Poetry and Public Experience
In an age defined most vividly by the appearance of schematized conflict on all fronts, one of the most persistent difficulties encountered by the poet is the threat to his belief in the logic of his own experience. When the perception of our common experience is generalized and flattened, reduced by the effects of apocalyptic sloganeering (carried on in both the high and the plain style) to a numbing comic strip in which each new episode ultimately reveals the old anticipated pattern and nothing more, what basis does the poet have for affirming the intractable complexity of his own inner life? How can he justify his vital sense of the protean nature of his experience as an artist—the experience of ceaseless metamorphosis, in which the grimiest extremity of pain and confusion may yield the most radiant understanding, while the loveliest moral idea may be found to harbor a snake in its heart—when almost to a man acknowledged cultural authorities insist that there is only one experience, or a series of parallel experiences which fall into line like corollaries of a single law, to be had in America at the present time?
In the case of weaker sensibilities, the self-doubt prompted by such widespread assumptions may result in an almost total surrender of individual consciousness: in such cases, the conscious effort to trace the crosscurrents of one's particular experience is overwhelmed by an eagerness to please, and the poetic statements generated in consequence become more or less indistinguishable from the forms of self-congratulation current in more mundane varieties of sales promotion. At the opposite pole, hardier poetic natures may find themselves increasingly isolated, their works regarded as mere curiosities, highly individual but out of phase with the moment; fixed in attitudes of withdrawal or defiance, such poets often despair of finding a language with enough inner coherence to withstand the onslaught of ephemeral contemporary styles but still fluid enough to maintain an uneasy commerce with those styles, a language capable of development and a kind of ironic bargaining with the times and not simply the invariable expression of a narrowing set of possibilities.
But in certain rare cases the perception of discrepancies between the actual texture of experience and the categories available for understanding it at any given time, between the range of approved models of feeling and the nameless but insistent feelings which reveal themselves precisely by eluding that net—such a perception may actually strengthen the imaginative effort by forcing it to become inclusive: provided that the claims of both ways of experiencing the present are recognized and taken seriously, the poetry may serve as a means of bringing individual and historical consciousness into a dialectical relationship which endows individual experience with the weight of history and historical perspective with the immediacy of individual experience. Success of this kind is achieved completely only in the greatest poems, of course, those works in which the poet, by locating his own experience in the larger scheme of time, has managed to keep both the subjective experience and the historical moment alive and accessible in an unprogressing present tense.
With the exception of John Ashbery's Three Poems—and the significance of that exception will become clear presently—the books discussed below have been selected more or less at random: they do not represent a comprehensive survey of the most distinguished poetry published in this country within the past few years. Such a survey, which would involve consideration of the work of Robert Lowell and the late John Berryman, for instance, as well as that of A. R. Ammons, Ashbery, James Merrill, and James Wright, might not serve to define the impulses at work in the current situation as clearly as some of the recent efforts of lesser contemporaries. Indeed, the characteristically high level of achievement of the poets mentioned (from a technical viewpoint, at least, they seem entirely capable of realizing any intention they choose) has the effect of making their limitations seem essentially idiosyncratic, a matter of temperament and vision rather than a reflection of larger forces abroad in the land. But the operation of such forces is revealed with an uncommon vividness in some of the works considered here, for more often than not the defects apparent in those works are related to the meagerness of the range of alternatives (of subject, tone, technique, and form) regarded by the poet as legitimate and viable under present circumstances. Thus, although the work of one or two of the poets discussed here is hardly known at all outside an extremely restricted circle, taken together their recent poems all imply the same claustrophobic situation to which John Ashbery addresses himself explicitly and which, as will be seen, he is able to transcend definitively simply by standing his ground as an artist.
In one way or another, and with varying degrees of success, each of the books considered below engages a fundamental doubt not only about the validity of personal experience, but about the possibility of the poetic enterprise itself as a means of ordering that experience without distorting it, a way of arranging one's impressions without twisting them into fantastic shapes by removing them from the recognizable context of one's life as it is actually lived from hour to hour, day to day.
Doubts of this kind take their greatest toll in the recent poems published by James Scully in Avenue of the Americas,1 a book more sumptuously produced but considerably less distinguished than its predecessor (The Marches, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967). Not that the first collection was especially satisfying, but it was unquestionably accomplished in just the way that its winning the Lamont Poetry Prize would indicate. Accompanied by an unfortunate humorless appendix of “Notes and Explanations” (which has its counterpart in the ponderous pages of epigraphs used to set off the sections of the new collection), these earlier poems exhibited an emotional orderliness and technical facility which made them appear admirable without being very interesting. Indeed, their very brittleness seemed a function of their success as exercises. Now what the new poems in Avenue of the Americas indicate is that under the pressure of time and painful experience the brittle shell of form has cracked; the good posture on the page has been replaced by a tendency to stoop and slouch, and the well-behaved language has begun acting up.
