Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By: James Rother

A Thumbnailer's Guide to the Galaxy: Major American Poets, 1965-2005 

(Part One)

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     In October 1962, the National Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C. was treated to a lecture by Randall Jarrell, indefatigable scourge of American complacency about poets and poetry. The talk’s aim was to provide all who attended with an overview of the landscape of American verse’s last half-century, one as respectful of its less towering peaks as of the Mount McKinleys and Mount Whitneys of modernism’s golden age. In covering that landscape, Jarrell did his best to distinguish between a poetic landscape dotted with exceptional flora and fauna and one dotty with them. (Obviously, with a roster of specimens ranging from Robinson Jeffers to Marianne Moore, such scrupulosity was not only de rigueur but pressingly expedient.) Limitations of (oral) space allowed for only the most rough and ready account of the period in question, 1912-1962, and so the issue of what verse written in the next fifty years might look like was moot. No doubt Jarrell thought it less depressing not to have to take up the internecine squabbling that had marred the hopefulness reigning at the end of World War II as the Modernist beacon dimmed from brilliant down to night-light intensity. 

          As it turned out, the creative vacuum modernism left would be filled by the sprawl of a nihilizing post-modernism, but the full implications of that weren’t to become apparent until Y-2K loomed. For years, the war of anthologies had pitted narrowly trained, Genteel-Traditioned formalists against bedenimed and sandaled free-verseniks (also espousing formalism, but only as an adjunct to their own content-ism) in a Battle of the Books whose knockdowns owed more to Mack Sennett than Jonathan Swift. Suited up as crusaders, each faction claimed sole exploitation rights to the Chapel Perilous of Modernism. On one side of the burning lake were the formalists, brandishing the (true) red cross of Eliot and Auden and approaching the “wasteland” of America in the same way they approached the poem with that name—as a pack of Tarot cards laying out bad news in need of exegesis. On the other were the informalists, every bit as intransigent under the white cross of Pound and Williams and seeing America already as a wasteland (if not the wasteland par excellence) with little of use to be gained by training on its hellifics a poem not one of whose 434 lines was original. 

          The “Republocrat vs. Demoblican” differences separating the two factions, while no more suggestive of real distinctions than “One man’s jot is another man’s tittle,” actually couches a crux not unlike the stunner dropped by Walter Benjamin in the reader’s lap in the final paragraph of his famous essay, “The Work of Art in An Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). At pains to gauge the responses of fascism and communism to the shotgun marriage of art and politics their use of mass media had helped bring about, Benjamin hoisted his dilemma onto the point of a chiasmus. Mankind’s self-alienation, he wrote, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.” Jarrell, however, had no interest in such abstruse matters. The implications for poetry of trends and fashions looming over the near or long term are neither touched nor touched on in his talk. There were, in his mind at least, more important fish to fry, more niceties of judgment to be rendered critically immediate.   

         Read today in terms of our not nearly so critical standards, Jarrell’s stock-taking (which appeared in printed form in the Spring 1965 issue of Prairie Schooner) seems finicky, even curmudgeon-like. For one thing, it makes no bones of separating poets into sheep that are noteworthy and goats unworthy of being noted, at the foot of a page or anywhere else. This is not to suggest that Jarrell’s discriminations are arrogantly drawn or over the top. Even with time to waste nattering about how swell it would be if poets could be judged on the basis of what they aimed at rather than what they accomplished, he almost certainly wouldn’t have done so. His personal script called for telling it like it was, knowing that if one did that, telling it like it is would no longer be a problem. Jarrell was concerned not just with where individual poets fitted under the broad tent of American values, but with how poetry—an art form he clung to even more desperately than he did to his beloved Mozart—might best survive in an age when it was under greater assault by barbarism than at any other time in its history. 

         Having such priorities as a critic landed Jarrell not just in a class but a whole species apart from careerists and bon vivants on the poetry circuit for whom living high on the hog was not all in a day’s work, it was the day’s work. How many writing today would be honest enough to refuse to review a fellow poet they felt uncomfortable about praising, or to deny some poet the puff piece or blurb they might be grateful for themselves someday? Jarrell no doubt understood why so few of his contemporaries were willing to call the bluff of buck passers and brown-nosers in poetry criticism, the stranglehold of poets and critics determined to establish a power base for themselves and their protegés being so strong in the publishing world. Why risk ostracism with an attack on favoritism when a reputation for back scratching translated reliably into a string of grants, awards, and adjunct professorships? 

