By Wilbur Dee Case

One of the most unlikely poems of the Modernist period is that by Robert Frost: “The Pasture.” It is unlikely for many reasons. First, it seems more like a Romantic lyric, i.e., one hundred years too late, because of its rural depiction and its simple, formal diction. Second, its tone is gentle and polite, a rarity among the Modernists. And third, it does not ostentatiously break with tradition.

Structurally the poem is two quatrains, the rhyme scheme is abbc deec, and for such a small poem, it’s surprising how much repetition there is. The opening lines of the two quatrains begin the same, and the ending lines are exactly the same.

It is interesting to compare it to another relatively famous 8-lined poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams.  There is a visual difference between the two poems.

 

The Pasture

By Robert Frost

I’m going to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too,

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by its mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

By William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

 

Frost uses iambic pentameter lines and a refrain that moves from iambs to spondees. Williams’ short lines in four paired stanzas follow a syllabic pattern of 4-2-3-2-3-2-4-2. Though there is assonance in Williams’ poem, lines 5(ā) and 7(ī), there is a more subtle use of it in Frost’s poem: lines 1 (ēn/ing), 2(ā and ē), 3(ā and ah) and 4(ah and ū). Is Frost more interested in the sound of his poem than Williams is?

Where Frost uses the farm setting as part of his meaning, Williams is more abstract, “so much depends/ upon.” Frost is interested in imbuing his work with nuanced feeling; Williams is spare with feeling and language. Though Williams seems almost taciturn, so too is Frost; but whereas Williams cuts off anything other than the list of things in and of themselves, Frost suggests feelings, and invites the reader to “come along.”

Realists and Modernists tended to abhor metaphor (compare Hawthorne and Melville to S. Crane and Hemingway), whereas the Dark Romantics reveled in it. But though Frost is no Romantic, he doesn’t quite want to toss metaphor out; Williams does. Williams filters out any Romantic attitudes about the wheelbarrow or the chickens; but in the process also filters out, what he considered, too much sentiment. The Imagists, intent on taking pictures of the World, like many in photography and film, reveled in the surface of reality because they did not believe in many of the non-physical ideas, like gentility, beauty, patience, kindness, etc. And it shows.

 

Wilbur Dee Case is a poet and literary critic living in Washington State.

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40 Responses

  1. Carol Smallwood

    The explanations were much appreciated. Meter is a lot more tricky for me than rhyme and will carefully study what you wrote. Thank you very much, Wilbur! The two famous poems are well worth a second study.

    Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    There really isn’t metaphoric play in either poem. Frost’s is purely a poem of straightforward statement about doing things (cleaning the spring, fetching the calf). The Williams poem contains only a hint of metaphor in the word “glazed,” which imagines the rain water on the barrow as something glassy and by suggestion hard (like ice or actual ceramic glaze).

    Are they good poems? Well, that’s a matter of taste. For me both of them are tediously quotidian, and utterly lacking in any of the rhetorical fire and verbal pyrotechnics that make for great linguistic art. I read them and I say to myself “So what?” They suffer from that ineradicable fault of modernism: the desperate need to find great significance in that which is small and insignificant.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Why are we talking about these pathetic dilettantes at all? throughout the 20th century, innumerable academics, publishers, and imitators have failed to give them an importance they never deserved.

      Moribund monuments of modernism—as dated as a Soviet workers poster or a painting by Joan Miró.

      Had these pretentious buffoons never existed, our Anglo-American poetry would not be diminished by so much as an atom.

      Let us not waste another moment of mortal existence on these corn-eating goths!

      Reply
  3. Amy Foreman

    I agree. Much better Frost pieces, in my opinion, are “The Silken Tent” and “Tuft of Flowers,” both of which contain an element of the metaphysical, unlike “The Pasture.” Though “The Silken Tent” is an obvious simile (“She is as . . .”), he successfully carries the analogy throughout the poem. Even the “music” of this poem, when read aloud, is like a tent in the breeze, with all the “s” and “z” sounds Frost included. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, here it is, in its glory:

    She is as in a field a silken tent
    At midday when the sunny summer breeze
    Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
    So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
    And its supporting central cedar pole,
    That is its pinnacle to heavenward
    And signifies the sureness of the soul,
    Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
    But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
    By countless silken ties of love and thought
    To every thing on earth the compass round,
    And only by one’s going slightly taut
    In the capriciousness of summer air
    Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

    Reply
  4. G. M. H. Thompson

    An interesting article, but the high modernists, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, all tended to adulate, not abhor, metaphor. I may be wrong on this, but I seem to recall Eliot saying somewhere in his essays that the metaphor is the most powerful element of poetry. Perhaps their metaphors are harder to see or pickup on, because they use everyday (or not so everyday, but none-explained nonetheless) items to represent deeper concepts, young men carbuncular stand for the casual, callous violence all too pervasive in modern social relationships, hearing the monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead poignantly shows without saying the grief the river-merchant’s wife feels in her husband’s absence, a gold form singing to lords and ladies of Byzantium is another way of saying ‘reaching artistic immortality’, the lords and ladies being both the almost extinct true appreciators of art still left in the world (and if you think you are one of them, you probably aren’t) and the artists and aesthetically inclined of the past (the drowsy Emperor is either God or the soul of poetry itself or something else altogether). So, as you can see (and I could furnish more examples), metaphors were central to the poetry of the high modernists, yet the metaphors of the high modernists were complex and veiled (drawn to some degree from the metaphysical conceits of three centuries before), and not at all spelled out thought for thought like the nursery rhyme metaphors of romantic poets such as Wordsworth (although they can be said to be similar to some of Keats’ metaphors, such as his famous nightingale, yet constructed with much less pomp and placed next to one another in lightning chains of lucid association, with none of the protracted romantic stuffiness that was his chief unvirtue). William Carlos Williams, however, was not a high modernist poet, and I think that he can only be called an American Imagist, as that movement in its purest form (before it became corrupted and meaningless) was an London movement that lasted about from 1912 to the outbreak of the Great War (since the public mood shifted to more patriotic verse and some important Imagists served and died in the trenches, such as T.E. Hulme (it is amazing how quick artistic movements spring up and then die out when their medium is still vibrant (see punk or glam-rock))). What is more, metaphors were central to Imagism while it was still in its initial phase (1912-1914)– Ezra Pound starts his famous (1913) essay, A Few Don’ts of an Imagiste, off with this sentence, “An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”– If Br’er Rabbit’s definition of an “Image” is not also a definition of a metaphor, I don’t know what is. If Williams’ was a true Imagist, and not just a vain American pretender, his poem would probably be more interesting (perhaps it would not have the abstraction that begins it, but that is the most interesting part of the poem, so I’m not sure; the problem is that unlike in high modernist poetry, his everyday objects, the wheelbarrow glazed with rain water and the white chickens, don’t easily stand for anything else– they are simply objects and no deeper meaning can be drawn from them,– there is no real drama or movement in the poem, and no real main character (besides perhaps the red wheelbarrow), which almost every poem needs; on a whole, the poem is static and interesting only in how uninteresting it is, its concise statement of facts that do not really concern anyone serving as an eloquent metaphor for the failure of postmodern poetry, an unfortunate phenomenon that Willaims with his American unexceptionalism had much more to do with than T.S. Eliot or any of the other high modernists (Williams was a personal mentor to Ginsburg)).

