Tuesday, June 26, 2007


At first, the poems of Chris Tonelli remind you of the off-beat wit associated with the New York School:

Night Terror

I had a dream that
the train seemed
important in passing,
something charged.
And I felt as if I was
easily going to have
sex w/ somebody
on that train. But, as
usual, it was someone
on the train before.

But then the humor gets more aggressive, or perhaps transgressive, and reminds me at least more of some of the aspects of Actualism – the 1970s movement begot by Ted Berrigan in Iowa that mostly moved later to the Bay Area before sputtering out – with which I was less fond:

Think Outside the Box

Think inside the butthole.

The last word of this one-line poem pivots the last word of its title, which is its “move” aesthetically. But it also limits it, drastically. So it makes me wonder.

This in turn is followed by a work that tries way too hard for its effect:

The Over-Zealous Philanthropist or The Bullshit Air on the Other Side of Forgiveness

In the silence
after the fart, he
makes sure that
everyone is ok.

Which makes me think the author must be very young indeed.¹ But then there’s something extraordinary:

At a Theater Urinal

The electric eye must have known the movie
was strange and wonderful because it flushed

while I was standing right there. It was true.
No one was watching anymore. It said: Go,

tumble like a manuscript over the lawn.

So that this short volume, {Wide Tree} – the brackets are part of the title – just out from Kitchen Press, rescues itself, tho not completely. Then I see this Cambridge poet dedicate a poem to Bill Knott, the crown prince of bad judgment wedded to an otherwise razor mind, and I begin to wonder if Chris Tonelli isn’t, or wasn’t once, one of Knott’s students. Tonelli’s own profile on Blogger lists a group of favorite books that includes these poets (and in this order):

Wallace Stevens
John Ashbery (Self-Portrait)
Ted Hughes
Elizabeth Bishop
A.R. Ammons
Fernando Pessoa
Nicanor Parra
Alan Dugan
Denis Johnson
Franz Wright
William Bronk
Bill Knott
August Kleinzahler
Anne Carson

Except for the Ashbery, not a New York School poet in sight. And while you could reasonably call William Bronk & Auggie Kleinzahler post-avants, it’s probably more accurate to suggest that they really fall somewhere in the middle between the post-world & the School d’ Quietude (SoQ), not unlike Stevens or Bishop, who approach this middle ground from the other direction.

But it’s almost impossible for me to imagine the poet who could write “Think Outside the Box” reading & liking the inordinately grim, but ethically impeccable, Bronk. Or, for that matter, Franz Wright, whose poems are only funny in an Ed Wood sort of way, unintentionally. Ammons, Bishop & Dugan all strike me as among the very best SoQ poets of the past century – Dugan is especially under-appreciated. And he does use humor (usually of the gallows sort – Dugan might be the connecting point between some of these other poets & a writer like Bronk).

The most interesting of these choices, to my reading at least, is Ashbery, not only because Tonelli’s book virtually screams out its debt to Ted Berrigan & Ron Padgett & Dick Gallup & Darrell Gray (perhaps him most of all), all either NY School poets or, in Gray’s case, one heavily influenced thereby, albeit at one remove. It’s that Tonelli has chosen the very least “NY Schoolish” of all Ashbery’s books.

So here is my question, and it could apply to Knott as well as to Tonelli – why would a poet so thoroughly oriented toward a particular kind of poetry, specifically the New York School, not engage more directly & fully with that writing? What is it about either one of them that keeps their imaginations so thoroughly “on campus” when it could be far more unbounded in a different setting?

I’m not particularly saying that their approach is “wrong,” but I do find it baffling.


¹ His Blogger profile – not always the best source – says he’s 32.


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