Saturday, November 26, 2005


Ben Friedlander


The dispute of sorts over the relationship of the 3rd Gen New York School & the University of Chicago – it seems clear now that Berrigan taught elsewhere in Chicago, but that’s not the same as saying that key members of Gen 3 didn’t attend there, which is actually what Jordan Davis wrote – was followed by Ben F. (presumably Friedlander) taking me to task for my comment about “those deadly little state college reading series,” to which he replied “Yeah, cuz they really rock the joint at those Ivy Leagues. C'mon, Ron, how about a little class solidarity here?” At the very same time, Jerome Karabal’s The Chosen, which documents the ways in which Ivy League schools changed admissions policies early in the 20th century to minimize the number, literally, of Jews on campus, is getting reviewed pretty much everywhere right now, as it should be. For the record, Friedlander and I both attended the same state school, the University of California at Berkeley, before he went on to SUNY-Buffalo (the same school that I very nearly attended in the early 1970s). Berkeley, like Madison, Ann Arbor, Austin & one or two other places, is a town that is home to a state university so widely known that perhaps only on the sports pages do you hear people refer to the school as anything other than the town with which it has become synonymous.

All of which does raise the question about schools (the degree granting kind) & schools (the literary tendency kind). As Jordan Davis notes, the first generation NY School had several former Harvard students in it, but Black Mountain did as well. If the second generation NY School tended to matriculate uptown at Columbia, it was on the same quad where the Beat generation had gotten its start in the late 1940s. During that same decade, the Berkeley Renaissance was very clearly the U.C. Berkeley renaissance, as Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser all worked on the campus magazine while hanging around with such disparate friends as Philip K. Dick, Landis Everson & even Rod McKuen. Langpo has a significant relationship to Yale (Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Alan Bernheimer), Harvard/Radcliff (Bob Grenier, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein), Berkeley (myself, David Bromige, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout, David Melnick) the University of Chicago (Melnick, Tom Mandel), SF State (Michael Davidson, myself, Rae Armantrout), U.C. Irvine (Carla Harryman, Steve Benson) & even – gasp – the University of Iowa (Grenier, Watten, Perelman, Ray Di Palma). And – right at about the point where, in Jordan Davis’ narrative, you would put the 4th gen NY School, it seemed as tho every single major series in New York had major input from then-recent graduates of Bard, Brown & Buffalo, perhaps the first female-majority age cohort on the NY scene. Even more recently the western phenomenon of New Brutalism can be traced back to students from just two schools, U.C. Santa Cruz & Mills College. Indeed, this kind of close correlation between literature & schools can be traced back at least to the invention of modernism by four poets, all of whom had some relationship with the University of Pennsylvania (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Marianne Moore).

So what is the relationship between schools & schools here? And how important is this? Did any of the langpo Harvard students even know of one another when they went there (over quite an extended period)? Does it tell more about a writer to know that Lydia Davis attended the same private school as Eliot Weinberger & Bob Perelman than it does that her half-brother is Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn? At dinner the other night, we ascertained that David Shapiro had played violin during his college years with James Sherry’s brother, the cellist Fred Sherry, something I don’t think either realized before last week. But how much of this is the cotton candy of gossip, and how much is not?

Friday, November 25, 2005


Wooly Bully? Hurly Behrle!


You may have noticed that MiPOradio is now listed to the left as a Silliman Site, just two up from PENNsound. MiPO’s Didi Menendez swears that listening to poetry on podcasts & iTunes is going to be the next big thing, if it isn’t that already. I don’t know, but her rap on this echoes Charles Bernstein’s about the importance, for example, of recording every poem by every poet in some kind of easily searchable order (and just possibly multiple readings of the same poems by the same author, so that, presumably, we can tell if the difference between readings tells us anything about the author or the poem itself, other than that maybe one’s eyes weaken with age & that a lot of venues could use a little more light on the podium, thank you).

I’m a lot less certain. I have said (and written) before that I think that what survives in poetry – what really is the poem – is almost invariably platform independent. The physical limitations of Vispo, for example, are not so different from the same limitations that pertain to the body & voice of the poet. Yes, it’s interesting to hear Olson’s breathless rush through his longer poems or to notice that Zukofsky pauses at the end of every second linebreak, so that one functions as a kind of caesura & the other as a “true” break, but while that may tell me something about their relationship to their poems, it doesn’t always tell me about my relationship to those same texts. Which frankly is what matters. To me.

