On American Poetry Criticism;
& Other Dastardly -Isms
This Is How You Spell B=U=L=L=S=H=I=T:
Fraudulent Poetries From Surrealism Through The Nuyoricans & Beyond
by Dan Schneider, 12/18/01

The Movements   The Criticisms

The Movements

  Perhaps there is no sillier vocation out there than artistic theorizing. This is not a slap at theorists in general because science would be stuck in neutral without theory- it is a fundament of the whole scientific method. That artists have tried to graft this process for their own means is yet another blatant example of how oh-so-insecure artists long to ‘legitimize’ their endeavors with the jargon of other, more palpable, fields. & the silliest of all artistic theories has to be those associated with literature, if for no other reason than literature is the most abstract of the arts- therefore the least prone to theory, which is best set in the material realm. 1 can even deal with theorizing regarding the visual or aural arts, to a degree- but words are themselves denotations for things, they have no ‘substance’ materially. & of all the genres of literary theories out there, certainly poetic theory is the silliest of them all. A brief (& incomplete) list of -isms & movements of the last century or so starts with Symbolism, & runs through Imagism, Vorticism, Spectrism (Viva Witter Bynner- a man whom I shall return to, briefly here, & in greater detail in a later essay!), Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, Objectivism, Projectivism, Black Mountain School, New York School, Minimalism, Beatniks, Confessionalism, Abstraction, Concretism, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, & Spoken Word/Poetry Slam/Nuyoricanism. This essay will sketch some of these movements, origins, aims, etc. I will then debunk them & a sampling of representative poems as merely being pathetic grabs for immortality, for all their devotees rarely practiced what they preached, quickly abandoned their aims, & merely used the theoretical pretext as a detailed justification for their failed poetry: i.e.- ‘you don’t understand this banal poem because the ideas behind it need explaining, then it will all fall in to place’. All claimed to be ‘Experimental’ even as they rehashed nothing new. The basic premise behind ALL poetic theory is the damnable Intentional Fallacy: in order to ‘sell’ the poem’s success you have to sell the ‘props’ that support it. Poems that cannot succeed on their own are fundamentally -istic poems, while those that do succeed do so by their own merits, which rarely have to do with any claimed -ism, but rather that they leave mnemonic markers which endure (turns of phrase, rhythms that seduce, stellar imagery, uniqueness in 1 or more areas, etc.). With that as our posit, let’s do our best Don Cornelius: get down, get funky!
  While Symbolism is properly considered the last great poetic -ism of the 19th century, the 20th century took a while to get it in gear. While the Oughts & Teens saw Ezra Pound propounding 1st Imagism, then Modernism, it was not until Surrealism hit that 20th century poetry could claim its own. The reasons were simple: Imagism was so paltry a rationale that even most of its adherents did not know its tenets, nor subscribe to its limits. Who recalls anything Richard Aldington wrote? William Carlos Williams was never really an Imagist. Pound’s Imagism never went beyond those petals in that railway station. The handful of other poets associated with the movement are even more obscure than Aldington. That leaves the 2 core women: H.D.- who was really more of a neo-Classicist, with some nice imagery, & the indefatigable Amy Lowell, who- despite Pound’s chiding- was the only true Imagist- & a very underrated poet, as well. As for Modernism- well, sorry Lost Generation, that began a ½ century earlier with Walt Whitman & Charles Baudelaire. & it was never really a movement, per se, as much a mode of poetic development which is manifested in sundry -isms, forms, & poets.
  The 20th century’s -ism fetish kicked off relatively late when 1924 saw French poet André Breton publish his Manifesto Of Surrealism. In brief, the approach is a successor to John Keats’ Negative Capability- the professed ability to make leaps of illogic cohere by using disjunctive imagery & forms on the page. Ostensibly this is to transcend logic & root into the Unconscious (Collective or Individual). In practice, this merely allowed alot of poor thought, rehashing of clichés, & the ability to play around on a typewriter with impunity; & to subsequently fob it off as ‘pushing boundaries’. Like most -isms, Surrealism quickly devolved into political posturing- mostly left wing shilling for the Soviet Union. The title of the movement’s Depression Era journal was Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution. The movement- as such- was relatively brief ( the Inter-World War years) & never fully formed as there was little difference between it & some of the remnants of Symbolism embodied by French poets as Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valery, Pierre Reverdy, Guillaime Apollinaire, & other less notables. Add to the fact that Surrealism was merely repackaged Dadaism, & its limitations are obvious. Dadaism was an even shorter lived nihilistic movement than Surrealism, & truthfully should be subsumed into Surrealism as its true mother- although its adherents would argue it was not a true -ism at all- merely Dada, not Dadaism- a truly worthless distinction. Nonetheless, 1916 saw Dada’s 2 main protagonists- Tristan Tzara & Hugo Ball- found the movement as an outgrowth of their wartime Cabaret Voltaire tavern shows in Zurich. Even more freighted with intellectual anomy than its child, Dada’s aims might be best summarized in this unwitting self-parody from Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada Manifesto (note the not-so-slender touch of Marx in all these manifestoes): ‘Perhaps you will understand me better when I tell you that dada is a virgin microbe that penetrates with the insistence of air into all the spaces that reason has not been able to fill with words or conventions.’ Dadaism, & Surrealism quickly fell into desuetude, if not ridicule, by the ends of the 1920s & World War 2, respectively. But other -isms were poetically ascendant. But before we move on them. Let us look at some prototypical examples of Dadaistic & Surrealistic poems, & critique this crap:


from "In the beautiful half-light of 1934"
Andre Breton, translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogo 

The air was a splendid pink the color of red mullet
And the forest when I prepared to enter it
Began with a tree with cigarette paper leaves
Because I was waiting for you
And if you come for a walk with me
No matter where
Your mouth is the incredible all-spice
From which the blue wheel diffuse and broken endlessly sets out and rises
Turning pale in the rut
All the marvels hurried to meet me
A squirrel had come to press its white belly against my heart
I don't know how he made himself do it
But the earth was filled with reflections deeper than those in water
As if metal had finally shaken off its shell
And you lying on the frightening ocean of precious gems
Were turning
In a huge sun of fireworks
I saw you slowly evolving from the radiolarians
Even the shells of the sea urchins I was there
Wait a minute I wasn't there any more
I had raised my head because the living jewel box of white velvet had left me
And I was sad….

  OK, this snippet from a longer poem is not particularly bad poetry- but it ain’t good! The lack of punctuation seems to serve no purpose as the rhythms are not condensed, & there is no inherent musicality to the verse. But, if the imagery is strong enough this could be poetry. Is it? Perhaps to some, but most of the imagery is very familiar, in setting & phrasing: the engagement of nature; musings on sky, earth, water, sun; deep reflections; the references to the speaker’s self, etc. Does the poem have interesting turns of phrases? Not really. If we return to the Keatsian claim, hijacked by Surrealists, the ‘new’ pairings of ideas have to not just throw 2 unrelated things together, but forge some ‘psychic link’ that makes a reader think: ‘hey, I never thought of that before, but it does make sense of some sort.’ Pink air the color of a red fish & a living jewel box of white velvet may appeal to some readers taste, but they fail, utterly the very dicta Surrealists co-opted. & is this self-meditation serving any political purpose? See, how illusory & downright silly these claims for -isms are? But if Surrealism- & this snippet quoted really is as representative a snippet as you can get, as well being from Surrealism’s Poetic Poster Boy- fails its aims, perhaps its forebear- Dadaism- did not. Let’s look at another representative poem from another Poster Boy. This is Tristan Tzara’s ‘Mamia, you’ll never understand’, translated from the original Romanian by Julian Semilian & Sanda Agalidi:


