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Poetry and Poetics

I admit I didn’t like Denise Levertov’s work when I was a kid. I preferred the hilarity of Ted Berrigan, the obvious authority and beauty of Stevens, the light but dazzling cool of Frank O’Hara, and Ginsberg’s Kaddish as well as Reality Sandwiches. I was even more a fan of Spanish and Latin American poets–Hernandez and Vallejo in particular. I came to admire Levertov only after I was approaching forty and she had recently died. I was old enough then to appreciate her seriousness of purpose. I came to admire her the way I had Muriel Rukeyser.

According to my friend Joel Lewis, Levertov fell out of favor when she embraced the catholic faith and started writing poems about her religion. Recently, her letters with Robert Duncan have put her on the radar again. She was also heavily involved in the protest movements of the 60′s–the anti-war movement in particular.That made her popular then when the baby boomers pretended to be Che. When they “converted” to conspicuous consumption sans conscience, she lost that following.

Her poems have the rigor of Objectivism, though she is no Objectivist. They are not flashy. Their technique might be likened to the aesthetics of one naturally adverse to the cult of personality. Her poetry is incremental rather than linear, and I read much of her work as sprung from her brilliant adaptation of Williams’ variable foot (she wrote one of the most sane defenses of it). I’ve chosen a little poem because my computer has crashed and I am borrowing Emily’s until she wakes up. But this poem shows what I mean in terms of how she breaks, and shapes her poetic line:


I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board–

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design. Or a fruit, mamey,

cased in rough brown peel, the flesh
rose-amber, and the seed:
the seed a stone of wood, carved and

polished, walnut-colored, formed
like a brazilnut, but large,
large enough to fill
the hungry palm of a hand.

I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow

in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

Denise Levertov

There are many reasons why Karl Shapiro is no longer taught or on the lips of MFA students.

First, he was part of the post-war formalist/structuralism/urban boom in poetry, but he had enjoyed great success (Pulitzers and whatnot), and he was a Jew. A Jew with a Pulitzer in the 1940s/1950s who was neither humble nor particularly unwashed and earnest (Shapiro…was dapper) was treated with some envy and contempt.

Second, the Beats had visited him and not thought themselves properly treated (they expected a hipster jazz sort of poet because it was Shapiro–not Ginsberg–who first start writing in long rhapsodic free verse lines in emulation of Whitman). Shapiro became for them the symbol of stuffed shirt bougie poetics (as you will see from this poem, Shapiro was anything but. He was sexually open and using the long free verse line a good ten years before Allen Ginsberg came anywhere near it).

Shapiro was buried under the reps of Lowell, and Jarrell, and Berryman. Of those three, Berryman appeals most to post-structural poets (he’s the darling of every grad students MFA program). Lowell has enjoyed a rise in fortune after a ten or fifteen year eclipse. Jarrell’s name is starting to come up again, albeit more for his essays than poems.

But here’s the rub: Shapiro was doing everything they got the credit for innovating a good ten years before they were doing it: including confessional poetry. Those who run poetry are shrewd. They know the best way to disappear a poet is to refuse to talk about him–neither to praise nor ridicule, simply relegate him to a non-entity status. Ginsberg (and I think this makes Ginsberg a total self serving piece of shit) would not admit that it was Shapiro’s sexually explicit, long lined free verse poems, and not Whiman’s, that influenced him most immediately. (Whitman made for a more exciting father). Shapiro was a Jew with a Pulitzer. It was Shapiro to an extent who represented the most legitimate use of Whitman in terms of modern poetry–not Ginsberg. So what were Shapiro’s sins? He was eloquent, and proud. He probably pissed off the Columbia school (Trilling may have sniped at him, and Ginsberg and the Beats were Trilling’s pet primitives).

It doesn’t matter. He is a superb poet who does not deserve to be in obscurity but will remain so. Below is his “Aubade,” written in the 1940s when Ginsberg was a student. It’s elaborate, courtly, sexually explicit, but purposefully artful, and it uses the long Whitmanesque line and the sense of humor–the American suburban wise ass that Ginsberg would employ in Supermarket in California. We must return to Shapiro. We won’t. So it goes:


What dawn is it?

The morning star stands at the end of your street as you watch me turn to laugh a kind of goodbye, with
love-crazed head like a white satyr moving through wet bushes.
The morning star bursts in my eye like a hemorrhage as I enter my car in a dream surrounded by your
heavenly-earthly smell.
The steering wheel is sticky with dew,
The golf course is empty, husbands stir in their sleep desiring, and though no cocks crow in suburbia, the
birds are making a hell of a racket.
Into the newspaper dawn as sweet as your arms that hold the old new world, dawn of green lights that
smear the empty streets with come and go.
It is always dawn when I say goodnight to you,
Dawn of wrecked hair and devastated beds,
Dawn when protective blackness turns to blue and lovers drive sunward with peripheral vision.
To improvise a little on Villon
Dawn is the end for which we are together.

My house of loaded ashtrays and unwashed glasses, tulip petals and columbine that spill on the table
and splash on the floor,
My house full of your dawns,
My house where your absence is presence,
My slum that loves you, my bedroom of dustmice and cobwebs, of local paintings and eclectic posters,
my bedroom of rust neckties and divorced mattresses, and of two of your postcards, Pierrot
with Flowers and Young Girl with Cat,
My bed where you have thrown your body down like a king’s ransom or a boa constrictor.

But I forgot to say: May passed away last night,
May died in her sleep,
That May that blessed and kept our love in fields and motels.
I erect a priapic statue to that May for lovers to kiss as long as I’m in print, and polish as smooth as the
Pope’s toe.
This morning came June of spirea and platitudes,
This morning came June discreetly dressed in gray,
June of terrific promises and lawsuits.

And where are the poems that got lost in the shuffle of spring?
Where is the poem about the eleventh of March, when we raised the battleflag of dawn?
Where is the poem about the coral necklace that whipped your naked breasts in leaps of love?
The poem concerning the ancient lover we followed through your beautiful sleeping head?
The fire-fountain of your earthquake thighs and your electric mouth?
Where is the poem about the little one who says my name and watches us almost kissing in the sun?
The vellum stretchmarks of your learned belly,
Your rosy-fingered nightgown of nylon and popcorn,
Your razor that caresses your calves like my hands?
Where are the poems that are already obsolete, leaves of last month, a very historical month?
Maybe I’ll write them, maybe I won’t, no matter,
And this is the end for which we are together.
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensembles.

If you read the Bible with no authority other than your love of story and your lack of “judgment” (meaning without the lust to prove yourself justified by an authority), it opens up to you like the long love between you and an old family member–like the way my heart opened up to my grandmother. In real peace, there is room for ferocity. In real feeling, there is room for contradiction. God instructs the heart not by certainties but by pains and contradictions. The Bible is full of pains and contradictions.

Because I read the Bible and knew the story of Ruth, I knew how wonderful and brilliant Keats had been to yoke himself to that long ago figure standing and hearing the nightingale “amid the alien corn.” I didn’t have to look the story up, and it had the force for me it had had for Keats: the nightingale’s song was the continuity between myself and an ancient woman who had been the direct ancestor of my lord, Jesus Christ. It was this ability to connect the vast to the intimate that made Keats such a great poet–and he made the connection in one brief, so brief stroke.

Because I knew how Abraham had traveled under a night sky so vast, so glutted with stars and had heard God’s promise, I wept when I first read Mark Twain’s description of Huck and Jim looking up at the night sky and wondering about the origin of the stars, and I was awed by Cervantes when he had Quixote and Sancha under the same sky. My dream was always to retrace the journey of Abraham/Yahweh, Huck/Jim and Quixote/Panza under those same night skies. How would the night speak to me in each journey, over the Spanish plains, in the desert, on the river? I remembered night fishing with my own father, the slow burn of his Chesterfield King and how he warned me about the sharp fin of the catfish. All of this was what Keats moved toward: the collapsing of brevity and eternity.

This afternoon I hung out with Clare as her mom went on some errands. It’s one thing to do constructive activities with your child and another just to hang. She has two teeth now and is very proud of them. We put on the television and hung out on a pillow and I stood her up from time to time to give her practice, and she grabbed my beard and/or chest hair to give it a yank. When her mom came home Clare was asleep with the bottle still in her mouth. What would it be like if we could just hang out someday in Spain and Israel and on the Mississippi and retrace the books–the Bible, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn? The river, the plains, the desert are one–they are where you encounter God and yourself. But the living room is also one, and the porch stoop is also one, and the hoods of parked cars late at night when you are 15 and hanging with friends is one: all of them the place that is sacred, ground set apart.

I want my students to know that this is the ultimate place of learning–this communion of “hang.” The kingdom of hang is like this: you are old or young, or somewhere in the middle and always claiming you are busy and then, some night, without planning, you sit down at the table where brevity and eternity are the same thing–and you hear the nightingale singing inside your own soul–in joy and grief at once, and you know that death hath no dominion– not over this Eucharist, this Eucharist of there–wherever there is, you’ll know, and if you don’t, a thousand years of life will not be enough to teach you.

Wallace Stevens
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
W.H. Auden
James Merril
Robert Lowell


Lowell: Why are we here? Can someone tell me this, please?

Auden: A little testy, aren’t we?

Lowell: Testy? Of course. I was not planning on being summoned from the grave today, and in fact had plans this afternoon with my dead first wife.

Bishop: Do you mean Jean?

Lowell: Yes, I mean Jean. We were going to visit Boston, MA, so that I might once again visit the stomping grounds on which I bullied my classmates and earned the nickname “Cal.”

Bishop: Short for “Caligula.” And you’re proud of this?

Auden: Proud? He’s positively beaming, the old bully.

Stevens: Bully indeed. I agree with Mr. Lowell, this is a most wretched occasion for being summoned. The malady of the quotidian? I meant to say the malady of the long dead.

Merrill: An elegant turn of phrase, Mr. Stevens – just superb. But less we stray too far from the reason why we have been called from the dead, I suppose I must ask aloud, Who called, and what are we doing here? Where are we, anyways?

Moore: I called. This is my summoning.

Lowell: A-ha! So this is your doing, eh Ms. Moore? Getting lonely with only your mother in the afterlife to tend to your exacting observational powers?

Auden: “To tend to your exacting observational powers”? What happened to the antithesis of long-windedness you developed in Life Studies, by dear Robbie?

Moore: Enough. I called us together for a conversation.

Merrill: A good enough reason.

Auden: Agreed.

Bishop: Hear hear.

Lowell: Yes, and all that.

Stevens: Indeed. But pray tell, Ms. Moore: a conversation regarding what?

Moore: Regarding John Ashbery, my dear poets.

Lowell: Oh god, here we go.

Bishop: Cynical, Robert?

Lowell: Cynical? More like “risible.” I have a deep distaste for that silly man’s work.

Merrill: Ha! “Silly man”? Do explain yourself, dear Caligula.

Lowell: But where to begin? I coined, many years ago – that is, I stole, many years ago – the phrase “raw and the cooked” to describe the difference between my early work and the work of, say, Ginsberg. And yes, with Life Studies I did leave the cooked for the raw. But my poetry always maintained some aspects of the cooked – a certain formality, even in my autobiographical writings. Ashbery, on the other hand, is the rawest poet I have ever encountered, by which I do not mean to praise, but rather simply observe with some disdain.

Bishop: But do explain yourself, Robert. What you mean by “raw,” I mean.

Lowell: We might as well recite something. Here, look at this poem from the poet’s first well-received book, Some Trees. I do not wish to look at the more canonical works – “Instructional Manual,” “Some Trees,” “Illustration,” or “The Painter.” Let us look at something more “minor.” Ah! Here: “Sonnet.” Good and short. (Clearing throat)

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

His pain is the servant’s alive.
It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.

Fellow poets, how are we supposed to read something so surreal, so nonsensical? I’m baffled.

Moore: Great question, Mr. Lowell! How do we read this poem?

(Long pause in the conversation as the poets begin thinking.)

Musicality and Narrative

Auden: I feel I owe some explanation for the poem, as I did choose John over his friend Frank O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Back then, I explained that John’s poetry was interesting but dangerous; that it was an interesting experiment, but that too much nonsense could deprive his poetry of too much meaning. And that would be bad.

But let me try to say more, now, about what I liked about John’s poetry, and therefore what I also admire about “Sonnet.” To begin with, a reader must always interrogate his or her own assumptions about what it is he or she likes about poetry. By self-interrogation, I do mean something analogous to the intention of psychoanalysis – that is, the better a reader understands his or her own predilections, the easier it will be for said reader to find the literature that moves this reader the most. Now, the reason I like “Sonnet” – and I know we cannot stay merely on reasons for “liking” the poetry, but I find it a fine place to begin – the reason I like “Sonnet” is because, like my own early work, Ashbery is developing a different way of talking.

Bishop: How do you mean, “a different way of talking”?

Auden: Well, if you can suffer through it, let me recite from memory one of my earliest works, entitled “Taller Today.” Afterwards I”ll explain why. (Clears his throat.)

Taller today, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in a windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing but here, sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

Merrill: Beautiful. But do explain.

Auden: I believe this poem works for two reasons – one because of its music, and secondly, because of its approximation to narrative.

Lowell: And by “music” you mean…?

Auden: This is hard to say. Yet I think I mean something akin to the music that Mr. Stevens creates in his poetry. Do tell us, Mr. Stevens, how you understand what I mean when I refer to the haunting musicality of poetry, and then I shall be happy to continue.

Stevens: I’m not very comfortable discussing my own work, Mr. Auden.

Auden: Humility, expressed grandly! I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Stevens. Well, let us return to you in a second. What I mean by musicality is something I believe Mr. Stevens refers to in his “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:” I mean “the beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” For poetry doesn’t necessarily sound like human speech. I know this sounds shamelessly obvious, but occasionally what is obvious needs to be emphasized, in case it is forgotten, shamelessly. Poetry is not simply embellished speech given a meter. It is a deeply strange and other way of speaking, with roots I would imagine in divination. It is magical. And yet what makes a phrase magical? It’s sound. Therefore, notice the sound of “windless orchard,” “lonely roads,” “Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl”. These are haunted, haunting phrases, and they are haunting and haunted because they are other. No one would say, in a conversation, “nights come bringing the snow,” just as no one, doodling in their notebook, would draw an enormous abstract painting the size of ten men. Such experimentation in language, like experimentation in form and color in the visual arts, heightens and augments our consciousness of language, the way that painting does the same for form, shape, color, and line. It is a seemingly deeper way of talking. And this depth, this haunting quality, is what I mean by “musicality.”

Merrill: Interesting, Wystan.

Auden: Thank you. But now, Ashbery’s work. I believe it carries this same sort of musicality. But moreover, it is a musicality that is Ashbery’s alone – he sounds like himself, and no one else.

Bishop: But what about “Some Trees”? I’ve always thought he sounded in that poem like you, Wystan.

Auden: Well, I mean as he develops as a poet. But notice some of the turns of phrases in “Sonnet,” (named, I noticed, Elizabeth, similar to your great poem, “Sestina”). “After many years he has been brought nothing.” “The light walls collapse next day.” These are assertions which are completely nonsensical. They combine the confidence of assertion with the artifice of imaginative freedom. It is for that reason they are so strange, yet lovely and, in a way, hauntingly enigmatic.

Moore: So, Mr. Auden, are you saying you like John’s poetry because he writes creative phrases?

Auden: No, but I think that is a part of it. What I’m saying is that what John is doing is harder than it looks. Here: everyone come up with a nonsensical phrase. I’ll give us ten seconds. 10….9….8…..7…..

Moore: The pelican’s head was a grouchy artichoke.

Bishop: The sandpiper’s library is a crumb of an almanac.

Stevens: Far from the languorous sea, a dog’s asbestos legs rang vividly.

Merrill: Dear, please send me those pool balls shocking the nerves of a kimono.

Lowell: Damn garret in the house sets my cigarettes to flame!

Auden: “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.”

Lowell: But that’s a line from the poem.

