Fables of representation: Poetry of the New York School.
Anne, who are dead and whom I loved in a rather asinine fashion I think of you often Padgett 1969, 80
In the midst of the steadiness and gravity demanded by elegy, Padgett places the tonally interruptive word "asinine," which does, after all, depict love's irregularities. The word extends the poem's tonal range and lyric attitude, making possible the further playfulness of "Seriously I have this mental (smuh!) illness / which causes me to do things / on and away." Anyone who doubts the sincerity of "Wonderful Things" needs only to read its ending movement, "a tuba that is a meadowful of bluebells / is a wonderful thing / and that's what I want to do / tell you wonderful things" (81).
I begin with the early work of Ron Padgett because it reflects the breadth of New York School practice. On one pole is the radical denaturing of the sentence as seen in "Some Bombs" and the work that undoubtedly influenced it, Kenneth Koch's When the Sun Tries To Go On (a line of exploration that includes Clark Coolidge's early identification with the New York School, John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath, and contributes to the foundation of language poetry). On the other extreme is the personal lyric associated with Frank O'Hara's "I do this I do that" poems, a mode influenced by the directness of William Carlos Williams's domestic chronicles such as "This Is Just to Say" and "The Eyeglasses," and Apollinaire's poetic narratives of walking the streets of Paris, "The Musician of Saint Merry" and "Phantom of the Clouds," with their technique of offering the dates and times of events being observed: "It was the day before July 14 / About four in the afternoon / I went out to see the acrobats" (Apollinaire 1971, 161). A third major style to develop out of the New York School is the "abstract lyric," to be found primarily in the work of Ashbery, Barbara Guest (especially Fair Realism and books to follow), Marjorie Welish, Ann Lauterbach, and numerous other poets of the 80s and 90s. Blending philosophical "distance" with lyric immediacy, the abstract lyric was first practiced by Wallace Stevens as the "American Sublime." Given postmodern direction by Ashbery, it is a mode in which thought remains in balance with song. Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" is a good example of abstract lyric, as is Auden's periphrastic "In Praise of Limestone." Although the two poems differ rhetorically, both announce themselves as discourses on a given subject. In the case of the Stevens poem, it is the change wrought on nature by a manmade object; more importantly it deals with the impact of an artistic decision of placement and, axiomatically, the possibilities of substitution. What impact would a jar have on the "slovenly wilderness" tha t "sprawled around"? In the Auden poem, one of several subjects is the very manner of the poem itself as "voluble discourse":
accustomed to a stone that responds, They have never had to veil their faces in awe Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed Auden 1955, 239
Volubility is a poet's condition, especially a young poet's; like desire, he or she can only enact it. It is as indeterminate even in traditional forms as the flow of lava. The "abstract" quality of such poems also suggests their mystery; like the work of Samuel Beckett they confront unresolvable complexities of existence. In Stevens and Ashbery especially these complexities are expressed through fables of representation. In such work, a metaphysical stage is created for the enactment of meaning. Resolution is not a desired part of the process but rather representation's tangle of fact and imagination. Such fables as Stevens's "The Snow Man" are therefore both difficult and entertaining. I would argue that the apparent obscurity of such works is due to their realism--their understanding that contradiction, puzzle, and oracle accurately depict the complexities of the metaphysical. Our pleasure in them results from the same source as our misunderstanding.
Kenneth Koch's book-length poem When the Sun Tries to Go On was written in 1953 but not published as a book until 1969 by Black Sparrow Press. With illustrations and cover design by Larry Rivers, the volume is a beautiful and soothing object to hold in the hand. Tom Orange calculates that the work first saw print in 1960 in Alfred Leslie's magazine The Hasty Papers. Here is one section of the poem, which consists of 109 pages of similar 24-line pieces:
Mew. R. We're blood patents that weird pink Tea--fro, runs "Silo, Bill; tea" Madam steer, shower Of wear-me-out-in-the-feet-aspirin, satin Trireme shoe statue might Himalayas its Tramway scene-box. Hill-dog, pay! Grab The fennel bee of the hollow Macon Subway New, cockroach of faded ilk, deceased rosemary London, pens 'draped "folly," and, over Pied sheep, damn upstairs I see sigh "No umpire Shovels, Lambeth." Orange magic, sensibility February amid the strawberries! Raspberries Mutation moth of a deceptive hillbilly's Luminous, show, Cossack, waited, tree. Sense had Shakes, ovary along, beach, true Fringe of I May den chlorine clockwise raspberries' Hindrance loop of water Pindar-dependencies' Snow Sam-a-top of wondrous Thrace Of if of of of shy's blessings "whin" a cold Houses of deserted aspirin, cell-less rosemary! Cinder, hollow, China roseberry Rune shelves, a merest baby council chamber Motto: Sistine Chapel, "fair weather, fewer deserted Anywhere rosaries, limetree ovaries In quiet subway, hooray, 'Sue' to deceiving umpires." Koch 1969, 31
A nasty review of Koch's 1953 pamphlet Poems contained a criticism that might be considered true of When the Sun Tries to Go On: "Mr. Koch, it seems, has a rare combination of words rattling about in his skull, but it is difficult to call any of his word combinations the bric-a-brac of poetry" (Roskolenko 1954, 233). Frank O'Hara's defense of his friend's work appeared in Poetry a few months later. It included the assertion that "Mr. Koch's poems have a natural voice, they are quick, alert, instinctive, and within the limited scope of this first volume, indicate a potentially impressive variety" (O'Hara 1955, 349). The quick-wittedness of the poet is clearly indicated by the passage above; the naturalness of his phrasing is not. In fact, it is the very artificiality of the project that gives it interest. The poem's first sounds ("Mew. R.") suggest to the reader that poetry is to be found beyond the sentence, phrase, and syllable at the purely phonetic level of "oos" and "arrs." Such mouth joy is as natural as the velvet "uthe" in "mother." Given Koch's later work beginning with Thank You, the poem's packed syntax is a little unexpected. The poem "Spring" in that volume makes use of normative syntax such as "Let's take a walk / In the city / Till our shoes get wet" while maintaining some of the exuberance of When the Sun Tries to Go On: "Let's make music / (I hear the cats / purply beautiful / Like hallways in summer / Made of snowing rubber / Valence piccalilli and diamonds ..." Koch has always had dash and bounce, or, as O'Hara wrote in his defense, "He has the other poetic gift: vivacity and go, originality of perception and intoxication with life. Most important of all, he is not dull" (350).
But even in such radically innovative work, we feel the pull of tradition in the capitalized left margin, the tortured ghost of the iambic pentameter line which he constantly exceeds; the lure of literary references and high culture such as Lambeth, Pindar-dependencies, and Coleridge's limetree bower; and the "aspirin, satin" internal rhyme that reminds me of the lush, baroque, in-extremis style of Hart Crane:
Slagged of the hurricane--I, cast within its flow, Congeal by afternoons here, satin and vacant. You have given me the shell, Satan,--carbonic amulet Sere of the sun exploded in the sea Crane 1989, 112
Koch's poem, like much of Crane's poetry, is an anxious representation of the great works that have preceded it. It shreds and masticates those early works in order to build its own papier mache of them; to become, thereby, a "seer of the son exploded in the sea." Like many romantic works, the poem contains the announcement of its poetic ambition, to become a source of volubility and resourcefulness. The self which has been given birth (by a hurricane) congeals into a shape through the further influence of light and time (afternoons). The same urge is apparent in When the Sun Tries to Go On, the very title of which introduces the son's generative need. Yet the process of revelation is akin to a rune ("Rune shelves, a merest baby council chamber"), which is defined as "any obscure or mystic song, poem, verse, or saying."
The work of Jackson Mac Low, an older contemporary, was never an influence on Koch. It is more likely that Gertrude Stein's democracy of sentences was an influence on both. But there are interesting resonances between When the Sun Tries to Go On and some of Mac Low's computer-generated works such as "Antic Quatrains":
Along a tarn a delator entangled a dragline Boasting o' tonnages, dogies, ants, and stones As long as Lind balled Gandas near a gas log As it late lit rigatoni and a tag line. --Mac Low 1984, 67
The commonality relates to the isolation of the word within syntax--that is, its domination over it; the parodic "look" of an iambic pentameter line; its use of found materials, in Mac Low's case a computer printout "phase" of his own poem "A Vocabulary for Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos" and in Koch's a variety of sources; and its "antic" use of this antiquity. Mac Low arrives at the antic through a laborious and methodical process of winnowing language with computer programs such as Travesty and Diastex4; Koch is more the spontaneous wit. But both seek irony and the burlesque mode. We seem to be in the presence of an insane speaking machine. "Antic Quatrains" was drawn systematically from a 3,000-line computer printout of word groups that were themselves based on partial anagrams of the name Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos, a process that results in recurrent use of the letters "t," "n," "g," and "l," among others, often to alliterative effect. The packed quality of the poem contributes to its antic tone, its li nguistic thickness, and its mystery. Beneath its runic nature, however, lies the establishment and maintenance of a narrative. A tarn is a small mountain lake. A delator is an informer, accuser, or spy. Lind is a proper name, as in Jenny Lind; so also is Gandas. A tag line is a refrain of a song or poem, a catchword, or cue. Rigatoni is a cylindrical form of pasta. Once these words are understood, a narrative emerges of a spy entangling a dragline near a mountain lake, searching perhaps for a drowning victim as he boasts of all the things he's hauled out of the water. And so on.
Because of the structure of sentences (subject, verb, object), it is difficult to avoid the stability of subject matter, narratives however brief, a degree of characterization, and therefore tone. Sentences are worlds. Because of the directedness of the parts of speech and the intentionality of the writing act, difficulty in language usually offers the code to its own unraveling. Nouns name and verbs enact. This is a clarifying relationship even if "Lind balled Gandas near a gas log."
Among the most directive parts of speech are prepositions, which offer relation in time or space: "near a gas log," "Under Ben Bulben," "I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun." But relationality is all over language. Even the modernist breakage into fragments invites relations across rifts, a distance that makes association all the more powerful. Such bridges likewise exist in postmodern texts. No matter how broken or distant it may appear, language is always amorous and desires connection.
