Shakespeare, Stevens, & The Problem With Greatness
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/23/01
Bonus Bonus #2 Bonus #3
Let me propose that 1 can learn far more from a study of the near-great
in human endeavors than from the great. This may, initially, strike many as odd
because logic would seem to dictate that the better 1 is at something the more
it has to offer the layety in terms of insights into its subject matter &
its creation. Au contraire! Well, at least at such a high level. When 1 speaks
of the difference between lower level activities- say between the bad &
passable or the good & very good- commonsense holds true. 1 does 99% of the
time learn more from a better endeavor (in this case art or poetry). Yet there
the learning opportunity comes from both the strengths & weaknesses of the
poem. There is a balance. But when that balance skews too far such opportunities
dissipate. Now, this is no problem with a horrid work of art. A piece of
doggerel may be rancid & offer nothing good from which to draw- BUT, its
terribility is so manifest that it’s a relatively easy matter to not duplicate
it. The other end is where problems occur. Excellence is very difficult to
reproduce- for an amateur or a professional. In a great work of art or poem
(especially, since it is the highest art & least dependent upon the
physical) the excellence is so abundant & the bad so little that learning
opportunities are few. Extreme excellence or greatness, therefore, is
fundamentally different from extreme ineptitude- not just in the obvious quality
but in the explicability of it. But really- just how is it different? This is
the point of this essay! While 1 can always find words to pillory the bad,
greatness carries with it, almost always, the ineffable. There is ever a bit of
mystery as to why something moves up that last notch or 2 from excellent or
near-great to great- even if the majority of its essence is explicable; but
badness is absurdly plain. And since we all know that learning is the hoped-for
byproduct of failure the dilemma of greatness sits thumbing its nose at the
hordes of mortal would-be artists & poets.
Let us now examine my initial proposal- & qualify it. 1 cannot only learn more from the near-great than from the great, but 1 can also learn more about greatness from the near-great than from the great. The reasoning is the same: perfection borders the immortal & ineffable. Near-greatness is close, but its very flaws allow us to see where the artist/poet was going & possibly how & why he both failed greatness- but nearly attained it. It’s a near-parallel to the old proposition about God: if 1 could truly understand the Divine it would no longer be Divine- but angels plague us. So, with proposition in hand, let us now scan about for examples of greatness & its lesser cousin. Without a doubt, in world history, the most consistently feted artist is William Shakespeare. Eliminating the East, Near-East, & the rest of the 3rd World , simply because none of these spheres has produced the media machines of the West [Sorry Tu Fu, Rumi, & Basho!], there are only a few other contenders: Goethe, Dante, & Homer in literature, Beethoven, Mozart, & Bach in music, & Michelangelo, Goya, Rodin, & Picasso in the visual arts. But Homer is really 2 long poems-cum-novels, Goethe’s fame partly due to his own metaphysical scientific persona, & Dante his Comedy. The 3 Deutsch composers all rival each other, as do the painters. Only Picasso’s reputation is still relatively new enough that an argument could be made that a century hence he will rival or surpass Shakespeare. But for now the playwright/poet from Avon really outstrips all others in amounts of unstinting praise. In fact, perhaps only Albert Einstein (who displaced Isaac Newton) personifies a human endeavor (the Sciences) more thoroughly than does Shakespeare the Arts. Not that a lot of his work does not deserve such, but enough is enough! I grant that there are about a dozen of his sonnets 1 could argue greatness for &, more impressively, a dozen of his 37 plays that could be labeled great, but the Bard was also the producer of some dull, trite long poems, a 100 or more mediocre to very bad sonnets, & a baker’s dozen of some really bad plays, was poor to inept at handling comedy, ruthlessly plagiarized others’ works, & frightfully dull in his historical plays. Nonetheless 1 cannot say he was not amongst the greatest of all artists without risking the absurdity of those who claim he was not Shakespeare himself! He was, in my book, a near-great poet (owing to the great sonnets & 12-20 of the plays’ soliloquies taken as dramatic monologues unto themselves), & perhaps the greatest playwright (only O’Neill, Shaw, Ibsen, & perhaps Williams are rivals). Even so, I would love to see at least a 25 year moratorium on the production of, teaching about, & criticism of Shakespeare. He is almost TOO well-known & uncriticized- until now.
But let’s keep things simple. I am a poet. I am also a great poet. I am also a great poet who has written many great sonnets. I am therefore uniquely qualified to focus on & discuss them. Not that I could not provide exegesis of his plays- their dramatic vs. poetic content, etc.- but a sonnet’s very brevity lends it more easily to fruitful explication. & like it or not Shakespeare’s sonnets have the reputation as being the best in the biz. This is a fallacious claim, I believe, because very good arguments could be made for Petrarch’s, Spenser’s, Donne’s, Browning’s, Millay’s, Baudelaire’s, Rilke’s, Frost’s, Lowell’s, Berryman’s, & especially my own Omnisonnets all being better examples of the form’s felicitous engagement. I will now endeavor to point out some of the best & worst of the Bard’s sonnets; & explicate the merits & demerits of each. I will then turn to a near-great sonnet & contrast it with another pair of great & bad sonnets to illustrate my point vis-à-vis this essay’s posit. Now, I grant you, a lot of writers have dared not trod where I go because criticizing Shakespeare is the literary equivalent of attacking God; save that old Willy’s flaws are not as out there as Yahweh’s. Most of the criticisms of Shakespeare through the centuries have been that he was not the person who wrote the works. In recent decades there have been some equally absurd assertions of his being homosexual- as if that were a literary criticism! But that charge has rung as hollow as the Willy didn’t pen them! charge. In the last 20 or so years political correctness has sought to demote the Bard not by pointing out some rather obvious flaws in some of his bad work, but by rather broadbrushedly diminishing the whole of his corpus- the great & the good with the bad- under the rubric that his excellence was a plot to foist bourgeois WASP values on the unsuspecting, & apparently illiterate, masses. But these attempts to lump Shakespeare in with more suspect Dead White Males as A.C. Swinburne, J.D. Salinger, or such, have been easily foiled by the revelations of the obvious biases of the loony left, & the paper heroes erected to replace him. O.K., 1 may reasonably argue a Swinburne’s curricular demise at the hands of a Maya Angelou, or a Salinger’s fall to a Toni Morrison- they are like quantities whose only difference is hue &/or sex. But there is no multicultural equivalent of Shakespeare- the arguments used against him have all been political, not artistic. Yet, there are legitimate- & manifest- failings in much of Shakespeare’s art- including the sonnets. The fear, these days, that artists get in saying that King Willy is not as well-clothed as the masses think [I mean, he’s not naked but his duds are not what they once were!] is that the masses will collectively & sneeringly lump the dissenters in with the conspiracist lunatics or with the fringe partisan ax-grinders- or both.