So far as the range of the poetry is concerned, all of this will probably work to the good in the long run; Mr. Scully is undeniably talented and dedicated to his craft, and he is not likely to let his changed intentions outstrip his technical abilities for very long. But in this new collection the effects of the loosening up are far from happy; all too often the result is shapelessness, a softening of structure and an unfocused quality in the language. And that language can become downright embarrassing when, in a stiff academic way, it takes to swearing to its own casualness, as in such lines as these referring to Hart Crane: “Shit, I admit it/ I dig cats like that/ the way hustler Odysseus/ dug Philoctetes,” or these about Marc Antony: “Having grooved like you/ throbbing still to the spade queen/ black witch Cleopatra/ Antony/ goes to the open window, and listens.”
Many of the new poems are clearly autobiographical in content, but the emotions which they seek to explore are not always justified artistically. Released from the tight formal limitations which kept them in order (if often slightly reduced and oversimplified) in the early poems, here the emerging feelings have a tendency to lose their precise definition and collapse into that melancholy vagueness which is usually associated with sentimentality:
Did we start out this way? No
but hope and dream, openhearted bull session
beer and cheap wine.
The whole crowd there.
Cigarette butts heaped in ashtrays
like broken crutches at Lourdes
smouldering under their own ruin.
Neil talked of suckling pig
spitted and stuffed
an apple charming the mouth,
dreaming of pig feast.
Bach going on
all night on the phonograph
in the genius of first childhood.
The indefiniteness of intention which is the undoing of this passage (a fairly representative one) extends to the syntax of the sentence beginning “No/ but beer and cheap wine” and the logic of the “broken crutches at Lourdes” simile, which remains entirely obscure. (The crutches at Lourdes have presumably been abandoned there by cripples miraculously cured: do the “cigarette butts heaped in ashtrays” signify that the smokers have been similarly cured of their dependence on tobacco? If so, why are the butts described as “smouldering under their own ruin?” Is there some irony intended here? If so, where is it located, and how does it function?) The blurriness here, at times bordering on incoherence, seems largely a consequence of the indeterminacy of the principle of selection governing the poem. The inclusion of the reference to talk about a suckling pig, for instance, seems justified only because it actually took place (though no doubt other things also took place during the actual scene described which are not included): its significance in the poem as a whole and even the mood which it is apparently intended to define remain unspecified.
One of the effects of such haziness of conception is to diminish the urgency and force of Mr. Scully's mourning of Grandin Conover (1937-1969), a friend (himself a poet) to whom a number of the poems in this volume are addressed. But the peculiarly indecisive, half-hearted quality often in evidence here seems related less to technical irresolution than to a central and corrosive disbelief in the adequacy of poetry which is expressed most unambiguously at the end of the “Dead Letter”:
Meanwhile the rest of us survive
dreaming of poetry
as madmen dream they'll die in Jerusalem.
hard on them, and children die of it
the older they get.
They're not up to it
the way friends or lovers are hardly ever
in tune with friendship or love.
Even the beautiful are too
heartsick for beauty,
astronauts will never make it to the stars
but burn up.
is equally murderous
Like poetry, poverty, like
a most unhappy life—
take even a poet
or any man. He is not up to it.
This is one of the finest moments in Avenue of the Americas, and it makes clear the denial which will have to be overcome in Mr. Scully's future poetic assertions. So far as the present book is concerned, however, it may be taken as an index of the poet's own uneasiness about his recent work that the two best complete poems which appear here—“Chicken Country” and “Facing Up”—are reprinted from his earlier collection.
The contents of seven previous collections by Frank Samperi are brought together in The Prefiguration,2 a handsome volume published by Mushinsha of Japan in association with Grossman in New York. On the whole it is an interesting book, but one that might have been strengthened considerably by rigorous cutting: most of the poems here are conceived on the model of William Carlos Williams's version of imagism, and as the work of Robert Creeley also demonstrates, the Williams model can be a treacherous one, producing monotonous repetitions of the same “minimal” experience—or virtually indistinguishable variations of it—unless it is forced to bear the heavier burdens of feeling which Williams regularly placed on it.