          The stated aim of “Fifty years of American Poetry,” then, was to “try not to theorize about movements and tendencies but stick to the poets and their poems.” And, true to his word, Jarrell’s commentary never once takes its eyes off the prize, which was to apportion space, not in accordance with the clout wielded by each twenty-five reputations, but with how much of critical importance—in both senses of the word “critical”—could be said about them in turn. Hence his galaxy of poets is less a constellation of fixed stars in some Ptolemaic firmament floated by the New Criticism than a slew of wavering planets in asynchronous orbit around a sun that is itself having a hard time not falling out of the sky. A Copernican himself, Jarrell was prepared to acknowledge (as many poet-critics then were not) the limitations pressing in upon his age. Rather than be fenced off from others’ enclosures (as the free-versers chose to be), or pretend his own sequestered preserve was the open range (as the stable of talking mules ventriloquized by Wilbur did), he tried to counterpoise his subjective bias with as much objectivity of judgment as he could muster. And to square that circle (knowing circles to be unsquareable) with nothing but the singular equipment he was able to bring to the business of what R. P. Blackmur famously called “the critic’s job of work.”

          That for him seriousness as well as facetiousness entered into this golden fleecing of incompatibles is amply attested to in Jarrell’s letters. When the need arose, he could make the absence of tact seem the mark of sincerity, as when his friend Robert Lowell asked him why he disapproved of the latter’s prose poem, “91 Revere Street.” (“But, it’s not poetry, Cal,” he responded.) And even when need didn’t arise, the muse of mockery could prompt an inspired aside: “One sees lots of criticism by William Carlos Williams these days, but very little by Baby Snooks; it’s an unjust world.” (A note in passing: The ability to balance a world of understatement as toppling as a disaster movie skyscraper on the point of as little juxtapositional space as is afforded by a semi-colon was a talent Jarrell shared with only one other critic writing in English: Kenneth Tynan.) But on that day in 1962 Jarrell’s purpose was very much on the serious side. He wanted his listeners to accept, more or less on faith, the principles—to him self-evident—that underlay his judgment, and why his refusal to countenance the sloppy and formless in poetry was the most principled of all.   

          Topping his prerequisites for poetic greatness was a devotion not just to technique, but to the more inclusive shapings of craft. For Jarrell, for a poet to have a distinctive style it was not enough to have coasted through a number of verse collections on idle. His or her work must have impacted American speech in ways clearly measurable to the ear, and in order to have brought off this, it had to manifest a devotion to the American language which shortchanged none of its waywardness or idiosyncrasy. Without such a devotion up and running, a poet could not possibly summon the resources necessary to nudge the nation’s imagination toward the renewal and rededication Jefferson was thinking of when he proposed a revolution for America every generation or so, just to keep the young democracy on its toes.    

          Finally, it is highly unlikely that Jarrell imagined that the next four decades of American verse could possibly match the throw-weight of a modernist MERV missile armed with the warheads of Pound, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams. (Indeed, it is only very recently that the assumption of this “fabulous five” being superior to all but the literary immortals of Whitehead’s “age of genius,” the 17th Century, has been downgraded to a near certainty.) True, American verse—in the wake of Auden and with some umbrage taken at Wilbur’s perdurable shade—did reach loftier heights than pessimists lodged either in Greenwich Village or the League of Ivy could readily imagine. While no single school managed to exert hegemony over its rivals (as the modernists immediately before and just after World War I succeeded in doing), the work of prime movers and shakers like A. R. Ammons, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery awakened American poetry to possibilities even modernist experimentalism had ignored. And even if their efforts had failed to pull refractory formalists up by the same bootstraps they had used to make themselves over in a more modern image than that of the modernists in 1912, they had still moved the agenda from the indispensability of tradition to the need for a compositional method (rather than an arsenal of forms) that could salvage Pound’s “language of gists and piths” from the torpor of word puzzles which enveloped Auden in his declining years. 

          In what follows I do not propose stepping into Jarrell’s shoes and taking up precisely where he left off. Nor do I plan to match him poet for poet. His whirlwind tour of American modernism and its aftermath (beginning with E. A. Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters and ending with Robert Lowell) rounded up all the usual suspects that usually populate such sweeps: from grizzled place-runners like Lindsay and Sandburg to triathlon specialists Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams; and from hardy regulars of the Tour de France, Crane, Moore, Ransom, Cummings, and Aiken to joggers and work-out specialists Tate, Jeffers, Bishop, Warren, and Roethke. My own survey will focus on a select handful of exceptional poets, with a larger number of others thought by “industry insiders” to have contributed significantly to American poetry during the four decades under review. (Readers who have been with CPR from the beginning will recall that the first real chance to get my feet wet in this genre came with a piece I wrote for Pacific Review back in 1977, titled “On Contemporary American Poetry.”) 

          The survey will begin with a consideration of Donald Justice (b. 1925), to be followed by a shivaree centering on five poets claiming the annus mirabilis of 1926 as their year of birth: A. R. Ammons, James Merrill, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara. The proceedings will wrap up with Mark Doty, whose birth year furnishes the cut-off point for poets eligible for this go-round, 1953. Is it coincidental that all of my start-up poets are now deceased—three of them, Ammons, Justice, and Creeley—having died within the last two years? 