Auden: Yes. I wanted to juxtapose our “nonsensical” statements, in order to show that John’s line is not very nonsensical. In fact, of all the phrases we came up with, I would say that the line “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face” is a very interesting kind of metaphor, which – in a shockingly disturbing way – seems to serve as a mirror for the reader’s own experience reading the Ashbery poem. For aren’t we all, facing “Sonnet,” as confused as a pattern of honking gridlock?

Bishop: So “Sonnet” is a mirror for the reader’s face? And what happened to the “story” you mentioned, along with the musicality?

Auden: I’m getting there. But notice the phrases in “Sonnet.” “Each servant stamps the reader with a look./ After many years he has been brought nothing. / The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience. / The servant goes to bed. / The patience rambles on / Musing on the library’s lofty holes.” Notice how each line is a separate sentence, until the final enjambed line, which is sensible, for musing is a longer process that would carry itself over, past a shorter sentence. Now, is it dangerous to say that it is as if Ashbery were voicing some of our own experiences reading the poem? For what if we were to replace “servant” with “writer”?

Each writer stamps the reader with a look.
After many years [the reader] has been brought nothing.
The writer’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The writer goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Ashbery, equating the writer with a servant – perhaps who who serves creativity, imagination, new ways of thinking and talking, poetic knowledge and experience – describes one experience reading a poem. The writer makes the reader pause; the reader feels frustrated; the writer, echoing the reader’s frustration, makes the reader feel less frustrated and more patient; the writer leaves the reader, or the reader puts down the book; the feeling engendered by the skillful writer hangs in the air of the reader’s mind like a powerful lingering scent; and this lingering somehow muses on “lofty holes” in the library – perhaps a metaphor for the strangeness of the familiar.

Stevens: Bravo, Wystan! A very nice interpretation.

Auden: But I’m not finished. First, we can sense the uncanniness of the passage now, a little closer. And yet we can also see how John’s work gestures towards narrative, without becoming a narrative itself. It is suggestive – something Marjorie Perloff has also written about. And here it is suggestive, because it seems, in some very bizarre and weird way, to be ahead of the reader, to out-anticipate us, and know our expectations before we ourselves know them.

Moore: So Ashbery knows us better than we know ourselves. A discomfiting position, to say the least. But what does it actually mean?

Installation Art and Complex Moods

Merrill: I think it means something like this. Take Proust for example, that remarkable exemplar of the winding sentence brooking no obstruction, who wove tapestries of sentences that, in their unwinding joi de vivre, wove us different faces, different ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves. Proust set out to write a book, and the book turned out to be a book with a style innovative enough to spawn myriads of imitators. Why would people try to imitate the master? I believe because it was as though Proust had placed a new face us for within our own hall of mirrors. He had imagined himself and others within a new kind of vocabulary, a vocabulary that stretched our self-image, made it more elastic, more expansive, less fixed or dull. Is this what you believe Ashbery is doing, Wystan?

Auden: Precisely.

Moore: But then what is the difference between sense and nonsense? Wallace, you are famous for saying a poem, pardon the paraphrase, “resists the intelligence half-successfully.” Do not Ashbery’s poems err too much on the side of the resistance?

Stevens: I have wondered about that, especially in the poet’s second book, “The Tennis Court Oath.” For what do we do with passages like, (and this is from “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”, a more-praised poem from the book):

Painted the garage roof crimson and black
He is not a man
Who can read these signs… his bones were stays…
And even refused to live
In a world and refunded the hiss
Of all that exists terribly near us
Lilke you, my love, and light.

I mean, this at least makes some sense, and comes from a poem that itself makes some sense. It is as if Ashbery were giving us some raw blocks of experience, some raw linguistic (and poetic) data, and were asking us to assemble this data in a way in which it makes sense to us. Like a piece of installation art. We walk into this installation, grabbing at particulars that appeal to us, and with these particulars we form our own experience of the artwork. Perhaps Ashbery is simply calling overt attention to the way in which we actively construct meaning.

Bishop: Yes, but then what of the very obscure Ashbery, such as his “Europe”?

Moore: Elizabeth, give us an excerpt.

Bishop: Alright. Here is the opening four sections of “Europe.”

To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
cannot understand
feels deeply)

a wave of nausea –

a few berries

the unseen claw
Babe asked today
The background of poles roped over
into star jolted them

Now I find these passages suggestively rich, but too lean on the meaning to satisfy.

Lowell: I agree.

Moore: But isn’t that exactly the point? Isn’t the poet simply experimenting, like any poet, with how much he can give us, and how much he can hold apart?

Merrill: John Shoptaw’s book, On the Outside Looking Out, illuminates what “Europe” is ostensibly about. But imagine if we had not read this book; what would we make of this poem?

Stevens: I confess I have never been able to finish it.

Bishop: Ditto.

Auden: Harold Bloom claimed it was an abomination, to put it mildly.

Stevens: Yet other poets, like Charles Bernstein, have claimed it as an important poem, one that figures as a precursor to the Language poets’ experiments.

Moore: So what is it? An abomination? A prescient experiment? What?

Bishop: I think this depends on the reader’s taste, to be honest. If the reader enjoys a poet who does not make overt meaning, but gives us the building block of sense, of intelligence, of imagination, of memory, and asks us to do with it as we please, then perhaps The Tennis Court Oath would be their favorite book. For my taste, I enjoy the Ashbery who does more with meaning then simply barely alludes to it. I like the Ashbery that is funny, that writes long sentences with their own idiosyncratic elasticity, that is brimming over with original ideas, that is wacky, that is fun.

Moore: Is there a specific poem you are thinking of?

Bishop: Yes, actually, Marianne. I’m thinking of “The Skaters.”

Moore: Let’s hear some of it, keeping in mind that it is a much longer poem.

Bishop: Indeed, let’s do that. “The Skaters” begins with these two stanzas:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Proud out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpetedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

Bishop: Many critics have pointed out that Ashbery is hearing the sound of people ice-skating, that these sounds are the “decibels” that are “a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart.”

Imagine the poet typing beside a window, and he hears the sound of the ice-skaters. The sound allows him to in some ways “enter” the scene, participate in it, but at the same time the poet is distant, apart from the scene, both in the game and out of it. The sound of this activity does not make the poet want to ice-skate, but rather makes “for masses of inertia” that paradoxically make a demand on the poet. What is the demand that “stumps the absolute”? It seems as though Ashbery is commenting on a preternatural quality of the ice-skating – that the sounds and colors seems somehow to have already existed, that they are a kind of given, a kind of fore-grounded immanence, as opposed to a receding transcendent that constantly eludes the poet; but that this preternaturalness, this givenness of the skaters, contrasts funnily with the way in which their sounds are “unexpected.”

One might therefore create an analogy between the experience of the sounds and colors of the skaters, and the experience of the tradition of poetry within which Ashbery writes. Both the skaters and the tradition are simultaneously given and surprising, old and new, expected and unexpected, traditional and innovative. Ashbery himself, steeped in French poetry, in the works of poets as varied as Pasternak, Rimbaud, Stevens, Auden, the Metaphysical poets, Whitman, etc., still finds a way to make it new. Thus Ashbery is commenting on a dynamic that is rife throughout his own work – the play between the old and the new, between originality and continuity. Indeed, as we read further, Ashbery writes,

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o’er the ice,
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden “dump” or lament.

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

As you can see, Ashbery now is sort of expanding on this dynamic between innovation or “novelty” and older ways of being. It’s as if we are watching a symphony of colors, light and dark, and the light stands for novelty, which can be exhausting, and the dark stands for habitual ways of living, which can also be exhausting. So that Ashbery is navigating himself and us through this symphony of colors, through desire for change and desire for certainty. We hear that these “Colors slip away from and chide us”, perhaps suggesting that they bring to the poet a kind of regretful nostalgia. And indeed, “The human mind / Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme / Of some sodden “dump” or lament,” meaning that the human mind is incapable of nothing except a kind of familiar, weary lament, an existential complaint. “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes” – and yet, and yet, and yet. As you can see with the two stanzas that are sentences –

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.


But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

The changes in the activity of the skaters, which seem to precipitate changes in the poet’s mood and mind, consequently precipitate changes in the mood of the poem, and pragmatically effect transitions in the poem from one mood or sentiment to another. We are all going to hell, the first stanza suggests, but “Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heart.” All we can do is listen to the sad horn in our mind, “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.” It is akin to a sad mood interacting with a gloriously aesthetically pleasing landscape – in that bittersweet confluence of longing and temporary satisfaction, we have a tonally rich experience that demands a poem (as Ashbery recognizes, and delivers) to do justice to the pungent, fragrant, potent contours of that experience.

Moore: Bravo, Elizabeth! But you said earlier that Ashbery is a funny poet…?

We could say we long for someone, or we could better say that someone has triggered our longing. Certain mechanisms exist in the human brain that when brushed by a combination of memory and bodily functions, demand interpretation. Feeling is situational interpretation. The same chemicals and hormones, and even, to an extent the same physical manifestations that define being “in love” also accompany the fight, freeze, and flee complex of fear: increased heart rate, dilation of the eyes, blood flow to the hands, feet, lips, and genitalia, a rise in blood pressure, an increased sharpness yet reduction of our focus to the matter at hand. We must interpret these sensations as either love or fear depending on the situation and all our past experiences, and very often, we waver between our interpretations: this is the basic fodder of romantic comedies. Boy meets girl: fight, freeze, or flee (usually some combination of all three). When working with students in poetry, many of whom are preoccupied with romantic love, usually its pain and infamy. I find certain tools useful for punching holes in the cliches, and helping them find a way in to what matters to them. It is stupid to rid them of the mechanisms that has lead to “piercing blue eyes” and “melting brown eyes” and all that crap. They are right: blue eyes have certain atavistic advantages insofar as they display to better visibility the dilation of the pupils that indicate interest, including romantic interest. Melting brown eyes are hardly ever used to indicate evil or coldness because, well, because they are “melting” which means warmth and a sense of depth. Madame Bovary’s large brown eyes fooled Charles into thinking her noble and full of womanly virtue. Blue eyes show interest, but brown eyes appear bigger and trigger an atavistic mammalian tendency to protect. The larger the eyes, provided they are symmetrical, the more we are likely to ooze oxytocin, the chemical of well being, maternal care, and post-orgasmic bonding. Joan Baez, in her thinly veiled tribute to Dylan, wrote:

You gave to me oh so many things,
it makes me wonder, how they could belong to me.
And I gave you only my brown eyes
which melted your soul down
to the place it longed to be.

This is what I would do if confronted with a student wallowing in cold piercing blue eyes, or melting brown eyes, or (and this is rare) emerald green eyes. I’d say: remove the eyes, and distill their qualities throughout the poem. For example piercing blue eyes:

Something sharp, something being pierced (not a heart), but perhaps a shirt or stitch that is being woven into a fabric of different color. All things blue: sky, a robin’s egg, some semi-precious stone. Then, if your eyes are brown, remove those too, and play with the “warmth” of brown: old rivers, dead leaves, chocolate, whatever. It might go something like this:

You who have stitched your bright blue thread
through the flow of my dark river,’
who have pierced the sparrow of my eyes,
who have pulled the needle out and in,
until pain has its own rhythm, and moves
through the brown thistle of my day: blue thing that looked at me:
a robin’s egg falls from the highest branch,
a shrike impales its prey:
the small brown wren, the thrush
whose song rose from the secret wood,
they have lost both thrift and song.
On a blue thorn the sky god descends,
earth moves through its umber rounds,
knows all winds pierce and sting
yet blesses them. Blesses what tears and rends,
what breaks: this brown word that is on the tongue
of blue, this mud deeper than all time.

The point is to take the essence of piercing, and blue, and longing, of sharpness, and pain, and mingle it with the warmth of brown—its humility, its less dazzling, yet deeper beauty. The point of “piercing blue eyes” has not been lost. The student has not conceded his or her interest, but has rather distilled to give it both more original detail and a greater ontology. In the next post I will take some cliches and show how they can be the raw material for this process of distillation. It is important to respect cliches as well as vanquish them, and we do that by treating them seriously, and using whatever force they once had–using their vestige power.

I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.


How can we define the philosophy of pragmatism?  What is the relationship between the philosophy of pragmatism and the poetics of John Ashbery?  Is there one?  Ken McClelland cites Cornel West’s citation of C.I. Lewis as “being one of the best characterizations of pragmatism ever formulated” (Opening Truth 12).  Lewis writes,

Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action. (qtd. in McClelland 12)

McClelland goes on to comment that, “with the words, ‘the justifiable ends of action’ in mind, we clearly see that pragmatism’s philosophical impulse is inextricably tied to temporal consequences, with the idea that the future is of ethical significance” (12).  McClelland then cites Dewey’s essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in a long block quote, an excerpt of which reads, “The doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, of a universe which is still, in James’ term “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic” (qtd. in McClelland12-13).

This notion of the universe “in the making” and “in the process of becoming” might resonate with readers of John Ashbery’s poetry, a practice of art that, in the able and nimble hands and mind of Ashbery, is constantly in flux, in process, suggesting a seemingly irrational “lack of coherence” that in Ashbery, as William Watkin writes, “does not deny a lack of cohesion” (187).  As Watkin points out,

it is almost always the case that within his poetic units the semantic short-circuiting at the level of coherence is made up for by the two key factors of cohesion which often serve to undermine thematic semantics: lexical groupings and syntactic process. (187 my italics)

This “processual aesthetic” of Ashbery’s poetry is later described by Watkin as “a process of putting down and moving on” (214).  And it is this process of becoming, noted by Dewey in terms of a characteristic of the future, and therefore in terms of the primary orientation of the philosophy of pragmatism, that Ashbery embodies in his poetic praxis.  Ashbery’s work is a radically open-ended language game (language games in the plural seems more appropriate), that seems to give one the experience, through language, of the future in the immediate process of becoming, of things beyond our awareness coalescing, forces turning and tuning up, like a great orchestra just about to begin, as we sit at the edge of our seats and experience

The great, formal affair[…]beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact. (Ashbery 427)

Better yet, as Ashbery himself has said, first quoting an essay by Borges entitled, “The Wall and the Books,” then commenting on it,

‘Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights in certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed or about to tell us something. The imminence of the revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.’ The imminence of a revelation not yet produced is very important and hard to define in poetry and probably is the source of some of the difficulty with my own poems. But I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose to spare myself or the reader the difficulty of that imminence, of always being on the edge of things.  (qtd. in Hubbard my italics)

“The imminence of a revelation not yet produced” is a remarkable formulation for describing the process of the future unfolding, and it is what I hope to signify by the term the “pragmatist sublime.”  Such a phrase (“the imminence…”) conjures images of openings, or landscapes glimpsed, waterfalls or canyons, suddenly or slowly, possibilities rising up with inexhaustible and astonishing energy, potentials parting like curtains to reveal further potentials, more dazzling drawing rooms, a hall of mirrors of what-may-come-next.  This is the world of Ashbery; and it is also the world of William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, who wrote in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (a book that David Herd has called “a guidebook to American poetics before and since” (13))

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest.  You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience.  It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.  (28 his italics)

“Pragmatism,” James writes a paragraph later, “unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work” (28).  The same can be said, of course, for Ashbery’s poetry, and also for our experience, when we are more sensitized to it.  Indeed, it is one of Ashbery’s greatest virtues as a writer that, in the way which Gunter Leypoldt describes Martha Nussbaum’s take on Henry James –  “moral intelligence….understood as a heightened perception of complexity…[an] ethical progress [becoming] a question of improving our aesthetic powers of discrimination” –  Ashbery augments our powers of feeling, perception and imagination, placing us more immediately within the variety of contexts which constitute our world (Leypoldt 146).  Ashbery, like both James brothers, makes our experience more powerful, more intense, more interesting, more enriching.

