Friday, August 03, 2007


The only part of writing that is literally organic is the way in which the rhythms of production fit into the life of an author. This is something that can vary dramatically from poet to poet – was there ever a year in which Robert Kelly did not write more than the entire collected works of Basil Bunting? – and it doesn’t seem to be anything that can be very readily dictated from the outside. Surely there is no right or wrong way with this, any more than there is to the color of our skin or our height or even sexual orientation. Any teacher in an MFA program will have the experience of watching one student struggle with creating a manuscript of acceptable length to qualify for the degree while for another student the real question is how best to whittle down from a stack of writing hundreds of pages thick into something that makes sense as a short book.

This does not mean that a poet can’t change, nor that poets don’t go through periods in their writing during which this process might be quite different. When I first began corresponding with Tom Meyer, he was still a student at Bard writing a massive, decidedly Poundian epic that he was tentatively calling A Technographic Typography (I published two excerpts of the 42nd “graph” in Tottel’s in 1971). This isn’t who he turned out to be as a poet at all.

This question runs quite a bit deeper than the just the size and number of the poems someone writes. I’ve commented recently on my blog on the dramatic differences in the poetry of Edward Dorn, pre- and post-‘Slinger, but Dorn was hardly the only member of the New American Poets to have had this experience. Amiri Baraka’s output and style changed drastically once he abandoned his persona as LeRoi Jones. Denise Levertov did likewise, tho not with such flair. Frank O’Hara hardly wrote anything during the last two years of his life. Ted Berrigan likewise. Robert Duncan’s production drops rapidly once he announces his 15-year “hiatus” from publishing – and some would argue that the work does as well. George Oppen, Carl Rakosi & even Louis Zukofsky went through long silent periods. Pound has his pre-modernist period, when he wrote Persona, often cited by our Quietist (and quietest) friends as evidence that they also like this 20th century innovator – it’s just the innovations they hate. With Stein, it’s just the other way around. From The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas onward, she becomes a memoirist of the avant-garde more than an instance of it.

If you read Robert Creeley, you have to be struck with the degree to which his early work, through Pieces, Mabel and A Day Book, constantly pushes change. No two books are alike. As with Pound, there are poets who love the author of Pieces and those who love the author of For Love, but it’s rare to meet someone who feels equally passionate about both volumes. Then around 1975, Creeley settles in & moves gradually into what is now recognizable as his late style, which he continues pretty much without interruption for the next 30 years. I certainly know poets who insist that this is Creeley’s dotage, that basically he’d given up. That’s not my perception, but the narrative of decline they impose on what turns out to be more than half of Creeley’s life’s work follows the same general path I’d suggest for Dorn (or, for that matter, Levertov). And there is no question that the two volumes of Creeley’s Collected Poetry are profoundly different reading experiences.

John Ashbery, by comparison, presents a much more complicated situation. When Three Poems appears in 1972, he has already been publishing for 19 years, going back to Tibor de Nagy’s publication of Turandot and Other Poems. Yet, including Turandot, Three Poems is only Ashbery’s sixth book. In the 35 years since, Ashbery has dramatically picked up his pace, issuing 19 additional volumes of new poetry. Let me put this in even more stark turns. In 1966, when Frank O’Hara died, John Ashbery had just published Rivers and Mountains, his fourth book. Eighty-four percent of Ashbery’s career – to 2007 – had yet to be written. The writer whom FOH so affectionately dubs as Ashes basically had just begun to emerge.

Yet Ashbery was already quite famous, at least in the ways a poet might be. The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains had assured that he would be one of the defining figures for an American avant-garde for the next 50 years. Yet The Double Dream of Spring had been a confusing work, extending what Ashbery had been doing in the juvenilia of Turandot and Some Trees, but really more consolidating this style of the pop-art surreal lyric that resists going anywhere. Double Dream of Spring is a fine book, maybe even a great one, but it was also the first book that Ashbery produced that did not in some fashion change poetry.