Because of the intentionality of the speaking voice, difficult texts often become clear at the moment of their performance by the poet. My own understanding of the work of Clark Coolidge began with a reading he gave in Chicago in the early 1980s. The furious pace of his sentences made everything "clear" and was itself a subject of his poetry. The pace was akin to that of a drum solo as wave on wave of phrasing rushed over acoustic space. On the other hand, Stevens's enunciation was glacially slow and full of pauses that emphasized individual words: "She.... was the maker ... of the song...... she sang." No reader of the text will undertand Stevens's intentions until they hear the momentum of his silences. Intentionality and signature are often disguised by the printed text. All poetry is ultimately a performance poetry.
In a review of Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditations, John Ashbery wrote:
These austere "stanzas" are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as "where," "which," "these," "of," "not," "have," "about," and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about. The result is like certain monochrome de Kooning paintings in which isolated strokes of color take on a deliciousness they never could have had out of context, or a piece of music by Webern in which a single note on the celesta suddenly irrigates a whole desert of dry, scratchy sounds in the strings.
--Ashbery 1957, 250
Stein's plan would seem to be to reduce language to the banality of life itself, which is full of noise and grey incident through which now and then a colorful bird flies. Indeed, Ashbery himself acknowledges little difference between such work and life:
As we get deeper into the poem, it seems not so much as if we were reading as living a rather long period of our lives with a houseful of people. Like people, Miss Stein's lines are comforting or annoying or brilliant or tedious. Like people, they sometimes make no sense; or they stop short in the middle of a sentence and wander away, leaving us alone for awhile in the physical world, that collection of thoughts, flowers, weather, and names. And, just as with people, there is no real escape from them.
--Ashbery 1957, 251
The review displays an attitude toward language which I call "language realism" (see the essay "Murder and Closure: On the Impression of Reality in Contemporary Poetry"). The chief objective of such writing is to erase the distinction between art and the world. Art can take on the ordinariness of everyday events, as well as its plenty, without seeking the heroic, the dramatic, or especially the lyric. Denied its distinctions as art, art becomes a democracy of attention in which basic binomial patterns of sameness and difference are key: birdcall, Simonize, nitid, fee. In "The New Realists" exhibition catalogue of 1962, Ashbery wrote, "Today it is possible not to speak in metaphors, whereas in the 1920s such a poet as Eliot couldn't evoke a gas-works without feeling obliged to call the whole history of human thought into play. In today's violent reaction to threadbare intellectualism the artist has brought the gasworks into the house" (Ashbery 1989, 82).
A belated Dadaist, John Cage explored the relation of silence and music, intention and accident in a way that invites comparison to Stanzas in Meditation, When the Sun Tries to Go On, the "New Sentence" of the language poets, and Ashbery's most radical work, The Tennis Court Oath. Discontinuity is not new; it was a major feature of modernism. In postmodernism, we see the installation of Dadaist methods such as the cut-up, sound and performance poems, and the enshrinement of the fragment as a necessary means of organization. We might also point to the related issue of processual composition, with its ultimate in postmodern cliches, that it's the process rather than the product that counts in a work of art. For Ashbery, Stanzas in Meditation and Henry James's late novels "are ambitious attempts to transmit a completely new picture of reality, of that real reality of the poet which Antonin Artaud called 'une realite dangereuse et typique.' If these works are highly complex and, for some, unreadable, it is not on ly because of the complicatedness of life, the subject, but also because they actually imitate its rhythm, its way of happening" (Impossible 253). Such writing seeks to be purely generative or, to use a term familiar to this essay, voluble. Unfortunately, presentational immediacy is never pure because the world does not write itself. Even the world's fullness is the romantic projection of an author.
Ashbery's own involvement with the Stein influence is minimal because, unlike the author of Stanzas in Meditation, he makes use of his entire formal and rhetorical arsenal. Stein's poetry is almost never lyrical; Ashbery's is insistently so, even in poems like "How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher..." and "Leaving the Atocha Station" which otherwise present discontinuity and discordant imagery. Here are the first lines of Stein's Stanzas in Meditation (1956) and Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath (1962):
STANZAS IN MEDITATION Stanza I I caught a bird which made a ball And they thought better of it. But it all of which they taught That they were in a hurry yet In a kind of a way they meant it best That they should change in and on account But they must not stare when they manage Whatever they are occasionally liable to do It is often easy to pursue them once in a while And in a way there is no repose They like it as well as they ever did But it is very often just by the time That they are able to separate In which case in effect they could Not only be very often present perfectly In each way which ever they chose. --Stein 1994, 13-14 THE TENNIS COURT OATH What had you been thinking about the face studiously bloodied heaven blotted region I go on loving you like water but there is a terrible breath in the way all of this You were not elected president, yet won the race All the way through fog and drizzle When you read it was sincere the coasts stammered with unintentional villages the horse strains fatigued I guess ... the calls ... I worry --Ashbery 1962, 11
Both excerpts extend a narrative promise of a subject matter, a set of characters, and the use of time ("I go on loving you like water" and "I caught a bird which made a ball / And they thought better of it"). Actions are definitive and the point of view secure. In the Stein work, we even have the reactions of characters ("they") to the excerpt's key event: they thought better of it. But here the similarity ends. Stein is able to work comfortably in a neutral world of "they" and "it" in which events are general and reactions to them indistinct. The environment is social, but sociability is limited in its report. We get only the general outline in a language close to legalese ("in which case"). The push of the language is entirely horizontal, toward nothing. The only metaphor occurs in the first line, and the promise of visual information is not fulfilled by lines to follow. This vacancy creates mystery and interest for a few lines then begins to test the patience of patient readers. The tease of Stein's narra tive is weak and the author's confidence unforgiving. Moreover, the freshening of language through subject changes, paragraphing, and word and rhythm patterns (such as we see in Tender Buttons) is not apparent. We lurch eagerly toward words like "mutinously" in Stanza II that have color and eventfulness. One has the sense of a story involving "they" that refuses to be told. The manner of the stanzas is not poetic in the usual sense. However, we do feel the pinch of syntax toward poetic measure at many points:
In which case in effect they could Not only be very often present perfectly In each way which ever they chose. --Stein 1994, 14
The imperfection of the measure is part of its interest, as is the unusual word order. In each line a superfluous phrase interrupts the directness of a statement: in the first line, "in effect"; in the second, "very often"; and in the third "which ever." Stein's impulse is toward fulfilling the line's optical rather than acoustic measure. But perhaps the ongoingness of language is the point, to be "present perfectly." People have been invited to a party, and they have attended. There was a lot of noise and much of the conversation could not be overheard. Perhaps they will come again.
Ashbery is not just comfortable with poetic rhetoric; he revels in it. He is too sophisticated to plod directly toward a narrative's conclusion. Rather, he offers enough narrative outposts in person, place, and time to make lyric possible. While the information offered is often whimsical ("You were not elected president, yet won the race"), the race is existential ("All the way through fog and drizzle") and the poem's direction is toward lyricism rather than away from it. The poem's discontinuities act to heighten its tone rather than to exhaust attention, and there is a sense of finality to the poem's last two lines: "They could all go home now the hole was dark / lilacs blowing across his face glad he brought you." As in much of his work, oddness of detail gives authority to what seems a tired or conventional rhetoric. The flat or banal line is a way of teasing his own (and the reader's) attention. It is the comedy of the purposely awkward dance; like Beckett and Keaton, it's done with a straight face. Ashb ery loves to dazzle the reader with cliches and empty sentences such as: "Behind this weather of indifference is of course a concern for the real qualities that inform our continuing to see each other about a lot of things" (Ashbery 1972, 38). Also, like Nabokov in his love of poshlust (sentimental bad taste), he likes a good frolic with a swan now and then. When Ashbery began teaching for the first time, at Brooklyn College in the 1980s, he would sometimes ask students to write the worst possible poem of which they were capable. On the other side of bathos, ornate diction, and ridiculous figures, the divine lies in wait. Ashbery's is a new kind of lyricism in which the rifts are sometimes just rifts and sometimes laden with ore.
Ashbery's difficulties are of another order than the Stein-Zukofsky-language poetry line of modernism. Like Beckett, Ashbery fondly expresses the existential condition. There is no fetishizing of the non-sequence but rather a delight in the mis-joined parts of the whole. Yet The Tennis Court Oath and the sardonic elusiveness of Ashbery's style generally have influenced the work of Charles Bernstein such as Islets/Irritations (1980), Controlling Interests (1986), and Dark City (1994). Here is a passage from Bernstein's "Matters of Policy" from Controlling Interests:
On a broad plain in a universe of anterooms, making signals in the dark, you fall down on your waistband &, carrying your own plate, a last serving, set out for another glimpse of a gaze. In a room full of kids splintering like gas jets against shadows of tropical taxis--he really, I should be sorry, I think this is the ("I know I have complained" "I am quite well" "quit nudging"--croissants outshine absinthe as "la plus, plus sans egal" though what I most care about is another sip of my Pepsi-Cola. Miners tell me about the day, like a pack of cards, her girlfriend split for Toronto. By the ocean, gripped in such an embrace--these were blizzard conditions & no time for gliding-- she promised to keep in touch... --Bernstein 1986, 1
The Ashbery influence can be found in the poem's antic disposition, indeterminate and apparently shifting identity of the speaker "I," its parodic anecdotalism, and the willingness to create settings such as "a broad plain" on which local events such as "signals in the dark" stabilize the reader's sense of place. But once a reference or place is established, it is quickly subject to change or is falsely investigated in the first place, like the description of Guadalajara in Ashbery's "The Instruction Manual." The italicized I announces the dilemma of egoic first-person epiphany among postwar poets. The conversational interruptiveness of "he really, I / should be sorry" passage is another nod toward that concern. Most important is the poem's willingness to dwell in points of view. We are constantly seeing through a different set of eyes. Nevertheless, the views and language we inhabit as "I," "we," and "you" have an authority of report that is less typical of Bernstein's work of the 1990s, a period in which bu rlesque, doggerel, and other parodic modes also associated with the New York School become more dominant. In order to emphasize this difference, I'd like to compare a later excerpt of "Matters of Policy" with a poem from Residual Rubbernecking (1995):
At last the soup is piping hot, the decks washed, all appurtenances brushed aside. Across the parking lot you can still hear the desultory voices of the men chatting about the dreary "affaires de la monde" that they seem to find so interesting. You take some white flowers out of the vase, the one you postured that you no longer cared about but which is as close to your heart as that chair from which you wistfully stare at the charming floral tableau, & bring them into the kitchen where you fix yourself a bowl of ice cream. --Bernstein 1986, 2 THE DOG IS DEAD A friend of mine named Rudy Loop Says time's the noblest thing I think I know better when I say I prefer soup to stew The sandpiper knows not where to nest A bee can find no bone The baby never stops crying But I must have my lunch --Bernstein 2000, 357
The "Matters of Policy" excerpt presents a false idealism intended to be funny. But the parody of bourgeois aestheticism is gentle and, as in the work of Ashbery, half-allows us to believe that the white flowers are "close to your heart." We are also allowed the steady habitation of the persona's consciousness. Thus, even as we are kept at bemused distance, we are permitted sympathy with this latter-day Prufrock. The same cannot be said of "The Dog is Dead," a poem so given over to doggerel that the persona's psychology is not a consideration. Both poems have the Ashbery feature of inspired awfulness, as can be seen in "Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox":
So my youth was spent, underneath the trees I always moved around with perfect ease I voyaged to Paris at the age of ten And met many prominent literary men --Ashbery 1970, 25
In such burlesque, the avant-garde abandons its dream of difficulty and joins with popular culture, producing poems such as Kenneth Koch's "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" and "You Were Wearing" and the purposely "dumb" works in Ron Padgett & Ted Berrigan's collaboration Bean Spasms (1967). Difficulty, dumbness, and the overt use of cliche, one of Ashbery's favorite devices, share their refusal of the established literary standard and ultimately provoke a richer poetry on the other side of outrage. Ellipticism, recently invented by the critic Stephen Burt as a school of innovative half-measures, will never catch on for exactly this reason. Nothing in it is outrageous, difficult, or dumb. Moreover, Ellipticism represents the final absorption of the Ashbery style into mainstream poetics.
