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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part VII: Christine Gosnay, Claudia Emerson, James Longenbach

The October 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine can be found here.

links to individual texts:
Christine Gosnay, "Listening to Townes Van Zandt"
James Longenbach, "Arcadia"
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts


the other posts in this series


facts, fragments, and realism


– some editing, and added footnote, Apr. 4, 2016


This entry into the continuing review of Poetry Magazine's October last issue picks up the next three writers in the table of contents: the one work by Christine Gosnay ("Listening to Townes Van Zandt"), the works by Claudia Emerson, and the one work by James Longenbach ("Arcadia"). Only, I will stand aside from addressing the Claudia Emerson poems because there is too great a possibility that their inclusion in this issue of Poetry is due primarily to her death in 2014.

The central purpose of this series is the exploration of what Poetry Magazine publishes, with the guiding question being, 'What is the value of a journal that publishes mostly bad or at best mediocre verse?', and an implied question of "What does that mean for the state of the culture of poetry in the U.S. today?" Because of the too likely cause of the inclusion of these works (there being five of them), comment upon them would lie outside the scope and purpose of this series. As such, I will only limit myself to the general comment that more than once, before I would recognize her name, I had come across a verse of hers that would pique my interest enough to see if there was something more promising to be found. Never was that something found. To the positive, for what I have seen, her verse tends to be free of the sloppiness often seen in published verse. Though, I nonetheless consider her verse to sit quite solidly within the bounds of pop verse, being nothing exceptional. Generally, if someone is the poet laureate of a state nowaday, such will be the case. Though, that probably says far less about the culture of literature in the U.S. than it does about the position known as "poet laureate" as it functions in the U.S. I can easily see a running joke in a Woody Allen film about a writer character being thrown into existential crisis because they were appointed poet laureate of their state and of what that appointment implied as to the nature and sophistication of their work.

Let's get started.



"Listening to Townes Van Zandt"


With "Listening" I am going to move from points to idea rather than from idea to points.

I should say that before this I knew Townes Van Zandt pretty much only as the writer of "To Live is to Fly," and knew that song only through the Cowboy Junkies. Looking on youtube, I have found nothing else that stirred more than vague memory outside of the Rolling Stones's cover of "Dead Flowers." I think but three or four songs will give you a decent feel for his music. (If you, like me, know little about him, I consider after my short stroll "No Place to Fall," which can be found here, to be fairly characteristic.)

I see no reason why having only a cursory familiarity should effect my reading of Christine Gosnay's piece. If there are any direct references to his work in the text, I am ignorant of them. But a loose idea of what kind of music he made should be enough for a fair reading, as the verse seems beckoning far more to the general feel of Van Zandt than to any specific knowledge or references.

First thing to notice – hopefully first thing that is noticed – is that we have here verse with actual, written lines, that for a great part of the text make for a pleasant rhythm to the reading of the verse. With a little attention it might sound to you – as it does to me – that the lines are oriented loosely around a three-beat-per-line rhythm, which goes in great part to the pleasant flow of the piece, at least through the first half, even up to "kind, slow magnet."

There, the text begins to fall apart. The break at "with a full hand I / flick its" seems to exist mostly to prevent a long line. Same with the break at "its author indeed felt / in his ten-gallon hat," which creates an aural clumsiness that the reader solves by reading the text as prose rather than as verse lines. The line "clear, and slow," in part because it should be "clearly, and slowly," in part because the grammatical issue creates a little confusion as to what is "clear, and slow," in part because the sentence itself is not the best sentence, comes off as a line created (or isolated) out of the impulse of "ooh, look, these words make a cool line." That trait, the sense of artificiality, only brings to the fore the wobbliness in the the sentence. Can you "flick" seeds clearly and slowly? Can you flick seeds with sincerity? What does it mean to flick something with sincerity? How does flicking seeds generate the idea of sincerity? There is a measure of that forcing of ideation that was so prevalent in the verse viewed in the last post.

