Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

On Contemporary American Poetry

Howl by Allen Ginsberg. City Lights, 1996 (reprint).
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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.On or about December 1955, the nature of poetry changed. Or at least in America it did, and radically too. From that point in time, as the Watergate defendants used to say, anyone who could scrape up enough money for a typewriter and a few classes in "creative writing"; had read either "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas or "Asphodel, that greeny flower" by W. C. Williams; and had access to someone owning someone with a press was in business as a poet.
     Consequently, out of quite literally nowhere came legions of Ginsberg and Kerouac look-alikes whose metreless confessios, wrung from obligatory stints as dishwashers, merchant seamen, and delivery boys oriented variously as to sex and mode of delivery, voiced the same Oedipal shriek as had made Howl the cri de coeur du jour among those determined to put the kibosh on Moloch's pandemonium. After decades of hectoring by Eliot and Pound it was Leaves of Grass's turn come round again, only this time the leaves on everyone's lips, being smoked as well as recited, were rather less conducive to singing the body electric, though Part III of Howl, with its by-love-possessed apostrophes to Carl Solomon, certainly essayed that proclivity also, if at a voltage level stuck between the hysterically prosaic and the Whitmanic depressive. But barbaric yawps, even following forty years of bangless whimpers, might not have aroused much interest had not these same dooryard blooms (presumably unknown to Whitman, but who can know for sure) dotted the premises of his theme park, then under reconstruction.
     Which is not to say that the more elegant line of synthetics put out by Tate, Ransom, Warren et al. were banished from the poetic scene. Far from it: the period 1956-64 ushered in what was later termed the "war of the anthologies," a display of Martial arts which, in pitting the Tweeds against the Beards & Sandals, proved, if nothing else, that if worse came to worsted, one could be Beat and fit to be tied--or boring and obscure--in more than one way;
not to mention the usefulness of such rows in reminding what few readers poetry could still muster that not everyone was boycotting capitals at the beginning of every line.
               But worse was in for more than just being worsted, for the Sixties, in all their grotesquerie masked as glory, were about to burst upon the scene. Though few outside of Bob Dylan and Mario Savio would grasp fully the dimensions of what was to seize the nation in the wake of Lyndon Johnson's re-election as President in 1964, that didn't stop the majority of American poets from pressing ahead with the Popping of art on the one hand and its academic mistreatment as a kind of verbal physics on the other. The result was a miscarriage of culture on nothing less than a grand scale, full of sound and fury, signifying ripoff. That this whole grim charade should have been dignified with the label "counterculture" remains an irony whose unintentional accuracy bestrides the ensuing decade like a colossus: for whatever "culture" was disseminated in those years was passed either over or under the counter, with profits accruing to the passers well into the tens of billions of dollars.
              Oddly enough, the self-punishing compulsions of the period revealed themselves not only on the historic plane of superpower sabre-rattling and political assassination, but also on the more trivial one of mass entertainment and its offshoot, consciousness expanding. Who can fail to remember how, throughout the Johnson and Nixon years, the media and activities related to them--and which were not?--waged a piecemeal and determined assault on the human body and most of its vital functions? Dances like the Twist dismantled pelvises, op-art detached retinas, LSD and other hallucinogens attacked brain cells and chromosomes, and the transistorized jackhammer of rock music reduced a generation's eardrums to waxy pulp--all to give the assaultees the impression they existed, as though progressive amputation were the sole means by which this could be achieved. Needless to say, this climate of imbecility masquerading as liberating spirituality exerted a somewhat debilitating influence on poetry and the arts, leaving aside for the moment the cretinization of the American educational system at virtually every level, from K-12 all the way up through the imploding university graduate school. But that's perhaps as it should be. Any binge that prolonged, that irresponsible, that suicidal ought, in the retributive scheme of things, to cost plenty. The problem now, however, is dealing with the boredom ensuing from having to pay all those dues.
              And in many ways American poetry is still paying them, as though afflicted with the poverty of having too soon made Adrienne Rich. It was postmodernism, we now know, that saddled poetry--everywhere, not just in the United States--with a not-so-new breed of sensitives for whom anything left of mindful is sacred, and to whom everything but conservative values is poetically available, unless it be an ear for verbal melody, a journeyman's sense of the ironic, or the merest smidgeon of talent. I say "not-so-new" because while many of the matchups of names with facelessness have only recently become familiar, the published hallmarks of some of these ciphers have been with us for some time. Critics can talk all they like about the unprecedented smorgasbord of poets and poetry out there, the amazing diversity of styles that is everywhere to be seen, from the shores of Knopf to the graspless reaches of little mags and even more negligible 'zines, but that "diversity" is as much a critical invention as are great bleeding chunks of the poetry itself. The anger of the Beats, though having never more than approximated--Ginsberg's Howl being the one exception--the sort of rage that says to capitalism between clinched teeth, "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," has now modulated to the whining of a bunch of overfunded and underpowered collegiate post-Marxists about the utter baseness of this and the superstructural crumminess of that. And often disporting with such, in complacent tandem, are witless rehashings of all those nothing-riddled much-ados that made the work of so many university-housed poets in the Age of Eisenhower so relentlessly forgettable. A sample sonnet:

Radioactive now, you walk beside me

To the beach, every step a fragile

Radiance, as if the birds had settled

In the sun that fills your skin. To touch

You now I need an insulated hand

To turn aside the cobalt arrows darting

Toward my brain. Melting sand, your soles

Shimmer with the light of elements

Missing from my periodic charts.
You wade in oceans where the waves caress

The quivering cancer afloat in light, and I

Take your naked hand in mine, and feel

The rays like bayonets, seagulls piercing

My flesh, with molecules of massive cure.

This poem, titled "Lines for an Elderly Ex-Marine, in Remission," appeared recently in the twenty-sixth (and final) issue of American Review (November 1977), and it's precisely this kind of gratulatory tastelessness that will kill off a magazine of new writing every time. Clearly the poet, Larry Rubin, puts great store in C. P. Snow's warning that the humanist ignores matter scientific at his own peril. But the trouble with poems like this is that they take nothing else to heart, and the jargoneering awash in juxtaposing radioactive, cobalt, periodic charts and molecules serves only to raise the density of a gravely unspecific sentimentality to the perilous bathos of pure lead. One can but wonder what the Great Cham might have thought of this inversion of metaphysical conceit whereby homogeneous ideas are yoked by indolence together, and nature and art are ransacked for pointless illustration, comparison, and allusion. But all that's beside the point. What we're obviously meant to notice in Rubin's fourteener is--God help us--how cleverly the sonnet form's traditional concerns, love and death, are accommodated to such distinctly modern pretexts for lyricism as ex-marines and cancer. For sonnets, you see, are still eminently writeable, even if the exigencies of this era of H-bombs, neutron anti-personnel weapons and MERV's might lead a sonneteer to sing that his mistress's eyes are nowhere near as bright as a thousand suns or that the most loathsome carcinomas can be found in the sweetest breasts.
              --Which is to say that whatever spirits might be summoned up by such poeticizing are those of disembodied technique, or more properly, the atelier, and thus the point I'm at pains to make: for many poets now writing in America (and for all I know, elsewhere as well), that which gets the poem made almost always exceeds in importance the end-product which the poem-making process is supposed to serve.
     The great modernists were no less preoccupied with technique and made a feisty show of dusting off archaic forms like the villanelle, the sestina, the rondo, and the canzon. But in much of this pretentious graverobbing there persisted a faith that at the foot of the prosodic rainbow--on whose elusive spectrum the gaze of fewer and fewer current poets continues to be fixed--real gold could be found, and not of the ten-carat variety, either. Only since the facsimile edition of The Waste Land have we known, for example, just how complex structurally and prosodically was the Pounded-out version of Eliot's masterpiece. We can now fully appreciate that the formal labors of the poem, its Herculean efforts at simulating decomposition, are in some places "through composed" and in other places deliberately hidden from critics' prying eyes. And why shouldn't they be? Artistic-looking messes are easy enough to concoct, but attempting a full-dress exodus from bedlam--well, that can elicit from order certain unforeseen reprisals which put tremendous pressure on the poet to assure his readers that, contrary to appearances, formlessness masks form in his poem and not the other way around. Textual evidence supports the view that The Waste Land made its final shift from a poem of fragments to a poem of fragments about the time Pound suggested that the head note from Heart of Darkness be junked in favor of a much better one from the Satyricon, and that the title "He Do The Police in Different Voices," from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, give way to something more in line with the newly edited version's spiritual concerns.
              Thus, what emerges from a comparison of those eventually to be deleted portions of the manuscript which Eliot diligently crafted expecting to find a home for them somewhere in his poem with those which the poem in its collaborative wisdom eventually permitted him to include is the fact that virtually none of his contrived experiments with pastiche or out-of-sync versification, such as the "Fresca" sequence in imitation of Pope, ended up making it to the printer's. The lesson he took away from this--and an invaluable one it was--was that prosody and other aspects of verse technique take care of themselves as soon as the poet realizes that what is happening in his poem lies largely beyond his capacity to determine its meaning in any conscious way, and that poetry has the greatest impact when its clarity and purpose do not too readily reveal a clarity of purpose. "Both errors," he went on to say, "tend to make [them] personal" in their poetry, a proscription which for 35 years remained in force among America's literary quarterlies, with only a small group of protesters loosely gathered around William Carlos Williams daring to go against the grain.
              Following this, in the period ushering in our own poetasting contemporaneity, came the deluge of personalizers, confessionalists, and dispensers in common language (if not always that of men) of quotidian discoveries, mundane crises, transactional graffiti. Williams no longer had a diminutive coterie of specialists in "how not to sound like a Poet" around him; he had acquired, in the years just before his death, a multitude of footstep-tracers all trying to find their variable feet. Denise Levertov, a transplanted refugee from Essexism, was among the more talented of his ephebes:

Let's go--much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard. The
Mexican light on a day that
'smells like autumn in Connecticut'
makes iris ripples on his
black gleaming fur--and that too
is as one would desire--a radiance
consorting with the dance....

         The trouble with so many of these narcissistic echoes of the MD from Rutherford was that while the good doctor had sighted new visionary shores in late works like "Asphodel, that greeny flower," his imitators were still littering the local beaches with beercans from the Collected Early Poems or the first three books of Paterson:

On ashes of old volcanoes
I lie dreaming
baking
the deathward flesh in the sun...

And yet I rejoice
that everything changes, that
we go from life
into life,

and enter ourselves
quaking
like the tadpole, his time come, tumbling toward the
slime.

         The only charitable thing that can be said for this is that it makes literary criticism no more taxing than a tea break in one of Ms. Levertov's hometown factories. Try approaching it critically as though it were some sculpted tribute to the muse of paradox instead of the chip off the Whitmanian block that it so obviously is and you will look the sort of fool who believes that a poem which carefully articulates its details is necessarily a poem about the sacredness of articulated detail tout court. No, the fruit of this poet's imagination is neither fit produce for nor any use to what Eliot years ago termed the "lemon-squeezer school" of critics, though its seedy Gibranisms ("we go from life/ into life") and pulpy ineptitudes (are basket case tadpoles typical of primal life?) offer up more than just a hint of lemon.
              We should, however, keep our historical accounts straight. Eliot's Four Quartets also attempts to stage within a world out of joint a ballet of the elements in praise of a more than earthly consort of harmonies; but Galway Kinnell's Body Rags (1968)--in which may be found the above eleven lines--merely limps from one cosmic demisé en scene to another like Coppélia impersonating Markova. Yeats is there, too: the aging Yeats whose sublime scarecrow-posture, as assumed in such poems as "Sailing to Byzantium" is even further hobbled in this poet's 1971 volume The Book of Nightmares. But that's another story; nothing much improves over a three-year span: the tattered coat upon a schtick remains, propped in the half-light of verse that dims from clumsy to falling-down illiterate. "In the Hotel of Lost Light" begins,

In the left-
hand sag the drunk smelling of autopsies
dies in, my body slumped out
into the shape of his, I watch, as he
must have watched, a fly
tangled in mouth-glue, whining his wings,
concentrated wholly on
time, time, losing his way worse
down the downward-winding stairs, his wings
whining for life as he shrivels
in the gaze
from the spider's clasped forebrains, the abstracted
stare
in which even the nightmare spatters out its horrors
and dies--

and ends,

The foregoing scribed down
in March, of the year Seventy,
on my sixteenth-thousandth night of war and madness,
in the Hotel of Lost Light, under the freeway
which roams out into the dark
of the moon, in the absolute spell
of departure, and by the light
from the joined hemispheres of the spider's eyes.

         Ah, time, time, that Great Destroyer of everything from love to spiders' clasped forebrains, which makes us lose our way worse (than what?) down the downward-winding stairs (descending Yeats?), and makes us count the nights of war and madness with the best of the Chancellors and Brinkleys. What God has wrought (and wrought up)! Of course the Vietnam War was an obscenity; it would take a shallow foppishness like William F. Buckley Jr.'s to deny just how obscene it was. But in denouncing its horror (and the depraved psychological climate which in America made such a "nightmare" feasible), Kinnell does little more than transfer atrocities from the villages of Southeast Asia onto the printed page. Yeats may very well have been right--at least in principle--when he chose to exclude war poets from his edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse on the grounds that they were too close to their subject-matter to do work of permanent importance: feelings, no matter how intense, are not art any more than gossip--to cite Gertrude Stein's scolding of Hemingway--is literature. Imagine Shakespeare's King Lear as a diary or his Sonnets as a late Elizabethan expose of a famous bi-sexual's problems in keeping his bedroom full. The possibilities involving this sort of thing are endless, but who, apart from someone like Kate Millett's subject-rhyme in verse, would bother to think about them?
              Richard Howard, noted poet, translator, and editor, that's who. Here, from his much-lauded study of no fewer than 41 contemporary American poets, Alone with America (1969), is a brief encomium on the balletic felicities of Kinnell's Body Rags

