My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.


COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.


COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”



Epic response dude!

Thanks for this one, especially.
A.E. Stallings.

Wow she actually sounds sufferable, more sufferable than I ever imagined a Harvard English professor could be. I love her defense of American slag.


FTFY. You might want to learn American spelling before criticizing an English professor.

It's amusing that her responses to Tyler all amount to gentle variations of "what are you talking about?"

T.S. Eliot not American enough? Or is his contribution to poetry simply not limited enough to American poets?

Did you read the conversation? New laid out part of the reason why Pound and Eliot (excepting The Waste Land and Four Quartets) are not viewed as having held up nearly as well as their modernist peers/foes.

Also, no, Eliot probably doesn't count as American enough.

Saying that Eliot hasn't held up all that well outside the Waste Land is like saying that Danté hasn't held up all that well outside of The Inferno.

All poets write bad poetry. Great poets occasionally also write great poetry.

Feel free to elaborate on "Cambridge didn't make him wise." That must be shorthand for something, but as a non-scholar, I don't know what. He didn't "do" WW1 seems to be the thrust? He didn't fight, so he didn't write battlefield poems? He didn't mourn the right thing, instead wasted fire on "European civilization ... blowing itself to smithereens"? Or he did it badly? Color me confused. Sometimes Tyler's antipathy to the follow-up question is less economical than he thinks.

You are on to something, Tyler, about American English not being as rich as it used to be. Here's a paragraph from Moby-Dick:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.

No rapper, tweeter, or blogger is producing language like that anymore.

And yet I’m told that rap is the new Blues, a veritable street poetry, and that to denigrate it as unsophisticated or to draw attention to its coarse subtext — or forget sub, just text — of hoes and tats and guns and bling, etc., is politically wrong and aesthetically elitist.

Why would you compare that to rappers, tweeters or bloggers? Melville wrote literary fiction, and modern literary fiction is comparable in complexity and diction.

When Melville tried to publish Moby Dick, the publisher suggested he change the whale into a hot chick. (not a joke, that actually happened)

Why would the sailormen try to harpoon a hot chick?

That's actually pretty bad writing if you ask me.

Wow, that's not pretty bad, it's terrible. The infinite of his soul? Wondrous depths? Is this ninth grade creative writing class?

Compare this: In Chancery. LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Compare this from Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney

The glorious army that drew up before the Black Gate numbered somewhat less than the original thousands. It numbered seven, to be exact, and might have been less had not seven merinos finally bolted for freedom out from under
their riders. Cautiously, Arrowroot looked upon the Black Gate to Fordor. It was many times a man in height and painted a flashy red. Both halves were labeled OUT.
"They will issue from here," Arrowroot explained. "Let us unfurl our battle standard."
Dutifully Goodgulf fitted together his cue and attached the white cloth.
"But that is not our standard," said Arrowroot.
"Bets?" said Gimlet.
"Better Sorhed than no head," said Goodgulf as he bent his sword into a plowshare.
Suddenly Arrowroot's eyes bugged.
"Lo!" he cried.
Black flags were raised in the black towers and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the bikes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-begged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

My favorite line from that book was IIRC something like this:

"Aiee!" cried Legolam, "a ballhog!"

"Wedding bells were reported to be only centuries away," is awfully good.

I assume that Moby Dick is not representative of casual writing of its time.

The prose of Moby Dick isn't particularly striking when compared to the upper echelon of modern writers.

I'll take Stevens' meditations as the pinnacle of American poetic achievement over Whitman (and basically all comers except the sui generis Dickinson) - fight me.

Would there be a Stevens or Crane without Whitman? I mean, the High Romantic tradition that they follow had been going on for quite a while (e.g. Wordsworth, Shelley), and part of the thesis of Whitman and other American poetry is that there is indeed something about America that calls up viewpoints like Whitman's. In addition, although you ask whether Stevens et al could occur without Whitman, just as important might be whether Whitman could have occurred without Emerson. If Whitman hadn't come first, it seems to me that Stevens would have covered Whitman's ground rather than being forced to grapple with and eventually transcend the anxiety of whether Whitman had already done everything.

What's effably cool about the hip slang is that even the people who love it, are unable to break it down .... it be that opaque:

Is that how it be really?

Maybe it's not that they're subversive, but that social desirability bias pushes people like Cowen to say something is great not because it really is but because other people are saying so. Maybe that's how it be.