Mamia, you'll never understand
I sing the soul that doesn't exist
Your breasts are flowers without pots
Your heart a handkerchief
And pricks the raspberry that tastes like milk
The blouse that wraps the ripe apricots 

Look here, rock me, cuddle me
The one I was to marry died
Ask me who she was
Then tell me slowly, precisely when you're leaving 

I'll buy you unconditionally earrings
From a Jewish jeweler
You showed up a flower garden in
My soul, interior of a metal shop 

Mamia, you'll never understand!
But it's a wonderful thing when you're in a poem

  This, is a bad poem. Perhaps not doggerel, but bad. Clichés abound: a mother/beloved(?) is lamented as not understanding the griever, the speaker says, ‘I sing….’ in response, breasts are flowers (the ‘without pots’ does not redeem but falls rather clunkily in image & sound), we get a little naughtiness with the introduction of ‘pricks’, the speaker is left behind, a female presence becomes a flower garden (whose opposition to the speaker’s ‘metal shop’ seems very contrived just to be oppositional, we get a lament, & the last line- supposedly the payoff- attempts to reconcile all these clichés by lending artistic self-awareness to the poem, itself. Any musicality must have been lost in translation- but a quick scan of Surreal & dada poems shows that music was not even a consideration in their ‘poetics’. For a microbe seeking to subvert words & conventions Tzara doesn’t do a hell of alot, does he? But the selection is too limited, is the reply. Well, I’ve used known & well-established examples by the 2 biggest names in each of these movements. The guarantee is that both poems can be found easily, & multiply, in any brief online Internet web search. In fact, all the poems critiqued in this essay are, as of this writing, available online [where I retrieved them]- this being 1 of the criterion used for including them in this essay: they are ‘of the public’, if not yet in the public domain, & also widely available- that is to say that these are very representative examples of poems & poets from their respective movements. There is no ‘back door’ for alleging unfairness in selection.
  As related, other -isms were soon ascendant. After all, 1st attempts usually fail. Perhaps these later stabs at Poetic Theory were more successful- i.e.- they produced better poets & poems. 1 of the more notable was Objectivism (not to be confused with the philosophy of Ayn Rand). The major poets of this -ism were Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky, & George Oppen. This band of poets exploded on to the scene with the February, 1931 issue of Poetry. Titled Objectivists' 1931 this issue included all but Niedecker. Also included were writers whose Objectivist connections were tenuous-nonexistent: William Carlos Williams (1 of the century’s most claimed forefathers of a passel of movements), Kenneth Rexroth (whose worst poetry comes from his Surrealist/Objectivist experiments), John Wheelwright, Harry Roskolenkier (who were those guys?), & Whittaker Chambers (yes, THAT Whittaker Chambers- of Nixonian infamy!). So bereft of any focus was this movement that to provide Poetry with a requisite manifesto, Zukofsky plagiarized some ideas from Reznikoff. The essay, "Sincerity and Objectification: With Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff" sought to assuage such a charge with its title but is more about how Zukofsky conceived his own work rather than a manifesto, per se. Zukofsky would later claim there never was a school of "Objectivism," & later blamed Poetry editor Harriet Monroe's urging for a manifesto as a raison for the issue." However, Objectivist ideas were not just a delusion of Zukofsky’s. Zukofsky & Reznikoff founded a publishing company for the ‘movement’: The Objectivist Press- what else? Both movement & company quickly foundered as no one in the ‘movement’ understood what it- or they- were about. Ostensibly the Objectivists shared the conviction that the poet must be faithful to the world of facts. How this squared with their divergent works was never really enumerated, & the fact that all of the Objectivists were decidedly minor poets- with the possible exception of the piquant & excellent Niedecker- has not deterred their continued place in the pantheon of Poetic Theory, even as Poetry (formal) recognizes the silliness of their ‘movement’. The Objectivists were classic poseurs who never even came close to exploring the depths of true Objectivity- for the folly of Subjectivism was never engaged; since total subjectivity is as illogical as total Objectivity- all you are arguing is the percentage of Objectivity in an artwork- or any perception. But, these thoughts were well beyond the limited intellect, as well the even more limited political, objectives of Objectivism. In fact, a good case could be made that Objectivism was so silly an -ism that it shared more in common with 1 of the great literary & artistic hoaxes of all time: Spectrism- the deliberate satire of Imagism from the late teens. In 1916, poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Ficke invented Spectrism in the guise of their alter-egos: Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish, who published in their own little magazine Spectra. Their intent was to mock the avant-garde- represented in poetry by the Imagists. Critics later said the Spectral poems were of better quality than that of Bynner & Ficke's serious work. Of Ficke this was certainly true. But like the ‘serious’ Objectivism, Spectrism had no real defining reason- except satire, & its pompous name. Compare these 2 examples of Spectric poetry with the earlier Objectivist poems. &, honestly, ask yourself which you think are better?:


Opus 15
Emanuel Morgan/Witter Bynner 

Despair comes when all comedy
  Is tame
And there is left no tragedy
  In any name,
When the round and wounded breathing
  Of love upon the breast
Is not so glad a sheathing
  As an old brown vest. 

Asparagus is feathery and tall,
And the hose lies rotting by the garden-wall

Opus 67
Anne Knish/ Arthur Ficke 

I would not in the early morning
Start my mind on its inevitable journey
Toward the East.
There are white domes somewhere
Under that blue enameled sky, white domes, white domes;
Therefore even the cream
Is safest yellow.
Cream is better than lemon
In tea at breakfast.
I think of tigers as eating lemons.
Thank God this tea comes from the green grocer,
Not from Ceylon.

Charles Reznikoff 

Trees standing far off in winter
Against a polished blue sky
With boughs blown about like brown hair; 

The stiff lines of the twigs
Blurred by the April buds; 

Or branches crowded with leaves
And a wind turning
Their dark green light. 

George Oppen 

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down --
That they are there!