I consider the splitting of

There was a song we shared
without your listening,

in error: in part due to the pause created by the question mark just prior, in part because the energy of the thought lies too much in the second half for the first half to be isolated, in part because there is no reason for the suspension of flow after "shared." (For me it works counter to the general flow to break the line there).


list grey like a cat, or blue,
and curse within an early moon.

are a lovely pair of lines (especially for the comma after "cat"). There is though a dark lining to that little silver cloud: they stand in contrast to the rest of the text; speak an attention to sound and line not seen anywhere else. Why not work other such rhymes, other such moments of rhythm? I'm not saying regulated form; it need only be here and there, as soft as in this pair. Having but one such moment in a text can only make the rest of the text sound plain, sound lesser. That can only prompt in the reader the question: "Why is the rest of the text plain in comparison?" That question can only lead to bad things, and should be avoided.

Minor errors read very differently in a text that is otherwise strong and in a text that is generally weak. Consider the seventh from last line.

you widowed soul crawling away on your elbows

In standard English, the phrase requires commas around "widowed soul" because it is a non-restrictive appositive.

you, widowed soul, crawling away on your elbows

Though, there is also that more colloquial idiom that is most often seen in sentences like, "I gave it to Steve, you idjit."

you widowed soul, crawling away on your elbows

But that latter comma seems to me requisite. After all, you would not write

I gave it to Steve, you crawling away on your elbows.

Yet, there is this:

I gave it to Steve, you widowed soul crawling away on their elbows.

Within that, the pronoun changes because "their" refers not to "you" but to "widowed soul." When the pronoun is "your" as in the original, the "crawling" phrase becomes a second phrase pointing toward "you," thus wanting the comma.

Granted, even then there is some play, and in a stronger text the absence of the comma could be more permissible. But the text as we find it here has too many weaknesses, has too many moments giving contrast to the weakness or bringing the weakness to the fore. As such, a critical reader does not see poetic play with the absence of the comma, they see yet another moment of inattention.

Consider also the opening, of which I am of split mind.

We are of one mind
and too much has not been said
about all the quiet afternoons
childhood offered us.

I'm not of split mind in that I think lines 3 and 4 should be one line. Let the abutted stresses and phonemes of "afterNOONS CHILDhood" create the pause. My question is with the wording of the first two lines. Is it a little bit of cleverness? or is it a gimmick that misses the mark? I think the problem lies in that the common, expected phrasing is

We are of one mind
and too much cannot have been said
about all the quiet afternoons childhood offered us.

Yes, in the non-negative phrasing, there is the quite normal

Too much has been said about

but that carries with it the idea of an ongoing discourse. In the context of this work, it seems that the time of this statement is in a definite past, not a progressing past.

Too much had been said about

But, that sounds odd in the negative.

Too much had not been said about

Plus, it no longer means what was intended: now the phrase is about what has not been said (as in, there should have been more said), the opposite of what was intended. This may be why the "has" doesn't ring true: the word makes the phrase about that more should be being said, where as it should be about (if I'm reading it correctly) that one cannot say enough. If I'm wrong as regards intention, it is a rather awkward way to get to the idea.

I recognize that I am pushing the border of over-analyzing the lines. Carrying of the analysis that far does, however, go to show the wobbliness in the opening, which, when the text is considered as a whole, becomes not merely wobbliness but weakness. Remember, a strong reader will hear wobbliness in lines, and will analyze lines as I did – if sometimes more intuitively – to understand the wobbliness and make sure there was no error in their reading or to more appreciate a clever turn. A strong reader is looking for strength – control, attention, discernment, confidence – in whatever text they are reading. When the text does not demonstrate such strength, that reader loses confidence in the text. Any questioning will only point toward weakness. Too much questioning and the work fails.

With lines like the seventh and eighth,

When father wore an apron
or crept like a bear, we screamed.

strength is essential. There is an issue in the line itself, as the idea does not quite work:

When father wore an apron, we screamed.

That idea rather needs explanation, or at least some greater context for any success. The attentive reader is asking "why are you screaming just because he's wearing an apron?" Because no explanation or development is given – both to the apron and the creeping – the statement stands as a declaration of fact: this happened, father crept and we screamed. A broader context is necessary to the point, necessary to the functioning of the moment within the text as a whole. The "father" sentence is the second in the text. First there comes the introductory moment. (I'll present it as prose to help the explanation.)