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      It is a misnomer, in my view, to call poets such as Pound, Eliot, and Yeats “High Modernists” or even modernists at all. The label is convenient for critics and literary historians, but is extremely misleading. All three men received their personal formation and aesthetic training in a pre-modernist world, despite whatever sillier personal enthusiasms they may have developed later in life for trendy theories.

      Therefore it is no surprise that their work makes use of powerful metaphoric play, as Mr. Thompson notes. Pound went furthest in becoming a noisy partisan for “the new,” and his indefatigable energy for propagandizing first Imagism and then the entire Modernist enterprise in the arts is the source of much of the garbage art that we have to put up with today. But he himself could not help being a first-rate poet, and metaphoric play is still electrifyingly strong in much of his work.

      To put all of this into a clearer context, it should be noted that the true modernist, W.C. Williams, harbored a deep resentment against Pound, Eliot, and other so-called “High Modernists.” This was precisely because he felt that their work was a betrayal of the more revolutionary aspirations he cherished for “democratizing” poetry, and freeing it from its traditional European past. For Williams, any metaphoric play was retrogressive and counter-revolutionary. Add to this the fact that Williams was profoundly envious of Pound’s and Eliot’s prestige and success, while he himself was stuck in pediatric work in New Jersey,

      Reply
      • G. M. H. Thompson

        I agree with most of what you say, and I thank you for saying it, as it enriches the conversation. Particularly on point were your comments about Ezra Pound. However, I am somewhat at a miss as to what you you mean when you say calling these three poets, Pound, Yeats, and Eliot, high modernists is extremely misleading.

        I only call them “high modernists” because that is what all literary historians that I have read on the subject label them as. In any field of information, the terms most commonly used tend to be the easiest to use. My use of this common term has nothing to do with being fashionable and everything to do with my desire to communicate with the broader world and not just talk to myself. For, if everyone was to define everything as they subjectively saw fit, people would very often talk past one another, and enough of that goes on as it is. And Eliot, Pound, and Yeats all were very much poets of modernity (well, in the case of Yeats, it took until Responsibilities, but his earlier stuff is much too sentimental and boring for me to seriously consider).

        As for their premodern upbringing, of course this was the case. Every new order is brought-up and molded in the environment that precedes it. By the logic you are proposing, Picasso was not at any point a Cubist because he was only trained as a classical painter. Nor is Ray Manzarek a rock ‘n’ roll musician, because he was only trained as a classical pianist. Nor was Chuck Berry a rock ‘n’ roll musician, because before him there was no rock ‘n’ roll. In order for true innovation to happen, the environments that people grow up in and which shape those people have to be transcended and morphed into something new by those people. Eliot, Pound, and Yeats grew up in (and were shaped into the poets they would become by) a poetic environment of Late Romanticism, or Late Victorianism, if you will (though they are very much the same thing in terms of philosophy and stylistic choices such as diction), yet I don’t think anyone would accuse Eliot or Pound of being a Romantic (as I have already hinted at, Yeats’ early work was very much in the Romantic school, but beginning with Responsibilities, it becomes increasingly hard to call his poetry Romantic, unless of course one’s definition of Romantic poetry is simply that the verse uses metre and rhymes, and if that is the case, I don’t think I can help you). So the question is, what do we call them, if not “high modernists”?

        (I am not attached to the term, but I think there is some truth to it, as all three trumpeted the modern world of the 1910s and 1920s as a legitimate subject for poetry (earlier poets such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth had written of their own times, but by the early years of the 20th century, poets became lost in a longing for simpler times (Frost is a prime example of this; that is not to disparage him, but only to lay the facts out as they are), and but rarely (yet typically with some remarkable success when they did, such as the case of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s idiomatic folk poems or Rudyard Kipling’s rough and ready Barrack-Room Ballads and Gunga Din) wrote of the contemporary situation and state of being.)

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    All I’m saying is that the term “High Modernist” is (in my opinion) misleading and simplistic. The fact that it is used widely doesn’t impress me, or impel me to use it with anything other than the reserved intention of skepticism. Labels are just labels; a task of serious criticism is to get beyond labels when they are impediments to understanding.

    Many critics call William Blake a “Romantic.” He isn’t one, not by any intelligible criterion, other than the fact that he lived in a period termed “Romantic” by critics and literary historians. It’s important to keep in mind that such labels are the inventions of teachers, or others with a vested interest in pigeonholing things into convenient categories. Similarly, just because Pound and Eliot and Yeats lived during the start of the modernist upheaval in the arts doesn’t make their work “modernist’ except in the historical sense. They dabbled with modernism; they played with modernism; they defended modernism. But their work bears the unmistakable mark of an earlier sensibility and technique.

    Yes, they all joined the rather mindless chorus of voices that in the period from 1910 to 1922 were championing all sorts of new trends and movements in the arts. But that’s simply a human failing — we want to be with the in-group, and be thought of as au courant.

    Take this as a pertinent fact — none of the “High Modernists” would have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting published today in Poetry or any other of the official outlets for mainstream verse. They wouldn’t get past the first student intern reader. Too old-fashioned! Too elitist! Too undemocratic! Can’t you just hear the complaints?

    Reply
    • G. M. H. Thompson

      I was not strongly criticising your points, merely asking for clarification. And I am personally of the opinion that categories are extremely useful when discussing historical phenomena, as they allow us to identify and debate trends, which is fairly difficult if we restrict ourselves to discussing artists one-at-a-time. Of course, over-generalizations must be avoided scrupulously, but I think it is an over-generalization to suggest that every use of a category or a label is an over-generalization. Furthermore, I was under the impression, from reading Blake as well as many of the Romantics, that Blake was a Romantic, especially as Wordsworth frequently stole images and ideas from him (see Intimations of Immortality), although I am not attached to this view and can change it if significant evidence is produced to prove that he was not a Romantic (the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused).

      And through dabbling, playing, and defending modernism, these three figures, some of the greatest poets of their day (if not the greatest), defined modernism in the eyes of the public and later in the eyes of history. What’s more, in that period of 1910 to 1922, Eliot and Pound did much more that dabble, play, and defend modernism, they ate, slept, and breathed it, and Pound was instrumental in getting others to follow that same road, such as the man he was secretary to, William Butler Yeats. In other words, this triumvir was modernism more than anyone else in their heyday of the 1910s and 20s, and other figures like Stevens and Williams (not to mention Robert Lowell much later) were only afterthoughts, languishing in America and largely ignored until the 1950s (as you so rightly noted, Williams was unable to be a poet as profession, forced to languish as a lowly pediatrician, and he envied the prestige his friend and pen-pal Ezra Pound was receiving as the toast of London, which probably led him to spurn many of the more literary (or “high”) traits that Pound, Eliot, and Yeats built their poems upon, traits such as excessive use of metaphor, mythology, and lyricism).