Volubility finds a different expression in the work of Kenward Elmslie, the librettist and songwriter whose first full-length book of poetry, The Champ, appeared in 1968. A single long poem in quatrains, the poem has some of the slapdash interruptiveness of Koch's When the Sun Tries to Go On:
Two aeroplanes. Nod. Tote. Late. Sass the daughter of the chef. Nod. Coo. Burn. On the bank, a statue with pubic hair, and in the distance, a bunch of agents. The same sadness Inside the apartment, a holiday atmosphere prevailed. The poverty-stricken "O" phone circles, hitting the black tableau. --Elmslie 1968, 33
Born in 1929 and a contemporary of the first generation of the New York School, Elmslie has been generally more associated with the group's second generation. The publication of his poetry was delayed by the success of his lyrics for the song "LoveWise," a 1959 hit recorded by Nat King Cole, and his opera libretti The Sweet Bye and Bye (1956), Miss Julie (1965), and Lizzie Borden (1966). In addition to the book and lyrics for the Broadway show The Grass Harp (1971), he has written the libretti for The Seagull (1974), Washington Square (1976), and Three Sisters (1986). As would be expected, the lyricism of Elmslie's poetry often relates to musical theater and is frequently written to be sung. Because he also performs his work in a handsome baritone voice, it is difficult to distinguish the lyric poet from the performer and composer of lyrics. "Bang-Bang Tango" is one instance:
Me and my giant orangoutang doll. And now you. Me and Jim-Merv-Val, The Poil of the Palais Blau Taj Mahal. And now you. Tango zat Bang-Bang Tango, Zat Bang-Bang Tango, Bang-Bang --Elmslie 1980, 38
This is lyricism of a different order than "Fly Me to the Moon" or "My Papa's Waltz." Begging to be ferociously performed, as it was by Estelle Parsons on the recording Kenward Elmsiie Revisited (Painted Smiles Records, 1982), the lyrics read as performed volubility ("The Poil of the Palais Blau Taj Mahal"), as Wallace Stevens's surface of "glittering nonsense" (Bamberger 195), and as surrealist pop art ("Me and my giant orangoutang doll"). As volubility, such writing reaches toward nonsense and the uncontainable; as song lyric, it reaches with sociability toward an audience that can make claim to its plain sense. Elmslie writes of his process as lyricist:
When I'm making up tunes for a "chunk," I hear semi-tunes or sometimes overt actual hummable tunes inside my head, tunes that grow out of the "state" the character is in. I sing my own words internally, letting the tune dictate the size and shape of the stanzas, stanzas the composer sets in his own way, naturally--which is one of the major bonuses in being a librettist, being truly surprised by what happens to one's words when they're set to music and sung. Make-believe inner singing helps weed out awkward-sounding and heavy-literary syllables and sounds.
Mini-confession: even after I cut and cut, pare down to the bone, my "chunks" are still too long and a bit over-written--actually a bonus for the composer, who has some leeway to cut and shape on his own.
--Elmslie 1982, 204
There is a tug in Elmslie's writing toward the "over-written" that is comparable to the packed verbal and metaphysical surfaces of Hart Crane, Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat," some surrealist writing, Ashbery and early Koch, and language-centered poets like Jackson Mac Low, Clark Coolidge, and Bruce Andrews. On the other hand, his work is measured by a "make-believe inner singing" that gives proportion and balance. But this harmony would be useless without the outward swing (volubility) of Elmslie's verbalism.
The Personal Lyric
The "I do this I do that" poems of Frank O'Hara such as "The Day Lady Died" are among the best-known work of the New York School, and for many readers provide the definition of the group's practice. Ashbery will make personal references, for example in the third section of "The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers," but he usually invests himself secretly or through more general erotic or elegiac movements. It remained for O'Hara to make direct use of the "I" in the context of the urban quotidian, thereby creating a new kind of personal lyric. All this occurred, naturally, in the context of a generation's larger rejection of T. S. Eliot's theory of impersonality and the cult of New Critical "objectivity" that grew up around it. This rejection was to spread broadly across the poetry of the 1950s and 6 as and includes poets as otherwise diverse as Allen Ginsberg ("To Aunt Rose," arguably the best Confessional poem), Robert Lowell ("Memories of West Street and Lepke"), Sylvia Plath ("Daddy"), Theodore Roethke ("My Papa's Waltz"), James Schuyler ("Korean Mums"), Denise Levertov ("The Ache of Marriage"), and even, I would argue, Charles Olson, fierce opponent of "the lyrical interference of the individual as ego" (Olson 24). The Maximus Poems (1960) is a work of monumental ego. Nor did Olson hesitate to record his dreams and jealous fears in poems like "The Librarian."
Frank O'Hara was not always the personable boulevardier of The Lunch Poems. The easygoing persona of the "I do this I do that" poems was preceded by the comparatively conservative and well-made "To the Harbormaster"; the self-consciously "dumb" poem beginning "At night Chinamen jump / on Asia with a thump"; the ambitious lyric sweep of Odes (1960), which takes on an heroic tone unexpected for the author of "For Janice and Kenneth to Voyage"; and the impenetrable surrealist-influenced thickets of "Second Avenue" (1953), which according to Larry Rivers was written in his plaster garden studio "overlooking that avenue" while O'Hara posed for a sculpture (O'Hara 1972, 529). The opening sentences of "Second Avenue" offer little hint of the Personist poems to come:
Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours, celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures, as if proximity were staring at the margin of a plea.... This thoroughness whose traditions have become so reflective, your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea tracing forever the fabulous alarms of the mute so that in the limpid tosses of your violet dinginess a pus appears and lingers like a groan from the collar of a reproachful tree whose needles are tired of howling. --O'Hara 1972, 139
Here again is volubility and poetic ambition, a largeness and ongoingness that insists on extension and refuses silence. As Keats understood, silence and slow time lie at the heart of lyricism. "Second Avenue," however, is an agglomerative, all-consuming engine. There is none of O'Hara's famous charm because there is no calm. O'Hara has not yet grown into his own literary persona.
Commenting on the making of "Second Avenue," O'Hara remarks, "The verbal elements are not too interesting to discuss although they are intended consciously to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious. Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is other (you have to use words) and I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it" (O'Hara 1972, 497).
O'Hara's comment relates to his personal poems and how they differ from the great body of personal (or domestic) lyric that has developed into the dominant practice of the last half-century. The word "wet" suggests sentimentality: "Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears)" (O'Hara 1972, 498). But the words "reflective and self-conscious" suggest that such characteristics are foreign to O'Hara's writing when they clearly are not. A highly wrought and overdetermined language like that of "Second Avenue" makes self-consciousness inevitable. Indeed, it is through the self-consciousness of his darkly baroque literary language that O'Hara objectifies his work as art. It's confusing therefore that he creates a polarity between "high and dry" as positive value and "wet, reflective, and self-conscious" as negative values. O'Hara seems to suggest that, as in surrealist automatism, he has created a "natural" language (perhaps of the unconscious) that lacks self-consciousness. While "Second Avenue" is too guided to be mistaken for automatism, it has the urgent sloppiness of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. The frame is packed and the inventions frequent--too frequent for many readers--and the sentences are reluctant to end. Moreover, the work is too weighted with objects and events to be so sentence-reliant. The discontinuity in Koch's When the Sun Tries to Go On is preferable because its isolate parts do not seek connection. But "Second Avenue" is as much the real O'Hara as "Leaving the Atocha Station" is the real Ashbery; moreover, aspects of their "difficult" styles can be located in their more forgiving writing.
The appeal of the "I do this I do that" poems is based on the easygoing everydayness of the poem's situations and language; their narratives of casual discovery involving a walk around New York City; and the creation of silence and slow time through the merging of elegiac tone and quotidian report. All occur in "A Step Away from Them," written in 1956 and later included in Lunch Poems (1960).
