(This is the third in a series of Sobering Discussions of the Practice of Poetry in Our Age, following "The Trouble With Mediocrity" and "Who Hired Bill Moyers to Destroy American Poetry?". (Or, to be wholly accurate, together with Joe Brennan's "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" and "Why is Parcelli So Angry?", fifth.))

The Yoke of Human Blindness:
William S. Cohen, the Neo=Georgians and
the Apache Attack Helicopter of the Self

by Carlo Parcelli

"As a literary movement it has no redeeming features. It was really a commercial venture (only Marshes pleasant sentimentality conceals this); and it cannot really be said to have succeeded in its aim of creating a large reading public for poetry (the volumes were to sell very well, as of course verse does in wartime) because what it actually created was a large public for verse (with a bit of poetry actually thrown in). Georgianism even as war clouds gathered, insensitively aimed to perpetuate Victorian values at a time when Victorian standards, procedures and practice were no longer adequate. What may fairly be described as Georgian poetry continues to be written today, both in Great Britain and America: it is escapist in the worst sense…, flatly traditionalist and uninventive in form, sentimental in attitude, crudely mechanistic in its assumptions about human nature. Much verse that looks modern, either because it is in free verse or because it is spiced up with fashionably up-to-date mannerisms, is also fundamentally Georgian. Here I shall discuss only those Georgians who transcended the insulting category."---from Funk and Wagnalls Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith (p. 211)

Introduction: The Neo=Georgians and the Artistic Ascendancy of Self Gratification

       Knock away some of the flashing that accumulates over 90 years of literary history and damned if Seymour-Smith's remarks above don't seem to describe the current dominant mode of poetry. To celebrate this stale fact let's call today's titans of "uninventive", "sentimental", and "crudely mechanistic verse" the Neo=Georgians. I will borrow the equal sign from the theoretical wing of the Neo=Georgians, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, or Langpo's as they're called by those who have waded in the water. Both the Neo=Georgians and the minor furbelow called Langpo owe their very existence to the modernist tradition. Langpo openly acknowledges its debt even while it runs away from the challenge to incorporate the content of Modernism's intellectual discourse into its imaginative product. To make matters worse for the Langpo's, a simple perusal of their early poetry demonstrates that it was a failure early on to be able to write effectively in the style of the Neo=Georgians, not the Modernists, that prompted them to call for a new poetics. It is this imaginative failure at such an extremely low level that makes clear to the critic that Langpo was developed as a separate school so that academic wannabees who had no talent for writing poetry whatsoever could by way of introducing a so-called new form and taking some Lit. department turf, carve out a homuncular niche for themselves in the sorry legacy of post-World-War II American verse. In the case of Langpo's, people with more talent for critical exegesis than for imaginative work decided they wanted the performer's mike and set out to establish their own little cabaret. Taking this into account, how could one imagine that this crabbed little clique would carry on the task of Modernism with its immense intellectual and non-careerist demands?

       The Neo=Georgians, like the more theory-dependent Langpo's, are no less a bunch of talentless hacks more attuned to the Main Street politics of a University campus. For all that the modernist tradition had to offer, the Neo=Georgians niggled and then neutered one minor aspect from the major poetic edifices that immediately proceeded them. The Neo=Georgians, as prelude to their current insularity, assimilated the Modernists in only one respect, that of the personal psychological state or the 'self' as an ordering device for experience. They abandoned the intellectuality, originality, intensity, broad inclusionary style, synthesis and historical engagement of Modernism in order to perform the more bourgeois and facile task of talking about the world as though they were always talking about themselves. The fact that the 'self' is an impossible discretion never seemed to be considered as an inherent and imaginatively fatal limitation, not to mention the conscious and unconscious prejudices that it brings to the poetic act.

       The coupling of personal psychological states with the poet's contemporary or inherited history reached its popular apex in T.S. Eliot and traced its quick decline in the career of Robert Lowell. There were and are many other poets involved in this distortion of the Modernist project. However, the point I want to stress is how the Neo=Georgians have placed the full thematic burden upon this one flimsy characteristic. This in itself is evidence that the current dominant mode of poetic discourse is sterile and ineffectual.

       The Modernists sought a method for avoiding this. As the poet Louis Zukofsky wrote about Ezra Pound's Cantos:

"In short, Pound has not wrapped mannerisms around his subject matter but made the subject matter his style. Pound's objectivity and range are, therefore, his only identifications. He has not obtruded personally, never found it worth his while to discover an interesting subjective self to please people. One does not generally deplore sincere attempts at self-discovery but notes that Pound's object in the Cantos is an excellent way of doing it. As philosopher in them he has avoided the merely playful appurtenances of thinking, that is, a pseudo-logical, argumentative ability in a kind of idiom which is not much more than mannerism." (Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions p.76)

       Pound's approach requires much more energy than either the Neo=Georgians or their main detractors, the high mannerist Language poets and their heirs, are willing or capable of bringing to their poetry. The Language poets have in particular demonstrated that often the most intelligent and institutionally inclined poets make the worst ones.

