The HyperTexts

Eratosphere ... or ... Erato, Speared?

by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts

There is no better tonic for other people's bad ideas, than to think for oneself.

I recently had a perplexing experience on Able Muse’s online poetry forum, Eratosphere. Erato was the ancient Greek Muse of lyric poetry, especially love poetry. Erato was often depicted as the companion of Eros, the god of sexual love and beauty (also known as Cupid). The names Erato and Eros may share a common linguistic root, originating with a Greek word meaning "lovely." I have long considered Erato to be the loveliest of the Muses, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that the word "love" seem to be out of favor with some Eratosphereans. Here's what one poet said after I posted a poem called "Love Has a Southern Flavor" for critique:

'Love' may be sentimental, but as a word it's a huge abstraction, and I nearly skipped over this [poem] for that reason alone. I would be tempted to take it [the word 'love'] out of the title, and completely out of the poem.

The poet then proceeded to do just that, replacing the word "love" with pronouns in examples he offered by way of helping me "improve" my poem and cleanse it of its "huge abstraction." Another poet agreed with him, saying:

The abstraction cloys [i.e., creates distaste and/or disgust via a surfeit of sweetness].

A third poet said:

The meter and rhyme are expertly handled (I liked the alternating near- and pure-rhymes), and there's a lot of lovely imagery, but all this talking about "love" will be a bit much for some. What kind of "love" is the poem about, exactly? I almost feel I could substitute another word for "love" and do as well.

Before I continue, please allow me to point out that I am not suggesting that all the poets who belong to Eratosphere are biased against the idea of love or the word "love." Quite the contrary; a number of the critiques I received were perceptive, intelligent and showed no irrational biases whatsoever. Please keep in mind that I am only objecting to certain things that were said by certain people, in public. Poets of all people should be able to write accurately. My objection is to what a few people said themselves, and I am certainly not lumping everyone together; nor am I condemning the site collectively.

Please note that the objections voiced above seem to be to the word "love" and the "abstract" idea of love. The first poet found the mere sight of the word "love" off-putting, before he even read my poem. To me, that smacks of literary bigotry, an irrational prejudice. But where did the prejudice originate? Ironically, with William Carlos Williams, a major figure in the movement against the type of poetryformal poetrybeing written by the poets I quoted. (I had just posted my poem to a sub-forum of Eratosphere called "Metrical PoetryThe Deep End," a favored haunt of contemporary Formalists.)

[As I updated this essay I was just served notice that I have been banned from Eratosphere for life. My crime? Expressing my honest opinion, here. Is the "Deep End" more like a kiddie pool? I have a question for the people who run Eratosphere: If people are allowed to say irrational things about my poems, why can't I say intelligent things about their critiques?]

How did people writing formal poetry come to repeat the most bizarre idea of the arch anti-formalist: that poets are forbidden from expressing ideas except through concrete imagery? In my opinion, Williams thought himself into a tightly constricted box which eventually became his literary coffin. Why should anyone buy the theories of a drowning poetespecially when he may have applied the kiss of death, the coup de grace and the concrete boot to his literary estate himself? (This is not to say that Williams didn't write some good poems, because he did. But where are the great poems of his that compare with the best work of modernists who retained more of the techniques and devices of the English poetic tradition? Where is a poem by Williams that compares with "The Wild Swans at Coole" by W. B. Yeats, "Sunday Morning" by Wallace Stevens, "Voyages" by Hart Crane, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot, "Directive" by Robert Frost, "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden's wonderful "Lullaby" or "The Death of a Toad" by Richard Wilbur?)

The Eratosphereans I cited above didn't seem to be objecting to my poem solely on its own merits (or lack thereof), but to the use of abstract words and ideas in poetry, in general, and to love in particular. But if there's any poet Formalists should be deeply suspicious of, it's William Carlos Williams, because Williamsthe prosiest of the major modernistsseemed intent on stripping poetry of meter, rhyme and form. By the time Williams was through with a poem, it was anything but formal. (According to many Formalists, it was no longer poetry, but merely prose with line breaks.) And yet it was Williams who coined "no ideas but in things" (an amazingly stupid injunction; if all poets had obeyed it we wouldn't have the great soliloquies of Shakespeare and Milton, the dramatic monologues of Browning and Tennyson, Byron's "Don Juan," etc.). Was Williams off his rocker or in need of a nice, cushy one at the retirement home for bad thinkers?

