Friday, August 10, 2007

 


Photo by Amy King

To ask what makes John Ashbery a New American Poet is to ask the implicit question of what made the New American Poetry (NAP) distinct, not just from various tendencies of the School of Quietude but also from the traditions out of which it emerged in the decade after the Second World War. For one thing, the NAP wasn’t one thing – it was several. In addition to the Beats, the Projectivists, the Spicer Circle & the New York School, there was (and still is) the question of the San Francisco Renaissance, which was never more than whoever Robert Duncan wasn’t feuding with that week, and that quirky still unacknowledged tendency that rose up out of the Reed Three (Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch) and then Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal to embrace a poetics that was at least loosely aligned with Zen Buddhism, an interest in the American west, both as landscape & tradition, and a poetics that was not innately urban – I call these poets New Western or Zen Cowboy & would include Koller, Bobby Byrd, Jack Collom, John Oliver Simon, Simon Ortiz, Keith Wilson, Drum Hadley, Bill Deemer, Clifford Burke & of course Joanne Kyger. Actually, I’m sure that list is omitting way too many people in places like Idaho & Arkansas (where Besmilr Brigham would surely qualify). What is it that Denise Levertov, Drum Hadley, John Ashbery &, say, Amiri Baraka had in common that would permit anyone to identify them as part of a larger literary movement?

The traditional, historic answer has generally been that as the NAP

has emerged in Berkeley and San Francisco, Boston, Black Mountain and New York City, it has shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities of academic verse. Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, it has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem.

Thus sayeth Donald M. Allen, right there in the second paragraph to the “Preface” to The New American Poetry. But what then about poets like John Ashbery & Jack Spicer, neither of whom followed “the practice and precepts” of Pound or Williams? One could make the social argument for Spicer of course – his circle, including everyone from George Stanley, Joanne Kyger, John Wieners & Steve Jonas (albeit briefly), Harold Dull, Larry Fagin, Stan Persky & even Robin Blaser & Jack Gilbert, was crucially at the heart of Bay Area poetics for a decade, at least once you got more than ten feet outside of City Lights Books. But during that same crucial decade from the mid-1950s through the mid-‘60s, John Ashbery was not in New York. The most you can say about him during this decade was that Ashbery was in touch with other New York poets and took part in some publication projects that tended to incorporate them from afar. Some of them had jobs that kept them around the burgeoning visual arts industry, as did he, only elsewhere.

Ashbery’s first book had been released without much distribution by Tibor de Nagy, the same gallery that brought out work by Frank O’Hara. But Ashbery’s second book, Some Trees, had been the 1956 Yale Younger Poets volume selected by Wystan Auden, hardly a camp follower of the Pound-Williams tradition, indeed the most significant figure in the School of Quietude (SoQ) not aligned with either the Boston Brahmin crowd around Lowell or the somewhat older Fugitive poets about Warren, Ransom & Jarrell.¹ The Tennis Court Oath, Ashbery’s next volume, came out from Wesleyan at a time when that university house still published only SoQ poets, while Rivers and Mountains came out from Holt, Rinehart Winston, one of the lesser New York trade presses. The Double Dream of Spring came out from E.P. Dutton in its American Poets series. It was only after Wesleyan reprinted the British Selected Poems, first published by Jonathan Cape, letting Some Trees go out of print, that Ted & Eli Wilentz, owners of the Eighth Street Bookshop, republished the Yale edition under their own Corinth imprint in 1970. Which means, in fact, that it is not until 1975, when Black Sparrow releases The Vermont Notebook, the most under-appreciated of Ashbery’s One-Off volumes, that a major NAP-related press actually first publishes one of his books – 19 years after Some Trees.

Is Ashbery a New American Poet then strictly by friendship & accident? I think he comes by it legitimately, which is to say formally, as does Spicer. I do think that there are some poets in the Allen anthology in particular about whom you might make an argument that they don’t necessarily belong to the NAP tradition even if they were also outside of the School of Quietude as well: Brother Antoninus, Madeline Gleason, James Broughton, even Helen Adam. These were not poets who looked much to the Pound-Williams tradition, but whereas Spicer & Ashbery are doing things in their work that is in consort the New American Poetics, the most one might say about this other quartet is that you could trace their anti-academicism in general back to the same source where Pound found it, in the work of Yeats.

