"World Championship in Poem Criticism"

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Poets.org v. Poets.net!

Has anybody noticed it, but temperatures are rising in the PoBiz. There’s even a controversy raging over at Poets.org, of all places--about Prosody! Indeed, the ivy on the walls of the Academy of American Poets is quivering, and some say bits of plaster are beginning to flake from the ceilings and the doors won’t stay shut.

Oh dear.

The question is, are the Rules of Metrical Analysis as laid out by the Schoolmasters and Prefects at The Academy’s own Poets.org Forum going to be mandated as the sine qua non for Aspiring Writers to find Success in poetry today in America? Is that the Certificate every poet is going to need?

Well, there are two camps engaged in the dispute, the AAP 'Academicians' on the one hand, strict, self-righteous and undistracted by humor, and a small group of unwashed 'Irridescent Harlequins' led by the critic, Tom West--who also appears from time to time, you might have noticed, on this site.

The argument is about the role of Prosody today in the definition and evaluation of poetry. The AAP Academicians, whose livelihoods, needless to say, depend on teaching the stuff, want everybody to promise to agree that unless you know the AAP On-line Rules of Prosody, and apply them correctly, of course, any poem you write or critical pronouncement you make will be invalid--no "anacrusis" no line, no line no poetry, no poetry no poet, no poet no prize, no prize no job--as simple as that.

So that’s who the AAP Magister Ludis are, who are the Iridescent Harlequins? They’re essentially critical carpet baggers, which is certainly how they appear on the site, and they feel like most tent-show magicians that every trick in the critical bag is valid as long as it works. More than that, and much more threatening to the Magister Ludis, needless to say, the Harlequins feel that obsessively clinging to just one tool at a time is boring, that it's aesthetically extremely limited and wrong, and that it leads to cruelty, dictatorship, and bad poetry.

Needless to say, the Iridescent Harlequins are a scarcely tolerated intervention on a Forum based specifically on tool-control, and in the past weeks two close friends have been quietly banned from the discussion on the grounds they were someone called Christopher Woodman, based on his style, not his IP. Oh, and do take note that the thread on which all this is transpiring is called "On Aspiring Writers Becoming Successful Writers," a TomWest formulation, of course, but started by 'ACommoner'—another Harlequin who along with his wife, a doctor of traditional medicine, take note, has already been stripped of his AAP gown.

19,446 visits too!

Got it, then? You’re the AAP, so you make the tools essential to poetry, for reading it as well as for writing it, and you make it clear you actually own those tools. You've got them and you've patented them, and the Laws of Po-Land decree that without them no one can get certified as an SP (Successful Poet). Like lawyers, a whole gaggle of AAP Para-Critics control access to the Laws of Poetry by making them so complicated and abstruse, and expressed in foreign languages too, of course, that you have to get down on your knees before those same Para-Critics if you want them to pay attention to you, or to assure your security inside and outside the site, or to intimidate other uninitiated poets as you gradually work your way over their heads and all the way on up to the top of the field.

So that’s the Big Fight in progress over at Poets.org--you might want to peak in and gawk at it. Here at Poets.net we've got a circus as well, I mean, we've got the World Championship in Poem Criticism, ATHENA v. DLUX!--which cuts all the Gordian critical knots of control in one sweet, two-handed swoosh. Don’t miss this beautiful exchange, such a powerful example of Can There Be Poem Criticism without PoBiz Criticism, as it’s billed--which is, in case you hadn’t noticed it, the title of Matt Koeske’s essay that opens the eponymous thread. Indeed, this is the sort of criticism we model on Poets.net as an alternative to the School-room Capitalist Criticism at Poets.org--"School-room Capitalist Criticism" because it functions like a modern Law School (Medieval Guild?) which owns the subject and then sells it to the highest bidder, so to speak--and then inducts that highest-bidder in turn into the Cartel that controls the Racket!