                             Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

                             The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

                             Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

                             The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

  Opus 15, with its deliberately mockery of grafted musical pretensions- later brought to unintendedly hilarious nadirs by Zukofsky’s A, is not a good poem, but its very insistent end-rhymes & phallic ending lend a comic touch that make even a hardened cynic smirk. Is the music poor? Yes. Why this was not pointed out originally says a lot of Poetry Criticism’s failings- which continue through today. That is, throw up any amount of crap, propose a theory behind it, & watch the rationalizing begin. But in truth, it is no worse than, say, a typical late Romantic poem by a Walter De la Mare- a man who wrote superbly musical lyrics which said absolutely nothing new. Opus 67, however, is a better poem- both as satire- & in real terms. The tweak at Western Intellectual Orientalist pretensions, just getting into gear back in the teens, is not too intrusive. The poem is also light & breezy in imagery & thought: ‘tigers as eating lemons’. Yet, let’s see how little more than a decade later what was satirized then flowered into unadulterated pretension. Reznikoff’s (1) is an especially good example of this pretension, especially in contrast to Ficke’s poem. The blue enameled sky with white domes, of Ficke, becomes mere polished blue sky. & look at the larding of cliché: trees/winter, polished blue sky, boughs blown, April buds, wind turning, & dark green light- all in 8 lines! But what of the Objectivist rationale? Perhaps it explains how this string of clichés works? Well, perhaps Reznikoff was faithfully transcribing what he saw- but what a lack of imagination. &, apparently the clichés abound because we all see the same things. So, then, what is the point of making- or claiming, in reality- that this is art? Just, because, is the usual reply when a movement’s tenets are queried. Well. OK, but that does not make the art good- & this (again, a prototypical example) is a bad poem. The Objectivists, along with William Carlos Williams (who generally stands apart & above them in most estimates, including mine- although no real Williams fan), are the primary culprits in the blandeurizing & ennui-inducement in later, more contemporary poetry. They would grab ahold of the Beatniks with a ferocity. But note how little fun is had in the art, especially compared to the preceding Spectric poems. The Objectivists were also the party to foist the idea that the best way to convey an emotion or idea is to attempt to convey that with the words. That is, if you want to write a poem on boredom, make the poem boring- what could better reflect the characteristics of boredom? That this idea appeals to utter laziness- artistic & intellectual, as well a disdain for the reader who must endure such, was beside the point, to Objectivists. But, lets’ see what Oppen does with this. Oppen actually got some fame by winning a Pulitzer prize in the 1960s. Surely, he’s better than the talent-challenged Reznikoff? Well, yes he is- in general, & in this poem, 1 of his more famous. Still, the 1st 4 stanzas do not do anything new, imagistically. The thing that makes this a decent poem is the right margined 1st lines of each stanza- which are meant to convey the bob of the deer’s head, & the last stanza, which also lends the poem an ‘awareness of its artifice’, then evokes a Rilkean ‘moment’, before an abrupt end. But, successful or not, the last stanza totally goes against the very idea of Objectivism. How could an ‘objective’ speaker leap into the recognition of the artifice, & break the 4th wall- so to speak? Simple. It cannot- at least if it wants to claim consistency with the movement’s tenets. & therein the pea that lays under every -ism’s mattress. Eventually all the poets of a movement become sensitive-assed princesses & bitch & squirm against the position/bed they’ve claimed. Sometimes poets abandon -isms, but usually, if attracted to 1 they fall for another flawed sailor, they get a new -ism. Or the initial -ism morphs.
  Such was the case with Objectivism, as it also birthed a similar sounding movement: Projectivism- a movement founded by erstwhile Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. Olson, however, was a SERIOUS poet. His movement, & manifesto Projectivist Verse, had ‘real’ dicta: ‘(1) A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. . . . the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet get in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away? This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION--puts himself in the open--he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware. . . . (2) . . . the principle, the law which presides conspicuously over such composition, and, when obeyed, is the reason why a projective poem can come into being. It is this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. (Or so it got phrased by one, R. Creeley, and it makes absolute sense to me, with this possible corollary, that right form, in any given poem, is the only and exclusively possible extension of content under hand.) (3) Now (3) the process of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement (first pounded into my head by Edward Dahlberg): ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.’ Impressive wording, but rarely, if ever, put in to practice by Olson or his acolytes. Key point- take note of all the pseudo-scientific jargon. This is what marks any artistic theory as nothing but alot of bullshit being peddled. The more bullshit peddled, the weaker the rationale. That Olson WAS Projectivism seems to be lost on all but a few astute poetic historians. A more ‘genuine’ ‘movement’- so to speak- was that from which Olson had come from before forming his 1-Man Gang: The Black Mountain School of poetry, made up of teachers who taught at the school Olson founded: Olson himself, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Jonathan Williams, Larry Eigner, & Robert Creeley among the better known names. This group- surprise, surprise- also had a titular journal: The Black Mountain Review. Open fields, grand collage, the poet’s breath, & compositional fields were among the not-too deep nor original contributions of this brood. That, again, there was not any real similarity between these poets’ poems- neither in mood, phraseology, nor substance- does not seem to have deterred their being lumped together. Let’s go through some of these poems:


The Secret
Denise Levertov 

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me 

(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even 

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret, 

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find, 

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that 

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that
most of all.   

  This is a really bad poem- starting with its banal title, & through its attempted coyness, it does not hide that the it/secret is the ‘search’ itself- a trite concept. Poor enjambment does not help this poem which at 32 lines should really be at least 1/3 the length. the premise is threadbare & the occasional music is not nearly enough to rescue the poem. But is there really any controlling theoretical underpinning to the poem? No. Perhaps another poem will represent this movement more? Here are Robert Creeley’s ‘A Token’ & ‘Other’:


A Token

My lady
fair with
arms, what 

can I say to
you-words, words
as if all
worlds were there


Having begun in thought there
in that factual embodied wonder
what was lost in the emptied lovers
patience and mind I first felt there
wondered again and again what for
myself so meager and finally singular
despite all issued therefrom whether
sister or mother or brother and father
come to love's emptied place too late
to feel it again see again first there
all the peculiar wet tenderness the care
of her for whom to be other was first fate    

  Now, let us tread warily here. Robert Creeley has been called a Projectivist poet, a Black Mountain Poet, even a Beatnik poet; but is mostly referred to as a Minimalist poet. That means he writes small poems without elaboration- or so is claimed. On to the poems: A Token offers nothing but refried, & boiled down, Romanticism. 3 bad line breaks out of 8 is not a good ratio. The last 2 lines are the strongest part, but coming off such a flaccid 1st 6 lines almost anything would ‘seem’ strong. Is this poem Minimal? Yes. So what? The notion of communication as a self-enclosed realm is the only thing new, yet its presentation in lament weakens its power. The whole poem seems to have been written in 3-4 minutes, tops. That this tiny poem’s obvious flaws were not addressed harkens back to the laziness problem that all movements spawn. Adherence to dicta can really be nothing but laziness- or so it seems. Is this poem Black Mountain? Whatever! Does anyone have a clue? No. Is it Projectivist? Let us return to the 3 dicta: 1) Is any energy transferred? Uh….next point- 2) Is the form an extension of content? Not really, since one could easily enjamb this poem in a dozen different ways without affecting its message. Therefore the form is not dependent on the content. 0 for 2. 3) Do the perceptions lead directly into 1 another? Why, YES! So does this 1 for 3 batting average qualify this poem as Projectivist? Well, the perceptions follow 1 another for a very important reason- in language- ALL language- perceptions follow each other because WORDS follow each other! You cannot get around the fact! Whether the perception is an image, an idea, a theory, or merely a sound! Therefore Dictum 3 of Projectivism is wholly pointless as a qualifier since all poetry, & all writing, obeys it fundamentally! So this poem meets 1 dictum which all writing meets, fails in the most characteristic dictum, & has another dictum which is so out & out silly that its preposterousness will get no further comment. But, maybe, his 2nd attempt will fare better?
  Well, this is a longer poem, & a bit better poem. There is a ruminant who ponders love, fate, selfness. There is some musicality here, a bad line break, & a few clichés: what was lost, love’s emptiness, & wet tenderness. But, this is a passable poem, I guess. But, the real test is its link to Projectivism. Back to the 3 Dicta: 1) ….on to # 2! 2) Again, a no-no. Breaking this poem’s lines in another way would not significantly alter its import to the reader. 3) It’s a poem, language….so, YES, again! Another .333 hitter.
  But Creeley is not the only Projectivist, is he? Well, there is Olson, himself- but his poems are generally so long & cumbersome that to attempt dissection here is not really feasible, nor fair. So, let us turn to another acolyte, Jonathan Williams, & this little ditty:


Daddy Bostain, the Moses of the Wing community Moonshiners, Laments from His Deathbed the Spiritual Estate of One of His Soul-Saving Neighbors

God bless her pore
little ol
dried up
jest make
good kindlin wood
fer Hell . . .