We are of one mind and too much has not been said about all the quiet afternoons childhood offered us, lit gray like a cat, or blue, and cursed with an early moon.

This sentence too is a little weak, because the blatant, run-on use of "and" to string out the opening thought. For the run-on, that first clause ("we are of one mind") gets pushed off the back of the ideational boat, not only because of the huge shift in subject, but also and primarily because of the use of "and." It makes the sentence feel like it is in a rush to get to the second clause: "We are of one mind. But never mind that, what I really want to say is too much has not been said." All that need be done to fix the issue, to strengthen the lines, is to break the sentence.

We are of one mind.
And too much has not been said
about all the quiet afternoons
childhood offered us,

Now, as a sentence to itself, that first clause wholly declares both itself and its own importance, its importance as the first and ideationally orienting sentence. The "and" is now no longer caught in a run-on but able to function as a conjunction between the two affirmatively stated sentences. Which all goes to show that even in verse run-ons rarely make for good writing.

After setting up the initial context there follows the sentence in question. I add both that sentence and the succeeding.

We are of one mind and too much has not been said about all the quiet afternoons childhood offered us, lit gray like a cat, or blue, and cursed with an early moon. When father wore an apron or crept like a bear, we screamed. Nothing is so gone.

Indeed, nothing is so gone, as nothing in the sentence in question carries any farther than the stating of the sentence. It is but the stating of a fact, which can only be accepted as truth or rejected as falsity. Audience participation ends there: the ideation does not carry outward beyond the stating of a fact, there is no development of the idea, there is no effort toward experience. There is merely a narrative fact: "When father crept like a bear we screamed." Yes, you can say, "The intent is that that scene describes a moment of childhood playfulness, something that only exists in childhood." But it doesn't. It merely tags such a moment. In fact, there is not a word in the sentence that speaks to the emotions of the screaming children. Is the screaming also in play or is it truly primal, fight or flight screaming? Is the screaming prompted by fear, excitement, surprise, terror? If it is fear, is there psychological underpinnings? For example, is the screaming caused because the play is completely out of character for the father and so shocking to the children? Is there underneath the screaming the release of negative energies because the father is actually a tyrannical, life-dominating, violent person, and in play the children are able to express the fear they have for their father at all times? I can go all over the place with the possibilities, which means I can go all over the place with ideation of the text as a whole (not a good thing), because there is no effort made in the text to generate, on its own, the ideation and experience. It is only a statement of a fact.

The intent in the writing was probably to give example to the nature of shared childhoods of the narrator and that intimated in the lyrics of the songs of Van Zandt, as developing what is ostensibly the shared mood between the narrator and Van Zandt's music. But can one example, presented not as generation of experience but as statement of fact, really serve as development?[FN]

[FN] It is worth pointing out here that in general, in the vast majority, song lyrics make for poor verse. Song lyrics rae written to be but part of a whole, the primary part of which is the music. It is ill advised if not poor craftsmanship to write verse in or out of the nature of song lyrics. The reverse, though, is another story.

Indeed, the absence of thought both to development and to unity is demonstrated in that there a double clash between the first and second sentence: one ideational, one syntactic. On the ideational side, there is the very obvious 180 turn between "quiet afternoons" and "screamed": how is a scene of a father play-acting as a bear and children screaming demonstrative of a "quiet afternoon, lit gray like a cat"? It's the exact opposite. Indeed, in actually reading the text as presented, there is a change in subject: it is no longer talking about quiet afternoons and is now talking about something completely different.

The syntactic issue (not one of error but of chosen construction) goes to the same conclusion. If we end the text before the phrase "we screamed," the offered moment reads as the beginning of a list of examples.

all the quiet afternoons childhood offered us, lit gray like a cat, or blue, and cursed with an early moon: when father wore an apron or crept like a bear, when

Adding "we screamed" to the end of the sentence shifts the nature of the construction. The middle sentence no longer points back to the introductory idea, but points to a new ideational focus: "we." The break is created by the construction, one that pulls the latter sentence out of the function of serving to explain what came before and into the function of a new declaration. To see what I'm getting at, compare these two constructions, the original first.