There have been a number of brilliant moments in the Non-Prize Fight on this thread, culminating in Athena's extraordinary evocation of a cracked recording of Edna St Vincent Millay reading her poetry as an example of..... well, we’re not quite sure of what, not being in the habit of defining other people’s feelings either, but certainly of something pretty "universal!" DLUX hotly proclaims it's "Performance Poetry" but Athena equally passionately proclaims "Performance Poetry doesn't exist." And what is so revolutionary about this irreconcilable amour is that it gives us an insight into the very heart of the critical process of activating a poem in such a way that it's no longer just a commodity, that a poem actually IS something and MEANS something of great value--which in poetry today is extremely rare.

Yes, these two very fine Royals, one semi-human (ATHENA) and the other semi-divine (DLUX), have played out for us the finest performance of "Poem Criticism" we’ve yet seen on any poetry site!

So stay tuned!



  1. Poets.org should be called (Moderators and their)Pets.org

    Poets.org is being totally OWNED by poets.net right now...


    Two websites stood in my view:
    Poets.org and poets.net.
    Good poetry websites are few,
    But one thing I knew:
    I wasn’t going to be a moderator’s pet.

    Poets.org looked cute
    With its modern poetry quotes,
    But I chose the other route—
    For poets.net was more astute,
    And poets at each others’ throats.

    Poets.org was unctuous and dull
    And high on pretence,
    While poets.net was affable
    While seeing through po-biz bull—
    And that made all the difference.

  3. Poets.org is having technical problems.

    I might as well post this here.

    Noldo defends Kaltica. Tom responds:



    I find your response hopelessly muddled. You are flailing about, trying to hit something, and in this you rather resemble your pedantic companion.

    Let me clear some things up.

    I never said there was anything wrong with prosodic terms, per se. I use them all the time myself.
    Primers, prosodies, grammars, experts, pundits, pedants should be an aid to, not a substitute for, original and independent thought.

    As I have stated before, I understand the concept of ‘sizing up’ the overall, or ruling, rhythm of a verse. But the devil is in the details. The rhythm still needs to be ‘established’ one syllable at a time. The whole depends upon the part, just as much as the part depends upon the whole.

    ‘Anacrusis’ was never meant to be used willy-nilly in order to rescue a defective rhythm. In music, ‘anacrusis’ is an introduction before the first note proper, and the ‘time’ it ‘takes’ must be given back,’ proportionately, at the end of the passage. In the temporal arts, all time must be accounted for—it can never be swept under the rug. Therefore, I’m not sure why you are beating your head against the wall, here.

    The ‘LET’ in (‘Let) us go then, you and I,’ is it enunciated, or is it not? If it IS enunciated, then you cannot set it aside, apart from the meter proper, without some proper accounting in terms of where it belongs in the temporality of the piece as a whole.

    Here’s an example: “James. Let us go then, you and I…” Here, I could see the syllable, ‘James’ as anacrusis, for here we have an introductory pause radically different from the meter which follows. “James (pause)” and then into the song. For good or for ill, I could see “James—full stop” as an ‘anacrusis’ to Eliot’s verse. But “Let” has no reason—none—to stand on its own; ‘anacrusis’ applied here is simply illogical, ill-founded, silly, and merely a mad pedant’s overly-correct attempt to make Eliot’s trochaic fit into an iambic scheme. The line is not purely iambic no matter how much we wish it to be.

    Eliot was studying a great deal of modern French poetry when he wrote “Prufrock.” Every word in that first line is monosyllabic; it is not unreasonable to guess that Eliot first heard that line in his head as spondaic--as the French would say a line of verse, with little stress variation at all. The English ear, however, refuses to buckle under this French wave, and will most likely make the first foot an anapest, the second foot a spondee, and the third foot an iamb: ‘let us GO/THEN YOU/and EYE… Listening to Eliot read it, he almost treats it like two anapests, the second one super-quick: let us GO/then you and EYE…It is anything but an easily scanned line. It is rather awful, in fact, but Eliot was going for mock-heroic, for burlesque, and he recovered his bearings as the poem went on, and the rest is history.


