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 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 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.
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.
THE FLESH LUSTETH AGAINST THE SPIRIT
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. (X.vi.9)
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.
When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.
It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.
There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:
Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
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.
Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,
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.
Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.
There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.
In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:
1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.
THE FORM & ITS FUNCTION
I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling.
Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.
“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.
The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.
But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.
The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.
Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:
So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.
It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms) ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.
This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.
Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments. Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.
In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.
So what is this thing called free verse? Is it highly cadenced and rhythmic but unmetered lines? Maybe. Is it a series of utterances lined, but without any beat? Perhaps. Is it prose written with line breaks? Sometimes, sure; why not? This last one is a charge poets seek to avoid because… well, because they are poets. They want to make sure they are defined as poets and not as prose writers who decided to forsake paragraph structure. They want to get away with murder. Marianne Moore claimed she wanted to write “well ordered prose.” Moore was gutsy. She decided the best defense for supposedly free verse was to admit it was prose, but to add the proviso, “well ordered.” In her case, she often employed what is known as syllabic verse. In syllabic verse, poets count syllables, not beats. English is what they call a syllabic/accentual language. You’ll get arguments from people about that, but people argue about everything. One might go as far as to say that postmodernism is little more “exceptionalism as its rule.” It’s all aporia, a fancy Greek term for all things containing an essential contradiction within their structures so that all things break down (deconstruct). How clever! It allows postmodernists to study the gaps in texts and seldom have anything to do with the texts themselves. This is called theory.
Anyway, to understand free verse, it might do us some good to understand unfree, oppressed, over determined, enslaved verse, verse in chains, so to speak, verse before we liberated it. Here’s an example:
when IN disGRACE with FORtune AND men’s EYES
I all alone beweep my outcast state.
Now there are ten syllables here in both lines, and five of them are accented. This is called iambic pentameter. It means ten syllables, but five accented beats (syllables). Usually, the unaccented syllable precedes an accented one in strict iambic pentameter. If we exaggerate the emphasis on “in,” “grace,” “for,” and “eyes,” we’ll find the pulse of the accents in iambic pentameter. We can even clap them out (instructor claps them out). Unaccented syllables are lowercase, and accented syllables are uppercase. Some people use little U-shaped and accent marks. These go over the words. This is called scansion. This is not an exact science. If it was, English would sound pretty boring. Rhythm, especially good flowing rhythm, is all about playing loose within a specific structure, but not so loose that the structure disappears. When the beats get too predictable, poems sound boring. If the beats are not somewhat regular, then we have to force them to exist. We will call this wrench rhythm—a rhythm that is unnaturally imposed upon a line to make it fit a pattern. Anyway, let’s see what happens when we change the first line a little:
When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I all alone beweep my outcast state.
Does the rhythm seem off to you? Suppose I also change the second line:
When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I beweep my outcast state all alone.
If you are listening, you will hear that the rhythm known as iambic pentameter is gone. Each line still contains ten syllables. By Moore’s calculations, this makes it well ordered prose, but its regular pulse is gone. Amen. Of course, some people can’t tell. Why? Because, like people who are tone deaf, they are rhythm deaf. If you don’t grow up reading lots of poems written in iambic pentameter, you may not be sensitive to its presence. It has nothing to do with rhyme. You can have unmetered poetry that rhymes. Hell, in Persia, they have rhymed prose. At any rate, many poets who are grant winners are rhythm deaf. They cover it up with imagery, or by making the poem look “visibly appealing.” This appeal varies. Some magazines don’t want anything that looks eccentric. Others don’t want anything that looks normal, and some editors are ego maniacs and insist they know when a poem is “organic.”
A lot of free verse is about how we use space. Prose writers don’t have to worry about that. They go from left to right until the limit is reached and then keep going, but poets use lines, and lines draw attention to a unit of measure, even if that measure is irregular, without a pattern. All the white space around those lines creates contrast. Free verse writers have to worry about the gaps as well as the words. It’s a real pain in the ass. I know. Forgive me. But the first thing you should do after writing a free verse poem is ask yourself: does the white space it leaves appeal to me? Do I even care about it? If I don’t, what do I care about in this particular poem? Suppose I say what most novices say: I care about expressing my emotions. Well, then you should act like a scientist and apply a series of questions to those emotions: if this emotion were a thing, how would it be shaped? If the emotion is wild, what would happen if I caged it in a regular structure or pattern? Would it take the wildness away, or would it add a sort of good tension between the wildness and the form? We should ask no questions when we first write a poem. We are answering a hundred hidden questions, and cool, objective questions will only get in the way of those, but afterwards, after the frenzy of our creative moment, we need to step back, and be scientists. What questions apply to this particular poem? What are my images doing? What is my structure doing? How do I like the shape of the poem? Do I care? Why don’t I care? Etc, etc, etc. So I am now about to perform a feat of magic. I am going to take the opening lines of Salinger’s “Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters,” and meter it, then unmeter it, just to give you permission to manipulate language and structures and stop thinking it some sort of accident:
“One Night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ free room I shared with my eldest Brother Seymour:”
One night, now more than twenty years ago,
during a siege of mumps, my sister Franny,
was moved out, crib and all, from her own room,
into the room that Seymour and I shared.
OK. That’s rough iambic pentameter–blank verse. Here’s syllabic with me changing very little:
One night some twenty years ago during
a siege of mumps in our huge family
my youngest sister Franny was moved crib
and all into the ostensibly germ
free room I shared with our brother, Seymour.
Now pattern it as free verse:
One night, some twenty
during a siege of mumps
in our enormous family,
my youngest sister, Franny
was moved crib and all
into the ostensibly germ free room
I shared with my eldest brother,
Read this last version, which is exact to the prose, by pausing at the end of every line. You’ll start to hear a ghost meter, a cadence, but only if you pause. If we treat the white space as what poets call a caesura (a pause) we can shape our poems by more or less natural speech rhythms–by the breath. This is only one way of shaping free verse. It is the first we are going to learn.
Here’s an exercise: take a piece of prose and do two of the three things I just did to it, dropping or changing words, but nothing that would get rid of the most vital information. Then take one of your poems, and do the same, playing with its structure, breaking the lines according to the breath/ pauses you hear. Good luck.
Paul Breslin, in his introduction to The Psycho-Political Muse, outlines the psychological theories influencing the radical poetry of the 1950s and 60s. Finding that the psyche is culturally conditioned, recent psychological theories found that neurosis can be identified as a type of resistance to social norms. Correlatively, art was seen as counter-acting repression, freeing consciousness from the constraints dominating the acculturated ego. In this context, the rhetoric of the New Left shifts, according to Breslin, from focus on class struggle to the opposition of “the falsification of consciousness in all classes.” Liberation from “the system” or “the establishment” was thought to come, not so much from the overthrow of economic relations, but through the individual’s “relative immunity” to society’s interlocking network of illusions. As such, poets “had only to look about [themselves], or even into [their] own soul[s], to be confronted with the crisis of American society,” making the private and public realms effectively interchangeable. In this context, Breslin argues, poets chose to either
<blockquote>become radical Fruedian versions of the poète maudit, exhibiting their distorted consciousness as representative of society’s distorted consciousness, or to speak from the unconscious, which is untainted by acculturation but, for that very reason, has no language.</blockquote>
With this framework we can understand the emerging trends in experimental American poetry during this period, including, especially for the Beats, the proliferation of surrealist themes and techniques, who often alternately positioned themselves as pathologically warped or as transmitters of an “untainted” consciousness. I would include with these responses identified by Breslin a third approach particular to many of the Beats—the poet as alchemist, transmuting the socio-political reality using the mundane elements found in the (social) environment with the transformative energies of consciousness. The Beats attempt to repair society intrinsically by conjoining its disparate elements in inventive combinations, or, as Ginsberg may have termed them, “reality sandwiches” (a phrase he used for the title for his fourth collection). This approach reflects surrealist tradition, positing that consciousness itself—even the acculturated consciousness—contains the necessary ingredients for its restoration, if it is allowed opportunity for free association and play. This “alchemical” approach, like surrealist collage, imbues acculturated experience with new meaning through the synthesis of its fragmented parts and immediacy of presentation.
