American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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The Ungallant Cynic

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A few weeks back, Jessica Smith wrote on her blog, “most of the great poets writing today are women.”

At the time, I didn’t have an opinion on the matter — or rather, I had a lot of opinions, but no urge to sort them — so I put it all out of my head. But then, yesterday, reading James L. Onderdonk’s History of American Verse (1901), I came upon a characterization that brought it back to mind.

According to Onderdonk, there were no women poets worthy of mention after Anne Bradstreet … until the Revolution, at which time a great many came to sudden prominence. Onderdonk names five — Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis Warren, Ann Eliza Bleeker, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Susannah Rowson — then gives brief summaries of their lives — not their work — before offering the following:

Taking them all in all, these songstresses constituted a singular group. An ungallant cynic might well ask what degree of literary excellence would be expected of a band made up chiefly of a negro slave, a female revolutionist, a hypochondriac, a society belle, and a gushing sentimentalist. Yet it was from such a heterogeneous source that our infant literature was receiving its nourishment.

Which means, of course, that ours is not the first period about which it might be said, most of the best are women. Though in Onderdonk’s case, the claim is not exactly a rousing endorsement. He offers it with a trace of disgust. In fact, the disgust is what I find most noteworthy, the deference he shows to the “ungallant cynic,” whose point of view is put forward in the very act of being disclaimed.

The cynic, of course, is Onderdonk himself, who imagines that we all must be cynics too. Predisposed to dismissing these women for their status, their occupations, their personal qualities, he reminds himself — I mean, he reminds us — that they are nonetheless mothers, or anyhow nursemaids, deserving of respect, if only for the sake of the infant they nourish.

Is there a lesson in this? Probably not. But it does make me realize how dissimulating a business claim-making is. Offered as a description of poetry, a claim is more often a way of constituting the world — the world we think we inhabit. Does that world embarrass us? Excite us? Annoy us? Bring contentment? And why? The why of the feeling is at least as important as the truth of the claim that generates it.

As for me, what I mostly feel now is curiosity. About Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson. I seem to have missed her in David Shields’s anthology.

As far as worlds go: I want one big enough to get lost in.

On Usury Laws

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Stan Apps has written a delightful essay on Pound’s “Usura” canto (link here), giving the poem credit for its beautiful language while calling in the chit for meaning. He does Pound a favor, taking the poem’s economic theory at face value — as Pound himself would have wanted — but of course this is no favor at all since Pound’s thinking is so shoddy in this context. Confronted with that shoddiness, many a critic has lent Pound a hand, and done such a good job, you cease to recognize the original structure. Other critics pause to gander, but move on quickly after noting the filth. A few others, very few, go through Pound’s premises room by room, identifying all the violations of code. The delight of Stan’s essay is its restraint: he observes Pound’s thought in all its ramshackle glory, but only in order to make a sketch, which he does with an architect’s eye. A piercing, disengaged appraisal.

My excuse for mentioning Pound here: Stan’s post brought to mind an 1836 essay by William Cullen Bryant, “On Usury Laws,” which adopts the exact opposite stance as The Cantos. For Bryant, money is a commodity like any other, entitled like any other to profitable investment; the usury laws, which fix the interest on loans, are a fetter on free trade. Like Pound, he denounces the ignorance of common understanding, but his ignorance is Pound’s corrective. Here is  Bryant’s opening paragraph:

The fact that the usury laws, arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive as they are, and unsupported by a single substantial reason, should have been suffered to exist to the present time, can only be accounted for on the ground of the general and singular ignorance which has prevailed as to the true nature and character of money. If men would but learn to look upon the medium of exchange, not as a mere sign of value, but as value itself, as a commodity governed by precisely the same laws which affect other kinds of property, the absurdity and tyranny of legislative interference to regulate the extent of profit which, under any circumstances, may be charged for it, would at once become apparent.

Bryant’s arguments are familiar enough: a lender’s return should be proportionate to risk; without that return, fewer loans would be made, and economic development would stifle. Also familiar: the laws hurt the very people they’re supposed to protect. OK, not very interesting. Worth maybe a sentence or two in a book on poetry and economics.