  4. I realize there's experts in all fields including poetry but the test is how the reader feels after reading a work and what the reader likes about the work.

    I studied in school (many years ago) to learn what the proper form and structure of writing is and where the boundaries are. Once I was out in the real word I only used that form and structure as a starting point to develop my own style.

    I may mangle the King's English, I may make grammatical and spelling mistakes but it's my writing not the experts. And my writing is perfectly fine for me and acceptable to those that look for my written thoughts.

    As to the "AAP Magister Ludis and the Iridescent Harlequins" (who ever and whatever they are)? We need both sides to first give structure then test the boundaries of that structure. Else we lose the readers. Doesn't matter whether they're reading a howto article on a tractor website or a leather bound volume of high brow poetry.

  5. I haven't heard the recording of Eliot reading "Prufrock" for at least 30 years, but nevertheless I think I know precisely how the first line went. I also have the advantage that the line has been such an intimate friend muttering away in my head all that time that I don't even have to listen to Frank Sinatra in my head at Christmas, ever, and never get stuck on Leonard Cohen, Carroll King or even John Lennon! There's just no room for loose tunes in my head with lines like Eliot's to keep me company--and I grant a few others.

    Let us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherized upon a table:
    Let us go, through half deserted streets...

    Fifty-two years I've had those lines in my head--and now Kaltica, the head honcho at the Academy of American Poets’ academy for poets in training to be successful poets in America, has been arguing that I read “Prufrock” all wrong. And I have a special interest in this attack on my head because a close friend of mine, a sort of student, though much older, just got banned from the Poets.org Forum for disagreeing with this AAP Magister ludi about the poem. Indeed, Kaltica was so incensed by my friend’s insistent that "Prufrock" was not famous because it was merely "metrical" and "complex," so furious that someone could suggest it was famous because it was just an extraordinarily rich and generous poem, so outragedly, blown over-the- moon insulted that someone would dare to take “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” out of his dedicated, professional hands-–that my student-friend got banned from the Forum! Go and check that out—‘Zotera’ was his login name, 'Zachary' we call him, and June 9th, 2008 was the date.

    Was there perhaps another reason? Well, I myself have been banned from the Poets.org Forum, twice, of course, for talking about a critic called Joan Houlihan whom Kaltica quotes so frequently I thought for awhile there she must be him—or vise versa. Another friend in the same poetry group in Chiang Mai, ‘Bodhibrat’ ('Trygve' to friends), was banned after one single post about Goethe, no less, simply because he used my wifi system here to log in—i.e. my IP is that scary on the radar of the AAP! Trygve’s explanations of Goethe in the original didn’t even last a day! And then when Zachary took on Kaltica they panicked, asked him if he were Christopher, and banned him forthwith.

    So that’s how important it is to side with the school that says Eliot is so “complex” and “metrical” he’s become essential for students, and that if you don’t hire our services you’ll never pass the course at the end, or have any hope of becoming successful as a poet.

    Here’s the way Zachary answered Kaltica. He’s Hong Kong Chinese, and an academic—even ‘Zachary’ isn't his real name, though it does have a ‘Z’ somewhere in it…

    'Zotera' (Poets.org, June 9th, 2008):
    With all due respect, Kaltica, I think you come to this more as a schoolmaster than a reader--because it's only students who regard "Prufrock" as "complex" or "metrical," i.e. a poem with some passages that like to be scanned. I would say that only inexperienced readers who have had a loving, gifted teacher stroking the poem into life before their very eyes would call it complex--while they're preparing for their exams, that is, or later while teaching it themselves. Once they've grown up and become independent they can see that part of "Prufrock's" genius is it's astonishing, unexpected, seamless homogeneity—a very complicated subject that few of us dare to explore in ourselves, but so simple in Eliot’s exposition of it!