       The Neo=Georgians have abandoned, indeed are in full flight, from the more demanding characteristics of Modernism. The intense study of particular subject areas which is a benchmark of Modernism (e.g. Charles Olson's Proclamation, "Oh poet, Get a job!") cannot find its way into the works of the Neo=Georgians except as ad hoc fragments and furbelows. This is the result of a ruthless attachment to the epistemologically suspect notion of a 'personal I'. The Neo=Georgians relentlessly organize all experience around the uncritical wraith of the individual and vague lacuna of this 'I' or 'eye'. But without a substantial intellectual foundation, the continuity of any subject matter is lost and the poems rely on the force of each poet's personality. Only people with nothing to say and the material resources to say it at their leisure would resort to their own personal states of mind as the driving methodology for rendering the world. The result is the entire canon of a Neo=Georgian poet after decades of writing delivers only the most general and sentimentalized incoherencies. The venerably vulnerable Stanley Kunitz and Louis Simpson are two good examples of old simperers of the Neo=Georgian school. Ideas are not their milieu. They are maudlin observers, cameras with sepia filters. Everything has the climactic downward pout of sentiment or to borrow Charles Altieri's term, melodrama. Only people as equally susceptible to their own ubiquitous feelings and self-absorption find value in their work. All depth of perception, which arises from a lifetime of intense study in a field that the poet finds irresistible, is squandered at the Sambo tree of the 'self''. Robert Hass' watered down eastern religious influence is a good example of this, as is Philip Levine's tepid working man's ethos. It may have been in your soul, boys; but it ain't in your poems. There it all becomes 'melodrama.'

Who's Buyin' ?:

       The result is that personality, or more accurately a kind of the small time celebrity, evaporates over time, at best leaving a couple of poems to be anthologized. These anthologies themselves are revealing when it comes to minor works from the likes of the Neo=Georgians. They usually contain poems that give the appearance of having every ruffle removed and demonstrate a simple but thoroughgoing symbiosis of subject and form. This, in turn, lays bare the deficiencies of the Neo=Georgian approach. For when they attempt to be inclusive and intelligent, the result can be disastrous. William Carlos Williams' Paterson historically stands as the most grotesque attempt to go from willful anti-intellectual to sagacious Modernist. Some more recent examples fair even worse like A.R. Ammons' Garbage and Glare, Carloyn Forché's Angel of History and Campbell McGrath's American Noise, among a host of other pseudo-ambitious long poems or poetry series. But to paraphrase Pound: "You can't get through Hell in a hurry."

I'm Plum Out of Ideas:

       After all, Dr. Williams midwifed the 'Plum School' of poetry which gave fruit no doubt to the following dither by Helen Chasin called The Word Plum which reads:

The word plum is delicious.

Pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring and murmur

full in the mouth and falling

like fruit

taut skin
pierced, bitten, provoked into
juice, and tart flesh

and reply, lip and tongue
of pleasure.

       Aaaaaaaaargh! Think the good doctor would have wanted to discover that his literary DNA was a close match to Ms. Chasin's? Isn't it better to know one thing well than to know nothing at all and designate by default your ubiquitous, everyday personal experience and an omnipotent 'I' (here implied) as the poet's template? If Chasin had, say, perused for ten minutes U.P. Hendricks' The Plums of New York, she would have known too much to have penned the above abomination. For heaven's sake, read, read, read Ms. Chasin. If you don't comprehend anything about the parameters of the perception of the object, read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, or if you're artistically inclined, Goethe's Color Theory. The quality of thought of one dead master is worth the wan insights of a thousand workshop wannabees.

       Actually, I got Ms. Chasin's chastening poem from a monumentally and intentionally insipid book called it could be verse by John Timpane. One would hope it couldn't be 'verse', John, but perhaps you're right. Just a few pages after Timpane holds up Ms. Chasin's piece as a poetic masterwork, the reader is reminded that Joyce Kilmer also inaugurated the ever important 'Tree School' of poetry. Mr. Timpane uses that shriveled, patrician Philip Larkin's insipid quatrains, cunningly entitled The Tree, as another example of the deep yet unheralded rewards of poetry. Larkin writes:

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.

       Wow, Phil! What a fuckin' profound insight. The nursing home applause is deafening, especially from the retired funeral director. You're a regular existential lumberjack and good old John Timpane is your pedagogical lobbyist. What chance does poetry have in these hands?

       Larkin, whose photograph reminds one personally and poetically of an old, damaged pine wardrobe reeking of moth balls, made some of the most mean-spirited and ignorant comments about modern jazz as well as writing some of the most tight-assed and, as the London Times said, frightened and cowardly verse of this century. Larkin was open to no one's world but his own. His ruling on John Coltrane's music upon the death of the great sax player serves to remind us that no matter how much oppression and brutality post-colonial people have suffered and overcome at the hands of the superiors of overstuffed prigs like Larkin, they cannot quite know the white nitwit like an insider.

       Like the original Georgians that Philip Larkin porks into the first third of the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, the Neo=Georgians are poseurs when it comes to any reality they wish to illuminate. Certainly this is not their intention. But, with their reliance on the sentimental, or Altieri's melodramatic, they have positioned themselves as minor products of a material culture. Indeed, this is overwhelmingly middle class poetry even when written by people who would historically see themselves as revolutionary. What a joke! In many ways the Neo=Georgians are poetry's equivalent to the media. Easy to understand (the book blurb and newspaper review term is 'accessible'), they are as close as this weak bullshit comes to a popular cultural event. Their lack of subtlety, lack of informed intensity, and unwillingness to provide the torrents of information necessary to develop complex themes and ideas, places them squarely but ineffectually at the center of popular culture.