      And you’re right about them not being able to be published today, as you are right about so many other things, and it raises a good point as to the origins of modernism– in the early 20th century, the poetic landscape was dominated by maudlin Wordsworth clones such as the Georgians, Kipling knockoffs, and other such watered-down Romantic drivel. Pound and Eliot promoted Modernism as an abstract concept and the aesthetics of Modernism as much as a matter of morality as a matter of economy, because they almost certainly would have had a much harder time at being published by any of the major houses if not for the sensationalism Modernism carried with it. That’s not to knock them, as I’m sure you are aware that I quite like their verse, it is only to lay the facts out as they are (in a similar vein, many Seattle-based rock ‘n’ roll bands of the late 80s and early 90s would never have been given record deals if they hadn’t identified themselves as “Grunge” which is really just punk; labels are the way people think and if one does not apply labels, someone else will, and that individual will control the conversation).

      Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      If Blake were alive today, his name would be Shirley MacLaine. I say that only because Sylvia Browne is dead.

      Blake’s verses are to poetry what his paintings are to art. The inside of a cat’s stomach is more edifying than either.

      Reply
      • G. M. H. Thompson

        I don’t know or care who Shirley MacLaine, or Sylvia Browne for that matter, is. Is there some connection between these people? Some connection that relates to Blake? I feel that you are making a joke, a very ironic and sarcastic one, but I’m just not in on it. Indeed, I feel most often that you are joking with great irony and sarcasm in all your poems and comments, yet I am never entirely certain;– you could just hold ridiculous, inflammatory opinions entirely earnestly (my suspicions of you are intensified by the fact that you seem extremely similar to Ignatius Reilly). I find it hard to believe that a serious poet would dismiss Blake as worse than the inside of a cat’s stomach (and as for Robert Frost– I’m hardly his biggest fan, but he’s hardly a “moribund monument of modernism” as you put it, and I would compare him to Blue Period Picasso, not Joan Miró or soviet worker posters; if you are in earnest, which I am not at all convinced of, you probably hate Picasso in all his forms just as much as everything else you claim to hate, so this should be no great sacrifice).

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    I don’t say that all labels or generalizations are useless. There certainly was a school of poetry and music that can be termed “Romantic,” just as certain 17th-century poets can be called “Metaphysical.” It’s when the category label starts to suck in too many different artists, of widely varying styles and techniques and opinions, that I find a label to be misleading.

    The bigger problem with the label of modernism is that it is now largely defined by the rhetoric of “revolution” and “upheaval.” This is a mainstream academic viewpoint based on politics rather than on aesthetics, and it sweeps all of the so-called modernist artists into one big crowd of rebels and misfits who wanted major social changes. And this mainstream academic viewpoint’s actual purpose is not elucidation, but ratification and justification of whatever freaky and weird developments occurred in the wake of modernism’s “triumph” — developments both aesthetic and political. The narrative goes like this: “Eliot and Pound broke with tradition — therefore we have to honor the mindless poetry Allen Ginsberg and Jorie Graham.”

    But as a matter of actual fact, many early modernists would be appalled at the garbage art that swamps the world today. Ezra Pound himself recognized this late (in 1970), when he screamed that the poetry world was nothing but “Disorder! Disorder! I can’t be blamed for all this disorder!” And it is also a salutary correction to the official propaganda to recognize that a great many of the modernists were of intensely conservative or right-wing opinion, both politically and culturally. Eliot, Pound, E.E. Cummings, and Yeats were the big examples, but both Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein were pro-Franco. You can’t get more modernist than those two.

    Yes, of course, people do all sorts of things to get their work published. If hitching your wagon to the star of “the modernist revolution” will get you into print, you can’t be blamed for succumbing to the temptation. But that doesn’t mean that we have to continue using the label a century afterwards!

    The fact remains that Pound, Eliot, and Yeats were all persons of wide reading, solid training, and dedicated craftsmen. This background allowed them to produce a corpus of poetry of the highest order, but quite frankly their poetry would have been even better if they had not heard a damned thing about the silly theories of modernism. They were 19th-century men dumped into the cesspool of the 20th century. It’s a testimony to their greatness that they managed to do as well as they did.

    Reply
    • G. M. H. Thompson

      I largely agree with and applaud what you are saying, and I further concur that their legacies have been pirated for a variety of causes that they personally would probably vehemently disagree with, but I also contend that The Waste Land (along with The Cantos, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, The Tower, and Prufrock and Other Observations, among others by those same poets) was the definitive texts of modernism. And I also think that they did have an influence on later modern poets, poets that were intellectually and artistically their inferiors. Part of the dual nature of these poets, their artistic excellence and the toxic poetry their influence has mostly produced, rests on the fact that what they said about what they wrote and what they actually wrote weren’t really the same thing, and this is particularly true with Pound and Eliot (Yeats is only half a high modernist, as I’ve mentioned previously). And what I really mean by this is what people have drawn from what they’ve said and what they actually said were most likely different. I can’t count how many times people have pulled that Pound quote about going in fear of abstractions out at me like it’s a police badge and they just caught me shoplifting. Which is funny because the Cantos are full to the brim with abstractions. Modern modernists seem to forget this when they rave over them (these are the same people who call others out on using abstractions as if it was a mortal sin).

      Modernism’s blindness to the classical aspects of the “high modernists” also has to do with the fact that modern readers (including of course most modernists) lack the training to appreciate or even notice the formal elements of their poetry, especially Eliot’s. His Waste Land is one of the most subtly and complexly metrical poems ever written in English, and probably in any language, yet Modernists cannot pickup on any of the rhythm changes because they cannot read metrics, nor are the vast majority of allusions and references to classical poetry he makes intelligible to them.

      So, what I would say is that these poets, and especially Pound, but also Eliot, and to a lesser extent Yeats, opened a door which they could not close, through constructing the idea of Modernism in the world of poetry (and Pound really was in the thick of this) and then serving as the figure heads for it. Through this portal all manner of evils have entered the world, and I fear that it will never be closed and will serve as the end of written verse (musical verse, however, thrives in comparison). Yes, it is indisputable that a Williams, a Stevens, a Lowell, or a Ginsberg was more “modernist” than any of these three, but I would not say that they were not modernist nonetheless. Just because the heirs of a king are bad does not mean they are not the heirs. I agree that the term is too broad, which is why I think it prudent to only apply it to them when it is proceeded by “high”, which serves to put them far above the other modernists, if you will pardon that really quite lazy pun. Sylvia Plath suffers many of these same problems, but perhaps even more so (reading her Collected Poems might give you quite a surprise, as it did me).

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        We are basically in broad agreement. It’s certainly true that the early modernists (and even later ones like Stevens) didn’t actually pay much attention to the silly strictures of dogmatic modernism (“Go in fear of abstractions” is the prime example — this fatuous maxim couldn’t be followed by any working poet without intolerable self-restriction). Pound uses very flowery and antiquated English everywhere in his verse, and Eliot’s vocabulary is replete with obscure diction and philosophic abstractions. The utterly absurd “No ideas but in things” pronouncement of Williams, if followed dutifully, would render human speech impossible. Too bad Williams himself didn’t follow his own rule, and spare us much of his fakery.