You think? But that "most vital" - it's a different sort of endorsement than "good" or "really enjoying this" - we NEED these lyrics, without them our culture would be busy dying. It's one of those conversation-stoppers that intimidates and flummoxes. [Not me, obviously!! - I acknowledge rap and hip-hop are the highest art form of the age, even if I don't understand one word or brand name in five, much as I am weirdly dyslexic when it comes to graffiti. But I've heard some people react differently to the genre.] [And not that Tyler needs the crutch of a conversation-stopper, as he neither converses nor defends.]

Maybe he worships youth. Or maybe he thinks these young bards are the new stiliagi.

I'm pleased to deploy "stiliagi" less than 12 hours after learning it. I think it would scan rather well, too.

New: "Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists . . . ." Was it yesterday that Cowen posted an essay arguing against a canon for philosophy? My comment was that the essayist spent most of the essay building the case for a canon, only to halfheartedly attempt to reach the opposite conclusion. As for economics, manipulation (of human behavior) has rendered the canon obsolete.

While I haven't listened, I feel like I should say to Elisa New .. don't worry. I'll call you kid.

Someone posted a while back an old interview with Susan Sontag where Ms Sontag bemoaned the fact that her generation had been so successful at destroying the standards of the past. She thought that they were just expanding the field a little only to find that the cheap, cynical, tat they pushed had become everything and nothing else was left standing.

So it is nice that a Professor of English at Harvard does what everyone else does and praise slang. Good to see she is down wit' da Yoof and all that. But it would be nicer if she defended actual poetry. With, you know, rhyme and meter and things like that.

It was a good interview and perhaps I am too bitter this late in the day but when questioned on the decline of American poetry - surely a pressing concern for her and her Department - she does not have much that is coherent to say:

I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

It sounds like no one has ever asked her this before and she has never thought about it. That was surprising.

So snark aside, not only a much better interview than I thought but a good interview.

"Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize."

This is a deeply Straussian comment. Without naming names, there are a few individuals that come to mind but one above all others.

This doesn't really address the fact that the poetic canon is closed. By which I mean, not a single person outside an English department could quote a line of poetry written after 1964 or thereabouts. Poetry for the past 50 years is like Byzantine literature: for a thousand years, Byzantine authors and scholars wrote in Greek, and no one today outside the university would even consider reading a line of it.

Great post with many good comments.

I like Whitman because, in his Lilacs poem, he tried as hard as anyone ever has to explain how a person without a close friend in this world feels when someone they admired, but were never close to, died. I do not care if he outdid Wordsworth or Tennyson's analogous stanzas in In Memoriam, I do not care if he inspired ambitious "poets" of later generations, I only care that he said what he wanted to say and said it well. Sure I wish Whitman was a little more kind, a little more compassionate, and a little less self-centered; but we are talking about a poet as a poet, not as a failed human being, and unless we are saints (even Leon Bloy agrees) we are failed human beings. Trust me on that.

I love American English, every once in a while I too think maybe it (American English) is not keeping up with the great languages of the long millennia that we think of when we think of history, but then I remember how fun it is to listen to the top one percent talkers of the America I live in (in order to back up my claim that there are lots of top one percent talkers, I will start with people - from the very limited list of people you might have heard of: who I consider fairly normal, and who are fascinatingly complex in the way the use the language, I doubt people in other languages are more fascinating, ceteris paribus: sports and news: John Madden, Walt Frazier, Keith Hernandez, Michael Savage, Dennis Miller .... religion: Tony Evans, Lon Solomon, Raymond Burke; - there are many more who I talk to weekly or daily, but who will never be famous -and as for poetry and prose (the name of a local bookstore, slightly authoritarian in its views, but, whatever) I have to admit I used to read five or six book reviews a week and I would not be surprised if the nine or ten writers who are those writers who are, in this country of a hundred million literate people, one in ten million at being fun to listen to, were not very very good at their use of American English, are actually supremely gifted at using our language. Whoever they are...