       Seymour-Smith pointed out that the forms of the original Georgians were, using his word, "ininventive". The forms of the Neo=Georgians remain passionately "uninventive". This is largely through the simple-minded pseudo-insights of good folk like Dr. Williams, as alluded to above. To simplify, clearly outgunned by the hated Eliot and his old school pal, Ezra Pound, Williams set out to "make poems" (a phrase coined by Rod Jellema) in an ordinary language with line breaks reflecting the breath. This weak notion following willy-nilly, upon some half-baked excuses proffered by the P.T. Barnum of American poetry, Walt Whitman, led to a further so-called 'democratization' of verse. Considering where Whitman's sensibility has led us, we are now in a position to confront the fundamental dishonesty of his verse and its influence through the reliance on the personal 'I' or a ubiquitous self upon the vacuity and the compulsive mendaciousness of the Neo=Georgians. The reader knows that Whitman, despite all of his vatic posturing, just wanted to fuck, and this sexual aggressiveness is where the exhilaration of his poetry lies. Whitman wanted to fuck the steamfitter, the long shore man, the blacksmith, the soldier with a gut wound, Abraham Lincoln, you. Whitman's prophetic metaphors are driven by physical desire; a physical desire so profoundly unquenchable and frustrated by the sexual repression of his times that his whole body of work is 'electric' with it. Who among the Neo=Georgians in this era of family hour blow jobs can recapture Whitman's juice and funnel it through their dry, little suburban 'self'? Gerald Stern strikes the Vatic pose often in his diction, but it always comes off like wan onanism. The freedom to fuck has forced us to apply other strained interpretations of Whitman's poetic value. It has also rendered it impossible to mimic his intensity. Neo=Georgians, rather than exploiting the camera-like personal 'I' or eye in the style of the modernist filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, instead chose a style closer to home movies that relies on technique and polish to establish their talent hierarchies.

       With Dr. Williams, writing poetry quickly became easier than buying pants in a larger waist size or finding a right wing rant show on AM radio, much less learning to play the violin or precipitating plutonium. The Dr. Williams approach of take two psychological enemas and write a poem in the morning may hold great promise in a culture that was not so overwhelmingly guided by the laws of consumption. A country kept on its political knees by U.S. foreign policy, for example, can generate a poetry of everyday experience that has force. There life-threatening diarrhea aimed at children (an intended consequence of American embargoes, bombings or support for reactionary forces) replaces America's artificial purgation of the satiated.

       The ambivalence in Neo=Georgians is self-indulgence in the face of the obviously homocidal nature of its own system of laws and economy. The sentimentality or melodrama of the Neo=Georgians is not an attempt by poets to encourage consumer interest. But on the other hand, poets do want poetry to be more popular, sensing that this will enhance their position and thus their security, not to mention stroke their egos, which is, of course, the true uninvestigated 'self' of their poems. Whether these bourgeois ambitions are a pipe dream or not is irrelevant. Their failure or success is debated by people who seem to have grossly different interpretations and criteria for what it means to be 'popular' and accepted. For most, simply having a teaching position is enough to make the question of poetry's lack of force in culture incomprehensible to them. Perhaps Michael Lally, who got his start back east here in Washington, DC with Some Of Us Press, would feel that his Los Angeles open readings, where Hollywood starlets come to read their "most open feelings" were the kind of recognition and respect he sought for poetry all along. However, one probably couldn't be faulted for suggesting that Lally's motives have evolved into something less noble and a little more self-serving. Mike has "gotten real"; in other words he's taken what he can get. This often happens when one gets older and begins to realize the limits of one's ability to effect change, especially through poetry, as well as the limits of his or her talents.

       Others can only hope that the negative consequences of enterprises like Lally's don't take poetry beyond the ridiculous. As Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a poet himself, so accurately measured it: "I am happy to see that poets still have a minuscule amount of revolutionary power." Cohen's quote is in response to a Reuters wire that read: "The Academy of American Poets issued what it said was a virtual ultimatum Thursday to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop the violence in Kosovo or face poetic retribution." "Virtual" is the operational word here, i.e. delusional. This is why Cohen, when he 'makes poems', chooses the Neo=Georgian format, because it's safe, sugar-coated, and conceals itself from the 'self' that it unremittingly claims to lay bare.

       Poetry doesn't have enough of a market to interest the business/criminal class that Cohen represents. Poetry isn't even remotely considered a worthy adversary. Western patterns of consumption, expanded by the mechanistic rationalism of Enlightenment science and its engineering-dominated technological applications and its imperialist contracts, ruled out poetry as a viable product long ago. So it would seem there is little point in going that route. In fact, Georgian toadies like Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson played the colonial game, and that, for sheer murderousness, should require beside the names of these poets an asterisk at least as big as the one placed beside Ezra Pound's name. But poet/critics like John Hollander insist on manufacturing a poetry of simple, rational lines hoping, I guess, to be accepted back again into the mainstream of Western civilization like craftsmen that replicate period furniture for an upscale market. There is a whole industry of these literature upholsterers out there now; everybody from Harold Bloom to William Bennett. The connection to the power centers is obvious. Unfortunately, there isn't a talent among them that requires popping the cellophane on a new box of asterisks.

       In the end, however, the Neo=Georgians have played out too much line trying to strike a deal with the very culture that ignores them and this has only made it impossible for poetry to retain the ritualistic and mythic power of a rebellious force. This is the legacy of the Neo=Georgians and is why when Bill Cohen goes to write a poem, as we shall see, he chooses the style of the Neo=Georgians. Bill Cohen is an admirer of John Berryman. How come that doesn't surprise me?