Williams' idol was John Keats, a poet who wrote wonderful formal poetry. (By "formal" I don't mean "stuffy," "pretentious" or "reserved," but simply "having form," with the form deriving primarily from patterns of meter). On his deathbed, Williams asked onlookers if he was as good a poet as Keats. Unfortunately for him, the answer was probably "no" (in my opinion because he had removed too much of what makes poetry poetry from his work). In addition to poets of the past like Keats, other more musical poets among Williams' peers had also greatly exceeded him: Stevens, Crane, Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Conrad Aiken and e. e. cummings, just to name the more obvious ones. But along with stripping poetry of meter, rhyme and form, Williams had also advocated whittling it down to nothing but concrete imagery. If he was wrong on the other counts, why should Formalists trust him on this one? Was he a dunce when he denounced meter, rhyme and form, but suddenly a genius when he babbled about banning abstractions too?

Did Williams hammer the final nails into his literary coffin himself, by allowing stupid ideas and irrational prejudices to limit what he was able to write about, and how? Yes, I believe so, although I can't claim to be the Ultimate Authority on such things. Still, it seems obvious to me that Williams fell short of the mark set by Keats, Yeats, Stevens, et al. So why are some contemporary Formalists whistling the same tune as Williams? How can poets write the best possible poems if they willingly don straitjackets that greatly inhibit their freedom?

To prove Williams wrong, I need produce only one good poem that doesn't rely on concrete imagery to communicate ideas. Of course there are many such poems. Here are just a few examples of good poetry that is abstract in nature (not expressing ideas exclusively or primarily through concrete imagery):

All the major blank verse plays, soliloquies and philosophical sonnets of Shakespeare
The great epic poems of the English language: "Beowulf" and "Paradise Lost"
The great ballads of the English language: "Sir Patrick Spens," etc.
The great dramatic monologues of the English language: "Ulysses," etc.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways ..."
The Archpoet's "Confession"
Ben Jonson's "On My First Son"
Most of the poems of superior poets like John Milton, William Blake, A. E. Housman, and Emily Dickinson
Most of the poems of the last great Formalist, Robert Frost
And, ironically, the greatest poems of the modernists, including "Leaves of Grass," "Dover Beach," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Little Gidding," "The Wasteland," "Howl," the Cantos of Ezra Pound, etc.

The great metaphysical poets might have turned "no ideas but in things" into a chiasmus: "no things but in ideas." So we could add John Donne and friends to the list. But then we could include most of the best poems ever written because concrete imagery has never been the be-all and end-all of poetry. Granted, many good poems employ concrete imagery to wonderful effect, but even haiku (the form of poetry that probably inspired Williams and other modernists to fixate on imagery) can be wonderfully abstract. Just because haiku frequently use concrete images doesn't mean that abstractions cannot be used in haiku. For instance here's an entirely abstract haiku by the Oriental master Matsuo Basho:

Deep autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he live, I wonder ...

Obviously "deep autumn" is not a concrete image, but more of a metaphysical idea or impression of autumn's relationship to aging and death. Readers shouldn't take "autumn" over-literally, because in this poem "autumn" is not a "thing." When Williams commanded "no ideas but in things" he created an artificial limitation on himself and anyone else unwise enough to abandon reason and follow him like a schoolchild beguiled by the Pied Piper of Hamlin. So why are Formalists who don't trust Williams's other obtuse directives heeding this one?

But even Williams didn't ban the word "love" from poetry. As a matter of fact, he published a book of poems called Journey to Love, which he dedicated to his wife. Has there ever been a more abstract title? So it seems some Formalists have gone wildly beyond even Williams, in terms of bad thinking and inflicting ridiculous limitations on themselves and other poets.

How can poets storm the heights of Parnassus if they're so inhibited they quail at the sight of the word "love" in a love poem? This is one of odder results of modernism: that many writers have come to distrust words. Samuel Beckett became such a minimalist that his 1969 "dramatic play" Breath was only 25-35 seconds long, had no characters or plot, and took place on a stage piled high with rubbish. A. R. Ammons, who has been called a major poet by the Über-Critic Harold Bloom, once wrote a long poem, "Strip," on a continuous roll of adding machine tape. The poem complains at length about such things as the perils and frustrations of writing poems on adding machine paper. Like the late Beckett, Ammons wrote with the belief that words are poor vehicles for communication: thus "verbal reticence" becomes a writerly virtue. Some modernists started with "less is more" and ended up believing (or pretending to believe) that "the perfect poem is silence." But few such modernists have had the courage of their convictions. Ammons continued to flood the world with verbose poems when, if he had really believed what he professed, like Beckett he would have lapsed into silence.