Gregory Corso is considered one of the founding Beats met Ginsberg in Greenwich Villagein 1950 and, who over the next few years encouraged and mentored him. This happened after a prison term Corso served for an adolescent mishap, during which he read the dictionary, Shelley’s poetry. Corso’s reputation began growing with the publication of his second book, Gasoline (1958) and blossomed after he published The Happy Birthday of Death (1960). Around this time Corso spend several years in Europe, especiallyParis, deepening his appreciation for modern and Romantic poetry and further exposing him to the surrealists.
Corso’s single most important influence is Percy Shelley. In addition to his frequent allusions to him in his poetry, he is reported to have reverently kissed the carpet in the poet’s old quarters at Oxfordand had his ashes scattered near his tomb in Rome. For Corso, Shelley is a “revolutionary of the spirit” who transcends the mundane through poetic imagination. Corso’s surrealist poetics can be seen as a continuation of Shelly’s poetic model in a 20th century context. In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley analogizes poetry and the imagination as the dialectical counterpart to reason. Whereas logic is analysis, poetry is synthesis, a harmonious blending of external and internal impressions. Poetry recaptures life’s immediacy and “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehendable combinations of thought.” This process is alchemical in nature, making good and beautiful out of what is corrupt and ugly. Shelley envisions the poet as a word combiner, who, through his imagination, synthesizes thought in vivifying and regenerative ways.
Surrealism provides Corso a way of applying Shelley’s model to modern experience. In the poem, “No Doubt What He Saw,” Corso presents the image of the “Daisytaur”—a bull conjoined to a daisy—an icon of the imagination’s ability to unveil the wholeness and harmony of the world. The speaker recounts his childhood memory of seeing a horse with a daisy in its mouth and being struck by the juxtaposition of beast’s power and the flower’s fragility. The child interprets the sight as anticipating the eventual synthesis and harmony of the plant and animal kingdom. But his “playmate” is skeptical until the child Corso takes his friend to “a field of burning hay” and shows him “[a] pastoral metamorphosis! / A Daisytaur” (46). As Gregory Stephenson points out, this story puts “[s]eemingly strange attractions and affinities, incongruous unions of unlike things…in full accordance with the deepest natural law,” suggesting that “all life and being…is ever seeking to restore itself to its original state, the disparate parts striving to come together again”
Corso’s poems are filled with many variations of the “Daisytuar,” including the list of “Saleable Titles” to The Happy Birthday of Death, which Corso provides opposite the book’s title page. These alternate titles, some of which he was genuinely considering, form incongruent adjective-noun pairs such as “Fried Shoes,” “Pipe Butter,” “Radiator Soup,” “Flash Gordan soap,” and “Gorgoyle liver.” Like “Daisytaur,” these constructions isolate the basic surrealist technique of forming incompatible, transformative juxtapositions, and like Shelley, Corso plays the role of the synthesizer and alchemist, transmuting images of experience through combination and metamorphosis.
In The Happy Birthday of Death, he deliberately confronts many of the destructive and erroneous concepts at work in contemporary society and weighs them against a surrealist vision of transcending and transforming modern experience. The longer, popular poems of the collection explore, in an unorganized but encyclopedic way, the subjects identified in their titles: “Marriage,” “Bomb,” “Food,” “Hair,” “Police,” and “Army.” Corso’s troubled or sarcastic treatment of these topics—which, for contemporary audiences, represent sources of modern anxiety—forms a layer of implicit criticism through a light-hearted iteration of the poeté mauidit. Stephenson names these poems “anti-odes.” They depict a mentally unstable speaker who reflects a modern collective consciousness, revealing layers of psychosis and absurdity. They are humorous and incisive in their treatment of their subject, representing what Michael Skau calls Corso’s “peculiar strain of surrealism, with its combination of humor and threat.”
In “Marriage,” Corso give a free rein to worries about marriage, loosely following an imaginary chronology of events in which the speaker is introduced to the parents of his love interest, gets at the ceremony, is teased by in-laws at the reception, and eventually finds himself trapped by fatherhood and domestic malaise. The situation is comical but poses sincere questions. The speaker’s opening query, “Should I get married? Should I be good?” typifies the modern adult male’s social situation in existential and moral terms. Skeptical of established cultural traditions, he is unable or unwilling to be subsumed into prescribed roles, and thus he imagines himself resisting expectations through various clownish pranks. This pattern is established at the dating stage: “Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? / Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries / tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets” (29). He thinks about “Flash Gordon soap” while meeting his fiancée’s parents, he substitutes “Pie Glue” for “I do” in the ceremony, and defiantly rejects sexual consummation on the wedding night because everyone knows and expects it happen: “Everyone knowing! I’d be almost inclined not to do anything! / Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye! / Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!” (30). The speaker’s rejection of social norms stems from a perceived contradiction between his autonomy as an individual and social customs. To him, the concept of marriage and all its trappings are “obscene” and threatening.
Yet, the speaker is obligated to attempt to reconcile himself to marriage because the alternative—a life of bachelorhood—promises a lonely demise in old age. Thus, his imagined compromise is resistant participation characterized by arbitrary behavior and displays of irreverence. He baldly asserts his autonomy and freedom through spontaneous declarations and through substituting appropriate interaction and communication with verbal non-sense. Later in the poem, for instance, he imagines himself incapable of normal fatherly discourse, shouting, instead, absurdities to his children: “Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!” To fend off suburban ennui, he executes Dadaist pranks:
So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night
And cover his gold clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
Like past Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When you are going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust— (30-31)
He identifies himself to others as one who defies and rejects authority or only grudgingly participates in domestic rituals. Thus, whether he foregoes marriage, accepts his social roles or does so with qualification and resistance, the result is the same—he is stripped of his identity and alienated from others. Given the impossibility of his situation, with none of these alternatives being adequate, absurdist humor is perhaps the most expedient response, as it foregrounds his resistance and affords him, at least, the consolation of retaining a degree of integrity and identity. These acts deflate the social situations in which they occur; their spontaneity exercises and preserves the speaker’s imaginative vitality and playful innocence. In other words, creative surrealist clowning is his vehicle for coping with the dehumanizing influences of social institutions.
Yet, behind the humorous mask is a lonely, paranoid persona—the modern individual who, due to a variety of social and psychological forces, does not know who he is or what he wants. Even when the prospects sound nearly ideal, such as the “beautiful sophisticated woman” in the New York City penthouse, he is dismissive and subjective: “No, can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream.” In as far as he remains without companionship, his wellbeing is threatened, explaining his sense of urgency and his tone. He becomes a mentally unstable figure, a poète maudit forced into “madness” by modern life. Corso thus amplifies the implicit critical function of surrealism by positioning himself as the maniacal figure oscillating between resistance to society and ironic embrace of the absurdity of his condition.
