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Hart Crane

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?


Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?


Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.


So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?


See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”


“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”


Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)


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

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Many young poets can not accept that telling a story, or relating some sort of narrative arc is conducive to the highest aims of poetry. Of course this is a confusion between story telling and narrative. They are not the same. Narrative is the pulse and rhythm of being. Whitman is an intensely narrative poet, as is Emily Dickinson. Stories stay in touch with this pulse of being in the most obvious ways. The great triumph of Chekhov is that he muted the obviousness of story, blurred the distinctions between plot and character, and took prose into territories of consciousness previously known only to the most subjective and simple of lyrical poems. Story may be destroyed, but never narrative. If I write

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree

I am, for all my pretensions to surrealism, still in the arms of narrative. The sun is doing something (batting its eye lashes)i This is the action at the scene. Oy vey is an ejaculation that means, roughly: “Oh brother,” or “For crying out loud,” or “Oh my God” so it implies an attitude. If I say I am a tired tree, then I am implying a state of being, and the reader will connect the dots. The batting of eye lashes is an age old signifier of vanity or flirting. I may not follow this line consciously, but it is there. So lets continue:

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree.
Strange omens creep forth from Canada.
The sky is dressed in drag.
How shall I desist from wandering the earth
in search of pomegranates?
Death to stars and cardboard!
Death to the wan smile of the lost.
Forgive me my trespasses.
I am a tired tree
half in love with sudden lightning
and the vagrant grin of years.

There is no story told here, but there is narrative arc. The poem might seem nonsensical, especially if you insist on logical exposition or a concrete point (which is journalism and information–not narrative). If you meet the poem on its own terms line for line, you may notice a strange lament. The tree is tired. It is half in love with lightning (death wish) and the vagrant grin of years. The voice is vehement in what it wants to die: stars, cardboard, the wan smile of the lost. This is an arbitrary list, but have you ever listened to a cranky sick person complain:? To quote my Aunt Mary two weeks before she died: “No soup! The hell with soup and styrofoam. Where is my bone china? You’re killing me!”

The problem students have with narrative is its mundanity. It is not the narrative, but the absence of verbal surprise they are missing. Verbal surprise is always overrated by young poets. They mistake confusion and flash for lyricism. Lyricism breaks forth when the narrative arc, the interior laws organic to the poem are compelled, even forced to sing and this singing is so close to insanity or sheer ecstasy as to risk the loss of sense. Take this snippet from Hart Crane that baffles many a sensible soul:

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

It is, indeed, a strange phrase, but let’s consider (beyond Cleanth Brooks) where Hart Crane lived. He lived in the same apartment that had been occupied by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew scansions (bridge abutments) like no one else. They could have been painted a mustard brown or yellow–in keeping with hazel eyes. When I first read this line I was in awe of his accuracy, a precision so intense it blighted the sense and construct of the actual thing described. Of course I was reading my own life into the poem. I once loved a girl who stood at dusk under the El, and she had yellow or mustard specks in her eyes, and the scansions were reflected in her irises. When I read this line, I thought Hart Crane had hovered like a ghost over my experience. I was reading into the poem which leads me to another point: even if you provide no story or narrative, the reader will provide one, and if not, then the reader is immured in a construct of non-narrative so pure as to be pissant.

John Ashbery, the darling of many poets opposed to story telling and narrative, is an intensely narrative poet. His narratives shift from line to line, moment to moment, disappearing and dissolving in the current of the poem. He is the master of the story that “Almost” happens. He makes a gesture towards story and betrays it, but he does not betray narrative.

Many poets try to escape narrative by destroying syntax. Lets try it:

Orion of graves
graves of the discontent
watermelons in the breeze
breeze absolving the moon
and the hermit
and the celebrity
and the soul survivor of the war
and the judiciary
and the past-enormous–lopsided tits
Pray! Pray for the thigh I am licking.
Pray for Betty Crocker!
And the and and the and and the and
loose cowboys
suspended adorations.

OK, only a couple of sentences. Why pray for Betty Crocker? Yet the poem obeys its own immutable laws of disconnection. That in itself is a ceremony and a narrative. ask: How do we make narrative beyond mere story telling? I tell you, no good story obeys story telling. It obeys narrative–the arc of being.