  Well, whether or not this poem is any good, it is a lot more interesting to look at visually. This poem goes by the old dictum of allowing a long, interesting title juxtaposed with a quirky little poem. This sort of playfulness, however, is centuries old & practiced worldwide. The title is funny, quirky, & presents an opportunity for political commentary. While the notion of what the actual poem part says is nice, it does little to go beyond aphorism. The dialect used gives it a Southern American twang, which is fine. But the sentiments are universal & 1 wonders why this is set Southern? Of course, there is no reason to NOT set it in the South. But, that is about the only provocation in the poem. Back to the dread 3 Dicta: 1) _____ 2) Is the speaker really pausing at the end of the lines? No. It seems a device merely to make the poem appear more weighty than it is. 3) So, we’re 1 for 3 again. That’s great for baseball, but in the real world, mild success 1/3 of the time is considered failure. So, too, as a movement was Projectivism & its Black Mountain precursor. But another offshoot of the Black Mountaineers could claim, at least, success in a broader cultural context. That group? The Beatniks!
  Probably the most overly-analyzed group of writers this past century has put forth- The Beatniks, aka The Beats, The Beat Movement, The Beat Generation, etc., were, in truth, poetically speaking, merely the dozen or so great poems Allen Ginsberg wrote, the 5 or 6 penned by each Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, & Lawrence Ferlinghetti, & the occasional passable poem by token Beatnik-babes Anne Waldman & Diane Di Prima, & token Black Beatnik LeRoi Jones. There are a few dozen or so other barely known poetasters claiming dubious Beatnik credentials (from their claimed progenitor Kenneth Rexroth- a near-great poet- to doggerelist Richard Brautigan to pseudo-Beatnik Jack Spicer) & most of their drivel splatters the pages of Black Sparrow Press books. This group probably has garnered more attention for less output than nearly any other movement. Their obsessions with sex, drugs, Buddhism, & politics plus their dubious & disingenuous intellectual rationale: ‘1st thought, best thought’ for writing account for the attraction by young wannabe poets who do not want to spend the time or effort learning to craft good poetry. But, beyond that, there is nothing that really coheres them as a ‘school’ either.
  The 1st Beatnik to gain popular notice was Ginsberg, when he delivered a performance of his poem Howl at the now-legendary (a term that accompanies most of the Beatniks’ self-described activities- & may, in truth- have been patented by 1 of them!) 6 Gallery poetry reading on October 13th, 1955. The poem, publicized by an obscenity charge that made Ginsberg a symbol of American sexual depravity, was the great expression- some purport- of Beatnikness- which itself had no real definition, for even its adherents could not decide whether it reflected a pessimistic hoboic attitude- being beat down by life, or an optimistic beatific attitude. Nonetheless, this was easily the single most influential ‘movement’ in 20th Century Poetics, if only because of the easiness of its approach to art; that is, if you define influence by mere numbers of devotees. In that regard the Beatnik quagmire is a sinkhole that is still gurgling.
  Its most noted bastard spawn, & merely the same ideals repackaged in a Multicultural package, is the Spoken Word/Poetry Slam/Nuyoricanism of the last 2 decades. While the Beatniks were mostly middle class Jews who viewed art as a way to ‘slum’ into the real world & gather ideas & material for art, Nuyoricanism differs, if only slightly, because of an initially lower Judaic content in its core. Ostensibly, the movement grew out of early-1970s New York street poetry- the descendent of Doo-Wop & the progenitor of rap, which evolved into a group of poets led by Puerto Rican poetasters Miguel Piñero & Miguel Algarin, & black spoken word poobah Steve Cannon, founding a reading series & titular café, which eventually gave rise to the mid-1980s phenomenon of poetry slams; although this dubious honor is disputed by Chicago spoken wordists like Marc Smith- who claims to have coined the term ‘poetry slam’- if not the idea of poetic contests- which owe their origins to the decades old phenomenon of putdowns, ‘doing the dozens’, ‘rankout contests’, & the like. Regardless, little poetry attends these usually personalized rants which have the Beatnik attitude laced with the worst of Confessionalist self-indulgence. Yet, the very ‘streetness’ of the Nuyoricans [in essence- their defining rationale] was ‘co-opted’ by a number of Jewish Beatnik wannabes- poets Bob Holman & Hal Sirowitz- who along with spoken wordists Maggie Estep & Dana Bryant, rode this movement’s crest to early 1990s pop fame on outlets as cable TV’s MTV & its assorted ancillary ventures. So co-opted, in fact, was the movement that by the late 1980s- barely a decade into the ‘movement’ it was being ridiculed by its critics on the left & right, the street & academia, as being sellouts & (not-too incorrectly) derisively labeled Jewyoricans! That there was not a single defining thing nor idea in the actual ‘poetry’, save for its being very bad, self-indulgent, politically correct, & shouted so quickly that no one could understand what was being said, speaks for itself. It, especially as the spawn of Beatnikism (the literary equivalent of ‘pop art’), in a real sense, is the very sine qua non of modern Poetic Theory: lacking in form, content, & making no pretense for their necessity. In short- utter vacuity, save for the all-consuming pretense of political import. This very insistence on politicization, however, only further marginalizes them (indeed- any -ism), therefore seeding new ground for future replacement -isms. Yet, Nuyoricanism may indeed be preferable to its only viable contemporary alternative: the literary equivalent of that visual arts fraud, Abstract Expressionism: I, of course, refer to that grab bag of nonsensical theories which go under monickers as Abstractism, Concretism, &/or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, which- despite their own pretensions of significant differences between them, are all 1 & the same, & just as abominable as their literarily pretenseless Nuyorican oppositional counterparts. But before we tackle the Languagist group of yahoos, let’s expose some of the horrific writing propagated by the Beatniks, & the Jewyo- er- Nuyoricans. Here’s ‘No Problem Party Poem’ by burnt-out Beatnik Diane di Prima:


loss of temper no problem
arrogance no problem
boxes of empty beer cans &
wine bottles no problem
thousands of styrofoam cups
no problem
Gregory Corso no problem
Allen Ginsberg no problem
Diane di Prima no problem
Anne Waldman's veins no

  This poem is an absolutely prototypical Beatnik poem- self-indulgent, lacking in music, & any poetic technique- save 1, repetition. But the repetition is so bad in its attempted hipness & mythologizing referentiality, & so devoid of any real content that it’s virtually worthless, literarily. Yet, this drivel was loved & imitated by 1000s of young people in the 1950s & 1960s. In a bit, we will see how this followed a predictable evolution into even more ridiculous depths. But, let us now look at a 2nd di Prima ‘gem’:

The Window  

you are my bread
and the hairline noise
of my bones
you are almost
the sea 

you are not stone
or molten sound
I think
you have no hands 

this kind of bird flies backwards
and this love
breaks on a windowpane
where no light talks 

this is not the time
for crossing tongues
(the sand here
never shifts) 

I think
turned you with his toe
and you will
and shine
unspent and underground

  Well, this poem is longer, but still offers little beyond clichés: sea, stone, lament of love, a windowpane, light, etc. There are a couple of nice turns: hairline noise of bones, & shining unspent and underground. That this refers to, ostensibly, a real window, is nice, although it puts the speaker in a familiar setting- gazing outside to gaze inside. But here we get a problem- while this poem is better than the 1st poem it is not really Beatnik in approach. In fact, it’s a very Confessional poem. But I will not touch that school in this essay. Besides, the poem is very much discernible in content & intent. Let us move on to another Beatnik ‘legend’. Gary Snyder has really tried to distance himself from the Beatniks, especially with his cloak of Zen Buddhism. But let’s look at this Snyder poem & discern its Beatnikness [Note, that I am not touching any of the longer, more famed poems by Beatniks, because their long lines & diarrhetic mouthings are so clichéd & laughable that they undermine the tenability of any seriousness attached to the term Beatnik.]:


North Beach Alba  

walking half-drunk in a strange pad
making it out to the cool gray
  san francisco dawn -- 

white gulls over white houses,
  fog down the bay, 

tamalpais a fresh green hill in the new sun,
driving across the bridge in a beat old car
  to work.

