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
'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
[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
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 poetry―formal poetry―being
written by the poets I quoted. (I had just posted my poem to a sub-forum of
Eratosphere called "Metrical Poetry―The 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 poet―especially
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 Williams―the
prosiest of the major modernists―seemed 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
deliberate―to 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
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
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
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!
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
• 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
• 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
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,
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
Part IV ― Advice to the Powers-That-Be at
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,
said, "Your essay was NOT anywhere near a "trashing" of the site...it 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 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?
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?