        And you are quite right — a king may have bad heirs, but they are still his heirs. At least by 1970 Pound recognized the horrible abortions he had spawned.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        Does it matter what canine breed produced this or that pile of poop, whether shaggy modernism or tail-wagging late romanticism?

        “I find Stevens less lumpy than Ginsberg—a modernist dog it ever there was one.”

        “But the odor of Pound is much more like Eliot’s…”

        The toilet of the 20th century is fetid and full. Time to flush it!

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Dr. Salemi has just attempted to cut the shackles binding this entire discussion to the kind of conventional—and thus erroneous—”thinking” which all too often passes as “critique.” Yes, the rewarming of trite and meaningless labels—some, like “the Enlightement,” referring to the very opposite of what they verbally signify—immediately betrays an uncritical, circumscribed, yea, a very somnolent mind, a kind of intellectual dupe of 200 years of institutionalized liberalism.

      In one of his most famous essays, “My Fourteen Points,” Salemi enumerates the social conditions necessary for the flowering of true poetry. But the same conditions apply just as perfectly to the question of the literary critique. http://pennreview.com/2016/08/my-fourteen-points/

      One who has not read the four volumes of Sainte-Beuve’s Port-Royal really has no business in the critique littéraire at all and should abandon this pretention without delay.

      He who has not thoroughly studied the critique developed by Mme de Stael or the writings of Chateaubriand has absolutely no license to write a word about the Romantics.

      Let us not forget that the age in which the Romantics flourished boasted Salemi-like professorial critics of great fame. Think of Abel-François Villemain. Has anyone read the 5 volumes of his “Cours de la littérature française” or his “Tableau de la littérature au Moyen Âge”? My dissertation directress, a woman of the old Sorbonne, made us read these and many other works which form, as a whole, the entire history of literary criticism. We were forced, on our exams, to compare the not only the various forms of critique, but also their historical and, above all, political and religious situations.

      The English have the finest critique of poetry of all and I am deeply shocked and disturbed that he has not received the least mention here: the Catholic poet and essayist Coventry Patmore. Look into him. I am not here to write a bibliography for you. Do your own work if you wish to present yourself to the world as an expert in the history of letters.

      So the only glimmer of hope I see in this discussion is Mr. Sale’s call for awareness of the ebb and flow of ideas, and Dr. Salemi’s exigent example of consummate scholarship. Neither is a slavish adherent to conventional modes of reflection. Both possess the holy aptitude of aesthetic taste.

      Dear Readers, understand this, if you understand anything at all:

      The boxes, categories, and labels imposed on you from day one—a system to which you continually give public credence as we see in the present discussion—is a diabolical ruse perpetrated by liberal ideologues, the least literary forces in the history of humankind.

      For, by the time we are spending more than 60 seconds on Eliot, Pound, Williams, or Frost—when we have the living examples of Sale and Salemi standing before us— we are already duped.

      Try as you may to find a darker epoch in the history of letters than the period 1789 to the first collections of Joseph Salemi, you will not. Of that I can assure you.

      The Ars Poetica Nova is real, and it demands a real critique…

      …and a complete and thorough re-evaluation of all the labels!

      Reply
      • G. M. H. Thompson

        You seem to think, Mr. MacKenzie, if that is your real name (and I’m not sure that it is), that this is some sort of a sacred mountain on which only the gods are allowed to speak. I’m quite sorry to break this news to you (although I’m actually not sorry, although I am sorry that I have to be the one to do it, apparently), but you’re many things, but a god isn’t one of them, and the comments’ section of a lightly-trafficked online site dedicated to a little-frequented corridor in the empty house poetry has become nowadays is not some esteemed position you have to have sacrificed 30 years of painful study to have the privilege to enjoy. And the only thing one should have to have done to discuss the poetry of the Romantics is to read and think about it. I am not claiming to be an expert in commenting in comments’ sections, nor am I claiming to be a critic, and I am furthermore very proud that I am not a critic. And just because I don’t think that the world should be a monastery, and just because I don’t believe that every statement in it is either an illuminated manuscript or the work of Lucifer, and just because I didn’t spend years and years writing a dissertation only to scrap it all because of one iota, doesn’t mean I don’t have legitimate opinions, and it doesn’t mean that I can’t discuss art on the internet in comments’ sections, and it doesn’t mean that I’m Jackson Pollock, either.

        But enough about me, you’re a far more interesting topic of discussion (as you seem to think yourself whenever you discuss any other subject at length). In what year were you the “first and last” American to win first place in the Long Poem section of the “Scottish International Poetry Competition”? And where are these 154 sonnets that one this alleged prize for you, some of which ‘Charles Bell’ “indicated surpassed many of Shakespeare’s”. If they’re that good, where and why have you been hiding them? And Maya Angelo really called you on the phone about that, an award that Google can’t even find? I’m surprised you think enough about Maya Angelo to even mention her in a sentence. Shouldn’t you be ashamed of receiving praise from a modern poet, or from any poet other than Dante or Milton, or one of their dishwater reflections? In what year did you win the “Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize”? And which “important sonnets of the French Renaissance” did you translate to win this alleged prize. If they are so important, you can surely name them. And you can surely show us these translations, they’re prize winners after all. Don’t worry, some of us are fluent in Middle English, just like you are. Do either of these two prizes even exist? I can’t find any evidence of them, but what do I know, I never won the “Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize”, and I can’t win the “Scottish International Poetry Competition” since I am an American, and “Joseph Charles MacKenzie” is the “first and last American” to have won that illusive grail. For that matter, does Joseph Charles MacKenzie even exist? I’m not the only one wondering this: https://teoppoet.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-trump-inaugural-poem/, and please know that this is not an attack– it is a fascinating question that I earnestly am asking, for I earnestly would like a real answer (no more smoke a mirrors please– I would like to see these awards and the name “Joseph Charles MacKenzie” as their winners, or at least the name “Joseph McKenzie”; I would also like to see these miraculous poems “some [of which] surpassed many of Shakespeare’s”). You can claim that anything under the sun is anything but what it is, and you can redefine up to be down and black to be white, but your tinfoil hat and your crucifix won’t help you when gravity pulls the castles you built in the air crashing to the ground.

      • James Sale

        We need to remember that: no literary judgement can be infallible; no personal attack can be right. Further, that the enemy is not ourselves; it is modernist and post-modern poetry. That said, without reference to the wider issues raised by GMH Thompson and JC Mackenzie, the 77 Sonnets of the latter’s Christ the King collection are in my view – see my review on these pages – major poetry; and I also believe that JC Mackenzie is a bona fide, real human being and not a troll!

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        It seems I am addressing in Mr. Thompson a true liberal, a term which I define as one who resorts to ad hominem attacks, fake news, and vituperative bitterness rather than simply presenting a literary argument.