         In these poems of astonishing metamorphosis, Kinnell has been concerned to enact by his "dance of solitude" as he calls the shaman's performance in "The Bear," to articulate the truth of Goethe's great dictum: One learns nothing, but one becomes something. Ever larger in these late poems bulks or--for bulk is not what we get, but rather a flickering ballet around the circumference of what is guessed at in the darkness--breaks in upon us the awareness that in order to achieve transformation the ritual imagination of burning must in our time be abjured for natural process, with all its attendant waste and weariness: "our faces smudged with light from the fingertips of the ages."
               

     Now, no one capable of appreciating a truly fine prose style would doubt the power, the sheer lucidity of Howard's mind or the expensive (in the literal sense) verbal instrument he wields in defense of the poetic art; but in too many of his essays one has the sense that a backbreaking effort is being expended in getting a huge artillery piece into position along a nearly vertical slope, and all that just to provide a gnat with a glorious immolation. Which is in no way intended to suggest that Howard dislikes his contemporaries or that he is more than perfunctorily critical of their efforts. Far from it: he likes almost all of the poets whose work he discusses, and is solicitously maternal toward the deficiencies his perspicuity unearths, as though--and this galls after five or six essays--he himself were partially responsible for them. It's this quality of self-enforced delusiveness that gives Alone with America the odd glint of a Dunciad done as an apologia for duncery, of a presentation for the defense following which the prosecution need only rest its case. For despite Howard's noble intentions toward his subjects, his virtually inexhaustible patience with their pratfalls, what results is one entomological Gotterdammerung after another whenever the likes of a Donald Finkel or a Carolyn Kizer finds his or her way into his benevolent sights. Thus, he can claim (with no inner- or other-directed irony that I can detect) that James Merrill's poem "Gothic Novel"--

How rich in opportunity! Part of a wall

Gave back a hollow sound. Forewith, intrigued,

The Contessina knew her mind, consulted

No one. A door! Annunziata darkly

Swept up after the workmen and withdrew.

Lost in thought, her mistress was already

Rehearsing what to say in thirty years:

'Only after our marriage did I begin

To fear your father'--but she broke off

And went with a candle down the dank stair

Leading she knew not where--

         "begins with a swift pastiche of prose manners, disposed like a surrealist colonnade in an infinite regress of archness." Well, maybe; but the same could also be said (and with no less mandarin futility) of Gian Carlo Menotti's godawful libretto for the opera Vanessa, whose notoriety as camp is probably unsurpassed. If Pound's Mr. Nixon was right when he claimed that "no one knows, at sight, a masterpiece," then no one's likely to recognize "an infinite regress of archness" either, in a poem or anywhere else. While Merrill's X-ray of the gothic genre's pulpable hits may be noteworthy in certain limited respects, Howard's apologia pro vita suet is so laughably excessive as to verge on the mock-heroic. If only, one keeps thinking as one schleps through the nearly 600 pages of Alone with America, he could've found some appropriate use for all those Gallic periods and Virgilian modulations, those astonishing conceits and four-page paragraphs whose sentential labyrinths unwind like fugues in a processional composed by Leibniz and Valery--anything but having to waste good style on such effronteries to the soul as weighing smog particles in, say, Kenneth Koch's Fresh Air. This latter "rhetorical manifesto" and "screed," Howard solemnly explains,

asserts that [the poet's] form must be come upon, must be invented (benedictus qui invenit in nomine Naturae) or risk losing interest. Hence the terrorism of many of Koch's larger, more deliberate creations which drive themselves by recipe and will to the end of their tether and ours, a final triumph of method whereby nothing can be made of them except the stunned contestation that they have been made. Such poems stand or rather loom at the edges of Koch's career like barbarous temples, brightly lighted but without a congregation to distract us from the hard brilliance of the great American monosyllables--blue, girl, ugh, fun, lunch, pants--festooning every capital, every vault; and on the altar, very reverently placed, as H. G. Wells once said of Henry James' later style, lie a dead kitten, two egg-shells and a bit of string....