    The wonderful thing about this poem is that once you’re a good reader you don't need any of the stuff that that gifted teacher performed in the classroom to get the student to the heart of it. Because many of the literary fossils buried in its elegant, sedimentary strands are less interesting than the rock itself, just lying there without scholarly annotations--like the images in the last two stanzas. That’s why it’s so great, not because it’s a dustbin!

    Of course, it's also a teacher's masterpiece, and I suspect has created more great poetry lessons than any other poem.

    I myself have found over the years that reading “Prufrock” frequently has helped me to ignore a lot of what I know about it--to the point where it's become an artifact of my own life now, the bedrock in which my whole experience of poetry is imprinted.

    As to it's wonderful music, you don't have to analyze it to know that's there either. You just have to hear it to be ravished by it, I'd say. The proof is that any good actor can do the whole thing as a monologue far better than the prosodist can lecture about it. Even a middling actor hardly ever misses.

    Though of course the prosodist has the advantage that teaching poetry is also performance art—and the teacher's got a whole lot more time to spin out his routine than the actor.

    Even though the poem is short too--it's only 131 lines.


    MORE ANON on reading those lines!

  6. That last post was by me, CHRISTOPHER WOODMAN.
    I apologize for being less good at pushing buttons on computers than on Poets.org Moderators!

  7. Christopher,

    Kaltica might SCAN, but he wouldn't BAN...

    And, just curious, do you know what 'anacrusis' is?

  8. Yes, and I owe Kaltica an apology for that too.

    So let me be clearer. Kaltica is the leading critic on Poets.org, and gives himself unsparingly to the legion of young poets who come there to post their poems and get critiques--and, of course, to critique in turn, to demonstrate what they have learned about the critical tools.

    A few of those young poets, teenagers usually, get confident enough to join the larger critical discussions, and indeed they generate a very rich and intense atmosphere when they do. We've had four of those young trainee poets participate here at Poets.net too, and for their contributions we are very grateful.

    Thank you Caestice, Jepson. Noldo2 and Jamie_mu--we are honored to have you and hope you will go on participating here too (indeed, I would participate on both sites were I allowed to!).

    I called Kaltica the "Head Honcho" at AAP because he is so extraordinarily influential in his critical views--indeed, I have heard almost every young participant mature enough to particpate in the real critical threads cite Kaltica as an irrefutable source, a bit like in the old days we used to cite Aristotle or H.W.Fowler!

    Kaltica does NOT ban people--and has never even expressed an opinion on a banning, I suspect. Indeed, in my own experience he was the only Moderator I met when I first appeared on the site who wasn't bristling with indignation that I dared to put in a presence at such a clean and neat place! Kaltica welcomed me--you wouldn't have known where to look had you heard 'sbunch and BillyBlaze!

    Kaltica is also a very fine critic if you want detailed metrical analysis, and I myself would welcome the opportunity to take one of his classes if I could. But he's also dogmatic in the extreme, and has no patience whatsoever with any critical pronouncement that does not involve Latin and Greek terminology. Indeed, he's like an old Russion ballet master who still defines every dance movement in terms of the correct "positions" as he teaches them to us "Rats." And boy, we'd better stretch even harder, stretch and weep and yield--because dance as taught by such an uncompromising old master's not supposed to be fun!

    Did I say that o.k.? I'd like to feel that Kaltica would feel happy with that too, as he quite obviously sacrifices his own personal pleasure for the discipline without which he is convinced true art can never appear.

    Finally, Kaltica is not compromised in any way by the PoBiz elements at the Academy, I feel sure. Indeed, I'm sure he's not compromised by any external position or incentive, just by his own!

    But I do have a special bone to pick with Kaltica nevertheless, because I asked for his help as a witness at the end and he remained silent. He had a very special piece of evidence in his possession that would have exonerated me at my trial, and like the good Fascist he is he remained silent for the good of the State.