In many of the poems of Happy Birthday of Death, Corso writes like he does “Marriage,” from a pathologically warped or maniacal state of mind, projecting a persona who, as Stepheson puts it, “unleash[es] an arsenal of antic, vatic babble and bombast.” Corso’s style generates an accelerated tempo that stem from both the uninterrupted progression of images and their discontinuity. The combination of spontaneity and breathless forward movement generate a “hysterical” vision that disrupts and decomposes reality. In several of these longer, subject-based poems in Happy Birthday of Death, Corso synthesizes mania and alchemical transformation through this stylistic technique, which one might term the hysterical catalogue: a litany of images often expressed with strained syntax and with increasing intensity and semantic disparity, emulating frenzy or ecstasy. This hysterical tone is often visionary, elevating the poetic utterance to the register of prophecy or shamanic chant.
Corso’s “Bomb” is the quintessential articulation of the hysterical catalogue. He articulates society’s absurd and psychotic relationship to the bomb with the hyperbolic but sincere observation that
All man hates you they’d rather die by car-crash lighting drowning
Falling off a roof electric-chair heart-attack old age old age O Bomb
They’d rather die by anything but you (Happy Birthday of Death, insert)
The speaker reasons that he “cannot hate” the bomb because it is shares the same purpose and affects the same end as other weapons and fatal forces: “Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt the jawbone of an ass / The bumpy club of One Million B.C.”? He even argues that dying by an explosion is superior because of its suddenness, quickness and “extravagance,” and pays homage to the bomb with a litany of images that catalog the details of an apocalyptic explosion. The images are fantastically hyperbolic:
Turtles exploding over Istanbul
The jaguar’s flying foot
soon to sink in arctic snow
Penguins plunged against the Sphinx
The top of the Empire State
Arrowed in a broccoli field in Sicily
Eiffel shaped like a C in Magnolia Gardens
St. Sophia peeling over Sudan
Similar images throughout the poem, whether it refers directly to the effects of the explosion or not, create a wild, associational texture, reflecting the bomb’s disruptive force. But as the speaker progresses through the vision, the images, rather than outlining horror and death, turn toward non-threatening, pleasant scenes. First are “the temples of ancient times” are restored through “Electrons Protons Neutrons / gathering Hesperean hair / walking the dolorousgulfofArcady…” The speaker envisions the explosion not merely effecting physical reality but also collapsing time and space, bringing together historical and psychological realities. The bomb, in other words, turns reality into a dream-world wherein any imaginable associational possibility can be realized. This sur-reality, moreover, is depicted in utopian terms, wherein all aspects of reality are reconciled. At one point in the poem, this vision becomes a baseball game:
Lo the visiting team of Present
the home team of Past
Lyre and tube together joined
Hark the hotdog soda olive grape
gala galaxy robed and uniformed
commissary O the happy stands
Ethereal root and cheer and boo
The billioned all-time attendance
The Zeusian pandemonium
Hermes racing Owens
the Spitball of Buddha
Christ striking out
Luther stealing third
Seemingly contradictory religious figures and ideas are re-contextualized into an innocuous contest, trivializing their differences and historical identities, and emphasizing instead their common humanity.
The bomb becomes cosmological and spiritual. The speaker “stands before [its] fantastic lily door” with offerings of roses and musk. In the final, climatic thirty lines, the speaker shifts into Psalmodic rapture—“BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns / BOOM BOOM ye moons ye stars BOOM / night ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM /”—which devolves into hysterical babble: “Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM / Ubangi BOOM orangutang / BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon / ye BANG ye BONG ye BING…” At this moment, the poet is simultaneously ecstatic and manic, in both adoration and blind hysteria. He functions as a prophet or shaman, allowing his consciousness to be subsumed by its subject, and the bomb’s chaos-generating powers, reflected in the poet’s hysteria, are integrated into a transcendent vision.
The poem’s form mimics its subject, not just in its pictographic imitation of a mushroom cloud, but in its “explosion” of stimuli, overpowering and disorienting the reader. Cutting against an illusory order in the progression of thought, the poem, vortex-like, cascades aurally and visually, overpowering its logical structure. Through the catalog of images, lack of punctuation, miscegenation of diction registers and shifts in semantic reference, the poem disarms and imposes its will, catching the reader up in its forceful sweep. Rather than persuading through argument, the hysterical catalogue immerses the reader in visionary energy. As a result, the audience “experiences” the bomb—both as a fragmenting and chaotic force and as a vehicle for spiritual ecstasy in its trajectory of transcendence. The poem transforms the deathly powers of the bomb into an experience of rapture and beauty.
The poem demands different interpretations in different realms of discourse—on the political level, it is an invective against weapons of mass destruction and the “culture” of the bomb. But in order to see the poem’s implicit critique, one must perceive its sarcasm and humor. Corso assumed no reader would take his bomb “worship” seriously. In this sense the speaker’s embrace of the bomb is sardonic, a parody of a society so petrified by the bomb’s threat that it effectively idolizes it, paralyzed by fear. The poem attempts to liberate humanity from its terror by showing the futility of this kind of abstract anxiety. Of course it also implicitly critiques the political ideas and choices responsible for creating fear in the first place.
Conversely, on the philosophical and existential level, the poem is partly sincere. Although the bomb is made and controlled by humans, the average person’s experience of its dormant threat is passive and intangible; seemingly, it is “[n]ot up to man whether [the bomb] boom[s] or not,” as the ordinary person has no direct control over the arms race. In a letter to Paul Blackburn, Corso writes that, although the poem is “very much against the bomb,” his approach is the “right way” because “one must not hate, for that which one hates is apt to destroy.” In this context, the poem confronts the dilemma of post-atomic man and offers an alternative to terror and paralysis. The alternative is not literal bomb worship but an embrace of the totality of human experience, including mortality—a position implicit in the title The Happy Birthday of Death and in many of the book’s poems. Rather than urging abstract, philosophical resignation or mere escapism, Corso overcomes the psychological crisis by transforming the bomb into a symbol of primal energy and imagination. Contrary to expectations, the bomb’s detonation actualizes, in a cosmic sense, the conditions of the imagination, creating a space of total freedom and play.
Thus, like “Marriage,” “Bomb” responds to and transforms the threats of modern civilization through a bold assertion of the alchemical powers of human consciousness. This interpretation supports Stephenson’s claim that “[p]oetry for Corso is a mode of rebuking, rebutting and refuting the pheonomenological universe and of imposing inner desire on the external world.” The poems of The Happy Birthday of Death achieve both these objectives, partly through employing the technique I have called the hysterical catalogue. Through it, Corso introduces a new, distinctly social application for surrealism, absorbing destructive, dehumanizing forces of the psycho-social conditions of the mid-century.
Primalism: the testing for all aesthetic value wagered on the energies of the primal, the root, the raw, the atavistic, the unconscious, with a corresponding mistrust of the social conventions, the art of the decorative and contrived, and, above all, a dismissal of the thinking faculty save in its aspect as “process of ongoing revery.” A primalist will tend to play down the aphoristic and proverbial didactics of pre-romantic writers, and judge such pre-romantic works for their dynamism, their underlying sexual/political connotations, and their foreshadowing of romantic-modernist concerns. In effect, Shakespeare’s polyglot flights of decorative speech, rather than being loved in and of themselves as word play, will be seen as a slight impediment rather than the chief glory of his work, and the rather conventional, pro-monarchy, pro-triumphalist, mob despising politics of Shakespeare will be “rehabilitated” as it were to fit some process of liberation or revolution which the bard never intended. In effect, the primalist will quarry stones from the quarry of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have even considered picking up. The romantics, being, almost all primalists (exception Keats, and, certainly, John Clare) bequeathed to the decadents, the symbolists, and the first modernists certain tendencies still very much with us. I will note them as follows:
1. The tendency to prefer the abnormative as somehow morally superior to the normal.
2. The tendency to see the pretty at a far remove from the beautiful.
3.The tendency to see in the process of children and so-called “primitives” greater integrity of invention.
