I’m back (from blogs on jazz) to thinking lots about poetry lately (and writing some): thinking focused on what makes poetry worth writing (and reading): what makes the act of writing poetry truly meaningful, truly necessary (required to be achieved, needed; essential, imperative, indispensable, incumbent). In 1955, sixty-four years ago, I began to read contemporary poetry with the serious attention it deserves. I attended “live” readings in New York City, and I spent a considerable amount of time listening to the then available Caedmon recordings: Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Stephen Spender, et cetera.
I spent considerable time attempting to determine just what made poetry “truly meaningful,” essential, true–rather than a gratuitous (“not called for by the circumstances : not necessary, appropriate, or justified : UNWARRANTED”) act—and over the past sixty-four years, I have read, heard and more than likely written work that might be regarded as spurious “creativity”: just showing off, displaying well-schooled (too often workshop well-schooled?) verbal finesse (or what one has been taught as finesse—playing “the game,” clever, “cute”); mistaking therapy (getting “stuff” off one’s mind, or chest–unloading) for The Real Thing; a martyrdom that sacrifices original thought and feeling for overt political purpose or persuasion (adopting a stance or “position”—a specific party platform the language of which is not one’s own); self-aggrandizement (overestimating one’s own importance or power—an attitude that might be present, and detrimental, no matter what activity one is engaged in); or the worst offense against genuine poetry perhaps: outright fakery—deceit, dissimulation, dissembling, enjoying being thought of as a “Poet” (capital “P”), pretending one is a Poet, but not necessarily producing much that resembles the art form itself.
I’ve never had the courage of conviction of the totally committed, uncompromising Osip Mandelstam, who, when an aspiring young poet read his poems to him (“everything that I could”), listened attentively (“his face showing neither approval nor disapproval”), and finally said, “It doesn’t matter how gutta-percha [rigid natural latex produced from the sap of a Malaysian tree] a voice you read those poems in—they are still bad.”—and on another occasion, when the wannabe poet V. Kaverin read his work to Mandelstam, the poet spoke to him “sternly, with passion and conviction”: “There was no room for irony. It was important to him that I stop writing verses, and what he was saying was a defense of poetry against me and against those tens and hundreds of young men and women who were amusing themselves with the game of words.” (from Mandelstam, by Clarence Brown). Kaverin gained his first “intimation of the fact that poetry does not exist for itself alone, and that if it does not strive to express life, to give it lasting form, no one has any use for even the cleverest gathering of rhymed lines.”
I’ve read and heard some open to doubt, debatable “poetry” over the years, but I’ve never had the nerve to respond as Mandelstam did, although … on occasion, I’ve wished I had.
So … What IS The Real Thing? Whenever, now, I feel a bit uncertain, I go back to what I recognized, experienced as “The Real Thing” when I first read it—this a few years before I got serious about the art form in NYC: when I discovered the work of John Keats. As Andrew Motion writes in his excellent Keats: A Biography: “Keats confirms his ambition (his appeal to posterity became increasingly emphatic as he failed to find short-term success), and asserts his necessary independence. If he is to make his name as a poet, he says, it will be because he develops his individual gifts, rather than adapting them to suit the expectations of a ‘fierce miscreed.’ He pledges his loyalty to an aesthetic which is highly personal, rather than one which is determined by conventional readers or specific social forces … It is only by resisting the temptation to tease ‘the world for grace’ that poets can achieve their ambitions. Identity depends on calm self-possession.”
Here are four portraits of John Keats—the first a painting by William Hilton; second a sketch by Benjamin Haydon; a life mask by Haydon, and a piece by Joseph Severn (the artist who accompanied Keats to Rome, where the poet died at age twenty-five). (Photo credits: Wikipedia; The Thanatos Archive; keatslettersproject.com; amazon.com)
And here are words from the man himself, from The Selected Letters of John Keats: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 Feb. 1818: “Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself … We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing that enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject—How beautiful are the retired flowers! How would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “Admire me I am a violet!—dote upon me I am a primrose! … I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.”