This is what David Herd means when discussing Ashbery’s “poems of occasion” – the notion of the “defining Ashberyan ambition” being “to write the poem fit for its occasion,” or “to achieve a poem appropriate to the occasion of its own writing” (7, 10).  It is the idea that currently, as I type, there are more than ten books situated in various alignments on my desk: books about the New York School of poets, books about Richard Rorty, books about Ashbery, and three books in Spanish, one of which I have to translate for a Spanish exam in order to graduate from my master’s in English program at the University of Toledo; there is an orange washrag near the books, a knife coated with stale hummus, a phone peeping out from behind a stack of articles; there are trees outside the window, their leaves, to paraphrase Ashbery in “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” “yellowed by the sun”; the sounds of cars driving on the road in front of my apartment, the refrigerator in the kitchen humming, a guitar leaning against a bookcase, etc.  All this is part of the “occasion” of which I write right now (not to mention the culture(s) of everything in my apartment, lurking behind or afore everything, making everything somehow a part of a disjointed but connected picture) – and it is this richness and plurality of detail that Ashbery, more than any American poet (with the exception of Whitman, Ashbery’s primary Bloomian precursor), drenches his poems in and with.

This notion of the occasion, written about wonderfully and helpfully by Herd, is what William James also intuits with astonishing insight, returning our thought back to us with Emersonian “alienated majesty,” when he writes in his deservedly famous chapter in Principles of Psychology, “The Stream of Thought,”

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water.  Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.  It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists [Ashbery might say poets as well] overlook.  Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water [the occasion] that flows round it.  With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead.  The significance, the value, of the image is all this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,- or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. (255)

Therefore, as James writes earlier in the same chapter, “The truth is that large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction in thought” (252-253).  James, like Ashbery, redescribes the climate of our mental environments; in so doing, he gives us, as Ashbery does, a more nuanced, more complex, richer sense of who we are and how we are.  James, like Ashbery, enlarges us.


So how do James and Ashbery achieve such a powerful effect?  How do we understand the consequences of this effect?  The answer to the former question is, of course, their language; for, as McClelland has written, “Experience is linguistic top to bottom (and side to side).”  (Opening Truth 20)  The answer to the latter question demands that we now introduce the figure of Richard Rorty, a neopragmatist whose work sheds incredible light on Ashbery’s poetic praxis, just as Ashbery’s poetic praxis embodies those pragmatist doctrines as mentioned above, just as James’s work sheds incredible light on Ashbery.  But what is it, more specifically, about Rorty’s philosophy, or even his vision as a thinker, that elucidates so well what Ashbery is doing, or Ashbery’s vision as a poet?  More concisely, How does Rorty’s revolutionary philosophy help us understand Ashbery’s revolutionary poetry?  What does it mean to write revolutionary poetry or philosophy?

Let’s begin with what many have deemed an important aspect of Rorty’s thought: his notion of metaphoric redescription as inquiry.  What is “metaphoric redescription as inquiry”?   Christopher J. Voparil writes,

Under different names this work of redescribing was a part of Rorty’s thinking since his earliest published work, where he calls attention to the fact that “any metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological arguments can be defeated by redefinition” – the pihlosopher’s ability to “change the rules” of the game largely by altering the relevant criteria. (33-34)

This approach, Voparil continues, “looks to the imagination, rather than to inference” in order to recontextualize, a process that is “not unlike what takes place in Kuhnian periods of revolutionary science” (34).  And seismic shifts in culture, Kuhn and Rorty might say, happen not through logical argument, but through a different style of imagining and imagination, that reweaves contexts into new, revolutionary tapestries.  This has much to do with James’s notion of temperament, as well as Harold Bloom’s notion of the agon of influence.  James writes in Pragmatism,

The history of philosophy [and poetry] is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments[…]Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament.  Temperament is not conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusion.  Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. (8-9)

And Bloom, whose lifework might be said to be involved with developing a thickly pataphysical and Freudian account of the process of metaphoric redescription, writes (calling redescription “revisionism”),

Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction [redescribing] that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretationThe history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. (30)

The notion of redescription thus allows us to somehow hold in our minds the paradox that there is no precedent for a Shakespeare, a Whitman, or an Ashbery, just as there is no Shakespeare, Whitman or Ashbery without the tradition they inherited.  The same can be said of other world-changers, figures like Einstein or a Darwin; or as Rorty writes,

Hobbes did not have theological arguments against Dante’s world-picture; Kant had only a very bad scientific argument for the phenomenal character of science; Nietzsche and James did not have epistemological arguments for pragmatism.  Each of these thinkers presented us with a new form of intellectual life, and asked us to compare its advantages with the old. (qtd. in Voparil 35)

But redescription, as Voparil points out, is not just a “method of inquiry”: citing Rorty, he writes, “’speaking differently, rather than arguing well,’ on [Rorty’s] view is ‘the chief instrument of cultural change.’ In a word, redescription is political; redescriptions have the power to change our minds” (35).   Here is Rorty, writing about redescription in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. (9)

An awareness of this method is an awareness, Rorty might say, of the contingency of language –  that language has no intrinsic nature – and therefore of “a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (Contingency 9).


            We find this sentiment – that intellectual and moral progress happens as a result of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies – articulated over and over in Ashbery’s poetry.  In fact, I would hazard the argument that, in the terms of William James, metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s “voluntary thinking” a “topic or subject about which all the members of the thought involve” (259).  James goes on to write in his Principles that

Half the time this topic is a problem, a gap we cannot yet will with a definite picture, word, or phrase, but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensively active and determinate psychic way.  Whatever may be the images and phrases that pass before us, we feel their relation to this aching gap.  To fill it up is our thought’s destiny.  Some bring us nearer to that consummation.  Some the gap negates as quite irrelevant.  Each swims in a felt fringe of relations of which the aforesaid gap is the term.  Or instead of a definite gap we may merely carry a mood of interest about with us.  Then, however vague the mood, it will still act in the same way, throwing a mantle of felt affinity over such representations, entering the mind, as suits it, and tingeing with the feeling of tediousness or discord all those with which it has no concern.  (259)

Again, notice how James, through his own metaphoric redescription, enlarges our understanding about what our individual interests mean, how they feel, how they operate within the idiosyncratic consciousness that forms the matrix of our deeply private selves.  This is exactly what Ashbery achieves in his greatest works, for his poems make redescription their content, even as their form and process enact redescription as their primary way of unfolding.

Metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s earliest “self-portrait” in Some Trees, in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” where he writes,

Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. (14)

It’s in “Illustration,” also in Some Trees:

Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves.  (25)

The sense of the new replacing the old can be found in The Tennis Court Oath, in “White Roses”:

So put away the book,
The flowers you were keeping to give someone:
Only the white, tremendous foam of the street has any importance,
The new white flowers that are beginning to shoot up about now.  (66)

And the sense of the contingency of language can be found at the opening of “A Last World”:

These wonderful things
Were planted on the surface of a round mind that was to become our present time.
The mark of things belongs to someone
But if that somebody was wise
Then the whole of things might be different
From what it was thought to be in the beginning, before an angel bandaged the field glasses.  (83)

We find the sentiment that there are no neutral starting points for thought in “The Eccliast” in Rivers and Mountains: “There was no life you could live out to it end / And no attitude which, in the end, would save you” (135).  And perhaps one of the most famous of Ashbery’s “utterances” in terms of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies can be found in “Clepsydra,” in a passage which reads,

Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment:  (140)

But these are only fragments; and what we find, when reading through Ashbery’s ouvre, is that these are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pragmatic temperament that shapes the poems in such a way as to suggest, in the unfolding of the poem’s inner logic, the redescription of what it means to be alive through a new vocabulary replacing an old vocabulary.

Quickly, What was the old vocabulary?  That depends on the critic.  Bloom would say Stevens and Whitman; Ben Hickman would say the English tradition; David Herd cites Randall Jarrell’s description of Robert Lowell’s poetry as

the coiling violence of its rhetoric, the harsh and stubborn intensity that accompanies all its verbs and verbals, the clustering stresses learned from accentual verse, come from a man contracting every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache.  (qtd. in Herd 33)

Herd goes on to write that,

The way Ashbery, along with O’Hara and Koch, solved the problem of not being Lowell was by reading widely in pursuit of alternatives, revitalizing American poetry as they did so – and in the time-honoured fashion of Whitman, Eliot, Pound and Stevens – by absorbing influences from elsewhere, France and Russia in particular.  (35)

It does not concern my study here to delve too deeply into the impact of the French and Russian influences on Ashbery, as this has been chronicled elsewhere, especially in the work of Herd in regards to Pasternak’s influence on Ashbery.  But I do want to stress that Ashbery is almost abnormally preoccupied with change, with what progress might mean, with the way in which change and progress and difference happen through metaphorically redescribing the world.  To look at this issue more closely will require closer readings of the poems throughout his oeuvre.   For the sake of this essay, I will be focusing on Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees.


            If the majority of Ashbery’s work is concerned with the way in which the future, like a horizon, spreads out before us, (though we do not know which direction it will take us in), then we might say that each of his books presents various strategies for conveying this feeling to us aesthetically.  In Some Trees, as Catherine Imbriglio has pointed out – though in the context of “closeted spaces” as opposed to the “revelation not yet produced” – this feeling is often transmitted via the notion of reticence, silence, and secretiveness – or, as David Shoptaw writes, “Some Trees is as remarkable for it excludes or slights as for what it represents” (19).  Since we don’t know what the future will bring, it follows that we must be, to some extent, reticent, silent or secretive – reticent, because we don’t know what will happen, and therefore do not want to overstep our boundaries, not necessarily in a fearful or quietist way, but certainly in a vigilant way; silent, because perhaps in our silence we may become more attentive to what is about to happen; and secretive, the etymology of which suggests a hiddenness, and therefore an awareness that the future itself is secret, is hidden, is somehow magically undisclosed.  This hiddenness has less to do with the cryptic way in which Some Trees “encodes a gay network of friends circulating among enemies and possible informants” (Shoptaw 20), and more with the cryptic nature of the future itself.  Thus we read, in “Two Scenes,” (a title that itself betrays a reticence about being too specific, about naming; as Shoptaw points out, “nearly half [of the poems in Some Trees] indicate the form or mode of their poem” (19)):


We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The way was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”  (3)

For a long time I have wondered about the first line of the first poem in Ashbery’s first published collection: “We see us as we truly behave”.  It troubles me, because Ashbery strikes me as such an anti-essentialist, an anti-foundationalist, a la Rorty, who would therefore be uncomfortable with notions such as Truth or a monolithically true perception.  Therefore, I do not read the line as Imbriglio does, as “one totalizing visionary moment,” such a phrase being, as I deem it, an unhelpful oxymoron, as a visionary moment, according to Ashbery, would not and cannot be totalizing (279).  I’d like to suggest that we posit that “to see us as we truly behave” is a way of saying, “when we are oriented towards the future, wondering what will happen to us, then we can “see us as we truly behave”, as most people are acting in such ways that suggest they are aware of their future and are making decisions in the present to realize what they hope for in the future.  Going along with this interpretation – which implies that, even if we are oriented towards the future, we do not and cannot know what it will bring – is a sense of child-like wonder and magic in the poem, an almost forced naiveté, an enormous Joseph Cornell-like innocence.  “From every corner comes a distinctive offering” we hear, and “The train comes bearing joy; / The sparks it strikes illuminate the table”.  Furthermore, “Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny”, and “For long we hadn’t heard so much new, such noise.”  Each line works with the lines before and after to create a tapestry of novelty, of exciting things occurring which are hard to place.  The notion is repeated in the second stanza, in which we read,

This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.  (3)

Ashbery is calling our attention to the unprecedentedness of the future, and he is conveying this notion to us through language that redescribes this feeling in a new way.  The poem ends, “As laughing cadets say, “In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”  I do not read this line as suspiciously as Imbriglio does, as signifying a secrecy necessary because of Ashbery’s homosexuality, although I do find such a reading compelling.  Nor do I read the poem, as Marjorie Perloff does, as a kind of fantastical polyphony of dream-logic – i.e. “Not what one dreams but how – this is Ashbery’s subject” (252).  Again, Ashbery’s poems do suggest, as Perloff has written, the logic of a dream; but here it is a matter of emphasis; and I wish to emphasize that his poems also suggest, with a florabundance rarely exhibited, the multifariousness of conscious lived experience reflecting on the future.  (Of course, this reflecting on the future is also a kind of dreaming; and in that sense my argument dovetails with Perloff’s.)  The evening can be interpreted, then, not as a metonym for dreams, nor as a metaphor for a pernicious shadowy presence of homophobia, but rather as a trope for the future, when the darkness suggests a wide-openness, commensurate with the sublime expansiveness of contemplating a future that is already somehow happening, all the time, though in some ways unbeknownst to us.

We find this same reticence, secretiveness and silence evident in “Popular Songs,” which ends,

There is no way to prevent this
Or the expectation of disappointment.
All are aware, some carry a secret
Better, of hands emulating deeds
Of days untrustworthy.  But these may decide.
The face extended its sorrowing light
Far out over them.  And now silent as a group
The actors prepare their first decline.  (4)

Here, we might say that “the face” is a trope for evening, for the horizon of the future, for it is a metaphor with, again, a certain wide-openness, a vastness that suggests the power of memory, feeling, imagination.  (“Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination” Ashbery writes later, in “The Recent Past” (136)).   There is no way to prevent “this” – perhaps a pronoun referring, in its ambiguousness, to the ambiguity of the future – just as there is no way to live a life without disappointment.  Everyone is aware of the powerful dangerous imminence of the future, but some, as Ashbery writes, “carry a secret / Better,” perhaps implying that for some, this awareness leads to powerful creations.  But why the metaphor of the theater and acting in the last line?  What does this calling our attention to artifice have to do with an awareness of the imminence of the future?  Perhaps our very secretiveness makes us actors and actresses, acting a certain way on the surface, though all the time we are “nursing some private project” (Ashbery 125).

Ashbery’s reticence does not only manifest itself in lines that directly refer to the word “reticent,” such as the end of “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” where we read the oft-cited, “But night, the reserved, the reticent, always gives more than it takes” (428).  Reticence is part of his overall strategy, as Imbriglio points out, and can be found in his willingness to supply us with details of a narrative, combined with his unwillingness to fill out these details into some kind of totalized story.  We see this reticence about narrative in “Popular Songs,” a reticence about filling in the gaps, or the way in which gaps are filled; and we also find it in “A Boy,” a poem whose suggestiveness is far more powerful than its completeness.  We also find it in “Album Leaf,” where Ashbery asks three questions –

What can we achieve, aspiring?
And what, aspiring, can we achieve?

What can the rain that fell
All day on the grounds
And the bingo tables?  (12)

without directly answering them.  Even in a poem like “The Instruction Manual,” where the narrative we are given, the picture of the world, feels somewhat complete, the poem is written in a tone of such ferocious irony that it is very difficult to read the overall picture of the poem as in a way a serious attempt at capturing totality.  We might even say that Ashbery’s reticence plays into the astonishment of his images, for what makes Ashbery’s images so dazzling is their imaginative unexpectedness, their visionary unprecedented-ness, which seem to be the reward for being reticent, for waiting, and therefore exhibit the other side of reticence, which is boldness, courage, the willingness to adventure, to manifest in the greatest possible way the beauty of one’s own idiosyncratic character.

This reticence, which translates at times into the shocking novelty of Ashbery’s images, can be found in a wonderfully memorable way through Ashbery’s “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” a poem that begins with an epigraph from Pasternak that reads, “He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered early and apparently without great difficulty” (13).  “Picture” is divided into three sections, and the first one begins,

Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas.  “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

“He clap’d me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered.  But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence.”

In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.  (13)

The first stanza oscillates between images of reticence, wonder, and silence, combined with a cartoonish form of violence.  Genevieve, who appears like a cartoon character, is punched “in the pajamas,” yet she is so taken by some “previous ecstasy” that she “releases thoughts” (assumed to be either words or cartoonish thought boxes) “like little hats.”  Then Genevieve speaks, and mentions another trope for the future, an eclipse (perhaps the “darkness [falling] like a wet sponge”); a change in behavior on the part of Dick; and then a silence on Genevieve’s part about being punched.  After we hear that Genevieve exhibits her own style of reticence, perhaps out of wonder at the “handsome jewels” given to her, we hear that “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”  The images are juxtaposed so strangely and suddenly, there is a hilarious absurdity of the poem that seems to muffle the fact that the poem is also exorbitantly silent and almost abnormally reticent.  For what better way of expressing unexpected silence than the implacable image of monks “in a far recess of summer” playing soccer?