My main point is this: Modernism has produced many zany theories, but it is the height of insanity for poets to believe and follow nonsensical edicts, regardless of their source. Anyone who has studied the great works of modernism knows the zanier rules were not obeyed by the better poets. "Prufrock" is more akin to Hamlet than a haiku. "Sunday Morning" is an abstract philosophical meditation, not a series of concrete images. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot seldom, if ever, followed their advice to other poets, and never for very long. Pound cried "Make it new!" but often sounded more archaic (and far more provincial) than Chaucer. Eliot seemed to pull the legs of wanna-be-intellectuals the way children pull the legs of frogs. Perhaps we should be seduced by the great poems of modernism, but if so we must realize that wonderful talent and liberating factors (verse libre), not stupid inhibiting formulas, helped create those masterpieces. Pound was undoubtedly correct that a more musical cadence was preferable to a rigidly regimented metronome. The wonderful cadences of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane are proof positive that Pound was right, but so are the wonderful cadences of Shakespeare and Milton. The best poets were never incessantly tick-tocky, so Pound's cry of "Make it new!" rings hollow for me: if only a few poets in any era are capable of superior meter, and poets of the past wrote wonderful metric poems, what did Pound accomplish with his mantra? Isn't it closer to the truth that the best poets always made it new, while the lesser poets were simply incapable and no formula was going to rescue them from oblivion? In any case, when other modernists decided that all meter was passé, they departed from reason and Pound soon threw his hands up in the air, saying he shouldn't be blamed for the resulting chaos. Other mantras of modernism are equally inane: "no ideas but in things," "the perfect poem is silence," etc.

So why do so many poets seem to devoutly believe things that make no sense? Has poetry become yet another irrational religion, entirely bereft of reason?

Please allow me to make it clear at this point that it is not my intention to damn Eratosphere or its poets with an over-broad brush. Quite the contrary. I admire the good intentions of the site’s creators and moderators, and I have no doubt that many poets have been helped there in many good ways over the years. I also have favorable impressions of most of Eratosphere’s poets, and I believe that even the ones who spoke dismissively of the word "love" and abstractions were probably sincere. But I also believe they’re misguided and are undoubtedly harming younger poets when they suggest that they too don straitjackets and start hammering nails into their literary coffins.

[A friend of mine advised me that he thought my essay was over-long, and that this would be a good place to end it. However, I still have points to make, so I will continue. Readers are, of course, free to click away from this page whenever they think best, but I believe they may be rewarded if they bear with me.]

Part II ― The Evidence

The poets I cited are not my enemies, but their irrational ideas are. The purpose of "Erato, Speared" is not to attack anyone, but to poke holes in airy, balloon-like "literary theories" that need to be punctured and deflated, or?better yet?exploded.

Now let's consider the evidence of my poem. If the word "love" has no place in it, or in any other poem, then perhaps the other poets are right and I’m wrong. Here’s the poem; you be the judge:

Love Has a Southern Flavor

Love has a Southern flavor: honeydew,
ripe cantaloupe, the honeysuckle’s spout
we tilt to basking faces to breathe out
the ordinary, and inhale perfume ...

Love’s Dixieland-rambunctious: tangled vines,
wild clematis, the gold-brocaded leaves
that will not keep their order in the trees,
unmentionables that peek from dancing lines ...

Love cannot be restrained, like Southern nights:
the constellations’ dying mysteries,
the fireflies that hum to light, each tree’s
resplendent autumn cape, a genteel sight ...

Love also is as wild, as sprawling-sweet,
as decadent as the wet leaves at our feet.

What do you think of my poem? Is it "cloying" (nauseatingly sickly-sweet) and irreparably damaged by the use of the word "love"? Here's what another Eratospherean, Michael Cantor, said:

It comes across to me as magnolia-drenched [sic] Hallmark (cliché deliberateto reinforce my point) that doesn't really get beyond a compilation of buzz words and ellipses.

But is there anything "wrong" about a poem being "magnolia-drenched"? If so, why? Are honeydews, cantaloupes and honeysuckles "buzz words" or just natural objects that help give readers the "flavor" of the South? If, according to the Eratosphereans I quoted, abstractions are to be avoided like the Plague, then it would become absolutely necessary to use such images, because nothing else would be permitted. I don't agree with the idea that abstractions are inherently "bad," but if I did and was writing about the South, I would necessarily have to use images that were "magnolia-drenched" (a term I like and don't consider a "cliché").