       We have already asserted that the Neo=Georgians are "sentimental in attitude" as Seymour-Smith wrote of the originals. As proof , we will have many a sentimental line garbled our way in the balance of this piece. The sentimentality or 'melodrama' is an important indicator. The sentimentality points to just how much these poems represent pure artifice and just how devoid they are of any authentic self-revelation or candid appraisals of subjects that are addressed within them.

       Finally, just as the old Georgians failed to anticipate the momentous changes, especially in technology, that would come to define the World War I era and its aftermath, so the Neo=Georgians through their own intellectual neglect, fail to understand the context and consequences of the "mechanistic" sciences today. This has rendered them helpless to critique the forces that shape the current cultural malaise, much less be, in Ezra Pound's words, "the antennae of the race." The fallback position, as regards science and technology, is like anything else with the Neo=Georgians, sentimentality. At readings audible oohs and aahs accompany every clever avoidance of self-revelation as though everyone in the audience is relieved that a truth or a thought has once again been circumvented. The Neo=Georgians have no appreciation of how "crudely mechanistic" their approach to "human nature" is, because they have made no effort to understand the scientific paradigms that inform their own third-hand knowledge. If they understood the scientific notions tacitly informing their own concepts of self and the individual, they'd get up and walk out on their own poetry.

       To my mind this is the most deplorable aspect of the Neo=Georgians because they do not consider it germane to understand the conditions of their own 'saying'. Their approach is Aristotelian in that it assumes intuition will suffice. But intuitions derive from an epistemology. Further, this statement in itself means little unless you familiarize yourself with the content and conditions of that epistemology. This lesson is not lost on Neo=Georgians such as Jorie Graham. It's simply that she and others settle for the vague generalized approach. This allows critics like Helen Vendler to make up as she goes along pseudo-intellectual confirmations of Graham's genius, which lack any grounding and validate virtually any scribble by the poet no matter how vacuous or uninspired. Any modestly close evaluations of the substance of Graham's insights in her poems show them to be sophomoric at best. Philosophical sophistication may not be the aim of Neo=Georgian poetry, but if it ain't, don't make claims for its existence in the work.

       Yvor Winters, in his poem, Song, which is part of the sequence, Bare Hills, describes exactly the pathetic condition that the Neo=Georgians have cobbled for poetry even as he contributes to the further demise of poetry.

And I preach to them of
the mystery of this my
sacred craft but no one

           I a poet
Stand about the streets
Alive for any audience
And shivering at the quiet
As at pure thin morning

       Another San Franciscan, Jack Spicer, was to come along and make an inexplicably banal anthem of Winters' commonplace "no one listens" to poetry. But can you blame them?

Bill Cohen, Or Why Do Thugs Fall In Love With the Neo=Georgian Style? Or Why Doesn't It Surprise Me That Charleton Heston's Favorite Poet Is Robert Frost?:

       I'd like to continue my discussion by introducing a Neo=Georgian poet who does not "transcend the insulting category." I do this because this poet is a somewhat unique and highly illustrative case. The poet I am talking about is the current Secretary of Defense and former lawmaker from Maine, William S. Cohen. His volume of verse is called A Baker's Nickel, named after an early monetary exchange with his immigrant grandfather, which Cohen manages to turn into a sentimental sop. I'm only going to work with poems in this volume because, frankly, Cohen is such a relentlessly wretched poet that reading any more of his shit would be too punishing a waste of time. The hour and a half spent reading Cohen's doggerel ranks among the least productive time I've ever spent in my life, and that includes dozens of three-day migraines. A Baker's Nickel is published by William Morrow and Co., a veritable poetic sewage treatment plant where hard disks full of bad verse are transformed into books full of bad verse. It's a Somme for trees. What was the quid pro quo that Cohen offered to get the nits at Morrow to publish this slop? And how ego-ridden is Cohen to think his inanities deserved to be in print? A euphemism has been introduced into the language to describe Neo=Georgian anthologies; they are called Morrownic after the above publisher.

       As I implied above, Cohen stinks. Cohen's crap is like a transparency that we can lay over the entire Neo-Georgian project so that we can better appreciate the utter worthlessness and irrelevance of this style. Then it's on to some of the Neo=Georgians who "inspired" the style that the current Secretary of Defense and former lawmaker finds so harmonious to his own compromised and murderous sensibility. But first I will seek to place Cohen (and by extension his fellow Neo=Georgians) in the school of the old Georgians. Let me quote from a review by Charles Granville of Ezra Pound's third book of poetry, Canzoni, published in Eye-Witness for 10 August 1911. In the course of his tongue-lashing of the young American poet, Granville lays out his manifesto:

"We need not attempt the very difficult task of defining poetry; but we can at least enunciate two or three qualities whose presence is necessary in all poetic compositions.
  1. Poetry is born of the emotions. A true poet is capable of imposing his own emotion upon hearer and reader.
  2. The expression of the poet's emotion must be in rhythmic and beautiful language.
  3. The language must be characterized by perspicuity, for the sole reason that the emotion is not conveyable to reader or hearer unless it be clearly expressed."

       All three of the above commandments have been obeyed by William Cohen and his Neo=Georgian confreres, at least as far as his and their monumentally limited talent will allow. Only commandment number two suggests any craft and this of course is where Bill hits a roadblock as in this paean to the attack class submarine, Augusta, named by his wife, Diana:

"Mighty AUGUSTA,
indifferent to wind and wave,
sail-less, set sail,
under the gaze
of lovely Diana.