[. . .] all the quiet afternoons childhood offered us, lit gray like a cat, or blue, and cursed with an early moon. When father wore an apron or crept like a bear, we screamed.

[. . .] all the quiet afternoons childhood offered us, lit gray like a cat, or blue, and cursed with an early moon: screaming when father crept like a bear,

In the original, the phrase is not about examples of what happened on quiet afternoons (father in an apron or creeping like a bear) but about children screaming. The phrase in the latter case may not be the best choice to start list to explain the idea of "quiet afternoons," but the construction sets the screaming phrase into an explanatory role, affirming the purpose of the "screaming" in relation to "afternoons."

Here, we come again to the ideas discussed in the previous post as regards the fragmentary nature of pop verse: less sophisticated ideation will string fragmentary moments whereas sophisticated ideation aims to create a unified whole.[FN] This is exaggerated in pop verse, where the quick presentation of thought is a dominant convention: the appeal to the convention of quick, stuttery presentation absolving the writer of the need and effort to create a unified whole, as the convention driven reader is not looking at ideation, they are merely looking for a quick presentation "clever" thoughts or "pretty" phrases as cues for "good poetry." Spotting such, they can take pride in their own, perceived, reading sophistication.


[FN] To note, the connecting of parts through attention to syntax and grammatical construction does not in itself solve the problem. It merely puts in the "thens" within the list of statements, changing the nature of the text from the shallow, pop-poetic conventionality of A B C D E to A then B then C then D then E, whatever the nature of the "thens." Claims to poetic tropes like parataxis are not a technical device for abutting of two thoughts without connecting material. Parataxis is a method of creating an energic unity. And it must be understood not from the point of view of the spot event but from the point of view of the resulting whole. With most parataxis, you could create a connecting mesentery: the power of parataxis, the poetic event, is where the text works to greater effect without the connective material.

Consider a writer working a text. For sake of argument, we'll say a narrative text. They have an idea for a scene, A, that generates an ideational field, α', that greatly goes to the development of the more focused complex of ideas, the real meat of the text, α. There is a scene farther down the line, E, that also generates an ideational field, α'', that also greatly goes to the development of the broader field, α. Now, assume scene E is very different from scene A: different characters, different location, different central action, whatever be the case. In a normal text, to keep the readers from getting lost, the writer will create connective material to get the reader from A to E

A then B then C then D then E

where A and B have a natural flow one into the next, as does C and D, and D and E. (The connection need not be narrative or temporal. For example, this sentence, that might close out or open a section: "Just as Gary was facing that crisis, so also was Rebecca in a similar situation.")

Parataxis is where the writer realizes that he can write the text without the B, C, and D. Indeed, parataxis is sometimes used to get rid of B, C, and D because they are either ideationally dead material serving a solely functional purpose, or they generate ideas that really have no purpose or necessity within the text. The writer realizes that they can write A and E so that it is the common complex of ideation, α is sufficient to connecting them into a unified text. If that connection is too weak, as is the case in most pop verse, where ideation is so often nothing more than statement of fact, the parataxis fails: the sum has got to be greater then the parts; as well, the sum as written without the connecting material has got to be greater than the sum as written with the connecting material. (Of course, we are here assuming a sophisticated reader.)

In this lies the difference between the very few L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E style texts that work and the overwhelming majority that fails. In this also lies how it is convention that creates the "success" of the technique in pop verse. In the appeal to convention, in the reader's reading through pop convention, the ideation is taken out of the equation. There is no requirement on the part of the reader for A to generate the field α'; there is no requirement on the part of the reader for E to generate the overlapping field α''; there is only the requirement that the text have the appearance of a parataxis. Ideation beyond statement of fact is neither being read nor being sought. Thus the ability for such texts as that which fills Poetry, and texts that make appeal to such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in justification of their own state of unbeing, to be considered "successful."

Note after the fact: I consider this a too-quick go at the matter, and recognize the problems thereby caused. Perhaps I will return to this idea another day.