But it did give me a thought. Call it a thought bubble — better than an economic bubble: an episode of Deadliest Warrior, with Pound and Bryant doing battle. Crank up those computer simulations! If it’s not too prejudicial saying crank…

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Paying Little Mind to Major Poets

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Let me start with Emerson’s best-known aphorism, from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What Emerson means here is partly explained by the rest of his sentence: “…adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A roundabout way of saying that priests are as foolish as politicians, as tedious as logicians. Or else, instead, that little minds are tormented by what great ones adore. Or maybe that little minds like to be tormented. Emerson can be so confusing.

Be all that as it may, I do value consistency, and have often wondered about my own lack of it vis-à-vis nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets. For instance, the fact that I’m happy ignoring whole areas of activity in the later period, whereas, in the earlier, I’d like someday to have an understanding of the whole. In the later period, I’m even willing to ignore major figures (so-called), whereas, in the earlier, importance, however defined, serves perfectly well as a basis for paying attention. The reason, I’ve often told myself, is that I have the luxury of dispassion when it comes to the nineteenth century. I can be a scholar in my reading, setting aside the necessity for making choices, the need a practitioner feels to insist on his or her own commitments. For when it comes to the twentieth century (and the twenty-first too, of course), I’m a poet first. I find myself — or rather my work — implicated in the projects I consider. To grant certain poets, even historically unavoidable ones, their credence would be to bestow on them the benefit of my interest and so qualify the interest — and credence — of the work I do myself, or at least of the work that makes possible what I do.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve told myself, now and again, trying to understand my lack of patience with the present-day equivalents to antebellum versifiers whose writings I do manage to approach with sympathy. It’s a good solution, I think, this distinction I make between reading as a scholar and reading as a poet. … Too bad it’s probably bunk. In both centuries, I let my curiosity guide me, and often become quite taken with poets out of proportion to their actual importance as anyone else might see it. In my nineteenth century, for example, Bayard Taylor is much more important than Jones Very, and Fitz-Greene Halleck is much more lasting than E. A. Robinson. Which may sound reasonable to you, but that’s only because Whitman and Dickinson have so skewed our perceptions. Basically, this is like saying that Randall Jarrell is more important than T. S. Eliot, Joanne Kyger more lasting than Robert Frost. Which I do believe, by the way.

But please don’t mistake this as a “post-avant” vs. “school of quietude” argument (the Jarrell reference ought to clarify that). I’m talking about taking one’s own interests seriously, which is precisely a redrawing of such existing lines. For me, Marianne Moore is the center of modernism, not Eliot, or Pound, or Williams, and that means I can read Merrill and Ashbery with equal pleasure, while finding Lowell and Duncan — who drank too deeply of the Four Quartets — almost unbearable.

And therein lies for me the big difference between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: I find so much more of the latter century’s poetry unbearable. And not because it’s worse, mind you, but because it touches me more deeply, more directly. I may be put to sleep by James Russell Lowell, but he doesn’t irritate me like Robert. That irritation, I would add, says much less about Lowell — or me — than it does about the nature of proximity.

Putting this all together, I’d say that as a scholar, I read like a poet who has gone numb. Or rather: as a poet, I read like a scholar with bad allergies. Except that the difference is not between scholarship and poetry, but centuries. As I move further into the past, I find it easier to withhold judgment. In the present and near past, judgment withholds me.

So yes, I’m inconsistent, but no longer tortured about it. And not because I’m now “self-reliant.” It’s immersion in the social I accept, my vantage on the past, and future, I’ve acknowledged. Which leads, I hope, to the ultimate inconsistency: revision. After all, what good is history if it can’t be rewritten, reconsidered, redeployed?

Update: Ron Silliman has written a response to this post (link here), leading to further remarks of my own (here).

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 15, 2009 at 8:21 am

Manhatta (1921)

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manhattaManhatta (1921).

A ten-minute film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler inspired by Walt Whitman, with lines from Whitman interspersed, viewable at UbuWeb (go here)

A predecessor to Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927), viewable at the Internet Archive (go here).

I meant to write something about these two, but I’ve been packing up an apartment, and now I must shut down my computer, and fill up my truck. Perhaps in the coming weeks I’ll get back to it.