1965 was perhaps most notable for having been the year the Vietnam War really entered the national consciousness as something nastier and more ominous than the mere “police action” earlier U.S. administrations had insisted on calling it. Throughout America, college campuses were expanding like water balloons, having become the first resort of adolescent males avoiding the draft and a choice resort for co-eds eager to experience what marriage would soon enough shrink-wrap to a house in the suburbs with a one-car garage. As a consequence, unprecedentedly large quantities of books, both popular and “serious,” began to proliferate in grocery stores and “student centers” that in prescient anticipation of the explosion, stocked anything the all-ruling 18-30 demographic might conceivably browse on impulse. Tracking surveys had begun to point insistently at an earthquake building beneath what had previously been a quiet-coursing stream bed of disposable income. True, the “baby boomer” generation had already shown a marked disinclination toward denying itself anything, even to the point of putting rock LPs ahead of food purchases. But there was something in their consumer profile that was anything but customary and it involved not what the 18-24s were reading, but how many books they took home with the intention of finishing. By the mid-‘60s, nearly every college dorm room had bricks-and-boards book shelves whose stock of paperbacks, while partially reflecting classroom use, also included titles which ranged far beyond the standard Beat conspectus of the late ‘50s. So obvious was this change in buying patterns that any marketing executive worth his salt could have seen a paradigm shift developing from a subculture of loosely affiliated young people to a youth culture with the potential of becoming the mainstream culture in a very few years. And another thing caught the collective eye of those executives: adolescents were not only purchasing books in ever larger numbers, a sizeable component of what they were buying was books of poetry. The new thing really was a New Thing, and for once in the notoriously cautious publishing world, all bets were off. 

          Hats off to the Ginsberg-Corso-Ferlinghetti explosion of the ‘50s: it had at the very least turned a whole generation of young people on to Dickinson and Whitman, the yin and yang of their poetic heritage, not to mention having made a percentage of them more than dyslexically conversant with the wisdom of the east. Yet, though fine in its way, the taste in poetry it fostered did not jibe with Jarrell’s hopes for another fifty years of, if not more of the Modernist same, then something remarkably like it in perhaps a different key and with fewer dots and dashes Morse-coding the imminent demise of art. Oddly enough, Jarrell showed very little inkling of what would drive his notion of the poetically valuable from center stage. Not a single rising star among the seven poets leading off the present survey receives so much as an honorable mention in his “Fifty Years” survey, let alone those shooting stars of the 20th Century’s second half, such as Creeley, Ashbery, and Snyder, the rise to prominence of whom during the years of the Vietnam war conferred upon on their writings something of a rock star’s mystique. 

          Contrariwise, the leading lights of Jarrell’s own generation (John Berryman, Howard Nemerov, Delmore Schwartz, W. D. Snodgrass, James Wright, Theodore Weiss, James Dickey, and Louis Simpson), though failing to make the cut did make the tail-end of his short list, space lacking to reward their chops with the sort of garnish due them. Not that it mattered much: succeeding years would see the reputations of these and others of the formalist persuasion falter and in many instances fall by the wayside, burnt-out cases of a moribund literary preference. Who these days, for example, reads Berryman, Weiss, and Dickey? Or, for that matter, Karl Shapiro, whom Jarrell, along with Wilbur and Lowell, discusses at some length, and Richard Eberhart, Eleanor Taylor, Katherine Hoskins, and Isabella Gardner whom he does not? It is instructive that, among the twelve poets singled out as major by Ralph J. Mills, Jr. in his once influential study Contemporary American Poetry (1965), only Bishop, Lowell, and Wilbur survive in the present decade’s most read anthologies, with Levertov and Sexton still clinging to the canon, but with weakening grip. The other seven candidates for whom Jarrell predicted longevity—Eberhart, Kunitz, Roethke, (William) Everson, Shapiro, Gardner, and Wright—have already sunk to the level of footnote fodder for histories of American writing on whose contents dust is ever accumulating. But the time has come to press on with other matters, and as good a place as any to start is the contribution to lock-step iambics made by the recently deceased poet, Donald Justice.


Donald Justice 

If you’re one of those poets who can’t write without a distinct subject to set you off—and Donald Justice (b. 1925) was one of the last relics to file himself under that rubric—then you’d better be the sort who finds subjects where others miss seeing them lying about, or be fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to live in what the Chinese call “interesting times.” Justice was not so blessed, having had to live out in spades the curse imposed on all too many contemporary poets: a career of teaching the ambitious, but often talentless, young the ropes of “creative writing.” And as if this Newcastle lacked sufficient coal of its own, a career spent in places like the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, and the University of Florida, in Gainesville (where in fact Justice served out his low security sentence at soft labor) is guaranteed to truck in a shitload more in the form of time spent searching for extracurricular holes to spend in. It also explains why as a poet he never really had much to write about. It’s no secret that the cities and towns that play host to these institutions condemn their indentured tenured to unrelenting poverty of reference, which is why the poet-prof has to rely upon his divorce, or the death of a pet dog, or a bout with cancer to provide grist for a poetic mill that used to need at least a war or a lengthy Strindbergian marriage to get off its dime. 