4. The tendency to loathe the authoritarian strains of aphorism, the dictum, the dispassionate thought and to replace these with conjecture/ambiguity, equivocation, the strains of transcendence and spiritual uplift especially in the realms of mystery peculiar to mind/body awareness and meditation
6. A bias that anything eastern is superior to the west and can not possibly be subject to the same corruption
7. A belief in the primal and a strong disposition to impose this “value” on women and children (the life force), and the “othered” (Blacks , indians), what I like to call “UGGING” (in reference to the ug language assigned to primitives in movies)..
8. A love/hate relationship to science and the rational
9. Wilderness as divine energy rather than as nemesis, and a belief along with Emerson that all things in nature thunder forth the true moral order. Nothing “natural” or “organic” can be evil since it is the ground zero of all mortal order.( The exact quote from Emerson is “All things in nature thunder forth the ten commandments”).
10. An obsession with both troped of hyper-reality and numbness (torpor, love/death, stupor, decay, languor, enui)
One final attribute I will submit is the most radical change between the late age of reason artists and romanticism/modernism/post-modernism, and for this, I need to borrow some terms from Jung’s personality types (An expansion and more in depth understanding of the four humors as well as the Dionysian/Apollonian binary:
11: A changing of primary and subsidiary functions. Whereas, thought and feeling ( were in the prime position throughout most of literary history, intuition and sensation began to dominate, to assume a larger emphasis in the 19th century and up to the present moment. Emotion belongs to sensation as much as feeling since feeling is, unlike emotion, a cognitive decision, a rationalizing of emotion. In the past, thoughts and feelings were “understood” and extroverted and the decorative devices and supporting functions were sensation (details) and intuition (those little breaches in form that proved the rule). Sensation and intuition at all times served as an agreed upon ground of thought and feeling (Carpe diem, attitudes toward mortality, etc). This gives all of literature before the romantics a far more didactic cast. Shakespeare’s wordplay was so amazing that sensation and intuition often seem to dominate in his plays (not really in his sonnets). Shakeseare’s decorative gifts were so overwhelming that they spilled over the boundaries of thought and feeling they were meant to express. Still, to understand shakespeare as he would have been understood, he was far more didactic, far more “agreed” upon,far more in step with his time than we might like to think. Shakeseare was not a primalist. Ok… so let’s refine number 11:
11. the reversal of the four functions (thought, feeling, intuition, sensation) in terms of priority. sensation and intuition rule and Thought and feeling serve as subsidiary functions. This leads to what I will call the genius of “stupidity.” I see several kinds of stupidity endemic to romatnic/modernist/post-modernist thought: the stupidity of the unknown, the stupidity of the atavistic,the stupidity of sheer process, the stupidity of object/subject confusion, the stupidity of the surreal, the stupidity of the irrational: In effect: the unknown, the atavistic, the process or looping of tropes in terms of self consciousness and collage, the surreal, the abnormative and the insane.
I define stupidity here as meaning :to be stunned, stupefied out of the expected patterns or thought and feeling to the point where there is little or no agreed upon context, and the subjective conscious (or unconscious) dominates.
The most dominant primalist among English poets is Worsdworth. His use of the meditative, confessional lyric as first developed by his friend Coleridge is still the most prevalent force in contemporary poetics. His influence on Emerson was immanence. The romantic who rebelled most successfully against him (Keats) did so only in terms of Wordsworth’s verbal clumsiness, his rather drab and stripped down style. Keats, refusing to divorce the pretty and decorative from the beautiful and integral set the tone for the Walter Pater influenced Aesthetes. They may seem utterly divorced from subsequent modernists, but the difference is merely one of emphasizing the decorative over the supposed substantive and ontological. Lets look at an excerpt from Wordsworth’s Preludes, and then consider how this passage was lifted to create the main guts of the famous poem “A Slumber did my spirit cease: Line 381, of the Preludes, first part:
…I have felt/
not seldom, even in that tempestuous time/
those hallowed and pure motions of the sense
which seem in their simplicity to own
an intellectual charm, that calm delight
which, if I err not, surely must belong
to those first born affinities that fit
our new existence to existing things
and, in our dawn of being, constitute
the bond of union betwixt life and joy.
This is sensibility which Wordsworth insists belongs to the time of “first born affinities”–the affective, irrational, unconscious brain rather than to the rational and cognitive brain. This delight is “calm” as are the strong emotions recollected in “tranquility.” This is the merge point of serenity and passion–and, of course, it must go back to the origins, to our beginnings–sensation and intimation plus mere motion or its utter lack are the prerequisites for the highest intellectual charms in Wordsworth: the atavistic, the infantile, the unformed, the uncontrived, the more or less pre-cognitive state is where all true poetry and art exist (according to Wordsworth). Note his use of pure motion. Pure motion is, in a manner of speaking is no motion at all, but rather unwilled, mere process:
No motion has she now, no force
she neither hears nor sees
rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
with rocks, and stones, and trees.
Sense and senselessness then must be untouched and uncorrupted by cognition or an over privileged thinking toward them–when purified and purged of the inorganic and overly rational, they are the true doors of perception and to the transcendent–to unknow, to go back to a world before thought, before time–to find the primal there that exists for both Wordsworth and even so disaffected seeming a poet as Stevens (whose Irish Cliffs I just gave a nod to).
So what are some other major facets of Ashbery’s relationship to American pragmatism? How would we characterize pragmatism, and in what ways does Ashbery’s work suggest our characterization? Does Ashbery ever explicitly mention James, Dewey, or Rorty? (I know of only one place currently where Rorty mentions Ashbery; it is in his introduction to Essays on Heidegger and Others, where he writes, “I have given up on the attempt to find something common to Michal Graves’s buildings, Pynchon and Rushdie’s novels, Ashbery’s poems, various sorts of popular music, and the writings of Heidegger and Derrida.” (Rorty, 1)
Ashbery does explicitly mention James, in a poem called, appropriately, “My Philosophy of Life.” The passage in question reads,
But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. (www.poets.org)
It is difficult to read this passage in the context of pragmatism without wondering if the “Someone” in the second-to-last line in the excerpt is Ashbery. Notice the exquisite intimacy with which this “Someone” shares in the “something William James / wrote”: this “Someone” has felt, innately, what James has said, even before James formulated it. Furthermore, the “you” in the first line of the excerpt remembers something James wrote, even though he or she never read it. We can be forgiven, then, if we go one to suggest a relationship between James and the “Someone” in the passage that borders on telepathic, it is so close and “intuitive.”
In “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” Rorty offers three characterizations of what he calls the “central doctrine” of pragmatism:
My first characterization of pragmatism is that it is simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like “truth,” “knowledge,” “language,” “morality,” and similar objects of philosophical theorizing.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 112)
So a second characterization of pragmatism might go like this: there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science. (Voparil and Bernstein, 113)
“Let me sum up by offering a third and final characterization of pragmatism: it is the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […] To accept the contingency of starting-points is to accept our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance. “ (Voparil and Bernstein, 115)
The first characterization is essentially pointing towards a vigilant awareness regarding the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of holding too tightly onto abstract concepts. “Anti-essentialism” means that there is no central essence to ideas like “truth,” “knowledge,” and “morality” – that these are contingent notions that depend entirely on our position within history, (as opposed to a neutral, extra-historical position). It is a pluralistic notion that echoes Ashbery’s opening question in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” “Is anything central?” And it also is a rallying call for embracing what Keats called “negative capability,” or the ability to embrace ambiguity, the messiness of life, as opposed to running from it and trying to escape through, among other things, empty abstractions like “truth” and “language.”