        May I please offer my sincerest apologies, Mr. Thompson, for having re-awakened in you such visceral obsession with someone whose existence you deny. You see, I did not know, going into the conversation, that I was such a major part of your life. Had I known to what extent you revolve around me—the the extent of actual research and investigation—I would have been more genteel.

        All of which proves that to question the pantheon of liberal “poetry,” is to attack the orthodoxy of what amounts to a false religion. Hence my interlocutor’s shaken state verging on implosion.

        Did you know that none other than the Times Literary Supplement (London) has published information on my Scottish Prize, and rather recently. It looks like “googling” fake bloggers isn’t quite the same thing as research, now is it, Mr. Thompson…

        I suppose your next argument will be that I am in collusion with the Russians?

      • G. M. H. Thompson

        If these awards are real, please provide links to pages proving this definitively. If you won these important laurels, why can’t we see the poems? I would gladly pay for these 154 sonnets and translations (that’s not a joke– I really would, if they are real). Furthermore, did anyone from the Trump team commission the so-called “Inaugural Poem”, or was it simply written without the knowledge of the president or anyone connected to him, and then claimed to be what it was not, The Inaugural Poem of Donald J. Trump. Does anyone in Trump’s inner circle even know about this poem today, let alone “The Domhnall”. Again, I want to stress this is not an attack– it is merely the checking of a source that claims to be an authority, because on the internet, anyone can say quite confidently that they’re the Pope of Siam. Just because I can smell a rat in the state of Denmark doesn’t mean that I am a Richard III, or a liberal, for that matter (and whatever that means to “Joseph Charles MacKenzie”, an individual who I half-suspect of thinking Thatcher was a liberal for wearing pearls, is far from certain).

      • The Society

        To GMH:

        Joseph Charles MacKenzie is a real person who I have interviewed and communicated with over the phone multiple times. I also have a copy of his sonnet collection. I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of any of the facts he has presented. There is clarification about the (unofficial) inaugural poem here in my interview with Mr. MacKenzie: http://classicalpoets.org/interview-with-unofficial-trump-inaugural-poet-joseph-charles-mackenzie/

        Regards,
        Evan Mantyk

  7. James Sale

    Hi Wilbur, this is a wonderful comparison: it’s as the long dead and long forgotten English literary critic and editor A. R. Orage put it: “only compare”. When you see the two poems together you realise just how intellectual, and so ineffective, the WCW poem is; and how emotional – and metrical, so ‘moving’ – the RF is. Thank you for this wonderful juxtaposition of modernism with the heart of poetry. As Milton could have written of Modernism: “If thou beest he; But oh how fallen! how changed”.

    Reply
  8. "Weird" Ace Blues

    Hey Wilbur,

    As for word count, Frost’s poem is four times as long as Williams’. You could ‘a’ compared it to a shorter poem, like “Dust of Snow,” which is only twice as long, or maybe look only at the first stanza, which has ‘bout the same number of words as “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

    The way a crow
    Shook down on me
    The dust of snow
    From a hemlock tree

    Has given my heart
    A change of mood
    And saved some part
    Of a day I had rued.

    And maybe even rearrange “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

    so much depends upon
    a red wheel barrow
    glazed with rain water
    beside the white chickens

    Cluck, cluck, cluck.

    Reply
  9. Wilbur Dee Case

    I know Mr. Sale and myself, for example, having grown up in different nations, cannot help but have differing points of view on literature. Be that as it may, I do enjoy his points, even when he uses an excellent quote from the likes of Alfred Richard Orage, or an unexpectedly applied quote from John Milton. As Mr. Sale has acutely pointed out, I “only compare” a poem of Williams of eight lines with a poem of eight lines of Frost.

    It is true that there is really no serious metaphoric play in either of the poems, as Mr. Salemi has pointed out. My point, of course, was that “though Frost is no Romantic, he doesn’t quite want to toss metaphor out.” One can easily find examples of Frost’s use of metaphor in poems, like “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” poems hardly fair to use in comparison.

    Nor did I think it would be fair to use even a Frost poem, like “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

    Nature’s first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold.
    Her early leaf’s a flower;
    But only so an hour.
    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn does down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.

    It was important for me to choose a less important poem from Frost’s oeuvre, certainly not the length of a sonnet, as “The Silken Tent” or the twenty-one couplets of “Tuft of Flowers,” as Ms. Foreman has suggested. By the way, my favourite Frost sonnet is “Design.” That was not my purpose. And I do agree with “Weird” Ace Blues (How could it be otherwise?) that I could have been even leaner and meaner in my comparison than I was.

    Nor do I think either of the eight-lined poems anywhere near the greatness I would ascribe to, say, this Emily Dickinson poem.

    Apparently with no surprise
    To any happy Flower
    The Frost beheads it at its play—
    In accidental power—
    The blonde Assassin passes on—
    The Sun proceeds unmoved
    To measure off another Day
    For an Aproving God.

    As for literary periods, I agree with Mr. Thompson; I would call T. S. Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Williams, and Frost—all Modernists; simply because I place Modernism squarely in the period of 1900-1950. I think Mr. Thompson’s use of it is, in its own way, as valuable a term as Metaphysical, Restoration, Neoclassical, Romantic, Realist, Postmodernist, or New Millennial are in their own ways. It is true, as Mr. Salemi has pointed out, that many literary terms can be impediments to understanding; but they can also be, to employ a word from Modernist Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,”— “useful.”

    On a further note, I realize each linguistic culture varies in its presentation of its literature. For example, when once compiling a history of Japanese literary figures from around 1910 through the 1930s, I have previously referred to it as Imperial, Taisho and Early Showa. Nevertheless, when painting with a broad brush stroke, I would place all of the following poets, including Miyazawa, in Modernism: Mayakovsky, Montale, Pessoa, Prasad, Borges, Valéry, Benn, and Lu Xun. For me such terms are important to deal with the mass of information we must deal with from our New Millennial position.

    Mr. Salemi’s overall point, however, is important. His is one of the few clear voices in the literary wasteland we now find ourselves in, a voice that occasionally rings of poetic truth. So it is a bit embarrassing my calling Blake, who “isn’t one,” a Romantic. Nevertheless, as Mr. Thompson has nicely pointed out, “the opinion that categories are extremely useful when discussing historical phenomena, as they allow us to identify and debate trends, which is fairly difficult if we restrict ourselves to discussing artists one at a time.”

    When Friedrich Schlegel first used the term, he could write, “I seek and find the romantic among the older moderns, in Shakespeare, in Cervantes, in Italian poetry, in that age of chivalry, love and fable, from which the phenomenon and the word itself are derived.” From my studies of German literature and philosophy, I do believe the Germans have the strongest feel for the term; but I personally would avoid the term when writing about either Shakespeare, or Cervantes.

    I once attempted an essay on 19th century poetry in the English language (poets from Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand); but of the poets I wanted to call Romantic, those I investigated who wrote in the 19th century, but were born before 1800, the list of over 200 became so unwieldy, I despaired of ever completing it, and gave up the project entirely. The inspiring, humble engraver William Blake sat right in the middle of that list.