          Thirty years of Justice titles tell their downer of a tale all too forlornly: ”On the Death of Friends in Childhood” (a thematic twitch bordering on a tic), “Variations on a Theme by James,” “Unflushed Urinals,” “The Stray Dog in the Summerhouse,” “On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane,” “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy,” “Memo from the Desk of X,” “Villanelle at Sundown.” The list plods on, with a sestina chalked up here and a pantoum there, but with the conclusion of the awful game itself never in any doubt: to void with dated artistry the void of Nothing Doing. Is it any wonder his favorite poet (also muse: see below) was Wallace Stevens, who, between the splendors of Harmonium (1923) and the Prosperity—Tempest-tossed—of the final few amazing poems extemporized “while leaving the room” (1954-55), gave to those near, and apparently not so dear, to him (see the Letters) the performance of a lifetime as Rotarian of supreme fictions and envoy-extraordinary from the talkier reaches of Uppur Wahoo?     

          Justice’s long anticipated Collected Poems (exactly fifty years after Stevens’s) missed narrowly at being a posthumous publication, which in a rebarbative sense seems appropriate for a poet as much addicted to time warps in verse as to broad-beam architectonics. Fond of indulging himself, as one of his own personae describes it, “in rich refusals,” Justice fell into and then anorexically clung to a prosody which others in his generation seemed not to be able to divest themselves of fast enough. His muse (though his devotees would flatly deny this) was even more conservative than Stevens’s. Thus, though it might’ve been Harmonium’s gaudy impresario that drew him on, it was the garrulousness of the Hartford poet’s seasonal zeppelins—the ones in oh-so-blank verse and sporting titles like “Transport to Summer” and “Auroras of Autumn”—that  finally lured Justice to Snoozeville. Not only were these hot-air balloons not dirigible as poems (see Randall Jarrell on this score), they were like fire retardant applied to the blaze consuming European influences Walt Whitman had done his unlevel best to start. True, a part of Justice never ceased hankering after such potted luxuriances as “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” greenhouses; Justice’s quite early “Song” and its 1967 follow-up, “After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens,” make this abundantly clear: 

                        The alp at the end of the street

                        Occurs in the dreams of the town.        

                        Over burgher and shopkeeper,

                        Massive, he broods,

                        A snowy-headed father

                        Upon whose knees his children

                        No longer climb;

                        Or is reflected

                        In the cool, unruffled lakes of

                        Their minds, at evening,

                        After their day in the shops,

                        As shadow only, shapeless

                        As a wind that has stopped blowing.


                        Grandeur, it seems,

                        Comes down to this in the end—

                        A street of shops

                        With white shutters

                        Open for business . . . 

Even more than the fungibility of The alp at the end of the street (which here ends up non-negotiable anyway), the keeper for Justice in this snow globe of keepsakes is the delicacy of perception which, in the world as it is, as usual and without end, merits the only “Amen” worth the uttering. Growing old has its rewards which, as our respect for those “once only” experiences that make a dog’s life desirable only to a dog mounts, become more and more obvious. “Men at forty,” he wrote in the poem with that line for its title, “Learn to close softly / The doors to rooms they will not be / Coming back to.” Truth approaches on padded feet of off-rhyme and half-rhyme, of assonance glibly ensconced in its own pastel cocoon, rocking liltingly and never urgently or insistently—very much, in fact, like the age of forty itself: 

                                    At rest on a stair landing,

                                    They feel it moving

                                    Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,

                                    Though the swell is gentle. 

          It could be argued that Justice is least overextended poetically when whistling in a dark less bruising than the one blank verse whistles in, which, as anyone having read 18th-century English poems not by Pope, Swift, or Johnson knows, can, unless negotiated by the nimblest feet, produce sounds as tripping as a walker with training wheels. His iambics, when they dance at all, do so often with two left feet. If Shakespeare and Tennyson move with the easy grace of a Fred Astaire, and Milton and Wordsworth with the leggy enjambment of an Ann Miller top-hatting her own tail, Justice is, even at his Hardy-est, a Mickey Rooney flailing in double-time to keep up with Judy Garland. (Though critical, for example, of “the hard, thuddy iambic pentameter line” of Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle, he could himself never resist the iambic heave enough to want to give it the heave-ho.) His good humor, which often emerges in Kodak moments of co-eternizing with the forgotten and neglected (“unknown poets” like Robert Boardman Vaughn and neglected senior citizens not infrequently supplied pretexts for his poems) rescues him from the dour and despondent more than once. Instinctively, he must have felt that broad expenditures of feeling encouraged an indulgence of expansiveness—read talkiness—his verse could ill afford. (The fatal attraction to rime riche, or false rhyme—repetitively growing, as did he, also—hindered him further.) Paradoxically, it was this same expansiveness which gave his otherwise limited art the legs to keep on keeping on, even when the old two-step must’ve seemed no more worth the candle than adding to the tapers lit by Wilbur and his minions to try to stem the gloom spread by the New York School’s reigning princes of darkness. 