              To start with, Kenneth Koch is, let it be said, a fair-to-middling aged clown who has been kicking around the Manhattan poetry circuit for over 30 years, and whose least aggravating talent is for parodying pretensions just a silly millimeter away from utter zaniness:

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.

Forgive me. I was clumsy, and

I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

         An affable surrealist, Koch has managed over the years since his first book appearance in Ko, or A Season on Earth (1959) to outlive his friends (Frank O'Hara, Mark Rothko, etc.) and to influence absolutely no one. In the 1960's he drew some attention to himself as a theorist on how to get children to read and write poetry, but for the most part his career has been that of a stand-up non-sequitur who in his poems chats with the void on equal terms. All I can see looming at the edges of a career like Koch's is him ending up a perennial in one bouquet of light verse after another. To gabble on, as Howard does, about brightly lit barbarous temples when the poetry at hand accumulates pop junk faster than the back seat of a taxicab--

Until tomorrow, then, scum floating on the surface of

poetry! goodby for a moment, refuse that happens

to land in poetry's boundaries!...

Ah, but the scum is deep! Come, let us help you! and

soon we pass into the clear blue water. Oh GOOD-

BYE, castrati of poetry! farewell, stale pale skunky

pentameters (the only honest English meter, gloop

gloop!) until tomorrow, horrors! oh, farewell!

Hello, sea! good morning, sea! hello, clarity and ex-

citement, you great expanse of green--

O green, beneath which all of them shall drown!--

is to mistake salami for Salome and Hearst Castle for Elsinore. But, as I suggested earlier, poor Howard can't help piling new clothes on emperors whose enterprise in walking naked owes its chic to Zachary All. His lapsus, however, is symptomatic. Afoot is a much larger conspiracy of pretense regarding the value of contemporary American poetry, and its origins may be traced, at least in part, to the dissolution of that elite corps of shock troops within the arts, that dependable company of warm-up specialists so long the bane of the bourgeoisie--the avant-garde.
              In the closing years of his life the Italian scholar Renato Poggioli (then at Harvard) tried to put together a treatise on the philosophy of vanguardism in the arts. It was eventually pieced together and translated by a student of his who titled it The Theory of the Avant-Garde and had it published in 1968. It makes interesting reading (as a corrective to Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years, if nothing else) but what would make more interesting reading by far would be a comparably erudite study on just why the avant-garde packed up and left, leaving nothing behind but some sensationalist small change which by the mid-1960's had found its way into Hollywood's redi-reserve account, and a decade later into such novelistic door-stops as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Where the whole roadshow went is anybody's guess; what is certain is that its vanishing is in no way attributable to the break-up of modernism, which had pretty much run its course by 1925.
              That particular vaudeville disintegrated, to quote a TLS review of Pynchon's book by Edward Mendelson, "through the working out of its own principles," a process which appears to have concluded in the late 1940's and early 1950's when works like Beckett's trilogy and Ionesco's one-acts condensed Proust, Joyce, and Pirandello to the abstract level of linoleum mosaics wired for sound and occasional shocks. But not in poetry, and definitely not in contemporary American poetry, where the last vestiges of an avant-garde dissolved in the etymological frissons of the Objectivist aesthetic: short lines, small matter, craft desiderating craft in an infinite egress of archness. From Oppen, Zukovsky, and Reznickoff to the present sprawl of Anthology City, where whole forests evaporate as though nuked in order to reprint poems whose fallout is minimal and whose half-life is a semester, virtually nothing in poetry may be said to have made new waves--unless one counts the good grey revival of the Beats with their Chanel No. 5 version of The Perfumed Garden and their litany of "America is sinking!" chanted from the decks of their chartered Titanic. So much for American poetic vanguardism from the 1930's to the death of Robert Lowell: a broken wind of howls and over-civil caesurae, a teapot with no tempests in it, not even a mild squall. And the flounder-infested mainstream of poetry and of poets? A sedate, university-regulated brook, babbling in neat prosodic stanzas, of life (both tolerable and intolerable, though more frequently the latter than the former), of love (its pointlessness and desirability), of death (its pointlessness and undesirability, though, as Leslie Fiedler has taught us, its relationship to love in America is no laughing matter). Here is the brook in a typically pensive moment:

Talking along in this not quite prose way

we all know it is not quite prose we speak,

and it is time to notice the intolerable snow

innumerably touching, before we sink.
It is time to notice, I say, the freezing snow

hesitating toward us from others' grey heaven;

listen--it is falling not quite silently

and under it still you and I are walking.
Maybe there are trumpets in the houses we pass

and a redbird watching from an evergreen--

but nothing will happen until we pause

to flame what we know, before any signal's given.