Twenty books later, it becomes apparent that Ashbery was settling into what I take to be his mature rhythm as a poet: the steady production of books that are all, in one form or another, patterned upon Double Dream, a collection of short lyrics – relatively few that are longer than a page or two, save for one longer piece – seldom adding to more than 110 pages in print, even with fairly sizeable type. These lyric collections are punctuated with a series of other books that are very different from one another, and basically different from the Double Dream series of volumes as well. These include

The Tennis Court Oath
and Mountains
Three Poems
Vermont Notebook
possibly As We Know
Flow Chart
Girls on the Run

I use the word possibly with regards to As We Know because I think this is the one volume that genuinely deserves to be on both lists – it’s overall composition matches the Double Dream schema, but the long two-column poem ”Litany” warrants being placed in this second group. Unlike the Double Dream series, whose volumes blend rather seamlessly one into the other, the books in this second list are deliberately motley – you cannot generalize from any individual volume to the group as a whole. If I term the first group the Double Dream series, I think of this second set as the One Offs, unrepeated, potentially even unrepeatable projects.

I’m prepared to argue than in a century, most of the poems we (or our grandchildren) will still be reading and learning of John Ashbery’s belong to this second list, that of the One Offs. Partly, this is the fate of any great innovator – the poems that change poetry, that become the most canonic, are (one could reasonably argue) “the most important,” are seldom the best, or the most polished of a given writer. People read, say, Stein’s Tender Buttons more than Stanzas in Meditation not because they are “easier” (if by easier we mean shorter), tho that never hurts, but because they were the poems that first taught her audience how to read in a different fashion. Similarly, it is the very first Maximus poems one remembers of Olson’s most clearly, again because they changed poetry. Sonnets really is Ted Berrigan’s first work – it is still his most famous. So too The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains and Three Poems changed poetry, whereas Flow Chart is a poem that exists in a world these earlier books made possible. One could similarly argue that William Carlos Williams never wrote better than in Spring & All, tho it is his first mature work. Or that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is certain to be read in 200 years, while his finest writing – “Wichita Vortex Sutra” or “Wales Visitation,” say – are much more up for grabs. One might say the same with Stanzas for Iris Lezak and Jackson Mac Low, a work that seems almost brutal in its machinations compared with the subtle deft works he composed toward the end of his life.

The history of poetry is always the history of change in poetry, almost never the record of “all that is best.” One might, for example, argue that a study of the dramatic monolog ought to lead ineluctably to modern masters such as Richard Howard or Frank Bidart, capable of seeding the form with everything culled from a history of 20th century psychology, but the genre’s actual importance is that it was one of the three great innovations of the 19th century – along with the prose poem & free verse. The fact that dramatic monolog has grown mostly more nuanced where the two other genres have transformed themselves several times over in the past 120 years or so – the one great exception to this would be Maximus – suggests that the monolog’s history is as the stunted genre of the 19th century, precisely because it was the one least dependent on form as such.

But what interests me most today is that, when Three Poems first appeared in 1972, the rhythm of Ashbery’s work was not – at least as seen from the perspective of 2007 – yet apparent. Indeed, today we might see a steady drone – in the sense of a tanpura in Indian music, perhaps – of collections modeled on Double Dream. The foreground of the tabla, the great South Asian drum, which in this analogy would be the One Offs, has never been steady. This is consistent with the basic fact that each has been invented entirely anew. But in 1972, Ashbery had not yet established the regular rhythm of lyrics on the model of Double Dream or (more likely) wasn’t releasing them to the world, leading readers to imagine a potentially infinite string of One Offs extending limitlessly into the future. That was, after all, the same general model Creeley was using, more or less (Creeley’s model of “the book” was never so hard-edged as Ashbery’s in those early years), right through to, say, In London. In Creeley, it is as tho he reaches a point & can go no further, but settles in to develop a poetry befitting a much more settled life than the one proposed by the young man with a rep as a drunken brawler & seducer that was Creeley in the fifties & sixties. For Ashbery, the One Offs, the poetics of deep change, has never turned off entirely, even if individual works come more slowly now. Even if they don’t change poetry now when they occur. What appears in Creeley’s career as his “late style” is something that Ashbery has demonstrated as possible as early as Turandot and Some Trees, tho it doesn’t become a steady mode of production – or at least of publication – until Double Dream. And even though it is the One Offs, especially “Europe” and Three Poems, that changed American poetry forever, there are now so many books on the Double Dream model, some of them so fully feted with ribbons & trophies, that what we now think of as “the Ashbery way” is precisely these Double Dream lyrics, effortless & brilliant, subtle & still campy, remarkably attentive to the nuances of daily life, that to understand the context & importance of Three Poems, one has to imagine an Ashbery completely different from the one we have now.

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