Another oft-ignored aspect of the Bard’s preeminent reputation is that of the Founder Syndrome. You know what I mean. The 1st person or group that accomplishes something great- or often merely good- in a field gets a reputation far out of proportion with their actual accomplishment. The reason is the fallacious belief that innovation alone constitutes greatness. It can be a part, but many is the innovator succeeded in scope by a successor. If 1 thinks of Founder beneficiaries 1 thinks of Copernicus in modern astronomy [although far surpassed in observational & theoretical scope by Kepler), the Beatles in rock music [although musical lightweights compared to Led Zeppelin], Jack Dempsey in boxing [although surpassed by Joe Louis & Rocky Marciano], Washington Irving in 19th Century American novelry [although outstripped by Melville & Twain], Arthur Rimbaud in French Symbolist poetry [although surpassed by the earlier Baudelaire & later Mallarme], & Thomas Edison in modern invention [although surpassed in many scopes by Nikola Tesla]. Likewise Shakespeare is looked upon as, if not the 1st English successful playwright & poet, the 1st GREAT English playwright & poet. & the cause may be just. However, the light that obscures any deeper delve into the actual work sans critical exploration is a bane on truly understanding the actual depth & achievement of the man’s work. All we are left with is an idealized afterglow- not a portrait of depth.
But on to the sonnets! Before I do a breakdown of an example from each grouping, allow me some commentary in overview. Shakespeare penned 154 sonnets. Most people know of the 3 major divisions of his sonnets. Sonnets 1-17 are the Marriage sonnets- supposedly on spousal ideals. Sonnets 18-126 are the controversial Young Lad sonnets- those where the pro-homosexual crowd find their fodder (although apparently ignorant of much Elizabethan literary convention). & sonnets 127-154 are the mysterious Dark Lady sonnets, written to a singular love, or bevy of supposed true loves, of Willy’s.
Let me posit 2 other divisions. The 1st is somewhat nebulous & entails some generalizations. I state that Shakespeare- despite claims for his universality- was a very limited thinker- at least thematically; although similar themes would often be twisted anew with metaphor & image. But compared to the aforementioned other sonneteers Shakespeare demonstrates a near tunnel vision in range of themes (let’s put aside the question of his own Shakespearean sonnet form). Even worse, he seemed to be obsessed with running said themes into the ground. In the sonnets there are only a handful of broad themes- with only occasional overlap. They are: beauty, sleep/dreams, love/friendship, despair/ parting, art/the Muse, &, of course, death. The riposte: But isn’t all Art about these things? Well, yes & no. Yes, in a broad sense, but no in the sense that Modern Poetry’s superiority to Classical or non-Modern [a term I prefer to pre-Modern because any number of poets today still write this type of poetry & it seems silly to label these contemporaries pre-anything!] poetry is its very multi-layered approach to these themes & relegating them to sub-themes at service to portraits of people, events, & moments. This is all dramatic technique centuries ahead of Shakespeare & while his best sonnets survive this his worst are telltale in their failure’s being tied to their time.
1 of the main aspects of Shakespeare’s limited poetic domain is that it is due to the very nature of being a non-Modern poet. Yet he strained against those strictures as well- & in fact better- than any poet up to his time [his eclipse in a few decades by the Metaphysicals- especially Donne- is not the point since we are concerned only with what came up to Willy’s time]. And this very fact is the probable reason for Shakespeare’s reputation being so inflated. It is owed to what 1 might term the Babe Ruth Syndrome- a sort of corollary to the Founder Syndrome. That is, he fattened up his reputation by being very good at a time when there was little else to compete against. You see, in baseball, if the vast majority of pitchers & hitters are still only a step above semi-pro, & you are a phenomenal talent, it’s alot easier to hit more home runs than anyone else; & in fact be so good that you will hit more home runs in a season than most of the other teams in the league as well, burdened as they were with other mortal semi-pro level players. & compared to those poets before him- Chaucer, Spenser, Wyatt, Marlowe, & a few dozen other lesser lights- yes, 1 can see the deification having some justification. But put a Babe Ruth in uniform today & while he would still be good to very good he would not be that Colossus bestriding the sport. Let a Shakespeare try to modernize his thought & verse for the last 100 years of the art & he would still probably be a very good poet but his reputation would probably never reach the heights it has. Instead of being a veritable Everest in Kansas he might only be a Pike’s Peak in the Rockies. He would be 1 of many competing with Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens, Auden, Bishop, Moore, Whitman, etc. here’s why: the fact is that any human endeavor that starts out exhibits wildly disparate traits- great swings of ‘excellence’ & ‘terribility’. This is due to the very newness of the endeavor. Great swings are an inherent part of a new field where there are few well-versed (no pun, please!) professionals. But with time’s wend the field acquires better & better participants whose presence requires an ever greater skill level or accomplishment for an individual to stand out. Therefore greater competition, while leveling off the ability of any person or artwork from soaring too far above the rest, allows for an overall greater level of skill & output- even factoring in periodic downturns in quality & production such as the last 3 decades or so in American Poetry.
Modernism in art & poetry is an example of this, but sports [especially baseball- being the oldest of American sports, as well as most statistically-obsessed] provides the most obvious examples of this doctrine. Does anyone seriously believe the bulk of pro baseball players from 100 years ago could compete with today's athletes? Of course not! A handful of the stars- Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, etc.- could, but not the lunch pail player. So these stars piled up gaudy stats against players far below them. Before Babe Ruth the season home run record was in the mid-teens- he then pumped that into the 40s, 50s & up to 60! The career home run record was barely over 100- until Ruth topped out at 714! But he competed against a much less accomplished & skilled group of athletes. In the other direction- put a Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, or Randy Johnson in a league with the Washington Senators & St. Louis Browns & we might have players who creamed a 100 homers, hit .500, & pitched 5 or 6 no-hitters, every season. & take your average benchwarmer today & he would have been an All-Star 50, 80, 100 years ago. Similarly the Shakespeares, Donnes, Miltons, Blakes, etc. look a lot taller cast against their less stellar backgrounds. This is not to diminish these artists, merely to give perspective on why reputations- like sports statistics- get inflated. It is due to the milieu they come from- & ultimately are forced to stand judgment with or from. The poetic quartet just mentioned did not have a Whitman or Hayden, a Yeats or Hart Crane to contend with. The closest example of a Founder- if not Babe Ruth- sufferer in the Modern would be T.S. Eliot whose paucity of verse is so that his near universal declamation as Greatest Living English Language Poet in the 1920s-1950s [due to his being the prototypical Modernist] has now seen him fall behind a good 20 or so other 20th Century poets. Another aspect of greatness rarely discussed is consistency. A scan of the 6-10 broad categories of Shakespeare’s sonnets I described finds a curious phenomenon: all the categories have a range in them in that they all virtually have 1 or 2 near-great to great sonnets in their category, & all descend into the really bad! It’s almost as if Shakespeare either plugged away & wrote on each broad category until he finally nailed an excellent sonnet in each (rather than work on bringing the poorer sonnets up to snuff), or was so obsessed that when he did really nail a great sonnet early on he was not satisfied & creatively ran out of steam, so that each subsequent attempt was a paler & paler version of the preceding piece. Which of the 2 options is true, or a combination thereof, is unknown since- unlike the plays & longer poems- the dating of the sonnets is very suspect. The only thing known for sure is that they were not arranged numerically by date. Here now is an example of a great (#130) & bad sonnet (#153) on nearly the same themes:
mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
laid by his brand, and fell asleep:
A maid of Dian's this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
Which borrow'd from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress' eye Love's brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distemper'd guest,
But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire--my mistress' eyes.