       This is truly attack class drivel. Cohen's shit is so full of generalized emotion and Hallmark sentimentality that you can open the book virtually anywhere and find lines like "How can I show my love?" and "I dreamed I stood upon a star."

       Cohen also possesses Granville's commandment number three in abundance: that of PERSPICUITY. The current fashionable term for PERSPICUITY is ACCESSIBILITY. You'll find ACCESSIBILITY touted as a virtue on virtually every dust jacket and newspaper review of a new book of poetry. Among the Neo=Georgians and their hagiographers nothing is more important than ACCESSIBILITY. Journalists love ACCESSIBLE poems because they don't make them work too hard or feel inferior. Journalists, when they're made to feel inferior, become 'objective' (another newspaper bugaboo) and lash out in their ignorance. The best thing that can be said about a journalist who angrily decries an author who is too intelligent and educated for him/her to understand, is that nobody dies as a result of his or her tantrum. The discipline on this score is quite remarkable. As a result, TV commercials have more resonance than Neo=Georgian poetry. In fact, the job of the Neo=Georgians is to clarify everything; the meaning of a hawks call---Henry Taylor; who the known world revolves around---Gerald Stern; the appropriate poetic context for attack submarines---Bill Cohen. A poem should be as accessible, commodifying, and comodifying as Prozac or hand lotion or any other consumer product.

      Accessibility allows the reader of poetry to set the agenda. The reader, demanding instant gratification, prescribes the acceptable paradigms for poetry. This allows an element of control, something the Language critic and poet, Charles Bernstein confuses with censorship. If you're automatically condemned for being judged incomprehensible, and your reader doesn't know very much (e.g. a columnist from the Washington Post), the only acceptable poetry is that of Garth Brooks, Joni Mitchell, Jewel, and the Neo=Georgians. Jim Morrison, Dory Previn, and Patty Smith become Modernists by default. Charles Olson or David Jones are non-persons in a literary environment that, for the life of me, seems free market authoritarian. It doesn't require censorship because there is no actual (only a potential) audience for intelligent poetry. Like any 'free market', only marketing will break this impasse and Langpo has accomplished quite a bit, at least in academic circles, by exploiting this system. As Joe Brennan has pointed out numerous times, Langpo has not produced an enduring body of work but has cleverly allied itself with notions of the temporary in art in order to turn this deficiency into an intended virtue. Therefore Langpo remains more a school of criticism than a force in poetry.

       ACCESSIBILITY, the roots of which are ignorance and laziness, is seen as the equivalent of accommodating a lesser mind even if it means sacrificing the product of a profounder one. It litters the flyleaves of book jackets in stores and appears in every review of poetry that appears in the Washington Post. THERE IS NO GREATER SIN THAN TO BE INACCESSIBLE. I don't see James Glassman or Robert Samuelson (too business pimps at the Post) rejecting Microsoft stock because they find the science behind it inaccessible. What if I told you that I reject the efficacy of information theory or genetics because I can't immediately comprehend the work of Claude Shannon, Pitts and McCulloch or Watson and Crick? Sure, I've written critically of the theoretical assumptions of science and technology elsewhere, but it's from a position of investigation and an effort to understand what I eventually came to criticize. Further, I find that I'm never alone in my criticism, that much of the like criticism comes from within the scientific community, and that the outcomes are most often determined by those who have the most economic and political power. Since these conflicts involve epistemological questions, they are not seen as central to the pragmatic agendas of science nor as subject to science's declared 'objective' standards, even though those 'objective standards' are virtually always ignored in order to respond to economic and political considerations as theories are reconstituted as pragmatic, technical projects. Nowadays, experimentation to confirm theoretical results, where possible, requires huge and costly engineering projects that are subject to the compromises placed on empirically fostered 'objectivity' that the limitations of materials, expertise, and money impose.

       The lionizing of the Neo=Georgians is not unlike the results garnered from 'philosophical' differences in the sciences. Never mind that there exist various forms of expression, experience, and levels of knowledge. Never mind that your potential reader steadfastly refuses to do any preparatory work. It is insulting to a reader not to be provided with a ubiquitous and culture-bleached vocabulary of experience and 'emotion' lest he feel inferior. The distress among journalists when Joyce's Ulysses was touted as the novel of the century is a graphic example. A number of print pimps in Washington attacked the book because they couldn't understand it. If THEY couldn't understand it, the book must be flawed in some way. The authoritarian and conformist element in this is not hard to see. It's the reverse of the arguments of cultural bias that surround standardized testing. I'm reminded of what my late-friend, Joyce scholar and fellow translator with Ezra Pound, Rudd Fleming, said after we heard a reading by two Soviet agitprop poets at a private home in Northwest Washington. Fleming and I retired to the ample buffet, and Fleming rubbing his hands in anticipation of the spread before us said, "Well that was easy." ACCESSIBILITY is also seen as a way to expand market base, but personally I'd hold out for some serious bread up front before I wrote down to please the current poetry market.