A STEP AWAY FROM THEM It's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs. First, down the sidewalk where laborers feed their dirty glistening torsos sandwiches and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on. They protect them from falling bricks, I guess. Then onto the avenue where skirts are flipping above heels and blow up over grates. The sun is hot, but the cabs stir up the air. I look at bargains in wristwatches. There are cats playing in sawdust. On to Times Square, where the sign blows smoke over my head, and higher the waterfall pours lightly. A Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, langorously agitating. A blonde chorus girl clicks : he smiles and rubs his chin. Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday. --O'Hara 1964, 18
The poem is a collection of scenes, some of them cinematic. One scene is reminiscent of The Seven-Year Itch in which Marilyn Monroe's skirt flies up as she stands on a subway grating. Another sets the author himself against the background of a (cinematic) smoke-blowing sign. Another staging, which alone involves four camera angles, involves a black man who is attracted to a beautiful blonde. Everything seems suddenly to be alive ("honk"). But it's an average Thursday in New York City. A lot is going on and also a lot of nothing. Interest lies in the very casualness of the poem's information and the deliberate pace of its telling, made possible through the skillful use of enjambment. In nearly every line there is a held breath as a noun or verb is "over-rove" to the left margin. Only two lines in the excerpt conclude a sentence; in both cases, the end-stop is heightened by the conclusion of a verse paragraph. The deliberate pace suggests that something important is about to happen, but then nothing dramatic do es occur, at least in public space. The real drama occurs internally, in the unexpected announcement that Bunny died (the playwright Violet "Bunny" Lang), then John LaTouche (composer and lyricist of Cabin in the Sky and Baby Doe), and finally Jackson Pollock. Even though the walk continues and the reflections are casual, the tone of the poem has changed and sobered:
But is the earth as full as life was full, of them? And one has eaten and one walks, past the magazines with nudes and the posters for BULLFIGHT and the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, which they'll soon tear down. I used to think they had the Armory Show there. A glass of papaya juice and back to work. My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. --O'Hara 1964, 19
Like William Carlos Williams, O'Hara uses idiomatic language and faces his subject directly rather than through metaphor and symbol. Urban rusticity is key, a quality that was to influence Ted Berrigan almost to the point of fetishization in "Living with Chris," "Many Happy Returns," and the numerous "Things to Do" poems. Here is such a work in its entirety:
RESOLUTION The ground is white with snow. It's morning, of New Year's Eve, 1968, & clean City air is alive with snow, it's quiet Driving. I am 33. Good Wishes, brothers, everywhere & Don't You Tread On Me. --Berrigan 1980, 135
"Rusticity" because Berrigan, even more than O'Hara, chooses the everyday over the heroic. This is a sophisticated poetry, democratic in its sympathies. It's ironic therefore that in poet Dean Young's class at University of Indiana a student objected to elitist references (Gauloises? Bonnard? Brendan Behan?) in "The Day Lady Died." O'Hara's Irish ancestry and Kenneth Koch's Jewishness made them figures of the "outside" at Harvard in the 1940s, but their characteristic blend of high and low poetic styles is probably more an aesthetic decision than a political statement. Such contrasting elements can be found in the poem "Song," located on the facing page of Lunch Poems from "The Day Lady Died." It begins:
Is it dirty does it look dirty that's what you think of in the city does it just seem dirty that's what you think of in the city you don't refuse to breathe do you --O'Hara 1964, 6
Here urban rusticity joins with the traditional, but rarely used, form of the rondeau. But the rondeau form, which would suggest lightness and formality, is disguised by the bluntness of O'Hara's idiom. The immediacy of the poem results from its rusticity; the poem's formality emerges on further study.
O'Hara's objectivism lies in his refusal of the "Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime." He presents the thing as is, unsentimentally. We never feel that O'Hara projects himself a poet of "the still, sad music of humanity" or even of his own sufferings. Indeed, it is on the issue of self-presentation that personism finds an unbridgeable difference with confessionalism, which insists on the "I" as heroic sufferer. M. L. Rosenthal, the critic who first identified confessionalism, wrote the following of Robert Lowell's first confessional book, Life Studies (1959):
To build a great poem out of the predicament and horror of the lost Self has been the recurrent effort of the most ambitious poetry of the last century. Lowell's effort is a natural outgrowth of the modern emphasis on the 'I' as the crucial poetic symbol, and of the self-analytical monologues of the sensibility which have helped define that emphasis from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to Miss Rukeyser's Elegies. It is also an outgrowth of the social criticism that has marked almost the whole sweep of poetry of this century. From this fact they derive (given Lowell's abilities) an authority not quite present in the post-Byronics of The True Confession of George Barker or in any other works in which the speaker thrusts himself to the fore mainly as an interesting person.
It is important, I think, to remember one implication of what writers like Robert Lowell are doing: that their individual lives have profound meaning and worth, and that therapeutic confession will lead to the realization of these values.
--Rosenthal 1965, 237
While Rosenthal's assessment is dated in its reference to the long-faded career of George Barker, it raises valuable points about "the horror of the lost Self," "the emphasis on the 'I' as the crucial poetic symbol," and poets' individual lives having "profound meaning and worth." While such features are still characteristic of the work of Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, David Wojahn, and others who value self-dramatization, there was never such emphasis in the personal lyrics of O'Hara and Schuyler. While O'Hara complies with the romantic polarity of absence and presence--Wordsworth's "The things which I have seen I now can see no more"--he philosophically opposes all of Rosenthal's characterizations of self. O'Hara's self is simply another actor in the world, along with a blonde chorus girl and cats playing in sawdust. There is no "horror of the lost Self," no struggle in Freudian shadow, and no use of the "I" as the "crucial poetic symbol." Nor do the poems present their author as a particularly in teresting person; they do, however, place him in situations of interest, such as the discovery of Billie Holiday's death. The push is always toward actuality rather than mythology of self.
Such dailiness was institutionalized by the New York School's second generation but found difference in Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets (1964) by joining the everyday with cut-up procedure and the sonnet form. In sonnet XXXVI, Berrigan quicldy sets himself beyond O'Hara's grasp by the force of his own personality and his transparent acknowledgement of O'Hara as his model:
XXXVI after Frank O'Hara It's 8:54 in Brooklyn it's the 28th of July and It's probably 8:54 in Manhattan but I'm in Brooklyn I'm eating English muffins and drinking pepsi and I'm thinking of how Brooklyn is New York city too how odd I usually think of it as something all its own like Bellows Falls like Little Chute like Uijongbu --Berrigan 1964, 36
The stir of the familiar is not O'Hara's Gauloises but rather English muffins, Brooklyn, and Berrigan's often-declared love of Pepsi. (The references to Pepsi-Cola, absinthe, and croissants, like the parodic anecdotalism in Charles Bernstein's "Matters of Policy," spoof certain features of the New York School as a relocated Parisian bohemianism.)
In sonnet XV, Berrigan adds to the formal jumble of the cut-up method by offering a secret structure reminiscent of Oulipo procedures. The poem can be read in two ways: straightforwardly, which is to say jaggedly, since line two does not comfortably follow line one, or shuttle-fashion, line one followed by line fourteen followed by line two until the poem arrives at its conclusion with line eight.
XV In Joe Brainard's collage its white arrow He is not in it, the hungry dead doctor. Of Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white- I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn and ate King Korn popcorn," he wrote in his of glass in Joe Brainard's collage Doctor, but they say "I LOVE YOU" and the sonnet is not dead. takes the eyes away from the gray words, Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie washed by Joe's throbbing hands. "Today What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures does not point to William Carlos Williams. --Berrigan 1964, 22
The poem is only distantly elegiac of Marilyn Monroe because Berrigan's report is of other reports: Joe Brainard's collage and diary. The "I do this I do that" is therefore largely Brainard's. Moreover, the sonnet is itself a collage. The poem's interest is not in self but rather how art is made, of sixteen ripped pictures and fourteen rearranged lines of poetry. The personal element is casual and lies mainly in Berrigan's own acquaintance with the artist and writer Joe Brainard (1942-1994).
The work of James Schuyler is more openly sentimental and more personally revealing than that of Frank O'Hara. This is especially true of the book-length "The Morning of the Poem":
There is not one store in this good-sized village that will deliver. Guess I'll have to call a cab: while I ate my oatmeal and read the Courier Express (that fireman who's been doing it with adolescent girls got twenty-five years: "Sodomy in the first degree; sodomy in the second degree: sodomy in the third Degree": what's that all about? and a theater group is putting on a show called Bullets in the Potato Salad) it began heartily to rain: not in drops, In liquid shafts driving into the lawn and earth drilling holes, beating up The impatiens, petunias, lilies (whose cock-like buds are turning orange) and The bluey-purple flowers like larkspur only not so nice (there is a bowl Of everlasting on my dressing table: I'd like to dump it out: I hate the feel Of their papery stiff petals: why feel it then? Can't help myself, feel, feel) Rain! This morning I liked it more than sun, if I were younger I would have Run out naked in it, my hair full of Prell, chilled and loving it, cleansed, Refreshed, at one with quince and apple trees. --Schuyler 1980, 87-88
Schuyler is important for his extension of the "I do this I do that" mode in the direction of Intimism, his shrewd ear (the best of all poets of the New York School), and the precision of his observations. He is the least experimental of the group and, as a commentator on traditional themes like mutability and friendship, the most effective. His literary persona combines sweetness of character and coldness of insight. Schuyler also understands social space, as can be seen in "Korean Mums" and his "I do this I do that" masterpiece "Letter to a Friend: Who is Nancy Daum?"
Key to the New York School philosophy are the first two lines of "Letter to a Friend": "All things are real / no one a symbol" (Schuyler 1988, 85). The point was originally Ezra Pound's, in "A Retrospect": "I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use 'symbols' he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbols as such, to whom, for instance, the hawk is a hawk" (Pound 1968, 9). For Schuyler, shantung silk is shantung silk. He does not herd his objects toward the transcendent; nevertheless, he creates relations among objects that haunts them. Here is a minor poem from Hymn to Life (1974) which has a minimal vocabulary and consists of simple declarative statements:
OCTOBER Books litter the bed, leaves the lawn. It lightly rains. Fall has come: unpatterned, in the shedding leaves. The maples ripen. Apples come home crisp in bags. This pear tastes good. It rains lightly on the random leaf patterns. The nimbus is spread above our island. Rain lightly patters on un- shed leaves. The books of fall litter the bed. --Schuyler 1988, 130
The success of the poem depends on the similarity of books and fallen leaves. It's a conventional trope, yet the poem itself is fresh because Schuyler's attention is so strong. Stanza two is especially effective in its use of time. Both "The maples ripen" and "Apples / come home crisp in bags" concern events that are characteristic or develop over time. The next two sentences, however, are completely immediate in sensation, being here and now. The line on which the emotion of the poem turns, "This pear tastes good," is especially effective in drawing the reader close to the moment even though it is a straightforward statement of fact--in contrast to the poetic rhetoric of "The nimbus is spread / above our island," for instance. The lowering and heightening of poetic diction is characteristic of the New York School and is often for the sake of humor or bathos. But "This pear tastes good" is an almost thrilling freefall of the ordinary. Like William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," the simplicity of the poem's language disguises its formal complexity. It consists of envelope form in which the first and last lines are nearly identical, hinged at the work's exact center by the poem's most declarative statement and the only one that fully acknowledges the speaker as an actor in the world. The poem is sewn through with word relations such as "litter" and "patter," "patterned" and "ripen," "random" and "nimbus." Moreover, the words "litter," "bed," "rain," "leaves," "lightly," "shed," and "fall" appear in both the first and last stanzas. At a level beneath the word, many other sound patterns emerge, such as "imbus," "ightly," "atter" and "itter" in relation to the word "island." Unlike the poems produced by the technically inventive Oulipo group, Schuyler's work has emotional intelligence, a quality that, with a few exceptions such as Lyn Hejinian, will divide the language poets from the New York School. (In poems like My Life, Hejinian uses experience as the basis of composition, but she has little interest in the rigid anecdotalism through which experience is often communicated. Hers is a blinking view of her own history; memory is not memorialized. Nevertheless, the persistent references to her own family history carry emotional weight, however objectified. For many other language poets, the domestic narrative turns toward theory, its mad uncles and stressful occasions.) The formalism of the New York School belies any suggestion that it is an improvisational speech-based poetics. Rather, it is a poetics in which idiomatic elements are a formal feature.