A short poem by Ashbery, chosen at random, might help illustrate our point. Here is the entire “Rain Moving In,” from A Wave:
The blackboard is erased in the attic
And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
And if somewhere on this great planet
The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
Will be better for it, but things can’t get any worse.
Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
Into disorder this one meant. Don’t you see
It’s all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
And that’s ominous, but all your graciousness in living
Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
A place to be from, and have people ask about. (Ashbery, 733)
For starters, we must call attention to the fantastically innovative images that begin the poem.
A blackboard being erased in an attic might sound silly to some – it is somewhat silly, because so odd – and yet its silliness, its oddness, is subsumed, or somehow augmented sublimely, by its strange connotative power, suggestive of new starts, or past thoughts “erased” to allow the new in. This confluence of the image of a blackboard with the notion of thoughts changing, or being “erased,” is made more vivid by the location of the blackboard in an attic, a space which is itself a pungent, full and rich metaphor, like a basement, for the unconscious, where we keep everything we’d forgotten. The power of these combined suggestions is, I believe, what Rorty means by imaginative vision – he is speaking of an ability to question outworn suppositions we have formed over time about what a poem, say, should be like – what kinds of images it should contain, how it should develop, what it should be about, what it should do. These presuppositions are questioned by the very fact of the Ashberian poem’s existence. In reading it, we find ourselves not only reading this poem, but, in a Bloomian manner, reading every poem and every image we’ve ever encountered, along with the expectations this history of reading has constructed over time – and, because of the radical strangeness of the Ashbery poem, revising that entire history of expectations.
(Perhaps this is why Ashbery is so often described as a difficult, puzzling, or just plain odd poet: like a powerfully successful Dadaist, or a good artist, he is constantly pushing, poking, nudging, or exploding the boundary line we contain in our minds between what separates our expectations for comfortable, possibly complacent normalcy and our desire and hope for grand and original innovation. This is why, once we read Ashbery, we can never read or think about poetry in the same way again. For in questioning our presuppositions about literature,
Ashbery questions our presuppositions about why we read and write in the first place.
He helps us to imagine, through the expansiveness and expressiveness of his thought, outside our worn imaginations; in doing so, he galvanizes or kick-starts our tired imaginations, our complacency, our unwillingness to budge or change. Ashbery’s poems force us to reflect upon the difference between invoking the abstraction “morality,” versus thinking about what this word means, individually and idiosyncratically, for us, within our own behavior, thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s the difference between such an invocation and an encounter with an actual person – which is to say, completely unprecedented, with very few rules or signposts to follow aside from our own idiosyncratic imaginative makeup.)
Second characterization: What does it mean to say that there is no difference between facts and values, should and is, morality and science? How does Ashbery’s poetry allude to or bring this notion into articulation through its own flexible and fluid network of vocabularies?
Perhaps we can take my Corliss Williamson jersey as an example. Was it a fact or a value that the jersey, being red and white, and with the word “Arkansas” written on its front, represented to me the college team on which Williamson played – and therefore ignited within me the desire to buy and wear the jersey, because I was so fond of that player on that team? I suppose you could get away with saying that the letters and colors are chunks of objective “facts” about the jersey, and my desire for those “facts” signifies my subjective valuing of those facts, but this just sounds hopelessly entangled, too complicated, obvious, redundant, maddeningly rigid, and uninteresting, and furthermore suggests a central core of my person on one hand (my values), and reality on the other hand (the red and white of the jersey) that somehow meet and lock and cohere together.
But isn’t this what Lauterbach is saying that Ashbery doesn’t do? And is this actually experientally what happens?
Here’s Rorty again, from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:
On the view of philosophy which I am offering, philosophers should not be asked for arguments against, for example, the correspondence theory of truth or the idea of the “intrinsic nature of reality.” […] Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things. […] The latter “method” of philosophy is the same as the “method” of utopian politics or revolutionary science (as opposed to parliamentary politics, or normal science). 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. This sort of philosophy does not work piece by piece, analyzing concept after concept, or testing thesis after thesis. Rather, it works holistically and pragmatically. (Rorty, 8 – 9)
Rorty is saying that to discuss my experience desiring the Williamson jersey through the notion of facts versus values is to use a vocabulary that does not help me explain what I am trying to explain. It is an inadequate tool for what I want to do. As he might say, no one really cares if my values met my facts at the moment I saw that jersey – that somehow some truth about me met some truth in the world. This sounds hopelessly weird and non-useful. What people do care is how my desire for that jersey matches up with who I was as a kid – my self-image then. If I would have bought the jersey and worn it in the mall – and if the jersey would have then incited curiosity in another person, this person would not have thought about my wearing the jersey in terms of facts versus values, chunks of reality versus other chunks. They would have possibly wondered, “who is that white, overweight kid?” They would not have wondered, “what is the relationship between that kid’s values and the facts of him wearing that jersey?”
How does Ashbery achieve his GREAT THEME, the changing of one’s self-image? Through redescribing “lots and lots of things in new ways.” (A change in clothes, a redescription, leads to a change in self-image.)
Now imagine that, that day, my parents did decide to buy me the jersey. Not only that, but I wore it that day in the mall, and my father took a picture of me wearing it. Now imagine that, after twenty years pass, I find that picture and wish to say something interesting and helpful, philosophically, about it. Would it be more helpful to
- read a description in which I attempted to cover the photograph inch by inch and describe every single thing I see across the gridwork of the picture, aiming for a kind of miniature totality?
- read a description in which I redescribe the picture, noticing new things about it, and in noticing new things about, recreating (as opposed to attempting to copy) the picture?
- look at both descriptions, and view them as alternative descriptions, two out of many, as opposed to searching for one way that is more right, because it corresponds more with reality?
Our third option, the pluralistic and pragmatist notion of alternative ways of looking at a situation, as opposed to one way over another, is as endemic to Ashbery’s poetry as it is to Wallace Stevens’ poetry-philosophy and William James’s philosophy-poetry. It explains why there is no difference between morality and science. Because as soon as we posit a difference, we are splitting reality up into chunks again, and pretending that we are the kinds of beings that can know whether or not our scientific descriptions of the world more correspond with “the way things are” than our poetic descriptions. We can’t know that, which explains the value of pragmatist and pluralistic thought.
For another useful illustration of this pragmatist notion of the precedence of self-image, or temperament, over the rightness or wrongness of theses, here is another entire Ashbery poem, called “Drunken Americans,” from Houseboat Days.
I saw the reflection in the mirror
And it doesn’t count, or not enough
To make a difference, fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town,
And afterwards, when the bus trip
Has depleted my pocket of its few pennies
He was seen arguing behind steamed glass,
With an invisible proprietor. What if you can’t own
This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame
And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects as real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.