Here are a few more insights from Keats: A Biography, by Andrew Motion: “Inevitably, some aspects of the age influenced him more than others, and some hardly affected him at all. This means that distinctions have to be made, as well as associations emphasized, in placing his story within its context. But even when his poems struggled to overrule time, they reflected his particular circumstances. He was born with the City at his back, among clamorous commercial interests, Volunteers training, radicals protesting, hospitals expanding, and suburbs spilling into open country. He spent his adult life paying very deliberate attention to these things, and to other national and international issues as well. In some respects they persuaded him that he was an outsider. In others they gave him confidence. He could insist on independence because he knew that he belonged nowhere precisely. He looked beyond everyday events because he understood how they might confine and disappoint him. And he realized that in striving to achieve various sorts of cohesion in his work, he could never ignore the stubborn facts of paradox and contradiction.”
Reading Shakespeare “religiously” provided John Keats a sense that “the most powerful poetry does not make its effects by hectoring, or even candidly expressing the author’s personal opinion, but by creating a self-sufficient imaginative universe—a universe in which readers are invited to make independent critical decisions and moral judgements.” Poet/critic Matthew Arnold understood that Keats’ work was ‘not imitative, indeed, of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’ … Keats’ affinity with Shakespeare depends on thoughts about poetic identity; about the overriding need for it to remain fluid, to have no trace of the egotistical sublime, to have in its extreme suppleness and empathy ‘no character at all.’”
This paragraph anticipates Keats’ theory of impersonality or Negative Capability. Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, writing to his brothers in 1817, Keats proposed that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:”‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Writing to his friend Benjamin Bailey in the same year, Keats said: “Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character … I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty … The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth.”
The approach, or philosophy, is one John Keats shared with (and was perhaps inspired by) another friend: the older, more “well-established” (highly respected lecturer, critic) William Hazlitt, whose core or major principle was disinterestedness in all its modes: detachment, equity, evenhandedness, fairness, impartiality, justice, neutrality, nonpartianship, objectivity (the autonyms for which are: bias, favoritism, nonobjectivity, onesidedness, partisanship, and prejudice).
Here’s a self-portrait by William Hazlitt, and the cover of his Selected Writings: (Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)
[The] ability to respond to imaginative and rhetorical power, “even in those cases where one might disagree with the ideas so movingly expressed,” was evidence of the disinterestedness which Hazlitt prized.—or as David Bromwich [in Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic] emphasizes: “Hazlitt’s concept of disinterestedness did not mean lack of interest or strict judicial impartiality, but rather, the capacity to enter sympathetically into interests or positions other than one’s own. Disinterestedness did not preclude partisanship, or Hazlitt would not have been able to achieve it!” … In his early foray into philosophy, ‘’An Essay on the Principles of Human Action’”(1805), Hazlitt argued that “the imagination was essentially disinterested – as capable of responding to the predicament of a friend, neighbor, or stranger as to one’s own predicament. Habit, of course, would in time render us more self-centered, but innately, our imaginative capacities were boundless … The imagination required to appreciate the plight of this yet-nonexistent self, he argued, was akin to the imagination that appreciated the plight of all other selves – mine, thine, his, and hers. Hazlitt’s theory directly challenged the prevailing Hobbesian idea of man’s innate selfishness, a belief which was often used to justify social repression (society must limit individual selfishness), or, in more Malthusian fashion, to justify a laissez faire attitude in which the selfishness of each person was presumed to be balanced by the selfishness of everyone else.”
Here’s William Hazlitt in his own early-19th century words (from “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action”): “Would it not be strange if this constant fellowship [of a child, in school] of joys and sorrows did not produce in him some sensibility to the good or ill fortune of his companions, and some real good-will towards them? The greatest part of our pleasures depend upon habit: and those which arise from acts of kindness and disinterested [italics mine] attachment to others are the most common, the most lasting, the least mixed with evil of all others, as a man devoid of all attachment to others, whose heart was thoroughly hard and insensible to every thing but his own interest would scarcely be able to support his existence, (for in him the spring and active principle of life would be gone), it follows that we ought to cultivate sentiments of generosity and kindness for others … The advantages of virtue are however to be derived, like those of any liberal art, from the immediate gratification attending it, from it’s necessary effect on the mind, and not from a gross calculation of self-interest. This effect must be the greatest, where there is the most love of virtue for its own sake, as we become truly disinterested, and generous.”
On Keats’ “authenticity,” David Bromwich writes: “The sumptuous details, Classical references and painterly gestures would all become trademarks. And there is something else too—something that again anticipates his mature work. The ‘beauties’ of the ‘Imitation’ are not merely a lovely escape from the world; they enact a form of engagement with it. By setting his ‘emerald’ island ‘in the silver sheen / Of the bright waters’, Keats describes a miniature England that belongs in a specific historical context. Its seclusion is an emblem of peacefulness in general, and the result of a particular Peace—the Peace between England and France, which was signed in Paris at the time it was written.”