One of the major sustainers of the mode of personal lyric is Alice Notley, whose How Spring Comes (1981) stands as an important work of the New York School's second generation. While her work has a free-floating associational movement, it is insistently grounded in personal experience and observation and makes no external appeal to the glamour of postmodern theory:
POEM You hear that heroic big land music? Land a one could call one. He starred, had lives, looks down: windmill still now they buy only snow cows. Part of a dream, she had a long waist he once but yet never encircled, and now I'm in charge of this, this donkey with a charmed voice. Elly, I'm being sad thinking of Daddy. He marshaled his private lady, did she wear a hat or the other side? Get off my own land? We were all born on it to die on with no writin' on it. But who are you to look back, well he's humming "From this valley," who's gone. Support and preserve me, father. Oh, Daddy, who can stand it? --Notley 1981, 9
The poem takes place in her hometown of Needles, California, shortly after the death of Notley's father, who owned a car parts store in that desert town. Elly is presumably her sister, who shares in the grief of the father's death and the existence of his "private lady," who has apparently made a legal claim to the land that is threatening to his other heirs ("Get off my own land? We / were all born on it to die on / with no writin' on it"). The heroic big land music is the country and western music the father would have enjoyed; this includes "From This Valley," an appropriately elegiac song of his own era. The father "starred, had lives, looks down," conventional metaphors for his largeness both in life and death. But the poem's "back story" contains difficulties and is not by any means a straightforward report, especially the line "windmill still now they buy only / snow cows." This is the kind of line that made Notley seem, for a brief period in her history, as much a daughter of Gertrude Stein as of Will iam Carlos Williams, her major influence. The report is opaque in its local reference. But the general outline and texture of elegy is clear. Like the work of her first husband Ted Berrigan, an important part of Notley's production is elegiac in mood; it ranges from a weighty poem on the death of Jack Kerouac ("Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice") to the discovery in California of her own childhood bookshelf ("A California Girlhood"), with its implicit nostalgia for readings and lives past. Notley documents the personal--she sings of it--but her wry unexpectedness of detail and tone sets her apart from recent confessional poetry. This is the case even though she has repeatedly written poems on the subject of Ted Berrigan's death and produced at least two collections, At Night the States (1988) and Mysteries of Small Houses (1998) that are dominated by his presence. "The Howling Saint T-Shirt," collected in Mysteries of Small Houses, is a good example of the insouciant gravity of her report:
Children don't come from deep inside one they were always outside and, I dream, wear their own saint T-shirts as I do mine's saint image is faceless, howling. They have smiling bodies friendly asses "Give you Everything the first seven years," Ted says they bear no relation to your self, not a haunt that shakes loose not a seed pod not a part of the body not you; it's harrowing to stop being the child yourself but "child" is not real spiritually as classification as I change with experience lose confidence and truth and must find out everything from them now. --Notley 1998, 54
While confessionalism presses toward the heroic and mythic, Notley's approach to the personal lyric sets importance within the frame of actuality; that is, within the counter tendency of smallness. As noted in the discussion of O'Hara's "I do this I do that" poems, the seeming smallness of the actual has moral implication in refusing to monumentalize experience--as happens, for example, in Sylvia Plath's "Colossus." Notley's sons have "smiling bodies" and "friendly asses." She sees herself as a faceless howling saint of grief (one thinks of Munch's painting The Scream) but in the context of a T-shirt.
The Abstract Lyric
Lyrical poetry began its dominance with Romanticism and the rise of the bourgeois ego. We conceive of that development as "democratic" even though it possesses its own exclusionary ideology. Even Romantic epics such as The Prelude and Song of Myself were works of personal consciousness revealing "the growth of the writer's mind." But romantic poetry is problematic for the same reasons that it grew in popularity: its cult of the middleclass self and its insistence on a lyric basis of expression. The final turn of the screw was the institutionalization of free verse as the accepted norm, which drew the emphasis away from musicality and toward the urgent statement. This was roughly the situation in the early 1970S when books like Gregory Orr's Burning the Empty Nests contained poems like the following:
NAKEDNESS I am this tree whose bark is fur and whose wood is salt. There is a shirt that devours me. It is the rain. --Orr 1973, 31
Influenced by the deep image practices of James Wright, Robert Bly, and Bill Knott, who in turn were influenced by Spanish surrealism, the poem consists almost entirely of metaphors of identity. The "I" is extended by its comparison to a tree; the bark is extended by its comparison to fur; and wood is extended (fancifully rather than realistically) by its comparison to salt. In the second stanza, the same pattern continues. The rain is a shirt that "devours" the "I," another fanciful metaphor. In addition, the entire poem is a blazon on the subject of nakedness. In a poem of four lines, we are offered five metaphors, each of which tests the ingenuity of the others and none of which is ingenious in the least. These are the utterances of a tongueless Prometheus.
The poem is tuneless yet "lyrical" in its brevity and urgency of expression. As confession, the poem communicates the agony of a self stripped bare and embraced only by a devouring rain. The poem's metaphysical fiction is as overblown as its story of self is underdeveloped. One need only compare Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" and Plath's "Fever 103" to see how unrevealing of experience "Nakedness" is.
In such poetry, lyricism comes to a dead end. In trying so hard to be expressive, the poem lacks expressiveness and also range of expression. Because it lacks poetic rhetoric, it lacks both modulation and beauty of language. For all the limits of rhetoric, its rise and fall brings gradation of tone. Most importantly, the poem is just plain dumb. The best lyric poetry is written in shrewd relation not only to experience but also to the lyric tradition, which, being always at the brink of exhaustion, is in constant need of reinvention. Ron Padgett's "December" ("I will sleep / in my little cup") is neither minimal or dumb because its meaning keeps expanding like an especially effective bedtime rhyme. This is also true of Berrigan's "Telegram" (to Jack Kerouac): "Bye-Bye Jack. / See you soon." Its lyricism has only one note but strategically opposes the grandeur of elegy and confession. O'Hara's poem beginning "Lana Turner has collapsed," written on the Staten Island Ferry on his way to a reading, achieves its l yricism by playing dumb. The same is true of "Why I Am Not a Painter," O'Hara's shrewd poem on the everyday mysteries of creation. But Orr's poem is too dumb to know that it's dumb, which is fatal.
Abstract lyricism, on the other hand, is self-aware and philosophically suggestive. Here is an example from an early Ann Lauterbach collection, Before Recollection (1987):
PLATONIC SUBJECT Momentum and wash of the undefined, as if clarity fell through the sieve of perception, announced as absence of image. But here is a twig in the form of a wishbone. Aroused, I take it, and leave its outline scarred in snow which the sun will later heal: form of the real melts back into the ideal and I have a twig. --Lauterbach 1987, 28
This is really a poem of two parts: (1) the complex rhetoric of the first sentence, which announces the themes of absence arid presence, thing and perception of thing and (2) a fable of representation that begins with "But here is a twig." The first sentence expresses the Platonic dilemma in general terms that are also poetic--that there is an undefined and unknown world beyond perception. What we "know" is that amount of this world that falls as clarity through "the sieve of perception." We would expect that clarity to involve sharply defined things, but Lauterbach focuses on absence of image as a thing in itself.
As philosophy, the poem has already reached its conclusions by the end of the first sentence. The rest of the poem relates a fable that dramatizes the same issues. For many readers, it is the "real" poem since it contains the emotion of discovery ("Aroused, I take it"), the paradox of absence and presence as it develops over time ("which the sun will later heal"), and the reiteration of the Platonic theme in "form of the real melts back into the ideal." But the poem's most powerful conclusion lies in the line "and I have a twig." After all the stir of rhetoric and thought, the twig as twig has the final word. This does not mean that the twig is the only object of interest or indeed of any interest without its fable of representation. The poem is a comedy of relations between the twig itself, its shape in snow, and the speaker's perception of them. Like Schuyler's line "This pear tastes good," Lauterbach's "and I have a twig" anchors the poem phenomenally. The fall in rhetoric from the first sentence of "Plat onic Subject" to its last line lends amusement to the proceedings. The rise and fall of rhetorical levels reminds us of the constructedness of poems and, as intended bathos in Ashbery's poetry especially, offers a fable of representation in its own right. In constantly awakening us from the nap of belief, Ashbery allows for more conscious and self-aware suspension of disbelief. In the essay "Murder and Closure," I refer to such behavior as aesthetic realism. We are called to an awareness of aesthetic presence and device; that poems consist of the act of depiction (the world) and the depiction of depiction (technical device and our larger consciousness of authorship). In The Last Avant-Garde, his critical biography of the New York School of poets, David Lehman puts it this way: "From Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, they learned that it was okay for a poem to chronicle the history of its own making--that the mind of the poet, rather than the world, could be the true subject of the poem--and that it was p ossible for a poem to be (or to perform) a statement without making a statement" (Lehman 1998, 3).