Jim Behrle recorded portions of my reading with David Shapiro as part of the Jim Behrle Show, a relatively fugitive effort that you can view (or even download) here. Once you sort of conceptually peel off Jim’s overly energetic mode of hosting (and you thought Conan O’Brien was servile!?!), Jim actually does a good job of capturing the feel of the event at the Bowery Poetry Club. I would go so far as to recommend this to anyone whose only exposure to poetry readings is through those deadly little state college reading series where everyone sits silently absorbing the text. Those are readings rather in the same way that those ashes in an urn are your grandmother. Jim has done a good job representing how a reading looks & feels when a poet is any part of a community – my own relationship to New York is fairly distant, having not spent a full week there in one continuous period since 1964. Hint: it’s not silent, rapt attention. And there is laughter.

One difference that may separate Behrle from Menendez & Bernstein, tho, is archival. Jim has done a number of these shows, with writers of quite different aesthetics. It would be great to see them all hosted for long-term retrieval at some site that enabled a potential viewer to distinguish the Sillimans from the Mark Strands.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


I’m taking today off. Hope you have a great day.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Jordan Davis


Once upon a time, when Small Press Traffic was primarily a poetry-centered book store on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, it divided its shelves into three categories: men, women, and fiction. The first issue of Vincent Katz’ new mag, Vanitas, reminded me of this by the way it too spatially segregated its poets, women before Jim Dine’s art portfolio, men after, rather like the communal sleeping quarters in a Shaker community. I wondered if this gender organization didn’t maybe even dive deeper, the women ordered from “femme” to “butch,” the men likewise, starting with Ann Lauterbach in the first section, ending with Clayton Eshleman in the latter. That may be reading too much into the tea leaves, so to speak, but a project as intentional as Vanitas makes you ask questions like this, almost as a side product. If nothing else, the conscious division of poets by gender will ensure something akin to parity (49 pages of women, 45 of men, as it turns out), tho all of the critical essays, save for Nada Gordon’s poetic exposition on “Decency,” are by guys. Hopefully, we won’t see a repetition of the boys = theory, girls =poetry division that has bedeviled other theory-friendly literary formations. These are just some of the questions that Vanitas raises, precisely because it is trying to do so very much.

Of the manifestos up at the journal’s front, the one that gets the closest reading from me is, no surprise, Jordan Davis’ brave “Peeling Oranges on Top of the Skyscrapers: Towards a Name-Blind History of Poetry since 1960,” focusing, in this issue on the New York School. It’s an attempt to accomplish several things at once:

  1. an actual history of the New York School, at least through the first three generations
  2. an attempt to write literary history without resorting much to names (most of the names he mentions – Kane, Gooch, Lehman, LeSueur – aren’t those of major practitioners but of writers of histories, biographies & memoirs)
  3. a glance at some of the social forces at play in the creation of literary formations, especially during this period (which, contrary to his subtitle, really is 1950-1985 or thereabouts)

If Davis doesn’t always succeed, or succeed completely, it’s not for want of effort & lots of good-will & hard thought. In a sense, what he has done is throw down the gauntlet to other poets of his generation to come along & either correct his basic model or offer a better one of their own.

One problem with Davis’ “no-name” history is that in his attempt to get away from what personism? – by going out of his way to avoid naming names, Davis elides the reality that individuals do make differences. Just imagine the world post-September 11 if Al Gore had been awarded the presidency he won in 2000.¹ In Davis’ case, one suspects that at least part of his motive was not to hurt the feelings of anyone who got left out of some formal definitions:

Generation One: “a central group of four to seven New York School poets, several of whom studied at Harvard”

Generation Two: “a core group of four to seven poets, several of whom studied at Columbia; around central figures of the core group there gathered several dozen more poets”

Generation Three: “a core group of four to ten poets, some of whom studied at the University of Chicago, but whose main institutional affiliation was the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church”

Generation Four: “one, more or less: Joel Lewis (and he chose to remain in New Jersey)”

There is quite a bit more to each of these definitions (save, really, for the Joel Lewis Generation, which may be at least partly a joke, but which does get confusing later on when Davis refers, more than once, to the “fourth wave” and how it did or did not follow in the footsteps of the third), oh, but you can hear the shouting already – Waddya mean, Joe Ceravolo isn’t one of the four core poets in Gen 2? etc. – and that University of Chicago banner is a huge red (or at least maroon) flag that is certain to cause some nostrils to flare.