OK. Both are poems on a classic theme: the Beloved’s charms. Both even
refer to their mistress & her eyes. The 1st, however is a great
poem while the 2nd is embarrassingly bad, not just for a supposedly
‘great’ poet like Shakespeare but even (granting pardon for a modernization
of wordplay) for a 16 year old poetaster in puppy love. 130 has oft been held up
as great for its inversion of classic tropes & the supposed ‘honesty’ of
the speaker. These facts, while true, are not what makes the poem great- it’s
the technical felicity of the poem & its word choices. Shakespeare was
hardly the 1st poet in England, or elsewhere, to use such a method to
invert a poem. A few decades earlier his landsman Thomas Wyatt had done
similarly in a few poems. So, let us approach the poem from several angles &
see why it works so well.
The Narrative: The poem basically seems to be a lover’s declamations to himself. 1 can almost believe (sans the poetic markers) that someone might fortify themselves with such sentiments- if not the words. Yet the end couplet seems to subvert the speaker’s wish to not give false compare, since the elaborate negations are manifestly a false approach to convey his lover’s incomparability- she is incomparable BECAUSE she is so comparable! The Technique: Clichés are inverted, end rhymes are not forced nor clichéd, internal rhyme (are/far, grow/roses, by/I), assonance, & alliteration are subtle, the repetons within a line (red, wires) add to the sense of an internal reinforcement by the speaker, & the overall rhythm & flow of the poem seems to be uninterrupted by noticeable clunkers. Even the flow of words seems modern [not Modern]- sans a few syntactical markers & a hath.
Now to the 2nd sonnet. It is amazing to think that the same artist penned this tripe. The poem is awash in cliché from start to finish & so technically bad as to- Oh, on with it! The Narrative: The symbol of Love gets ‘fire’ from the lover’s eyes. The story is convoluted & forced. Cupid snoozes. A maid seems to light a fire with his arrow & then we get lost in poorly written descriptions. When the narrative recongeals after the intrusion of a ‘boy’ (the speaker’s self-reference?) the speaker reinforces the lover’s eyes as a parallel but we have long since been bored too much to try to make sense of this poem. It ends in total cliché. The Technique: Clichés are rife (the use of Cupid, love/fire vs. cold/ground, holy fire, heat, bath, cure, Love’s brand, fire in eyes), end rhymes are forced & also not subverted in their forced use (love/prove, fired/desired, lies/eyes- especially as the end couplet), the music is very abruptive without reason- in large part due to the narrative wandering. Lastly, the poem seems woefully archaic in word choice (withal, thither, hied, distemper’d), story idea, & story narrative.
Which sonnet came 1st is anyone’s guess. Was 153 an early thrust which reached its zenith in 130? Or was it a pallid attempt at recapturing 130’s brilliance? Again, we do not know.
On to the 2nd division of his sonnets. This is less nebulous & general. This is the way I explicitly, & most other writers & readers implicitly, approach art- we rate it somehow. I constantly grade my poems & manuscripts, as well as others’ poems & books on a simple 1-100 scale with 65 being just passing. In this mode any grade 95 or above = great; 90-94 = near-great; 85-89 = excellent; 80-84 = very good; 75-79 = good; 70-74 = mediocre; 65-69 = barely passable; 60-64 = barely failing; 50-59 = bad; & 50 or less = doggerel. Now, I believe 1 could quibble with a poem I rank an 83 & you an 86- a few points thereby knocking a poem up a rung in rank; but I believe it is very unreasonable to argue a bad poem (50-59) is in a league with a good poem (75-79); or a good with a great (95+). This is especially true the better the work gets because a point or 2’s difference in the high 80s or 90s is a lot more significant than in the mediocre range because these numerical values are not incremental but progressively exponential- i.e.- there is a bigger difference between poems that are a 95 & a 94 than between poems that are a 75 & a 65. Therefore it is easier to argue that the ‘65’ poem is better than the ‘75’ than it is that the ‘94’ is better than the ‘95’. I have, in earlier essays detailed some of the many things that go into critical evaluation of poetry so I will not rehash them here. Suffice to say I believe that there are obvious & objective markers of what succeeds & fails in a given poem, line, metaphor, musical, or word choice. In reviewing Shakespeare’s sonnets I have simplified things just a bit for the sake of my readers. The reason for doing so being that the difference between Modern & non-Modern verse almost necessitates being able to judge a poem on its own now, & also in the context of when it was written. Thus the wider berth. Those I graded 90 or better are inarguably great poems- & of the 154 sonnets there are 5 I would grade as that. 19 sonnets were in the 80-89 range are the very good-excellent-near-great poems, with the higher 80s being arguable for greatness. 71 sonnets were in the 65-79 range, or generally mediocre. That left 59 sonnets that were failures. To those devotees of Willy’s divinity this ratio may seem shocking but I am confident in its general accuracy of the sonnets’ true standing. It also well illustrates another ax I have had when defining greatness. It is not so much the greatness but the consistency of excellence that deserves accolades. Note the rather steep dropoff from the top 2 dozen poems. It can be persuasively argued that a gentle curve rather than a cliff is a better indicator of an artist’s excellence. I.e.- it proves the quality was not due to freakish chance but to consistent growth, exploration, & realization of one’s powers. I have always striven to not only shoot for greatness but to avoid that dropoff & make sure those poems that miss greatness nonetheless get all my powers focused on getting it as good as I can, because this is an even better indicator of true greatness. As I once said: Greater than transcendence is its recognition! & the proof of that recognition comes in the great poet’s secondary & tertiary level poems that reveal the mechanisms of thought that manifest & give witness to the poet’s non-freakish & determined pursuit of greatness. But, perhaps not too surprisingly, this is a rare thing as many artists & poets shoot their wad & let the chips fall. We poets all have the folly of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘1st thought, best thought.’ & William Stafford’s ‘If I can’t write a good poem today, I just lower my standards.’ dicta about our necks- & many have raised them to credos. But let’s face it, all but a handful of artists in any sphere avoid that cliff. Eliot’s is a chasm. Yeats has a dropoff. Wallace Stevens was 1 of the few to sidestep this issue- partly because of the obfuscative nature of his writing; but also, perhaps, due to the fact that he was in a milieu awash with much higher literature being produced than in Elizabethan times (a point I shall return to). From 1910-1970 The US of A produced a golden period of great & diverse poetry unequaled in world history- not China, Greece, Rome, Victorian England, nor 20th century Russia comes close to the depth, breadth, range & diversity of that 60 year golden era. That it was accomplished at so late a date in human literature makes the feat all the more impressive. It also lends a seeming air of inevitability to the down time in poetry of recent decades, unless 1 believes, as I do, that another uptick is in the offing & should reach fruition in a few more decades. But I digress…. Most of Shakespeare’s better sonnets are those more familiar to a lay reader. Why? The reason should be apparent: because they are the better sonnets they are reproduced more often & therefore read more. The fact that an audience has a limited storage capacity for facts about an artist aids in the fact that no one talks about Willy’s bad sonnets because no one reproduces them, therefore no one recalls them!