I’ve carried The Real Thing, the poetry of John Keats with me throughout eighty-three years of existence now, and a single poem of his, “Bright Star,” came in quite handy, stood me in good stead, with a few old girl friends and even with my wife of sixty-two years, Betty (whom I’ve known for seventy-two years!). I still love this (to my ears, eyes, heart, and soul) perfect poem, and here it is:
Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
I return, frequently, to the work of poets I have relished in my lifetime, and regard as The Real Thing: the Russian poets Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak; the Greek poets Georgos Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis; Americans Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Jack Spicer, Elizabeth Bishop, James Scheville, Richard Wilbur, Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Philip Levine, Paul Zimmer, Li-Young Lee, Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Robert Sward, Sandra McPherson—and a recent “discovery,” the multi-talented Bianca Stone.
Since “finding” her, I have acquired four books by Bianca Stone (an accomplished visual artist as well as poet): Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, The Mobius Strip Club of Grief, Antigonick (a collaboration with translator Anne Carson), and Poetry Comics from The Book of Hours. She is also the chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation, an organization that honors the work of her grandmother, poet Ruth Stone–whose 1999 book Ordinary Words won the National Book Critics Circle Award, soon followed by other award-winning collections, including In the Next Galaxy (2002), winner of the National Book Award; In the Dark (2004); and What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The first book by Bianca Stone I read was Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—and a single poem there, “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK,” nearly stopped my heart (and brought empathic tears) because my sister Emily, six years younger than I (active, joyous, loving, a soul-mate at whose bedside I would sit, when she was a teenager, to play “quiet chords from my guitar,” and sing her favorite folk-songs), had just died of pancreatic cancer. Here’s a portion of Bianca Stone’s poem:
“… You have experienced profound grief—
how do you react to this?
Down on the ground your family
writhes. Down on the ground
you are surrounded at Starbucks
with a terrible glow.
And you have seen someone you love,
with a colossal
complex vehemence, die.
And it is pinned under glass
in perfect condition.
It is wrapped around you
like old fur. You’ve looked at the sky
until your eyes touched
zodiacal fantasies—right there in the void.
You know this. That the body lays down
while the mind bloats
on intellectual chaos …”
Here’s a portion of a review of The Mobius Strip Club of Grief (the second book by Bianca Stone I read, and admired, extravagantly) by Jaime Zuckerman (It appeared in The Kenyon Review): “The Möbius Strip Club of Grief builds on the intellectual work of its feminist forebears and offers a vision of womanhood that is raw, raging, sad, and beautiful. The women in Stone’s poems don’t fit any of the definitions of woman that society has neatly provided; her poems blur, challenge, and outright erase those definitions completely. In their place, Stone offers a womanhood in which we can find some sort of personal freedom from all the grief of simply living. A womanhood that will last long after the current trends have lost their shine and we still need to be heard … Stone’s first collection of poems, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—as well as her collection of poetry, comics, and several chapbooks—are full of falling in love, being lost and found, sometimes desperate, sometimes joyful abandon … The Möbius Strip Club of Grief begins as an elegy for Bianca Stone’s grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone, and becomes an elegy for America … [Bianca Stone] asks herself about the collection, ‘Why am I writing this psychosexual opus to the mind of my women?’ Because, Bianca, we need to hear it. We need all the inspiration we can get right now … It is through the ‘genius’ or the creativity of women—grandmas, mothers, daughters—that we can find some salvation or solace. It’s poetry itself that gives us our agency and helps us overcome our multitude of grief.”