But the name that really is missing here, more than any other, is that of Frank O’Hara. His Irish moniker pops up as a visible absence in the very second bullet of Davis’ formal definition of the New York School’s first generation, in fact: “these writers were at least as influenced by the literature of continental Europe as they were by English poetry.” That is, to put it mildly, unproven in the case of O’Hara & immediately raises the question of Davis’ already slightly skewed timing bracket, focusing as it does from 1960 onward.² I would argue that Davis is already involved in one of the most problematic elements of theorizing the New York School, because in the early 1960s John Ashbery was in France & physically removed to the day-to-day, face-to-face interactions so crucial to group formation in that literary period. So the theoretical question is this: just how central is John Ashbery to that first generation, or has his centrality been a thing that has grown later on in retrospect, in the minds, imaginations & influence of writers from succeeding generations, whether in Gens two, three, four & five, or elsewhere, say, among Ashbery’s quieter advocates who wouldn’t think of hanging out with the unwashed masses at the Church?

This is not unlike the question of Oppen’s role among the Objectivists. Treated by a lot of them prior to World War 2 as a youngster who just might print their books, Oppen really doesn’t get accepted as an equal as an author until well into the 1960s, when his work proposes a radically different orientation for Objectivism than the model offered by Zukofsky in the Objectivist issue of Poetry. At least Oppen got into that issue – still using his middle initial, the way beginning writers often do – which is more than one can say for Lorine Niedecker.

None of this is to suggest that Ashbery isn’t a wonderful poet or that any of the first or second generation poets didn’t value his work and his friendship. But his role, socially, is worth thinking about. When I was a kid – more or less literally – first getting to know the various subdivisions of the New American Poetry, only David Melnick, a serious Ashbery aficionado, ever acted as if the New York School, gen one, was anything other than a term for what might better be called Frank & His Friends. The importance of the social, in fact, which is so evidently an O’Hara quality rather than an Ashbery one (or Schuyler or Barbara Guest, tho it is for Koch) is literally what empowers Ted Berrigan – the furthest thing you could get from the gay Harvard aesthetes – to use his own legendary social skills to create a second generation largely out of whole cloth. Even if you can’t imagine Frank & Ted holding, say, a cocktail party together, I think you have to acknowledge what Ted picks up, more than anything, from his first generation predecessors is the enormous consequences of introducing people to one another & being, in general, the social secretary for the club. Indeed, throughout literary history, you’ll find that this formula works in many different environments – it works for Pound & for Stein, for Olson & for Jack Spicer. O’Hara clearly had it – the PBS documentary by Richard Moore of O’Hara is virtually a love letter to it – but when Frank was hit by the dune buggy, the person who had that skill next is a working class ex-GI from Providence who had just come to town with his buddies, high school kids literally, from Tulsa. How European is that?

But when Frank is gone, Frank is gone. Ashbery is back, but certainly not about to fill that void. Jimmy is too disorganized, Barbara too shy & Kenneth too far uptown, where he certainly is social, especially if you are female undergraduate. Here, Davis is on safe ground – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t concede the centrality of Ted Berrigan to the second generation NY School. And Ron Padgett is similarly inescapable, one of Ted’s Tulsa kids who studies uptown & turns out to have a French thing at least equal to that of Ashbery. But I think that the minute you get beyond Ted & Ron & just maybe Lewis Warsh, everyone else is open to some kind of discussion. Isn’t Anne Waldman too much of a Beat? Didn’t Schjeldahl give up poetry for art criticism? Didn’t Berkson move west a long time ago, followed not long after by the Gallups? Didn’t Lorenzo move to Houston, Tom Veitch disappear into his cartoons, Harris Schiff head off somewhere to the Southwest? Isn’t David Shapiro just too serious, really an uptown pheenom, just as Ceravolo is forever the Jersey boy? What about Bernadette? What about Larry Fagin? What about all the other uptown folks, such as John Yau? Is there anybody beside David Lehman who thinks David Lehman belongs on this list? This, I would wager, is where Davis made his decision that he would have to try this sans names or else not at all. Davis is, I think, largely correct with his other bullet points for the second generation: they were nearly as influenced by the Beats as by the NY School, gen one, especially with regards to life style; they made extraordinary use of cheap printing methods that were just then becoming widely available, and made the Poetry Project an internationally important institution; some women had some leadership roles; and lots of them moved to the Lower East Side, at least for a time.

But rather than avoiding all the messy (& frankly unpleasant, almost regardless of which decisions you make) discussions that show up the minute you begin raising names, Davis’ solution here, what really needs to happen, long term, is to have that discussion, frankly & in depth. It’s really a book project, not an eight-page magazine essay, but to even begin to confront the contributions & facets of that generation critically & theoretically, that is almost what has to be done. Not to begin then asking, how come the second generation New York School thrived, but not any other tendency within the New American Poetry? – theoretically one of the most compelling questions of that literary generation.

