Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’

John Ciardi defines a man

A man is what he does with his attention
and mine is not for sale, though I’ll take cash—
and gladly—for whatever my attention
turns to for its own sake, when I’m finished with it.

Let this be my leave offering to the ghost
of J. T. Marshall, and of twenty others
who bought me cheap, and couldn’t afford me now,
because I can’t afford to be afforded
by anyone but myself, or I’d lose the ghost
of how I live, however I make my living.

And so to my last bonus, which is the first.
Any man can learn to learn from the wise
once he can find them: but learn to learn from a fool
and all the world’s your faculty.

—John Ciardi, from the Postscript to ‘Cal Coolidge and the Co’

‘La libertà di pensiero’ (‘Freedom of Thought’), by Trilussa

Un gatto bianco, ch’era presidente
der circolo der libbero pensiero,
senti che er gatto nero,
libbero pensatore come lui,
je faceva la critica
riguardo a la politica
ch’era contraria a li principi sui.
–Giacchè nun badi a li fattacci tui,
–je disse er gatto bianco inviperito–
rassegnerai le proprie dimissioni
e uscirai dalle file der partito:
chè qui la poi pensa’ libberamente
come te pare a te, ma a condizzione
che t’associ a l’idee der presidente
e a le proposte della commissione!
–E’ vero, ho torto, ho aggito malamente. . . .–
rispose er gatto nero.
E pe’ resta’ ner libbero pensiero
da quella vorta nun penso’ piu’ gnente.


A white cat, who had been made the chair-cat
Of an Association for the Freedom of Thought,
Got news that a black cat,
A member of the same Association,
Would criticize his views
For he did not agree
With the white cat’s political principles.

–Since you won’t mind your own bloody business
– said the white cat to the black one in a rage –
You will resign – out of your own free will –
And leave our Party ranks for good:
’cause here you can think freely and as you please
So long as you accept the chair-cat’s views
And the Political Commitee’s proposals!

–It’s true, I’m wrong, what I’ve done wasn’t right . . .–
the black cat answered;
And to be allowed to remain Freethinker
From then on he never thought anything again.

[Translation supplied by Fabio Paolo Barbieri]

‘The Triumph of Bullshit’: T. S. Eliot pre-empts his critics

The following poem is, I find, a remarkable piece of work, and for at least three reasons. For one thing, it is an exquisitely formed comic ballade by T. S. Eliot — not the first name that comes to mind, I dare say, when you think of funny verses, or of strict rhyme and meter for that matter.

Secondly, it’s a beautiful pre-emptive attack on just the sort of critics who would spend the remaining fifty-five years of Eliot’s life bellyaching about his poetry in just the way that he describes, though not usually with the same dash and glitter. Pre-emptive, I say: for Eliot wrote this poem about 1910, when he was still virtually unknown, before he composed any of the great poems that made him a cornerstone of the Modernist movement and the bête noire of every right-thinking reader. He never published it in his lifetime, but there must have been scores of reviewers that he would have liked to send it to privately.

It is also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known written usage of the word ‘bullshit’. I find this both amusing and tremendously sad. Bullshit had barely been christened, and already it was triumphant. If I am ever called upon to write a one-sentence history of the intellect in the twentieth century, that will be it.

The Triumph of Bullshit

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward, insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles freely versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotion that turn isiculous,
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out ‘this stuff is too stiff for us’—
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannon fumiferous
Engines vaporous—all this will pass;
Quite innocent,— ‘he only wants to make shiver us.’
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shall pass
Among the theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ’s sake stick them up your ass.

—T. S. Eliot

‘A Confession’, by C. S. Lewis

I have sometimes been asked why I write old-fashioned epic fantasy instead of something Edgy and Hip and Relevant and Commercial. I have also sometimes been asked (not always by the same people) why I write trivial and childish epic fantasy instead of something Deep and Meaningful and Artistic and Literary. To both those questions I have to give the same answer, which is a poem by the inimitable C. S. Lewis:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening–any evening–would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

Clive James on modern poetry

The only thing I have to say against most modern poetry is that so much of it avoids all verse conventions without rising to the level of decent prose.

—Clive James