  This poem is a hallmark Beatnik poem (& not far from a Hallmark Card poem!)- from its protagonist’s drunken state, the use of hipster terms like pad & cool, its lower case starts of lines & city name, on down to its use of the word beat. But aside from a few staid images nothing occurs that has not occurred before in 100s of other poems. This poem is wholly generic. It could have been written by any Beatnik, or poet. A few banal images does not subsume a poem into a school. Yet, Snyder has made a beaucoup career of such scribblings- including, like Oppen, a Pulitzer! But the Beatniks were not the only group to master dullness in verse. Their spawn, the Nuyoricans, decided to make a movement of dullness admixed with excessive self-centeredness, rage against the world, a total disavowal of the notion that art needs thought & dedication behind it, as well as a love of dullness, exemplified by their obsession with profanity. Here is a poem by stolid Hal Sirowitz, 1 of the Jewyoricans who ousted & co-opted Nuyoricanism from its ‘street roots’:


Not Talking To Me Again

Beauty is only skin deep, Father said,
but don't tell your mother I told
you that or she'll think I'm saying
that she's ugly. But I didn't marry her
just for her looks. I married her because I thought that she was kind.
I happen to be wrong tonight. But
that doesn't mean I won't be right tomorrow.   

  That this was written by a Jewyorican is obvious- its self-referencing is a classic Beatnik trope & the whole tenor of the poems by this poetaster devolves to his psycho-emotional problems & lack of any formal sense of how to construct a poem. Here we go: Line-by-line- 1 is a cliché, 2 is supposed to let you know this is a ‘private’ moment overheard, thus has deep meaning- yet is poorly enjambed, 3 is poorly broken & an extension of 2, 4 gives us the expected punch line 2 & 3 set up, then we get the endearment of daddy- he’s a good man. Line 5 tells us this. Then we pan back in 6 & 7 ends with a feigned optimism. The title implies that all this is a rationale of the speaker- he grew up in a not-so good familial situation. That the title does nothing to involve the reader in the dilemma, as well as having no music nor imagery to string the narrative upon, is 1 of the classic traits of both Beatnikism & Nuyoricanism. But this poem is a relatively tame example of the Poetry Slam attitude. While Sirowitz garnered some slight fame with his 2 books of ‘Said’ poems on his Mother & Therapist, Maggie Estep rocketed to Slam Bam stardom in the mid-1990s craze with Spoken Word. Here is a classic Estep ‘poem’. Look how she makes the earlier di Prima poem look Victorian by comparison!


Fuck Me

I'm all screwed up so

and take out the garbage
feed the cat and FUCK ME
you can do it, I know you can. 

and theorize about
Sado Masochism's relationship
to classical philosophy
tell me how this stimulates
the fabric of most human relationships,
I love that kind of pointless intellectualism
so do it again and

Stop being logical
stop contemplating
the origins of evil
and the beauty of death
this is not a TV movie about Plato's sex life,
this is FUCK ME

It's the pause that refreshes
just add water and

I wrote this
so I'd have a good excuse to say "FUCK ME"
over and over
and over
so I could get a lot of attention
and look, it worked!
So thank you
thank you
and fuck ME.    

  In the last few years there have been a few moments & few artists in the arts scene that have proven wrong the age-old koan that an artist cannot use the word ‘fuck’ effectively. I’ve done it to great effect in poetry, rock-rappers Limp Bizkit have crafted a number of excellent songs in which the F-word is prominent & the point, & a great, great film- probably the best-written, if not plain best, movie of 1999- South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut showed near-infinite creativity in its deployment. But unlike Limp Bizkit or the movie- Estep makes very poor use of the F-word. Compare here self-referential ‘so I’d have a good excuse to say “FUCK ME”’ pales to some of the permutations Limp Bizkit uses in its killer tune Hotdog: ‘If I say "Fuck", two more times//That's forty six "Fucks" in this fucked up rhyme’. In contrast, Estep’s character garners no sympathy nor humor because it is simply a rant without any revelation of hidden depth. A reader, or audience member, is merely annoyed at such juvenilia. Estep, to be fair, is not only a descendant of the Beatniks, but also of the worst self-indulgent aspects of the grand Confessional divas of the 1950s: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, & Adrienne Rich, with her closest affinity being to the self-indulgent & talent-poor Rich. Neither poet has ever shown any real music, much less Muse. Yet Nuyoricanism has waned in the last 5 or so years, as- indeed- has the whole mid-90s take on poetry, despite Academia’s obsession with shoving bad poetry down our throats during April’s National Poetry Month nonsense. Contemporary poetry has been very anomic of late. But that is not without the efforts of a dedicated band of poetasters who subscribe (or circumscribe?) themselves to another seemingly ‘difficult’ notion which is in reality but an excuse to not have to exercise any critical skills over their writing. These are poets who practice ‘Abstraction’- or so they would have us believe.
  While vague ideas of Abstract poetry have floated around for centuries- some claiming lineage from William Blake, Metaphysical Poets, the Middle Eastern/Subcontinental Mystic Poets of the 10th through 13th centuries, the Skalds of Norse lore, & assorted other strains of poetry throughout the ages- the term itself came to fruition in the 20th century. Symbolists & Surrealists often claimed themselves as dabbling in (lower case a) ‘abstract poetry’. But the capitalized A ‘Abstract Poetry’ of the last 50 or so years can be linked basically in a continuum from Ezra Pound’s garbled & doggerelistic pseudo-epic The Cantos, through Louis Zukofsky’s deadly dull & interminable counterpart A, through the founding of the 1960s poetic movement of Concrete Poetry, or Concretism. Yet even this movement’s origins & aims are in dispute- sense the pattern which seems to unfold about each of these so-called movements? To some poets Concretism is a form of collage in which ‘Found Poetry’ is the nexus. Snippets of words & phrases from real life things as ads, newspaper stories, overheard conversations, & the like, are included. Yet, despite this very countercultural & 1960s stance, the most famous example of a Found Poem is still Marianne Moore’s classic An Octopus- written decades before Found Poetry’s supposed origin. Others merely play with typology- although e.e. cummings, again, predates the movement by decades. Still others insist Concretism is poetry whose shape on the page has import- although, again, preceded by Symbolists as Mallarmé & Nonsense Poet Lewis Carroll by decades, & Metaphysical poets as George Herbert by centuries. Regardless, this coterie insists that ‘reduced language’ is the essence of Concretism. How this differs from Minimalism- the strain of poetry that morphs from William Carlos Williams to Robert Creeley to Larry Eigner- is a matter of debate to approximately 7 living human beings. Yet they are a contentious 7!
  Some claim the term ‘Concrete Poetry’ originates with an obscure Swiss poetaster named Eugen Gomringer- although acolytes of Öyvind Fahlström- a Swedish poetaster, dissent with vehemence. In typical fashion of a movement, however, Gomringer did not call his poetry ‘Concrete’- they were ‘Constellations’- a cribbed term from Mallarmé. These ‘poems’- in very loose terms were noted for 2 basic features- extreme brevity, & occasionally being palindromes- words or sentences that have the exact same sequence of letters whether read forward or backwards. The similarity of this to the movement’s motto (not otto!), ‘form=content/content=form’, is reductivism in the extreme. Note its similarity to the credo of Projectivism as well: ‘FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT’! That these movements all claim ‘new discoveries’ & an experimental nature, even as they shamelessly ape each others claims & posits is 1 of the more humorous aspects of this silly business of poetic theorizing. I will now present 2 of the most famous Concrete poems by Eugen Gomringer. believe me, these are considered evidence of ‘genius’ by the Concretic Horde!:


Ping Pong

ping pong
       ping pong ping
       pong ping pong
                      ping pong 


silencio silencio silencio
silencio silencio silencio
silencio             silencio
silencio silencio silencio
silencio silencio silencio

  No, you did not miss anything. Those are the 2 poems. I swear! That most teenagers’ notebook scribblings display more creativity is a point that is apparently missed by Concretic aesthetes. Concrete Poetry is the ultimate ‘gimmick art’. Compare these to Mallarmé’s or Herbert’s poems which make use of the page, & actually say something beyond the gimmick. These don’t even rate, by comparison. But, let us look at the rationales espoused by the champions of such drivel. The 1st poem is supposed to manifest the genius of capturing the motion of a ping pong ball as it whizzes back & forth over a table tennis net. Well, that’s obvious, so what? Not that it would remove the poem from the ignominy of gimmickry, but Gomringer missed a surefire way to improve this poem & give Concretic theorists an orgasm. Had he moved the word ping, in line 4, 5 spaces rightward it would have been positioned under line 3’s final pong, & line 4’s pong would be vertically alone. The poem would then be a virtual mirror image with all the words, horizontally or vertically, not having any repetition of itself back-to-back. Again, that would not make this Song Of Myself, but it would show a rationale that this sloppy & lazy poem lacks. I will guarantee you that neither Gomringer nor his acolytes ever cogitated upon this, but if any are reading this criticism, I equally guarantee you that they are fast at work with a defense for why Gomringer ‘deliberately’ did not move line 4 over 5 spaces rightward! Thus, the essence of artistic deceit & haughtiness. On to the 2nd poem. 1, I guess can be thankful that unlike later concrete & gimmick poems, this poem stops its gimmick after a mere 5 lines. OK, we get it- by uttering the word we are voiding its definition & sentiment. & the missing silencio in the smack-dab middle of the poem- ah, this MUST be the key! Well, I guess. You see, this symbolizes the subversion of the subversion that speaking the word silencio aloud represents. That these poems & ideas are both the heights of tautology & solipsism is a point never to be reckoned with. But if you think this stuff is pretentious, fuggeddaboudit!
  The champion of poetic pretentiousness has to go to Concrete Poetry’s evil twin- L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry. Here are some of the propagators of this most heinous of literary frauds: Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies, Ray DiPalma, Robert Grenier, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, Michael Palmer, Bob Perelman, James Sherry, Ron Silliman, Diane Ward, Barrett Watten, Hannah Weiner, Kit Robinson, Peter Seaton, Steve Benson, David Bromige, & Clark Coolidge. Not a poet of any real talent can be found in this lot. In fact, this most blatant of political movements (moreso, even then the Beatniks- who like their visual counterparts the Pop Artists- could laugh at themselves & the world) is contrived of mostly political ideals & ends being espoused- such as "Let us undermine the bourgeoisie.": Ron Silliman, a member thereof speaking (as well as forever the most idiotic sucker to the 1996 APR/Araki Yasusada hoax, & then quickly retracting after its revelation- more in a later essay)! How they plan to do that with their art, much less any art- well….Of course, this is the old rationale of ‘Intent over Content’ in yet another (yet same) form. Or as Bernstein says in the The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (essays in defense of this tripe): ‘What looks natural about a given poem is actually the result of a number of procedures and assumptions about writing that the author may be more or less conscious of when composing. Those procedures and assumptions are in fact social constructions which have become conventions. Thus most Language poets attempt to remind us of the socially contrived basis of any writing. They do not do so, however, by abandoning modes of writing, for such an action is impossible. Modes cannot be escaped, but they can be taken for granted. They can also be meant.’ Now, if you are experiencing 1 of those DUH! moments, or those moments where you resent being condescended to, you are not alone. This garbage is just an elaborately worded way of stating that Language poets write- yes, just write, although it is different from other writers or poets- because I, the poet, say so!
  Yet, most of this tribe shun the term L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry- no surprise, eh? So removed from any sense of poetry as ‘an act of communication’ are these poets that Silliman wrote in an essay: ‘Gutenberg's moveable type erased gesturality from the graphemic dimension of books. That this in turn functions to alienate the producer from his or her product is tangible even to authors who compose on the typewriter: to see one's text in a new typeface (inevitably asserting different spatio-visual values) is almost as radical a shock as first seeing oneself on film or videotape, or initially hearing one's voice remarkably other on a tape recorder.’ Note the total absence of focus on the writing ITSELF! Bigwordthrowingarounding abounds in this clique. Here are some Bernstein beauts in that mode: 'dysraphism...a congenital misseaming of embryonic parts’ & ‘provisional limits’. This obfuscation & pedantry is all-too typical of Language poets &, in truth, all movementists. & it is all designed as rationalales for bad poetry- would as much time & effort be devoted to the poetry as to the theorizing & something novel & excellent might result. But have the Languagists ever declared a Manifesto? Damned straight!- in 1988: Language Poetry is ‘the activity which blurs the distinction between reader and writer, poet and critic', & shares a 'deep disinterest in poetics of identity. The last bit being a broadside at the Nuyorican/PC Elitist ilk. That neither group has produced, nor seems capable of producing a poet whose verse will last more than a few years before it is seen as tripe is not acknowledged by either side. But a deep disinterest in identity? Total bullshit. The very thrust of Languagists is that ‘we, poor suburban Whities with no talent nor impetus to produce great poetry will mope & foist our rationalized word game crap upon you, the reader- & nothing else.’ That is the key to the whole Language Poetry movement- just to be published- without having any effect at all. The fact that this is really the rationale of all poets who cling to -isms, well- the obvious slips by alot of folks! On to some poems &/or vivisections:


Rae Armantrout 

In the excitement phase
we think we want something
we're made up to seem
exaggeratedly unfit for,
say, touch. 

This is the funny part,
but also the dangerous
moment. Right away
we're talked out of it -
no harm done -
by a band of wise-acre friends.

"I don't know
what I'm thinking," we say,
to a spike of merriment.
Here is the warm,
human part
which dissipates tension.    

  Is there a thing poetic about this ‘poem’? What is the rationale for enjambment? It is void of music of any sort. It has no imagery- it is merely a bland mind game the speaker is entrancing themselves by. Go ahead, & reread some of the drivel propounded by the Languagists in defense of their ‘poetry’. There is not even a metaphor nor simile on which to hang this piece’s ‘poeticness’. A cliché at the poem’s end- but metaphor? This is ‘experimental’, this ‘pushes boundaries’ & plays with the very notions of ‘word & idea’? This blurs distinctions? No. If nothing else it extirpates the very art from art. But, perhaps it is just this particular Languagist’s flaws? Here’s another:


A Dutiful Hardness
Clark Coolidge 

In the holy hallway of dry slaves
another iced window this one leaves
3 bucks and a synthesizer down a drink
tiptoe on the money a length of garment
swings in the chest hole darkness is had
cult of the Cave of the Not Okay
Olney Street about where I took my presence
believing in the brass of a kindergarten class
heat face under house bush in regard
Sunderland the place of the fossil face
and green tattersall golf spinnaker
cost one disc in a cemetery ditch
suspended by electric flex
blockade of Mars bars in the silly dusk
you know what he just died of? death
somebody else's cigarette a bung starter
hemoplant dialysis oblate straightener
let's not pretend we know our motives
as the plane rose the other one didn't   