       So Bill Cohen's poetry possesses two of the three necessary qualities found in the Neo=Georgians as well as the old Georgians. Bill is emotional and Bill is accessible. Its no surprise that by quotation Cohen links the Neo=Georgians with the old. In his volume Cohen quotes both A. E. Housman and Czeslaw Milosz. Nobody's ever accused either Housman or Milosz of not understanding on what side their bread was buttered. It is now axiomatic that Housman is an anachronism appreciated only by untalented amateurs like Bill Cohen. Only a few inconsequential voices like me and Milosz himself (in his public statements) seem to realize that the Polish poet has nothing to say and that he would prefer that his motives for writing poems go unexamined. The distance between an old or Neo=Georgian and his product no matter how superficially personal suggests that poetic truth lies beyond emotion, sentiment or confession. Why would a publisher choose to publish a blithering thug like William Cohen? More importantly, as Joe Brennan put it, "Why would a thug like Bill Cohen find the poetry of the Neo=Georgians so amenable to his way of thinking?" Bill Cohen, who much of his adult life has been steeped in the corruption of the military industrial complex and now is pivotal to the continued flow of devices for murder around the world, declares, by imitation, the Neo=Georgians as his poetic example of choice. What does that say about all the pious, egalitarian bullshit that infests the lyrics of the Neo=Georgians? It says that it is compromised before it hits the page. It is compromised and made impossible in the minds and through the ambitions of the Neo=Georgians themselves.

Mom and a Couplet of Other Great Lays: Family as a Tool of Ambition:

       The collective body of work by the Neo=Georgians is huge. It is largely populated by short poems of no more than a couple of hundred lines, so it is also a fragmented canon. Yet there is an unmistakable sameness radiated by the work of the Neo=Georgians. No matter the length of a poem by a Neo=Georgian, it can only be lyric. This is because implicitly but mostly explicitly the assumptions and limitations of the preponderant use of the personal 'I' is on display. The Neo=Georgians remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that the 'I' itself is a semantic, epistemological and poetic device that predetermines the parameters of the poem itself. It constricts a poem more severely than any other strategy. Further, it has many implied forms. The failure to say anything enduring for so long has given rise to a plethora of techniques, all of which confirm 'the self' as the sole available unifying force.

       At first glance the uncritical and ubiquitous use of the personal 'I' would suggest an immediate and automatic communality---an instant universality. After all, we all have selves, identities. Why not use the eye's 'I' as a template? But linguistically the notion of a universal personal 'I' already excludes most non-Indo-european languages from semantic affiliation but who the fuck cares. With the rapid evolution of technology, all other cultures and languages have no alternative but to succumb to such delusions as 'free market democracies' and what is the poetry of the Neo=Georgians if not an expression of the leisure and material xenophobia brought on by western industrialization. Even when the Neo=Georgians reject the authority of material culture, they, because of their lack of anything but sentimental alternatives, sound like an advertisement in favor of it.

       Further, the communality that at first glance seems to be communicated so easily from writer to audience, quickly spirals inward. Both writer and the relatively meager audience for such work ultimately are bewildered by the easy and ultimately impersonal and slack effect of the Neo=Georgian product. Though never satisfying, neither are the Neo=Georgians addicting. The Neo=Georgians share this quality with Langpo or as it's known by its intimate second person designation, Langy Poo. Both never deliver. And it's not a problem of closure. Langpo never amounts to anything, and in the Neo=Georgians, the personal 'I' is so convenient as be nonsensical. The personal 'I' is the instant pudding of poetic diction.

       The fact is, the personal 'I' of the Neo=Georgians is an expression of personal ambition. When I queried the great Slingpo, Joe Brennan about this matter, I received this reply:


your question about why [William S.] Cohen would choose the neo-georgian route avoids the obvious-- which I understand is a problem for you poobah intellectuals -- other than becoming a creative artist at Hallmark cards, there's no other form or mode of poetry that I can think of off hand whose empathy and honesty wouldn't have overwhelmed b.c. as the other b.c. demonstrates daily, human sensitivity is a decided drawback when embarking on acts of unprincipled ambition. So it seems to me that brother bill is not only inadequate personally, he wouldn't have it any other way -- a minuscule talent exploiting the same sophomoric utility that allows one to swoon over one's thoughts without actually having to have any. As runyan might have said, his lack of sensitivity to others is only overcome by his inability to feel anything for them."

       So if Brennan's thesis is correct (and I have no doubt it is), then when working in the Neo=Georgian mode, ambition, which is always extraneous and therefore harmful to the demands of poetic creation itself, erodes the very "empathy" and "honesty" that are the very "Hallmark" of poetry.

       In Roland Flint's poem, A Letter Home, we are given a textbook example of how a poet by not investigating his motives or intentions in writing a poem types a totally dishonest one. What's worse, in this particular instance as with most Neo=Georgian scribbles, this all seems to be done in the name of honest confession but simply ends in the exploitation of the subject, in this case his mom. His mom remains otherwise nameless in the poem. Flint constructs the poem as a letter home ostensibly to confess an incident where his reckless behavior, e.g. choking himself with a dishrag, may have caused his mother some residual anxiety. The stated purpose is to confess and in the process analyze the event:

Mother, this month I'm going to be forty-nine,
I've never told you the truth about that night,…

       The poet relates the details of his erstwhile "hanging" but as to motive he's not sure.

I was trying to dream about hanging myself,
how it would be, or acting out a movie fantasy
of my execution by the lynch mob--
maybe it was something like that--
but it's possible I was thinking of nothing.

       This is all fair enough if a trifle laconic in such a purportedly urgent letter. "Thinking of nothing," since there seems to be no pretensions toward Heideggerian phenomenology in the poem, is a comment more pregnant with implications than anything else in the work.