Here’s a photo of Bianca Stone, of Ruth Stone, a sample of Bianca Stone’s art work, and the cover of her book Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours: (Photo credits: Facebook; poetryfoundation.org/poets/ruth-stone; www.essaydaily.org: Visual Essayists: Bianca Stone)
I let John Keats and William Hazlett speak for themselves, and their work; here’s Bianca Stone on being a poet/artist (interview by Ariel Kahn in The Ilanot Review): “There’s so much that can be expressed with visual images that just can’t be in words. And what’s powerful about words alone is that the reader can create the visual in their mind. This of course is a well-known fact about the power of poetry. And why so many people get it wrong trying to ‘understand’ it. But in any case, I try in my poetry comics to not take away that negative capability [John Keats!]; that mystery in the words, and instead think of the images as I would a line of a poem … I’m more apt to allow for irony in the juxtaposition between playful and dramatic. I like to counteract the tones; they come from the same place, but translate differently once out in the open. Writing poetry requires a certain amount of something–not necessarily work, but something– in the head; even two words coming together, that power when they are beside one another–it’s a very specific mode of the brain that’s turning on. Whereas with images I feel I can let my mind wander while I do it. There’s a totally different area sparking when I’m doing this. Different demands of mindfulness … like the forms of poetry that make it poetry, it’s a necessary confine … that white space (gutter) between panels. The blank space creates meaning. That space where we don’t see what’s happening is where the magic is. It’s just like Keats’ negative capability. It’s just like a line break. Like the poetic form, or just the form the poem makes on the page: stanzas, etc. So I know that space, and the confined space, is important … Letting imagination cross the border of what you want to convey to the reader—what is perhaps appropriate or literal—and the unknown, the enigmatic. That is what I am most interested in.. I encourage readers to smile in curiosity! But also to surrender themselves to The Not Knowing. There’s a power in not asking what something means, the irony being that the question becomes relevant only once you stop asking it. And also perhaps, in some ways, answered … Giving something a term, however undefined, can be life-altering … And there’s so much imperfection in labels, but that too is what’s so fun about it … So after I heard this term [“poetry comics”] I began to combine poetry and art with great intention. And calling it something gave me permission to bring my art into my (let’s call it) ‘professional’ life as a writer. I mean, here were these two arts I’d loved doing ever since I could hold a pen, and now I could experiment with what it really meant to combine them; how to do both justice; how to complicate and further the power of each medium.”
When I think of Bianca Stone’s work, I find the rightful “grief” that Jaime Zuckerman recognized and commented on, but I also find an appropriate, unique, original, witty, a bit ghoulish, disturbing “stance” that I think of as “Gothic”—thus the phrase “Gothic Grief” in my title for this Bill’s Blog post. I’ll take a little time, here, to establish a definition of what I see as a tradition I feel she “carries on,” and represents well. The phrase “Gothic art” arrived on the cultural scene in the 12th century AD, a style of medieval art developed in Northern France, inspired by the development of Gothic architecture. The Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. Here are some examples:
From Wikipedia: “The earliest Gothic art was monumental sculpture, on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys–illustrating stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints’ lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.”
From Wikipedia again: “In literature, Gothic fiction (largely known by the subgenre Gothic horror) would come about in 1764 (at the hands of English author Horace Walpole, with his novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled in its second edition ‘A Gothic Story’)–a genre that combines fiction, horror, death, and at times romance. The genre had much success in the 19th century, as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron.” Another novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
From architecture to literature—quite a journey! As is: from the 12th century to Bianca Stone. Here are some more lines from one of her poems, “Emily Dickinson”—lines I feel express “Gothic Grief”:
“She applied her passion like a hot iron sword.
And no one can take off her clothes, ever—she comes
and her language takes them off of us,
not piece by piece, not fumbling buttons,
but all at once in a single shot,
her tiny poems like grenades that fit in the hand.
And we here bask in the debris,
stripped down to our private parts,
the snow white of the bone, the authentic corpse in heat.
The absolute original.”
To my mind (and heart, and soul), Bianca Stone is an “absolute original,” The Real Thing. I rarely, if ever, attempt to contact poets I admire or have just “discovered,” but I was so impressed with Bianca’s brilliant mix of poetry and visual art that I sent her the following (and received a gracious “Thank you, William!” on Facebook): “I am relatively ancient and relished an exciting era (mid-50s: abstract expressionism) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (and playing jazz piano there). Because I loved both art forms, I attempted to combine (and do justice to both) poetry and graphic art: woodcut prints of Classical and Modern Greek and Russian poems—but I did not possess the imagination, originality, and “great intention” you offer in your poetry comics, Book of Hours, Antigonick—and all you do with visual art and words. Thanks for advancing, so handsomely, a tradition that began for me with appreciation of the work of William Blake, Kenneth Patchen, and Shiko Munakata.”
Gratitude for disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, Gothic grief, and poets who enrich and sustain our lives with The Real Thing seems a reasonable way to close out this blog post. Yes, Thanks!