The second stanza then takes these themes of reticence, wonder, and silence, along with the tonality and modality of cartoon violence, and changes into a meditation on re-description (“So far is goodness a mere memory / Or naming of recent scenes of badness”) which varies with a tonality and modality of fantasy (“as dirty handmaidens / To some transparent witch, will dream / of a white hero’s subtle wooing, / and time shall force a gift on each”).  This makes sense philosophically, for a radical orientation towards the future will carry with it an emphasis on the imagination, since the future itself (“moral and intellectual progress”) is largely a product, Rorty might say, of what we imagine in the present.  Yet a radical awareness of the future also has its costs, which we find out in the third stanza, where Ashbery’s philosophy of “acceping // Everything, taking nothing” seems to lead to an almost morbid trauma, where silence and revelation, like Elizabeth Bishop’s experience in “In the Waiting Room,” take on traumatic hues.  In this situation, Ashbery imagines his past self as a “pale and gigantic fungus,” perhaps a metaphor for a certain kind of sickliness owing to a constant vigilance pertaining to what may come next.  Yet the poem ends on a note of re-description again, where “only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  This suggests that only as new vocabularies replace old vocabularies (“lost words”), can we begin to imagine our aspirations and what these aspirations might lead to.

Shoptaw reads this ending differently.  He writes,

Virtue, so the saying goes, is its own reward.  For Ashbery, however, virtue is rewarded only retroactively, in the fame of published poems in which the past is irrevocably lost and recaptured: “And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  As Proust says, in what becomes another encrypted moral for “Picture,” “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”  (28)

Yet I cannot help but feel that the locus of meaning for the last phrase in the poem pivots around the meaning of “lost,” which Shoptaw seems to interpret as something missing or absent that consequently produces nostalgia in the speaker, a nostalgia that allows the speaker to create or imagine a poem out of its longing.  It’s really a matter of emphasis.  Shoptaw does, importantly, draw our attention to the fact that Ashbery is not only a poet concerned with the future, but also one fascinated by nostalgia, by the past.  Yet for all Ashbery’s interest in these matters, the ending of “J.A” has less do with nostalgia (“the light of lost words”) and more to do with dead metaphors (“the light of lost words”), which is to say, more to do with an emphasis on imagination than memory.  I also wish to add to David Herd’s potent interpretation of “J.A.,” when he writes of the poem as “the self-conscious product of the various influences that constitute its aesthetic background” (45).  Yes, the poem is that, but it is more as well: a meditation on the influences that helped to create it, as well as a meditation on the contingency of language itself, whereby virtue can be re-described as “stubbornness,” and a “comic version” of oneself can be designated (with irony) the “true one.”  Perhaps our best interpretation of this ending comes from James Longenbach, who writes, “’Truth’ is not undermined by these realizations; it is reconceived [or re-described] by the adult Ashbery as a contingent quality even as his former self, frozen in the photograph, continues to think of it as permanent and unchanging” (92, my italics).

What is clear from all this is that pragmatism, as a philosophy oriented towards the future, and therefore towards an undisclosed, disclosing open-endedness, can be used in helpful ways to interpret the challenging but rewarding poetry of Ashbery.  Thinkers like William James and Richard Rorty, as well as John Dewey, must be used to help us understand Ashbery’s important, influential, amazing poetics.  For as Ashbery’s ouvre develops, we find new strategies, new genres, new ways of discussing the aesthetic power of the “revelations not yet produced.”  And the more we can understand how Ashbery helps us to reach this remarkable pragmatist sublime, the more we can begin to understand what Borges called the “perhaps, the aesthetic reality,” (though one cannot help but feel that Ashbery would change this to “perhaps, an aesthetic reality”).

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.  London: Oxford UP, 1975.  Print.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry.  New York: Palgrave, 2000.  Print.

Hubbard, Will.  “In Which We Enter the Double Dream of Spring.”  This  27 April 2008.  Web.  10 May. 2013.

Imbriglio, Catherine.  “’Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery’s Some Trees.”  Contemporary Literature 26. 2 (1995): 249 – 288.  Print.

James, William.  The Principles of Psychology, Volume One.  New York: Dover Publications, 1950.  Print.

James, William.  Pragmatism and Other Writings.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000.  Print.

Leypoldt, Gunter.  “Uses of Metaphor: Richard Rorty’s Literary Criticism and the Poetics of World-Making.”  New Literary History 39.1 (2008): 145 – 163.  Print.

Longenbach, James.  Modern Poetry After Modernism.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Print.

McClelland, Ken.  “John Dewey and Richard Rorty: Qualitative Starting Points.”  Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society 44.3 (2008): 412 – 445.  Print.

McClelland, Kenneth A.  “Opening Truth to Imagination: The Pragmatism of John Dewey and Richard Rorty.”  Diss.  Brock University, 2006.  Print.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.

Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2009.  Print.

Shoptaw, John.  On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.  Print.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.).  The Rorty Reader.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  2010.

Watkin, William.  In the Process of Poetry The New York School and the Avant-Garde.  London: Associated University Presses, 2001.  Print.

So this morning I wake up, give my daughter a long bottle of formula (she is now able to wield the bottle on her own) and await my wife’s return from Dunkin Donuts. Yes. My wife has gone out to hunt. I am reading Across The Land And Water (Selected Poems, 1964-2001) of W.G.Sebald, Author of Austerlitz (that’s what’s on the cover). Austerlitz is a very trendy book among graduate students for I hear them dropping Austerlitz the way they dropped George Saunders or Anne Carson: long sentences I hear, like Henry James (only not)–German dude.

So I am reading poems by the author of Austerlitz. That way, I can say to someone: “but have you read his poetry?” They will say “no… no I haven’t,” and then I can raise an eyebrow, give them a significant stare, and respond, “You must” and walk away, having avoided mentioning that I have not read Austerlitz of the long sentences.

I open the book to page 74 because I am sick of hearing all about the arc of the book. Next to the pretentious rock albums of the early 70′s many of which I loved and which were all “operas” there is nothing more loathsome to me than the arc of the book. If you can’t enjoy a book of poetry in a non-linear fashion, then the hell with it. Poems exist in dynamic relation to each other–but not the relation the author chooses. They exist in the reader’s mind–a dynamic relation that is from the book but not of the book. A poem is an isolated particular until some blue spark shoots forth from the poem Z to the Poem q and you start to see how the poet’s poems are wired–but forget his arc. That is not organic. If he or she really has an arc, it will begin to show itself as you proceed skipping about. This is an age when people read from page one until the end because we are a fascist country in love with order. As we fall apart, we keep sending roses to order, and inviting it to dine. Then we prattle on about how there is no real order. Of course, there is no real order. Order is imposed. Order of this sort is date rape. The author is not a prussian general. He does not know the true order of his troops.He probably never even asked their permission. If I am wrong (and I probably am) then poetry books are unified works of art and each individual poem adss to the overall artistic effect, and reading the book out of order is a mistake at best, and evil at worst–or both, an evil mistake. It is 6:30 am, give or take a few minutes, and my wife shall soon return, and my baby daughter has thrown the long bottle to the floor, and I am making an “Evil mistake.” Evil error is even better. I am making an evil error. Somehow that fills me wth mute mirth. So page 74 of the selected which because they were culled from other works, from other “arcs” should not have to have an arc. Page 74:

Poetry For An Album
Feeling my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
until it shatters on the rocks

Because I often read stupidly, and because there are no italics, no quotation marks, etc, I see this as “feelings wrote Schumann.” Schumann is the composer I judge the merits of all pianists by. You can not merely show off with Schumann. He isn’t a show offy type. You have to play the middle voices, and your true talent as a pianist rather than a show off comes forth. You can’t hide in the fast notes. Anyway, I like the idea that feelings wrote Schumann. Was he not a man written by feeling? Can we not be authored by our feelings? But it makes no sense syntactically and so I realize this is being attributed to Schumann the writer–and, furthermore, it is “reason” that leads us to shipwreck–not feeling, the mind whose compass of reason is both infallible and infallibly leading us North to our doom. Very nice moody idea. Might even be true. Schumann goes on to allude to his crippled hand that ended his career as a pianist (the real Schumann, or, rather, the historical Schumann, made a crazy device he thought would extend his reach, but which maimed him). Suppose he had not been maimed, and the hand’s reach had been extended, and Schumann was able to play 12ths, and do all sorts of crazy fancy tricks? (his wife Clara could bend Florins with her bare hands) Would he have become just another show off? Would he have developed the inner voices that make him the criteria for all my favorite Pianists? Beats me, but one could make the case that injury lead to the sort of choral piano Schumann wrote–deceptively simple. I remember a story where Schoneberg defended Traumerei against the charge that it was simple. He showed all its inner voices. It was a favorite encore of Horowitz. I am sailing away from the poem–sometimes a good thing. I already want to put the poem next to Transtromer’s Schuberttieden which begins: “So much we have to trust just to stay alive.” So let’s read the rest:

It was when my palsied
finger stopped me playing
the piano that calamity
came upon me

These are very drab sentences, but as I tell my students poetry draws attention to itself as language first and last. Uber flatness–a prose denuded of character or flourish certainly draws attention to its manner of utterance first: the dead pan makes everyone look at the face. The rest of the poem reads like a show and trell of some student who is dressed up as Schumann for the purpose of a fourth grade history project, except that the North–the compass, the mathematical basis of a mind gone to ruin is the main theme. In this poem Schumann longs for the North:

I know I shall steer
for the North I have yearned for
though it be colder there
even than the ice on
gemo metry’s intersecting lines

My mind begins racing. I think of Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, that last scene of the seducer left to circle for ever on a frozen lake–his hell being the cold reasoning of seduction, the ultimate inability to feel anything except desire to achieve the target. Music is mathematics. I think of that. Schumann, the arch romantic, the one who had characters for all his piano pieces, the composer of Manfred , the one who envisioned his music as unified with the feelings that arose in him from literature,,, was he taken North by reason? The very flat, deadpan informative quality of the poem makes me bounce all over the place–but I know schumann’s music and I know the tricks of post modern deadpan, and I think of Oppen’s bright light of shipwreck, and of Gatsby’s green light across the bay–longing as a trope of doom, and all of them, in a way, calculating rather than passionate: “a rigorous test of sincerity.” I think of reasoning–some sort of inability to feel except in fine weather. I am staring into a camp fire and imposing images so I must wonder: perhaps I have read too much to truly read this poem except as part of a tradition–the arc of post-modernity, the inability to say anything except in pieces, in Empson like fragments of ambiguity. A lay person would say: “So what?” Must one be trained to Sebald’s art? Must one know he is the author of Austerlitz?

So I think of what I told my students: all poetry, all of it is on a spectrum between the poetic and the prosaic–neither of which is better or worse than the other. The more toward the poetic, the more the language is drawing attention to itself as language, either by sounding poetic or by being intentionally flatter than most prose. The more it exists to convey information, or meaning, or an agreed upon concept, the more it leans towards the prosaic. Non-cognition is always an attempt at pure poetry–and it most often fails. Narrative is often an attempt at coherent, linear reality and it, too, often fails. The best poems use both poetic and prosaic elements. But what about Sebald? This is certainly flat. It draws attention to some details and a couple of ideas but abandons them. It draws attention to its own flatness but does not heighten that by any particular ritual. So I go to the intro to see if anything is said about poesis or prose. and sure enough the intro begins speaking on that subject:

’My medium is prose,’ W.G. Sebald once declared in an interview, a statement that is easily misconstrued if a subtle distinction the German author added is overlooked… ‘not the novel.’

Sebald does not write the novel. He writes prose–and he writes prose even when he writes lyrical poetry–flat, speculative prose bereft of character, plot, all the usual suspects. This is not an artistic failing; it is, rather, an artistic intention. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes… MArianne Moore who, decades before the author of Austerlitz, called her poems “lucid prose.” The intro goes on to bring forth the name of Said and the idea of the exile inhabiting the “median state”–that place that is neither here nor there, but somehow between–liminal spaces that can not be defined yet call forth an almost obsessive trope of attempted definitions–all failing in the end.

Ok. So I have a bead on Sebald, but what do I think of his poems. I have read Trakl and I prefer Trakl. I have read Celan and I prefer Celan. But Sebald has his merits–the merits of shipwreck. So I skip around a language washed up on the shores where the water is neither salt nor fresh. So I skip around again, and land on page 1 (where the junkies of order think I should have landed to begin with):

So hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish

So now I want Transtromer, and Schumann’s Carnaval, a couple of paintings from the German expressionists, the last scene of Casanova, and I want to know how reason and feeling, prose and poesis cohere or fail to cohere. I want someone to talk to me–someone so smart I will nod my head and say, “you must be right,” but even then… not believing the rightness. My wife thinks Sebald is pretentious, but that he can’t help but be pretentious because he is Sebald. His name writes him, determines him. He is a brand of rock dropped into the pool so that ripples will ensue. He is pretentious in his poetry (she liked Austerlitz). I don’t know…Does feeling write us? Does the landscape watch us vanish without trying to understand us? Are certain modes of stupidity genius? And If it is hard for us to understand the landscape, then how much time does the landscape spend on understanding us? Is watching a form of understanding or, is it a form of vanishing? I will have to read more poems to find out, and I may never know. It’s 7:49 now, and I have gone from breakfast to a speculative essay. My coffee is cold–the way I like it when I am writing. So much can be built upon a poem once you abandon the question of whether or not you think it is good, or whether or not you like it. I think I’ll go listen to Schumann. I will sit in the living room, listen to Schumann and read more of these poems by the author of Austerlitz. Should I listen to Traumerei? Sure.