A poem can be utterly concrete in all its details, yet abstract as to its meaning. This abstraction has better words to define it: vague, illusive, non-cognitive, gibberish, wide open to interpretation, etc. I’m sorry they used the word abstract to name such a poem, since, elsewhere, abstraction means to deal with the principle of the thing rather than the thing. Example: “man is prone to evil” rather than “Freddy is prone to evil.”

Here’s an example of a form called an “abstract” poem. Personally, I’d prefer “non-representational poem” to the extent that the poem is made out of words which may not refer to any idea, emotion, or agreed upon meaning outside the sequence of words. This is by Roy Campbell, supposedly the foremost practitioner of the “abstract poem”:

Of seven hues in white elision,
the radii of your silver gyre,
are the seven swords of vision
that spoked the prophet’s flaming tyre;

We have seven hues, a silver gyre, seven swords of vision, and a prophet’s flaming tyre. Beats me as to what Campbell means, but almost all lyrical poems contain such moments of high gibberish:

The mustard scansion of the eyes (Hart Crane)

This might be called ecstatic speech except that many language poets keep the totality of abstraction, and skip the lyricism:

With Eye Brows Thick As Tacitus
Lars Olson

We dined on sacrifage. Remember the trouncing sun?
and how Melissa’s cape flew off towards infamy?
Wasn’t that nice? The live long day wore
wretched and vociferous gloves
while that distended cousin of Gwen had to
find another ruse for frolicking about
doffing her Pavlovian grin.
Let’s face it, the dance cards of longing
are marked for death, but semblances
of scalloped bawds still pock the surly afternoon
and bring us news of kith and kin
with eye brows thick as Tacitus.

This passage is not exactly abstract. It sounds like the ghost of someone recalling some odd get together. We could paraphrase the poem (at least this section) as a memory poem, but, again, just barely. In a sense, it is borrowing “remember when” and making it odd. The gist of the poem is not regularly forthcoming. The language may be informal, even chatty (“Wasn’t that nice?”) but its effect is abstracted in the sense of not being representational of any standard meaning or expectation. This is the sort of abstraction that language poetry and surrealism often employs. It is one of the tricks in the bag of postmodernism. It is a different order of abstraction than what we commonly mean. So let’s break abstraction down.

Abstraction of meaning, running from high gibberish to a sort of dadaist literalism that makes the meaning absurd or, at the least, makes meaning highly provisional. It is the chief operating device of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, of certain New York school techniques, and of what might be deemed a sort of emotionally detached surrealism. It often comes with many and usually random concrete images. It is often comical, having, at its best, the great childish virtues of Magritte’s paintings. It is a good defense against paraphrase, maudlin sentiment, or commitment to anything overt. It often sounds highly precocious if not intelligent. It does not hedge its bets. It makes no bets. It is all hedges. Here’s the problem: if the person wielding the technique does not understand vamps, and tropes, and little tricks of distorting cliché, then it might all dissolve into a sort of verbal vomit.

Now for the more common idea of abstraction: expressing a principle or idea without being specific in terms of sensual details, or in which the sensual details serve the merely utilitarian purpose of embodying a principle.

Abstract: Man is a moral creature. And sin makes man less than man.

The poetic abstract (using a vivid or concrete image in the service of an idea): Man is an oak, and sin an axe.

Narrative concrete: Jim was a good guy, always did whatever he could to help you out, but then that bitch, Tara came along and ruined him. Now he’s a bum. Just goes to show you how one bad mistake can ruin your life.