But even if my poem is mediocre, bad, or just plain awful, how can poets suggest banning the word "love" from poetry? Should we discriminate against love in the masterpieces of Shakespeare, Shelley and Hart Crane because lesser poets sometimes bungle the word "love"? Why do some of the poets of a forum named after the goddess of love poetry seem to be prejudiced against the word "love"? Let's try to get to the bottom of this very murky mystery, together ...

Anyone interested in the current state (i.e., highly confused) of modern art and poetry should read Tom Wolfe’s hilarious book The Painted Word. Wolfe explains, in a highly entertaining, sidesplitting fashion, how bad ideas were the death of modern art. Inspired by bizarre theories that were accepted as gospel truths, painters entered into a breakneck race to remove all storytelling, color and texture from their work. A painting wasn't finished until it was as drab and flat as a policeman's chalk outline around a corpse. Soon no one wanted anything to do with modern "art," apart from a few specialists and dilettantes. (And of course the dilettantes were only pretending to "care" about the "art," which was less beguiling than day-old dishwater.) What happened when painters removed everything that people cared about from their paintings? Of course most people immediately ceased caring anything about the paintings, or the painters.

Something very similar happened to poets who also decided the path to immortality was: "Give the people what they don't want!" In their relentless quest to give readers what they didn't want, poets became convinced that all sorts of things that made absolutely no sense were undeniably true. For instance, they bought into the absurd idea that sentiment in poetry is "bad," and must therefore be avoided at all costs. Hence, poets started to avoid sentiment in their own poems and became dismissive of sentiment in other people’s poetry. As a result, all sorts of things became taboo: praise, elegy, tenderness, even love. But what, pray tell, is wrong with sentiment? Isn’t sentiment just honest human emotion: feelings of compassion, pity, nostalgia, etc.? Is it really "bad" to feel these things, or are poets who believe such absurdities just plain nuts?

Because they believed things that aren’t true, many poets lost the ability to discriminate between sentiment and sentimentalism. Consequently, if a poem made them feel the quick tears and lumpy-throatedness of nostalgia, they automatically assumed the poem was "bad" in a sort of knee-jerk reflex. Most people who have heard the song "House at Pooh Corner" love it, because it's wonderfully sad and moving. But many poets can't allow themselves to like the song (or poems like it, no matter how evocative) because the song is about a boy nostalgically remembering and longing for his childhood teddy bear. To poets with literary aspirations, feeling tenderness about such tender things is strictly verboten. Of course most poets become nostalgic when they reflect on their own childhoods, but it seems that many of them can't be honest about such things when they write (perhaps because they want to impress other people with similar hypocritical tendencies?). In any case they could probably never pen, as Alfred Tennyson did, such wonderfully evocative lines as:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

If a contemporary poet wrote lines of similar worth, in a similar nostalgic style, the anal analysts among his peers would immediately raise the rant: "Sentimental! Trite! Stale! Clichéd! Hallmark!" The cry of "Hallmark!" means, of course, "inferior" and "cheap." But there is nothing cheap or inferior about Tennyson's lines: they are pure gold purchased at the extravagant price of human knowledge of aging, suffering and impending death.

While it would have been valid criticism for an Eratospherean to say something like, "Your poem is reasonably well written, but it just isn't my cup of tea," it seems wrong for poets to dismissively call poems things they aren't, such as "Hallmark" verse, which my poem obviously is not. I'm not a fan of most country music, but I would never dismiss a well-written country song just because I like other forms of music better. Did the poets I cited object to my poem because they have wonderfully refined taste and my poem is literary manure, or did they say what they said, perhaps, because they are prejudiced against certain types and styles of poetry, and thus can’t allow themselves to like enthusiastically romantic love poems unless the poems are "safe" (i.e., unless they were written by someone like Shakespeare who can be liked because the literary world agrees that his love poems are acceptable)? "Under the Greenwood Tree," an enthusiastic poem about love written by Shakespeare, would probably feel safe to them, simply because Shakespeare wrote it. But if a contemporary poet penned a similar poem of similar worth, I suspect they would immediately slap it with those convenient labels: "Sentimental! Trite! Stale! Clichéd! Hallmark!"

The minds of many modern poets seem to work something like this:

(1) Read a poem.
(2) If it is romantic, nostalgic, etc. and was written recently, it must be bad.
(3) If it is romantic, nostalgic, etc. and was written by an "acceptable" poet of the past, it is safe to be liked.

If I'm correct, the poet/critic has to know when a poem was written before he knows if he is allowed to like it. If he knows that I wrote my poem, he will dislike it because he believes enthusiastically romantic poems have no place in modern poetry. But if he believed that a great poet of the past wrote my poem, he could safely allow himself to like it.