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

Only a Few Days Left…

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…to buy my book Simulcast at half price. It’s a work of conceptual art disguised as literary criticism: all of the writing (apart from the introduction) is based on a source text. The ostensible subject is modern and contemporary poetry, but there’s a nineteenth-century angle too: a good chunk of the book is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s literary criticism.


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Written by Ben Friedlander

August 28, 2009 at 12:33 am

Posted in Everything Else

American Eggceptionalism

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That famous Egg of Plymouth Rock,
Laid by a fowl of noble stock,
Was hatched, about that time o’clock,
They stepped ashore —
The pastor and his little flock
The Mayflower bore.

A sample egg, a pattern food,
Un Œuf, that as a feast is good,
A grand egg-sample set: fain would
Men imitate;
Get eagles’ eggs, too, if they could,
And incubate.

— Abraham Coles, The Microcosm and Other Poems (1881)

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

Posted in Everything Else

Poems of Places 7

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From Poems of Places, vol. 17, Germany 1 (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


I’ve spent the past month packing up my father’s library, in preparation for his move to Maine. He and his late wife were historians, both doing their principal work on the holocaust, and the vast majority of the books are on that and related topics. Going through them, I’ve paid particular attention to items that touch on family history: my father is a survivor, born in Berlin, then deported to Łódź with his family, and after that to Auschwitz and other camps. There are a great many books that touch on those places, and I find them evocative even when they don’t pertain precisely to my father’s experience — as in the book shown below, which does not appear to include the Jewish school my father attended in the 1930s.

berlinIn the midst of all this packing and browsing, it occurred to me to look up the family sites in Poems of Places, just to see if anything interesting was there. I’m a big believer in the value of bibliomancy: ever since learning about the medieval practice of using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, I’ve paid attention to randomly chosen text; fortuitous juxtapositions are even better. It’s not that I believe in such oracles, only in the value of exploring their hermeneutic possibilities. I have greater respect for chance than divination; I trust in fortune, not fortunetelling.

juvens1All that said, very few of the places I looked up were represented. There are some evocative poems about Poland in the Russia volume, but none about Łódź or Oświęcim. Nor are there poems in the Germany volumes about the cities of Braunschweig, where my father was briefly a prisoner near the end of the war, or Brandenburg, where the family went to stay in the days after Kristallnacht. I did find a few interesting resonances with other cities, most notably the text below, Longfellow’s sole entry for Berlin.

I have to wonder what other choices Longfellow had, since the poem has almost nothing to do with Berlin, or even with Germany. It concerns a Greek statue from 300 BC commonly known as “The Praying Boy.” Of course, since the Nazis considered Jews a foreign element, I find it fitting that Longfellow’s choice for Berlin should concern an outsider, indeed a refugee, if only a refugee from antiquity. And if this interpretation seems forced, note that the poem itself presents the boy in just this way: as a survivor miraculously pulled from the mass grave of history.

A few minutes with Google unearths the poem’s prior publication in The Monthly Religious Magazine (1862), as well as a later publication in Every Other Sunday (1900), the latter as part of an article on the statue that inspired the poem. Given these pious contexts, it is not surprising that the author, Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, was a minister. A Unitarian minister, part of the broader circle of New England intellectuals that included the Transcendentalists, with whom Frothingham was on friendly terms.

According to Frothingham’s headnote, “The Praying Boy” was dredged from the Tiber at the end of the seventeenth century, an origin central to the poem’s story, though it doesn’t seem to agree with what the curators in Berlin currently say about the statue. Indeed, according to some commentators, the statue is not even a depiction of prayer. They say the boy’s arms are raised because he is carrying a lost object. But whatever the statue’s original meaning, its altered meaning — the very fact that its meaning has altered — only adds to the sense that the bronze is alive, that it’s subject like any actual person to the vicissitudes of time. For this reason, the story of the boy’s recovery from the Tiber is as meaningful as his pose, whether that story is true or merely a myth.

If you look closely at the cover of Jüdische Schulen in Berlin, you’ll see that there’s a tall boy in the center of the crowd with his arms raised in a manner that rhymes with that of the statue. The meaning of the poses is of course different, but the natural gesture of upraised arms makes an evocative parallel, suggesting welcome and fellowship in one case, solitary thanks in the other:
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