he lived, he was never considered a serious artist.  I don’t believe that he is today, either.

I do not appreciate contemporary art.  I don’t even try.  I believe that contemporary art demands that a person read critical theory first, before viewing or reading the art.  This is why I object to contemporary art.  In my aesthetics, art should speak directly to audience.  We should resonate with art without art being “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”  Funny, I can view 3,420 years of art history and it speaks to me without me needing to open a book of art criticism.  Then, from about 1920 to today, the same phenomenon doesn’t happen.  In order to make a buck, art critics write books about ancient art.  But I don’t need to read these books.  The same strange experience happens to me in regard to literature.  I can read Gilgamesh, the Bible, and Shakespeare without a critical theorist pointing my nose to what I am to take from these works.  But this phenomenon abruptly stops with about Hart Crane.  I struggle with Wallace Stevens, but, unlike Hart Crane, Stevens rewards to some degree.  What is odd in all this, is that I can and do understand and even like some contemporary symphonic music.  When it is not awful, as too much of it is, sometimes it gets boring, though.  Music has it’s bow to deconstruction.  I once heard a trumpet player take the mouthpiece out of his trumpet and noodle on it all the while moving the slider on a synthesizer resonator.  It made my girlfriend so mad she had to go to the ladies’ room till he was done.

The drive to conform to the strictures of contemporaneity is hard to live with.  And it’s not a matter of me tapping out of the art world by age.  I felt this way even when I was younger.  I’m no prophet.  So I don’t know what the ages will do with what passes for art these days.  I only know what I do with it.  Which is really a matter of not doing anything with it.

STANZAS

When feeling forms words into verse

Maybe sublime, poignant, punching powerful emotion, sad or happy, joy;–melancholy

It is a gamble

That the feeling reads through

That others would resonate or care about that feeling, want simpatico

 

It’s safer to arrange pretty words

In complex sequences ideation of symbols

To catch the eye on language games

The leaf of paper ink form word, language

 

In a hip-hop world

‘40’s music still sings to heartstrings

Beethoven yet storms and rages

In our world of facile rhyme and rhythm

 

Outmoded forms communicate despite form

With and through form

And contemporaneity’s distracting noise

Nor a suicidal retirement into the lost past

 

Then there’s just how you feel

And if it can find its way into

Song, music, rhythm, rhyme, word

That verse would mean something someone

Hears, reads, resonates, harmonizes

The Demise of Greatness

The handful of artists who finished the circle of life in the ’60’s were the last great artists–ever.  I’m thinking of Hemingway, Faulkner, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and perhaps a handful more.  I think that Thomas Pynchon just made the cut.  In art, Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and a few others, lesser known.  And in music, Aaron Copeland is about it in the US, and in England Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams, and the Russian Stravinsky –there are a few others I have left out.  In their day, Hemingway and Eliot were about as big as one could get.  Now, both of them are being reconsidered in academic circles.  From being as great as one could get, they’re now not so great.  Hemingway was too macho and I don’t know what the problem is with Eliot, but he’s on his way out, if he’s not out altogether.  Adulation may be one indicator of greatness, and both Hemingway and Eliot had it.  But are we prepared to say that Falco is great due to his adulation in the ’80’s, or that Smash Mouth in the ’90’s, or who knows who today?

Now, in academic circles, advocacy issues are becoming criteria for import.  I do not say for greatness, because that very category is dissolving.  So, for example, Clara Schumann in  music, Mary Shelley in literature, and others add their names to the important due to revisionist gender concerns.  Other names are emerging from other advocacy issues.  But the real problem with greatness is due to contemporary critical theory.  Contemporary critical theory is deconstructing the whole notion of greatness itself.  The idea that art can be great is attacked also for advocacy reasons.  Greatness implies elitism, and today it is passe to be elite or to be an elitist.  I remember a student in a class I was taking at Harvard saying that our professor was being elitist for asking us to read Baudelaire in French.  I pointed out the irony that she was saying this in Harvard University.  A friend on mine in another grad school, who was deeply steeped in post-modern critical theory, said that everyone in every walk of life is an artist.  I didn’t know what he meant.  But one night when I was drinking a beer I suggested to him that I was being an artist, drinking beer.  I believe that it was then he told me that one day he would kill me.  We lost touch and he never made good on his remark.