This lack of development and fakey ideation is epidemic in pop verse, and goes to the other half of the ailment in pop verse with which I opened this series, that diagnosed by Leavis in the pop verse of his time: "not so much bad as dead – it was never alive." Yes, there is technical weakness in "Listening," but that technical weakness comes off the worse because of the ideational frailty: the text is ideationally dead, more accurately never alive, not underdeveloped but undeveloped. It is quite conventional pop-verse: convention being the brick and mortar that constitutes most dead verse. "Listening" opens with a nice – if not the best written – framing statement linking the narrator to the songs of Townes Van Zandt, and giving a context through with the common aspects can be understood. Then comes what seems an example; but only one. And the example is not written to fit the previous statement but in a manner that works only in isolation. Indeed, it is written in a way that breaks it free of the previous statement. After that, comes "Nothing is so gone": a faux-philosophical statement that is meant to give importance to the commonality beyond the mere fact of commonality. Yet, it too comes off, especially after the list with only one entry, as forced. Indeed up to that point, the text reads as a poetry-by-numbers, a poetic mad libs.


1= write introductory, context setting statement
2= add concrete example
3= sound deep

Except, that is precisely how convention driven literature works. And that is what convention driven readers are looking for. The text, when it comes to it, is really but the


and not what fills in the empty blocks. The reader does not care how the conventions are filled, only in that the conventions – the conventional structures – are present, preferably in an order that also doesn't require much thought. That is the purpose and appeal of conventionality: "Does Not Require Thought."

Ask a simple question of "Listening": when you get to the word "sincerity" in the closing lines, a word which sits in the poetry-by-numbers slot of "say it again, this time with meaning," can you find the idea of "sincerity" anywhere in what came before?

Might as well sum up with "Listening."

Looking through the text, we find

"we are of one mind"
"the quiet afternoons
[. . .]
lit gray like a cat, or blue,
and cursed with an early moon."
"crept like a bear, we screamed"
"there was a song we shared"
"you widowed soul, crawling away on your elbows"
"in his ten-gallon hat
and his thin, whisky-soaked shirt"

All moments with potential, lines that on their own might make me curious about a text. As such, lots of spot moments to cue an unsophisticated reader about the poetic value of the text; which is to say, lots of spot moments that gives the unsophisticated reader justification for ascribing value to a text that it does not merit.

Which points (if generally) to that a great deal of the fault of the state of contemporary culture of poetry lies on the side of the reader. For even a poor dancer, whose dance is less dance than a naïve narrative of A then B then C, etc., a dancer that finds success mostly in having successfully memorized and moved through an albeit poorly executed sequence of steps, may every so often make a graceful move. Unfortunately, that graceful move will serve far less to an attentive audience as a moment of success than as contrast to the rest of the dance, to the general the lack of technique and/or attention. To an unsophisticated audience, who understands little about dance, who sees – who can only see – the execution of a series of events; who is unable to see the whole of the dance, unable to see the failures of technique, unable to see how the individual events relate, or fail to relate, to each other, so such an audience the dancer looks better than they actually are. To such a viewer, that single moment of grace is the moment that establishes the context of and defines the dance as a whole, pulling attention away from the general poor quality.

However, the unsophisticated reader reads uncritically (at best reads with a not-yet-developed critical acumen), has a tendency to see what is wanted to be seen, and grants praise for the mere effort of performing the dance steps in the correct order or, shifting metaphors, keeping the paint within the lines. Can it be said that the fragmentary aspect of pop-verse, as seen here, is in fact an uncritical effort to merely stay within the lines? Understanding this, what then can be said for Poetry editorship? for the leading voices in poetry culture in the U.S.?