Without further delay, here are the 5 inarguably great sonnets [with 1st lines]: Sonnet 17 Who will believe my verse in time to come, [see below] ; Sonnet 18 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ; Sonnet 55 Not marble nor the gilded monuments ; Sonnet 109 O, never say that I was false of heart, ; & Sonnet 130 My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; [see above]. Of the 19 I rate between 80-89 there are another 7 between 85 & 89. These could be argued as great. They are: Sonnet 39 O, how thy worth with manners may I sing, ; Sonnet 50 How heavy do I journey on the way, ; Sonnet 60 Like as waves make towards the pebbled shore, ; Sonnet 81 Or shall I live your epitaph to make, ; S. 116 Let me not to the marriage of true minds ; Sonnet 121 ‘Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed, ; & Sonnet 141 In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes, . That’s it! The 12 Golden Sonnets.
Now, instead of just comparing 2 sonnets let us up the ante & compare not just a great & a terrible sonnet, & tick off the reasons why. Let us, indeed, do that but also explore how the 3 poems do or do not lend themselves into insights on how a would-be poet might try to emulate the success of a great poem- in other words how well does a poem conceal its secrets. Here, now, the sonnets:
will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.'
So should my papers yellow'd with their age
Be scorn'd like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.
the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slander'd with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
Fairing the foul with art's false borrow'd face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' brows are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
let not winter's ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill'd:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-kill'd.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That's for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-will'd, for thou art much too fair
To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.
Let us start off with the great sonnet 17. The Narrative: The
speaker relates his poems to his Beloved- the relating of it to high deserts, a
tomb, a future age’s inquiry, or some insanity. The end couplet end with a
novel pairing of what would now be termed the speaker’s Beloved’s genes
& memes- invoked by a descendent & the poems about the Beloved
themselves. The resignation of the speaker at the end is an apt denouement of
the 1st 2 lines’ question. As well, it is a sonnet set up as a
rhetorical (in both senses) question that is nonetheless answered! &
answered very aptly & uniquely. The Technique: Clichés are near
non-existent because of constant subversions- high deserts, the distanced ‘write
the beauty of your eyes’, fresh numbers
number all your graces, his yellowed papers are scorned- not merely existent. The narrative novelty also freshens up
some of the end rhymes- especially the eyes/lies which is absolved by putting lies
in the mouth of a coming age. Internal rhyme is very sly by being near rhyme.
The alliteration & assonance is strong. The numbers
number & touches/touch’d
repetons spring the poem along nicely & the overall rhythm is strong. As for
modernity it is the most modern of the 3 sonnets yet essayed.
Let’s turn to near-great sonnet 127: The Narrative: A nice opening conceit with blackness replacing beauty gives way to the falseness of nature construed through art. The speaker again invokes his mistress’ eyes as now black- even raven qualified, only to express some regret at the very conceit it proposes. The conceit is a high one & the poem almost escapes unscathed, yet a parsing of the last 6 lines reveals a bit of lostness in the becomma’d clauses- even as it aggressively charges ahead. Still the couplet ties the sonnet up with a strong enough phrasing to dispel the bit of tattering which precedes it. The Technique: Potential clichés are undermined- a la bastard shame is beauty’s, & the raven black eyes are suited. But the best subversion is black beauty- black is not an adjective, as in the cliché, rather the 2 words are nouns in succession! A quick read misses this. Internal rhyme, assonance, & alliteration are good, as the repeton of beauty to keep it abuzz in the reader’s mind & ear (if spoken), the overall rhythm is good & the only non-modernities are the occasional qualifications: bastard shame, nature’s power, sweet beauty, holy bower, & raven black. But it is the occasional lapses that we will pick up on & expound momentarily.
Let’s turn to the final bad sonnet 6. The Narrative: We start with the trite seasons of life motif, coupled with an almost silly warning. We are urged to turn to beauty & procreation (beauty’s or ours?). Still we (guess what?) end up dead! Here there is a lot of potential confusion thrust at the reader with the oft-repeated ten (coupled with times at times!). The beginning & end are clichés & the middle a muddle. The Technique: Too obvious in individual words & as a whole to comment any further on. The rhyme is not bad nor good but the bad alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme & repetons are all part of what makes this sonnet a near tongue-twisting disaster- it seems the Bard writing for one eating a peanut butter sandwich sans jelly! Only the use of happies is a nice turn in the poem; yet even that is lessened by the repeton of happier later on. This poem is a rhythmic disaster- even if 1 buys into the metric fallacy! Lastly this poem is not only bad but ghastly in its reeking of its age: the phrasings & words- especially line 2’s thee/thy/ere/thou quartet from hell. Yikes!
So now we’ve touched on the obvious in this troika. Let’s now hie (forgive moi!) to not why these sonnets work or not, but rather to how they reveal their technical structure. OK., you’ve got me. Sonnet 6 is so bad it lends not a whit of insight into anything, much less greatness or how to reproduce it. Fair enough. It’s a bad poem & would not be expected to do so. Let us however turn to the great & near-great sonnets. Sonnet 17 seems so modern (comparatively) & so ‘true’ or ‘natural’ to a speaker’s lament- even though an obvious poem. The query is how does it explain itself to poetic inquiry- how does it achieve its aim? 1st let me say- it is explicable- but it would need a piece longer than the totality of this essay. It would also entail delving into psychology, as well other terminology that might invoke some dread bigwordthrowingarounding so many literary would-be exegetes indulge in. To do so here & now simply is not an option. It has that alchemical magic of the ineffable- at least on 1st or 2nd blush. But 127 is a different matter. Let us recount its flaws: narrative drift due to overuse of commas with poorly thought out sentence structure, & the non-modern modifiers. These are the 2 basic failures of the poem. Were these resolved 127 would be right up there with 17, or 130- which it has more in common with narratively. No bigwordthrowingarounding is needed to illustrate these failures. The reason for 127’s just missing greatness seems apparent. The conceit of blackness being superior to the old idea of beauty is that it has unseen or unseeable depths within it that beauty lacks, or so this the speaker conveys: art has corrupted beauty- most evident in nature. Also blackness is always in the human eye- like his Beloved’s. But the stretch to convey this not only logically but syntactically leads to the slight muddle in lines 9-12. This brief lack of clarity makes the poem manifestly ‘a poem’ & not a seeming spontaneous declaration. Great poems work intuitively, more often than not, to convince the undermind that what it says is something the undermind has always known. It allows the reader to feel, briefly, that they have co-authored the poem. But when a poem is obviously another’s thought it is much more difficult to get the reader lulled & gulled into that co-participation, & thereby a sense of possession of the work- to be willing to defend it. Add in the slightly non-modern sound & the poem is toast- at least vis-à-vis greatness.
Now, let’s backstep to sonnets 17 & 130. There is really no simple way to sum up what we did about 127 in as brief a foray. Because neither of the great sonnets force the issue of their artifice to the surface they are bought into more. In truth, it seems that greatness has quite a bit to do with artifice. Neither 17 nor 130 would ever have allowed us that insight into artificiality’s place in the success or not of a poem, simply because they are so good at their artifice that we are not aware of it- unless we have the will & capability to scrutinize deeply. & let’s face it- that’s 1 worry most artists will never have to sweat about.
