“I shall forget you presently, my dear,
Please, behave yourself, Ms. Millay.
One can imagine a few of her elders pulling her aside to gently chastise the young poet as she began to wade her way through the literary swamps of the early 20th century. Later in her career, when not being openly attacked, she was largely ignored by the ascendant modernist literati for having the gall to be romantic.
But early on Millay was one of the last of a now extinct species: the popular American poet.
Beautiful. Bisexual. Feminist. Razor-sharp. Self-destructive. Millay was that. And if you can forgive a smidge of morbidity, she was a well-staged suicide away from landing a Hollywood biopic. But should we not attempt to get beyond our current culture of personality worship, this rotating pantheon of drug-addled, self-obsessed celebrities? Should any of this soap opera nonsense really matter to art, to life?
Ha ha ha!
Should is not the issue! These things do matter and they will always matter. Our obsession with other people’s behavior has its hooks deep in you and me, it's hardwired, whether we admit to it or not. Yes, the artist’s primary responsibility is to their work, but for us, that reprehensible band of chumps, The Public, any attempt to permanently divorce the artist’s work from their life is a futile attempt to divorce life itself. And although life is a bloody mess, we love to watch the blood fly…from a safe distance, of course.
The public started losing interest in poetry when the poets started becoming professors. Professors wear sweaters and can’t remember where they put that umbrella. Professors have read more books than you and definitely won't lord it over anyone. Professors explain the current and historical contexts. Professors will help you become a thought-full citizen. Booooooring. You can’t breed poet with professor and keep the booooooring out, no matter how much talent and eccentricity you throw in the mix. There’s simply not enough risk or blood in higher education to interest anyone for very long.
Millay wasn’t a professor. She wrote for a living, and left a slew of lovers in her wake while smoldering through the years, as reflected in her poems. Here's “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
Accessible and evocative, there’s little room for the “I don’t get it!” of those poor unfortunates who never received a degree in English Lit. This isn’t to say difficulty is bad. Obscurity in art is bad (yes, there are always exceptions); difficulty in art is only bad when there is nothing behind it.
Throughout her work Millay’s voice is powerful and independent, often overwhelming with its wit and a self-aware, subversive knowledge. Even when she dips into melancholy, as above, she maintains her power. Woman as player: all those “unremembered lads”, the degeneracy!
Here, the worldly context, our poet as prolific lover, in no way takes away from the glory of the poem. Of course, if the poem does not deliver then the poet would have a problem. As our critic says, “good poetry hides”. We can forgive the artist or entertainer who elevates or entertains us. Failure to do so…well, you’re just another reprobate nudging civilization towards total collapse!
Millay unabashedly embodied a poetics that explored the terribly old-fashioned themes of love, death, and nature while remaining modern. Yes, even today one can be modern and write sonnets. To be modern at any time is simply to be very very good.
For Edna, no problem.
She had that rare combination of glamor and substance. If we live in an entertainment age (we do) then one can either moan and moan about the lack of substance, or put in the effort to dress up the substantial in an alluring costume.
In “The Fitting”, the speaker is being fitted by a “hardworking woman with a familiar and unknown face” who remarks that she has lost weight. All the better, the speaker replies (“tant mieux”). Soon the saleswoman comes in, repeating the remark:
Ah, que madame a maigri!” cried the vendeuse, coming in
Millay bites in many of her poems, but with artisty. And here her blend of bite and fine-tuned feeling is not aimed at the tailor or the saleswoman exactly, but takes in and then transcends the superficiality of the situation: stood there, being measured, chatted up, touched, all the while blissfully daydreaming as the world rambles on around her, we’re invited to take part in the superiority of the imaginative world.
Speaking of superiority…
T.S. Eliot, by most if not all accounts the most talented English-language poet of the 20th century, was never a popular poet in the way Millay was. He became an poetic institution of sorts, sure. But hordes of hormone ravaged neophytes won’t be clamoring to read “Prufrock and Other Obersvations” anytime soon, as crushingly brilliant as it is.
He was and always will be popular with poets (damn the man could write) as well as that small subset of the population who pride themselves on their hard-won “good taste”. But for Eliot, a poem like “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” is too sentimental, too adolescent. Old Possum, they called him. Possums aren’t renowned for their sentimentality or sex appeal, as their wives can attest.
People need to be seduced into poetry. Eliot is nine months into the relationship when the lovers start to reveal their respective monsters. Poetry-wise, he’s essential, but you don’t want him on the ground floor attempting to woo prospective clients.