Not long ago John Keats was considered to be an "immature" poet by much of the literary world; therefore some of his most evocative poems were given short shrift. Then his literary reputation was repaired (Harold Bloom has claimed the credit) and now it’s again acceptable for poets to like his work. Were I ever to write love poems as good as the best ones by Keats, the geniuses of the literary would undoubtedly still dismiss my work as "immature," "cloying," etc., for today. But then, in some future era when I was safely dead, someone would finally decide the poems were good after all, and suddenly it would be safe for poets to like them.

Isn’t the whole thing extraordinarily silly? Why not just put aside all literary theories, biases, aspirations and pretensions when we read poetry, and simply relax and read with open minds capable of honest enjoyment? I love the song "House at Pooh Corner," and I'm not ashamed to admit that it brings tears to my eyes. I also like good sentimental poems like "Tears, Idle Tears" and I'm not at all ashamed that some of my own poems are highly sentimental. If someone writes a poem or song that brings tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, I don't recoil in horror: I clap, yell "Bravo!," cry "Encore!" So it bothers me when I see a few (even if only a few) poets in a forum named after the Greek Goddess of Love Poetry who seem to be prejudiced against love, sentiment, enthusiasm, abstractions, etc.

In conclusion, let me simply say that I consider much of what passes for poetry "criticism" these days to be bigoted and unfair. (Bigots are always unfair.) Please keep in mind that I am not talking about all poets. Here are my main arguments against contemporary poets who evince narrow-minded prejudices in their irrational "critiques":

They parrot nonsensical ideas as if they made perfect sense: what happened to independent thought and using one's powers of discrimination and reason?
They seem to believe that poetry is not a broad ocean, but a tiny rivulet springing from a single source. If they see a poem that is not in some "approved style," they speak dismissively of it, the way white racists speak dismissively of people with slightly darker skin.
If a poet has written a completely original poem using words that have never been used before, they still insist that the poem is "stale," "clichéd," etc., because the poem's theme is "stale." But if this was the case, we couldn't read the great poems of the past without being bored to tears. Obviously, themes cannot be "stale" if poems written on those themes remain fresh and potent. If the theme of love has become stale, no one could enjoy "Romeo and Juliet," "Doctor Zhivago" or half the popular songs ever written. Obviously this is not the case, so it makes no sense to judge poems by their themes or styles, because all themes and styles remain valid in accomplished hands. It makes no difference to me when I read a love poem that other similar love poems were written in the past (unless the poet is a plagiarist). If I had read a contemporary love poem before I read "She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night" would I suddenly despise Byron's poem? Of course not. But then why should I discriminate against modern love poems because of something that was written in the past? What I care about is the pleasure I experience when I read a particular poem now. If I have to ask myself when a poem was written in order to know whether I can like it or not, something is obviously wrong with my "poetry appreciation circuitry."
They dismiss commonly-used words and phrases as "clichés" without considering that a single poem can prove them wrong. They ought to read Dylan Thomas's magnificent villanelle to his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" and ponder the fact that it uses common (one might say "plebeian") words, phrases, images and rhymes. The fact that Thomas's poem remains effective, fresh and immortal completely debunks their absurd biases against simple, effective language. It also debunks the idea that the repetition of common words and phrases makes poems "stale," because we can read the same poems over and over again and not tire of them.
They denigrate any poem that isn't written in the currently approved style: emotionally detached, nonsentimental, bereft of warmth, charm or tenderness ... a hollowed-out ornament of "original" words that will never move anyone and thus will never matter to anyone. But people read poetry to be touched, to be moved. Therefore many a contemporary poet's desire to be seen as a jaded, aloof, world-weary philosopher frowning down on the common sentimental herd from an ivory citadel is self-defeating. Shakespeare knew that human beings were supremely emotional and often maudlin, but contemporary poets more often than not either completely deny or try to "write around" human nature. Thus, they come across to human readers as strangely inhibited space aliens.
Perhaps worst of all, they seem to be bigots, like the most narrow-minded religious fanatics. Surely they don't mean to be. Perhaps in their own minds they are on the right path (the only correct path) and thus they are only being "helpful" when they evangelize by preaching their strange dogma to other poets. But the world is awash in bad religion and, as my colleague Tom Merrill pointed out recently in his "Great Divide" essay, the poetry world has been divided into two "churches," with fiercely dogmatic priests on both sides relentlessly disparaging people in the opposite camp. But there is no reason for poets to be divided, or to take up arms against each other. There are great formal poets, like Robert Frost. There are great free verse poets, like Walt Whitman. There are great poets who defy classification, like Wallace Stevens, who wrote in wonderfully liquid, harmonious meters that seem to be both metrical and free verse at the same time. Is it possible that some of the free verse poets went too far out on a limb, when they abandoned everything that made poetry poetry, like the painters who abandoned storytelling, color and texture? Yes, undoubtedly so. But at the same time, many formal poets went out on a similar limb, abandoning all sorts of things most readers treasure in poetry: sentiment, for example. And, yes, even love.