Today in universities, pop culture is a bona fide discipline.  On a flight recently, the scholar sitting next to me gave me a feminist critique of Friday the 13th.  Even in the theological school in which I work, Jesus and pop culture is a course offered.  Pop culture is fun and all.  I have been known to watch the Police Academy movies.  But I wouldn’t dream of paying money to an academic institution in which they would teach me about it.  (I’m not saying that there are or have been courses on Police Academy in universities.)  And although I have been known to watch Police Academy, I would never put it on a par with Richard the Third.  But if there is no greatness, and if contemporary critical theory places all art on a level plain, what are we left with?  We are left with the demise of the great.  I don’t see our way to identifying a great poet today.  Remember Run DMC?  Did that band create today’s great poetry?  Please do not take me the wrong way.  The great philosopher/sociologist Eric Michael Dyson elicits much meaning from the lyrics of Jay Z.  But as he himself says, his class at Georgetown on Jay Z is not just hearing “dope lyrics.”  He uses Jay Z to shed light on pressing issues of race in American history.  But even Dyson is not making an aesthetic judgment on Jay Z as a poet.

In fact, I’m not sure that critics can make aesthetic  judgments today at all.  Sure, publishers make decisions on what material they want to publish.  And governments appoint poet-laureates.  Philosophy has reasoned itself out of existence, and Rorty wouldn’t accept an endowed chair in the University of Virginia philosophy department for that reason.  And now I believe that art has criticized itself out of existence.  I suspect that there is no longer criteria for deciding greatness in art.  No word “great” at all in the lexicon of language.  So the likes of Hemingway and Eliot may be the last of the great writers.  And even they are losing their standing in university estimates about who we ought to read.  Are we at the point where Marvel Comics are leading authors of our day?  Will the next generation compare Iron Man to Prince Hamlet?  If the next generation will even know who Hamlet is.

Criticism: Wallace Stevens Wins the Day

Wallace Stevens, I believe, is the progenitor of contemporary verse.  Maybe Mallarme, before Stevens.  Mallarme’s poetry “evokes” meaning, rather than stating it.  His “Prelude a l’apres-midi d-un faune,” probably his most well-known poem made even more immortal due to Debussy’s musical setting of it, is a model example of his style.  Even in English translation, one can discern the flavor of his French evocations.  I put Wallace Stevens in his lineage as Stevens, also, evokes and does not declare in his poetry.

Contemporaries of Stevens–Eliot and Frost–differ in their treatment of language.  They make declarative sentences and they make points.  While they both employ the modern “objective correlative,” the imagery they employ is to make a point, or argument.  Their sentences connect subjects with objects.  When Robert Frost writes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” we know that Frost is using a New England stone wall to reflect on division between humans.  Wallace Stevens criticized Frost for this, saying, “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about–subjects.”  To which Frost replied, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

When one approaches a Stevens poem, one doesn’t ask what Stevens is writing about.  He doesn’t write about subjects.  He writes “about” language and word juxtapositions.  Some say he writes about human subjectivity or the creative process.  But I won’t even give him that.  His word situations defy meaning.  One enjoys the words themselves, not what he’s talking “about.”  Contemporary verse follows the style of Stevens.  He doesn’t write about subjects, but I’ll not say it’s bric-a-brac.

My complaint about Stevens and much contemporary poetry is I find it wanting in depth.  Having fun with words is fun, as far as it goes, but ultimately one wants to come away from a poem with more than a bare feeling evoked by words.  Nietzsche turned philosophy into literature.  Though his literary works are as vapid as Stevens at his worst.  Frost is a true embodiment of Emerson’s philosophical poet.  Frost was a philosopher, maybe even a mystic (he said he was).  And Frost made philosophy in verse.  I fear that contemporary styles of poetry are but a fad.  Everybody is writing in the school of Stevens, just like a generation ago everybody was writing sestinas because Pound reintroduced them into modern poetry.  What will last into time we cannot say today.  But we can say that for today, Stevens wins the day.