I have done physical labor in my life, and never found it harsh or unrewarding except when it was under the scrutiny of a manager (foremen, overseer, take your pick). They’re job was to make sure I was “doing it the right way,” or that I was doing it quickly, or that I was doing it both the right way and quickly (a contradiction in terms that causes almost all the heartbreak of blue collar life). It was never right enough or quick enough for my boss, even when it was right and quick. I am strong, but not well coordinated, and I am also slow to catch on to things. When it comes to anything in the physical world, I need to be stupid before I am smart. When it comes to piece work, this does not bode well.
I am verbally intelligent, and that helped me get by on being “comic relief” and charming until I learned to be competent. I relived the life of the most ancient bards as a result. My theory is that the original story tellers were often maimed, or clumsy, or old, and to earn their place at the fire, they needed to be ingratiatng, funny, wise,able to act as emotional buffers and consolers in times of stress..I dont trust when writers make themselves the heros of working life stories. I’ve known very few verbal folks who were the best machinists or tool makers, or riggers or fishermen. Some were middle of the pack,, and some held their own, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Musicians were often top notch at the more skilled forms of labor (eye/hand dexterity) and I knew several great tool makers who could play piano, guitar, banjo, and any combination thereof with great skill. So now I’m going to theorize further and submit that the original bards fell into two camps: those who were verbal in the communicative, prosaic way, and those were not verbal except where verbal was a conduit to pure sound–to rhythmic, musical grunts, to cadenced words, to the mimicry of animals (vital to a hunter): to pattern, and spatial/kinetic awareness. Let’s say both theories were right: if so,then, you have two trends in poetry from the very beginning: that which is social- manners, narrative, and communicative, and that which is ritualized, lyrical, and not based on the cognition of social order but on what Whitman called the Barbaric yawp–he tribe in its state of trance, its impersonal possession by a God. One is fully conscious, the other recieved as if via the intuition. If you’re not good at physical labor, at hunting, at weapon making, you better know how to compensate and have value in some other way. Ineptitude and adjustment to ineptitude thereby constitute the beginning of subjective consciousness. The other type of non-verbal yet vocal expression is not conscious, but a sort of received acumen for pattern–a sort of intuitive knowledge of pattern and rhythm, and the ceremony of verbal being within space.. Such poets are not facile with words. They experience words the way a toolmaker experiences raw material–as something to intuit. I would not privilege the conscious or the unconscious–divine aflatus, or native stealth and conscious shrewdness, but I would say one developed from the compensatory need to be a character, a personality, and the other from the impersonality of divine aflatus and what Plato called possession by a “demon.” Being physically inept, I compensated in two ways: I was very strong (could out wrestle most people), and so I was good at brute force (a bull in a china shop), and I was very verbal and this made me a force for comic relief by being able to “talk shit.” I couldn’t put these two together since, their togetherness is contingent upon grace and I was an oaf.
Brute force is hardly ever needed in its pure forms. All labor I know is skilled labor. A good ditch digger does not just have a strong back; he has a singular fineness and grace of motion so as to conserve energy and avoid being injured. To be strong in the way I was strong was to accentuate the clumsiness and create an incongruity between force and grace. When I learned to hide, compensate, or make light of this, I developed my verbal intelligence beyond normal, but living there was always a sort of ongoing sadness: I was strong, and loved the physical, but did not flourish in the skilled trades. I was verbal, and could get away with a lot of things because of it, but I felt cut off by my jester’s personality from the part of me that was physical. Jesters are often lame, or blind, or somehow malformed, as are clumsy but strong giants. The jester retreats into logos–the conscious verbal universe of the mind: sarcasm, invective, travesty, melancholy, whimsy. The giant hurls rocks, has his one good eye put out, and cries “no man” to the sea. Caliban is oafish and not adept at skilled work. For this reason he is called lazy, and beastial, and uncouth, yet Shakespeare shows Caliban has an advanced hunger for beauty (both in wanting Miranda and by his reaction to music). He has no ability to express this hunger except in forms that make others feel contempt. To be in a factory where even the graceful are often told they are not right or quick enough is to exist under the yoke of third rate Prospero–to be always compelled to do what one would do without being asked if the world were not glutted with managers and something needed doing.
As for those who “receive” words, far from being inept or maimed, they were often the ones in the group with the greatest fine-motor skills, hunting abilities, and intuitive sense of pattern. This creates a different kind of poesis: a poesis of intuitive ceremony, of hyperbolic praise, and the free play of word-puns, repetition, and call and response. Poetry did not privilege the lyrical or the narrative for thousands of years, but rather emphasized the lyrical in the mysteries of religious ceremony, sympathetic magic, and group lamentation, and emphasized the narrative in terms of reenacting the story and news of the people. One played out the rhythms of the hunt or the planting, the sacrifice, the pattern of emotions, while the conscious form of verbal ability (what we associate most with prose) played out the mythos and history of the people. One was far more mimetic and invocatory, and the other was far more based on an evolving cult of personality, individualism, and on cognitive, sequences of meaning. One was intuitive and sensing, the other thoughtful and feeling–one received from the gods, from an unconscious, the other worked out by the machinations of those who needed to be ingratiating in order to have value..
The trend in modernism and post modern poetry has been to return to a privileging of the received, the unconscious, the automatic, the ritualized, the irrational, the “primitive” forms of the lyrical voice–to put intuition and the “derangement” of the senses in prime place over the rational functions of feeling and thought. The phrase: No ideas but in things, could be rephrased as: All ideas from totems–from fetish, from the intuitive reception via physical stimuli of the objects and patterns. I think modernism’s largest error is this hangover from the romantics: that they see one system as superior to the other. Both systems have flourished from the beginning. One (the intuitive and sensing) based on physical/pattern genius, and the other on the genius of compensating for a lack of physical/pattern acumen. The two are blended now for the most part–a remnant polarity that has lost any truly clear lines of demarcation.
In the factory, after I became competent at what I did, I no longer needed to play the joker, but people preferred the joker to the merely competent tool maker. My rep as a really smart and funny fuck up never went away. When men needed tools they came to me last. When they needed advice on a fight with their wives, or in how to handle the death of a mother or father, they came to me first. I don’t know if I was ever as incompetent as I felt. After all, I play a decent piano and I play by ear. I can fake guitar fairly well, and harmonica, and have a good singing voice–so my sense of pattern must be better than I think, at least for sequences of sound. Sound is vital to a toolmaker because you can “hear” when a piece is wrong. It just has a different way of sounding. My visual intelligence and my ability to learn by watching always sucked. I need to fuck up in order to learn. Error is my friend. Left alone, with no one to watch my sorry ass, I figure things out or find a new way to do them. The modern world rewards quickness rather than depth and slow knowledge. This I know. What does it reward in terms of poetry? Nothing truly new looks like anything to most people except for error. Error must find a way to charm bias. I have lived my life through adjustments as per error. Do workshops allow error? I’m afraid they work too often like motion study experts. It not the quality of the work, but its facility and quickness that gets confused with quality. I don’t know. I started this essay wanting to meditate on how joyous physical labor can be when there is no overseer to threaten you with being fired or calling you a lame ass. perhaps the same holds true of poetry.

I am not a secular poet, have never been a secular poet, and my work is a journey through both the imagery of my working class Irish Catholic background and my sense of the the incarnate word as Shema Mitzvah–the oneness of God within the act of love toward neighbor. First Shema:

Hear O Israel, the lord, the lord is one.
And you shall love the lord
with all your mind and with all your heart
and with all your strength

and the Mitzvah is

And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.

All other commandments are contained within these two, the whole of the law, the spirit of the law. They are the ontology of my poems, and to truly enter my work, you must understand it in the context of Shema Mitzvah. I do not believe in the separation of faith and works, but, like James, believe faith without works is dead, and works without faith is merely materialism as a form of the dole. Given a choice of which I’d prefer, I’d take works without faith which makes me a radical, but I would not take it happily since I think bread without spirit, and material comfort without conscience is barely worth the bother.

Jesus Christ incarnates into the broken life and impurity of the world. God descends downward, infusing all people, landscapes, and things with the presence of divinity. At the same time, God, having taken on the manner and appearance, and real flesh and needs of the world, is infused with the world which is broken, impure, profane, often ugly, and far from pious. It is also in this world of the broken that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, waits to be recognized. Christ is not to be found so readily in the “purified” realms, but in the midst of the broken, those who are fucked up, strange, unable to live either fully in the world (highest level of Arete–prowess) or fully in God (highest level of Xenia–care for the other)–my poems seek to witness to those who are imperfect and less than fully human but given full humanity by the incarnate word, also to those who are imperfect and less than fully divine, given divine resonance by God come to dwell amongst us: the motley, the dark, sometimes grotesque comic force of the demi-god, the half-God, Half Monster, neither fully man nor fully divine–us, the half assed. The moment in which Christ (fully man and fully God ) is seen in the “least”, is the moment that the unity of Shema Mitzvah is fully realized–the ground zero of being, which, for me, is Eucharistic reality. To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace. Grace appears under the following signs in my poems:

1. The Visible Signs beneath which the Shema Mitzvah lies concealed and revealed: failure, imperfection, exile, ostracism, the ugly, the lost, the comic and inept, the unrequited, the kindly, the motley and in the Falstaff-like bluster of certain of my poetic voices. There are also choices of lineation, and language by which I seek this out: mixed registers of speech, hyperbolic utterances punctured by deadpan understatements, comic or ferocious rants, ungainly one word lines, lines that wobble between long and short– all of this is towards my thematic core:the presence of the divine afflatus where it seems least likely to belong.

I use characters, dialogue, and narrative in an almost novelistic way. I believe poetry has abdicated its perfection as a vehicle for getting straight to the heart of a story to prose which, by its very nature as a conveyor of information, must be far more expository. Prose informs and expounds. Poetry incites and enacts a more immediate ceremony. Most poems, especially free verse poems, are a combination of poetic and prosaic elements, on a spectrum between poetry and prose–demi- gods. I will use an undulating line, an ungainly line because I am not after symmetry. I am after some order within sprawl–the great sprawl of the living and the dead.

2. Personified I, Vatic I, Personal I, and the mutt of all three: Many of the I-voices in my poetry are personifications. In a few poems (“Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”, for example) the I voice is Vatic– the sound of one speaking with authority and almost impersonal gravitas, the I invoking (look! Shemah–listen up!). Sometimes I will employ the personal I as in a memoir (Fists (for my father), or “Elegy of Sue Rapeezi”), but this personal I is likely to blur with the personified I. The mutt I make of all three may confuse a reader who wants the voice to be a genuine contemporary personal voice, or the voice of a character, or that sort of “Wise white man” voice you get with Stephen Dunn. There is also the intentionally stupid, or know-nothing voice of the speculative post-modernist, influenced both by the surreal, comic shtick, and dadaism. I am prone to using all these I’s and mixing them up. It’s important to know that in order to understand my emphasis on the motley. I am doing my own: I contain multitudes. My version also entertains the the darker possibility of “I am legion” (possessed by many demons and conflicted).

I write this not as an apologetic for my poetry, but as an aid to entering it with a greater awareness of its intentions. Of course, each reader misreads differently, and each brings to a body of work his or her own sense of the author’s intentions,successes and failures. To a more secular mind, all I might be doing is writing about losers. To a more sociological type, I may be showing my preference for the underdog. To those who like their lines symmetrical, and their words in a consistent register, many of my tunes may seem full of wrong notes. To those who judge the lyrical merely by the absence of the narrative, I may fail to be lyrical enough. So be it. This is my essay on my intentions. Poem by poem, those intentions wait to be realized or unrealized. On that I rest my case.

Plato wanted poets expelled from his ideal republic because they did not arrive at truth by methodology, but, according to him and the ancient Greeks, poets came to truth by way of being possessed by a divine afflatus: a god, a demon, the muses. Of course, this truth the poets came by wasn’t always verifiable or reliable, and Plato’s Republic is all about reliability. It’s about truth verified by method and maintained by law and system. Utopias do not change insofar as they are predicated on an ideal, a measure of perfection: measure. We should consider this word before we proceed further. Measure is not only at the center of Plato’s Republic (he allowed music as long as it was march music and kept people in step) but it is also at the center of this wild unpredictable thing known as poetry. So if we were going to see Plato’s methodological truth as one side of a dialectic (thesis) and poetry’s non-systematic, irrational truth as on the other (anti-thesis), we could then consider measure to be the synthesis of philosophy and poetry. If we call the former precision, and the latter ecstasy, one might see Plato as privileging precision over ecstasy—a state in which the trains arrive on time as opposed to poetry where the trains might turn into Swans. But, still, Plato’s world of system is related to poetry in terms of rhythm, cadence, measure.

Here is the nice little irony: the more methodological the thinking, the more it is about ideas, and concepts, and information, the more it tends to be irregular in terms of the measure of its language. In a culture that keeps books, thinking, concepts, information soon loses the measure, the method of cadence, and becomes what we now know as prose. Poetry, especially insofar as it is–until fairly recently–always yoked to music, remains far more regular and measured. So Plato was not knocking the cadence of poetry except for one of its powers which he feared: it’s power to conjure, to con the listener by an appeal to the heartbeat and the senses, which exploits both the quality of measured music and flights of fancy, of hypnotized and altered states of being and uttering. The ecstatic, that which is in rapture, possessed, out of its usual senses, deeply immersed in the unconscious, the irrational is contingent far more on qualities of measure than is the methodological and logical arguments of prose.

And yet poets, in order to escape the tyranny of too regular a beat, have also embraced a far more irregular pulse and cadence over the last hundred or so years. Free verse is the most pronounced of these, but there is also syllabic verse, and prose poetry. What remains is what Plato feared: unsystematic thinking and a sense of momentum, of measure that appeals to the human mind not as information or data alone, but as an experience beyond paraphrase: that which cannot be summed up or reduced to a nutshell without losing much of its value. If measure is the common link then between precision and ecstasy, if it is that quality of verbal action that cannot be reduced to full precision or to pure ecstasy, then poetry, like music, like dance, might be defined as the precision of ecstasy, and the ecstasy of precision, an ecstatic precision, and measured ecstasy.

When both terms lose their separate properties and become one, poesis occurs, but we have a problem: since free verse has no discernible measure, is irregular in rhythm, what sort of poetry do we now have that Plato did not intuit? Free verse can be distinguished from prose in what way? We know how it can be distinguished from metered and rhymed verse: no regular pattern of beats, of feet, exist (and if they do, they are soon vanquished before they can set up a rhythmic anticipation on the part of the reader). Free verse usually does not rhyme. It tends to emphasize the line in terms of enjambments rather than full stops. It can be broken into lines in any number of ways, by any number of rules, none of which have absolute pride of place.

That’s how it differs from traditional metered and rhymed poetry. How does it differ from prose? In rhythm, in cadence? In meaning? In terms of intention? What makes it far more effective as a series of lines and line breaks rather than as loosely measured language written straight across the page? There is no real answer to this question. I have my own idea that free verse is that written language which may be either more heightened or flatter than prose. In terms of being more heightened, it often employs the ancient devises of spoken oratory: anaphora, anadiplosis, antithesis, alliteration, metonymy, enumeration, and listing—a sort of speechifying, an utterance conscious of itself at all times as an utterance—speech, but speech raised to the level of speechifying, the rhetorical devices of speech employed to create a sense of voice and speaker on the page (Whitman is a good example of this, but so is Allen Ginsberg. Often, this is used for comic mock epic effect. Ginsberg’s rapsodes often have a high degree of wise ass and silliness.).

In terms of being flatter than regular prose, free verse may emphasize blunt statement, parataxis, a complete deadpan presenting of disparate facts either aided and abetted by, or resisted by line and line breaks (think James Tate’s prose poems). Suppose I write: “Pass the soup please Veronica. All over the earth toads are gathering in the gardens of reasonably well fed men and woman.” I could line this any number of ways to emphasize different words, to isolate them in strange patterns. First, these two sentences are paratactic (one statement after another with no conjunctions or connective phrases). We can call this style of paratxis a sort of rhythmic non-sequitur (something Getrude Stein employs to perfection), but there is also actual ongoing non-sequitur, things jumping about, or said in a non-sequential, illogical manner that creates a sort of strangeness. In such a case, uber-flatness of utterance heightens the sense of strangeness, creating a language that may be both comical, and frightening in its emotional affect. In this case, no one would possibly speak this way (though we often do without being aware of it). This is the free verse of much New York school and language poetry, and all the variants in between. It comes from the conversational lyric (a type of poetic thinking on the page first developed by Coleridge and used most extensively by Wordsworth). The conversational lyric is the most common form of free verse.

The confessional, or narrative poem also uses the conversational lyric in which the measured sound is neither the strangeness of the oracular or the dead pan of uber flatness (glibness), but that which approximates a sort of ordered consciousness, a speaking consciousness in the act of relating a meaning, an atmosphere, a poetry that attempts to move a reader to laughter, tears or deeper appreciation of a theme. This is the poetry closest to prose in terms of wishing to communicate a truth that is not, to a large sense, swallowed up by its own utterance. It is serving information, communication, and expression of emotion. Very often, in order to do this, such poetry will be middle of the road, seek a sort of measured prosaic voice that does not draw too much attention to itself as a voice at all, but is trying to convey something beyond itself. Examples of this type of free verse might be the poems of Philip Levine, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn. This poetry seeks to be clear—to be understandable. It does not seek to razzle dazzle as does speechifying, or to create a strangeness of deadpan as does that free verse which is flatter than most prose. Some poems contain what might be called hybrids of all these types. Very often, even poets such as Levine and Gillan use the list, or anaphora, or contrast and they tend to do it far more than writers of prose, but they do so sparingly. Very often young poets write poems that use all three of these types of free verse in a single poem, and not successfully. This is why it is important to know your method of intention, and the way to do that is to read and learn from all these practices of free verse.