Precisely because Davis loses focus discussing the second generation, the problems with his conceptualizing of the third are even worse. Again I would argue, the importance of the social cannot be underestimated here and again I would argue that a description of the Third Generation has to include, if not actually focus upon, a second generation name that is even more absent from Davis’ paper than O’Hara’s – Larry Fagin. Fagin’s role as a teacher at the Church, not to mention his work as publisher, curator, mentor & friend, is as profound for the creation of the 3rd Gen NY School, I would suggest, as any recruiting Ted Berrigan did at the University of Chicago³.

But the poets of the Third Generation are all now in their 50s, just as a fourth – if it really exists or ever did – are turning 40 or thereabouts. I think the whole question of this most formidable of all group formations is very interesting to think about, to spatialize as a metaphor something akin to what happens to ripples in a pond after a large stone is tossed in. If that first stone was, as I would argue, Frank O’Hara, then by the time of the 3rd generation, the ripples have not only reached the shore, but begun to bounce back, so that we have outward ripples now intersecting those coming back in, making it impossible really to discern who really is, or is not, 4th generation, let alone 5th or 6th, which is about what we would be at right now.

It may sound like I’m arguing with Jordan Davis, but I’m not, really. He deserves a huge public hug for taking on this hopeless project in the first place, because it’s important, and because it takes considerable courage to venture in where so many are bound to feel differently from whatever the hell you say.

He touches on langpo largely in passing, and does so in a way that is sweet & amusing, and really not wrong in his assertion that it is the natural inheritor of certain aspects of Projectivism, or at least one of them. The New Western tendency I focused on a couple of weeks back there is another way that card could be (and was) played, as is the New York version of Projectivism, following Blackburn, Kelly, Eshleman, Wakoski & their more experimentalist friends Mac Low, Antin & Rothenberg. And there is feminism & identity poetics in general that one would have to take on in this larger history – the best piece I’ve ever read on that subject, decades ago at this point, was by Jan Clausen. And Actualism, and (cough) New Formalism. And what about all the little regional post-Beat scenes, from the folks around John Sinclair in Detroit (& maybe later in New Orleans), & around D.A. Levy in Cleveland, to little clusters just about everywhere? Where do you put the likes of Bob Hass, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman? What about Vispo? What about flarf? Oh I’m sure that I’m forgetting somebody, and that is the danger, isn’t it, Jordan?



Vincent Katz wrote Clay Banes yesterday about how to get Vanitas:

Send a check for $15 made out to Vincent Katz and we'll get a mag out to you right away. Also send your mailing address. Two-issue subscription is $25.
Vincent Katz
Vincent Katz
211 West 19 Street, #5
New York, NY 10011 USA

If Varitas is even half as good as the first issue tries to be, this is an excellent investment – it’ll put your kids through college.


¹ One less war, thousands of fewer deaths, a government focused on projects to help the American people & a Supreme Court that might soon border on the rational, even with Thomas & Scalia still there. The response to Katrina would have been faster & far more powerful with someone other than a horse show administrator in charge. I believe we still would have gone into Afghanistan, but we would have put resources into that country so that we weren’t simply turning it back over to the old tribal warlords as Bush has done.

² A date chosen, I suspect, so that the history doesn’t have to rehearse the New American Poetry in great detail.

³ Which would also require us to figure out how it is so many of the students of Berrigan at Iowa & Chicago who did not head off to New York City tended to group around Darrell Gray’s idea of Actualism, and had such a different fate in terms of their writing, than did the 3rd generation NY school. Not to mention explaining how students of Berrigan’s at Yale (Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Alan Bernheimer) and students who were at least all at Iowa City when Ted was there (Barrett Watten, Ray Di Palma, Bob Perelman, even Bob Grenier & Curtis Faville) ended up out west involved in some very different writing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Vanitas after Pietr Claesz, circa 1634


Right before I went to sleep the other night, an anonymous poster, perhaps offended at my Texas = Siberia trope, sent an item to the comments stream for my Bobby Byrd blognote, asking if I knew that Austin was south of Waco. I replied quickly, noting that I had been to both Waco & Austin on several occasions, as well as to Houston & San Antonio. But I didn’t go further & explain that I always thought that Austin, in spite of its college town feel & the wonderful music scene along Sixth Street, or just possibly because of it, struck me as the exception that proved the rule, that Austin stands out as a cultural oasis in a way that, say, Madison, Wisconsin, does not, because Austin lacks a Milwaukee, Austin lacks a Chicago, Austin lacks a Minneapolis-St. Paul.