We want Lord Byron on a Greek ship sailing into battle, we want a young Plath biting her future husband on the cheek, we want Ginsberg holding a “POT IS FUN” sign with flowers in his hair. As questionable as these wants are, we want, we want, we want.
No, these gestures, these poses, do not enhance the poem, but yes, they certainly enhance the story and glamor surrounding poetry. The modern insistence on separating the text from its author, while a perfectly fine tool for criticism, sucks all the joy and vigor from the pose of the poet.
It’s difficult to imagine a professor today attempting, let alone pulling off, the pose taken in Millay’s “Dirge Without Music”:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
O Edna! where are your sons and daughters now?
We're not living in the wasteland yet. The battle to elevate American Poetry above academic chattering or cringy social media dross may very well be a foolish and losing one. I know. But I do not approve…
"God breathes on the vintage pages
as I read."
So says Mary Angela Douglas.
For many modern readers it would seem odd, perhaps even disconcerting, to come across a poet who sincerely and unapologetically offered up their poems to God. After all, we say, God is merely a stand-in for the unknown, a primitive superstition to be outgrown. This is the 21st century! we know so much more, so much better now…don’t we?
This is the type of arrogance we’ve come to expect, even from our artists: the measuring-stick arrogance that shuts off any grand or divine possibilities.
And so it is that poets of today, if they praise at all, are more likely to offer up their poems in the name of one group or another, some abused pigeons somewhere, or the experience of the idiosyncratic individual: the marginalized brought on stage, defiant, to give voice to their struggle. Which is a fine thing, this giving voice. We all suffer. We are all restricted. We should speak. And listen.
But who suffers more? Who is most restricted? Such poets of today want to know, and seek to remedy by speaking the language of restriction. This type of poetry is eagerly gobbled up by the many highly-qualified judges of today, where awards and indignation is justly, very justly apportioned. The unjust past is brought into the stark light of the unjust present, as if injustice could cure itself through self-torture.
Ah, but what about the other poets, the poets of forever, the poets of light? What do they say? What do they want to know?
Mary Angela Douglas is such a poet. Her poetry says, if there is restrictions in life, there is no restriction here, and all you need to know is God. And to be clear, for Douglas, this is the Christian God. Through experience of Him, restriction is transcended.
POETRY IS NOT A CONTEST
The poet declaims our folly before humbly stepping aside—then an alternative, the numinous, can wriggle its way into the reader. It’s as if one’s wandering through a vast and loving landscape, where hurricanes are mere trifles blown into being by angels for better kite-flying, and a lifetime of injustice and pain is just a useful, minute-long lesson preparing us for eternity.
This isn’t to say Mary denies the world’s suffering. She is acutely aware of it. Her website: angelidicuoremare.blogspot.com is dedicated “To the Russian Poets”--"And most of all, to the poet from the former Soviet Union who, dying, in prison, wrote his final poem in his own blood on the wall: the single word, "Hope"."
This is far removed from “a competition of herds”. Here is Mrs. Douglas lamenting the current state of poetry:
How has it come to pass that in a free country poetry, as well as all the art forms, has come to be regarded as important ONLY to the degree that it represents a conversation about social issues? When I think of the incredible, jeweled sweep, breadth and depth of feeling, imagination and beauty of poetry especially in the English language for centuries and see it reduced in our time virtually to only a repository of political will and polemic, I COULD WEEP.
It’s sad, but true. So many of today’s poets have politics lodged in the throat, and it makes for garbled song.
Mrs. Douglas is not a literary critic in any strict sense of the word, but there are few individuals today who care as passionately about poetry. If indignation is expressed on occasion it’s the indignation of a child who’s favorite doll has been ripped to shreds by a pack of bullies. Well, indignation is the small price you pay for valuing something worth valuing, and seems especially small when compared with access to the kingdom of childhood.
NOW WE ARE CROSSING THE PINK PART OF THE MAP
We can’t stay in childhood forever, or in beautiful poetry or music, but that doesn’t mean we can’t visit regularly. Mary visits on a daily basis; leaving poem after poem, windows into the transcendent, for some providential reader to pass through.
Like Rilke and Rumi, two other beloved poets of God, she shuts her doors on no one, litterateur and layman, heathen and Christian, each can appreciate this work, woven with delicacy and passion, not despite its sincere spiritual crying out, but because of it.
Douglas is a testament to the fact that fame and accolades, while entirely fine in their own right, are entirely unnecessary. For the lucky poet, divine poetry is enough, connection to beauty and the infinite is enough.