       But then Flint takes over his unnamed mother's psyche, and we realize that she is just a mask:

What a nightmare I was to you--
I might have died many times,
From carelessness and experimenting:

       Certainly, for most parents these childish experiences are disturbing, but Flint relates ones that his mother couldn't have known about and lards it with ones that are not life-threatening. It comes off like bragging. Then he relates a potentially life threatening incident with his daughter in which his daughter does not act recklessly. It is pure accident. This device is supposed to trigger his bout with confession but arrives late in the poem. Mom gets used. It's all about Roland as in the last lines:

Thank God you came in when you did,
mother, for the life you gave,
what it's been and what it will be.

       Of course Flint is thinking also of his daughter and the generational thing as end of the poem gathers toward its Hallmark moment.

       Bill Cohen strikes the same tone and similar themes in poems about his son. Cohen concludes a dabble called No Definition with these lines:

You are essence,
I conclude, an intelligence
that burns into words
that need no definition.

       Cohen's use of direct address mirrors Flint's same usage. No surprise there. Simply an attempt to suggest an intimacy on the cheap. And like Flint, Cohen can't define the subject of his poem. Flint won't face the real reasons for his reckless behavior and what this has to do with his mother and how he feels about her. And Cohen won't relate any aspect of the true relation between father and son. Both poems are sentimental drivel though Flint's is clearly drivel of a higher order.

       Cohen actually captures the untutored, anti-intellectual, ubiquitous tone of Flint's poem and the Neo=Georgians in general in his poem celebrating his son's birthday, entitled "A Birthday":

And I shall marvel
at the mystery and mercy
of it all.

       Even highly touted poets like Jorie Graham lard their poems with melodramatic, pseudo-existential, paper-wasting, tree-killing questions like "Oh why are you here on this earth…?" or "how far is true?", reminiscent of the wonderfully naïve musical queries that used to get you a shot on American Bandstand. Remember the petroleum-based publications, Why Do Fools Fall In Love? or Who Wrote the Book of Love? The Neo=Georgians don't have any critical or intellectual tools to do any more than "marvel". Anthologies, such as MacMillan's Best American Poetry series, read like the high school publication in "The Dead Poet's Society." I think David Lehmann is actually Robin Williams. A first year divinity student could prune away for Graham all those vague adolescent questions that seem to trouble her. It's because Bill Cohen can get up in the A.M. and facilitate a murderous air strike that he chooses the fundamentally dishonest poetic style of the Neo=Georgians because "it allows one to swoon over one's thoughts without actually having any." Sentimentality is brutish.

       If Flint uses his mother, Robert Hass abuses his. In Dragonflies Mating Hass writes:

…And I remembered how I hated it
after school--because I loved basketball practice more than

on earth-- that I never knew if my mother was going to show up

well into one of those weeks of drinking she disappeared into,
and humiliate me in front of my classmates with her bright,

     confident eyes,…

       You can almost see Melanie Griffith or Jessica Lange playing the role of the drunken mother. But Hass's intention is simply to find material for the general thesis and maintenance of his poem. Dragonflies fucking provide the ending for some broad and totally unnecessary rumination on the settling of California. Unfortunately, Hass has to drag the great linguist Jaime de Angulo into his discourse. But by the end of section 3 all intellectual pretense has been abandoned and the poem gets personal, apparently the only ground upon which the Neo=Georgians can operate. Like the Franciscans who brought both "faith" and "syphilis" to California Indians, so Hass is a tad ambivalent about his mom. And in the end, like Flint and Cohen, Hass struggles to find a cosmic connection for all the gibberish and manipulation that has preceded. He turns to psychoentymology babble; "They can't separate probably until it is done." They being the dragonflies and by extension him and his mom and all the rest of the memories that inhabit the poem. Till death do them part--"probably" says Hass; or "probably" Bob loved his mom in more ways than one, which is why Melanie Griffith gets cast as the mom because, pal, that way it's just easier to imagine doing the nasty with her. Where Hass' real mother is in all of this, I couldn't tell you--probably somewhere in the only reflective word in the whole damn poem; no, not syphilis--"probably". That's just how thorough a failure the style of the Neo=Georgians is.

       But after a reading, some of the women in the audience will come up to Flint and say, "Roland, I had no idea you were such a reckless youth. I only saw you as a conservative, suburban, academic poet." They'll rush up to Hass and go; "My father was a drunk, and I can identify with your experience. Can we go somewhere for a drink?" This is the Neo=Georgians' sense of poetic community. With Cohen female admirers just lie and say, "I loved your peaux-em," because being an ex-congressman/senator and now Secretary of Defense is worth more in sex appeal than a laureateship, six Pulitzer prizes and ten books of poetry published by Knopf. As Joe Brennan said, since "Cohen can only manage the style of the Neo=Georgians, discussing his poetry was of no consequence. But if he wrote like Ezra Pound--well, then we'd have the makings of real tragedy."

The Orgone Box or the Poetry Box?:

       I don't know about the local newspaper where you folks live, but in mine---the pathetic Washington Post---the local poetry matrons are treated to what I have come to call Robert Hass' 'kitty litterature box.' This is a small plot, the size of an ad for wholesale meat, on the inside of the wan and sad Book World section devoted to little poems that strike the enormously limited fancy of the former poet laureate, Mr. Hass. This little Sunday sigh at the art of miniature 'poem making' had its origins with Hass' tenure as the poet laureate and god knows what grotesque menage with the editors of Book World. It's the literary equivalent of making doilies.