To end this comment with a compliment to someone I do not admire all that much: I once read someone's description of Harold Bloom (a professor for the last 60 (60!) years who over-admires the late-Renaissance exuberance of the philosophically poverty-stricken Shakespeare, who says bad things about the geniuses who wrote most of the books of the Bible *you do not want to read what Bloom has to say about Saint Paul, the friend of Rabbi Gamaliel and one other famous rabbi, trust me on that), and who way overrates complicated modern gnostic novelists) - I once read someone's description of Harold Bloom, someone who was a friend of his, and the nicest thing I have ever heard anyone say about a professor was this: Oh to listen to him talk to taxi drivers! That was wonderful! (In other words, he spoke in his one in a million way to people who enjoyed listening to him: God bless him for that).

Look, none of us are ever going to be, statistically speaking, more than one in a few ten billion or so, at best, when it comes down to the question of what we may have contributed as far as saying interesting things. And God knows I have spent too much time thinking about how fascinating and inspired (just to mention two people whom I consider, as philosophers, second rate, but as writers, absolutely first rate) Joyce and Proust were. Sorry about that, but that being said, those writers, although wrong about whether we are actually friends of God or not (we are, I say, maybe we are, those poor little fellows used to say), really were, if not one in a billion, at least one in a million, in that small corner of the world where such things matter.

Well, I once understood a few foreign languages really well, and nobody cares about which language is most expressive, all that matters is being a friend - if we can - to a creature who never had a friend in the world, what matters is saying what you think to someone who, in their love for you, only wants you to say what you think, and it would be a bonus if what you think accords with the truth, but leaving aside the fact that even people who think other people with their crazy sad views of the world might be wrong, and might want them to be dull and boring - leaving aside that fact - I, for one, prefer that everyone tries to be interesting, tries not to live their life as if one could live life by lies, -
this is not 2018, this is a different year, and my best advice is to read Proverbs 8, every day, before you set pen to paper

thanks for reading

I am not convinced that any other modern language has people as interesting, at least in their use of language (leaving the divine science of theology aside), as, for example, Edna St Vincent Millay Gjertrud Schanckenberg Emily Dickinson Sylvia Plath Willa Cather

American English is at its best too when someone who goes through life with a name like Edna St Vincent Millay is as good as you ever imagined

that ferry ride those cheap peaches, just after the apex of the season, remembering what it was like to be young, before the years when we were older and knew what it was like not to be young and healthy anymore, but without bitterness, trying to remember those days with fondness as if our very lives counted on it, imagine the way Mozart used to throw a little bit of tension into his melodic structure before throwing in the angelic winner melodic themes

not that I care, one way or the other, I have seen the saltwater Ocean fully expressing its happiness to its creator (summer of 1976, in case you care) and the successes and failures of poets, qua poet, are nothing as compared to their successes in being decent human beings. remember that. Proverbs 8. try and say what you mean, at least once in life, to everyone you care about: and don't do anything that would make the people who care about you sad.

Totally easy, when you think about it. Which you will, either here and now in 1918 (plus a deceptive hundred) (or 1818 plus a deceptive 200, we could do this all afternoon) or which you will (find to be totally easy) some day further on.

It is no small thing to be a friend to anybody who never really had a friend in this world. I know the numbers (creatures in this world, creatures in this world who never had a friend in this world). Thanks for reading. Feel free to think I am someone you could mock: but remember, the truth is the truth, and I for one am much too kind of a person to want you, even if you are mocking in your heart, to not recognize this truth:

You want your children and your grandchildren and so on to be happy. You assume that they will not be born into a world where they do not have friends.
I hope you are right,

If you are wrong, I, for one, was someone who reminded you:

it is no small thing to be a friend to a creature who never had a friend in this world.

Remember - this is not 2018, and we are talking about your descendants.

Proverbs 8, pray for me and I will pray for you, and if you do not need my prayers I will pray for your descendants,

Thanks for reading.

and that being said, God loves us all, and wants us all to do whatever we need to do to show that we really care about other people

Not caring about other people is just too sad

not caring about me is comical, I am used to it, that is a specific situation, I don't care

but leaving me out of it, not caring about other people is just too sad

Good questions. I appreciate that she's willing to say "I don't know" but still share how she might approach the question. Her point that "The Scarlet Letter" remains a revealing "American" text caught my attention, though I'm reluctant to re-read it. Is it possible that Shaq's commentary on literature exceeds the quality of his commentary on the NBA? On a separate note, I'm not wild about the new icon for CWT, sort of an ear with a lot of Cs, perhaps to suggest "conversations" and "Cowen?" I look forward to the next episode.

Thank you Tyler for getting in a Bob Dylan question! 'Buckets of Rain' was a great choice as well.

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