Until recently – maybe last week – I would have said that Spicer & Ashbery are much closer to the New American Poetry because their work also focuses the readers attention on the materiality of the signifier, precisely what the School o’ Quietude attempts to efface. Spicer was the one person among the 44 Allen gathered to have actually studied language, working as a professional linguist. As such, he didn’t buy the mythological line = breath unit Piltdown personism Charles Olson was promoting & said so frankly. His own counter position, radio dictation from Mars, was no less metaphoric but in its functional process the idea severed the simplistic psychologism that actually underlies much NAP neo-romanticism, whether that of Olson or Ginsberg or O’Hara. If you’re taking dictation, then this text isn’t about you.

What all New American Poetry tendencies have in common, or so I might have said just one week ago, is this general emphasis on the materiality of language. Whether it’s in the compositional strategies of the Black Mountain poets, ever seeking a more accurate method of scoring the page for sound, in the oracular excesses of a Beat poet going “overboard” verbally, via spontaneous bop prosody, as Kerouac put it, or in the densely crafted imagery of Ginsberg’s hydrogen jukebox or Michael McClure’s ecstatic lion roars or in the softer & more ironic variant offered up by O’Hara et al, every one of these poetries comes alive precisely because it resists the conception of a transparent referential language, something only a few of the SoQ poets seemed to be capable of doing (most notably in the 1950s Theodore Roethke & John Berryman).

The group that really brought this home for me is the Zen Cowboy poets, the tendency that borrowed from every one of their peers & discounted any pretense of a theorized style. But what you see in the best work of this group – Whalen, Collom, Welch, Brautigan’s poetry (and at least the early novels), the later Kyger & occasionally even Snyder – is a focus on focus, on presence, immanence. Be here now is very much a poetic program. Its motivation may be different, but its practice varies hardly at all from the in-the-moment / of-the-moment poetics that could generate a classic called Lunch Poems or a series like Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. Among the Projectivists, this emphasis is the essence of Creeley’s Pieces, or of the phenomenological mobiles of Larry Eigner.

Really with the exception of Stein & Zukofsky, I don’t think the materiality of the signifier was the intention of the modernists – it’s an area where, for example, George Oppen is far stronger in Discrete Series, his supposed juvenilia of the 1930s, than in the award-winning Of Being Numerous thirty years hence. It’s part – but not all – of the program of Spring & All. And you might say that it’s what remains of Pound’s layered densities of reference in The Cantos once you throw the bogus scholarship overboard & just read what’s on the page. Ditto the 19th century philology at the heart of Finnegans Wake.

Indeed, one might make the case of the New Americans generally that they read what the modernists wrote, rather than what the modernists thought they wrote. Which is how a Robert Creeley could profess to be stunned that William Carlos Williams did not voice his line breaks as such, once he’d heard Williams read. It was so obvious if you just looked at the page. Just not to Williams.

But how then square this underlying first principle of the material signifier, the immanent word, with something like this?

There is no staying here
Except a pause for breath on the peak
That night fences in
As though the spark might be extinguished.

 

He thought he had never seen anything quite so beautiful as that crystallization into a mountain of statistics: out of the rapid movement to and from that abraded individual personalities into a channel of possibilities, remote from each other and even remoter from the eye that tried to contain them: out of that river of humanity comprised of individuals each no better than he should be and doubtless more solicitous of his own personal welfare than of the general good, a tonal quality detached itself that partook of the motley intense hues of the whole gathering but yet remained itself, firm and all-inclusive, scrupulously fixed equidistant between earth and heaven, as far above the tallest point on the earth’s surface as it was beneath the lowest outcropping of cumulus in the cornflower-blue empyrean. Thus everything and everybody were included after all, and any thought that might ever be entertained about them; the irritating drawbacks each possessed along with certain good qualities were dissolved in the enthusiasm of the whole, yet individuality was not lost for all that, but persisted in the definition of the urge to proceed higher and further as well as in the counter-urge to amalgamate into the broadest and widest kind of uniform continuum. The effect was as magnificent as it was unexpected, not even beyond his wildest dreams since he had never had any, content as he had been to let the process reason itself out. “You born today,” he could not resist murmuring although there was no one within earshot, “a life of incredulity and magnanimity opens out around you, incredulity at the greatness of your designs and magnanimity that turns back to support these projects as they flag and fail, as inevitably happens. …”