          It’s an article of faith (mostly in the editorial offices of The New Criterion) that Justice’s verse has been unfairly attacked by those resenting the candor he has shown in reviewing the work of his peers. His poetry has been condemned—or so the conservative journals maintain—for its “lack of vitality . . . urgency . . . colour and surprise,” not to mention a “weary passivity” and “a habit of elegance which cushions meaning.” One hatchet-for-hire even went so far as to write that the poems, “formal but fatigués . . . create the impression of getting great job-satisfaction without actually doing much work.” How much justice there is in this type of criticism is of course open to debate. What is harder for this poet’s defenders to explain away, however, is the pronounced lack of musicality in the poetry of a writer who not only set out on a career of composing along the lines of his mentor, Carl Ruggles, but also kept in close contact with music and musicians (he was reputedly more than just a parlor virtuoso of Chopin) until the very end of his life. Scan his Collected Poems anywhere and you might well find, as Bruce Bawer has, “understatement . . . honest feeling, careful observation, and fresh expression”; what you will not find is the “limpid lyricism [and] gracefully flowing music” that he insists is there. The neocon prophet in the anti-academic burning bush Prophets & Professors (1995) singles out The Sunset Maker (1987) as especially redolent of these qualities, though the evidence he cites seems no less tone-deaf than much of what fills out the Collected Poems. How musical is this— 

            Two mules stand waiting in front of the brick wall of a warehouse,

                        hitched to a shabby flatbed wagon.

            Its spoked wheels resemble crude wooden flowers

                        pulled recently from a deep and stubborn mud—? 

Or this— 

                                    Turn your head. Look. The light is turning yellow.

                        The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened.

                                    Why this is, I’ll never be able to tell you—? 

Or, heaven help us, this, which as a length of liederhosen even Ned Rorem might think twice about scoring: 

            Busts of the great composers glimmered in niches,

                        Pale stars. Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her,

                        Calling the time out in that hushed falsetto?

                        (How early we begin to grasp what kitsch is!) . . . ? 

          If the unusual number of bad reviews Justice received during his career can really be laid to pay-back and get-even, The Sunset Maker is surely the wrong book with which argue the injustice of those bad notices. Ought Justice’s poems then to glimmer in posterity’s niches? Doubtful: he seems not to have known what Byronic kitsch is


A. R. Ammons 

Among the group of five “annus mirabilis poets (born in 1926), A. R. Ammons (whose Collected Poems bears the scarcely believable date of 1972!) unquestionably deserves the accolade of primus inter pares. To those who feel at best lukewarm about his poetry, Ammons’s total body of work (in complimentary terms generous; in uncomplimentary, huge and unedited), having too often resorted to inquietude as a means of countering disquietude, is too much of a muchness, an overplus gratuitously piled on. To others better disposed to it—as Harold Bloom is—its towering pre-eminence over competing oeuvres leaves it virtually without rival as an American resource. Not infrequently poets with as much stuff rattling around their bibliographies as Ammons has—the final totting up is still many months away—are held to be deficient in that economy which all deserving of the name of poet must be masters of. But to write him off solely on those grounds (Jarrell’s injunction against poets who “sprawl” to the contrary notwithstanding) would be, as that Frenchman said, worse than a crime; it would be a blunder. Ammons’s compositional excess (if that’s what it is) seems more a function of his liberality and openness than the undisciplined plummet of flap-mouth into folderol. The work, which is to say that pulsing aggregate of periods and phases, of failures as well as rare moments of being “struck by lightning,” constitutes a gestalt infinitely greater than the parting of its sums by an unexacting criticism that dissects in order to murder what effectively it neither understands nor appreciates. A body of work like Ammons’s should be viewed less as a conga line of explicit gestures than a grand emulsion of perceptions, acts, and redactions—a fluid suspension which alters from poem to poem and from book to book, and thus strangles at birth, and with its own umbilical cord, the rationale on which a “Collected Poems” is built. 

          Typically, an Ammons poem is sprung from a coil of energy that regulates its flow through the release actions of colons operating like canal locks. These urge a stream of aperçus down an articulational tube whose workings are not all that different from an intestine’s. In such a composition the colon doesn’t signal the onset of a list, litany, or catalogue, but rather reactivates a metabolic control which poetry long ago surrendered to prose-hungry syntax. As a consequence of the crippling concessions made to sentential discourse by the exponents of mannerism—Gongora and Donne come most readily to mind—the process of saying (by way of eternal prospectus of logical inevitability) this . . . and this . . . , inevitably as a consequence of this  . . . , such as to ultimately give birth (via a vaginal plunge, after much labor) to that. In this way, openings onto further openings (remember the canal locks) make of parataxis and hypotaxis a single motive cell driving consciousness through conduits of perception that not only irrigate the self’s outlook on the world, but provide that self with a living model of higher rumination on the hoof. 