    I enjoyed the discussion between Mr. Thompson and Mr. Salemi; there is fuel in their words for all kinds of literary discussions. I so wanted to launch into thoughts about Blake, Yeats, Pound, and T. S. Eliot; but this is perhaps not the place for that. Needless to say, both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Salemi are fine American “New Millennial” literary critics.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Having been born in 1948, I don’t think I can be called a “Millennial” anything. But if the shoe fits I’ll gladly wear it.

      Let me clarify something about William Blake. He lived in a period that we term “Romantic,” but he himself has far too many non-Romantic elements in his philosophic and aesthetic makeup to fit neatly under that rubric. His connection with the small sect of the Muggletonians puts him in the strange world of Low-Church Protestant dissent, and Swedenborgian influence (though Blake later denigrated it) was important in his thinking. Blake was also profoundly caught up in the earlier emblem literature of the Renaissance — a literature which fixedly conjoins poetry with illustration. On this subject, see my article “Blake and the Emblematic Tradition” in a 1980 issue of Blake Quarterly. Blake’s very earliest engraved books are really not very different from emblem books, both English and Continental.

      Blake is also a good illustration of my point that labels like “Modernist” and “Romantic” often have hidden political biases in them. Just as “modernists” are always assumed in mainstream academic propaganda to be “daring revolutionaries” who “broke the boundaries,” so also are “romantics” assumed to be similar devotees of the new, the liberal, and the oppositional. But as a matter of fact, although Blake may have been an early enthusiast for the American and the French Revolutions, and of the Enlightenment ideologies that gave birth to them, he rejected revolutionary and Enlightenment thinking very soon afterwards — see his poem “Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau!”

      Reply
  10. Wilbur Dee Case

    As Ms. Smallwood has pointed out meter is “more tricky…than rhyme.”

    When I was younger I wrote original lyrics to my own guitar compositions. Though lively, they were poor for so many reasons, not least of all my relatively limited capabilities. But I did learn from that practice that musical lyrics naturally fall into a great variety of patterns, and language in song possesses a freedom it does not have in merely spoken poetry; though at the same time it sacrifices the thoughtfulness of prose, one of the great inventions of the Classical Greek Era.

    A later experiment of mine, while living in Germany, was writing English the way it was pronounced, and not the way it was spelled; so I wrote alphabetically, including using letters like schwa and eth, but spelling all my words phonetically. From that I learned what sounds I was using when I wrote, focusing, therefore, more on the audial as opposed to the visual; but it was as foolish as Webster’s forays into linguistic change, not least because it sacrificed etymology. I moved back and forth between sonnets and free verse, between experiments in haiku and various poetic structures. I even wrote left-handed, as a right-handed writer, when I stood on Westminster Bridge or sat in various London libraries.

    Then I began to focus on syllabics, simultaneously becoming interested in Greek and Latin metrics. From those studies I remain amazed at how much richer classical knowledge of meter was than ours is. I believe there are many reasons for this, and perhaps in the future I may address this topic. In addition to the classical poets and their epics, poetic dramas, and lyrics, I studied, for example, the failed attempts at quantitative dactylic hexameters in English, and I attempted poem after poem in various quantitative meters. I learned much about our language; but again the experiment was a failure, because I could never get my bearings. In the process, though I created new poetic structures, I remain disappointed in my lack of poetic power; though I can never say I was as disillusioned as the brilliant metrist Vergil, who despaired at the end of his life of his hardly incomplete and incomparable epic.

    As I entered the New Millennium I yielded more and more to English stress meters. It was not easy forsaking my own experiments, nor those of Whitman, Williams, Pound, Crane, and others; so, by default, I became more satisfied with those of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, the Romantics, and the Victorians. It’s not that I didn’t find flaws in every English poet I looked at, including myself, and even the English poet I most admired, and still do admire, Shakespeare, whose poetic practice, in my mind, though not as refined as that of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Horace, or, even one of his favourite poets, Ovid, still accomplished more than any of them in his experiments in poetry with prose.

    So, yes, indeed, as Ms. Smallwood has pointed out, meter is “more tricky…than rhyme.”

    As for Mr. G. M. H. Thompson’s enthusiastic comments about Modernists Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, I am embarrassed at my phrase “abhor metaphor,” which in addition to being too poetic (Nietzscean proclivities of mine can flare out at any moment) lacks the clarity and distinctiveness Descartes demands of self-evident perceptions. I am thankful for his reminder; still, I do not share his enthusiasm for the adjective “high,” when discussing those three particular poets.

    As for Mr. Joseph Salemi’s cogent argument against labeling Blake’s oeuvre Romantic, I would still place Blake with the Romantics. I do appreciate Blake’s attack on Enlightenment figures, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, and his further comments on Democritus and Newton; however, I could not easily place Blake’s remarkable works in literature and art on a par with either Newton’s mathematics and science or Voltaire’s polemics, despite my own disgreements with both Newton and Voltaire on so many levels.

    Reply
    • G. M. H. Thompson

      You raise an interesting point about sung poetry– it is true that sung poetry can have a great deal of variety in how it handles meter, but it is also true that sung poetry quite often falls into classical meter. After all, Homer never wrote a single line of poetry– he sung his epics, accompanied by the lyre. And the troubadours also were not printed-page poets, they were musicians and entertainers first and foremost. Yet the poetry of both Homer and the troubadours is highly metrical. If we speed the clocks up to the modern day, every line (with slight exception) in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has 8 syllables, and the verses are in iambs:

      Load up on guns and bring your friends
      It’s fun to lose and to pretend
      She’s overboard and self-assured
      Oh no, I know a dirty word

      It really depends how closely the singer sings on the beat or off of it.

      Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      I don’t place Blake with the Romantics, but the Romantics with Blake.

      They are all spiritual ticks and mites when placed against a St. Robert Southwell or an Alexander Pope. Dare I mention William Dunbar?

      Reply
  11. Robert L. King

    Having read the posting of Wilbur Dee Case and the comments flowing back and forth, I would like to return to the original intendment of the poems compared. On my website, http://www.theoryofpoetry.com, I discussed in a blog Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” at length, concluding that it is mere prose and not a poem at all, having its basis in something Williams viewed out the window of a dying patient. Frost’s “The Pasture” does not suffer from the deficiencies of “The Red Wheelbarrow” and not prose at all, notwithstanding one of the comments to the contrary. To me, the lesson to be learned is not in the characterization of whether one is a modernist or an imagist, but whether one understands what poetry is and how it is wrought. Frost understood; William with exceptions did not.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Tend to agree with Robert; for the kind of ‘poetry’ that Williams et al wrote/write to be poetry one would need to be able to demonstrate a deep organising principle which once perceived revealed the beauty of form without which there is no poetry. The mere act of turning a line – verse – and concatenating some almost arbitrary ideas is not that.

      Reply
  12. Rus Ciel Badeew

    G. M. H. Thompson,

    He was probably thinking rather of Glasgow-born, English singer-songwriter Alastair Ian “Al” Stewart’s “Roads to Moscow,” rather than Aberdeen, Washington, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. [The punctuation is mine.]