Now take some time to read George Trakl, who wrote in German. These translations by James Wirght and Robert Bly rendered Trakl into a sort of poetry that mixes the paratctic, flat style of free verse cadence with the last type I mentioned: the sense of a poet merely report what is scene, what is there for the sake of some meaning beyond the poem. If we could read these poems in German, if we could hear them in the natural measure of their utterance, we might have a very different poet before us—a poet carrying Holderlin and Heine, and Goethe, and also his contemporaries such as Rilke and Stephan George on his back. In meter and rhyme, these poems might seem totally different in character. We must read them here as English poems which have, through parataxis, a ghost of what I call “Ugg” clinging to them. “Ugg” is that overly stilted, stiff, sometimes simplistic English we have so called “primal” peoples speak: noble Indians, Tarzan, etc. We also use sophisticated Ugg for most Chinese and Japanese poems. It has the following features:

1. Usually short, declarative sentences, or even fragments, which have the rhythmic non-sequitur feeling of paratactic speech.
2. Dependance on image more than on rhythm, and on general rather than idiomatic phrasing. 3. Tendency toward eloquence in its new language which is not necessarily the same species of eloquence it had in its original language (for example Chinese poetry in Chinese is full of puns and verbal slights of hand. It is not: “the cherry trees bloom. I think of mustard” we tend to in English translation).

Translation of Japanese and Chinese poetry and other forms of ancient poetry tended to influence the actual writing of poems in the native language—to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether the imagists were imitating the Ugg translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, or Chinese and Japanese poetry was being reiterated into the flat, clear, paratactic “Ugg” measures of imagist poetry. Both are probably true.

Try to look at these Georg Trakl poems as free verse translations. Try rhyming them, complicating the sentences, emphasizing rhythmic pattern rather than image and see what happens. If you can, look at the original German. The point of this labor is to learn what exactly we mean by free verse and how exactly we become conscious manipulators of this tradition.

Georg Trakl has influenced many poets writing in English, especially the deep imagists, and poets such as Bly and Wright. His tone is that of the dream, the deadpan, almost drugged voice of disconnection we have come to see as one of the basic touch points of modernist, and post-modernist poetics.

Prompts for further exploration:
1. Take one of the Trakl Poems and try to retranslate it as a metered rhymed poem, keeping all the images, but playing with word arrangement and word choice. What does it do to the mood or effect of the poem? Now take this rhymed poem and retranslate it into free verse, rearranging as above.
2. Read “Locust Tree in Flower” by Williams–both published versions if you can. Try to reduce a poem of your own in this manner.
3. Take a movie review from the newspaper and play with it as a free verse poem. See what you can get rid of, what you can keep. The review should be three hundred words or less.

When I was 19, I read the Iliad, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I enjoyed, except for the endless lists of boats. Later, I came to realize the Greeks who were listening to this were from the various tribes mentioned, so when their group of ships came up, they were probably shouting out like soccer hoodlums. This didn’t make me enjoy the list, but it gave me a modicum of empathy.

A list, structured with rhythm and imagery in mind can be one of the chief structural devices of both epic/bardic poetry and free verse. Whitman has more listings than an anal retentive suburbanite. How many people here have at least one parent who loves his or her to do list as much as they love their children? Whitman is a list nut: Whitman lists. One of the syntactic clues to listing is an excess of participles and gerunds, what we will call verbs murdered by “ing.” Whitman is the only great poet who gets away with having more “ings” than metaphors. He’s the “ing” champ. Ginsberg, for all his ings, can’t make a pimple on Walt’s gluteus maximus.

Gerunds are often a sign that a poet hates sentences. Maybe he or she hates them on aesthetic grounds. We tend to think poetry should sound floaty, ephemeral, pretty. Maybe he or she hates sentences because he or she does not know what a sentence is. Some people, especially very poetic middle class people, dislike strong verbs. They don’t like strong anything. It seems brutal to them. Strong verbs are violent. They don’t float. They commit. They create the action of the noun: shit happens. I try to make my classes brutal. I say, “From now on, you are allowed only two ‘ings’ per poem, even if you list. Anymore than that will result in ten points off your grade, unless, of course, with great brilliance, you can defend your excess of gerunds to me and the whole class. Screw Whitman!”

Meter is not rhythm. It is a kind of rhythm, but it isn’t rhythm. We can create rhythm without meter, or rhyme. We can even create a pattern of rhythm without meter or rhyme. We can do so by enumeration (a type of list), repetition, refrain, by a system of alliterations. All these devices are used. We can create rhythm by emphasis: a series of imperative sentences, for example, or by suspense (holding off the payoff of a sentence until the very end–something gerunds are good for). I would suggest you all read Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter, Poetic Form because it is a beautifully written and lucid book, especially his chapter on free verse. Every time I read this chapter I grow warm and fuzzy, the way people do during slow dances at proms. I am weird that way. Intelligence and lucidity make me stupid with pleasure. So let’s take a look at a list, or enumerations that does not indulge in “ing.” Let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane (My Student Thrown by A Horse)”:

I remember her neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a side long pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought…

This is a list and it gives us information: not only about Jane, but about the voice of the poem. The “I” of the poem seems, at the very least, charmed by her. He is both listing her qualities and building his relationship to her, and the reader’s sense of his feelings for her and it is all done by a list. Let’s steal the technique for a moment:

I remember her nose, red nostrilled by a cold;
and the way she said “danks” when I tossed her a tissue;
and how, she fell asleep, head on my shoulder,
all the way to Chattanooga…

See how we can steal? Musicians cop chord changes all the time. We have thousands and thousands of effects we can build on. Why not? Poets must find a way to render the emotion. Expression depends on devices, on tricks. Sincerity depends on a strategy of approach. By the way, this use of enumeration is also common to prose. Most devices of rhetoric belong neither to prose nor poetry. They belong to utterance. Okay, so here’s another device: parataxis.

In some ways parataxis the opposite of what we just did. There are no conjoining words such as “and”, “but”, “as”, and so forth. An example of parataxis:

Pluck It– Janet Lynch

It is late. The moon rises in the east
over the Episcopalian church.
Why did I give my heart to an idiot?
The moon in the East will not answer me.
Oh moon, oh eastern rising moon,
why do I expect you to say something?
Idiot! Idiot moon. Idiot me.
I keep hoping he will call.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
Pluck it.

There is little order of priority here. Parataxis is what translators of Chinese and Japanese poems often employ. It’s one thing after another.


What makes a work of art satisfying? What is the difference between a poem we call mawkish, or overly sentimental, and a poem that carries the right amount of sentimentality and wit? How do we judge or evaluate these questions of taste? Aside from all the contentious feelings that immediately crop up when considering questions of taste – questions of taste are elitist, say, or only matters relevant to a leisured bourgeoisie – how do we evaluate a work of art? What criteria do we invoke? Is there such criteria?

Charles Wegner writes, “Fundamentally, human beings are capable of aesthetic satisfaction because they are intelligent, imaginative, active, and percipient beings, not because they are educated, ‘cultured,’ leisured, or ‘artistic.’ If we can at least hesitantly agree with this proposition, then we might ask, What is it about a poem, a work of art, or a piece of music, that can inspire in its listener, viewer, or reader an aesthetic satisfaction that brings the participant back for another viewing, listening, or reading? What makes something beautiful, or sublime? How do we even talk about such a thing? And if the work of art is not sublime but kitschy, how do we make that distinction? How can we make a distinction between kitsch and art when history sometimes blurs that distinction?


Here are two excerpts from poets who are not read widely anymore. The first is by Delmore Schwartz, the second by Algernon Swinburne. Both make heavy use of rhyme, meter, assonance and alliteration. Yet the Schwartz excerpt, I would argue, is mawkish and bloated, and the other is sentimental and beautiful. Since both poems are utilizing the same techniques, what makes one poem successful, and the other unsuccessful? What is the difference between a “good” and “bad” sentimentality?

A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown,
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
Then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.


O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire,
__Hid round with flowers and all the bounty of bloom;
__O wonderful and perfect heart, for whom
The lyrist liberty made life a lyre;
O heavenly heart, at whose most dear desire
__Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb,
__And with him risen and regent in death’s room
All day thy choral pulses rang full choir;
O heart whose beating blood was running song,
__O sole thing sweeter than thine own songs were,
____Help us for thy free love’s sake to be free,
True for thy truth’s sake, for they strength’s sake strong,
__Till very liberty make clean and fair
____The nursing earth as the sepulchral sea.

I find the first excerpt, by Schwartz, dull, childish, jarring, and juvenile. Many of the sound plays – rain with reign, “luminous” rhymed with “rumorous” – seem ostentatious, more interested in calling attention to themselves than doing any work in the poem. “Where in the westward gathered the filming gown” might seem at first glance like a powerfully eloquent line, perhaps because of its feverish meter, but on further investigation should strike the sensitive reader as pretentious and bombastic, an overly fancy way of talking about fog. Much of the poem’s play with sounds strike me as similarly overly fancy and foggy – they do not seem like necessary stylistic or technical choices, but rather razzle-dazzle meant to distract the reader from the actual weakness of the poem. The first seven lines, which are all one sentence, exhibit a breathlessness that borders on hysteria; one feels Schwartz is working himself into fits, but one isn’t sure why. It’s as if the poem’s philosophy is that “good poems must be intense to the point of hysterics,” or that “a real Romantic poem must rhyme and make heavy cooked use of meter.” But neither of these assertions is necessarily true. Perhaps this is why the poem, in my book, fails to move or please. It is sentimental in the “bad” way, in the sense that it is hysterical without providing pleasure for the reader. It is pathetic (embarrassing) without being pathetic (full of pathos).

Swinburne’s poem, on the other hand, while seeming perhaps to partake in all the vices characterized in Schwartz’s, does not partake, I would argue, in a single one. (I think Swinburne is in line for a re-consideration, if he isn’t already. He can be absolutely wonderful.) It is a beautiful and strong poem, though sentimental, but why and how? We might say that all its stylistic decisions are commensurate to its content – that its form and style – sentimental as they may be – are equal to its soaring diction, and that it is eloquent rather than bombastic. “O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire” is a wonderfully rich and varied line, full of interesting vowel variations. It somehow manages to speak about the most clichéd subject – love – in an interesting way – as a cup that holds fire. What a powerful image! The rhymes are not ostentatious, but unadorned and lovely. One senses that Swinburne is dealing with complicated subject-matter, and the poem is not an easy read. But the poem’s complexity in its discussion of love is part of its pleasure. The subject of the poem is mysterious – “the heart of hearts” – a burning inner core within the metaphysical heart, out of which desire and passion stem and stream. Yet despite or because of the mysteriousness of the subject, we are given images that are equally mysterious, provocative and enigmatic: flowers “hid round” it, together with “all the bounty of bloom”; a heart “at whose most dear desire / Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb”, (meaning, if you can pardon the clumsy summary, a heart powerful enough to awaken or resurrect in tired dead hearts a passion again); a heart whose very “beating blood was running song.” These are very eloquent and un-ostentatious lines. They shadow forth great strength in a pounding pulse, while utilizing the same techniques that Schwartz uses to such a detriment in his poem – rhyme, assonance, alliteration, rhythm. They are sentimental in the richest, fullest sense, as lines in a poem that are moving, beautiful, wrenching, and captivating.

It is for this reason that I have never placed too much value on generalized arguments that “rhyme,” say, “is always too conventional, too elitist,” or that free-verse, according to Frost, is like “playing tennis with the net down.” In the hands of a skilful poet, rhyme might be the best technique for conveying the complexity and beauty of her thought; in the hands of a different poet, free-verse might provide the poet with adequate freedom to explore the possibility of meaning in longer or just more “free” extended lines. These arguments depend upon the time-period and the countervailing trends. Yet such choices are also contingent upon the powers and predilections of the poet. They do not, in and of themselves, make a good or bad poem. In other words, as these examples hopefully make obvious, it just depends upon how such technical devices are used. (In the same sense, then, sentimentality is not a good or bad thing. It’s just the way in which it is invoked and evoked.)


What about visual art? What makes Thomas Kincaid’s paintings of houses such easy targets for ridicule, while a Hopper painting is interesting and powerfully enigmatic? For your viewing pleasure or displeasure, here is a Thomas Kincade painting, following which is the Hopper.



Both paintings make use of the same general techniques: they are interested in line and color, shape and texture, mood and tone – just as Schwartz and Swinburne are interested in line and rhythm, sound and diction, form and tone. But the way these painters use these categories is radically different, leading to a radically different product.

So: what makes the Kincade painting bad, and the Hopper painting wonderful and haunting? (Apologies to the art history majors out there, for whom this comparison probably strikes one as obvious and juvenile.)

We might start with a question about expectations. What do we turn to art for? Do we look at a piece of visual art in order to have our weaker convictions confirmed, or decimated? Kincade’s painting, I would argue, confirms a tepid taste for art. It is condescending, meaning it does not have very high expectations for its audience. It is an overly sentimental, mawkish representation of a house that could not exist, for nothing in the real world could be so garish. The colors do not accentuate the life or vividness or story of the house, but rather simply call attention to themselves, like Schwartz’s line about the fog. It is an infantile painting that feels mass produced, but not in an interesting Warhol-esque way, with interesting ramifications for such mass production – rather, the painting seems to prey on the audience’s desire for some kind of complacent cozy satisfaction. It does not even have the relevant quaintness to be considered a relic of folk art. This is a bad painting, and it is acutely unpleasant to look at. It hurts the eyes, while doing nothing for thought. It seems to put an end to thought, rather than provoke a beginning. It strikes one as lazy, as exactly the kind of thing you would expect. Therefore, in an odd way, Kincade’s painting meets our expectations, yet these expectations are low ones, the kind we might have when entering into a depressing nursing folks home or hospital. Rather than taking us out of ourselves, it simply confirms the weakest of our expectations. It is, in this sense, the opposite of strange.

Now look at the Hopper. The house is immediately striking. It looms above the railroad tracks like some ancient, gaunt grandfather. It seems to partake simultaneously of the actual world and of the vision of the painter – like the Kincade painting, I suppose, although here the artist’s vision is mature, idiosyncratic, and very mysterious, as opposed to childish, conventional, and disgustingly familiar. It is strange how the house appears above railroad tracks, which heightens the sense of isolation in the painting, a kind of distance that is both haunting and surprising. Kincade’s house is surrounded by all the bathetic coziness you would expect for such an unimaginative painting – flowers, bushes, trees, an old fence. Hopper’s house, on the other hand, is completely alone. There are no trees, shrubs, or flowers. It is not a house one could easily imagine. This mood of austerity is heightened by the dramatic way in which light falls on the house, and the painting seems to be on the borders of something surreal, something out of De Chirico maybe. Perhaps, then, one of its virtues is its compelling strangeness, its difficult-to-place beautiful oddness in the virtually empty landscape that Hopper chose to represent. It is idiosyncratic, and it defies the viewer’s expectations, while simultaneously supplying these expectations with large doses of viewer pleasure. It is simply a massively wonderful painting. Like Swinburne’s poem, it uses the techniques of its art form to create something marvelously new. Yet it is not exactly sentimental, so much as marvelously puzzling – it seems to raise just as many questions as it answers, and in doing so, provides its unique and enigmatic pleasures.


Yet it is not only strangeness in and of itself that makes for a compelling read or viewing experience. There are many strange poems out there that miss the mark, that make a virtue out of strangeness without making that strangeness compelling. For that reason, I want to make our first virtue of satisfying art be a compelling strangeness. (This idea is not original; Harold Bloom, for example, has written much about aesthetic uncanniness in the same way, and much of the Russian formalists’ work on the familiar-made-unfamiliar strike a similar note.) It is the difference between Ashbery’s greatest poems, and the poems of many of his imitators (including me). It is also the difference, I would say, between the best songs of Bob Dylan, and the worst, or between the great novels of William Faulkner versus the so-so novels of John Steinbeck. It is a strangeness that pulls us out of ourselves. When we return, we are different; we have changed. It is makes the quality of the greatest aesthetic work so idiosyncratic. I cannot imagine another Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, because each is so fully and astonishingly their selves. A compelling strangeness, therefore, is as deep as ontology. It is an ontology and an epitstemology, and it gets at the heart of what makes art satisfying versus disappointing. The marvelous, the wonderful, the provocative, the sublime, even the beautiful, all fall under the rubric of compelling and strange. It is for this reason that a truly poignant and authentically weird work of art is the most satisfying of all.


