Vegetables dream of responding to you

OK, let’s reveal where the words from the last post, Poetry in Translation,  came from and what I know about their context—but stick around, as this is going to relate back to those 20th Century theories about how poetry works. If you haven’t listened yet read and listened to Poetry in Translation,  this would be a good time to scroll down and do so.

Earlier this month I was making some tea and talking to my son in the kitchen. He asked about what kind of tea I was making. I picked up the box to show him, Tazo Peachy Green tea. I noticed there was something more than an ingredients list and those filled-circle graphs of how much caffeine was stuck inside the individually bagged dried leaves. So, I broke into my Parlando Voice, improvising line break pauses as the early 20th Century Modernists have ingrained in me, and read it to him:

Poetry in Translation from Tazo Peach Tea

Modernist verse in the supermarket?

My son, now a teenager, is making sure that he’s nobody’s fool. “They must be smoking that tea, not drinking it.”

We both laughed.

Modernists a century ago would have liked this. “Found Objects” and use of commercial ready-mades in art and Dada japes were ingrained in Modernism during its avant garde phase. I’d have fit right in at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 if I was to have read this wacky and rapturous advertising copy from the tea box while Hugo Ball played piano.

Some will see a Picasso sculpture, others will wonder if a bicyclist won’t be able to ride home

But as Modernism moved to the universities, and I. A. Richards’ and John Crowe Ransom’s “New Criticism” solution to the problem of unreliable interpretation became predominate by mid-century, things would change.

Simplifying wildly, the New Criticism suggested that the reader, not just poets and writers, needed to get under the hood and figure out what made poetry run. Inside every poem was the ideal poem, an expression of complex ideas or states of being placed there by it’s writer. The poems surface, though it may have some interest itself, was only the wrapper surrounding this more sublime poem. This bridged over the revolutions in poetic language, by making less important changes in the way poetry spoke, such as the widespread use of rhyme and free verse. John Donne, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens—the different music of the words made no difference, the rich images portraying important thoughts could be studied side-by-side.

Imagery became poetry, more or less (yes, meter and sound were still attended to, but they dropped in importance). The original Modernists, including the Imagists, sought to kill off centuries of ingrained and tired imagery that had become merely decorative, and replace it with more integral and concrete images, palpable things. But just as when one finally cleans out a closet, time passing will clutter it again. If images contain the soul of poetry, and if deep reading is the best and proper way to encounter a poem, then complex and hermetic images will offer more of the poetic experience.

There’d been something of a cult of great poetry before, often based on important subject matter or the extent of readership, but as the New Criticism ascended to orthodoxy, the ideal of great poetry became stronger and used new criteria. Poems with densely jammed complex imagery requiring close reading and educational training to comprehend were great. Poems that didn’t do this were highly suspect—and likely harmful, in that they did not reinforce this new critical understanding of the soul of poetry.

As I said last time, this is how I was taught to understand poetry in the midcentury.

How can we return to the box of tea with its peach singing to the cucumber of its deathless desire? The midcentury New Critics presumed the supremacy of the poem and the poet’s intent. Later in the 20th Century new literary theorists arose, and the subjective experience of the reader became the place where the poem existed. The poem means what you think it means, which may be different from what another reader thinks it means. Meanings extracted from even the merest of texts could still be complex and valid. The intent of the author is not important, they could well be mistaken.

Now our singing peach isn’t a joke at the expense of exalted literature, it’s an expression of the woo of consumer culture signifying exotic essence through the appropriation of an ancient amphitheater dramatizing barely sublimated vegetable desires. Or it may be something a tired copywriter churned out on Friday afternoon before leaving work and picking up takeout on the way home to feed the kids.

As I said, I’m simplifying, but for the mid-century New Critics the poem existed objectively deep inside the poem where the poet put it. For the late 20th Century Deconstructionists and their contemporaries, the poem existed subjectively in its readers experience of it and the structures around that.

Coming up, is there a reconciliation between those two views? How will the 21st Century view what poetry is and where the poem lives? Will the cucumber and the peach find a meaningful relationship before they are dried and bagged?

Don’t worry if you’re missing the usual music and words meeting up here, we’ll return to that soon enough too. I promise variety, not predictability. To tide you over, here’s Dave Moore and the LYL Band running through his song, set in the late 19th Century, called “The Green Fairy.” 