         Titled "Near," this poem is by William Stafford who, having waited until the age of forty-six to bring out his first collection of verse, West of Your City (1960), ought to have realized that striving for sublimity of thought and feeling in a style of this sort is like trying to reach Parnassus through a mineshaft. Robert Frost was adept at turning out such alum leaves or Emerson-stücke, but his perceptive readers could always tell how much of it was perma-Frost and how much just dry ice. In these ham-handed quatrains, the whole game is taken seriously, as though the poet never for a moment thought it possible that his earnestness might be judged deadly in the other sense.
              One wonders whether some of these writers ever actually read what they write anywhere but on the stage of an auditorium since their work so often displays a tin ear, along with a leaden insensitivity to anything resembling natural speech. Is it too much to ask of a poet that s/he be aware of how the specific gravity of words in various lines of verse can be altered when by their positioning they are induced to bend or lean or lean toward other words? Is it unreasonable to wonder whether anyone under the stress of vision or of understanding could ever be heard jawing a mouthful like "this intolerable snow/ innumerably touching," or committing idiomatic rape with a blunt instrument as unserviceable as "and under it still you and I are walking?"
              Yet, to pick up any major anthology of poems published since 1955 is to find hundreds of such botches springing into view. One would have to go back to the early sixteenth century in England to identify a literary period as poetically drab as the present interregnum--assuming, of course, that there are still reigns for periods to lie between. Nor are the prospects for change encouraging.
              And yet some things have changed over the years. If the Moss-covered poets of the 1940's and early 1950's hunted frantically for symbols, today's laureates hunt frantically for "occasions." An occasion, in lingo currently a la mode in the poetry casinos, is a spread of circumstance which produces in a poet a sense of verbal possibility akin to what an amateur poker player feels as he lifts that single dealt card which he's sure will fill that inside straight. However, if one reads through some of the interviews with poets which have appeared in journals like the New York Quarterly one soon discovers that the poetic excitement occasioned by these occasions is experienced exclusively as a result of the writer knowing in advance that his "inside straight" will not be filled.
              In fact, that is pretty much the point of the process: to get that string of events by which the poet is made ready for an occasion under way; and once the switch is thrown and the juice begins to flow, well, then anything becomes possible. Robert Creeley, for example, has built a successful career out of writing poetry while trying to find something to say, and others no less gifted in waiting have similarly taken the hint (and the fellowships) by learning to treat poetry as a higher form of loitering. (I wouldn't go so far in dismissing Creeley as does critic John Simon, who remarks somewhere that "There are two things to be said for Creeley's poems: they are short; they are not short enough," though there are times when I've read him and found Simon's viewpoint contagious.) Still, occasions can and do (occasionally) choose a spokesman who senses the absurdity of the whole business, who knows with intimate reflexiveness just how self-serving it all is, how much of an industry, but who nonetheless thrives on its duplicities even to the point of making them the flexible centers around which his poems take shape and cohere. Such a spokesman is John Ashbery, a huckster impresario of what have to be the most bizarrely conjured cerebralisms since that prince of Rotarians, Wallace Stevens, disappeared up the sleeve of his own Supreme Fiction in 1955.
              Alternately a tour-guide for the complacently monstrous and a ventriloquist's dummy for the very id of the Absurd, Ashbery manages in poem after poem to get not only his own shit together, but everyone else's as well:

The buildings, piled so casually

Behind each other, are "suggestions

Which, while only suggestions,

We hope you will take seriously." Off into

The blue. Getting there is easier,

But then we hope you will come down.

There is a great deal on the ground today,

Not just mud, but things of some importance,

Too. Like, silver paint. How do you feel

About it? And, is this a silver age?

Yeah, I suppose so. But I keep looking at the cigarette

Burns on the edge of the sink, left over

From last winter. Your argument's

Neatly beyond any paths I'm likely to take,

Here, or when I eventually leave here.