    “They crossed over the border an hour before dawn,
    Moving in lines through the day.
    Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay.
    Waiting for orders we held in the wood;
    Word from the front never came.
    By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away.
    Ah, softly we move through the shadows, slip away through the trees,
    Crossing their lines in the mists in the fields on our hands and our knees.
    And all that I ever was able to see:
    The fire in the air glowing red, silhouetting the smoke on the breeze.

    All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine;
    Smolensk and Vyazma soon fell.
    By autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel.
    Closer and closer to Moscow they come,
    Riding the wind like a bell.
    Gen’ral Guderian stands at the crest of the hill.
    Winter brought with her the rains; oceans of mud filled the roads,
    Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground while the sky filled with snow.
    And all that I ever was able to see:
    The fire in the air glowing red, silhouetting the snow on the breeze.

    In the footsteps of Napoleon, the shadow figures stagger through the winter,
    Falling back before the gates of Moscow, standing in the wings like an avenger.
    And far behind their lines the partisans are stirring in the forest,
    Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise.
    You’ll never know, you’ll never know, which way to turn, which way to look, you’ll never see us.
    As we’re stealing through the blackness of the night, you’ll never know, you’ll never hear us.
    And the evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming.
    The morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming.

    Two broken tigers on fire in the night
    Flicker their souls to the wind.
    We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin.
    It’s been almost four years that I’ve carried a gun.
    At home it will almost be spring.
    The flames of the tigers are lighting the road to Berlin.
    Ah, quickly we move through the ruins that bow to the ground.
    The old men and children they throw out to face us, they can’t slow us down.
    And all that I ever was able to see:
    The eyes of the city are opening. Now it’s the end of the dream.

    I’m coming home, I’m coming home; you can taste it in the wind; the war is over.
    And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border.
    And they ask me of the time I was caught behind their lines and taken pris’ner.
    They only held me for a day, a lucky break, I say, they turn and listen closer.
    I’ll never know, I’ll never know, why I was taken from the line and all the others
    To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia.
    And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen;
    And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming.
    And I wonder when I’ll be home again, and the morning answers never;
    And the evening sighs and the steely Russian skies go on forever.”

    Reply
  13. Damian Robin

    I came across what I consider a better poem for a compare and contrast with “The Red Wheelbarrow”: Edward Thomas’s ‘Tall Nettles’

    Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
    These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
    Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
    Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

    This corner of the farmyard I like most:
    As well as any bloom upon a flower
    I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
    Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

    There are many similarities with Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’: for instance, both pieces are descriptive, enigmatic, have a sense of being slaked – one with rainwater, one with dust – and both are enlivened by the mention of the ‘rain/water’ and ’shower’. As the wheelbarrow piece has been examined above, I won’t put more here.

    Thomas’ piece is about affection for things temporarily put aside, and for the necessity of leaving things to their course – the tools can’t be used all year because they are not needed in every season. They use follows bigger moves of Nature but they do not rot at the same speed as organic farm or countryside matter.

    His emotional attitude is stated mildly: He uses ‘I like’ twice. He does not bash out a blustering ‘love’ or a nurturing ‘cherish’, just an almost indifferent ‘like’. What he likes ‘most’ is a ‘corner’ or neglected place that is a peripheral part of ‘the farmyard’; and part of that word, ‘yard’, suggests a place that is an attachment to something of more important, a bigger farm where income is earned and animals may live or a farm house that would be the centre of a lot of activity and human survival.

    Many younger people will not know that stone rollers were used to flatten stubby or long grassy vegetation or compact soil. Harrows were for opposite uses: to dig up or loosen the soil. They may just be considered old farm or gardening tools. But I think most people will figure that they are hand tools not mechanisms of combine harvester scale.

    His next ‘like’ refers to ‘the dust on the nettles’ that he likes ‘As well as any bloom upon a flower’. ‘Bloom’ here can mean the powdery covering on fresh fruit or leaves as well as the head of a flower. This powdery bloom is like dust though usually at the beginning of an organic process while dust indicates the end.

    Frost and Thomas were friends bonded by a love of nature. They went for walks together in England; they identified with something larger than themselves, with rural and natural change and with the breakdown of that natural procession that was coming with the mechanization of farming.

    Thomas was a nature writer, an activist even, and he wrote about nature in its geographical reality before he began writing poetry. It was only in the last four years of his life that he wrote verse.

    How different poetry in English might have been if he had accepted Frost’s invitation to move to America. Thomas may not have gone to Europe and not died in the First World War. Frost may have taken a different course as a less stand-alone poet with a continued close relationship with Thomas. Frost’s most popular poem “The Road Not Taken” was meant as a joke on Thomas’ dithering about which path to take on their walks.

    [FOOTNOTE
    There are two punctuation mistakes in the first posting of ”The Pasture” on this site. In the copies I have seen, there is a full stop, not a comma, at the end of the first stanza; and a comma at the end of the sixth line. This may mean the poem was transcribed not copy-and-pasted. That is to be commended as, if done mindfully, it is a good way to get deeper into any poem.
    Seeking the punctuation I looked at a few sites. Then, being tight for time, or lazy, (but I had read the poem a few times by then) I pasted the version here from The Poetry Foundation:
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44270 ]

    Reply
  14. Duc Blaise Were

    Oh, how far we have moved from a microessay on two minor Modernist poems to a maelstrom in a tea cup, reminiscent of Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” the best mock-heroic poem in English.

    1. Mr. MacKenzie’s remark that the inside of a cat’s stomach is more edifying than either Blake’s poetry or his art is wrong; but he does have a point. According to T. S. Eliot, Blake lacked a respect for “impersonal reason, common sense, and scientific objectivity.” I would go a lot further than Eliot, not only in regards to Blake, Eliot, Mackenzie, and myself, but, including all nonpoetic figures as well, such as Plato, in philosophy, Bach, in music, Einstein, in physics, Euler, in mathematics, Mendeleev, in chemistry, Praxiteles, in sculpture, Herodotus, in history, Darwin, in biology, Wren, in architecture, etc., and point out that we all fail. But, of course, we must move past that anemic thought, as we must move past MacKenzie’s uninsightful remark.

    2. Blake’s importance is twofold: a) Blake, along with the Pre-Raphaelites, forms the highest conflation in the English poetic tradition of poet and artist [We are not that good.]; and b) he was an inspired visionary, and idiosyncrat—a strong individual.

    3. Although Mr. Thompson has made a more suggestive remark than Mr. MacKenzie, I still would never compare Frost’s thoughtful language to any of Picasso’s periods.

    4. I would remind Mr. Mackenzie that the Modernist period (1900-1950) and the Postmodernist period (1950-2000) are indeed over. But the Modernists have some accomplishments that apparently he is unaware of. The Modernist literary criticism of T. S. Eliot, without a doubt [in my opinion, of course], is the best literary criticism the English-speaking world has yet produced, easily surpassing that of Coventry Patmore.