But I didn’t go further to say that I also think Siberia is much more than just a barren gulag outpost. One of my favorite poets in the world, Ivan Zhdanov, is from Siberia, where he was raised by Lake Baikal, by all accounts one of the natural wonders of the world, fed by over 300 rivers & a freshwater lake that is home to seals! Once in Russia I heard a scholar from Vladivostok, the port city on the easternmost shores of Siberia, lecture for hours on the work of Borges. Siberia is the size of Canada or the United States or, for that matter, China. It has approximately the same population density of Canada &, as I understand it, like our own neighbor to the north, gathers that population into a relatively narrow band east to west. In the case of Siberia, the people live near to, and south of, the Trans-Siberian railway. Half of the boreal forests on the planet are in Siberia.

So my remark had not been intended so much as a putdown of either place, actually. But this defensiveness on my part (“Nobody in America can make a comment about Siberia without it being a putdown,” a voice inside says) must have set up the dream, because I knew that I was in Texas somewhere, in a high school gymnasium that was being set up for some sort of literary event, maybe a reading, maybe a small book fair. Somebody was setting up a table with books, or magazines I could see they were when I got close enough, issues of something called Clem. There were five different ones, each pretty thick (maybe 200 pages, maybe more), always with a dark blue duotone photo for the cover image, the title’s lettering in a bright red in the upper left corner, but each cut to a different size, ranging from 4” by 4” to maybe 10” by 8”. I asked the fellow who was setting the table up, whom I was certain was a young poet of some repute, what he was doing now in Texas. He was smoking in the school gym as he worked, a sign I took it that his nicotine jones was bad. “Wearing the ring,” he replied, squinting to see through his own tobacco fog, displaying a wedding band on his finger, “wearing the ring.”

If the journal Clem should actually exist, I’ve never seen it. But the dream, which was interrupted right in that intense REM stage in which you can, seemingly, remember every detail, did cause me to pick up a magazine, Vanitas 1, from a stack of unread journals on top of the next-to-newest bookcase in the house, this one in the foyer between the coat & shoe closets. Vanitas, the Latin word for vanity, refers traditionally to those still life paintings that include skulls & other objects to remind us of the brevity of our lives & the foolishness of any attachment to objects. This Vanitas, whose cover is a Jim Dine photograph of hammers (and one screwdriver) mounted on a wall, is a new journal out of New York, edited by Vincent Katz with the able assistance of Martin Brody, Jordan Davis & Elaine Equi. Katz, a poet, critic, curator & student of (not at) Black Mountain College, is quite obviously attempting the same kind of intense cross-fertilization of disciplines in this magazine that Charles Olson once propagated both in North Carolina and, through the able editorial hands of Robert Creeley, in the pages of the journal named for the college, Black Mountain Review.

Unless you’re prepared to model your publication after, say, Granma, you can’t get a whole lot more ambitious than that. Vanitas 1 carries a sub- or topic title, The State, is that 8.5” by 11” size one associates almost instinctively with certain New York magazines, from The World to Kulchur, and holds roughly 136 pages of content, starting off with three essays – one wants to call them editorials – one by Jim Dine, that I will quote in full below, another by Jordan Davis on the problematics of historicizing an idea like the New York School (of poets, in this instance, more than painters) & finally one by Carter Ratcliff on the impossibility of distinguishing between theory & practice.

Dine’s essay is entitled “The Way Things Are Now” and reads, in 14-point type:

Lord, uh, um, uh, I don’t….uh, Human Cargo, uh, Human Fertilizer, Secretary So & So, can’t name it, could be killed. Family jeopardized, like Argentina years ago, the high school seniors, gone. Dear old country, grandpa’s country, dear old FDR, dear old stupidity, can’t stand alone, against the Votive poet of old New England and Texas.

Coming as I do from the Bob Grenier school of manifestos, I am perfectly willing to grant that statement its status as serious political content. It’s not entirely evident if the “Votive poet of old New England” here is supposed to be Frost or Lowell, or if the reference to Texas is, as I presume, to George W. But it is clear that “can’t stand alone” is precisely the argument being made, with which I surely do agree.