       In the September 27, 1998, issue, Hass profiled the poetry of the late James Wright. James Wright was a limp and uninspired poet at best. Though Hass's selection only confirms the above criticism of Wright, his choices are revealing as regards the political attitudes of the Neo=Georgians and the level of commitment or lack thereof that they bring to poetry in general. Hass quotes in its entirety---13 lines---, Depressed By a Bad Book of Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me. The languid and flaccid title itself suggests that Wright's horoscope probably said do not attempt to write any poetry today. And I'm certain that if the insects really gave a fuck, they would have opted to be left out of Wright's pathetic little exercise.

       But the poem does hold out some hope for novelty. Wright has rendered a starkly critical opinion about one of his fellow poets and has actually been depressed by the poet's book. Now any response other than drowsiness might be considered desirable when considering a collection by a Neo=Georgian. So one unfamiliar with Wright's work might be expecting a little fireworks vis-a-vis the 'bad' poet. But no; "Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone," writes Wright. No Swift or Pope here. The offending poet is not named. His offending lines are not quoted. The prized turf-protecting etiquette is preserved. But what's worse is that we are left to accept that the unnamed poet is bad by fiat and by Wright's fiat who sets his judgments in 13 lines of torpid and inconsequential obtuseness. Wright and Hass perpetuate the cronyism and cowardice that makes the bad poet possible in the first place. Neo=Georgian poetry is nothing if it isn't safe.

       And in the very next issue of Book World Hass demonstrates the obstructionist and colonial nature of the Neo=Georgian project. He cites a new anthology of Filippino poetry called Returning a Borrowed Tongue. But the poem he quotes is indistinguishable from the kind of limp, sepia-toned memory muck and neotonous solipsism that characterizes the imperialist-based Neo=Georgians. Filippino culture and by extension its poetry have been extinguished by colonial persecution and commerce. Hass celebrates that annihilation with his praise for this watered-down version of white, middle class Neo=Georgian sensibilities representative of this collection. Characteristic of Neo=Georgian sympathies, the Filippino poet's rebellion consists of dream states and childish states of consciousness. English words that she is assigned to write in school as a child become 'furry animals' or 'pebbles.' This, of course, is a language acceptable to colonial grant programs, graduate schools and literary prizes. Aguinaldo, Rizal, Magsaysay, the Huks, Marcos, Lodge, McKinley, Roosevelt, Ed Landsdale, not to mention Spanish colonialism, the whole lengthy, bloody castration of a people, is reduced to a ubiquitous personal experience focusing on the 'I' expressed in a voice acceptable to the oppressor, e.g. Robert Hass. In retrospect, the oppressor seems benign which, of course, he decidedly was not.

We Are the World:

       And what if, for instance, a poet came along who during decades of reading and rumination wrote a series of critiques of natural science in the form of Pound's Cantos, Duncan's Field Work and/or Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. What would his fellow poets make of such an endeavor? Well, if the poet had no political-academic clout, they would ignore it. For as Stephen Rodefer has said while standing on his "hassock," "It is not the business of poetry to say anything." Then in his long poem published in Ron Silliman's In the American Tree, he sets out to prove his point. Oh, it's not that Rodefer doesn't sound like he wants to say something. For instance, he writes, "The gods and scientists heap their shit on Buffalo and we're out there, scavenging plastic trees." It 's one thing to make these assertions from a position of nothing more than a layman's knowledge, but it's quite another to establish a fundamental evil through close study of its source. In other words, poems that "say nothing at all" are in the same category as poems that don't know what they are talking about. That's why Vendler's praise for Jorie Graham sounds as tormented as Charles Bernstein's for Bob Perelman or, tautologically, vice versa.

       One can't escape the feeling that Rodefer didn't know enough about some of his explicitly stated concerns to provide a poetry of content. Another problem becomes apparent when poets without content venture too close to the flame of meaning. More often than not it becomes obvious that they have no talent for writing that way. Many Language poets in their more lucid moments, from major domos like Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, to obvious hacks and phonies like Doug Messerli, reveal themselves as little more than third rate Neo=Georgians when they attempt to communicate an idea or sensibility within the poem itself. Writing poetry has never been as easy as the Neo=Georgians make it look. But other lesser known attempts to get over by avoiding the task of actually saying something ultimately add nothing to the canon unless that canon becomes thoroughly usurped politically and theoretically. Then poetry will be left with a true authoritarianism, one in which the members blindly praise each other in a hermetic environment where they begin to believe the myths that they tell one other about their power and influence. In fact, I think that it's well on its way. Doug Messerli recently posted on the Poetics List out of Buffalo that Sun & Moon Press had a mailing list of 500 and then proceeded to pat his own ass as regards to how open and, by implication how large, such a following was. This while Doug takes measured drafts of California air on a planet of 5.5 billion people. Just imagine. One of every 5,480,000 Americans is on Doug's mailing list. And Doug does it all without offering a set of free steak knives!

       I remember, back in the early seventies, hearing Langpo Robert Grenier read one of his great, great poems in a little carburetor repair shop/disco called the Greesy Toon wedged between a slaughter house and a CIA raw opium processing plant in the Lower Eastside. The poem in part goes:


vell I, vell I
vell I, vell I
snowy vell I
vell I don't know

oh vell I, oh well, I
well I don't know
oh, vell, I don't know

       When I left the reading three Norwegian tourists, who had stumbled upon the reading, were kicking the shit out of Bob in the parking lot. What higher praise!?