Part III ― Advice to Younger Poets

I had intended to stop here, but something happened that changed my mind: I started thinking about the younger poets who belong to Eratosphere now, or who will in the future. I feel that I owe it to them to suggest things that might help them "separate the wheat from the chaff" when other poets critique their work:

First, and most importantly, never stop thinking for yourself. Test everything you're told carefully, to see if it really makes sense, to you and for you. I once worked with an older Beat poet who helped me with my poetry in a number of ways, particularly in the area of eradicating wordiness. But he seemed to be prejudiced against meter and rhyme, as so many poets are these days. One day he suggested that I write more like William Carlos Williams. But Williams had never been one of my favorite poets, so I concluded that it was time for me to forge ahead on my own. This leads to my second suggestion:

Don't fall under the spell of the ideas of other writers, just because they write well. Good writers can have gigantic blind spots, and they sometimes write well despite their literary theories, not because of them. There is no better tonic for other people's bad ideas, than to think for oneself. (Hey, not a bad epigram, if I do say so myself.)

Watch out for people who offer critiques more to stroke their own egos than to help others. When a poet speaks dismissively of someone else's work, he may be more concerned about how he is being seen than about being truly helpful. Few poets are going to be helped by being told that an entire poem is "trite," "hackneyed" or "Hallmark" verse. A critique should point out the parts of a poem that are good, and make suggestions about the parts that might need further attention.

Always keep in mind that it is much easier for poets to "climb in the pecking order" by making other poets look bad, than by writing stellar poetry themselves. We see a lot of bullying in grade schools because young bullies are insecure and want to be noticed. Thus, they humiliate other students publicly in order to attract attention to themselves. I have seen a similar sort of bullying in literary circles, as poets compete for the attention and favor of their peers. Many poets, even older poets, are deeply insecure. A mature poet who is secure about his own work and truly wants to be helpful will put the poem and the other poet's needs above his own ego. You can generally tell if someone is trying to help you by the tone of his critique. If a critique is curt, dismissive or cutting, that says something about the person who offered it, and his motives and intentions. The best critiques are offered in a generous, helpful spirit. This is not to say that good critiques cannot contain negative criticism, because negative criticism can be very helpful. But the best critiques are honest and fair, without being curt, dismissive or cutting. When negative criticism is offered, the person offering the criticism should be sure to use language that is appropriate, not some scathing remark Randall Jarrell might have made about the later work of W. H. Auden. (I admire Jarrell's criticism, which can be wonderfully witty, but his more biting remarks have no place in a classroom or workshop.)

Please keep in mind that there is a difference between critiques and other forms of literary criticism. Once a poem has been published it may become "fair game" for literary criticism, which can be pretty brutal (often unnecessarily so). But a critique has a different purpose from other forms of literary criticism. Perhaps there are times when scathing criticism of published work is warranted, but I doubt that dismissive, belittling critiques of unpublished poems are ever warranted.

Also, always be aware that culture has a lot to do with how human beings think and behave. Children born into fundamentalist families tend to be less free-thinking than children born to more open-minded parents. Children born to Puritans often grew up to believe that sex outside marriage was a "sin," so many of them lived in fear of an "eternal hell" once they reached puberty. Children born on Tahiti would be more likely to grow up thinking of sex in less inhibited ways. Culture matters, so please be aware that modern literary culture has caused many contemporary poets to become tremendously inhibited about what is permissible in writing. They seem to be plagued by many irrational prejudices and biases, and such things seldom result in good thinking. If you see other poets displaying biases against meter, rhyme, form, free verse, abstractions, love, romance, sentiment, joy, tenderness, nostalgia, praise, etc., please consider the probable source. Do you want your own writing to be ruled over or influenced by absurd prejudices and biases?

