Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Think about John Ashbery’s Three Poems from the perspective of readers in 1972 when it first appeared as a Viking Compass volume, a photo of a trim mustachioed Ashbery standing somewhere on a farm with movie-star good looks peering back at the reader. The Double Dream of Spring, Ashbery’s 1970 collection, had been the first book about which any Ashbery fan of the period could justifiably complain, as some did, that it offered little that was formally new or different from his earlier work. Previously, the one thing that had appeared certain about Ashbery, who followed Some Trees with The Tennis Court Oath and that in turn with Rivers and Mountains, was that you couldn’t predict what the next volume might look like based on whatever you thought about the most recent. One argument that I did hear made about Double Dream was that, well, you certainly couldn’t have predicted that.¹ In narrowly extending, consolidating really, aspects of Ashbery’s poetry that went all the way back to the early 1950s, Double Dream seemed to want to demonstrate the effortless excellence of Ashbery’s craft as he moved into his forties. The implication, at least according to optimists, was that readers should be patient – the next book would be a doozy.

It’s worth keeping in mind the role of the modern prose poem within American poetry in 1972. Hayden Carruth’s omnibus 1970 anthology, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, containing 136 poets representing “American Poetry of the Twentieth Century,” 722 pages long, has exactly zero prose poems. It’s not that prose poems were not being written. Robert Bly and his fellow contributors in The Sixties had been actively pursuing the genre, as had George Hitchcock’s ancillary deep-image journal, Kayak. At Berkeley, Kayak had already triggered a student-run imitation, Cloud Marauder. None of this was visible in the Carruth anthology, even though Bly, James Wright and George Hitchcock are all included. One poet who does not appear is Gertrude Stein.² Another who is not present is Russell Edson, whose first collection had been published in 1964.

If Edson’s model of the prose poem was the short fable of Kafka, Bly’s paradigm was borrowed from the work of French poet Max Jacob, author of The Dice Cup: a short piece of prose aimed at surprising the reader in some fashion, intended to “distract” the beleaguered language consumer, the one solace Jacob could envision for the poem. Readers of modern French literature knew, of course, that there was much more to the prose poem than this, but until the very late 1960s, the only readily available alternative translated into English were the works of St.-John Perse. Perse had won the Nobel Prize in 1960, but had begun publishing over a half century earlier and with a style that has always reminded me of the art of Maxfield Parish. Here is the opening of the fifth section of “Strophe,” a part of Seamarks, translated here by Wallace Fowlie:

Language which was the Poetess:

“Bitterness, O favour! Where now burns the aromatic herb? . . . The poppy seed buried, we turn at least towards you, sleepless Sea of the living. And you to us are something sleepless and grave, as is incest under the veil. And we say, we have seen it, the Sea for women more beautiful than adversity. And now we know only you that are great and worthy of praise,

O Sea which swells in our dreams as in endless disparagement and in sacred malignancy, O you who weigh on our great childhood walls and our terraces like an obscene tumour and like a divine malady!

Perse’s overly humid prose seemed so far removed from the proliferating Jacob-Bly & Kafka-Edson editions of the prose poem, predicated as those strains were upon brevity, that it’s not clear that anyone, at least in America, knew quite what to do with his work. Plus Perse’s translators, such as Fowlie & T.S. Eliot, were hardly paragons of avant-garde practice. Robert Duncan may have been equally capable of elevated language, but there’s an inner decadence here – the sheer predictability of such impossibles as sacred malignancy or divine malady that would have made Duncan shudder.

In 1969, however, Jonathan Cape published Lane Dunlop’s translation Francis Ponge’s Soap while Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California, brought out Nathaniel Tarn’s edition of Victor Segalen’s Stelae.³ From Japan, Cid Corman had already been publishing his own versions of Ponge in Origin, leading up to his selections, Things, which appeared in 1971. American readers were beginning to get hints of the broader landscape for poetic prose that Europeans had known already for several decades. John Ashbery, having spent roughly a decade in Paris from the middle 1950s onward, was perfectly positioned to know this. One might even say “to exploit this,” introducing into American poetry something that had not previously existed here: the prose poem as a serious – and extended – work of art.


¹ I am not including Ashbery’s first Selected Poems, which appeared between Rivers and Mountains and Double Dream.

² This was not atypical in 1970, a moment when perhaps only Robert Duncan & Jerome Rothenberg were seriously arguing for her inclusion in any consideration of American poetry. Patricia MeyerowitzGertrude Stein: Writings and Lectures 1909-1945, the volume through which many poets of my generation first became aware of Tender Buttons, was originally published by Peter Owen in 1967, but not reissued in the Penguin edition that finally gave it broad U.S. distribution until 1971.

³ Tarn had worked at Cape, which was then undergoing a defensive merger with Chatto, and may well have produced the Segalen for the famous Cape Goliard / Grossman series. Tarn was the editor of Soap.