There is another question that can be asked, however. It is a question that is quite important to understanding the state of the culture of verse – and literature – in the U.S. Do the writers of pop verse write the verse they write because they are incapable of writing better, or do they write such because there is no need to write any better? Asking it from another side (and because of it the answer will likewise somewhat differ): Are most writers in poetry culture today indeed bad writers, who could never be better, but it matters not because an unsophisticated readership cannot see their writing for what it really is, or are most writers in poetry culture today merely lazy writers, who write poorly because, after all, why make the effort toward the very difficult and laborious task of writing well – and the difficult and laborious task of learning to write well – when a generally unsophisticated readership will still heap praise upon your works, when a general, unsophisticated editorship will publish it, and when fellow praised and published, equally incompetent and/or lazy writers will happily defend its value?

"People choose the paths that gain them the greatest rewards for the least amount of effort. That's a law of nature." Spoken by House, on the pilot episode, what I watched late last night on Netflix.

Is that also a law of verse culture? Of course it is. Duhhh. That's human nature. That's also the nature of culture.

So, now, ask: What does that mean?

Let's move on to our second work. James Longenbach's "Arcadia."





Straight out: "Arcadia" is terrible. I am gobstopped, nonplussed, out of sorts, even pissed off as to how this made it into print in anything other than an online poetry site set up and run by a undergrad creative writing major.[FN] There is not a redeeming moment in it. I want to be up front about that because I don't want the previous discussion of "Listening" to put "Arcadia" in a false context and make it seem that it is better than it is. Though, nor do I want "Arcadia" to put "Listening" in a false context and, in the comparison, make it seem better than what it is. "Arcadia" is plain-facedly bad. But that does not mean "Listening" is good. "Listening" may not be as bad as "Arcadia," and “Listening” may be one of the better works in the issue, but it is nonetheless a failure technically, ideationally, and especially in regards to its own declared intentions (as spoken in its title). Except for "The Raising of Lazarus," which is mostly but flawed, I consider every work I've examined thus far in this issue of Poetry a failure (of one degree or another) within the most basic concepts of writing; we need not even get to questions of verse. They are sloppily written, poorly executed, undeveloped, and entirely dependent upon a lazy, unsophisticated, and uncritical readership for their success. That bad technique and small thoughts are the norm in the culture of pop poetry does not justify creating – or publishing – more of the same. I point again to my opening thesis, that which leads off of Leavis's statement: the verse dominant in the culture of verse today is not "not so much bad as dead"; it is bad.


[FN] Well, in truth, I can wholly see it being published by an online, poetry site run by an MFAer.

And, no, I couldn't let that opportunity slip by. Mea culpa.


How is a reader here meant to take my opening qualifying of "Arcadia"? Hopefully I have by now established that, whether you agree with me more often or less often than not, I at least have some critical judgment, some critical grounding for that judgment, as regards verse and poetry.[FN] So when I say, up front, "this is really bad," my hope is that in the least it might change your approach to "Arcadia" from "I'll assume this is not bad until proven wrong" to "I'll assume this is bad until proven wrong": a not insignificant shift in approach. Primarily, it serves to defeat the assumption that is created merely by being in print in Poetry Magazine: after all, if the famed Poetry published it, it simply has to be good, right? That is the running assumption of the culture of poetry in general: if it is in print – wherever it is in print, on paper or on screen – it must be good. Except, "Arcadia" is not. It's really bad. And the central efforts of this series goes greatly to debunking that false assumption: Poetry may add some measure of fame to the persons published within it, but in no way does Poetry Magazine demonstrate the critical judgment, the critical grounding for judgment, that permits an opening assumption of "it simply has to be at least a little good." That change in perspective would go greatly to curing what ails literature in the U.S., treating literature as a weekend hobby where everyone gets participation trophies, where, in the language of the commercial, we end the games with group hugs instead of handshakes.

[FN] Perhaps a worthy time to restate, my purpose with this blog project in general is never merely that anyone agree with me, it is rather to create that atmosphere somewhat described by that phrase, "agree with me more often or less often than not." The point here is to generate discourse, to generate critical energies: something that is almost entirely absent in contemporary literary culture.