The last poems we looked at, successful and unsuccessful, were both fairly ostentatious – they dealt with assonance, alliteration, rhyme and meter in a somewhat heavy hand, which might strike a modern reader as somewhat overwrought. Is there a way to produce a compelling strangeness that is not ostentatious so much as vividly, lucidly, fully austere, like Hopper’s house? How do we describe, for example, some of Wallace Steven’s late work, or for that matter, the poems of a young Allen Grossman? For both poets can be marvelously strange, and yet their compelling strangeness is different stylistically and aesthetically from Swinburne’s – equally mysterious, but somehow barer, less baroque, more hauntingly Protestant, though still convincing. Let’s look at an early poem by Grossman first, called “The Room,” from his wonderful book, Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man. “The Room” reads,

A man is sitting in a room made quiet by him.
Outside, the August wind is turning the leaves of its book.
The door is open, everything is disclosed, each leaf, all the voices.

The man is resting from the making of the quiet in which he sits.
The floor is swept, his books are laid aside open, his eyes are open.
All the leaves and voices are outside in the restless wind.

Soon he will rise, or take up a book, or someone will enter;
Or, perhaps, a leaf will come across the threshold, or a voice
Will blunder through the room, blind and unanswerable on its way elsewhere.

But now the room is quiet as the man has made it.
Everything in its place is at rest inside the room.
And the man is at reset, seeing each leaf, and hearing all the voices.

What is this poem about? Why is it, as I believe it is, so beautiful?

I think the answer to this question lies for this poem in a certain remarkably dramatic simplicity that, for all its lucidity, is more strange because so simple. The poem is ostensibly about a topic that might in another context reduce its audience to yawns and tears: a man, sitting in a quiet room, doing nothing. One can be forgiven, then, if, upon hearing what this poem is about, they might imagine something written by Nicholson Baker. But in this case, such an interpretation would be far from the truth. For the first part, the poem is not funny; actually, it’s incredibly serious. And secondly, the poem is not about minutia, so much as it is about minutia’s opposite: the profundity of the sublime, the sublimity of a kind of high contemplation. It is as though Grossman, with a beginner’s mind, starts with first principles; and the simplicity of the poet’s mind, reflected in the work, is beautiful, captivating, and seemingly artifice-less.

For these reasons, this is arguably one of the most peaceful, startling poems I have read in a long time. It is so exquisitely simple, both thematically and stylistically; and yet the poem conveys the great weight of thought, the great weight of contemplation going on in this man, this poet perhaps, who makes the Stevensian quiet in which he sits. There are many, many Stevensian echoes: the “turning” of the leaves echoing Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” the reference to a man sitting near books reminiscent of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading,” and the whole barren emptiness of the lines absolutely influenced by Stevens’s late and exquisitely modulated plangent-with-simplicity work in Auroras of Autumn and The Rock. Grossman, like Stevens and Yeats, weaves a profound tapestry out of the simplest of words – “man,” “book,” “leaves,” “wind,” quiet.” It is for this reason, perhaps, that his poem is so strange – not because the imagery is necessarily alien, but the echoes of the imagery as they accumulate in the lines is haunting, compelling, and very difficult to forget. It stays with you, even as you put the poem down; it lingers like a powerful novel, or a song that you cannot get out of your mind, because it is so overwhelmingly beautiful; (I think of the chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore,” from his late album Modern Times).

What about Stevens? How do we even discuss his haunting late work, which makes Swinburne look even more decadent? Here is “A Quiet Normal Life,” from The Rock.

His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not
In anything that he constructed, so frail,
So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,

As, for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.

It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked

And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut
By gallant notions on the part of night –
Both late and alone, above the crickets’ chords,

Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.
There was no fury in transcendent forms.
But his actual candle blazed with artifice.

It is as if Stevens and Grossman’s poems were talking to each other – as if Stevens’s poem provided the context for Grossman’s poem, explaining the reason why and how the man in Grossman’s poem achieves such masterful quiet. For in Stevens poem, which is also very quiet, we are given a glimpse into a certain conflict, a conflict that has faded in a magnanimous, noble way, but faded nonetheless into night, into the present that Stevens calls “here.” That conflict has to do with Stevens’s entire poetic enterprise, his interrogation in his previous poems of transcendent forms, of the “bodiless,” of the abstract, of anything whatsoever that could lead the mind away from the present moment and into a kind of shadowy cave of contemplation. Anything notional – any notions of night, or of cold, are for Stevens in this poem too distanced from reality, from the “warm heart.” And yet this diminishing does not produce depression or disillusionment, but rather makes the present stand out more vividly, more starkly, as a kind of “artifice” made “actual,” (another way of talking about poetry, among other things). And that is the achievement of his, as well as Grossman’s poem – their ability to make the present stand out more boldly, with a kind of visceral haunting embodied thrust. In this sense, both Stevens and Grossman’s poems are about poetry – each posits a scene that is half actual, half artificial, in which the sounds of the words produce an incantatory rhythm that creates the quiet in which they stir. They are so quiet, they are almost – almost – surreal, though these are not surreal poems. And both poems interrogate the very strange notion of no notion – of a sort of quiet in which sitting and being is enough, in which thought itself is made aware of its own eventual demise. Both poems are therefore compellingly strange, for they interrupt our thought, pull us out of ourselves, and return us to ourselves, so that we may see ourselves, as Stevens writes, “more truly and more strange.” They are just barely sentimental, yet they are profoundly moving. In exploring what eloquence looks like when it is reduced to first factors, they give the reader a zen experience of head-shaking clarity, austerity, and, in the Stevens poem, a haunting elegiac strain of loss.

There are certain (uncertain) propositions that every poet must eventually encounter, if only to embrace or abandon. They are not propositions so much as ways of being, lifestyles; and, like the way one walks, or talks, or just stands in the rain, they are ineluctably intimate parts of ourselves, hence not propositions so much as self-images. What kind of poet do you want to be (I imagine a Bellovian unctuous trickster asking)? What kind of poet are you?

“Oh, she’s an angry poet,” they say, or, “The woman is far too sentimental for my tastes.”

These are cursory judgments, but some kind of truths are lodged in even the most mawkish and unhelpful of sentiments. So let’s begin at the beginning. A poem is a stance, a temperament, a philosophy, an ontologically practical, (if impractical), modus operandi. A vision – not necessarily metaphysical, but a way of looking at things that is that particular poet’s way. The proof? An Ashbery poem is not a Creeley poem. Read an Ashbery poem. You might immediately conclude that Ashbery is a funny poet, a strangely poignant poet, a curiously flat poet, like Warhol, or Clare, a poet of disappointment, a poet whose science entails the combining of words and phrases that, without Ashbery’s florabundant consciousness, would never have been placed together in the first place. Ashbery is a poet of surprise, of flow, a John Cage of language, whereby the chance coincidences of daily stuff form an abstract collage that is life heightened: an aesthetic.

Is Creeley – I’m thinking of early Creeley, from For Love – the (complex) opposite of Ashbery? What do Ashbery and Creeley share besides a certain kind of disappointment, a disillusionment with what Richard Rorty calls “the way things hang together”? For, aside from this initial bewilderment or despair at the way things are – ontologically, epistemologically – Creeley is the poet of the anti-flow, the inept and inert stutter, the desperation of someone who cannot say what he wants to say, so makes a poem out of that. To say that Creeley is funny is like saying that Todd Solondz’s movies are funny. For Creeley’s early poems are often cruel, and to say that they are “funny” is perhaps to say more about your own predilections for mean-spiritedness than, say, Creeley’s.

Still, like Ashberys’ early work, Creeley’s poems are, or at least seem to be, something new. They are not exactly adventures of the imagination, like Ashbery’s; in fact, I wonder if the word “imagination” is even appropriate for discussing Creeley’s early works. For if Ashbery’s philosophy is “Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination,” Creeley’s is, “Perhaps we can’t feel with more imagination.” Yet does that make for a coherent, or even interesting, poetics? If Ashbery’s poems are premised, if distantly, on a hope for the future, a hope for new imaginary communities, a hope for a new way of speaking, Creeley’s poem are cynical about the future, isolated from community, and unable to even speak.

It is for that reason, paradoxically, that they deserve some attention.

For the point of comparison, let’s look at two poems: one by Ashbery, one by Creeley, both with the same titles – “The Hero” – and from their first well-received books – Some Trees, by Ashbery, published in 1956, and For Love, by Creeley, published in 1962. I want to interrogate, foremost, how Ashbery and Creeley conceptualize their heroic figures, for in scrutinizing such humongously important matrices of ideas, we might therefore put our finger on the nerve, not only of what makes these poets so different, but also on how we might characterize and define their individual and idiosyncratic poetic (and therefore philosophic) stances.
Here is Ashbery’s “The Hero,” in full, (and notice the interestingly Creeley-esque form):

Whose face is this
So stiff against the blue trees,

Lifted to the future
Because there is no end?

But that has faded
Like flowers, like the first days

Of good conduct. Visit
The strong man. Pinch him –

There is no end to his
Dislike, the accurate one.

We might start by acknowledging how enigmatic the poem is – even, perhaps, how willfully obscure. Who is the eponymous hero? Is it the “stiff” face, “lifted to the future”? Is it “the strong man”? Is it “the accurate one”? All three? Is the poet himself the hero, and is his stance the one which we might take to be heroic? If so, how would we characterize his stance towards the “hero”?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that Ashbery’s “hero” in this poem is Robert Creeley. And imagine that Ashbery, like any competitive poet – locked in some regards into a good old fashioned Bloomian agon – wishes to carve out his own poetic voice in contradistinction to Creeley’s. How would this affect our reading of the poem?
First, perhaps Ashbery would be mocking, however quietly, Creeley’s “stiff face,” the unyielding way in which he denies all transcendence – not because Ashbery believes himself in transcendence, but because of the way in which Creeley denies it – so stern, so puritanical, so unbending. The “blue trees” might then be a trope for Ashbery’s poetic persona. In many poems in Some Trees – “Two Scenes,” “Popular Songs,” “The Instruction Manual,” “Meditations of a Parrot,” “Sonnet,” “Le livre est sur la table” – the color blue figures prominently and enigmatically: we hear of “the blue shadow of some paint cans,” “the blue blue mountain,” a “rose-and-blue striped dress (Oh! such shades of rose and blue),” “blue cornflakes in a white bowl,” “the razor, blue with ire,” and a “young man” who “places a bird house / Against the blue sea.” Blue trees are especially poignant, considering that the title poem of the book, “Some Trees,” is about trees as a metaphor for human connection. So maybe equating the blue trees with Ashbery’s poetic persona isn’t as hackneyed as it sounds.

But where does that take us? Is the face “lifted to the future,” or are the trees? Perhaps we might read the second stanza in two ways. If “no end” refers to the trees, then we might read the phrase as a typical self-referential Ashberian commentary on the elasticity of time. But what if it is Creeley’s face – a very distinct one, considering he had only one eye, and occasionally wore an eye-patch – that is raised to the future? Might we then read “no end” in completely different terms, as a kind of complaint, as if to say, “there is no end to my suffering”? We might then have the same tension in the first stanza – Creeley’s face, stiff against the blue trees of Ashbery’s persona – repeated in the second, where Ashbery is ridiculing Creeley’s stance as pompous and self-aggrandizing, as one who laments the endlessness of suffering and who must look (mawkishly), as a result, to the future, where perhaps there will be less pain.

Now let’s follow our divergent readings and see where they take us. If we read the next three lines – “But that has faded / Like flowers, like the first days // Of good conduct” – as more typical Ashberiana, then what we have on our hands is the Ashberian mode of replacing one image as quickly as he can with the next, as if we were reading a Stevens poem set to fast forward. But what if what’s faded – what Ashbery is arguing for – is the Creeleyan poetic stance – the cynicism, the disgusted high-mindedness, the seriousness, the darkness? Is this perhaps the moment at which Ashbery begins carving out his own poetic identity, by critiquing his reading of Creeley’s poetic identity? If so, then we might paraphrase those three lines as saying something along the lines of, “Yet your stance, for all its professed heroicisim and stoicism, has already faded like flowers, or childhood days when we cared about our behavior.” In this sense, Ashbery would be arguing that Creeley’s stance – perhaps like Lowell’s – is outmoded, and therefore not a viable aesthetic, at least for Ashbery.

In the final lines, therefore, we are faced with a massive ambivalence. For it is unclear if “the accurate one” is Ashbery or Creeley. We therefore do not know if this “dislike” is being criticized or commended. If we read “the strong man” as the Creeleyan poetic persona, then we might read the final lines as Ashbery critiquing Creeley’s misanthropic dislike, his fastidious need for accuracy. Yet if we read “the accurate one” as Ashbery, we might read the final lines as a self-critique, with Ashbery uncomfortable with his criticism of the strong man – i.e. the pronoun “his” in the second-to-last line would be Ashbery, and here we would hear Ashbery’s own exasperated sigh with himself. The point is not to find the exact right reading, but rather to call attention to the way in which, in Ashbery’s “The Hero,” these ambivalences are braided together. Yet it seems intriguing, to say the least, that “The Hero” is written in such characteristically Creeleyan form.

Now let’s look at Creeley’s “The Hero,” made up of eleven four-lined stanzas. How does Creeley’s stance towards the hero in his poem differ from Ashbery’s? Here is the whole poem:

Each voice which was asked
spoke its words, and heard
more than that, the fair question,
the onerous burden of the asking.

And so the hero, the
hero! stepped that gracefully
into his redemption, losing
or gaining life thereby.

Now we, now I
ask also, and burdened,
tied down, return
and seek the forest also.

Go forth, go forth,
saith the grandmother, the fire
of that old form, and turns
away from the form.

And the forest is dark,
mist hides it, trees
are dim, but I turn
to my father in the dark.

A spark, that spark of hope
which was burned out long ago,
the tedious echo
of the father image

– which only women bear,
also wear, old men, old cares,
and turn, and again find
the disorder in the mind.

Night is dark like the mind,
my mind is dark like the night.
O light the light! Old
foibles of the right.

Into that pit, now pit of
anywhere, the tears upon your hands,
how can you stand
it, I also turn.

I wear the face, I face
the right, the night, the way,
I go along the path
into the last and only dark,

Hearing hero! hero!
a voice faint enough, a spark,
a glimmer grown dimmer through years
of old, old fears.

The poem begins with the asking of questions – what seem important questions, for those who answer the questions are aware not only of the question themselves, but the “onerous burden” of asking. There is therefore a dialectic that is set up between questioning and asking, both activities which, as the poem continues, are anointed somewhat with heroic status, and given metaphoric clothing as adventures into the dark.

Yet we do not hear of this heroic adventure being undertaken by the hero him or herself. Rather, the hero, who disappears as a figure after the second stanza, and is replaced with the poet himself, does his vague heroic deed, and thereby lives or dies accordingly. Although it is difficult to read the tone of the second stanza, Creeley exhibits a certain sad insouciance towards the hero, as well as a disconnect towards the hero’s fate – i.e., he or she will either live or die, but either way, Creeley seems to be saying, these are the typical conventions of a heroic story, and there is nothing surprising about that. Here the speaker’s relationship to the hero is different from the Ashberian speaker; it is more straightforward, if similarly, though less complexly, ambivalent. In Ashbery’s poem, despite the title, it is never clear just who the hero is, so we are adrift upon a vague ocean of resemblances and concordances; in Creeley’s poem, it is more clear that the hero is the conventional hero of fairy tales, venturing off into the dark forest, but it is also Creeley or the poet himself, venturing similarly into the tangled thickets of memory, to try and devise a way of forming something lasting from this adventure, some redemptive offering, a poem perhaps. In this sense, Creeley’s poem is less ironic than Ashbery’s. It does not truck in a difficult-to-place irony, nor does it use discordant and puzzling imagery that entails a kind of cognitive dissonance for the reader. If anything, Creeley’s imagery – though his style still somewhat beguiles – is largely conventional: we have the hero, the dim dark forest, the grandmother urging the hero out, the father figure, the quest, night and light, the path. This all sounds rather yawn-worthy, however; so what is it that makes Creeley’s poem interesting?