Poetry in Translation

I remember reading about this some years back, and found it fascinating then. In my memory it was the American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom who was the teacher, but in searching this week for more detail, the perpetrator named was English poet and critic I. A. Richards. My memory still says Ransom did something similar, but let’s stay with Richards since I can verify it.

The time frame is the 1920s. The Modernists (due to painful copyright laws, the newest poets whose work can be freely used here by the Parlando Project) had begun their ascendency into the mainstream of English language poetry. But the Victorian era, including the later work of the Romantics and the whole of the William Morris/Pre-Raphaelite revival that preceded the Modernist revolution was not that long ago, within the memory of teachers and critics alive then, like the post WWII era or “The Sixties” would be today. The Romantics had been a revolution in how poetry speaks, and those that followed them took different paths from that revolution, and now the Modernists proposed a counter-revolution, once more changing how poetry speaks.

Had poetry, in some Platonic ideal state, it’s essence, changed; or had only the language and form it took to express its inner nature changed?

In such at time, the question of aesthetics, of what constitutes poetry and what are (or should be) its goals and effects, would naturally come to the fore. If one is a teacher, one might examine this by teaching, and so Richards devised an experiment. He gave students at Cambridge, a leading English university, a packet of poems which were without the names of their authors or any context about when they were written—they were even without their titles—and asked the students to write about them, to interpret them. I’m not sure if he presupposed what the results would be, but summaries of the experiment report he was surprised at the results. Their interpretations were poor, and often included what he knew to be misinterpretations. The students often resorted to personal experiences or rote sentimentality to explain the poems. As a result, the interpretations of the poems varied considerably as they missed their mark in different directions.

You might think, “Well, duh!” In subsequent theories of literature all these effects have been explained and codified in multiple ways, but at the time, in the 1920s, this was a new finding. Richards thought this showed a failure of literacy, defined as a kind of higher literacy; not the inability to read basic English, but to read and understand the kind of associative and musical language used by poetry. He spent his life trying to remedy this by teaching. In 1979, while in his eighties, he was still teaching, in China, when he fell ill and died. He wrote a book, titled “Practical Criticism”  setting out ways to properly read and derive the effects of a poem.

John Crowe Ransom and I A Richards

Know your Modernists: John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, and two other blokes who don’t know from The New Criticism


But the way I heard of the experiment (and this may have been a subsequent experiment, inspired by Richards, perhaps by Ransom) the packet of unattributed poems given to students to interpret included a range of “not great poetry,” pop poetry as printed in mass-market publications as well as the work of more esteemed poets. And the result was the students couldn’t reliably distinguish the great poets from the hacks.

The challenge of the new poetic language of the Modernists, and the experience of teachers like Richards and Ransom demonstrated in this experiment with unattributed poems, lead to what was called “The New Criticism.”

When, a generation later, I began to encounter poetry in school, “The New Criticism” was by far the predominant idea of how poetry should be taught. At the end of my scattered schooling, new theories were arising, Deconstructionism and the like, and I can still recall professors muttering about its willful misunderstandings and mistaken goals as I struggled for money to pay for one more class that would fit into my work schedule.

Now in this century, I know less what happens in schools, but I sense culturally we’re concerned increasingly with the poet as the container that holds the poem and its experience. Some worry about “Identity Politics” and its correlate would be “Identity Poetry,” where the background, ethnic and otherwise, of the poet is integral to the poem. I’m too busy making art to have a coherent philosophy on this. I can easily envision problems arising from a division of poetry into ever smaller spheres where only the right combinations of ingredients can make or appreciate some work. On the other hand, I’m also suspicious of the motives of anyone who claims to hate Identity Politics or Identity Poetry, while showing no interest otherwise in smashing the walls and peeling off the labels from artists for whom those “stick to that” labels and barriers may not be self-chosen.

Oh my, what a long introduction to today’s audio piece! In honor of Richards and Ransom and their experiments, here’s a piece I call “Poetry in Translation”  for the purposes of the experiment. I’m not going to give you any more context for the poem used, the author’s name or their ethnic identity. I assure you I’m not in this for “gotcha” or obscure literary one-upmanship. It’s short, so give it a listen and see what you think. I’ll be back later this week with more.