    And I was shot.

    For that I will never forgive him unless he asks me to.

    And how do I know he had that evidence? Because I gave it to him in person!


  9. Christopher,

    Kaltica is a nightmarish pedant.

    His 'expertise' probably does more harm than good.

    He seems rigorous, but he's really not, because rigor does not consist in linking to a hodepodge of 'experts' who contradict one another; Kaltica revels in so many 'terms' and 'prosodic tricks,' they end up canceling each other out.

    So instead of a consistent approach to prosody with an underlying rationale, you have an approach that is both scatterbrained and intimidating (de scansion does not vork? you dunce! ve just haf to apply anacrusis!) where there's always some obscure (and unnecessary) term lurking in the cards to 'win the trick.' (Kaltica plays bridge, and that says a lot; he seems to think the strategies for bridge and prosody are the same).


  10. I've been following you on Poets.org, TomWest, and I must say it's been rich too.

    What I wonder if you could do would be to analyze Kaltica's critical method a bit and give us some specific examples of how he reads poetry. What "obscure (and unnecessary)" terms does he use to "win the trick," as you describe it? And what's in it for him?

    Given the theme of this thread, I'd also be interested to hear a bit more of your thoughts about how Kaltica's type of criticism is affecting modern poetry. Do you see it as part of the PoBiz?

    Maybe you could even take those opening lines from "Prufrock" that Christopher has posted and tell us what Kaltica makes of them, and of course by contrast what you do. I'd like to hear a bit more about your own method too, and I don't mean the Poe treatise specifically but how you talk about the lines all by yourself.

    Christopher has promised more too, and I have some ideas myself. So let's see what we can do with this.


  11. Let me post a little bit more for those of you that have not been following all this as closely as I have.

    TomWest"s main thread on Poets.org is called "On Aspiring Writers Becoming Successful Writers," and I would say that the very first post explains precisely Kaltica's relationship with the PoBiz.

    Here's what TomWest wrote

    Poets.org (Apr 06, 2008)
    The ‘aspiring writer’ industry has become far bigger than the ‘successful writer’ industry, and the ‘aspiring writer’ industry has taken on a life of its own such that it only connects to the ‘successful writer’ industry in a cynical fashion (“Pay us money! We’ll make you a great writer!”) Writing has traditionally been self-taught, but now we’ve reached a point where writing owes everything to teaching; the self-taught writer of the past has been replaced by the writer who writes writing books, or teaches writing, who insists--for his or her own survival--that writing needs to be taught, and, further, taught with an eye towards costly credentials—a natural development when the writing vocation gets handed, bound and tied, over to the teaching industry.

    It's also amusing to note that this thread was, in fact, started by Christopher Woodman on April 6th, 2008 and that he wrote for it copiously until, just two weeks later, "the lights went out" once and for all.

    This is what he wrote in his last post:

    Poets.org (Apr 20, 2008)
    My argument is that some poetry today is more difficult than it needs to be because our teachers model difficulty as a virtue. Because who would pay that much money to a teacher that just kept handing out three sprigs of green and a small pot to arrange them in each day year after year after year? And if the teacher got the job without knowing how to place those three sprigs in the pot in the first place? Why, that teacher would talk up a storm to make it look as if the transformation were taking place anyway, and then define it in terms that nobody could understand without his or her or a colleague's professional help.

    And then publish it, give it a prize, make that a big credit, raise the bar even higher, gather everybody together in a mansion in the Berkshires for the weekend to explain how it works--and if you're still willing even then, and sound right, of course, you're in!

    But how's your poetry? How has it fared?

    That's the risk, you see, Noldo. Deliberate obfuscation is the danger--pretension, convolution, boutique spectacle and speciosity, all of which I would say are just the opposite of the sort of rigorous study you're talking about which whittles and pares down to the bone and beyond like the artist in Ted Hughes' "Thrushes!".

    Hopefully over to you now, TomWest,


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