    5. I do concur with Mr. MacKenzie that Saint Beuve’s “Port Royal” was an important contribution to 19th century French literary criticism. Of course, it is one of his central topics in that work that most inspires me—Blaise Pascal. Pascal, though for me a figure of much greater interest than Blake, does resemble Blake in one way. They both went beyond their literary productions. In the case of Pascal, physics and mathematics, Blake, in painting and printing. Now, neither Pascal, nor obviously, Saint Beuve, are poets; but for me the prose pieces of “Pensées” are more striking than anything Blake wrote. Then there is Pascal’s Law, that pressure exerted in a confined liquid is transmitted equally and undiminished throughout that liquid, and the international unit for the measure of pressure (a perfect legasy for Pascal!). And, although he was not the first to describe what we call Pascal’s Triangle, in the English-speaking world, it was his use of that in probablity theory that contributes to his achievements.

    6. From the cahiers of Euclidrew Base: “Pascal’s triangle, known variously, Khayyam’s triangle in Iran, Yang Hui’s in China, Tartaglia’s in Italy, depicted first in some commentaries on the Chandas Shastra, an ancient book on Sanskrit prosody by Pingala, explaining the Staircase of Mount Meru by the commentator Halayudha, where it was likewise realized to hold in shallow diagonals the sequence called Fibonacci’s in the West. The old poetics of the Indian poets, remarkable on many levels, yield both mists and insights from that fertile field.”

    7. I am not at all ready to go where Mr. Sale has gone of his assessment of Mr. MacKenzie’s work; yet I do appreciate both Mr. MacKenzie’s and Mr. Thompson’s enthusiastic opinions, for that can be where one approaches truth and new knowledge.

    8. Despite Mr. Mackenzie’s absurd consideration that Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Keats, Shelley, etc. are all spiritual ticks and mites, I do agree there are problems with the Romantics, and the early Victorians, like Tennyson and the Brownings. However, the Romantics did try to rescue English poetry from the unheroic couplets of Pope. And as limited as they were in their visions. I wonder if the Scots themselves prefer Dunbar over Burns. Although Southwell is an interesting figure of the Elizabethan era, I could not place his poetry above that of Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson, to mention only a few of the more obvious poets.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Duc – some interesting and thought provoking points you make, and I certainly agree with you on your assessment of Shakespeare and Spenser: they both stand clearly in the first rank of English speaking poets. In fact, Spenser would be our ‘epic’ poet were it not for the fact that his work was eclipsed by Milton (and how heavily Milton drew on his poetry is plain to see) and that the Faerie Queen appears (arguably) unfinished. One aspect of this whole debate that perhaps – were it to be prolonged – needs addressing is a shift from the poetry itself to what criteria one invokes in assessing poetry. Like you, I rate TS Eliot’s critical writings very highly (though Dr Johnson is for me the master). Although I have already written at length on Mr Mackenzie’s sonnets and why I rate them so highly, it may be that I have not yet written enough on the ‘first principles’ that underpin my assessment, and that if I did this would make my position more tenable to you. Though, of course, I fully accept that we all respond not just intellectually to poetry, and that we cannot be ‘argued’ into liking or rating a poet when we don’t feel it in the verse.

      Reply
  15. Lew Icarus Bede

    Mr. Sale,

    1. What criteria do you invoke in assessing poetry? What are your “first principles”?

    2. Why is Samuel Johnson “the master”?

    3. Because of the poetry I am writing, not only have I, like many here, been fighting the Modernists and the Postmodernists, but the poetry I am striving to achieve, and only partially accomplishing, puts me at odds not only with nearly all present-day poetry, but the entire English-speaking literary (prose and poetry) tradition itself, and more. Oh, so much more. In the end, my work will be a failure, but for me it is vital.

    4. T. S. Eliot considered the three greatest literary critics in English literature Dryden, Johnson, and Coleridge. Despite his grand failures in poetry and drama, I consider T. S. Eliot the greatest literary critic in English literature due to the power of his vision, the extent of his topics and the intelligence of his pronouncements.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Hi Bede – oh! – what a series of questions! What a headache! But you have asked in good faith; it would be good to do a full article on the topic, but no time now, and theory is not as interesting as practice. Dr Johnson observed (and I quote from memory only): ‘it is the duty of critics to distinguish between that which is established because it is right, from that this right merely because it is established.’ Johnson, in other words, is such a powerful critic because he is always following his own advice, which can also be summed up in his pithy: ‘clear your mind of cant’. In other words all the ideologies and flavours of the day, all the false assumptions that people never examine, all the prejudices that build up over time. This is a wonderful starting point – to begin that process!

      My first principle might be that poetry was made for man(kind), and not mankind was made for poetry. This means that whilst I totally love all the rules of poetry, especially those concerning meter and rhyme, yet every poem needs to be considered on its own merits. It might be possible to encounter a truly great poem in free verse; I have yet to find one, but it might. What this respects, I think, is the inherent creativity of human beings, which is also of course a divine reflection. What we think is impossible may well be not.

      Second, that form is essential. This doesn’t not contradict my first principle that states that it might be possible to find a free verse poem that was great, for I know that if I found such an anomaly I would also find a subtle form ( or internal logic) within it that rendered the second principle still true. No form, no poetry.

      Third, that form creates and is beauty; and poetry must be beautiful, especially when dealing with ugliness. Poetry because it is beautiful can redeem all ugliness from the sight of itself. When there is beauty, true beauty, and beauty, as GK Chesterton observed ‘is unanswerable’, then we also find truth and goodness coming along for the ride. Beauty is more beautiful adorned with truth and goodness, and when poets narcissistically attempt to be merely ‘beautiful’ (e.g. through layering or patterning language) then they attenuate beauty.

      Fourth, following on from principle three, there is invariably, then, a moral or spiritual force propelling poetry; and lest this be considered too high-brow and serious, I regard laughter as hugely healthy, moral and spiritual in its essential nature.

      That’s enough for now I think. Except to say – persevere with your quest to write real poetry; there is no failure if we are true to our calling.

      Reply
  16. Lew Icarus Bede

    Mr. Sale, it has taken me some time to respond to your comments.

    1. You are right. Samuel Johnson’s idea of a critic’s duty is a worthy starting point.

    2. I agree with your first principle. In free verse, like prose, one has greater liberty to say what one wants to say; however, it is important to say what is good to approach the great.

    3. Form is everywhere in the Universe. In language it appears in letters, in sounds, in lines, and even leaping bounds.

    4. I like the idea of the importance of beauty, especially when dealing with the ugly, as, for example, Spenser did so magnificently in speaking of Duesa in “Faerie Queene.”

    5. Morality is vital to the greatness of poetry, as Vergil pointed out in the “Aeneid,” and in prose, as Plato pointed out in his dialogues.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Bede – much appreciate your getting back, and your amplification of some of my points. Duessa is a great example – how wonderful Spenser’s poetry is. The example I more frequently use is Wilfred Owen: the actual real horror and ugliness of WW1 rendered still in its full horror, but transformed by his poetry. Deeply awesome writing. All the best.

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