These manifesti are then followed by some 100 or so pages of poetry, including work by Ann Lauterbach, Fanny Howe, Ange Mlinko, Carol Mirakove, Judith Malina, Nada Gordon, Marianne Shaneen, Sarah Manguso, Elain Equi & Anne Waldman prior to a portfolio of works by Dine, after which boy poets appear: Jerome Sala, Carter Ratcliffe, David Lehman, Francis Ponge, Drew Gardiner, Nick Piombino, Richard Hell, Charles Borkhuis, Daniel Bouchard, Michel Bulteau, Morgan Russell & Clayton Eshleman. You will note a number of bloggers there & that several folks here do not line up with what at first glance might appear to be a NY School 7th gen program. At the same time there are only two names that are completely new to me: Bulteau & Russell.

This, the gut of the journal, is then followed by another two-page column of sorts, this time by Nada Gordon examining the word “decency,” followed finally by another series of essays. Two of the contributions in the first issue are by composers, Alvin Curran & Martin Brody, one by an economist Ricardo Abramovay on the Brazilian left – maybe my Granma allusion isn’t so far off– and a piece by Morgan Russell on Lydia Lunch.

The issue as a whole is wrapped up with a final afterword of sorts, by editor Katz. He traces vanitas, the concept, back to its role in still lifes, and forward to such concepts as ideas for memorializing the World Trade Center, Black Mountain College, going so far as to say

Someone asked me if the point was September 11, and I said no, it was a general dysfunction that had set in, marked by the thrusting into power of a group of figures who will be remembered as among the most destructive in U.S. and world history.

Katz goes on to outline the larger project of Vanitas, “a magazine and concomitant series of small books”:

An artist will be featured each issue, contributing cover, interior art and text…. There will appear, over the course of several issues, a history of non-academic poetry since 1960, embarked upon this issue by Jordan Davis. “Word” column will take a word or phrase and break it down or expand it. We are looking for writing from artists whose primary form is non-literary, appreciating the clarity these voices often bring.

The first volume – the press itself is called Libellum, an inflected version of the Latin for little book – was an antiwar poem by Michael Lally, a fine poet known for his tour-de-force works over the past 40 years. A second printing is already in the works.

This is, on the whole, the most ambitious first issue of any magazine I’ve seen at least since Apex of the M, possibly even all the way back to This in 1970. That it has some good ideas is almost as important as the scale of the task it seems willing to tackle. This is one project we all need to succeed.

Monday, November 21, 2005


The band ButterSprites
all wearing dirndls


What everybody notices about Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Present Waking Life: Becoming John Ashbery,” the eleven-page profile of the poet that appeared in the November 7 edition of The New Yorker, is that it is written entirely in the third person, with no direct quotations from its subject, save from poems. What everyone will remember of MacFarquhar’s profile, five or ten years from now, those of us who will recall it at all, is its depiction of the poet, a man given to always leaving his drawers & cabinet doors open & ajar. We are given the poet working at his writing at a set hour each day, offered a chronicle of his major relationships, first with Pierre Martory in Paris, and, for the past 35 years, David Kermani, hear how Ashbery’s mother dealt with (or, more accurately, didn’t) his homosexuality, his emotional distance from his father, his brother’s death in adolescence, his use of psychoanalysis to combat depression, and learn the design differences between his (“bland, anonymous”) Chelsea apartment & (“ornate, turreted Colonial-revival”) weekend house upstate in Hudson, New York. The profile focuses in on a critical moment in Ashbery’s career, the composition of Three Poems, which MacFarquhar suggests (rightly) is his masterpiece, detailing not only the how of the writing, but revealing revisions Ashbery thought about & sometimes made, tho elsewhere we are informed that he in general revises very little & that, once done with his poems, seldom revisits them & has memorized virtually none. The responses I have seen to this piece from the blogging community have been all over the map, from “astounding” and “fascinating” to “homicidally dismal” & “failure.”(You can find a pirate PDF file of the article itself here.)

Given what The New Yorker is – the national magazine of dental office waiting rooms – and its decades long commitment to the School of Quietude, detectable not only in its choice of poems – which genre it puts into direct competition with cartoons for space, even as it demonstrates far more passion & commitment to the latter – but also in the journal’s occasional literary portraits, such as the not so distant hatchet job on a Gertrude Stein the author suggested had not been sufficiently anti-fascist whilst lying low in Vichy France during the Second World War (trying not to let the Nazis notice that she was a Jewish lesbian modernist with more than a little art work well worth stealing), given all that, I’m struck by the ingenuousness of the negative reactions by the likes of Jack Kimball & Tim Yu. Given what The New Yorker is, MacFarquhar’s profile may just be the most serious & fair portrait of contemporary poetry the journal has ever published, will ever publish.