What if we were to read this poem as a chronicling of the way in which the poet tries on various self-images, various jerseys? And during that process, attempts to figure out which jersey is “really him,” only to abandon that project? The poem begins with the poet seeing a reflection in the mirror (there’s that pregnant Ashberian vagueness), but we can assume here that the reflection is his own. Ashbery questions this reflection, for he knows a more accurate record of his various self-images would be a hall of mirrors, as opposed to one mirror. We are then given a second description, perhaps of the poet, perhaps of the poet somehow seen by someone else, perhaps of someone else, and here the image bears a strange resemblance to the earlier image of a face in the mirror, only here we have a man “seen arguing behind steamed glass, / With an invisible proprietor.” The static notion of a mirror reflecting has been replaced with a more suggestively vague image of a man behind a window, arguing “with an invisible proprietor.” This seems to be a re-description of the earlier image, where Ashbery also argued “with an invisible proprietor,” though there the proprietor is a metaphor for Ashbery’s reflection of himself in the mirror. Finally we have a third image of the poet ripping canvas from the frame. In a way, each successive image in our sequence of characterizations of thoughts about self-image has become richer, more pregnant with suggestion – we move from a mirror reflection, to someone arguing behind a window, to a painting, but the argument is always the same – “that’s not me, that couldn’t be me! I contain multitudes! I am voluminous, prodigious, prolific! One image of me could never work as a replacement for the polysemous me!”
And yet, characteristic of Ashbery, he leaves the nature of that desire in the final line utterly ambiguous. Is it the desire for personalities less like Heraclitus’s river, and with more of the stability of objects like “meat” and “tears”? If so, it’s an understandable desire, (it goes with us until “the last moment,” our deaths), but an impossible (“soiled”) one.
We might think of Rorty’s third characterization of American pragmatism – “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […]” – as the humanist cloak that covers, or the humanist air that permeates, his two earlier characterizations. For to say that there are no constraints on inquiry is to appeal to a finite humanity whose possibilities are still undreamed of. In a sense, it is also an appeal to and for solidarity, as there is no escaping, according to this maxim, the human community, which is the final arbiter, as opposed to God or any neutral starting-point. All our talk about redescription and self-image are contingent upon this notion, for there is no redescription or self-image without the human community to provide us with walls for bouncing off our redescriptions and self-images. Perhaps this is why Ashbery’s poetics provide us with such a polysemous chorus of voices – such poems indirectly suggest the richness of human attitudes, stances, temperaments, while refusing to gesture towards something outside these attitudes. All of which is to say, that although we seem to often want to apotheosize Ashbery, Ashbery has apotheosized nothing.
I took the first part of the title of this piece from Ashbery’s “Fragment,” and I’d like to end with another excerpt from that poem. The excerpt is yet another intimate reading of how we read the world and ourselves; it is also, in its final lines, an appeal to a kind of idiosyncratic solidarity, in a mode of poetics that is utterly Ashberian.
The part in which you read about yourself
Grew out of this. Your interpretation is
Extremely bitter and can serve no profitable end
Except continual development. Best to break off
All further choice. In
This way new symptoms of interest having a
Common source could produce their own ingenious
Way of watering into the past with its religious
Messages and burials. Out of this cold collapse
A warm and near unpolished entity could begin. (Ashbery, 230 – 231)
That “warm and near unpolished entity” is the “new being” we are aided to become through the “power of imagination.” Through the collapse of old ways of imagining, old vocabularies, old metaphors, old self-images – “the past with its religious / Messages and burials” – we find ourselves continuously facing “the first day / of the new experience,” helped by Ashbery’s astonishing redescriptions.
Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.
James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.
James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.
Introduction: Why the Lyric Essay?
I want to start with a problem: an overwhelming, close to paralyzing sense that an essay about John Ashbery’s poetry is like a representational critique of a cubist painting. The two (essay and poetry) just feel ill-fitting, strange bedfellows, as though a parent (the essayist), out of the desire to understand her son (the poet), gave him a lesson in thermodynamics. Ashbery can be theromodynamically complex, yet such a lesson would seem to miss the point, not to mention the fun. New forms of interpretation are needed to come close to an approximation to what Ashbery is doing.
So how do we approach him?
One day I made a list of various things that go into an Ashbery poem. I’d just read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” and, inspired, I decided to use his form, namely the “out of” incantatory rhythm, and apply it to what an Ashbery poem, in my mind, might be made out of. Here is a sampling:
- ideas stretched like mattresses
- feelings too simple and complex at once
- unsystematic thinking
- the bowels of the straining imagination
- the window where the morning does something just grand enough for a verb
- thoughts that ricochet around the laundry room
- sweeping symphony-like waves
- tissue boxes
- cardboard tents
- old political buttons
- aunt’s recipes scrawled in chicken-scratch on yellowing note cards
- domestic arrangements
- pictures of loved ones doing random silly things
- the noise the cat makes when it covers its litter
- cats and their following eyes
- fake plants
- the distant realm of the voice that swoops down out of sheer necessity to splatter the page with its urgings
But this seemed to defeat my purpose. I should begin at the beginning: Why was the lyric essay my answer to the problem of writing an essay about Ashbery?
A heightened attention to form and content seems to echo, among other poems, in some regards Ashbery’s longer work – I’m thinking of Flow Chart, or Three Poems, the sense of an unspooling thought following its own unwindings, but arguing for something, implicit or explicit, perhaps a way of being, perhaps a style, or maybe a space in the world for such a way-of-being/style to exist. A lyric essay does something similar: poetic and rhetorical, it gives the writer a freedom than the more conventional essay does not, a freedom that hopefully comes close to the Ashberian exuberance exhibited in poem like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or, better yet, “The Skaters.” The lyric essay, though argumentative, is more therapeutic, meaning it is more interested in providing helpful frameworks for thought than sending home an immaculate argument. Its intention is to “redescribe,” a la Richard Rorty – to speak differently, believing that “large-scale change of belief is indistinguishable from large-scale change of the meaning of one’s words.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 215) Indeed, this lyric essay has an ambitious goal: it posits that words placed in a lyric essay mean differently, work differently, and that this change in meaning is inextricably linked to changes in belief: the belief, say, that poems are best explicated by more formal essays, as opposed to other poems, or lyric essays; the belief that more conventional essays are mirrors reflecting the reality of the poem, as opposed to Lego-blocks, creating, blue block by red block, word by word, new interpretations, new angles, new ways of looking, which cannot happen separately from the form of the assay. The goal of the lyric essay, then, is to change writer and reader’s self-image, however slightly, “to insure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 304)
Part 1: Ashbery and the Rortian Self-Image
It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux. – Ann Lauterbach, Conjunctions: 49
Lauterbach is making a wonderfully interesting claim: that Ashbery is doing something similar to what philosophers do – and, more specifically, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James do. (What do they do?) Notice that Lauterbach is very careful in her phrasing: Ashbery “has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism”; his reticence, his self-deconstructing poetics, are each “evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the twentieth century.” These are powerfully intriguing statements, and they are intriguing because they are vague. James himself would approve of this vagueness, who wrote in the first chapter of his monumental Principles of Psychology that,
It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject […] we gain much more by a broad than by a narrow conception of our subject […] At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility. (James, 6)
Owing to the fact that our science here is literary criticism, which seems at best highly chimerical and dependent in some regard upon academic fads; and owing to the fact that our subject is John Ashbery’s poetry, an art form so florabundantly fertile as to deliberately court the benefits of suggestiveness, (if not the dangers of nebulousness), it seems best, following James and Lauterbach’s example, to proceed cautiously (but boldly) in our discussion of the affinities between Ashbery as poet and Ashbery as pragmatist philosopher. A pregnant vagueness is what we are after, as opposed to an insipid one.
Pregnant vagueness defined in Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”:
A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life (Ashbery, 143)
So what do pragmatist philosophers do?
Rorty, pragmatist par excellence, defines “philosophizing” as “[raising] questions about questions,” especially questions about “unexpressed assumptions” and “presuppositions.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) Voparil, quoting Rorty, points out that this activity of philosophizing “implies the primacy of ‘imaginative vision’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) So, a-ha (we want to say)! Philosophizing, or the raising of questions about questions – what we normally associate with philosophy – entails the importance of imaginative vision – what we normally associate with the driving force behind poetry! Here we might imagine William James and John Ashbery clasping hands. But what is the relationship, more specifically, between raising questions about questions and imaginative vision?