 

KNOWLEDGE, APPRECIATION, AND ENJOYMENT

I enjoy reading Shakespeare when I’m moved to

Richard III is thrilling

When I don’t have to study it for a course:

Memorize plot, character, Act and scene

Nietzsche on Greek Tragedy is enthralling

When I don’t have to place it in relation to

Zarathustra, Christian criticism, Ubermensch, herd

Education is a mixed blessing

A blessing, if it serves to enhance

Joy in culture’s works

Mixed if it serves merely to teach

Appreciation only, or worse, criticism

Still, without education, I wouldn’t read Shelley

And Shelley teach me to enjoy Shakespeare

Literary Criticism: Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe astounds me whenever I read him, and I am reading him again, now.  He is, perhaps, one of the most gifted writers of this generation.  Wolfe writes about the depth and surface of human experience.  People too often, and mistakenly, talk about Wolfe’s interest in status.  That’s there, of course, but Tom Wolfe can write with insight and sensitivity about the soul, about spirituality, and the conflict of spirituality with the contemporary world and its vapid secularity–giving all their own voice.

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the shining stars in the age in which they live.  For instance, Norman Mailer was a sensation in his day, but I don’t think anyone will be reading him for much longer, if anyone still is.  Tom Wolfe will continue to be read for generations because his novels are engaging, profound, artistic, and bespeak truths about the human condition that are timeless.

Tom Wolfe’s work has received mixed critical response.  Some prominent authors of the generation preceding him panned him.  I don’t know what gets into critics’ heads, sometimes.  You often see hubris and arrogance in them that makes them think that they have an Olympian voice about everything beneath them from their lofty height.  Hemingway once said he thought he should break the jaw of one critic every year.  Wolfe’s works surpass the accepted authors preceding him who panned him.  Wolfe will live on while they are forgotten.

Wolfe delights, engages, paints realistic characters, realistic situations, and comments on the vital issues of human existence.  I am casting this criticism out into the cyber-world as enthusiasm which must find voice, and as a recommendation to anyone who hasn’t yet been touched by this abiding artist.

Contrasting Dynamics between Old and New Literature

I’ve recently been reading the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.  I’m finding a marked contrast in the development of the stories that each tell.  I am sad to say that I fail to understand the artistry of the contemporary novelist Murakami, while I am stimulated and captivated by the 19th century novelist Turgenev.

In the first chapter of Turgenev, there are four developing story tensions: 1) youth and age, 2) aristocracy and peasantry, 3) social grace and casual social insouciance, 4) science and art.  All this is evolving through four characters.  I can’t wait to see how these tensions play out.  By contrast, I am half-way through Murakami and there are no plot tensions; there have been a long succession of characters who appear then fall out of the narrative; and the story is a succession of episodes with nothing driving them other than the main character’s fascination with a woman who has something wrong with her.

The New York Times likes Murakami, and that makes me think that I’m missing something.  But I’ve read no critical commentary on Turgenev and I’m hooked.  Am I witnessing a clash of aesthetics between contemporary art and 19th century art?  Have my sensibilities failed to keep up with contemporary culture?

In my own aesthetics, a work of art commands attention by its own presentation.  I don’t need to read a book of art criticism to admire a Rembrandt painting–or a Monet landscape.  But I do, in order to appreciate Miro.  I don’t need to read criticism to enjoy Hemingway or Turgenev or Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe.  But someone needs to tell me why I should keep reading Murakami, because the author himself isn’t compelling my attention.

With so much art, I seem to leave off with early modernism.  Perhaps I am living witness to the plot tension in Turgenev between youth and age.  But then, that would commend Turgenev’s 19th century aesthetic.

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