Rene Magritte's paintings are often fables of representation. In La Condition Humaine (1933), for instance, an oil painting of a landscape stands on an easel at a window that frames this same landscape. The easel painting is on such a scale that it coincides or joins perfectly with the landscape it depicts: the painted cloud sharing an outline with the real cloud, the painted grass flowing unhesitantly into the real grass, and so on. We view these things from the interior of a room. The frame presents the room's wall of dark eggshell color, its heavy brown drapes and brown carpeted floor, the window frame, and a meticulously painted black marble sill. The wall and drapes reveal the artist's brush-strokes, which announce their paintedness and therefore the hand of the painter. Illusionism is cruder, even broken, in that part of the painting. But of course the comedy of relations is based entirely on illusionism. The black marble sill with its white threading, the well-painted easel, and the shiny leaves of a g arden bush are the only objects that maintain the aura of the real; all lie at the painting's center. The painting reminds us that paintings are made of paint rather than the things they depict. The third level of reality--the "real" grass, easel, and drapes--are important because the world is important. But what matters to the painting is depiction itself, that is, the depiction of depiction.
La Condition Humaine is an amusing title because it suggests the grim realism of a Zola novel, an approach to the real not to be found in Magritte's paintings. Magritte's realism chooses to see how we see.
The poetry of Barbara Guest, especially Fair Realism (1989), frequently touches on matters of representation. Here is a passage from "Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights":
I take from my wall the landscape with its water of blue color, its gentle expression of rose, pink, the sunset reaches outward in strokes as the west wind rises, the sun sinks and color flees into the delicate skies it inherited. I place there a scene from "The Tale of Genji." An episode where Genji recognizes his son. Each turns his face away from so much emotion, so that the picture is one of profiles floating elsewhere from their permanence, a line of green displaces these relatives, black also intervenes at correct distances, the shapes of the hair are black. Black describes the feeling, black is recognized as remorse, sadness, black is a headdress while lines slant swiftly, the space is slanted vertically with its graduating need for movement, Thus the grip of realism has found a picture chosen to cover the space occupied by another picture establishing a flexibility so we are not immobile like a car that spends its night outside a window, but mobile like a spirit. I float over this dwelling, and when I choose enter it. I have an ethnological interest in this building, because I inhabit it and upon me has been bestowed the decision of changing an abstract picture of light into a ghost-like story of a prince whose principality I now share, into whose confidence I have wandered. --Guest 1995, 139-140
Like Magritte's painting discussed above, "Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night lights" concerns the depiction of depiction. The poem opens with the description of a local setting: "Parking / lot trucks overlooked by night lights. Buildings / with their escapes overlooked by lights." The speaker, who is Guest herself, quickly begins to alter her local landscape (and its modernity) with a scene from the medieval The Tale of Genji. Thus the Genji story (antiquity) and the glare of parking lot lights (modernity) impact each other on the stage of a third presence, Guest's own mind. She places there a scene, much as Wallace Stevens placed a jar on a hill in Tennessee. She assigns the values of remorse and sadness to the color black. Fully aware of the power of her ability to layer one reality with another, she even offers a discourse on her role: "Thus the grip of realism has found / a picture chosen to cover the space / occupied by another picture." This flexibility of placement means we are not immobile or fixed by our local realities (parking lot lights, an episode from The Tale of Genji), but are selective in our choice and manipulation of them. Possessing mobility, Guest floats over her dwelling artistically even as she inhabits it actually. Mobility is also characteristic of the reader, with the difference that the author has far more directive power. The range of the reader's mobility is limited by the extent of the situation given to him. Naturally there is an ethnos of self, but the "ethnological interest" of the floating author, perhaps as Whitmanesque ego, is humorous, a comment perhaps on the politics of identity in the post-modern period. Guest's speaker ("I") seems amused by her responsibilities as author: "upon me has been bestowed the decision of changing / an abstract picture of light into a ghost-like story / of a prince whose principality I now share, / into whose confidence I have wandered" (140). In changing the light into The Tale of Genji, Guest announces the arbitrariness of an author's decision to move in space and time; to create, recreate, or ignore. But once a decision is made, the author wanders into a new principality and a new set of confidences (Genji's) to which she is then beholden. This is quite a different concept of author-as-self than is seen in confessional poetry. Guest's author is made subject to the whims of her art. She creates and extends herself each time she enters an imaginative world. Later in the poem, Genji "allows himself to be positioned on a screen" as a work in silk. Thus the author is given permission by the subject Genji, who has his own rights in the matter. In the poem, "the light of fiction and light of surface / sink into vision whose illumination / exacts its shades" (141). The light of surface is the real light in the parking lot. The light of fiction is not simply the story of Genji, immobile as text but mobile in the author's and reader's minds; it is also the act of imaginatively entering Genji's world. By the poem's conclusion, the interanimation of Genji's gar dens and modernity is so complete that "upon that modern wondering space / flash lights from the wild gardens" (141). The fictive light has taken authority over the light of surface. This is not simply Marianne Moore's imaginary gardens with real toads in them." The poem's fable of representation displays the shifting conditions of mind, world, and self inherent in art and everyday perception. The parking lot lights have no necessary relation to The Tale of Genji, but once that relation is established it seems both inevitable and demanding of attention.
In her essay, "Shifting Persona," Guest makes a distinction between two kinds of viewers:
The person inside a literary creation can be both viewer and insider. The window is open and the bird flies in. It closes and a drama between the bird and its environment begins.
When the person who is you is the viewer, you believe an extraordinary strength exists in that position. You are outside the arena of dispute or creativity or blasphemy, dwelling in a private space where emotive speculation is stronger than fact or action each of which passes before you in an attempt at dissimulation which you are free to dispute. This is called the orchid position, because of the extravagant attention the viewer demands. ...
Yet inside the window is the person who is you, who are now looking out, shifted from the observer to the inside person and this shows in your work. When you are the inside person you can be both heavy and delicate, depending on your mood; you have a sense of responsibility totally different from the you outside. You occupy the lotus position. ...
The lotus position is one of exaggerated self-dependency, in which the eye goes inward so frequently that rest stops are required, something like paragraphic encasings.
These rest stops are noticed in the shifts that occur between the persona of the creator and the persona of the observer. In a well-developed persona the shifts take place before our eyes without revealing themselves, as if gauze had been spun especially for the purpose and a curtain falls shyly between the persona of the person and the persona that is now accepted. We travel back to the mountain-top and the valley with the shifting of spatial contacts. ...
The ability to project both windows is a sign of originality and is rare.
--Guest 1991, 85-86
The shifting of personae from the viewer to the viewed, from subject to object and back again, is central to artistic empathy and our consciousness of creation. There is no point in disguising the artifice of a poem. It is a made thing, and its madeness is part of its beauty, like the stitched seams on a baseball. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the Parmigianino painting that was also the title of John Ashbery's poetry collection, depicts the doubleness of the artist's position as subject and object, maker and made thing. The creator is also the viewer or reader of the creation; he judges and revises it in the process of making. He must also make the choice as to what sort of object he presents to his own eye. Narcissism is the risk, but in many self-portraits the figure of self is secondary to the phenomenology of creation. The subject of the work is the relation of consciousness to the external world, a drama enacted along the taut line of the gaze. The gaze always communicates both the wonder of the prim itive romantic (things do exist including my own consciousness) and the fetishist's desire for fixity.
In the Parmigianino painting, the youthful artist sits in proximity to the round mirror, which lends roundness to his face and an almost dizzying roundness to the room in which he sits. While his body is undistorted, his right hand, which he has extended toward the mirror, lies distorted at the frame's edge. The most distorted part of his body, its fingers are elongated like the tentacles of a squid and the body of the hand bulges toward the eye. Presumably Parmigianino was left-handed, since that is the hand free to paint. The right hand is the subject hand, uselessly beautiful in its swollen state and emerging from a scalloped sleeve that further emphasizes the marine qualities of this fishbowl environment. The creative hand is hidden, the subject hand entirely public. While the artist's countenance is serene and direct, the subject hand's distortion makes it the most dramatic element in the frame. The fable of representation depends upon the complexities of seeing and being seen; the artist's intellection as represented by his gaze; and the extension of this gaze toward the public by means of the creative and subject hands. This painting is not "about" the artist himself but rather the drama of seeing and creating. A further conceit on seeing lies in the globular shape of the mirror, which is also that of an eye. The figure at the painting's center, Parmigianino's own face, is therefore the apple of the eye, but he gazes dispassionately rather than admiringly at his own figure. This is because his intent is to objectify--to see everything that it is to be seen--in the chosen frame, rather than to ennoble his own figure. Parmigianino is an object of serenity at the center of distortion. His fattened hand is not grotesque because made "real" by the convexity of the mirror. We also trust therefore in the reality of his serenity.
Parmigianino was a Mannerist; and according to David Shapiro so is Ashbery the postmodern poet: "Mannerism is no longer to be thought of in the pejorative sense. For Ashbery and modern art critics, it is the movement of art away from classical norms toward the dissonance that counts. It is a movement in art that not only distorts, but rescues the very value of distortion. ... In its bizarre suavity, its unrealities, its sudden discontinuities, its constant theatricality, its inordinate fondness for framing devices, Mannerism no longer seems to us anything but our central precursor. The elongated syntax of Ashbery, his love of parenthesis and ellipsis, his sense of being cut off from any direct treatment of Nature, his disequilibria ... his self-reflexiveness and high self-consciousness--all of these make Ashbery a Mannerist in the most positive sense" (Shapiro 1979, 5). Such distortions and discontinuities clarify rather than obscure our sense of the world, since they awaken us to its variety and difficulties . An old window with its warped glass is more beautiful than the uninterrupted view through plain glass.
Ashbery's poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" begins: "As Parmigianino did it, the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises" (Ashbery 1975, 68). The hand thrust at the viewer disguises what it projects. The same could be said of Ashbery's poetry, that it is a series of dramatizations, false leads, and aporia that alternately veil and unveil a series of realities. In an Ashbery poem, the cape is more fascinating than the bull.