But, obviously this is just 1 aspect of greatness. Other poems, great & near-great, could be paired off to highlight other aspects of how & why greatness works. The point of contention, however, which has been proved is THAT such a demonstration CAN be shown. That was the aim! The details can vary from examples to examples, but greatness is a quality which often hides its very structure- at least to a certain level of depth lesser states do not. This is why we ooh & ah. This is why we Westerners are not so rapt with our many modern mechanical & technical conveniences, yet folk from lesser economically developed regions marvel. We know how a TV, a refrigerator, an airplane, & even a cigaret lighter works. To understand greatness requires, in effect, a reason to get inside those things to see how they work. Just like a perfectly running device might never provoke a query into the workings within, the story changes when we have something that works, but barely or faultily. Then we want to pry inside & learn about it in greater depth. Then we also learn how to reproduce it. Greatness provides the desire to excel, but near-greatness provides the means to excel. Remember this point!
So, we must be done with this essay, right? No. Please reread the title & skim up or down to my mention of Wallace Stevens’ lack of a poetic dropoff & the incomparable run in poetry of 1910-1970 America. Because I will now turn to Wallace Stevens to show how the mechanisms of greatness are concealed in the great poem yet opened up in the near-great. As a bonus I will use the examples of Shakespeare & Stevens to show why the Modern sensibility greatly enriched poetry, raising the bar in terms of complexity, yet how the same critical approach can discern such patterns still.
OK, you’ve got me. I’m not exactly being fair in this essay. Stevens was such a uniformly good poet that it would seem unfair to use him as a comparison to lessers. But, dammit all!, it wasn’t me that set up the Bard as the Gold Standard. I confess my opinion of Stevens as 1 of the greatest published poets of all time- arguments can be made for him along with Yeats, Hart Crane, Whitman, Rilke, Mandelstam, Tu Fu, Jeffers, etc. But while the others have great highs they clearly had some poems which failed- if not dropping to badness certainly to so-so. Stevens, however, seems to be the most consistent- his worst being mere well-wrought trifles. Also, at the time of this essay’s writing he seems to be the English Language poet who most closely rivals Shakespeare’s place in the firmament of unassailed adulation. Also, his very poem titles are as familiar, beloved, & abundant to the poetry lover as Shakespeare’s sonnets’ 1st lines are: Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, The Comedian as the Letter C, A High Toned Old Christian Woman, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Bantams In Pine Woods, Hymn From A Watermelon Pavilion, etc. Therefore his booking opposite Shakespeare. W.S. vs. W.S. Willy vs. Wally! Let the arguments begin! Ring the damn bell!
Unlike Shakespeare, while looking in Stevens Collected & Opus Posthumous I really couldn’t find a bad poem in the league with the Bard’s aforementioned tripe. Therefore I will tackle a mediocrity, a near-great, & some great poems. & I will endeavor to include some of the lesser known poems- where some real gems reside! Also, let me reinforce this posit- Modern poetry is superior to non-Modern poetry- its complexity & diversity give it range far beyond most non-Modern poetry. As with the Babe Ruth Syndrome I do not mean that non-Modern great poems were not great, only that Modernity raised the bar so that there is a greater range of what is great in the Modern. The poems both reach deeper & wider. Therefore in my critique of Stevens’ poems I will not only comment on their narrative & technique, their ability (due to their excellence) in lending insight into greatness, but also on how their very Modernity aids in this feat- i.e.- how Stevens is a greater poet- even at their respective bests- than Shakespeare was!
Let us start out with the easy stuff 1st. I have chosen 3 great Stevens poems to lead off. 2 of them I deliberately chose for not only their having 14 lines & being great- but for their subject matter’s relation to the earlier discussed Shakespeare poems. Excelsior!:
was in the earth only
That he was at the bottom of things
And of himself. There he could say
Of this I am, this is the patriarch,
This it is that answers when I ask,
This is the mute, the final sculpture
Around which silence lies on silence.
This repose alike in springtime
And, arbored and bronzed, in autumn.
said I had this that I could love,
As one loves visible and responsive peace,
As one loves one’s own being,
As one loves that which is the end
And must be loved, as one loves that
Of which one is a part as in a unity,
A unity that is the life one loves,
So that one lives all the lives that comprise it
As the life of the fatal unity of war.
comes to him
From the middle of his field. The odor
Of earth penetrates more deeply than any word.
There he touches his being. There as he is
He is. The thought that he had found all this
Among me, in a woman- she caught his breath-
But he came back as one comes back from the sun
To lie on one's bed in the dark, close to a face
Without eyes or mouth, that looks at one and speaks.
Man Carrying Thing
poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.
Of Life And Mind
There is so little that is close and warm.
It is as if we were never children.
in the room. It is true in the moonlight
That it is as if we had never been young.
ought not to be awake. It is from this
That a bright red woman will be rising
standing in violent golds, will brush her hair.
She will speak thoughtfully the words of a line.
will think about them not quite able to sing.
Besides, when the sky is so blue, things sing themselves,
for her, already for her. She will listen
And feel that her color is a meditation,
most gay and yet not so gay as it was.
Stay here. Speak of familiar things awhile.
OK, Yellow Afternoon 1st.
This is a poem that conceptually is light years beyond the Elizabethan mind. It
is in my view probably Stevens’ best poem, yet it is almost absent from
anthologies or discussions of Stevens. Not only is it a great poem but it is
damned near a perfect poem- something that is a quantity parallel to greatness
in that great poems can have flaws & still be great while a perfect poem
merely has nothing which could replace it without lessening it. It succeeds so
well at what it endeavors that to change it is to destroy it. Oddly, a perfect
poem is not always a great poem. I’ve written a few perfect poems & a lot
of great poems. Once I wrote a poem called Congoleum
Footfalls that was as perfect a dream poem as I’ve ever read- it so
totally invoked the dream states, yet in doing so it could not be great. It was
just a perfect illustration- nothing else could be construed nor imbued into it.
Not a great poem but perfect. Yellow
Afternoon, however, achieves this dufecta! I think it stands as both a
summation of & a turn away from the rest of Stevens’ corpus. It rivals
Plath’s Among The Narcissi,
Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy
Evening, Crane’s The Broken Tower,
Cullen’s Incident, Shelley’s Ozymandias,
& Berryman’s The Ball Poem as
great poems which are perfect, & poems which top off, turn away from &,
yet, embody a poet’s oeuvre.
