May 042004

Now that David Hurwitz has blown the lid off classical music, I feel impelled to do my part.

1. Everything you liked in high school is bad. Everything your English teacher told you to like is also bad, but for different reasons. If you liked what your English teacher told you to like, you are now teaching English.

2. Donne should be hanged for his placing of the accents.

3. Blake was stone loony.

4. Reputation bloat is directly proportional to the fodder the poet supplies for doctoral theses. “Philosophical” poets are especially prized. Wordsworth leads the league in this department.

5. When browsing an anthology, skip any poet you have heard of. Only the one-offs will be any good. In fact someone ought to get around to making an anthology strictly of one-offs, like those Nuggets collections Rhino Records puts out.

6. Eliot’s scholarship is a complete fraud.

7. Pound was actually a nice guy. A traitor, but a nice guy.

8. Only about a dozen poems in English longer than 100 lines are worth reading. One of them, unfortunately, is Paradise Lost.

9. Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t very good. The plays are pretty good, however.

10. The middle section of Leaves of Grass consists of the sentence “All work and no play makes Walt a dull boy,” repeated 3,482 times.

(Update: Alexei comments, and comments on the comments.)

  27 Responses to “English Poetry’s Ten Dirtiest Secrets”

  1. Hm… I can’t agree with all of that. Point No. 1 you might be right about, but I’m not sure. I did like what my high school English teacher told me to like, and I still like it. I do teach English these days, but it’s English as a second language, and not literature. Does that count?

    Nos. 2, 3 and 4 I agree with. No. 5 is too doctrinaire for my tastes; I can’t abide by it.

    No. 6: Eliot is my god. Well, one of them. I suppose maybe he was a fraud, but no more than anyone else. Fraud is how we get through life; Krishna told Arjuna as much, and I think he’s right. So viva Eliot!

    No. 7: Pound truly is il miglior fabbro. Maybe I’m too much of an idealist, but I can’t bring myself to say that a fascist was a nice guy. He was probably the greatest poet ever in the English language, though.

    No. 8: I never thought about it, but you’re probably right. I’ve racked my brain and I can’t come up with even a dozen. I might be able to if I sat down and worked at it, but the fact that that would require that much work tells me that, well, you’re probably right.

    No. 9: Yes. A friend of mine tells me that he’s read Nabokov’s translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Russian and that these are superior to the originals. Frankly, it wouldn’t be hard to accomplish that.

    Eliot said: "Shakespeare and Dante divide the world between them. There is no other." I agree with that, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    10. You betcha.

  2. Good night, I agree with you! Except on five the jury’s still out. And will not be invited in, since I’d have to look at an anthology.

  3. No 3. Is that necessarily a bad thing in a poet?

  4. Pound may have been a good poet — then again, maybe not. His poems read like students’ notes, always alluding to something better than you actually see on the page. (That’s the key to Imagism, I think.) But Pound’s anti-Semitic WWII rants automatically and permanently disqualify him from the category of "nice person." He should’ve stayed in that cage a lot longer.

    But Pound was at least a canny editor, and carved Eliot’s early masterpieces out of his natural prolixity the way Michelangelo knocked David out of a great big rock.

    I’d trade all of Pound’s poetry for Wordsworth’s "Lines" (a.k.a. "Tintern Abbey") and walk away with the better part of the deal. Wordsworth wrote a lot of bad poetry, but the good stuff is as good as it gets.

  5. Tim: No one outside of David Poliwko will mistake Pound for a great poet. But at his best, as in the translations, like The Seafarer and some of the Chinese stuff, where he has someone else to do his thinking for him, he is a fine poet, much better than Eliot. At his worst, as in the late Cantos — well, it doesn’t get any worse than that. By "nice" I meant that he was remarkably generous personally, which can co-exist with anti-Semitism and a belief in Social Credit.

    If you praise Wordsworth here one more time I may be forced to bestir myself and write about him.

    Rick: Yes.

  6. Eliot suffers from overexposure, alas. It’s not easy to read him with fresh eyes, as if one lived in a world where Eliot hadn’t written — but if you can do it, even college-lit standards like "Prufrock" and The Waste Land still amaze. They both have that conscious, deliberate deployment of language which ensures that you can dive headfirst into the work and never hit bottom.