Proverbial version of the poetic abstract: “By Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Abstraction in poetry before the modernists:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest. (Pope)

Hope is a thing with feathers (Dickinson)

In either case, concrete sensual detail is there, but barely. We have the human breast, but it is figurative, rather than concrete or specific. We have hope defined by an extended metaphor and embodiment as a bird–but barely. This is poetry as wisdom: its images, though often beautiful, are always at the service of a principle, a truth, and very often, a sort of maxim. You might call this representational abstraction, and the first abstraction we mentioned non-representational abstraction. The concrete is really never absolutely there. The abstract, if it be truly abstract, isn’t there at all. You can’t “see” a season. You can look out a window, see the snow, feel the cold wind, and conclude it is “winter” but “winter” is a general principle embodied in snow and cold wind. You can also abstract by going too far into details without context. If you describe a daisy by painstakingly denoting all its parts–I mean, in every seen-detail–and you do not extend that detailing to an overall picture, chances are the reader won’t know you are talking about a daisy: detail without context is abstract. Context is the necessary abstraction of recognizing the details of a daisy as a daisy. Thus, against all the prevailing wisdom and preference of teachers, I would not tell beginning writers to avoid abstraction. I would tell them to play with the concrete towards representational abstraction or non-representational abstraction. In effect, either toward an “ontology” (the being /meaning implied by the details) or away from that ontology (if it is too pat, too obvious–for example: a grey sky equals sadness). Beginners must learn to employ the full spectrum of concrete details towards representational or non-representational abstraction. Painters know this.

We need two posts to cover this business of the concrete and the abstract. For now, here’s your homework: Read Dylan Thomas’ famous poem in which he admonishes his father to “Not go Gentle into that good night.” In what ways does this poem use details to bring home its abstraction? After reading this, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Last Words of My English grandmother.” Both poems are about dying elderly people. In a sense, Williams’ poem is far less poetic in its diction and imagery, but the grandmother, even though she is dying, comes off as a wonderful old coot and lively woman, whereas we know nothing of Dylan’s father at the end. Read these poems, then look at one of yours and see if you lean more towards one or the other. If you lean more towards the Dylan Thomas, re-write the poem to go more toward the Williams, and vice versa. Good luck.

Seen above, for the first time, is a newly-discovered photograph of Arthur Rimbaud from the 1880s. I quote from the Associated Foreign Press:

Unseen photo of French poet Rimbaud unveiled

PARIS — A previously unseen photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud was unveiled in Paris on Thursday, bringing the total number of known images of the writer to eight.

The photograph, which shows Rimbaud on the porch of a hotel in Yemen around 1880, was showcased at the International Antiquarian Book Fair at Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue.

The black and white image is only the fourth to portray the poet as an adult and is “the only one in which Rimbaud’s adult facial characterisics are distinguishable”, according to the poet’s biographer, Jean-Jacques Lefrere.

Rimbaud, who was once described by Victor Hugo as “an infant Shakespeare”, produced his best-known works in his late teens. At 20 he gave up poetry and left France to travel. He died from cancer in 1891 aged 37.

Below, Rimbaud’s most famous poem, in the best translation the poetry has yet received into English, by Martin Sorrell (Oxford World’s Classics, 2001). He is the poet most important to understanding the crucial line of 20th century American-English symbolism: the inaugurator of Hart Crane, as well as of John Ashbery. He liberated words to music, and embodied the sovereignty of the imagination as an aesthetic principle foremost. For his sensualism, his precocity, and his recondite combinations of unexpected words, phrases—he is simply unrivaled. Rimbaud’s use of color in poetry anticipates Munch, as well as Georg Trakl. Far from being a reckless raving beatnik, Rimbaud was systematic—advancing the discoveries Baudelaire had made in revolutionizing and modernizing poetic form and style. He could parrot any style; yet he remains inimitable, unique, and resembles no one else. His prose poems are arguably still the best of their kind, in any language. The complexities of his life, which only dealt with poetry very briefly, between the age of 17 to 20, is inexplicable. There are other mysterious poets in history, but there is no other mystery like Rimbaud’s. Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings, featured an epigraph of the French poet’s. (When he was drunk, he was taken to yelling, “I am Rimbaud come again!”) His letters are incredible. His insights have been adopted by no less an orthodox spirit than T.S. Eliot—whose own innovations, accredited to Jules LaForgue, owed much to Rimbaud’s. When W.H. Auden selected John Ashbery’s Some Trees he was quite reticent about the overall strategy and tendency in style of JA’s work, and saw Rimbaud as the precedent for such a subjective, surrealistic manner (one that might lead poets astray). Yet no style has meant more to poetry since.


I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolour posts.

I didn’t give a damn about the crews,
Or the Flemish wheat and English corn.
Once the shindig with my haulers finished
I had the current take me where I wished.