This is not to say, however, that all criticism of meter, rhyme, form, sentiment, abstractions, etc. in particular poems is automatically unwarranted. If someone belittles such things in general, using ludicrous formulas like "no ideas but in things" or "abstractions must be avoided,: our "inner radar" should immediately start emitting warning "groupthink" signals. But if someone says something like: "I don't think you've pulled off what you're trying to pull off in this poem," you may want to check your poem to see if he may be right. It can be difficult to decide if a critique is wrong-minded, or if we are overly sensitive to criticism of our work, or if two people simply disagree. But in the end we have to rely on what we think about our own work, using our own best judgement. Other poets have helped me many times by pointing out things about my poems that I agreed with. But sometimes I don't agree with what other people say about my poems; in either case I have to be the final judge of whether to revise my poems, or not.

And finally, if you choose to participate in a poetry class, workshop or online forum, please keep in mind that teachers, mentors and moderators are only human. Sometimes teachers and moderators have pets. Sometimes the rules are not enforced fairly, so that one person gets away with boorish behavior, while someone else is rebuked into silence or gets expelled for speaking his mind. Most poetry classes, workshops and forums are voluntary, so it's up to each individual to decide whether the overall experience is worth his time and trouble. I made a conscious decision to speak out against certain things about Eratosphere that gave me "bad vibes," mostly out of my concern for what might be happening to the younger poets there. I didn't enjoy the many positive things I experienced on Eratosphere enough to remain silent when I saw mature poets speaking curtly and dismissively to other poets. And I didn't like the fact that I was in the "Deep End" (which suggests adult waters) but the rules seemed designed to allow the fiercer adults to attack younger, more vulnerable poets with impunity, safe from any challenge by more level-headed people. Why allow almost anything to be said in a critique, but not allow one poet to defend another poet from possibly unwarranted criticism, or at least to point out other, more open-minded ways of thinking? I think Eratosphere may be a valuable resource for some poets, but for me the labyrinth of illogical rules that turned it into a place where narrow-minded poets with oversized egos and bad attitudes can swim around like sharks looking to take bites out of the other swimmers ... well, let's just say that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

When I enrolled my son in a Christian school because the local middle school was plagued by bullying and violence, I spent many hours with him cautioning him not to believe everything his new school teaches. Orthodox Christianity is, in my opinion, to some large degree the result of irrational groupthink practiced for the better part of two thousand years. That groupthink has resulted in "heretics" and "witches" being tortured and burned at the stake, slavery, "holy" wars, and (still to this day) rampant bigotry and discrimination against non-heterosexuals, Muslims and people of other faiths and non-faiths. The darker aspects of Christianity are largely the result of irrational fears and prejudices. Why do so many Christians still practice discrimination against gays? Probably because they believe homosexuality is a "sin" and reason that if God is going to punish homosexuals for all eternity, there's some sort of precedent for mistreating them here on earth. But anyone who studies the Bible with a clear mind will soon discover a very interesting fact: in Biblical chronologies covering many thousands of years, there was never any mention of a place called "hell." The God of the Bible never mentioned a place called "hell" or the possibility of suffering after death to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Moses, David, Solomon, or a long line of Hebrew prophets. The Hebrew word "Sheol" and the Greek word "Hades" clearly mean "the grave" or "the abode of all the dead" (not just the wicked), not "hell." So according to the Bible "hell" did not pre-exist, and yet there is no verse in the Bible in which the creation or purpose of "hell" were ever announced. Thus, two thousand years of rampant bigotry and cruelty were completely unnecessary. In the same way, if we study the history of poetry back to its roots, we can see that much of the literary bigotry we see being practiced today has no rational basis in logic. Yes, many contemporary poets are deeply prejudiced against all sorts of things. But the great poets of the past weren't prejudiced against meter, rhyme, form, love and other abstractions, sentiment, personification, the use of interjections like "O!" and "oh!," etc. Are there bad uses of personification? Of course there are. Does this mean that all personification is automatically bad? No, it doesn't. But you can bet your sweet bippy that a perfectly good poem that employs personification will automatically be trashed by many modern poet/critics. Why? Because they started applying formulas to poetry and stopped thinking for themselves. A major problem with groupthink is that before long every bad idea gets pushed to some wild extreme. In religion, groupthink has resulted in legions of horrors. In poetry, groupthink has resulted in the loveliest of the muses, Erato, being forced into a chastity belt and trundled off to a nunnery where people blush and blanch at the word "love" and the thought of honest human emotion. Like religious fanatics, many poets have departed from reason and descended into irrational beliefs. There is only one cure: in matters of religion and art, human beings must learn to examine the facts and think for themselves.