  This is classic (oy!) Language poetry- a string of lines with no real connection to each other. The object is to ‘force’ the reader to imbue into the poem whatever they will & ‘cohere’ meaning from it. In other words, where clichéd poems condescend to such a degree that they leave NO ROOM for the reader to engage- they simply TELL all because the reader is too dumb to grasp beyond the obvious, & good/great poems balance a mix of telling & mystery so the reader is led to something near what the poet intended, Language ‘poems’ throw words out there & hope the reader will do the artist’s job of constructing the communication. It is laziness in the extreme. There was a fellow I knew a few years ago who went to some other poetry groups & even came to the UPG once. His name was John Murphy, & he had the perfect Languagist attitude. He’d string a dozen or so lines of words together because he liked their sounds. They rarely made any sense [the few times they did they had a Burma Shave sign quality to them!] & when informed that all it was was sounds he would reply: ‘Cool!’ In truth, he did have a fine poetic ear- he just lacked any impetus to impart anything of communicable worth. That the ‘real’ Languagists would at least have a good ear for sound, though, is too much to ask. This dreck seems to champion the need to inure oneself from life’s ‘horror’, yet alot could be bandied about as to its meaning. But, the poem offers no imagistic nor aural pleasures to do so- this is not Lewis Carroll. This poem has no fun or ‘life’ to it. Let us now turn to a poem that at least attempts to be funny- in a cutesy sort of way:


Clonic Sonnet
Ron Silliman 





  Kind of makes Gomringer look like a visionary- eh? & could this man’s surname be any more appropriate- Silly · Man? This 1-trick pony is by no means an anomaly. There have been, over the last few decades, literally dozens- if not 100s or 1000s- of poems that have used the repetition of a single word, phrase, or line- to the point where even non-Concretists have co-opted this dull trick- including Pulitzer Prize winner James Tate’s infamous ditty Lewis and Clark Overheard in Conversation, where the line ‘then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs’ is in a block 23 lines long. Yes, this from the infertile mind of 1 of the ‘best’ minds in American Poetry- or so sayeth the Academy. As for Silliman’s ‘poem’- a single word is repeated 14 times- 1 word per line- therefore each line is a clone of the others- hence, Clonic Sonnet- I hope you are still with me after that exhaustive hermeneusis. Speaking of which, since hermeneusis is the province of critics, what have the critics had to say about all these various -isms? Let’s take a brief look at some critiques & posit APC’s failures.

The Criticisms

  Poetry criticism of the various -isms has been almost rote. Critics who have sprung from the very movements write apologias disguised as manifestoes. Hard-edged criticisms generally come from adherents of other -isms; such as the New Critics' predictable & wan attacks on Surrealism. Truthfully, in scanning several 100 online pieces for interesting comments, there were only a handful of interesting remarks worth commenting on, & their interestingness lay not with what they said, but how clichéd their responses were. I will give them, comment on them, & wrap up this essay with some general & specific comments.
  Brian Coffey (1938): 'One thing about Surrealism ... it was the pronounced and dogmatic atheism (French ecole Primaire kind of stuff probably mainly due to Breton) in its original form which destroyed the good effect of surrealistic reliance on the free flow of imagery from the dark within...'. This is a very typical approach to criticizing any -ism (pro or con)- you change the subject (here- to atheism), then throw in some foreign phrase to impress a neophyte reader, & end with a generalized statement to which there can be little to quibble with.
  Parker Tyler (1945): ‘Surrealism combines in practice the representational value of the image (imagism) and the symbolic value of the image (symbolism) in a sort of dialectical play of values.’ This approach is what is known as lassoing something for your own ends. Here, Tyler attempts to re-define Surrealism away from its proponents dicta. That his definition is just as meaningless as the proponents’ is, conveniently, not ratiocinated by the critic. This tack can be done pro or con- just as the previous tack. It is a way to criticize without really engaging the art, nor its rationale.
  Andre Breton: ‘Surrealism rests on the belief in the higher reality of certain hitherto neglected forms of association, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought.’ Here is a classic proponent’s take on his -ism. Note how we get the classic appeal to a ‘higher power’.
  Albert Gelpi, The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry: ‘At the level of professional literary study, semiotics and deconstruction splintered literary monuments, including Modernist monuments, into slivers of polysemous intertextuality, and poetry followed the academic lead, muffling a defining voice in polyglossia. In Frederic Jameson's trope, language became a prisonhouse: blank walls, echoing enclosures, burrowed tunnels; the more blurred the echoes, the more unbreachable the verbal surface. Theory swallowed all: poetry submerged into criticism and linguistics, words about words; even Marxism exercised itself not in political action but academic analysis.’ Here is another classic critical trope- use bigwordthrowingarounding to damn other theorists’ & movements’ bigwordthrowingarounding. Wanna bet Gelpi could not elucidate this principle using words of less than 3 syllables!
  Ron Alcalay, Confessions of an American Poetry Slammer: A Response to John Brady: ‘I haven't changed the world, or sparked the revolution. The poem didn't extend any 'coherent political project.' If this is what Brady wants, he won't find it at an open mike. I'm not against using art as a hammer to shape the world, but would John Brady melt all the different tools to create a giant revolutionary hammer? Who would fashion it? Who would wield it? I'm not handing my hammer or pen or garden hoe to anyone who channel the freedom to use it, however and in whatever bar or cafe I choose--among friends or strangers, to a crowd of fifty or a sleeping man and some empty mugs. I cherish the right to rant loudly in the world, or pronounce my pentameter in public. Poets have led revolutions; they lead countries. When a populace is alive to the concerns of its age, poetry flourishes unexpectedly, like those brilliant sunflowers Allen Ginsberg planted years ago, when the world also seemed to many interminably grey.’ This trope is the indignant offended’s riposte. Note how clearly the critic contradicts himself within the confines of this 1 mere paragraph. Not to mention contradicting his ‘movement’s’ own self-limned dicta.
  Kurt Heintz, Slam vs. the Literary Critics: Hostility & Reconciliation: ‘An informal performance poetry aesthetic, borne of this feral dialectic among the venues, arose in a way similar to how jazz initially impinged upon more scholastic musics at the beginning of the 1900s. The entirty (sic) of the phenomenon - comraderie (sic), the neighborhood community, a closeness of hopes and politics - fused into the whole experience of slam. Much of these shared experiences, however, were "street smarts" which neither pecolated (sic) toward nor impressed those whom the more aggressive performance advocates wanted to influence the most. Many lesser or wildcat slammers and allies sought a public validation of their art but attempted to get it from their declared targets in the academy, and that only begat more tension between the camps. Only in a few instances did the slam aesthetic find the articulate voice to give it the appropriate coding to pass in scholastic circles; in those cases slam's defence (sic) was engineered primarily by experienced and well-schooled writers....
  By June of 1994, the maturing craft of the slammers was becoming more the academy's occupation. Further, many slam school poets were (or were becoming ) well-versed in other poets' work and criticism, just as the academics were embracing performance poets' work more broadly. This marked, finally, a convergence of the schools. At the Asheville Poetry Festival, Smith announced the end of the feud between the academy and the slam. By then, it was clear that each camp could productively work with the differences of the other, to assimilate a stronger poetry in the end.’ This is a classic response-to-indignant-offended’s riposte. Note how the critic does a sort of meta-critique. He does not even bother delving into the supposed ‘art’- he merely gives a cursory glance at the movement ‘in toto’, & chronicles how it fits in to ‘the larger picture’. That virtually everything posited in the piece was/is, in the real world, false has no relevance to the trope.
  Marjorie Perloff, After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries: ‘Susan Howe, I noted above, has referred to her typographical experiments as "abstractions" from "masculine linguistic formations," and many of the poets in Out of Everywhere would concur that such deconstruction has been central to their work. But it is also the case that their poems have many counterparts in the work of Clark Coolidge and Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews and Christian Bök, and my own sense is that the transformation that has taken place in verse may well be more generational than it is gendered. We have, in any case, a poetics of non-linearity or post-linearity that marks, not a return to the "old forms," because there is never a complete return, no matter how strongly one period style looks back to another, but a kind of "afterrimage" (sic) of earlier soundings, whether Anglo-Saxon keenings, (sic) formally balanced eighteenth-century prose, or Wittgensteinian aphoristic fragment. The new poems are, in most cases, as visual as they are verbal; they must be seen as well as heard, which means that at poetry readings, their scores must be performed, activated. Poetry, in this scheme of things, becomes what McCaffery has called "an experience in language rather than a representation by it."
I have no name for this new form of sounding and perhaps its namelessness goes with the territory: the new exploratory poetry (which is, after all, frequently "prose") does not want to be labelled or categorized. What can be said, however, is that the "free verse" aesthetic, which has dominated our century, is no longer operative Take a seemingly minor feature of free verse like enjambment. To run over a line means that the line is a limit, even as the caesura can only exist within line-limits. To do away with that limit is to reorganize sound configurations according to different principles. I conclude with a passage from Caroline Bergvall's "Of Boundaries and Emblems"