    Wordsworth is uneven, but I’ve never encountered a better single poem than "Lines" (a.k.a. "Tintern Abbey"). It is an astonishing affirmation of faith and resolution in the face of deep, crushing disappointment — and if you can transport yourself to Wordsworth’s world, it becomes even deeper and more resonant. This poem opens up yet another layer of beauty and meaning every time I read it — I don’t think it can ever go stale.

    I may have to write about that one myself, come to think about it.

  7. BTW, saying that Pound was a generous fellow despite his anti-Semitism is a little like saying a particular performance of Our American Cousin went well despite one unfortunate incident in the middle of Act III.

  8. If it were not for YOU, Mr. Haspel, I would never have cracked another volume of poems after high school. Those gals almost permanently ruined poetry for me, and–but for you, Yvor, Emily, and Ben–I would still be ignoring the entire subject as much as possible.

    Blake was a stone loony, no doubt, but Shakespeare was a genius at the use of language in drama, if not in poetry itself. True, Walt is quickly a stylistic bore, but his heart was often in the right place. I also have a hard time praising vicious traitors and obnoxious anti-Semites, however nice they may have been to children and small pets.

    I know, I know, a good poem is not necessarily a true statement, and vice versa, but I sometimes like to read pretty statements that I already agree with, even if they are ghastly poems… See how you’ve saved the subject for me? Perhaps a little too well…

  9. I have always thought Ezra’s going into almost complete silence his last years was his way of doing penance for an addiction to a motor-mouth that spread brilliance and destruction for fifty years.
    In 1963, early in his silence, in a rare outburst, he said to Italian journalist Grazia Livi: "I have lived all my life believing that I knew something, but then a strange day came and I realized I knew nothing. And thus words became devoid of meaning. I know nothing now. I have arrived too late at the great uncertainty."
    Stuff like this keeps me from feeling guilty about loving lots of Ezra’s poetry. And the guy would and did give his last five bucks to anybody that needed it.

  10. Wow, Pound just got WORSE over time, didn’t he?

    "I have lived all my life believing that I knew something, but then a strange day came and I realized I knew nothing. And thus words became devoid of meaning. I know nothing now. I have arrived too late at the great uncertainty."

    In an important sense, arriving at universal skepticism is worse than simply admitting error. Instead of just saying, "Gee, I guess I was really wrong," Pound says that knowledge is impossible, insulting all those who got it right, thus undermining certainty even about raw evil, the certainty it takes to defeat it…

  11. How about a reference for #6 or a little more context or background?

  12. >9. Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t very good.

    Couldn’t be more wrong.

    >The plays are pretty good, however.

    Not nearly right enough.

  13. Jim, Jim, Jim, there ARE such things are formally undecideable axioms that are beyond truth or falsity. Pound just overstated the the set.

    But if that quote was meant to be poetry, it is worse than Joyce. Joyce, of course, was the worst poet in history.

  14. It’s a secret that Blake was nuts?

  15. Bill, Bill, Bill, I am sorry to hear about your condition, but there are no gaps in the case against Hitler and anti-Semitism, "undecideable" or otherwise. (Sorry for responding so late…)

  16. Jim,

    True, but I was refering just to this:

    "I have lived all my life believing that I knew something, but then a strange day came and I realized I knew nothing. And thus words became devoid of meaning. I know nothing now. I have arrived too late at the great uncertainty."

    It is bad philosophy because of only a modest basis in truth. It is however awful, horrifying, disastrous as poetry, if it actually was considered poetry at all.

  17. Colby: About as secret as "All Mozart sounds the same."

    Kevin: Fair question. In On Poetry and Poets Eliot, discussing George Herbert, speaks of "certain other poets his contemporaries Donne, Vaughan, and Traherne," and refers to Herrick as "a poet a little senior to him." Now compare their actual dates: Herbert, 1593-1633; Donne, 1572-1631; Vaughan, 1622-1695; Traherne, 1637-1674; and Herrick, 1591-1674. Draw your own conclusions. And this is stuff you can find in any standard reference, if you can be bothered, which apparently Eliot could not.