In the furious riptides last winter,
With ears as tightly shut as any child’s,
I ran, and unanchored Peninsulas
Have never known such carnivals of triumph.

The storm blessed my maritime wakefulness.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which some call eternal victim-breakers-
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares.

Sweeter than sour apple-flesh to children
Green water slid inside my pine-clad hull
And washed me clean of vomit and cheap wine,
Sweeping away rudder-post and grapnel.

From that time on, I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, lactescent and steeped in stars,
Devouring green azures; where a drowned man
Like bleached flotsam sometimes sinks in a trance;

When suddenly tinting the bluities,
Slow deliriums in shimmering light,
Fiercer than alcohol, vaster than lyres,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment.

I know skies splintered by lightening, breakers,
Waterspouts, undertows; I know the dusk,
And dawn, exalted like a host of doves -
And then I’ve seen what men believe they’ve seen.

I’ve seen low suns smeared with mystic horrors
Set fire to monster fires of violet;
Like actors in the very oldest plays
Slatted light shimmered, away on the waves.

Green nights I dreamed bedazzlements of snow,
A kiss rising to sea’s eyes slowly,
Circulation of undiscovered saps,
Blue-yellow wakefulness of phosphorsongs.

For whole months on end I followed the swell
Charging the reefs like hysterical beasts,
Not thinking that luminous Maryfeet
Could force a muzzle onto breathy seas.

I struck, you know, amazing Floridas
Where flowers twine with panther eyes inside
Men’s skins! Rainbows flung like bridles under
Sea horizons harnessed the glaucous herds.

I saw great swamps seethe like nets laid in reeds
Where a whole Leviathan lay rotting,
Collapse of water in the midst of calm
And distances tumbling into nothing.

Glaciers, silver suns, pearl seas, firecoal skies!
Hideous wreckages down in brown depths
Where enormous insect-tormented snakes
Crash from twisted trees, reeking with blackness.

I’d have liked to show children blue-water
Dorados, golden fish and fish that sing.
Foam-sprays of flowers cradled my drifting;
At times I flew on ineffable winds.

Sometimes, martyr tired of poles and wastelands,
My pitching was stilled by the sobbing sea
Which raised to me its yellow-sucker
Shadow-flowers – and I, like a woman, knelt.

Floating islands where the brawls and the guano
Of fierce albino birds bounced off my sides,
I sailed, while down among my fraying ropes
Drowned men descended backwards into sleep.

Now, I, boat tangled in the hair of bights,
Hurled high by hurricanes through birdless space,
Whom no protection-vessel in the world
Would fish up from the drink, half-drowned, half-crazed;

Free, smoking, got up in violet spume,
I, who holed the sky like a wall in flames
Which bears, good poet’s exquisite preserve,
Lichen of sun and cerulean snot;

Mad plank streaked with electric crescents, flanked
By dark formations of speeding sea-horse,
When Julys bludgeoned ultramarine skies
And pulverized them into scorching winds;

Trembling as I heard the faraway groans
Of rutting Behemoths and swirling storms;
Eternal spinner of blue stillnesses,
I long for Europe’s ancient parapets.

I’ve seen star-sown islands cluster; others
Whose delirious skies summon sailors.
Do you sleep banished in the pit of night,
You myriad golden birds, the Strength to come?

I’ve wept too much, it’s true. Dawn breaks my heart.
All moons are atrocious, all suns bitter.
Acrid love has pumped me with drugged torpor.
Let my keel burst, let me go to sea!

If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond
Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches
One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches
A boat, frail as a butterfly in May.

Steeped in your slow wine, waves, no more can I
Cadge rides in the cotton-freighters’ slipstream,
Nor brave proud lines of ensigns and streamers,
Nor face the prison-ship’s terrible eyes.

Arthur Rimbaud, from Poems 1869 – 1871, translated by Martin Sorrell

Below are some candid photos I’ve taken of Poetryland’s Personalities.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United Sates, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumes… Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic (as some have declared it, upon the advent of the Photograph), but because, when generalized, it completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.”

“Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumes as such, publicly.”

“The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence… The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.


…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?