Chivalry Is Not Dead Came Over The Rattling Wires
For Mary Angela Douglas writing poetry is a sacred vocation; perhaps one can hope for the return of more individuals like her and “the young men fervently schooled to learn/their chivalry in turn/before the decimating wars”.
Heaven knows we could use them.
We’ll end with a few lines from her remarkable elegy to the pianist Van Cliburn, Where Is The Beautiful Kingdom Where You Were. Speaking on Van Cliburn’s critics, those “snipers at Beauty”, she asks:
what have they dreamed into leaves and flowers recently
It is enough. More than enough.
Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the only poet to have snuck his way into the American public’s imagination. I say snuck because, let’s face it—America. Unlike England, with its fancy Dan history, and its Shakespeare, and its endless Queens in silly hats, America, brave sweet practical America, when offered poetry is likely to say, “I prefer dirt.”
Which makes perfect sense.
You can build something with dirt. Stock in dirt is up 7% since last quarter! Heck, with just a cup of water you can serve your little patriots mud pies for dessert. In all seriousness, it’s this practicality which made America possible, and actually work: not sending soldiers out to fight a guerrilla war in red uniforms, governmental checks and balances, flip-flops, etc.
But Poe is not dirt, he is what flies above the dirt.
Then how do you explain our poet reaching the dizzying heights of having a NFL team named after one of his poems? Well, the exemplary horror and detective fiction certainly didn’t hurt. That, and a reputation, warranted or not, of being a drug addled ne’er-do-well will get you far.
The Raven is the most well-known poem in America for a reason (it’s also the name of a horrible Hollywood movie that, unwittingly, christens Poe as a true American hero, imagining him as a gun slinging detective: Bang!). It and its creator transcend the sissy poetry/poet categories.
It’s dark, man. (It's also a masterpiece of rhythm and rhyme, but details!)
Here’s his oft-quoted line from “The Philosophy of Composition”, a mini-manual for rhymesters: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Whether it is the most poetical topic in the world is, of course, questionable, but this assertion gives us a clue to the poet's nature. You see, Poe is a practical poet. Like an American dad with a shovel, he doesn't hide from the work at hand.
This life is finite, he says.
But there is beauty in living on earth, a beauty one can participate in. And woman, that which literally makes life and human beauty possible, as life, is sacred.
And...it’s all on it’s way out. To return...nevermore...
Bad things happen that one can’t prevent or give a reasonable reason for.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Poe can scare us. He knows the Shadow, and brings forth those things, those aspects of life that we might prefer to ignore or reject. Thankfully, he does this with the beautiful light of words, so we don't mind so much.
It’s the ephemeral quality of our lives, the same quality so central to poetry and music, that Poe is so wise to emphasize; this vulnerability to the arbitrary, to the chilling, killing winds of the world which, when perceived, makes our existence that much more ours, not in spite of the ensuing sorrow, but because of it. Acknowledging this may make one feel small, like a child. But a child also sees in a way that most no longer see.
So why waste time hiding from what you can’t escape? And for that matter, what the heck is actually going on around here anyways?
Take this kiss upon the brow!
Who knows? Maybe Poe did, maybe not. He knew many things; not that that helps you.
What we do know: there's not many more years left. So pay attention. Have fabulous evenings.
Kiss your Lenores, and appreciate your Annabel Lees. Whatever they may be.
The stream becomes the river, the river becomes the sea, and the sea…well, the sea is just fucking huge.
Let’s say for the moment that the above represents poetry, and that the skillful poet helps to navigate these changing waters; dallying with us in the stream, mingling our inner-rhythms with the faithless river's, until, finally adrift at sea, we drown.
Bad poets try to drown you in the stream. Or they just hit you over the head with a rock.
Thomas Graves is of the former type, and arguably the most important voice in American poetry today when you consider what he throws light on.
No one has skewered boring, careerist poetry-as-usual with more panache and common sense—see WHY POETRY SUCKS NOW as one example—while simultaneously promoting truly first-rate work: Mary Angela Douglas, Chumki Sharma, Ben Mazer (Graves says he's the best), the up and coming Indians, and others have reached many thousands of readers thanks to his influence.
Combative, amusing, rhetorically virtuosic, Graves makes a strong case for the real value of the sane critic, particularly in such eggheaded times. OK. But do we really need critics? We'll glance at some criticism today and you can decide for yourself, though for now we're most concerned with the poems. After all, they'll tell us if the criticism is worth considering. Let's have a look.