Part IV ― Advice to the Powers-That-Be at Eratosphere

Having been a moderator of a poetry forum and a member of several online communities, I realize that it can be very difficult to identify, much less correct, problems that sometimes allow "the tail to wag the dog." But if such problems go uncorrected, the actions of a few people can create a lot of unpleasantness and stress for everyone, including themselves. I have talked privately to other senior poets (and a few younger ones) who confirmed my impression of Eratosphere: that a relatively small number of poets go around belittling and speaking dismissively to other poets, and if anyone stands up to them, they run and complain to the people with the ability to silence or expel the "offenders" (i.e., anyone who won't put up with their boorish behavior). In my case, someone should have asked whose actions were worse: mine, or those of the people I stood up to. But it seems clear what happened after I spoke up: first rules were cited in an attempt to silence me, and when I refused to be silenced, I was banned for life. I was presumed guilty of "trashing" the site when in reality all I did was offer fairly mild constructive criticism based on logic (I have owned and operated a computer software company for thirty years; computer programs are pure logic, so I'm pretty good at "debugging" logic that won't get off the ground, much less fly). No one with a hand in the decision to ban me bothered to ask my side of the story. There was no trial, only a preemptive banishment. But I wasn't the one who got personal or threatened to "go John Yoo" on other poets. All I did was take a simple, firm stand against critiques that struck me as illogical and uncivil. This seemed to infuriate some of the poets I questioned; two of them seemed to become hysterical. Who becomes furious and hysterical when criticized? Should immature and/or egotistical people have the power to silence or banish other people for calmly, reasonably and civilly discussing potential problems? Rather than allowing high-strung people with easily frayed nerves to run off people they disagree with, there should be some sort of calm, orderly system of due process that allows disputes to be settled reasonably, without favoritism and histrionics.

I don't know enough about the people who run Eratosphere to pass judgment on them, nor do I want to judge them. Instead, I will close with a few questions they might consider asking and answering as honestly as possible, for the sake of the site and its poets ...

Why does the site seem so defensive, "hyper-touchy" (as another poet put it) and opposed to constructive criticism? I asked three poets familiar with the goings-on at Eratopsphere to review this essay and none of them thought I had done anything to warrant expulsion. The first poet, Joe Salemi, said, "Your essay was NOT anywhere near a "trashing" of the was merely a criticism (couched in non-offensive language) of the aesthetic views of certain members. The idea of you being 'banned for life' as a result of expressing a civil opinion on your own website is shocking."

The second poet, Russell Bittner, compared Eratosphere to Gazebo, which has also experienced problems with uncivil posts (Gazebo's head moderator, Christine Potter, wrote an article titled "Keeping the Poets Civil" for The Writer).

The third poet suggested that the powers-that-be at Spheroidsville (as he amusingly refers to Eratosphere) consider the advice of Robert Frost: "Always give a fellow another chance when he behaves badly, and still another chance after that. Never draw a line beyond which you won't allow a friend or anyone else to go. It is the mark of a small mind to draw the line anywhere." The same poet went on to say that my essay

"...seems to describe perfectly the kind of mentality I've seen myself prevailing at that peculiar haunt. Their radically disproportionate, quite ferocious response to what basically was no more than a reporter's speculation as to why certain remarks were made in a conversation suggests to me they are very far indeed from possessing anything like balanced judgment."

"...One thing they surely are is 'triggerhappy,' and perhaps also 'power-crazed.' They seem instantly to slap the largest penalties on anyone insufficiently allegiant to either their modus operandi or their august membership. The disproportionateness of their responses is what's telling, to me at least. Rather like imposing life sentences on first-time disturbers of the peace. One would not like to see them as judges. Everyone would be in jail, for anything at all they might have said or done to displease the autocrats in charge. They would be locked away without a hearing, too. No room for a defense where high-handed judges can decide everything unilaterally. The mentality of Spheroid officialdom is, in a word, totalitarian."

What happened to freedom of speech? Should a minor disagreement in a forum called the "Deep End" end up with a poet being banned for life? What did I do wrong, except perhaps bruise a few egos?

Did I bruise the wrong egos? Was that, in reality, my "crime"? Why do I have the impression that a few teacher's pets used to having their own way became furious when I poked a few holes in their loopy "logic" and made them look and made them look less than oracular in public? Did they run off to complain and get me expelled because they were afraid of public debate? If so, what does it say about the site that they succeeded so easily?

Other poets have had experiences similar to mine on Eratosphere. The silencing of dissent is a hallmark of tyrannical regimes and generally springs from fear: fear of criticism, fear that the image being projected is not the reality, fear of change. Why was there such an uproar when I pointed out that certain things being said and done by a few Eratosphereans seemed irrational, uncivil and unworthy of poets?

What if I am more right, than wrong?

If change is needed, is it wise to fear change?

The HyperTexts