Suffice it to say here…that imaginative vision might be described as a way of thinking outside the box, and therefore as its own idiosyncratic form of metaphilosophy…? Meaning that to reflect upon the old way of thinking, we have to first move out and away from that old way of thinking. Here’s a metaphilosophy as defined by Ashbery in “Clepsydra”:
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: (Ashbery, 140)
And what is the goal of philosophizing, as defined by Rorty? Voparil goes on to write, again quoting Rorty,
The aims of edifying philosophy involve helping not only readers of philosophy but ‘society as a whole,’ to ‘break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 21-22)
Such a “[breaking] free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” is valuable, because such edifying discourse will “take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 22) A very compelling sentence; but what does it mean, and how is it related to Ashberian poetics?
Analogy. Do you remember as a teen wanting an article of clothing so badly, that you begged your parents for it – and for whatever reason, they decided not to buy it for you? I remember, as a pre-teen, desiring desperately a Corliss Williamson basketball jersey – red and white, with the word “Arkansas” at its center. The question is, why was I so obsessed with wearing that jersey? What is it that clothes represent that gets our desire-juices flowing? And what does this mundane example have to do with the seemingly extra-mundane notion of “[taking] us out of our old selves by the power of imagination, to aid us in becoming new beings”?
Another way to ask the question: Have you ever, after knowing a person for a good while, seen them in a different context, and the context changed the way you thought about them? Maybe you see your father interacting with an old friend you’d never met. Or you see a girlfriend interacting with her grandparents. Perhaps you see an old friend wearing a shirt you’d never imagine her wearing. And suddenly you’re feeling like you don’t know this person,
and you think to yourself, half-delighted, half-bewildered, “Oh my god, I never realized they had this side to them!”
This is what Voparil and Rorty are referring to, in regard to the goal of philosophizing, and what Ashbery enacts in his poeticizing: it’s the process by which we “change our clothes,” literally and metaphorically, to try on something new, for in so doing we are in effect trying on new identities, new self-images, imagining in the process the people we wish to become. We do this every time we start a new job, or try something new at our old job; every time we don a different haircut, or read a different poem, or wear a different style of t-shirt.
This – the changing of one’s self-image – is the GREAT THEME of Ashbery’s poetry.
Rorty describes this theme in terms of Freud and Hegel, although we might as well substitute “Ashbery”:
Freud, in particular, has no contribution to make to social theory. His domain is the portion of morality that cannot be identified with “culture”: it is the private life, the search for a character, the attempt of individuals to be reconciled with themselves (and, in the case of some exceptional individuals, to make their lives works of art).
Such an attempt can take one of two antithetical forms: a search for purity or a search for self-enlargement. The ascetic life commended by Plato and criticized by Nietzsche is the paradigm of the former. The “aesthetic” life criticized by Kierkegaard is the paradigm of the latter. The desire to purify oneself is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being. The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future. It was the goal shared by, for example, de Sade, Byron, and Hegel. On the view I am presenting, Freud is an apostle of this aesthetic life, the life of unending curiosity, the life that seeks to extend its own bounds rather than to find its center.
For those who decline the options offered by de Sade and Byron (sexual experimentation, political engagement), the principle technique of self-enlargement will be Hegel’s: the enrichment of language. One will see the history of both the race and oneself as the development of richer, fuller ways of formulating one’s desires and hopes, and thus making those desires and hopes themselves – and thereby oneself – richer and fuller.
Here’s Ashbery writing at the close of “Clepsydra.” I’m choosing this passage, because 1. it is itself about self-image – (passages about self-image in Ashbery, as I’m suggesting, are legion); and 2. when I read the passage, I myself feel changed, feel as if Ashbery is articulating something I’d always felt but never heard articulated, something so innate as to be almost unconscious and habitual: the workings of the imagination (read: self-image) itself, talking about itself:
What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you
Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening. (Ashbery, 146)
This absolutely remarkable passage is not only about the imaginative process by which we imagine ourselves into the people we wish to become – it seems itself to somehow enact or re-enact that process in its own formulation. It’s as if Ashbery, in discussing his own experience of growth and becoming, helps us to experience it within ourselves as well. It is a powerfully poetic way of telling us to trust our hopes, by calling attention to the way in which those feathered things are inextricable from our desired self-image. We have a “single and twin existence” because we are constantly setting out (“twin existence”) from where we just recently started from (single existence) – (The Mooring of Starting Out is what Ashbery titled the collection of his first five books of poetry). We are constantly twinning ourselves, imagining ourselves into the people we hope to “really be.”
This is why William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him.” (James, 20) “Vision” can be thought of synonymously here with personal imagination. James, like Ashbery and Rorty, is saying, modestly but confidently, that who we presently are is a quiet achievement, that growth is just as much an active process as it is a passive one. And Ashbery is one of our greatest chroniclers of this process by which we alter, gradually or suddenly, our self-image.
Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.
James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.
James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.
Aristotle defines phronesis in the following manner:
We may grasp the nature of prudence [phronesis] if we consider what sort of people we call prudent. Well, it is thought to be the mark of a prudent man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous . . . But nobody deliberates about things that are invariable . . . So . . . prudence cannot be science [episteme] or art [techne]; not science because what can be done is a variable (it may be done in different ways, or not done at all), and not art because action and production are generically different. For production aims at an end other than itself; but this is impossible in the case of action, because the end is merely doing well. What remains, then, is that it is a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man . . . We consider that this quality belongs to those who understand the management of households or states.
Phronesis is the other side of the beautiful conveyed in aesthetics (which means the beautiful and the good); it is that which is prudent, which makes art a living framework for living, “equipment for living” as Kenneth Burke phrased it. The word brought down into early Roman virtue is prudentia (prudence); someone recently called me their “prudent” friend, a charge I have never before received and am likely never to receive again.
Prudence, as Aristotle defines it, is neither the arts nor sciences, but the ability to conduct one’s self, and the business of the state wisely. In a sense, it is praxis as art is poesis and science (theoria). Aristotle separates these into categories, but the question that perhaps belongs most to phronesis is: how do we put into practice theoria and poesis? What is the responsible and living, active principle of either in our lives? When someone poopoos the arts as so much silliness or disparages science that does not have immediate practical application, are they acting out of phronesis, true praxis, or are they merely insisting on an absolute succession to praxis with theoria being too esoteric, and poesis being too inconsequential for consideration?
This is an important question for the Redux movement I belong to: redux, by using the broken and thrown away, by seeing beauty and ugliness as part of the same category of the grotesque as Averroes (A follower of Aristotle) did, risks pleasing neither those in science, the arts, or the polis, since what Redux wishes to introduce is a fourth category, or rather an appendage to the preceding three: theoria, praxis, poesis, and the posibility, the perhaps of deviation, digression, brokeness, incongruity, what might be called the comic misstep that becomes a dance. Redux is interested in the possibility that remains when things do not go as expected, as planned or as one wills. We are interested in anomaly, in what scientists insist is mere white noise, and what artists would consider mistakes. We are interested in seeing the universe as a series of pratfalls into grace, and so are loathe to believe in the following:
– Standards: not because we think art is subjective, but because we believe mistakes, sub-standards, and deviations may contain amazing power and value.