Let's have at it. The Narrative: The poem starts with the positioning of a self, a questioning ends stanza 1- it is both metaphysical & rhetorical, yet we are not at all sure where the person is internally or externally. We have no idea what led to this state save perhaps the title itself. Stanza 2’s rhetorical trope would seem to be the least interesting part of the poem until we hit its close & the personification. Yet, so ambiguous is that line that 1 is not sure whether we have metaphor, synecdoche, or actuality- to a degree. The relation of this stanza to the 1st is especially jarring, narratively- but here is where the As one loves repeton acts as a patting or soothing for the emergent beast beneath. Before we hit stanza 3 let me say that this is a vast oversimplification of the 1st 18 lines. Yet, Stevens has yet to move from the plain-spoken- it is ideas, ideas, ideas that cohere! Stanza 3- Line 1 states it plainly- the 2 preceding stanzas cohere. Or at least we are led to believe so- recall that we have an omniscient guiding us- is it truly omniscient, or faulty or a trickster? More bald statements follow until we get moment. ‘She caught his breath’ [hints of death?]- then we get this very Hopperian or Magrittean image to end. Surreal- yes. Far more so than many consciously surreal poets. What the poem means could take up many pages of argumentation in many fields. Again, this very cloud of difference part of that alchemical property of greatness. All this from such an innocuous title? The Technique: Cliché?- show me 1! Silence? It is not clichéd for silence to lie on silence- is it lying beside or telling untruths? The next line’s reposes is no help for it works as reclining & setting in a pose again. Love, peace, & war are all used in stanza 2- but all in ways that enhance the poem’s mystery. Stanza 3 is barren of cliché- it is 1 of the most striking visages in all of poetry- on par with Weldon Kees’ Relating To Robinson. There is a brilliant use of alliteration & assonance in the poem. It is hidden in its naturality, however. Look at stanza 1’s th & short & long i sounds, the repetons, short a, short u, v, & z sounds in stanza 2. Then the switch from this dreamy lulling usage to the straight ahead force of stanza 3. The rhythm is understated when needed & not when not needed. Superb control. Now, for a moment parse each line & sentence- it is not tortured like in Willy’s Sonnet 153 or Sonnet 6’s use of the number 10. Compare that repeton with Wally’s As one loves. The difference is clear. Let us now examine this poem’s greatness’s hermeticism & Modernity’s part in that. Simply put this poem is so multi-layered & Möbian that it is almost impossible to quantify. It is an example of that ‘the poem is the best explanation of itself’ idea. Yet the writing, word-for-word, is not the least opaque. It is the ideas the words convey that is thoroughly Modern. The poem is both abstract & right there. Before Donne that usage was nonexistent. It goes beyond mere metaphor- yet that end image is a killer. But as to its meaning? It is everything written, & not. & more. From title to 1st line, from stanza to end line, we never know where we are going- yet it does not confuse. Contrast this with Shakespeare’s bad sonnets. Now, contrast this with the rather lucid great sonnets. It’s the difference between stick figures & Dalí. It gives us no real in, however, to how one might construct a poem like it- despite my explication. Proof of this is the rarity of poems like it. & it is also a byproduct of the Modernist approach vs. the non-Modern.
On to Man Carrying Thing. This de facto free verse sonnet has a classic art/Muse theme. Compare it to the prior Shakespeare sonnets or to any muse poem that comes to mind- especially a non-Modern, say- Romantic, love poem. This poem, I think, is the literary equivalent of the fact that ballplayers in these days are bigger & stronger than those of yesteryear. Granted, muse poem home runs were hit in bygone days- but not this far! This is out of the ballpark! The Narrative: An injunction! A scene self-consciously declaimed a thing of art. The thing enters- what is it? A literal thing or a burden? A koan wrapping description. Then image- not! Yet the title plays off this brilliantly. It insists on its primacy- there is what it says. Or- ? The Technique: Not a cliché in sight. Perhaps hidden by the thing? The couplets act as snippets of the free float of idea the poem portrays. Several couplets have their own alliterative & assonant strengths. Repetons are not too intrusive. But here is a great usage of parentheses. Often poets misfire with such things as parentheses, italics, or bold face, but here the parenthetical acts as a separate movement below & with the rest of the poem. The rhythm is fine & dandy. But the end, again, is an end only a Modern could produce. Recall Shakespeare’s endings to his sonnets above? No matter how he wriggled & rutsched the endings have a patness- even when great, once read, you feel- I knew that was coming. Not so here. Look at the utter subversion of such a cliché-prone phrase as stands motionless in cold by The bright obvious. There is a baldness, not of image (Sonnets 6 & 153) nor sentiment (Sonnets 17, 127, & 130), but of idea. This is beyond Shakespeare, not just in the philosophic sense, but in its impact on the poem’s excellence & mystery. This is Modern. Look at all the ideas Willy thrashes about with. Some very well-phrased- some poorly. Not a single 1 as bald as this poem’s ending. This is 1 of the supreme muse poems; & its supremacy is in large part shaped by its Modernity. But how to reproduce it without aping it? Old Wally almost dares us to try by declaring The thing he carries resists/The most necessitous sense.
On to Debris Of Life And Mind. This is an even more classic theme than the last poem. Forget muse- this is a love poem. A Modern love poem. The Narrative: A lament. A request. Description. Bright red woman. Does this refer to her hair, race, light across her, or ____? Invocation. Musing. Entreaty. That the poem laconically nudges itself into the mind, & nudges images into its view is in keeping with the title. Line 1 suggests loss. Line 14 echoes it. The Technique: Cliché is almost teased with- but close and warm is so plainly plain speech & not poetic technique. What happens in the moonlight is not the usual love poem things- yet Wally is giving the reader familiarities to soothe expectation. Gold & hair in the same line- but not together. Is the gold her hair or is this a comment on shedding the materiality of life? The sky so blue is merely a setup for the Beloved’s concept of the cosmos. The end is a restrained yet deeply pained request. That such emotion could come from such a seemingly banal last 2 sentences is due to Modernity. There is none of the almost vaudevillian drop of the couplet’s shoe- no badum- boom! This poem would have slid into predictability if not cliché had it followed Shakespeare’s formula. Unlike any of the previous poems this essay has looked at this poem is almost void of a poetic alliteration, assonance, or rhyme scheme, & repetons are slight incidentals. This seeming lack of technique & music all serves the emotional wallop the poem ends with. It is because we do not have a poetic expectation girded in us by blatant form (a sonnet) or technique (repetition, rhyme, alliteration, assonance) that we are open for the emotional kidney punch of this very sly love poem. Line 10’s insistence that things are what they are is a curious echo to Wallace Stevens’ antithesis, William Carlos Williams. This poem almost seems to have been a Williamsian construct & exhibits his feel, except that in other ways it does not. The enjambment & imagery is all Stevens. But read this & the other 2 poems that precede it again. Is there an in for a would-be poet to reproduce its effect? I don’t think there’s much. The poem is so damned tight!
But, you think, haven’t you just given us a pretty good explanation of these poems? No. At least not more than a good cursory glance. Read them again & you will see my attempted explications are merely broad & brief guidelines of their success. I will tell you that I cannot definitively finger everything in these relatively brief poems. Read them again & it will be obvious that you- & the poems- have succeeded when you have gone well beyond my scant syllabi. To illustrate my point a bit more clearly let us now turn to a couple of brief Stevens poems that are 1) so-so & 2) near-great. They relate not only well to each other but to the previous Stevens poems & Shakespeare sonnets. Their pluses will be just as obvious as the last 3’s, but so will their demerits- & therein the key to how a great poem succeeds. The 1st is a poem that seems a pale echo of Man Carrying Thing & the 2nd is the anti-Yellow Afternoon. It is Wally’s most anthologized (for its brevity; & into the ground!) if not well known poem. It is also an improvement on the lesser poem’s theme while an illustration of a still lesser take on what Man Carrying Thing assays. Yet both, & especially the 2nd will prove their worth to this essay’s theme. Here we go:
As the immense dew of Florida
The big-finned palm
And green vine angering for life,
As the immense dew of Florida
Brings forth hymn and hymn
From the beholder,
Beholding all these green sides
And gold sides of green sides,
And blessed mornings,
Meet for the eye of the young alligator,
And lightning colors
So, in me, comes flinging
Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.
of the Jar
placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Nomad Exquisite is, at best, a pretty good to so-so poem. The Narrative: Image
& motion. Redux & expansion of imagery. It focuses into an alligator’s
purview, & dissolves out into a comparison with what is seen by the speaker.