Consider what it reveals. John Ashbery, the one living poet treated with serious respect as “one of theirs” by post-avant & School of Quietude aficionados alike, perhaps the closest thing to a poetic icon The New Yorker recognizes in this post-Robert Frost, post-Elizabeth Bishop universe, is shown very completely to be a New American poet in his practice & attitudes, in his reading strategies as well as his writing ones. He revises no more often than Allen (“first thought, best thought”) Ginsberg, his relationship to meaning is impressionistic & angled, he scans the poems of others quickly for a sense of what they are & only occasionally comes back to read more closely. Indeed, MacFarquhar’s portrayal of what reading means when Ashbery is doing it is very possibly the best such depiction I have ever read in the general media. If she does not pick up on the trickster who is at work within the placid, almost Midwestern presentation Ashbery sometimes gives, it’s a small price to pay for the value of what she brings forward.

I’m impressed that she is able to portray Ashbery’s relationship to psychoanalysis & doesn’t flinch from recounting the years in which he was fabled for his excessive public drinking. (Once, in the loft of Helene Aylon in Emeryville, I saw Ashbery pass out in the middle of his own reading.) She even reports on his translations of bad novels from the French, done under the not-quite-homophonic pseudonym of Jonas Berry, to which Ashbery, at the behest of his publisher, added some steamy scenes for its new market. And consider this paragraph:

This is how Ashbery reads. When he sits down with a books of poems by somebody else he goes through it quickly. He forms a first impression of a poem almost at once, and if he isn’t grabbed by it he’ll flip ahead and read something else. But if he’s caught up he’ll keep going, still reading quite fast, not making any attempt to understand what’s going on but feeling that on some other level something is clicking between him and the poem, something is working. He knows implicitly that he’s getting, thought he would find it difficult to say at this point what, exactly, he’s getting. It’s the sound of the poem, though not literally so – it’s not a mater of musicality or mellifluousness or anything like that, and he never reads poems aloud to himself – it’s something like the sound produced by meaning, which lets you know that there’s meaning there even though you don’t know what it is yet. Later, if he likes the poem, he will go back and read it more carefully, trying to get at its meaning in a more conventional way, but it’s really that first impression which counts. (He reads prose quite differently, particularly the sort of dense, baroque prose he loves, such as that of Proust or Henry James: extremely slowly, savoring every word.)

MacFarquhar presents essentially this same theory of meaning as holistic & impressionistic three times during the piece – once in her portrayal of Ashbery writing, here in his own private reading habits, and again in what students & listeners have to go through hearing him read his work aloud to them. Indeed, this real-time phenomenological approach to meaning is, I would argue, MacFarquhar’s key insight. Not that this is new to poets, necessarily, but to a general magazine audience brought up on a thematically centered concept of reading Serious Literature, this borders on revolutionary.

Does this explain the whole of Ashbery? Hardly. But in fact it may do more to popularize appropriate (as distinct from “English department”) reading strategies when confronting contemporary poetry than anything comparable in recent years. MacFarquhar’s insistence that, with Ashbery, what you see is what you hear & get, also opens up just a little what I think must be the largest gap in Ashbery’s writing, his alleged difficulty:

People often tell him that they never understood his poems, or never understood them so well, until they heard him read them out loud. This puzzles him, because he can’t detect any particular quality in his voice or way of speaking that would produce that effect. He guesses that maybe because he is familiar with his poems, when he reads them they sound more like regular talking. It is more likely, though, that a person might understand them better in readings because he (sic!) is forced to listen to them in real time. He can’t go back and try to make sense of this line or that, as he could if he were reading it in a book: if something sounds odd he must simply accept it and continue to listen, letting his mind catch on one phrase or another. And if he finds himself suddenly jolting back to attention after a minute or two of wondering whether he remembered to lock his apartment, or whether a crack in the ceiling looks more like a fried egg or France, or whether he should have a hamburger for dinner, he must accept that he has missed a bit of the poem, there is no retrieving it, and just enjoy what is left without worrying too much about how it all fits together.