By Evening We're Inconsolable. Having Reached This Far, Bent
Over Tables Of Effervescence Within The Claustrophobic Bounds
Of The Yellow Foreground: Art Has Kept Us High And Separate,
Hard In Pointed Isolation, Forever Moved By The Gestures Of Its
Positions And The Looseness Of Even That: Now Vexed And
Irritated, Still Plotting Endless Similitudes: We Trip Over Things:
Strain To Extricate Ourselves From Closing Borders: (OOE 206)


  Is this prose or some kind of kind of alphabet game, using majuscules and justified margins? The question is falsely posed: whether "verse" or "prose," Bergvall's is first and foremost a performance, an activation, both visual and aural, of a verbal text, whose every stress, "Hard in Pointed Isolation," seems to reverberate. No wonder those "Closing Borders" in the last line above are followed by a colon: a signature, as it were, of things to come.’ Perloff is a bad poet who makes for only a marginally better critic- however her criticism is ubiquitous online. This technique might be termed ‘snowballing’. A critic has not much too say, so uses a lot of big words & ideas to impress the reader with the mind-boggling depth of their argument. Here’s more Perloff.
  Marjorie Perloff: Language Poetry & The Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo: ‘Indeed, the paradox is that, like the earlier avant-garde movements of the century, Language poetics may well become most widely known, when it starts to manifest notable exceptions. Imagism, after all, became interesting only when Ezra Pound declared that it had been diluted as "Amygism" and called himself a Vorticist instead. Dada, as I have suggested elsewhere, derives much of its cultural capital from Duchamp, who had made his most "Dada" readymades before he had ever heard of the Cabaret Voltaire and who refused all his life to participate in Dada exhibitions. A renewal of interest in Concrete Poetry was sparked by the decision of one Concrete poet, Ian Hamilton Finlay, to cultivate (quite literally) his own "concrete" Scottish garden. And the New York School, felt by many to have lost its center when Frank O'Hara died in 1966, is now getting renewed mileage from the increasing renown of one of its charter members, John Ashbery, even though Ashbery's poetry may well have more in common with T. S. Eliot's than with Kenneth Koch's.
  I do not mean to downplay the role of community, movement, cultural formation, or discourse in the making of avant-garde aesthetic. Community, after all, is crucial to the poets and artists who belong to it, especially in their formative stages. Indeed, the prominence of the lonely isolated genius, which Jameson takes to be the hallmark of modernism (as opposed to postmodernism), was always something of a myth: even those "isolated geniuses" Joyce and Beckett needed a community of fellow-writers and a set of publishing venues-for example, Eugene Jolas's transition-- within which to circulate.
  The poet has no obligation to be a responsible historian; indeed, the anxiety of influence precludes the possibility of reliable accounts of one's own genealogy. Here is where the poet's readers come in. In writing as critics or literary historians, even those who are themselves poets must maintain some critical distance, discriminating, for example, between the "language" poetics of Michael Palmer, with its Celanian and French Surrealist cast, the New York school-based language poetics of Ron Silliman and Bob Perelman, and the fusion of "nation language" and "video style" in the work of a proto-language poet like Kamau Brathwaite.
’ Here Perloff throws a whirlwind of names, movements, & ideas at a reader. This says the critic is well read & should be trusted. To be fair, alot of what she says here has worth- but look at how verbally-larded she says it. Whether she is pro or con- again- is of no consequence- it’s all in the style, or truthfully, the utter lack thereof in this avalanche of allusion & pedantry.
  John R. Woznicki, Poetry of Play, Poetry of Purpose: The Continuity of American Language Poetry: ‘Language poets insist that time is always present, echoing Olson's "history is now." "Presentness" has no authority or power structure. Susan Stewart writes: "Its movement is perpetual but not hierarchical; it does not rise to a conclusion, it simply keeps going" (McHale 19). When the reader's expectation is grounded in the presentation of a story through a subject, disrupting chronology defends against the "reduction of poetry to ‘mere' autobiography" (New Sentence 175). Once the reader is present, action begins.
  The text must yield a dialogue between reader and writer. Indeterminacy breaks down constraint-as Bernstein tells us, enabling a conversation "not to stare mutely, or to utter minimally directive words & be consumed by the other-but to allow room for response while responding in turn" (A Poetics 187). Language poetry is ordered by production rather than reproduction. The reader no longer reflects and reproduces the intended meaning of the author. Allowing for the reader to be a producer, as Watten admits, is much like the writerly text in Barthes' S/Z, a call for a writing that would "make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (4). But making the reader a producer requires a plan.’ This is another classic trope- the appeal to a higher philosophical ground- usually metaphysical. The critic bolster his own posit by quoting from the very sources he should be critiquing. Ugh! Enough of such blather!
  Let me bring this all on home with a few comments. Most movements, schools, & -isms, are merely veiled (thinly, if at all) rationales for bad art. That all good artworks (whatever genre) share more in common with other good artworks than with lesser artworks (of the same or different school) has never fully been dealt with by critics. The reason is simple- most critics are part & parcel of the same or rival -ism, & therefore just as benighted & limited in their own approach to art as their subjects are. That all -isms, by necessity, require a diminished field of thought & approach, naturally means the works produced will have inherent limits which may not exist for a corresponding work not so delimited. & that all pronounced themselves ‘experimental’ (a theoretical favorite term) &/or ‘revolutionary’ (its political twin) only lays bare the very thin reasons for all these assorted -isms. Go back, reread the poems discussed. Compare them to their -ism’s aims, note their failures to not only their -ism, but as art, & then compare how- as bad art- they have more in common with each other as failures. Go & research further what this essay merely outlines. You will not find a single critic whose work truly engages the -ism or the poem as poem (free from the rationalized nonsense of whatever movement’s proponents) as straight-forwardly as this essay does. What you will find is that formula elements make formula poems make formula movements which receive formula criticisms. & I trust your discernment will agree with this essay’s posits on these fraudulent ideas & specious movements. But, if you think I’m wrong, feel free to quote from this essay in either your -ism’s new manifesto or its defense. Just be sure to scratch out the previous -ism’s name (Surrealeticananguagism) when you paste & cut your new ‘idea’. Plagiarism of ideas is acceptable, but only when the ideas are bullshit. However, strike marks are always gauche, & never considered in the ‘true’ artistic spirit!


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