              A number of things to note about this piece which Ashbery titled "Spring Light:" it is, to start with, a tissue of non-sequiturs, but not like those which form the collapsible spines of poems by Kenneth Koch. These are non-sequiturs which dissolve as soon as we realize we're in the presence of an interior dialogue and not something pruned from the pre-Joycean garden of Edouard Dujardin. Another thing: the poem is coordinated around a basic tone-row of terms whose axes are blue, silver (paint/age), mud (last) winter and here. As a group of terms they constitute its "occasion" to the extent that the poet, having been dealt them as a set akin to a hand of cards, must then deal with them compositionally. We're not at all distant here from some of the aleatory changes rung in music on post-Webernian serialism as an outgrowth of, among other things, the experimentalism of Cage, Xenakis, Berio, and Stockhausen over the last two decades, although what Ashbery is doing in these fifteen lines seems sufficiently word-gameish to be considered post-Wittgensteinian as well.
              Still, the idea behind it all is simple enough: like Creeley, Ashbery is interested in that frame of mind, that consciousness of language-as-a-starting-point from which all poetry emerges. But wholly unlike Creeley, he sees no need to advance from that state of mind out of which poems are generated to the essentially artificial realm where they are clad in verbal uniform and sent out into the world as performances. (Just because Creeley's word-mimes are conducted off-stage, it doesn't mean that they're not performances. To cite the most obvious example, "I Know A Man"--the object is to "act out" the habitual swerving of the mind from one psychological lane to another when, after hours at attention's wheel, it falls under the spell of the center divider.) For Ashbery--at least since his sixth book The Double Dream of Spring (1970)--poems are where they begin, and where they begin is in that luminescent zone of vanity and meticulousness before whose mirror the self primps to go out and make its impression on the world.
              It's that performative impression that Ashbery wishes above all to avoid and avoid giving, and in his poetry one finds neither the speaking masks of the great modernists nor the dramatis impersonae of the later "confessionalists." As for "meaning," its circumference is, like God in the Augustinian paradox, nowhere and its center everywhere; never, as in the early Eliot, is it made the adjunct of some ulterior voice whose dilemma seems but an excuse for the witty encoding of speech. (It is possible, for example, to read "Prufrock" as a half-sober recitation to the most intelligent bartender who ever lived.) For one thing, Ashbery has managed to banish from his poems everything that Oscar Wilde would've denounced as insufficiently extraneous, and no one who fully understands what this poet is about will lament its passing. Where significance is but the final resting place of the deleterious, themes shed their variations like vultures their feathers in a desert wind and surrealism is never more than an irregular heartbeat away:

You can have whatever you want.
Own it, I mean. In the sense
Of twisting it to you, through long, spiralling afternoons.
It has a sense beyond that meaning that was dropped there
And left to rot. The glacier seems

Impervious but it is all shot through
With amethyst and the loud, distraught notes of the cuckoo.
They say the town is coming apart.

              As several critics of Ashbery's books have remarked, it's hard to know what to say about a style like this. While from one angle such lines tend to sound like Humphrey Bogart reading a Billy Carter translation of Mallarmé, from another they come across as a collection of tether-ends in search of a mind.
              One thing that is not going on in Ashbery's poems, however, is thinking on any systematic scale. In fact, such lengthy exfoliations as "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" contain probably even less "thought" than do any of those late pseudo-meditations by Wallace Stevens with which they're often compared. Admittedly, both these poets are interested in what happens to thought when, on philosophical R & R, its allowed to roam freely among the domestic irrelevancies of the self's furnished flat. But whereas Stevens sees Poetry as promising a new religion which will in time provide America with a more enlightened spiritual capitalism than it's known in the past, Ashbery is not about to give up his Saturday nights for anything as gloopy (to quote Kenneth Koch) as either the henpecked terrestrialism of a "Sunday Morning" or the term-insured Cyrenaicism of an "Esthetique du Mal." For him, large questions are there to be begged simply because they're large, unwieldy, and finally, uninteresting; poetry, if we insist on having it, must learn to take stock of those inconsiderable quandaries which nature through the conducting of its own inventories day by day, month by month, slips into our lives:

All things seem mention of themselves

And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.

Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing

In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against

The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.

And today is Monday...