Because, no, not today, in no way does something in Poetry Magazine, does something in print anywhere in the U.S., does something that wins an award or prize, even the big ones, simply have to be at least a little good. And the presence of "Arcadia" in a national magazine is proof to the point. "Arcadia" is terrible. And, really, I have no desire to demonstrate the point. In fact, I am growing tired of this project of the Poetry issue because I am weary of demonstrating one after the other the absence of quality in the verse in Poetry Magazine. It is only that I have been able to find points about poetry and verse and writing worth pursuing on their own, only in that they offer me opportunity to explore ideas – explore them as well on my own – that I am still working this series.

As regards "Arcadia," let me say to writers: it is generally not a good thing when a substantial part of your text is a quotation that is of far, far better writing than anything you yourself have to offer.

There are points of grammar, errors in syntax, ideational clashes and the like I could point out; places where I could show how the text uses appeals to convention or gimmickery; where the text tries to "sound like" poetry to cover up shallow ideation; or where the text simply gets silly. Consider it a technical exercise: break away from the assumption that "Arcadia" is good writing, get our your red pencil, and go to town.

However, there is one thing I can focus on that I can bring forward from the discussion on "Listening": factuality and realism.

Realism is the lowest form of art. I say this not at all original thought frequently because it is a huge leap in understanding to grasp why. In realism, there is only the stating of fact, which takes ideation almost entirely out of the equation of critical appraisal: there is left only the question of truth. As such, the only "art" that is left to be had – that is left to be observed – is technique, technique limited by the demands of realism. Popular art is full of such works. It is not a terribly artistic feat to make a realistic figure of a person out of wire or bottle caps or ten penny nails, or do a portrait in salt on a table, or make hyper-realist paintings, or the paintings that are a gestalt of smaller images or color blobs: they are all nothing more than technique, which, once mastered, can be applied over and over and over whatever the subject. With realism people see the mastery of the technique and consider the work of value artistically. But that such a work takes a lot of time and effort does not make it art, it just means it took a lot of time and effort. The question that condemns any such mastering of technique is: "Ok, you've got the technique. Now, what are you going to do with it?" That is, what are you going to do beyond mere representation, beyond mere factual statement? The answer to that question is the difference between masterworks like The Kiss and park art statues of children holding hands; the difference between photography as documentation of a time, place, person, thing, etc., and photography as art.

Realism in literature is no different. And, the self critique of the school of Realism in literature is that the best "Realist" works break from realism in their effort to create something beyond the mere factuality of "this happened." Norris's The Octopus is my go-to example, which moves into blatant symbolism to generate its ideational energies, moves it from mere narrative history to literature.

Look at the middle of the opening section of "Arcadia."

I placed the little finger of my right hand on the soundboard,
Just below the strings.
Not the tip of the finger, the side.

I curled the palm of my right hand towards me,
Covering the strings, so that I played
The bass note with the thumb,
The next with the index,
And the top note with the third.

Straight realism; straight statement of fact. The response to this from any thinking reader is: "So what?" And, indeed: So what? What ideational energies are generated by this? None. It's reportage, the reporting of the fact of an event without adding anything beyond fact. As with the "screaming" moment in "Listening," there are no ideational energies that extend beyond the mere statement of fact into the rest of the text. There are no ideationally energies generated period: there is only the statement of dead fact. The whole thing could be deleted, reduced to the far more to the point and less time consuming "I took up my lute" without loss of ideation. Such a reduction would at least have the value of saving readers from the most boring verse they might ever come across this year. The passage is absolutely and wholly dead, absolutely and wholly stillborn – though even that word speaks of more potential energy than can be found here. Realism like this requires more speaking of the child generated by the suggestion of sex by a man who's had a vasectomy to a woman who's had her tubes tied, a suggestion that stayed a suggestion because, really, neither of them had the energy or desire.

Where the text gets funny is when you see how the text is so anchored in realist depiction, so reduced to, so unable to escape from realist depiction, so lacking of creative energy, that it can't escape the modality of the stating of fact even when it tries to become "poetic":

The sun retreated, the night turned cold.

fact, fact

Rain began to fall, softly at first,

fact, fact

Though surely rain had fallen here before, as rain falls everywhere.

and here our moment of poetry?! The stating not only of fact but of fact of nearly absurd obviousness. There isn't even the light pith one finds in statements such as "the sun will rise tomorrow just as it did today." Within context this is nothing but one more in the series of statements of banal, dead fact, only this time dressed up in an ill-fitting costume as "poetry" with a "though surely" and an appeal to universality by way of an "everywhere."