A very simple narrative that is very much a cinematic piece. The Technique:
No real clichés. The imagery is lush & the de facto simile is not forced.
The repetons (both of words & phrases) helps the lull build to its climax
& turn away in the wonderfully alliterative & assonant last line & a
½. Musically the poem is fine. But in a way, although a Modern poem that ends
in its aside to a metaphor flurry, the poem's’structure, intent & devices
are fairly discernible. Let's compare it to the other Stevens poem cited, which
is its closest companion: Man Carrying Thing. Let me state: Nomad Exquisite is not a bad poem- merely a good solid poem- 1 that
seems a bit simple compared to Man
Carrying Thing. Compare the flurried end of NE with the parenthetical of
MCT- these are kindred poems. Yet, where MCT has depths upon rereading, NE is
pretty much a sentiment tossed out there- that’s it. Plus the repetons in NE,
while helping with the lulling effect rhythmically are not particularly vivid,
& the colors used are not nearly as vivid nor important as the colors in Debris
Of Life And Mind- perhaps because of the fact they are NOT emphasized with
repetition. To return to this essay’s thrust- NE is reproducable. Image.
Image, Focus. Turn away (an asides). As good an end as NE has, however is not
dependent on the rather familiar imagery leading up to it. It could just as
legitimately have been an Arctic, desert, or urban motif. The end result would
have been as plausible, as well tied into the rather average title- especially
for Stevens! It recalls the invocation of false
compare end of Sonnet 130. Yet it is still more daring than Shakespeare’s
verse. But its very simplicity is just simple. It is not the apparent simplicity
that great poems harbor. The poem is ‘out there’. It is still a solid little
poem- but it really offers little to provoke a depth of thought & its simple
narrative structure is one non-Modern poems used for eons, save for the Modern
twist at the end. No shame in that. But it really lends not much to the
proposition of how or why greatness works & is achieved.
For that let us turn to a poem which must have vexed Stevens as much as Chaplinesque would have done Hart Crane, O Captain, My Captain Whitman, Design Frost, & Poetry Marianne Moore. It is Stevens’ consummate anthology piece, Anecdote Of The Jar. A near-great poem if there ever was 1. This poem succeeds where Nomad Exquisite does not, yet its failures are in stark opposition to Yellow Afternoon’s successes. The Narrative: A thing is. It is described. It has effect. Shift back to thing. Thing conquers effect. Rhetorical flourish. The Technique: Cliché is nonexistent. All the musical effects are just right- not too much nor too little of any. The repetons are also not too intrusive & give the poem an odd music. Modernity is obvious but we can see readily why it just misses greatness. It is too hermetic. Unlike Yellow Afternoon its mystery is a little one centered on the oddness of the poem. Its implicit theme- that art (or even the perception or assumption of art) changes things- is not particularly mysterious. It is a simple message wonderfully conveyed & technically outstanding. But it is- like NE- manifestly discernible. Unlike YA, however, there is no great mystery as to meaning, on the whole or in specific parts. But AOTJ’s very technical excellence & lack of familiar images leaps it well beyond NE, while its very theme & trope- however well polished- leave it shy of greatness. It is very much like 100s of other Art/Muse poems in its trope. It is merely the Modern approach which assists in its leap toward, & short of, greatness.
What now?, you say. We have seen what makes poems work & fail. We have seen how poems just miss greatness. We have seen Modernity’s hand in enabling Modern poetry to more consistently achieve greatness, & greatness at even higher levels. Well, at least we have seen these things in a cursory fashion. As I said & hopefully shown, greatness is not 100% inexplicable, but it would take a lot longer than I choose to spend in this essay to do it justice- my limning will have to suffice. & greatness is a thing that is also not monolithic. In a sense it is merely the point at which the output of an artwork or artist benefits the audience & exceeds the income [in the form of egoistic attention-seeking] it swallows. However, that is a very broad take. But at its root the problem with greatness is its very nature. Greatness is difference- but not merely of degree, but of kind. Its very push past the boundaries of lesser states is a fundamental difference- akin to say the transformative boundary where liquid water heated ceases being merely water, but becomes vapor. To clarify the analogy- as a poem’s temperature rises it not only becomes a hotter liquid but turns in to a gas- the effluvia whose presence becomes more mystifying to we solids. This is a rarely understood point & even those who claim to understand it really get it. Yet it is at the crux of this essay’s existence. It is the problem with greatness! Another aspect of greatness rarely commented on is that it promotes a uniqueness of voice in the poet. Think how easy it is to spot a Frostian line, a Plathian conceit, or a Cranean enjambment. This uniqueness, in art, is often a clue to quickly spotting potential greats. The din is undifferentiated noise, but the greats are their own distinct tune- although sometimes not recognized. Yet, hopefully I’ve succeeded in some way of showing how to recognize such, & how- with these 2 poets- greatness can also be a thing of varied hues, & assorted sources, as well of damnable opacity. But let me return to Shakespeare & Stevens. As 2 exemplars of the non-Modern vs. Modern approach to art I think they (in these & other examples) display their traits. Modernity’s very complexity was borne of a desire to go beyond the rather pat conventions of the non-Modern. & while no art CAN go back in toto to its earlier forms (on the whole) it should (& it never hurts to) replenish itself on its past high points, & on the 2nd, 3rd, etc. go-rounds try some expansiveness- i.e.- take the best from the past & rework it into the new- in whatever way & to whatever degree it can. & although down times exist (like the last 30 years) & the great from the non-Modern can equal the great from the Modern, on the whole- from doggerel to immortality- poetry in the Modern is significantly better than the non-Modern forebear it came from- if for no other reason than its very multivalence- a quality even the best of the non-Moderns like Shakespeare could not assay. Yet multivalence is so dominant in the Modern that it steeps in it, & 1 cannot always necessarily pinpoint it in any particular word, line, metaphor, simile, musical quality, stanza, poem, book or genre- yet there it is! For this we can principally thank Walt Whitman [rare sufferer of the Founder Unafflicted by the Founder Syndrome Syndrome], a poet whom even if you foolishly deny greatness to, no one can deny the stature he holds as the single most important poet ever, historically [& that is not the Sultan of Swat speaking!]. But importance & greatness are qualities as related yet distinct as the Modern & non-Modern. But, then, that’s another goddamned essay! Oy!
BONUS: Grading The
Bard’s Sonnets- A Brief Lay Baedeker
Sonnet # Grade Brief Comment
65 boring, standard beauty theme
2 70 better, more rhythmic with nice ideas
3 68 on mirrors & lineage
4 50 solipsistic thoughts
5 60 trite poem on summer
6 40 the 10s, confusing with a bland end
7 55 dull
8 62 light with a ‘moral’ for an end
9 52 nice ideas but awkward, slow & melodramatic
10 55 blasé declamative
11 50 the need of procreation- or not?
12 75 clean, concise on a classic theme
13 60 pompous- a ringer for the Oxfordians!