At first, this seems to be the antithesis of a poetics of immanence – be anywhere but here would seem to be the message, both at the level of content & in practice. “The New Spirit” is the only poem I know of that includes a sentence that contains the word magnanimity not once but twice with but a dozen words between occurrences. Trying to pin down Ashbery’s argument, as such, is the proverbial scooping up mercury with a pitchfork. You simply can’t do it.

If, however, you read Ashbery the same way you do Larry Eigner, as a model of consciousness itself, the place of presence refocuses in a new way. Ashbery in Three Poems reminds me, more than anything, of the Buddhist adage that You are not your thoughts, and with the underlying idea that thinking itself represents a form of anxiety. The whole purpose in meditation of focusing on breathing is precisely to make the individual conscious of the degree to which thinking goes on, even when one pays it no mind. Meditators never fully banish thoughts – it’s not even clear if that would be doable – but rather get distance from them, so that when thoughts rise up & intrude on the meditation one can simply turn them aside. Three Poems replicates this process better than any work of literature I’ve ever read, before or since. As experience, the poem’s mode is one of continually refocusing, then drifting, then refocusing again, then drifting further. If it never settles, this is because there is, as Stein once characterized her hometown of Oakland, “no there there,” no topic sentence, no secret center, no monad “I” or “eye” at the work’s heart.

Ashbery telegraphs this in any number of ways. One of the most effective, for me at least, is his occasional breaking up of a paragraph literally midline as tho one might have a stanza break with no other vestige of traditional verse devices. Thus, for example,

For I care nothing about apparitions, neither do you, scrutinizing the air only to ask, “Is it giving?” but not so dependent on the answer as not to have our hopes and dreams, our very personal idea of how to live and go on living. It does not matter, then,

 

but there always comes a time when the spectator needs reassurance, to be touched on the arm so he can be sure he is not dreaming.

This is not an epic challenge between solipsism & phenomenology, but rather a poetics that wants to include both the real and all of our difficulties getting in touch with that plane. It’s not that Eigner or O’Hara propose to be here now & Ashbery does not, only that Ashbery wants us to be conscious that both here & now are concepts that need to be unpacked, that neither is quite what it seems.

Years ago, somebody in an interview tried to provoke Allen Ginsberg into dismissing language poetry, which was only then coming into prominence. For a generation, Ginsberg replied, poets point at the moon, then poets notice they’re pointing. In a period during which Robert Creeley could – and did – write

Here here
here. Here.

John Ashbery is responding literally in kind – one can palpably feel the nod to Creeley in the generosity of Ashbery’s phrasing – when he begins the most important of his poems

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.

Three Poems is not merely John Ashbery’s best and most important book, one that American literature is still working to fully incorporate, it is a demonstration that the principles underlying the New American Poetry can be arrived at from a completely different direction than that employed by 99 percent of his peers in the late sixties, early seventies. As such, it represents one of the most intellectually ambitious literary projects ever written.

 

 

¹ Indeed, one could write a history of the School of Quietude that focused on Auden’s impact in America as the most explosive force other than the sudden emergence of the NAP in causing the SoQ to begin its own steady devolution into a variety of sometimes quite mutually hostile tendencies, so that the crowd around FSG, the trade presses, and the Eastern foundations became quite a target both for bad-boy Brahmins like Robert Bly & the more western & less urban (and less urbane) poets out in Iowa City.

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