          The somewhat brief poem “Love Song” (1970) encapsulates the cornucopiousness of Ammons’s poetic ecosystem as well as any but his longest and most implicative compositions: 

                        Like the hills under dusk you

                        fall away from the light:

                        you deepen: the green

                        light darkens

                        and you are nearly lost:

                        only so much light as

                        stars keep

                        manifests your face:

                        the total night in

                        myself raves

                        for the light along your lips. 

          Try monkeying with the punctuation of this (which, along with everything else in the poem, is taut and logical but never tautological) and you end up not with the figurative arm and leg willingly paid for love, but a syntactic prosthesis needing a torso of explicitness to activate its motor functions. The implanting of colons in lines two, three, five and eight is as strategic as the placement of caesurae in any hendecasyllabic stretch of the Commedia of Dante’s. Various tricks are brought off here, some keyed metaphorically to antics of light the teasings of which are but a hop, skip, and a jump ahead of obscuration, others more like a painter’s fine-tuning of shadow, shade, and penumbra than the mechanics of passion loosed by an engineer of the erotic on an artificial woman; while still others are so light on their feet they resemble snatches of a nocturne scored for gossamer and thistledown. Viewed simply as poetry, how removed its effects appear from the spiky ballistics of a W. C. Williams when propelling one of his projectiles from perception to perception. Or from the Szegeti-like tropisms of a Creeley toward “notes” not exactly “off” but close enough to being so to keep the reader’s eye and ear vigilant and attentive. If Ammons’s poetry has a hallmark, it is flashfloods of IQ through gullies of rapt detail. His verse prompts the same encomium that Jarrell, in a rare relaxation of the cordon of understatement he usually maintained in such proceedings, applied to Marianne Moore: “What intelligence vibrates in the sounds, the rhythms, the pauses, in all the minute particulars that make up the body of the poem!”  

         When one remembers that the habitual Ammons subject—indeed his central theme, topos and figura—is light, this all begins to make more familiar sense. Pound devoted a career to pressing home the equivalence (found everywhere in classical myth, east-Asian folklore and medieval philosophy) of light and intelligence, natural illumination and the sacred. Be the light in question light triumphant, light oscuro, light in the form of Weltlicht suffused, or lumière dorée, whatever its variety, it ultimately bodies forth into what the poet eloquently summarizes as “radiance.” 

            When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold

            itself but pours its abundance without selection into every

            nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider


            that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but

            lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider

            the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest


            swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,

            not flinching into disguise or darkening . . . 

          Illumination in a poem like “City Limits” is not just the potentia made possible by the medieval Scholastics (a cross between semi-final causality and the desire—if not quite the will—of God), but a more pervasive plenipotentia able to make light of things both within and without by returning the full range of human tactility to the biosphere (or what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl called the “life-world”) which it never should have left. The opening to “He Held Radical Light” concretizes to the fullest extent possible the tunnel such light is visionarily at the end of: 

            He held radical light

            as music in his skull: music

            turned, as

            over ridges immanences of evening light

            rise, turned

            back over the furrows of his brain

            into the dark, shuddered,

            shot out again

            in long swaying swirls of sound: . . .  

          The most notable triumph of Ammon’s impressive poetic career was his own unique invention, the bi-linear stanza energized by a succession of colons over great stretches that can only imprecisely be termed “meditative.” Garbage (1995) and Glare (1997) remain superb exemplars of this archetypically American form of naturally heightened speech. 

          Few poets randomly quoted reveal themselves at the top of their bent, but Ammons almost always does. The strategies guiding his game, and even the exclusive patent he holds on the process by which poetry is made to seem more like a thing secreted than one wrought by hard work, are constantly on display, leaving the reader to wonder whether the awe-inspiring Ammons is the locus of a prodigy tapped or of a geniality freely released into the air:  

                        if I don’t know what it is it could

                        be anything—a slue-footed, coned,


                        tail-bent galligarngion: so it is

                        helpful when words pinpoint, trimming


                        excess: this tape is so skinny: I

                        have to crack off the lines and roll


                        the trimmings back into the next line:

                        there is never enough room: the


                        lines have to digest something, pack

                        it down, shove stuff together: my


                        wife has a trimmings doctrine: she

                        thinks trimming should be removed


                        from the premises: raked-up lawn

                        grass, leaves, dead branches, old


                        rose canes squirrels’ walnut nibblings: . . .

                                                                        (Glare, “49”) 

       The unself-consciousness with which this dances into our confidence and belief is nothing short of astounding. The premier physicist of our age may have taught us that light has mass, but it took an A. R. Ammons to show us, beyond even a poet’s power to relativize, how fleetly it can throw its weight around. Truly, an unworrier of tangles for the ages.


Robert Creeley 

Robert Creeley, whose death in 2005 joined a bumper crop of poet-Adonises recalled to the earth, was also a light-carrier, but his was a light often hidden behind a bushel where its rays remained too scrunched up and minimalist to be properly appreciated to a readership still reeling from the fireworks displays put on by Eliot, Stevens, Frost & Company. If “Sunday Morning” or “Little Gidding” is your cup of tea, the chances are that Creeley, early or late, will strike your taste buds like lemon water served tepidly over day-old mint. And yet, and yet . . . there is nothing lemony or in the least watered down about that decoction of Dickinsonian apses nominalized as “The Names.” 