  18. Thanks for the post, Aaron. I’ll try to be laconic this time.

    1. I went to a very different high school, and I don’t quite remember what I liked then, but most of my favorites might have easily been trash.

    2. Some think Donne’s accents are ultra-swell, some the opposite. I’m the only one who is indifferent.

    3. Perhaps; whether it matters I doubt. A dozen Russian poets have translated Tiger into Russian, though, none with that much success.

    4. Other things equal, yes. Not necessarily bad, however.

    5. There are exceptions to this rule, too: Hardy’s Departure Platform is a good poem, isn’t it?

    6,7. No more E & P, please.

    8. Very likely; keep them short, for mercy’s sake.

    9. A billion-decibel ‘yes’, and no translations can change it.

    10. I’ve never got that far.

  19. Can girls play here? If so:

    1. I got fired for teaching what I like–does that make me good, or bad?
    2. No, that’s Hopkins.
    3. So what? The tyger still burns bright!
    4. A+. The mushroom cloud that was WW lingers still.
    5. Generally true, except for Keats.
    6. True.
    7. "Nice"–Pound? Again, so what?
    8. Devilishly true!
    9. Some Sonnets are better than others; ditto the plays.
    10. I’ll take your word for it. Wordsworth made the world safe for Whitman (see #4, above).

  20. Dr. Rock: Hopkins is a different case, a man with an excellent ear who corrupted it with bizarre home-made metrical theories. Donne just couldn’t hear.

  21. You know, when you think about it, all Mozart does not sound alike. Listen to Symphony No. 40 and Symphony No. 41, and see if they sound "the same" to you. "Don Giovanni" doesn’t sound like "The Magic Flute," the Grand Mass in C Minor doesn’t sound like the Piccolomini Mass, the flute quartets don’t sound like the oboe quartets — you get the idea.

  22. The Pound detractions are troublesome. Along with Neruda and Hamsun, we should solely appreciate his art. (Which, in common with Neruda and Hamsun is of the highest order.) Indeed, Ez WAS a nice guy. If Ginsberg were alive, one might ask him of this anti-semitic nonsense. Study the theory of Social Credit before accusing Pound of having anything to do with Hitler. I could go on for two hundred pages with refutations, but Pound would recommend dichtung. As far as the original posting, Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t very good?!? Pure heresy. Unmitigated, rambling heresy.

  23. Thomas Eliot is in my personal opinion the greatest lyric poet in the English language since Shakespeare.

    That said, from what I have seen your taste in poems I have never heard of is truly exceptional. If you would put together an anthology of your favorite one-offs, I would certainly read it. I would even buy it. I crave good poems I have not read but cannot find them among the zillions of crap.

  24. This site reeks of flip undergraduate nonsense. Undergraduates, free from having to be careful about what they says, lay about them with gusto with large statements which look like dangerous weapons but which are in fact blown up large with hot air. Typical of these statements is the total absence of evidence.

  25. Great observations here. I’d like to add to #8: Milton was an optimist.

  26. I confess that I had only vaguely heard of your name until I read Terry Teachout’s blog this morning. Than I became acquainted with some of your enormously clever, pithy and (often) sage aphorisms.

    The comments you’ve made above have some considerable truth in them. But the key word here may be “some”.

    Yes, Blake was a nut, and philosphical poetry tends to be much overrated – as is Whitman.

    I’d even concede that Shakespeare’s sonnets are often contrived and artificial ( e.g. “Shall I compare thee to…”) But quite a lot of them are beautiful and powerfully revealing. No other writer of sonnets — in our language at least — has told us so much about his own states of mind or his soul.

    And you’re very, very wrong when you say that only about a dozen poems in English longer than 100 lines are worth reading. Tennyson wrote at least eight just by himself.


    Lancelot and Elaine
    The Holy Grail
    The Passing of Arthur

    A Dream of Fair Women
    The Palace of Art
    The Lotus Eaters

    In Memoriam

  27. And I forgot (the wonderfully politically incorrect) Locksley Hall and its sequel!

    That’s ten just by Tennyson.

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