Like Barbara Guest, Michael Palmer acknowledges the contingencies of identity and authorial placement. Here is the beginning of "The Project of Linear Inquiry":
[Let a be taken as ...] a liquid line beneath the skin and b where the blue tiles meet body and the body's bridge a seeming road there, endless rain pearling light chamber after chamber of dust-weighted air the project of seeing things so to speak, or things seen --Palmer 1981, 58
In life we constantly see things, but when it becomes a "project," seeing is a work of purposeful mind, as in philosophy, painting, or poetry. We begin the assiduous act of assigning importance and even symbolic value: "Let a be taken as ..." The creating of such identifies tends toward the immobilization of their meanings, but Palmer presents us with difficult or shifting identities: "a liquid line beneath the skin" and "where two tiles meet / body and the body's bridge / a seeming road there, endless / rain pearling light." Later in the poem, "c stands for inessential night-- / how that body would / move vs how it actually does--too abstract & / or not abstract enough" (59). Because each identity is complex, the poem suggests that the parts of the world are too numerous and too interrelated for a project of linear inquiry. One thing does not follow another as a follows b. The mere attempt results in dizziness ("I stood there torn / felt hat in hand / wondering what I had done / to cause this dizziness"). He re the "I" speaks as the consumptive author, victim of his own naming devices. He is aware of the limitation of his projections, that he names nature poorly, but it is through this romantic self-awareness that his strength is realized. He stands humbly, "hat in hand," before the powers of inessential night, for it is not in the defined powers of the essential that the "real" is to be located. It lies, rather, in the random acts of the inessential and the unknown. Authorship must acknowledge that "salt, pepper, books and schedules" share "the same error and measure of inattention" (Palmer 1981, 59). The new realism therefore gestures with humility toward the indeterminate. To make a linear inquiry is rife with error because it does not perceive the fullness of the world. Palmer's poem "Voice and Address," which begins with the line, "You are the owner of one complete thought" (Palmer 1984, 7) humorously suggests the final solution of linear inquiry. Yet many artistic projects can be reduced to a one-sentence d escription: Christo wraps buildings; Chris Burden brutalizes himself; Sharon Olds tells all.
Palmer's syllogistic language is of course reminiscent of the Wallace Stevens poem "The Connoisseur of Chaos." This does not mean that he is in debt to Stevens on the larger scale; his influences lie closer to Paul Celan, Edmond Jabes, and the lyricism of Zukofsky's A-11. Nor is Michael Palmer associated with the New York School. However, he does share an interest in the abstract lyric and in postmodern French poets such as Emmanuel Hocquard and Claude Royet-Journoud. Stevens and Palmer--indeed all poets working in the abstract lyric--conceive of the poem as an argument about the wor(l)d rather than a dramatization of social or personal issues. Palmer's arguments are less pointed than Stevens's and more diffuse; he works a bit more "high and dry," to borrow O'Hara's phrasing. All poets in this mode operate at an intellectual remove that makes their work "difficult"; at the same time, the argument is borne by the attachments of lyric, which draws us near to the fray.
In a section of his essay "Counter-Poetics and Current Practice" entitled "Lyric Practice (Analytic Lyric?)," Palmer describes the dilemma of lyric poetry in the post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam era and finds its renewal in the work of Jabes, Celan, and Vallejo--an international poetry that offers a "critique of the discourse of power" (Palmer 1986, 14). He is also concerned about the Marxist critique of language poets like Ron Silliman who hold a "distrust of the lyric" and who view the lyrical as "simply an indulgence" (14). For Palmer, himself a lyric poet, the dilemma is resolved by "the incorporation of silence" while maintaining "the notion of doublings of the subject, dissociations, junctures, and ruptures, and a lyric that operates from an economy of loss" (14). The challenge is to join lyricism's regret, absence, and yearning with the modernist style. I would argue that the abstract lyric, primarily the device of the New York School and its descendants, has always met this challenge. The difference betwe en the abstract lyric and Palmer's analytic lyric would seem to lie largely in their critiques of the discourse of power. We are speaking largely of the same principle: the "thought song," if you will, a poetry that thinks through lyric.
Palmer finds the origin of the analytic lyric in Holderlin's final fragments, written just before he descended into thirty-five years of madness. Richard Sieburth translated one of these fragments, Es fesselt / Kein Zeichen, as "No sign / Binds" (Palmer 1986, II). "It struck me," Palmer writes, "as one of the sources of the modern lyric and certainly of German Expressionism. It just popped out at me, this notion of disintegration of faith in the sign" (II). His argument continues in a direction that is consistent with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, de Saussure, and Existentialism: "There is no absolute relation which people in a certain act of faith have clung to as a possibility throughout time. There is a certain arbitrariness outside a given language system, so that the possibility of reference and signification begins to disintegrate, for whatever reason.... This doubt leads to the lyric voice, the problematics of self-expression, as when (with Holderlin) the unitary and integral self itself is very much in que stion, and therefore the unitary voice is in question, and the possibility of controlling the tone" (Palmer 1986, 12).
Uncertainty is of course a condition of the world. Keats acknowledged its affirmative value in his comments on negative capability: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (Kaplan 350). Uncertainty is basic to artistic creation. But the postmodern era has fetishized uncertainty into widely accepted certainties such as "disintegration of faith in the sign" (Palmer 1986, II), "the impossibility of reading the world" (Palmer 1986, 14), and "the real crisis of representation and signification" (Palmer 1986, 12).
This crisis of signification is based in a romanticism still stunned over the death of god. It would seem obvious that language is an arbitrary system in which the word "tree" has no meaning in French. How long then must we elegize the supposed rift between the world and words? If it were impossible to read the world, nobody could make it to the grocery store. Even a modest observer can see that world is saturated with meaning (leaves are falling), that readings can be made of this meaning (things die), that an adequate reading can be done through language (by a young girl named Margaret, who grieves), and that some of the most complex readings are done through poetry (the work of G. M. Hopkins, for instance). The ability of poetry to read these meanings (including its own) is held as evidence of its famous "difficulty" when in fact it is the source of its, power. No sign binds only for poor Holderlin.
Since roughly 1990, the abstract lyric has been increasingly practiced by poets who are otherwise influenced by language poetry. Here is the concluding section of Elizabeth Robinson's "The Ferry":
V. Half-way. Lights so perturbed with each other that they expand the presence of God. Barely. The children playing in the street are going blind. These invocations are roughly the same as sleep disturbed again by the youngest who's woken from a bad dream. From here to an antidote. --Robinson 2000, 48
The poem's meditation is personal in reference to her own children. But its more powerful impact is on the metaphysical level: "Lights so perturbed with each other / that they expand the presence of God. / Barely." As the conditional meets with the absolute, the state of being "half-way" assumes a kind of sanctity. (Half-wayness is the condition of many abstract lyric works including the preceding Guest, Lauterbach, and Palmer poems.) A student of theology, Robinson's abstract movements often have spiritual implications.
Hugh Huppert relates one of his final visits to his friend Paul Celan, not long before the German poet killed himself. At Celan's invitation, he read some of Celan's recent work out loud:
"Indescribably abstract," I told him, "imponderably spiritual," and could not hide my inner agitation about certain mental turns in the intermittently gentle and musical passages of this lyric expression. Celan responded, "I am glad that you say 'abstract'; and 'spiritual' is also fitting. Perhaps you are, like myself, no supporter of the 'socialization' of one's inner life...."
"And how do you explain your abstract expression?" I asked.
"This follows a similar track. My abstraction is a processed freedom of expression. The rehabilitation of the word. Are you familiar with 'concrete poetry'? It's an international phenomena; but neither concrete nor poetry. A narrow-minded misuse of language. A sin against the word. As long as this mischief is called concrete, I will call myself abstract...."
Then he showed me his wife's atelier, filled with various apparatus for the reproduction of steel engravings, etchings, and lithographs. "I am impressed, and influenced, by the intellectual precision of this--what I would call the French--style of engraving," Celan began; "it too is only outwardly abstract; its crystallographic features are formulas made visible--sensual, vital....
"I no longer play music, as I did in the days of the notorious 'Death Fugue,'--a poem so thrashed about that it's now ripe for anthologies. I make an important distinction between music and lyric poetry. I feel closer to drawing today; in the same vein I use more shadows than Gisele [his wife], I intentionally darken curves for the sake of nuance in truth, faithful to my own kind of spiritual realism.
"I remain basically sensory in my approach, never pretending to be 'extra-sensory'... which would be against my nature, a pose. I refuse to consider the poet as prophet, as 'oracle,' visionary or fortune-teller. In this I hope you see clearly why I consider my so-called abstraction and my actual ambiguity to be moments of realism."
The key terms are "spiritual realism," the complex shading of truth by means of the sensory, and "my actual ambiguity," a phrase that suggests the darkened curves of one's personality as maker. That is, the maker is also complex and, like the world, stands on shifting ground. What Celan calls the abstract is also the sensory, like the interaction of Barbara Guest's parking lot lights and a Japanese drawing based on The Tale of Genji. Both are experienced in the real world, but their interaction suggests another level of experience that has sew eral names: the spiritual, the abstract, the real, the mystical, the true, and the beautiful. Because of the variety of registers practiced by the New York School within even the same poem, the real undergoes slippage that strengthens and renews the connection between the word and the world.
The Comic Sublime
New York School poetry is unique in the post-modern period for the range of its expression, from the comparatively direct poetry of O'Hara and Berrigan to the comic sublime of Kenneth Koch and the elusive meditations of Ashbery and Guest. It is an unavoidable influence on many poets born after 1950; it is also the standard with which new generations of the avant-garde have had to contend. This is particularly true of the Ashbery influence, which virtually defines postmodern innovative practice. Language poetry has much to offer, but at the threshold of lyric its adherents are faced with a dilemma which they have not successfully overcome. If you want to "do" beauty in the postmodern period, you inevitably are drawn to the abstract lyric mode of the New York School. The personal lyric has suffered a decline in recent years for several reasons: its oppositional style has faded along with bohemianism; it has been made to seem more conventional than it is by language poetry's attack on subjectivity; and its mode of sardonic wit has long been assimilated by poets like James Tate, Dean Young, and August Kleinzahler whose histories and realm of acceptance largely lie elsewhere. At the same time, the assimilation of New York School practice is a sign of its lingering power.