Yet it is precisely this single voice in real time that Ashbery himself seldom if ever confronts, reading his own work. Multisourcing every sentence, if not every phrase, Ashbery’s poems characteristically present a polyvocalic gumbo of tones, sounds, terms. Flattening it out into the single voice of a reader, any reader, generates an experience where the listener never quite can tell where one source or voice begins & another fades. Nor always calculate what the shifts in register should approximate. Ashbery, I would wager, if he is anything like any other contemporary poet, hears not only his own words as he voices them, but also recalls every source as it flickers past. To his ear, the shifting time signatures & other aural aspects active within every line, conceivably every syllable, are all but “natural” – precisely because he senses the sources, not simply the allover surface that results. To some modest degree, he may in fact give voice to that in his reading choices, that emphasis here, a longer pause there, but even if he did not the impact would remain: he alone knows how it is supposed to sound. Any other reader has several microdecisions to negotiate during the course of even the simplest text, such as this poem, printed as one of three such “illustrations” accompanying the New Yorker profile:

Thrill of a Romance

It's different when you have hiccups.
Everything is — so many glad hands competing
for your attention, a scarf, a puff of soot,
or just a blast of silence from a radio.
What is it? That's for you to learn
to your dismay when, at the end of a long queue
in the cafeteria, tray in hand, they tell you the gate closed down
after the Second World War.
Syracuse was declared capital
of a nation in malaise, but the directorate
had other, hidden goals. To proclaim logic
a casualty of truth was one.

Everyone's solitude (and resulting promiscuity)
perfumed the byways of villages we had thought civilized.
I saw you waiting for a streetcar and pressed forward.
Alas, you were only a child in armor. Now when ribald toasts
sail round a table too fair laid out — why, the consequences
are only dust, disease and old age. Pleasant memories
are just that. So I channel whatever
into my contingency, a vein of mercury
that keeps breaking out, higher up, more on time
every time. Dirndls spotted with obsolete flowers,
worn in the city again, promote open discussion.


Here there are multiple decision points that could throw a reader – the tone of the sentence about Syracuse, for one. A more important one no doubt is the tone assigned to whatever in the seventh line of the second stanza, where several are possible. And that whole last sentence appears to have at least two sources & requires a modicum of knowledge about traditional middle-European peasant costumes. Readers with different levels of experience with Ashbery’s poetry will come to these decisions from various angles. One might determine that the term hiccups in the first line signals that all later effects should be tilted in favor of the comic, but that’s not necessarily always the case with him. How, after all, does one find the comedic in dismay?

If MacFarquhar doesn’t answer these questions, she at least renders them visible to even the most clueless reader. In these days of Garrison Keillor & Ted Kooser, this is a service worth acknowledging.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


I had very close to a perfect day in New York yesterday. Lunch at Katz’ Delicatessen, a chance to visit the Downtown Music Gallery, a hole-in-the-wall venue at 342 Bowery that is, as best I can tell, the best CD store for contemporary jazz in the country, an interview with Amy King in the nearby Manahatta café that should be podcast on MiPOradio before too terribly long, a fabulous reading at the Bowery Poetry Club with David Shapiro – our readings fit perfectly together, one of the best “matches” I’ve ever had – followed by dinner with David, with James Sherry & two of David’s students at the Savoy. Driving home, I got to listen to some old-timey bluegrass on Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival on WNYC before being able to pick up Jonny Meister & the Blues Show on XPN. At the reading, I met some old friends (Anne Tardos! Nick Piombino & Toni Simon!), saw many newer ones & put faces to names I’ve been reading for awhile for the very first time (Aaron McCollough, Katie Degentesh). Nada Gordon gave me the most extravagant introduction I think I’ve ever had. Lots of people gave me books & the inimitable Jim Behrle presented me with an oil portrait of me as an Easter peep that I treasure already! (I tried to explain what I described to my wife as “flarf painting” this morning, without notable success.)

Some folks told me that they were “surprised” at the combination of David & I. One person used the word “shocked.” I thought it made perfect sense &, having now heard us together, I’m sure I was right. It may seem that we’re from different generations & aesthetics – David from the New York School, me from langpo – but I’m actually one year older than him & in some ways, Shapiro is one of the New York School poets whose concerns clearly overlap with mine, at least as much as those of Bernadette Mayer & Clark Coolidge, two other poets with, how shall I put this, dual citizenship. In Shapiro’s case, the key is his ongoing political commitment – evident enough in that photo on yesterday’s blog, one of the iconic images of the 1960s (it originally ran as a two-page spread in Life magazine), but visible in his poetry throughout his career – but also Shapiro’s long association with the late art critic Meyer Schapiro predisposes David to be more comfortable with the theory side of langpo than many of his original coterie, Clark & Bernadette included.

When first I met David Melnick back in 1968, Melnick recruited me to help him with getting the poetry of David Shapiro – a friend of his from Paris – and other New Americans into the UC Berkeley literary magazine, Occident. I already knew Shapiro’s work from his first book, January, published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1965, when he was all of 18 years old. It seems amazing that it has taken all these decades finally to meet & get to read with one another. Here’s hoping the next time doesn’t take so very long.

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