            When they came near,

            the one, two, three, four,

            all five of us sat

            in the broken seat.


            Oh glad to see,

            oh glad to be,

            where company

            is so derived

            from sticks and stones,

            bottles and bones. 

All right, wave this away as fun and games if you like, or as mere runes or charms if you must; but there’s no dehiscing the succeedent into small matter and negligible mind, no matter how fine the diamond cutter used: 

                        There was no one there.

                        Rather I thought I saw her,

                        and named her beauty.


                        For that time we lived

                        all in my mind

                        with what time gives.


                        The substance of one

                        is not two. No thought

                        can ever come to that.


                        I could fashion another

                        were I to lose her.

                        Such is thought. 

          All orotundity of formal speech disappears in such decoupling of pretext from context; but kindly note how a new decorum unpredictably bubbles up, rededicated and refreshed, to occupy the space that formality abandoned. It’s as if we were watching a northern passage to the self being discovered enabling us to circumvent all that is selfish, self-centered, or self-involved, and it was all being done in a void of attendant ceremony, with nothing but an improvised kayak and becalmed horizon to steer by. Though it may not seem so (given the I-encrusted reflecting pool gracing the lion’s share of Creeleyan verse), what we are privileged to bear witness to in poems like this is nothing less than the death of self-echoing narcissism which has haunted our lyric poetry since the Renaissance first inundated England with that template for grief known as the Petrarchan sonnet. Indeed, the entire galère of neurotic interpositions and Oedipal surrogates bequeathed us by Freud is made to perish in an acid bath decanted from the retorts of lucidity allowed by Wittgenstein to be circulated as The Blue and Brown Books and Philosophical Investigations. (To Marjorie Perloff’s credit, this connection was finally taken up in her Wittgenstein’s Ladder [1996], albeit decades after the fact of this relationship should have become apparent.) 

          To properly appreciate just how subtly the language of this verse is turned, one should observe how its homologue, as found shaping Creeley’s critical prose, is handled. Still an undiscovered continent as recondite to those supposedly in the know as that most idly scorned of American books, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, the mostly occasional pieces that make up the Collected Essays (1989) give voice to what Creeley thinks in a way precisely homologous to what the grasp of what it means to be wholly alive becomes a matter of feeling in his poems. Not since Donne has a poet in English so ably met T. S. Eliot’s prerequisites for an undissociated sensibility in verse: the halting progress toward thought in a Creeley poem is indeed felt “as immediately as the odor of a rose,” though to be sure less vanity obtrudes in “For Love” than in, say, “Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Note, too, the Wittgensteinian absolution extended by the troika of sense (sight, hearing, touch) to the sin of “meaning” in this offbeat (as well as off-Beat) chiasmus that inscribes Creeley’s poetry and prose within a single articulation framing “X”. The essays point to certain dispositions, tendencies, nodes of postulation and circumstance. What they don’t do is mean in the sense of “give aid, comfort, or logistical support to either an ongoing argument or a point of view.” And neither do the poems, which gravitate toward poles of feeling but leave the parsing of magnetic fields to iron filers and their Rorschach blots. How many poets have ever been so blithe and at the same time forthcoming when nitpicking what they do and why they bother doing it? 

There is no simple way to say anything—unless by that accident which is feeling, one is given, literally, the words in their own terms. It is here it all begins, an endlessly possible world. No one earns anything by it, nor can it be come to as an intention. What it all means is insistently more than any one sense of it will offer. Again and again it will happen, and in that demand its own occasion.

I can no longer remember what it was led me to try to write poems. I had no articulateness, and no sense of a place where such activity might be possible. But I don’t think one knows more than that one has to and/or does write as he can. . . . 

          What is miraculous is the frequency with which those palinodes of humility (without whose simultaneous back-to-front and front-to-back dioramas of possibility true imaginativeness in poetry would be scarce indeed) arise from such graven monotones over Creeley’s signature. Fully one-half of almost every utterance this least periodic of poets lets drop (its first half) has the clink of a cliché as lazily reached for as it is casually grasped. There is no simple way to say anything would remain no more than a Trappist’s pretext for maintaining silence, were it not for the revelatory torque it projects past the dash—unless by that accident which is feeling, one is given, literally, the words in their own terms. Indeed, to unpack even a few of the latencies underwriting these twenty-five words would tax the fathoming dexterity of a mine sweeper. One thing does, however, remain certain: all of Creeley’s writing is not just of a piece, but the criticism, the short stories, even his one novel, The Island (1963), all participate in an unending design that has been unfolding within his inner space since the ‘40s. If that design can be reduced to a single paradigmatic screed, it is the one adduced in the introduction to The Island:

A suspiciously simple sense of life is that it is, in any one man, conclusive. Oh, for him—of course; but for this world, I wonder, or rather think it is only in the relationships men manage, that they live at all. People try with an increasing despair to live, and to come to something, some place, or person. They want an island in which the world will be at last a place circumscribed by visible horizons. They want to love free of a continuity of roads, and other places. This island is, finally, not real, however tangible it once seemed to me. I have found that time, even if it will not offer much more than a place to die in, nonetheless carries one on, away from this or any other island. The people, too, are gone. 

