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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tudor Booty Call

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/11/08 at 10:48 PM

First off, let me apologize for the title. Not that I could come up with anything better, but it’s not only lame, but lame in an academic way. That is, it’s an attempt at jazzing things up, but it’s hopelessly outdated. As is the term “jazzing things up.” My first experience with such lameness was in Robert Pinsky’s workshop, back in the mid-80’s. We were discussing the difference between poetry and song lyrics, Professor Pinsky’s example was Bob Dylan. And we all did (to ourselves) a Jon Stewart avant la lettre “Waaah?” He might as well have mentioned Rudy Vallee. (Nowadays I have a much higher opinion of both Dylan and Vallee. And I know I’m in no position to call anyone else lame.)

Anyway, over at {LIME TREE} K. Silem Mohammad has a 100 Best-Loved Poems list going. I love lists! And the most recent poem is Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me,” only K. Silem is calling it something else, and he’s juxtaposing it with some hippety hop, Mike Jones “Back Then” (actual working YouTube here), which he says is the “inverse” of the Wyatt, which reminds me of how my friend Jennifer Clarvoe has written some of what she calls “inverse poems,” mirror images, as it were, of canonical poems. Only she doesn’t have any of them online, nor does she have a clip on YouTube.

But reading the Wyatt again sparked one thought.

But hey, how about we start with another look at the old chestnut:

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

I am reading slowly reading through John Williams’s anthology, English Renaissance Poetry, which includes this poem. I am currently in the middle of the extensive Gascoigne section. (For more on GG, there’s always the Repress.) Most of the poems up to now in the anthology are rather rhetorical. That is, they present generic situations, common place sentiments, etc. The quality of the poems depend on the verbal wit of the poet.

Wyatt’s poem, on the other hand, has a more modern feel to it, in that it’s occasional. (More on poetic occasion here.) For example, it seems to involve an actual woman. Of course the story is that it is written for an actual woman, Anne Boleyn , but it’s in the poem as well, when with the simple gesture of “her arms long and small,” Wyatt conjures a distinct image. I think it’s something these poets weren’t particularly good at. Take the great irony of Spenser’s Sonnet 75:

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
“Vayne man,” sayd she, “that doest in vaine assay.
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize.”
“Not so,” quod I, “let baser things devize,
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

The irony being, what exactly was her name? It’s nowhere in the poems. (Does someone know? I’m no Spenser expert. Is her name common knowledge in some circles?)

But back to the Wyatt. Not only is there a feel of a specific woman, but there is also the sense of a specific moment, “when her loose gown from her shoulders did fall.” Talk about your erotic reverie. And it still hurts, and it was over four hundred years ago, and I’m not the one spurned. Well, not by that woman, at least.


Lawrence, I have the same feeling when I read what remains of Sappho.  She seemed an expert at creating what we might call “poetry reality effects,” very different than the sorts of effects we associate with, say, the realist novel. 

This connects to what I’ve come to view as the most important aesthetic principle when it comes to language: Does the poem/song/novel/play feel completely and utterly imagined?  I don’t mean “totally made up” but rather “made up fully” or “made up as fully as possible.” The question is never—James Frey be damned—“Did this really happen?” but rather, “Has this new world been brought fully into our world?”

The power of, say, *Gilgamesh* or *Beowulf* is not different than the power of “They Flee From Me”—the former are mythic, epic, but they have been fully conceived.

By on 05/12/08 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think it’s lame at all; I do think it’s the sort of sentiment that discourages access to poetry for the common reader. Leslie Fiedler wrote an essay, “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry.” Fiedler also refers to Dylan (and, of course, Leonard Cohen, Beatles, and others). I don’t know if Fiedler’s essay has been reprinted, but I have a copy in “Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution,” Edited by Ihab Hassan, Wesleyan, 1971. I thought you might find it useful for your topic here… I don’t know her name; probably some girl from the north country.

By on 05/12/08 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I didn’t explain the anecdote well: we thought the example was lame because it wasn’t topical. In the 80’s, Bob Dylan was not a relevant pop figure for us.

Actually pop music is very important for my own poetry. As important as other poems are. Maybe too important.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/12/08 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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