– Materials: we have two ways of thwarting such seemingly airtight aphorisms as “the medium is the message.” One is the “perspective by incongruity” as Kenneth Burke framed it (and which we “misuse” in so far as we extend it to matters of the spirit, and live in such seeming oxymoronic realms as “holy impiety” and “obedience as systemic deconstruction”). The second is the “Bethlehem principle”, which states that nothing ever grows from where it is expected, but happens in a “Bethlehem” that is inevitable “after the fact.” A preceding “after the fact” engages all aesthetics–the mistake that becomes the standard. For this reason, we consider all materials to be usable, possible, and appropriate, and seek to disengage from the consumer nexus of semiotic congruity and categorical tagging.
– Purity: Purity is impossible save in God or some concept which would approach God insofar as it is ultimate ground and source of all being. Redux advocates an ongoing and humble practice of impurity–what William’s called “by defective means.” We do not trust the pure, though we also do not trust the idea that there can be no absolutes. We believe there is an absolute which, the moment it is touched, approached, named, or pointed toward breaks into a million pieces and is “bedraggled.” We seek the bedraggled, we seek the Bethlehem. We seek the comedy of failures and success as being both equally beside the point. And so we are loathe to embrace Standards, materials, or purity in any conventional sense, believing the embrace of these leads to the very opposite of their intents: not virtue, but the arbitrary power and imposition of standards, materials, and purity in such a way as to create evil which we see as intentional thwarting of the good via envy, territorial desire, and the maintaining of power and privilege as “sacre” (ground set apart).
We call the appendage to theoria, praxis and poesis: Eucharist. Redux believes in eucharist. Eucharistic reality is that which can embrace the broken, the impure, the impious, the mistake, and also beauty virtue, rightness, within the framework of “living bread.” We believe that theoria, praxis, and poesis are worthless without eucharist, that they are indeed, all three truly activated only when they have received eucharistic energy–living bread. The dynamic of spirit, the receiving of spirit as that arbitrary power which goes where it wll, which plumbs even the depths of ultimate groundings without ever being “Subject” but, rather co-equal to those groundings is the agent, transfer, and mode of action in eucharist. Redux then seeks out and celebrates this dynamic in eucharist. We see eucharist as the tendon, and sinew of theoria, praxis and poesis, and we make provision for defective means– something which theoria, praxis, and poesis can never, in and of themselves, make provision for. This is the theoria, if you will, of redux.
As for its praxis, all that which is motley, a sincere bringing together of often incongruent dynamics: poetry readings that are aspects of high vaudeville, art exhibits that use any material at hand, most often that which has been thrown away, what might be called garbage art–graffiti as very much a vital eucharistic mode of artistic action as the “gesture,” the scribble, the sheer dynamic of improvised structures. Art as ritual, as ceremony, as an invocation of presence, and not the presence of the gate keepers, but of those who would open the gates: a free for all, but not without terminus, for Redux believes that true obedience to “No standards at all” will invariably lead to true value–that beyond standards, that beneath-which-not which is organic to human apprehension of the beautiful and the good.
We will define eucharistia as all that is truly bread in the dynamic of theoria, praxis and poesis, and yet is not subject to the “perfection” of these categories, but which lives in the free dynamic and interplay– and in the Bethlehem we can not apprehend save through prophetic vision– that which is right and inevitable only “after the fact.” This Bethlehem principle does not challenge or disparage Jerusalem, but merely knows that Eucharistia can not, by its very nature, favor Jerusalem–the agreed upon ideal–for then it would be subject to the law of standards, and Eucharistia is subject to no law. For this reason, as readily as it takes a broken piece of wood and draws upon it, it is just as likely to turn and write a sonnet. Eucharistia is that force which seeks to complete what is lacking in theoria, praxis and poesis at any one moment in space/time: sometimes, order and sometimes disorder. It is purposeful to the extent that it is a living bread, an aesthetic that privileges the energy of exuberance over all other energies, and so, to the degree that hiptserism is about cool and detached appreciation, Redux is antithetical to the elan of hipsterism (while not necessarily rejecting it outright). Redux sees beauty and ugliness as being joined as energetic principles of eucharistia–the dynamic of living bread.
In Eucharistia, not the immoral or amoral, but the pre-moral that leads to the beautiful and the good.
In Eucharistia, not the imperfect, or the perfect, but the dynamic between them
In Eucharistia, not action or motion, but percipient action and love of force and energy within the realm of perhaps.
In Eucharistia, not peace without violence, but a merge point that claims the ferocity of peace, and the calm at the center of flux.
In Eucharistia: the broken brought home to its magisterial rites within the living bread: love of the poor, love of vital energy, love of the being born into agon (birth pain), love of struggle, ongoing appraisal and protest against one’s own comfort zones, the daily, hourly practice of being ready for the spirit to annihilate one into being. Reinstituting of inspiration and afflatus over the factory model of excellence based on “Standards.” Whim as a form of virtue, constancy as grace.
We can enter a poem in an almost limitless number of ways–through its imagery, its social underpinnings, its meaning, its rhythms, its sentence structure, its line breaks, etc, etc. An arbitrary grid works like this: given these different ways of entering a poem, we can choose what we might want to steal from a poem: its line breaks, syllable structure, sentence structure, and use it to our own ends. This isn’t so much plagiarism as reclamation. We ransack the poem. We see it as a thing that has crashed down into our lives, as a whale washed up along our shore. We may as well use it since it is there.
Basically, an arbitrary grid is a way of using our reading for the purposes of writing.
Let’s take a poem from one of my former students: Brian Trimboli. One of the first things you might notice about Brian’s poetry is the kid likes metaphors. He also loves to personify abstractions and have them doing things. Hence the opening of his poem, “Apology”:
Dear reader, this poem has not yet been written.
I have been caught on the sticky tip
of amnesia’s swelled tongue.
I loaded my thoughts like shot gun shells
and fired them up at the sky.
Young poets tend to like being virtuosos. They have just developed their wings and want to do tricks. And Brian is doing a lot of good tricks here. The grid we might impose on the opening: direct address to the reader, followed by blunt statement of obvious lie (“this poem has not yet been written”). Followed by the personification of amnesia (giving it a sticky tongue–which is the ghost of oxymoron since amnesia is usually about things that don’t stick) followed by an abstraction (thoughts) being loaded into a gun and fired at the sky: To whit: Salutation, blunt statement (Seemingly impossible) personification, simile/personification:
Dear Lucy, I am having fun living without you.
I have been cradled in the
arms of somnambulance.
I have kneaded the bread of bitterness,
until it rises with the leaven of my spite.
Basically, I am copping Brian’s chord changes, but playing my own tune (A far more inferior tune, but I’m just doing this as an example). My “poem” is more about personal invective. It will focus not on a general reader, but on Lucy.
It may be more or less absurd. I might even send up one of the literary devices so that I am mocking the device even as I employ it. This is the strategy of imposing an arbitrary grid: in this case I will slavishly imitate whatever literary devices Brian is employing, maybe even his sentence structure, but the poem will be utterly different. After I’ve written it, I will decide which parts of the schema don’t work and edit them or change them accordingly.
This is one, utterly different way of getting your reading of poetry to function in your writing of it. You could take one poem and get twenty poems out of it, all depending on how you enter the text. My favorite arbitrary grid is the syllaby. Here, in a syllaby, you don’t imitate anything except the exact syllable and line structure of another poem. I did this with Frank O’Hara’s to “The Harbor Master”, Stevens’ “Large Red Man Reading”, and Williams’ “Franklin Street”. I published two of the poems. Try it. Enter a poem through its vowels, its consonants, its syllables, its line breaks, its stanzas, etc. Have fun.