What makes Creeley’s poem interesting is that, for all its stylistic compression, we are given a very standard and conventional narrative; and despite the tone of exhaustion and cynicism we might feel from the speaker towards his subject, Creeley does not revise the heroic quest story very much, or offer very many alternatives. Another way of saying this is that Creeley, and the Black Mountain tradition he emerges from, does not do irony. Creeley’s hero, therefore, is the hero of myth, of fairy tale and folk tale; and we might do well to read much of his work, consequently, in that light – as work in which Creeley posits himself as the conventional male hero figure, and all his various disappointments in love as commentaries on this figuration. This might make some sense, considering Creeley’s later work, where much of his intriguing bitterness is replaced with a kind of lazy contentment that seems to suggest an end-of-the-road poetics, whereby the earlier misanthropy of the young man is replaced with arm-chair speculation and hard-earned domestic satisfaction.

All of which is to say, that Ashbery, after this analysis, strikes me as the more radical poet. His poem takes greater risks – earlier we called it “willfully obscure” – but Ashbery does not seem saddled so much with the desire to be the Promethean quester, searching for the fire, venturing into the forest. He’s way too ironic to take these myths too seriously, although he’s radical enough to substitute new imagery for old. For that reason, if Creeley sees himself as the king of his own narrative, questing after redemption, where he will either live or die, Ashbery once again finds himself in the role of trickster and clown, discombobulating our awareness, turning our attention to his motley theatrics, and poking fun at convention. The New York School, if we wish to place Ashbery in that context, is far, far more ironic. If we wish to understand more deeply the relationship between the Black Mountain poets and the New York school, then, we might start by investigating and interrogating the role that irony plays in much of these poets’ works.

Massachusetts writers hold a great position of influence in American writing. Some of this is just a matter of timing: Massachusetts had a kind of head start in fostering talent, and such advantages inevitably become influence (“whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance”). But perhaps it’s better not to speak of “influence”; instead, I would claim that Bradstreet divined in the landscape images and structures of being that other American writers would discover and explore.

After pondering the act of contemplation, Bradstreet retells the first murder. Cain is depicted as the definitively anti-Christ figure, a cursed newborn enthroned in the lap of Eve (contra images of the theotokos):

Here sits our grandame in retired place,
And in her lap her bloody Cain new-born;
The weeping imp oft looks her in the face,
Bewails his unknown hap and fate forlorn;

Stanza 15 tells the story of Abel’s murder:

There Abel keeps his sheep, no ill he thinks;
His brother comes, then acts his fratricide;
The virgin Earth of blood her first draught drinks,
But since that time she often hath been cloyed.
The wretch with ghastly face and dreadful mind
Thinks each he sees will serve him in his kind,
Though none on earth but kindred near then could he find.

This is the bloody inevitability that Frost explored in poems like “Design.” But in addition to her distinctly Massachusetts sensibilities, one can find a propensity toward that broader, particularly American expression of the doctrine of original sin: the social outcast set adrift in a vast and bleak landscape. Stanza 16 describes Cain’s punishment:

His face like death, his heart with horror fraught,
Nor malefactor ever felt like war,
When deep despair with wish of life hath fought,
Branded with guilt and crushed with treble woes,
A vagabond to Land of Nod he goes.
A city builds, that walls might him secure from foes.

Cain is literally branded by God–a marked man, harried by his curse. He is a builder of defensive cities in the wildernes. He cannot farm fruitfully (the ground that drank the blood he spilled refuses him). He lives in constant fear of attack. It is notable that when Bradstreet contemplates sin (something that must be confronted when asceding to God), she does not identify with Adam and Eve, the traditional figures of original sin but with their cursed child. It is easy to forget that there are two events of ‘casting out’ in the first three chapters of Genesis: first, Adam and Eve, cast out for the “spiritual murder” of humankind, and second, Cain, cast out for the literal murder of his brother Abel.

While the marked outcast has been a perennial theme of literature (e.g., The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.), it has found particular resonance in American literature, particularly American literature of the West. My point is not that Bradstreet established the theme of Cain and Abel that later American writers picked up. I suppose it’s possible, but I think it’s much more interesting to say that there’s something in the American landscape and founding psyche, a kind of inverse of the “city on the hill.”

The story of Cain is built into the founding mythos of America, whose people were cast out of Europe to violently master “uncivilized” land (as de Tocqueville observes, “the happy and the powerful do not go into exile”). Consider Moby-Dick, which, despite being set on the ocean, is arguably a story of the proto-modernization of the American west. Like the descendants of Cain, who first use bronze and iron, whaling ships are mini-factories that subdue and process the raw materials of industrialization. A more recent book that memorably retells the myth of Cain in the American context is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy’s Kid, born with an appetite for blood, “a mindless taste for violence,” is the quintessential marked outcast, “branded with guilt” and pursued by the Judge (a kind of Nietzschen Satan).

Bradstreet’s poem also gestures toward another notable American obsession: Armageddon.



This move to the story of the fall and the first murder are necessary for Bradstreet. Being on the edge of what she knew as civilization, Bradstreet had many chances to reflect upon and enjoy the sights of nature. But one who enjoys nature as she does inevitably confronts the ontological fear of death, the finality that nature itself circumscribes. Human persons are driven by appetites, the “delectable view[s]” that enrapture the senses: these passions are primal, the defining experience of embodied beings–we associate them with life, with vitality itself. But they are also fickle, insatiable in any ultimate sense (“Hell hath no limits nor is circumscrib’d”), and, as both ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy realized, the “untutored” pursuit of the passions enslaves us because it places us in a dimension of constant reflexivity, never resting. This is one of the themes of stanza 17:

And though thus short, we shorten many ways,
Living so little while we are alive;
In eating, drinking, sleeping, vain delight.
So unawares comes on perpetual night.
And puts all pleasures vain into eternal flight.

Human life, already a flash, is lessened by pursuit of life. Night comes and satisfaction recedes into its “eternal flight.” In a manner worthy of Solomon, stanza 17 treats of the vanities of human action and pursuits. And also like Ecclesiastes, this recognition moves the poet to consider how the man’s fleeting pursuits contrasts with the seeming inexhaustability of nature (“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”). The result of this is stanza 18, which, for my money, is one of the more beautiful articulations of the mystery of death in English:

When I behold the heavens as in their prime,
And then the earth (though old) still clad in green,
The stones and trees, insensible of time,
Nor age nor wrinkle on their front are seen;
If winter come and greenness then do fade,
A spring returns, and they more youthful made;
But man grows old, lies down, remains where once he’s laid.

There are possible echoes of Milton here, but the poem undoubtedly ends with Job:

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

In both Ecclesiastes and Job, as well as in Bradstreet, humanity’s ambition to sate its appetites by nature manifests the limits of human persons, exposing the meaninglessness of such pursuits (“the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.”). The depthless void of man’s appetites cannot be filled, even by nature’s unending renewal: this is the sum of ancient wisdom literature. The pain of this realization, profound as the insight is, cannot lead to Bradstreet’s deep “groan in that divine translation” (the piercing and painful sweetness of holy ecstasy). Such a conundrum forces the question: if man cannot be sated by nature, what can possibly fill him? The obvious answer is God–but Bradstreet does not go there quite yet.

Rather than turning to God, she moves to the undoubtedly zen image of the river: as Siddhartha perfectly demonstrates, the river is an image of the emptiness of Nirvana; it is present at its beginning, middle, and end, and, confounding time, is thus outside of time. It has escaped the vicissitudes of life and therefore can be said to be unchanging, without desire, passionless. Bradstreet addresses the river as “Thou emblem true of what I count the best.” In the river, Bradstreet observes, fish naturally do what they should: “So nature taught, and yet you know not why, / You wat’ry folk that know not your felicity.” The fish is zen; I’m reminded here of Chuang Tzu’s poem, which Merton translated as “The Joy of Fishes.” But, of course, the fish is doubly symbolic as it was the symbol of early Christians. Inasmuch as Christians participate in the life of God, they share the joy of fishes, living in “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.”

All ascetics must go “through the river,” so to speak. Having pierced the wisdom of the river, Bradstreet’s soul is now ready for its final ascension:

While musing thus with contemplation fed
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet-tongued Philomel perched o’er my head
And chanted forth a most melodious strain
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judged my hearing better than my sight,
And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight.

For Augustine, sight is the sense of sensual perception (“the lust of the eyes”). Hearing, however, is the sense of faith. Christ told doubting Thomas “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” And Paul says “and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” In Bradstreet’s Christian tradition, God is not made perceptible through sensual perception (“Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”), but only through the testimony of others, through hearing. Bradstreet has been seeing this whole time, observing nature and pondering its sights: this has prepared her heart for what comes by another sense: her soul in the proper state, having reached a sort of Nirvana by the river, can now clearly hear the call of her master’s voice and follow that voice “into a better region, / Where winter’s never felt by that sweet air legion”.

Bradstreet ends the poem, appropriately enough, with an image from Revelation: “he whose name is graved in the white stone / Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.” This is appropriate not simply because it is the end of the poem, the unveiling of all things, but because it channels the apocalyptic geist that has been with America since its inception. The vast and final regions of the United States opened before man a final panorama over which to play out his desire to consume nature. This forces mankind as a whole, like the author of Ecclesiastes, to the “overwhelming question”: “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?“ Or, in other words, what possible thing after this? In the narrative of growth and exploration, America is–in a sense–the last step before that narrative ends or must reinvent itself.

The assertion that “Contemplations” is primarily concerned with the ascension of the soul may bump against prevailing notions. Some critics have said Bradstreet was more in love with the earth than heaven since the lines that directly address the idea of heaven often fall short: “too often merely traditionally rendered passages pale before some of the more deeply felt lyrical passages in praise of Phoebus and the things of earth”. Indeed, the poem begins with the rapture of the poet as she views nature: her gaze begins with the autumn leaves, then moves upward toward the sun:

Thou as a bridegroom from thy chamber rushes,
And as a strong man, joys to run a race;
The morn doth usher thee with smiles and blushes;
The Earth reflects her glances in thy face.
Birds, insects, animals with vegative,
Thy heat from death and dullness doth revive,
And in the darksome womb of fruitful nature dive.

“More heaven than earth was here [on earth]” Bradstreet says. In fact, stanza 8, which immediately follows a four stanza paean to the sun, seems to contain Bradstreet’s inadvertent admission that she cannot express genuine feelings about God, as opposed to her clearly inspired stanzas about nature:

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!

Bradstreet is clearly not describing nature anymore any more than she is bushwacking “pathless paths” through the forest. She is traveling an inward landscape now. This stanza and the ones that follow are a flock of neo-Platonist images. Gazing toward the (inward) sky, her Muse thinks it appropriate to inspire song. And yet, divine though the Muse may be, Bradstreet is unable to perform. Is it because Bradstreet harbors the unspoken belief her ecstatic paean to the secular cannot match what she is able to say about the sacred? To me this interpretation only resonates if you harbor the assumption that the one need crowd out the other. But in Hopkins, for example, the ecstasies of the “secular” are sacred. Think how seamlessly Hopkins moves from the image of the dawn to the Holy Spirit and back to nature again in “God’s Grandeur” (another poem that shares many affinities with “Contemplations”):

And through the last lights off the black West went
_____Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
_____World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins is testing the sundered connection between the natural and divine. “Contemplations” does indeed have several passionately felt stanzas dedicated to the sun; yet this is hardly crypto-pagan nature worship. More to the point, though, those who engage in this reading of “Contemplations” are missing the clear neo-Platonic overtones of the whole poem (thankfully, not all critics have missed this; this particular essay makes some similar arguments as mine, but with different concerns).

[Two side-notes for picky readers:

1. For those familiar with Puritan doctrine, it might seem a little strange to connect Bradstreet with the mysticism of Plato, especially inasmuch as it sounds dangerously close to the analogy of being and/or similar ideas which protestants general eschew. This is an impossibly complicated topic to argue here, but I'm hoping to show that the neo-Platonic reading just makes sense. For those who want more of the historical scaffolding, you can return to the aforelinked essay at the end of the previous paragraph, which argues Bradstreet inherited her neo-Platonism from other poets, or you can jump down this rabbit hole, which argues that Jonathan Edwards--that arch-Puritan--more or less bought into the analogy of being.

2. For those who think I'm being sloppy with my use of the term neo-Platonism, you're probably right.]

Other critics have read this passage (along with others in the poem) as Bradstreet conforming to Puritan expectations of feminine weakness. I don’t doubt that patriarchy played some role in shaping this line, but the link to neo-Platonism really helps us see that something else is happening here. Bradstreet’s admission of imbecility is certainly tribute to Bradstreet’s Puritan modesty; but it’s deeper than that: the modesty is also neo-Platonic. Such imbecility is the stupidity of ecstasy. Bradstreet is unable to speak not because she is a woman or because she secretly loves nature more than God, but because one literally cannot speak about these things.

Nevertheless, femininity is an important theme in this poem. The relationship between femininity and ascesis is complex. One sees similar sentiments throughout Interior Castle, in which Theresa constantly chastises her “feminine” inability to be articulate. On the one hand, it is true that such modesty befit the social expectations of femininity in that time; but it is important to note (without denying the marginalizing influence of such expectations) that these expectations contain a subversive corollary: it is only the feminine soul that reaches the heights of ecstasy. According to Theresa, only by not desiring divine gifts can one receive them, can one pass from speech into that deeper eternally spoken Word. That is, only the unassuming, “feminine” soul is actually able to ascend. On a related note, it is no accident that in the very next stanza speaks of crickets and grasshoppers, insects whose classical associations are that of phoenix-like beings entranced by divine song. Bradstreet notes that creatures praise by “their little art” while she remains imbecilic. Bradstreet’s wit here has actually fooled many critics, who assume that on some level she really believes “warbl[ing] forth no higher lays” is a weakness. In fact, this should probably be read as an ironic reproach to the masculine drive to build towers of babble.

But we’re ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to where Bradstreet begins her poem–personal contemplation, a poet called forth into song by the enrapturing beauty of autumn leaves (anyone who has seen the Massachusetts in Fall knows what Bradstreet is talking about):

The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

I’ve never taken shrooms, but I’m told they make color “more real,” as if a veil is lifted and one experiences the sensual uninhibited, unmediated. Similarly, Bradstreet sees the colors that seem “painted,” enhanced as if by artifice, and yet they are confoundingly “true.” This vision stirs up the passions within Bradstreet, the appetites. The appetites and their desire to consume completely is unattainable, however. This inability of the human person to fully sate a desire creates a fundamental confusion because the existence of desire implies its object. This confusion is one object of Bradstreet’s contemplations, one focus of her attempt to come to deeper knowledge of being. Therefore, the next stanza begins

I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high,

If such desires cannot be sated by the earthly, certainly there is a richness that transcends earthly riches where there can be no barren “winter and no night.” Bradstreet’s gaze then moves upward, from leaves, to sky, to sun, treating each with due reverence. Undoubtedly, Bradstreet is riffing on Augustine’s Confessions:

And what is the object of my love? I asked the earth and it said: ‘It is not I.’ I asked all that is in it; they made the same confession. I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that creep, and they responded: ‘We are not your God, look beyond us.’ I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said: ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ I asked heaven, sun, moon and stars; they said: ‘Nor are we the God whom you seek,’ And I said to all these things in my external environment: ‘Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.’ And with a great voice they cried out: ‘He made us’. My question was the attention I gave them, and their response was their beauty. (

Having begun in such contemplation, Bradstreet moves backwards to the story of Eden. She does so by means of that contemplation:

When present times look back to ages past,
And men in being fancy those are dead,
It makes things gone perpetually to last,
And calls back months and years that long since fled.
It makes a man more aged in conceit
Than was Methuselah, Or’s grandsire great,
While of their persons and their acts his mind doth treat.

Again, Bradstreet mirrors Augustine: memory–both personal and historical–is the primary means of introspection and ascension toward the divine. In returning to the palaces of memory, one finds truths that actually transcend the personal, that impart a wisdom preceding one’s individual being (Plato thought the human ability to recognize truth was actually remembering what was forgotten from the previous life of the soul). However, while Augustine travels back to the creation narrative, Bradstreet returns to a time just after creation: Cain and Abel.