14 60 has been said before
15 78 good ideas rejuvenates classic themes
16 65 ok take on classic themes
17 92 classic touchstones & to the point
18 91 classic
19 70 standard on age
20 60 sticky coinages & trite themes
21 55 ungainly & staid
22 75 nice structure & inversion of clichés
23 68 ok inversions
24 72 ok & declamative
25 48 a poorly constructed snooze
26 70 a so-so love poem
27 60 insomnia/dream imagery mars & confuses
28 56 boring insomnia- line 12 is the tongue-twister from Hell!
29 72 on friendship & love
30 65 on friendship, but sticky
31 80 nice & steady love poem
32 65 on poems of a friend/lover
33 80 interesting take on despair
34 62 viscous end ruins beginning
35 65 on penance
36 64 trite love poem
37 60 a bore
38 78 nifty turns in poem of love
39 85 excellent take on parting
40 82 interesting ideas
41 60 on spurned love
42 75 on love’s competition
43 70 ok inversions on love
44 60 classic scene sans enlivened metaphors
45 70 too heavy & viscous
46 64 again, too many inversions
47 68 solid love poem
48 65 not much too offer
49 80 good essay on love
50 85 aftermaths
51 62 dull
52 73 decent rework of themes
53 82 on beauty- ambiguous end
54 75 reworks classical themes
55 90 great love poem
56 58 poor images & linearity
57 77 interesting take on love
58 60 a comedown on similar themes to #57
59 62 dull, sluggish
60 88 excellent on love & time
61 55 a snoozer
62 55 a snoozer- Part 2
63 60 mediocre on love
64 68 age is pondered
65 75 solid love poem
66 70 decent- almost a modern style
67 58 a bore
68 76 nice twists & philosophy
69 70 a backhand slap
70 62 ho hum
71 76 nice memory of love
72 70 not as good on same theme as 71
73 73 good
74 64 more on death
75 60 boring
76 66 so-so
77 55 more on aging
78 58 dull
79 70 trite but zippy
80 78 nice inversions
81 85 love poem
82 72 some nice touches
83 75 solid love poem
84 70 nice inversions
85 68 solid
86 58 convoluted
87 65 boring
88 72 solid love poem
89 76 nice wordplay
90 67 ok
91 60 boring
92 55 boring
93 58 forced metaphors
94 82 excellent turnabout of phrases
95 65 nice end on weak poem
96 62 blasé
97 66 clichéd
98 69 clichéd
99 68 clichéd again!
100 70 decent
101 57 invoking the muse
102 60 dull love song
103 72 more love
104 70 more love- the sequel
105 60 lines 4-6 reek; nice thoughts, poor execution
106 74 nice execution
107 65 dull
108 60 duller
109 90 excellent on love
110 58 nothing to offer
111 52 dullest
112 50 lifeless; no vigor
113 58 flat & lacking vivid imagery
114 52 no vigor
115 69 decent
116 88 excellent love poem
117 58 very weak
118 50 bizarre with clichés
119 53 sluggish
120 55 viscous & unmoving
121 88 slick & interesting approach
122 70 decent, on memory
123 80 on time & death
124 67 decent turns yet clichéd
125 52 convoluted & dull
126 66 more death
127 83 excellent & aggressive
128 80 on music & love
129 80 denouncing lust over love
130 90 a love poem classic
131 68 ok on duplicity
132 72 loses the way after strong start
133 70 ok but convoluted
134 68 bland & passionless
135 62 self-referencing, but weak
136 72 self-referencing, but better
137 66 overdone
138 69 ok on love
139 80 slick on love’s machinations
140 77 nice turns of phrase & ending
141 86 good turnarounds on love
142 65 blasé
143 60 silly self-referencing
144 60 trite & hackneyed
145 76 interesting & tight
146 65 trite on death
147 80 interesting turns & images
148 70 decent
149 68 dull, but some twists
150 65 standard love themes
151 60 another standard theme
152 52 more convolutions without rhythm
153 50 trite & crap
154 48 trite & terrible
Shakespeare- Overall Grade: 85- Dark Lady Sonnets the best, most are
‘dramatic’, Young Lad sonnets up & down, Marriage sonnets pretty bad.
Titles Of Wallace Stevens’ Great Poems
Monocle De Mon Oncle- 95
2 The Comedian As The Letter C- 95
3 Sunday Morning- 98
4 To The One Of Fictive Music- 95
5 Peter Quince At The Clavier- 97
6 Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird- 96
7 Sea Surface Full Of Clouds- 98
8 The Idea Of Order At Key West- 96
9 Anglais Mort Á Florence- 95
10 Like Decorations In A Nigger Cemetery- 97
11 Poetry Is A Destructive Force- 96
12 Study Of Two Pears- 95
13 A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts- 95
14 The Sense Of The Sleight-Of-Hand Man- 95
15 Yellow Afternoon- 99
16 Woman Looking At A Vase Of Flowers- 95
17 The Well Dressed Man With A Beard- 95
18 Asides On The Oboe- 96
19 Examination Of The Hero In A Time Of War- 97
20 God Is Good. It Is A Beautiful Night- 95
21 The Motive For Metaphor- 96
22 Gigantomachia- 97
23 So-And-So Reclining On Her Couch- 97
24 Crude Foyer- 97
25 Esthétique Du Mal- 98
26 Debris Of Life And Mind- 95
27 Description Without Place- 95
28 Man Carrying Thing- 96
29 The Good Man Has No Shape- 97
30 Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction- 98
31 Large Red Man Reading- 95
32 The Solitude Of Cataracts- 95
33 Bouquet Of Roses In Sunlight- 97
34 The Owl In The Sarcophagus- 98
35 A Primitive Like An Orb- 95
36 The Woman In Sunshine- 95
37 To An Old Philosopher In Rome- 96
38 A Quiet Normal Life- 95
39 The Rock- 95
40 The Planet On The Table- 95
41 Desire And The Object- 95*
42 A Discovery Of Thought- 96*
Stevens- Overall Grade: 90+- 1 of the Immortals.
All the great poems can be found in Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems- these 2 are from Opus Posthumous.
More Wallace Stevens Poems
must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing the same bare place
the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
near miss near-great!]
Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself
the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.
was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache...
The sun was coming from the outside.
scrawny cry--It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
nice take on art.]
The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm
The house was quiet and the world was calm. [A good poem on the arts.] Peter Quince at the Clavier I Just as my fingers on these keys Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, Of a green evening, clear and warm, The basses of their beings throb II In the green water, clear and warm, Upon the bank, she stood She walked upon the grass, A breath upon her hand III Soon, with a noise like tambourines, They wondered why Susanna cried And as they whispered, the refrain Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame And then, the simpering Byzantines IV Beauty is momentary in the mind -- The body dies; the body's beauty lives. Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings [A
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom the book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
The touch of springs,
For so much melody.
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
Of old devotions.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Muted the night.
She turned --
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.
Came her attendant Byzantines.
Against the elders by her side;
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden's choral.
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
[A good poem on the arts.]
Peter Quince at the Clavier
Just as my fingers on these keys
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
The basses of their beings throb
In the green water, clear and warm,
Upon the bank, she stood
She walked upon the grass,
A breath upon her hand
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
They wondered why Susanna cried
And as they whispered, the refrain
Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Beauty is momentary in the mind --
The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
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