There's something deliciously intimate about this poem. Yes, it rhymes and speaks to you. It's a conversation; though the voice seems to come from a great distance. "Things change outside, but you don't change. You are/Not the light that flickers. The flickering light is not the star."
Graves' poems, at their best, nourish the soul. The message and the music wriggle through and out the brain.
You bump into a friend downtown who you haven't seen for years. It's late Spring. You both decide on lunch at a small Italian place with outdoor seating. Wine is ordered. Your waiter's name is Raoul. You notice your friend seems...different. He has an air of strange knowledge. A few glasses of red in, you just come out and ask what the hell is really going on. After swearing you to secrecy, he pulls out a small silk bag...
What's in it? Wait a minute, did he dye his hair? This is your friend, right? Does that bag even exist?
THE STUPID WANT TO KNOW
It's starting to come together for you, isn't it? Romanticism, alone in the corner, adjusts its scarf, revealing a bare, blushing neck. Don't stare. You've always been so polite. It's probably just the wine.
Listen, if poets can't deliver at the minimum beauty and romance, they deserve to weep away into oblivion. Here's a taste of the sort of common sense Graves puts forth—"Poetry is communication made sublimely physical. Love’s excitement and risks do not exist for us unless physically."
So the obvious question is, how do you make communication sublimely physical?
Graves again: "Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true. It often has heart, but no wit. Or wit, but no heart. The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed."
Wit (excellence of expression: cleverness/rhyme/musicality) and Heart (love and loss of, thereabouts) in the right combination, read by the right reader, has a measurable effect on the body, which, I would like to suggest, actually changes us. Perhaps not always in an immediately discernible way, but it changes us.
We went along with the stream-river-sea metaphor earlier, but in fact the majority of his poems have more than anything the touch of fire to them. Intensity lights the match.
THE REST I NEED
How refreshing to read a poem so clear and so unashamedly romantic! Of course, you have to be able to pull it off. But there you have it.
"You are a tall, crumbling cliff, a step away from the sky..." Ah. Then there's the refrain of "the rest" beginning the sentences in the middle of the poem, before the return of "the rest I need" in the final line. Just brilliant.
Many will say these poems are old-fashioned. By which they mean they rhyme, please the ear, and make sense. These are the same people who would keep poetry as their own private little club removed from music and accessibility, from the uninitiated and the "common" world. How obnoxious. But this poet knows "The known is what we know; And all that we have, we can have before we go, In the understanding of the going." (from I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW).
In reality, Graves is far more modern than these buffoons by dint of sheer class: embracing speech and song. Apart from writing beautifully, he can read his poems with skill. Several are on Youtube: (which I think we still barely understand the significance of. It seems more than possible that this format could, if it hasn't already, equal or surpass the Gutenberg press in terms of transformational effect. Poets, take note.)
Even composing and performing hi-quality lo-fi songs:
More poets might profit from tinkering with different media and expanding their creative tool kits. Profit from being code for enjoy.
Graves, a great admirer of Poe, can play in many registers, and like Poe is often most moving when he moves through sadness:
THE LOST CHILD
This is self-evidently a great poem.
Then back down to the sea where we can glimpse..."Only the darkness which runs/Like fish running, a million underwater suns." An astounding clarity and music shines throughout. Poe would love this.
We haven't even talked about Scarriet yet.
That's where this all goes down. Formed in 2009 under shall we say interesting circumstances, the site is closing in on a million views, a rather astonishing feat considering the type and quality of work on display. Graves doesn't yet have any books of poetry published which, while not surprising, is truly ludicrous; but what he does have is one of the largest readerships in poetry land. As usual the Europeans, in this case the Romanians, are ahead of us in recognizing artistic talent, Graves having been invited and flown out to their literary conference Discutia Secreta last summer.
Oh, by the way, all the poems we've looked at here were written in the past year. Graves is prolific, as most great poets seem to be. I'd estimate between a 100 and 150 poems a year get put up. One quibble with Scarriet is that the less-than-recent poems are cumbersome to get to. Something resembling a table of contents would be ideal.
Poetry may suck now in a lot of ways, sure. But a reasonable way forward has been laid out and some nagging questions answered, for those with ears to hear.
Finally, to end, the end of the poem, WHY DON'T YOU:
Here is the religion which washes up on shore,
Thomas Graves is at the vanguard. Many are grateful for that.
Nathan Woods, editor/overlord