          And how might admirers of Creeley’s poems set about converting the legion of infidels who never boarded the Projectivist Express and continue to decry (as in the notoriously dismissive manner of a John Simon) their apparent formlessness and anti-poetic mien? First, by stipulating in the strongest terms possible that Robert Creeley is not Charles Olson, nor Olson Creeley. Second, by stressing the inherently fluid nature of Creeleyan poetics—to wit, that not every utterance speaking its heart has been etched in stone with a marmoreal chisel. Third, by continuing to draw attention to the deep formal alliance poems like “For Love,” “Again,” “The World,” and many others forge between fresh, situationally determined speech and minutely overseen syllabics and patterns of stresses. Finally, by never ceasing to read Creeley’s best poems aloud so that disbelievers might, in the presence of the most subtly elaborated music in mid-century American poetry of any school, again be made whole. To help counter the objections sure to be made by those claiming an inability to hear that music, one might cite the critic Michael Hoffman on joys hidden away in Robert Lowell’s prose: 

. . . [Lowell’s best short prose form . . . , the free personal memoir] also manages infinitely subtle and musical sentences, like this one, again on décor: “A reproduced sketch of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks balanced an engraving of Stonewall Jackson.” The balance extends further than that, though: to reproduced and virgin, rocks and stone, virgin and stonewall, and to the “o”s of Leonardo and Stonewall, and the “x”s of Rocks and Jackson.” 

          Contrary to the pronouncements of certain royalists who would thrill to see the corpse of a Ransom or a Tate, embalmed and upright on a stallion, El Cid-style, leading a renewed charge against scoffers at intelligent design, Creeley was every bit as much a formalist in his own way as Merrill, Justice, Wagoner, or Merwin. He merely responded to the exigencies bared by conscious craftsmanship in a manner different from theirs and had his ear attuned to frequencies and harmonics which lay outside their hearing. His eloquent stammer reflected his own take on the quintessentially American patois of on-the-spot phenomenology which Whitman parsed into lengthier lines and which reduces with but few refinements to the Cartesian koan: I commit myself to speech, therefore we are. But what poet doesn’t carry on as though that were indeed all we know and all we needed to know? 

          Part of the problem in staying on the same wave length as Creeley’s is that his poetry forces us, by the strange torque it brings to language, to view meaning in a different way. (Remember Eliot lecturing us in “The Metaphysical Poets” about the modern poet having “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning”?) Take the meaning of “true,” for instance. Many critics have shipwrecked on Keats’s equating of truth and beauty at the conclusion of his famous ode and have carried the debris and detritus over to their misconception of how “modern” poetry has worked since about 1912. What is “true” within the confines of a Creeley poem does not correspond to something “being so,” or “matching up with the state of things as sensed or reasoned.” In fact, it has very little to do with the veracious or veritable, the verifiable or the veridical. What it has very much to do with are Wittgensteinian canons of “certainty” and what we mean, or used to mean, by phrases like “his aim was true” or “they were true to each other in their fashion.” Only by restricting its meaning in this way does Keats’s conflating of truth and beauty make any real sense. Hitting the target at its center, without disturbing the universal balance of energies too much with worries about aiming, approximates pretty closely to what is “true” in Creeley’s realm of poetic reference. Some, if not much, of this derives from Pound, his Confucian translations and the Mencian doctrines that permeate the later Cantos. But almost as much grew out of the association built up over years of talking to, corresponding with, and being a party to the researches of his Black Mountain colleague Olson, who opened up for Creeley the long obscured world of Mayan glyphs and the “priorities of succession & importance” that governed all process, natural as well as human.      

          Is there a downside to this poet’s informally pursued formalism? Unavoidably, there must be; whenever a poet depends on the heat of the moment to provide the glue to make the verbal filaments of that moment cohere, there are bound to be not just misses as well as hits, but over time a lot fewer hits than not-hits. Also in the negative column, Creeley allowed drafts of his work to be published that were still, quite glaringly, in the chrysalis stage, and to be quite frank, self-standing poems many of these efforts are not. That said, nearly sixty years of mature composition have left behind a highly respectable body of Creeleyana that vastly exceeds the merely respectable. Some good poems come as close to being great as our dwarfish times allow; numerous others are at the least very good; and a great many beyond that make for, at best, a fitful read. There’s an awful lot of Creeley to take down from the shelf, and to make much of the less than fine while ignoring the lot is to sound both the depths of the ungrateful and the shallows of the rude.     



Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, James Wright, Philip Levine, and Irving Feldman          


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