              These are not lines, to paraphrase Eliot, which have the look of lines that are looked at; "Grand Galop," from which they were taken, traffics in no such simple narcissisms. Though the poet is here very much in his poem, it's the poem we're being encouraged to look at and not (as in, I would say, a good 90% of the poetry written in this country since 1955) the poet camouflaged by his poem, by a public gaffe masquerading as a private acte gratuit. In his verse merely as a prop among other props, Ashbery's poet flaunts no distinguishing Dasein, and it is only after reading several of his poems that we grasp the rationale for his having been trundled out onto that stage where everything is prepared for and nothing acted out, where indeed only props can speak.
              Thus, excluding certain notable differences in talent, Ashbery's work reflects some obvious affinities with that of his early New York cohorts Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie, and yes, even Kenneth Koch, who seem to have taught him (in the failing wake of such Dali-esque vinyls as "Europe") that poems ought to take poets seriously and not the other way around. It was O'Hara, for example, who first abolished the "reader" in his poetry (substituting for him whichever friendly ear happened to be near any particular poem's ground zero), and showed in verse-memos like "Why I am not a Painter" (which are to conventional poetry what the clip-on tie is to the dinner jacket) that in art casualness is everything, and the more convulsive that casualness is, the better for all concerned.
              If the New York School had had a collective motto, it would have been "Unbutton me here," although O'Hara, for one, was circumspect enough to know that if a poem paraded about with its fly undone, it oughtn't to have its shirt open to the navel as well. (Though, again, this is somewhat contradicted by a remark O'Hara makes in his "Personism: A Manifesto" that "If you're going to buy a pair of pants, you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.") Only a paid audience finds everything interesting when that everything is rolled out as a prize exhibit, and so wisdom dictates--in poetry, at least--that some things be held back: a dissimilated reticence is preferable to a simulated exhibitionism. Compare, on the other hand, the following decolletage from the boutique of James Wright:

In the middle of my age I walked down
Toward a cold bloom.
I don't give a damn if you care,
But it half-rhymes with blossom...
    ("On the Liberation of Woman," 1973)

              The refreshing thing about Ashbery as a poet is that, either as a consequence of temperament or as a matter of choice, he refuses to be programmatic about anything--not poetry, not the creative process, and certainly not the modern psyche in extremis. Not only is he conspicuously non-rebellious and non-"causal," but if his work continues to take on added dimension, he could well end up being this century's first major non-visionary poet in English. (That many would view this latter comment as pejorative with regard to Ashbery's work shows that for a large number of us, romanticism is as difficult a habit to break as three packs a day for a heavy smoker.)
              But such speculations aside, it's a genuine relief to find a poet who neither commits to his stanzas that which ought more properly be committed to an analyst's ear, nor presents himself in his poems as an aging Orestes pursued by all the Furies of the quotidian. The Blys and the Ignatows, the Dickeys and the Strands, the Kinnells and the Staffords, would do well to pay attention to this poet for whom, at this particular time at least, the only honest stance is that of nascent openness, a condition of mind akin to, yet markedly different from, Keats's "negative capability" or Yeats's self-induced openness to song. His poems advertise the awareness that in our benighted period of history, poetry has become an anachronism which attracts very little curiosity and conduces even less to love--which is partly the reason why the wit and the verbal agility of an Ashbery seem now almost redemptive in their promise of things to come. The rest of the explanation is, in my estimation, quite simple: for those who value poetry for what it can still be, the author of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror provides the only really interesting game in town.

 

Post Scriptum (1998)

              Rereading (and, in the sense of light dusting, touching up) this piece vingt ans apres, I'm amazed at how few mixed emotions I feel as regards its essential content. In fact, I would venture the proposition that I'm more in agreement now than I was when I wrote this with T. S. Eliot's characterization of poetry as "a mug's game"--though I confess to having very mixed feelings about the utter lack of guilt that enables me to say that. Either I've become a lot more cold-blooded in twenty years or American poetry has, and cold-bloodedness is not what I, or anyone who truly values fine verse, turns to poetry expecting to find. When I first wrote "On Contemporary American Poetry," I thought I detected a certain freshness and exuberance in work done by John Ashbery which landed him in a separate and rather special category. Some of his poems from the early and mid-seventies--the ones from which the smartass smirk, that skull and crossbones of the New York School, has been erased--seemed somehow like the crowings of a Stevensian bantam, proclaiming loudly from the dungheap at sunrise that the rule of inchlings, capons, and hens was over and that henceforth there'd be no claqueing and slacking tolerated where poetry was spoken.
              Well, I was wrong. Ashbery, for all his genius grants and awards, proved no more hack-proof than the best and the rest of his generation. So, there was that correction to be made, which found me back at Square One, without so much as a glimmer of hope for an art form given its ritual burial in Paul Hoover's recent Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Sarcophagus (1994). Still, there is a new millennium looming out there, whose woof may prove worse than its warp. We'll have to wait and see if, in the bloody century almost upon us, poetry will have a more sanguine future than serious music; than graphic art and sculpture that doesn't merely do less with more computer technology and virtual unreality; than the novel, already reeling from body blows administered by pointless film effects and small screen mentalities.
          About this and related matters I have grave doubts, but you needn't rob them if you're of a more optimistic turn of mind.


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