Now, point of clarification.

The sun retreated, the night turned cold.
Rain began to fall, softly at first,

Those two lines could be the opening lines of a very good or at least half-way decent text, and they would still be the statement of fact. What would make them escape being dead lines?

One possibility, the obvious possibility, is the lines could be serving to establish the scene of action. Though, that in itself does not quite solve the problem, as the scene must resonate as ideationally important within the whole of the text. That is, the lines must still generate ideational energy sufficient to justifying their presence. If, when it comes to it, the action of the text could occur in night or day, rain or shine, and the chosen setting is not necessary to the central energies, then it scene setting should be left out as superfluous information (which always goes to making a text weaker than it could be). The only reason to speak of the color of a person's shirt is when that color is important in some way to the central complex of ideas (and there are many possible ways it could be so). If it is not important, it is unnecessary; and a good writer will remove it from the text.

I don't want to carry this line of thought further because it is somewhat abstract and presented too hypothetically to bear much more weight.[FN] Hopefully it gives sufficient explanation as to why that section in "Arcadia," even if it is realistic depiction of someone taking up a flute, generates zero energy, no ideational resonance either within itself or, because of the absence of life, elsewhere. Even when considering verse technique, the section is poorly written. The breaking of the phrase between the second and third line (of the whole section) reads wholly as a cheap attempt to make boring, pointless statements look interesting. It takes very little effort write a literal – an inartful – description and break it into lines.

[FN] For an example of using scene ideationally within a text, you might see my post on this blog that looks at Tennyson's "Mariana."

The question might be asked: What if the section is, like the second section of the work, directly taken out of another text? Does that justify the lines?

No. Why? Because (1) that derivation is not presented; and (2) the only way such a derivation would justify the lines is if the derivation itself was the energy-producing element. Even then, the writer is not excused from the basic requirements of verse technique (else, don't make verse out of it) and of presenting something at least interesting to read.

But enough of "Arcadia." If it feels like I was abrupt with the point above, I was. I am sure I was too quick on the matter. But I'm willing to leave it as mere set up for some future, more in depth exploration with a better text. "Arcadia" simply does not merit spending any more time on it than that which I have already given it. If there is something to learn from it, it is how, to again use to the phrasings of Dr. House, realism is boring. Facts generate nothing. It's all about what you do with the facts (and what facts your are doing something therewith).

I'll close this post in demonstration, using (to a different end) that classic example from Forster.

The king died. The queen died.

Two statements of fact. A happened then (ostensibly "then") B happened. There is nothing to do with it as a reader. It is but two fragments abutted together left for the reader to do all the work. And I mean all the work.

The king died. The queen died of grief.

A relationship is generated between the two facts, and with it a little energy. We have moved from a factual time line to interpretive observation, for "grief" is not a medically verifiable cause of death. Yet, while there is energy, it is still wholly potential. A piece of verse written about that grief would not merely state "the king died; the queen died of grief": it would develop a presentation that, say, would bring the reader into that grief. But as a whole, as a unit, it is still mostly a statement of fact, if one with a spark of potential.

The king died. The exiled ex-queen died of grief. The current queen lived on.

Now we have a contrast, a true source of energy. Places to go, people to see. A reason to read on, and, more importantly, a reason to give these statements in the first place. One more.

The king died. The queen died of joy.

And pop goes the weasel! Not only do you have the contrast between the one-would-think sad event of the death of the king with the joy of the queen, but you also have the contrast between the positive of the queen's joy and its consequential killing her.

A perhaps too simple demonstration. Hopefully it works well enough to show how energy never generates through a mere statement of fact or in the abutting of facts. You have to have develop contrast in some way.

Again, realism is boring. Facts are boring. All you are left with is technique. And as for realism without technique? Well, that can be pretty funny in a "World's Best Home Videos," epic fails kind of way. No wonder then that, as "Arcadia" says in accidental self-parody: "At this they all laughed."

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