New York School influence can be felt in the work of David Lehman, whose "First Offense" is a villanelle on the subject of getting a traffic ticket and whose The Daily Mirror joins New York School "dailiness" with Harry Mathews's Oulipo-inspired Twenty Lines a Day; Jorie Graham, who shares Ashbery's sublimity and obliquity but not his sense of humor; Paul Violi, a comic conceptualist in the mode of Kenneth Koch, who wrote the fictional life of a bad artist named Sutej Hudney in the form of an index; David Shapiro, an abstract lyricist who describes poetry as "the constant mastering of irony"; Susan Wheeler, whose recent book Smokes moves from the comparative openness of New York School irony toward the packed discontinuity of language poetry; Charles North, whose poem "A Note to Tony Towle" begins "One must have breakfasted often on automobile primer / not to sense an occasional darkening in the weather joining art and life"; Amy Gerstler, who marries the surrealist prose poem to a comically melancholic femin ism; Elaine Equi, whose tongue-in-cheek minimalism passes through the New York School on its way to Robert Herrick; Caroline Knox, whose poem "Freudian Shoes" begins, "Freudian shoes, the puddings of orthopedic flight"; Rachel Loden, whose first book, Hotel Imperium, contains a sequence of poems on Richard Nixon with titles like "The Death of Checkers" and "Memories of San Clemente"; Mary Jo Bang, whose new collection The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans has the gravity and linguistic playfulness associated with the New York School; John Koethe, the Ashbery-influenced Wordsworthian; David Trinidad, who joins pop culture topics with traditional forms such as the pantoum; and Tom Disch, an eccentric formalist otherwise identified with the New Formalism movement. The very popular work of Billy Collins takes from Kenneth Koch the use of a whimsical concept as organizing principle. His poem "Philosophy" begins: "I used to sit in the cafe of existentialism, / lost in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke, / cont emplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman / might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandy glass" (Collins 69). Unfortunately, Collins's work represents the domestication of New York School wit.
Which brings us to the complex case of Kenneth Koch. His poetry is intelligent, amusing, and dear, and he is one of the originals of his generation, but one senses an enormous hesitation on the part of reviewers and critics: is it, and can comic art ever be, really major? James Breslin's From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965 devotes chapters to Olson, Ginsberg, Lowell, Levertov, James Wright, and Frank O'Hara, as well as a page and a half to John Ashbery, but the index makes no mention of Koch. Even Ashbery's blurb on the back of Koch's Selected Poems (1982) suggests desolation: "This long-awaited collection should at last establish Kenneth Koch for what he is: one of our greatest poets." He has been overlooked and under-reviewed. Yet his humor, like Lord Byron's, creates an "aery charm" that is finally quite sincere. One need only read his elegiac poem "Seasons on Earth," to see his easeful formalism turned to graver purpose. Written in ottava rima, the stanza of Don Juan and his own comic epic The Duplications, the poem is addressed to his deceased wife Janice and relates to their early years together:
April then May came fluttering through the branches Of peach and pear tree all around the neatly Landscaped young villa two miles from the campers. You, six months pregnant, lost the baby; it was The saddest thing that ever happened to us. You almost died. They tried to give you oxygen In the wrong way, in the bare-beamed Municipal Hospital. I helped save you. They were lax again With blood. Good God! All life became peripheral, A mess, a nightmare, until you were back again. My poem had not a trace of these things medical; But it was full of dyings and revivings And strange events, that went past plain connivings-- --Koch 1987, 10
The eventfulness of these stanzas is of a different order than some of his other work. Its invention is limited to the requirements of ottava rima rather than comic disjunctions of language such as "simplex bumblebees"; the settled tone helps make possible the sublimity of "dyings and revivings." A form as noticeable as ottava rima will always contain a sense of its own "connivings," but here the rhymes are weighted with loss. Koch's comic mode offers a different form of the sublime, one based in invention ("Elmer opened his mouth and let the snow fall in it") and discovery (that "Lorca says" rhymes with "metamorphosis"). But he rarely locates and sustains that cadence within lyric which is near to stillness. Ottava rima is perfect for his sensibility because it is in constant motion, like a noisy perpetuum mobile. We admire its bright clatter and the tease of its thought, but we are not consoled by its absences.
The forces of movement and stillness are evident in a stanza from "Seasons on Earth" in which he grieves to Janice about his errors in marriage:
What is, I want to know, the truth if there is Truth in the view of things I had, and what is The source, if it's mistaken, of its errors? Do we come into life with minds and bodies Ready to live in some ecstatic Paris Or is the limit of our lives more modest? Is there seed in us? are we the pod? Is The blossom pleasure, and the fruit the goddess? Did you too ever feel it, like a promise, That there could be a perfect lifetime, Janice? --Koch 1987, 14
The passage breaks with ottava rima by adding two lines to the octave and by sustaining virtually the same rhyme (modest / pod? Is / goddess / promise / Janice) throughout. Despite the formal inventiveness of such rhyme, Koch creates sublimity of tone and intensity of address.
Like all comic poets, Koch is moralistic and didactic at heart, but he is not essentially a satirist. He stings mildly with parody, and his targets are usually works of art, not political situations or public figures. "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" uses Williams's famous poem about the plums as a basis for further invention rather than to demean Williams. The inherent sophistication of his project--and the pretension that might go with it--is deflated by the openness of his wit. Even in "Fresh Air," the comic manifesto in which The Strangler kills several bad academic poets, Koch is too funny to be sanctimonious or mean. Koch is Horatian and romantic at the same time. His whimsical common sense is in contrast to Robert Bly's hyperthyroidal embracing of spiritual presences; it embraces the actuality of the world rather than lament its losses.
When Koch is meditative, a major mode for Ashbery, he becomes Vergilian. The finest work of his middle period can be found in The Art of Love (1975), especially in "The Art of Poetry" and "Some General Instructions," poems which "make it new" by ignoring Pound's anti-Vergilian dictum. Masterpieces of sustained tone in a relaxed idiom, they maintain tension by balancing wit and didacticism. With such a broad range of reference, anything might be essayed in and seem to fit. When the poem has achieved its panoramic stature, it can simply end, as "The Art of Poetry" does, with the line, "Now I have said enough." Eliot had convinced the generation of the 1940s to be dramatic and metaphysical; along comes Kenneth Koch with rhetoric and generalization, as if he wanted to write the Ars Poetica of our time. In so doing, he makes Eliot's impersonal theory of poetry seem fussy and irrelevant. The self, too, is an object and actor in the world. Even one's own poems can present themselves as topics. Koch's poem "The Circu s" in The Art of Love begins with a reference to the poem "The Circus" in his first full-length book, Thank You (1962).
Koch is often at his best in the catalogue form, a structure that allows for one-liners--for example, "Alive for an Instant" with its wonderful ending: "I have a baby in my landscape and I have a wild rat in my secrets from you." His love poem, "To You," which begins "I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut," is both a comic catalogue and a parody of E. B. Browning's "How Do I Love Thee." In narrative mode, Koch's occasion is often a journey, a strategy reminiscent of A.O. Barnabooth (Valery Larbaud) and Raymond Roussel, acknowledged masters for Koch as one of the editors of the French-influenced journal Locus Solus. Likewise, Koch's authorial stance is that of the eccentric amateur.
Like all the New York poets, Koch sees art as part of life, so there is little self-consciousness in referring to it. The criticism of Shklovsky, Bakhtin, and other formalists makes such artifice almost obligatory, yet as a romantic formalist Koch never poses as the ardent technician. He is first a poet of excitable content and tends to use forms that allow for his charm and quiet asides. Like Ginsberg, he often employs a long line, though his work is hardly "bardic and Melvillean" in breath. His intentionally "light" poetry sits in opposition to the seriousness and muthologos of Charles Olson. Koch's only dictum seems to be liveliness. His work is therefore consistent with Sartre's statement: "Whatever the subject a sort of essential lightness must appear everywhere and remind us that the work is never a natural datum, but an exigence and a gift."
In "The Study of Poetry," Matthew Arnold wrote of the "power of liquidness and fluidity in Chaucer's verse ... dependent upon a free, a licentious dealing with language, such as is now impossible" (Arnold 1961, 317). He goes on to characterize Chaucer as a less than classic author, in contrast with Dante: "The substance of Chaucer's poetry, his view of things and his criticism of life, has largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity; but it has not this high seriousness" (318). Arnold is writing, of course, as an enemy of French poetry, an influence that arrives in Koch's work not by way of Christian de Troyes and Chaucer, but through Apollinaire and the Dada and Surrealist poets. Seriousness in poetry can easily become forced gravity, a poetic tone established by convention even before the "criticism of life" begins. Those who extend the standard of high seriousness, such as John Gardner in On Moral Fiction, continue to mistake earnestness for true seriousness. Thus Gardner prefers the poetry of Linda Pastan, Dave Smith, Galway Kinnell, Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, and William Meredith to that of Ginsberg, Koch, and Ashbery. There is an almost grandiose mediocrity to Gardner's choices, as if the only standard were the avoidance of "largeness, freedom, and shrewdness" in favor of moralism, rationalism, and Christianity. It is enough for Gardner simply not to be creepy. "Bad art is always basically creepy; that is its first and most obvious identifying sign," he writes in On Moral Fiction--Poe, Baudelaire, Kafka, Goya, Beckett, Eliot of The Waste Land, and his own novel Grendel notwithstanding. Ironically, it is Kenneth Koch who defines the slimy and the creepy in "Fresh Air," the bad poets "bathing the library steps with their spit" or "gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and their children." Certainly the poetry of Kenneth Koch isn't "the godless terror of John Hawkes's The Beetleleg" (Gardner), but neither is the sentimental reminiscence of one's father singing "The Old Rugged Cross," Gard ner's personal emblem of truth in life and art. Mainstream critics like Matthew Arnold argue for the values of a dominant social group, and Koch is marginal to that experience in his French influences, Jewishness, and urbanity. It is thus quite true that he doesn't speak to the central experience of American life, but neither did Eliot, Pound, Crane, Stevens, Hughes, and Moore. Their work was also "creepy" and idiosyncratic, as much great writing is on first examination.
In a talk given at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, Ted Berrigan noted that the root of the word amusement is muse (Berrigan 1978,39). Art is that which "stirs the muses," and does so most effectively in resistance to the accepted standard of the time. The new is moral in its freshening of perception and defiance of institutionalized definitions of art. But "largeness, freedom, and shrewdness" will appear at first to be "creepy" to those who desire only the familiar. The irony with W. C. Williams and Kenneth Koch is that the strangeness of their art--and its revolutionary implications--begins with a delight in the ordinary. What is all the more remarkable. about Koch's poetry is that what begins in the ridiculous ("I have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach / And a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals" in "Alive for an Instant") readily asserts itself as the sublime ("summer in my brainwater"). Undoubtedly this bridging of the comical and the sublime is Koch's major gift to the New York Sch ool.
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PAUL HOOVER is the author of nine poetry collections including Rehearsal in Black and Winter (Mirror). He is also editor of the literary magazine New American Writing and the anthology Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton). His essay collection Fables of Represent is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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