Mr. Samperi's slighter accomplishments are inclined to be a little too reductive, and to rely too heavily on ingenious typography in the manner of Cummings; but at their most vivid the poems included here present images thoroughly realized, images which combine the energy of movement with the momentary stillness afforded by detached perspective:
on nude bathers
The effect of movement here is created by the rapid shifting of perspectives. Successive versions of the image—each incomplete—register on the mind's eye, then ultimately fuse to produce an illusion of substantiality and depth.
Some of Williams's bleakness is also evident in this collection, a bleakness related to the nagging perception of the unredeemed dead-level ordinariness of everyday existence:
go sit in the park
on the bench
in front of
the bus stop
by the hospital
at least until
the sun goes
Such notations reveal the suffocating emptiness of a life lived in full awareness of the passing of time, but denied the possibility of release from that awareness afforded by the aesthetic contemplation of experience. Significantly, the desire for release from a condition in which all change is regarded as a measure of decay figures centrally in two of the most intriguing (if at first glance atypical) items included in The Prefiguration: the two meditations on aesthetics which appear in the “Morning and Evening” and “Crystals” sections. Reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus's famous peripatetic discourse in the concluding chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, these prose passages are principally concerned with elucidating the notion of art as a means of living out of history, aesthetic contemplation as a means of experiencing one's development at one remove, in a way which is not bound by particular circumstances:
The new man is always the spiritual man.
We . . . conceive of contemplation as the activity which is wholly compatible with His City. . . . What we are trying to say is this: to live in God is to be contemplative.
It is wrong to think of contemplation as the opposite of activity: that is, contemplation is a prefiguration of the very activity that pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the State that fosters the idea that contemplation is passive. . . .
Seen in relation to Mr. Samperi's poetry, such prose reflections suggest that there are two divergent conceptions of art in conflict in his work—the otherworldly and the worldly—derived chiefly, it would seem, from Augustine and Williams. Although his poetic practice inclines toward the imagist notation of Williams, Mr. Samperi's assumptions about the nature of artistic experience tend to undercut that model. The Williams manner, after all, implies a view of art as no more than a momentary stay against confusion: reconciling himself to the chaos of daily experience ungoverned by an all-embracing principle, insisting that there are “no ideas but in things,” the poet is content to kill time by watching his experience gather in beautiful if inconclusive patterns on the page, taking shape tentatively in a series of fragmentary observations striving toward completed vision. In the Augustinian view, on the other hand, the elements of actual experience are devalued except insofar as they serve as emblems of spiritual realities: to achieve a complete sense of the progress of one's life one must see it directly in relation to a divine principle of order which provides an immutable standard for determining what is permanent and valuable (as opposed to what is transitory and therefore worthless) in experience.
Since Mr. Samperi is not wholly satisfied with either one of these alternatives, his poetry and prose reflections tend to counterbalance one another; but the range of imaginative possibilities embodied in his work is ultimately limited by his conviction that experience possesses aesthetic validity only to the extent that it has been purified of human grossness and particularity and pared down to correspond to abstract models of feeling.
In contrast, Sandra Hochman's Earth-works, Poems 1960-19703 must be understood as the poetic record of ten years of a life committed to the turbulence of time, a life in which the self demands continual redefinition and renewal in the conditions of the moment. Earthworks represents Miss Hochman's own selection of some one hundred and fifty poems which originally appeared in her previous books (Manhattan Pastures—the Yale Younger Poets selection for 1963—Voyage Home, The Vaudeville Marriage, and Love Letters from Asia). The poems included here, intelligent, humane, true to the intimate shapes of feeling, reflect a movement from a confused sense of imprisonment to a freedom associated with finding oneself at home at last in the natural world—a world no longer imagined as a claustrophobic kingdom of blind force, but as a region of expansive vistas ruled serenely by the eye. “Living new lives/ Above sea level,” Miss Hochman writes, “We have forgotten/ Undersea landscapes”:
Slowly we came to this gentle place,
Walking past stones, trees,
Dry earth, shacks, layers of garbage,
And were stared at
By hill people. . . .
* * *
Once water was necessary. We farmed the sea,
Hauling out food
From salinity. Mud, fish
Gave us our lonely lives. Waves and the tides—
Crabs, mussels, sea pork,
Rockweeds, and shells sharp as razors—
Gave us our living.
Now we no longer dream of sea palms,
Our memories have burned out sharks,
The feeding frenzy of killers.
We have ascended through sea weather
To the top of this mountain. Here grass
Blows in green waves,
Light falls on our mouths like rain, and
Nets of white cloud tighten around our lives. We
Are free of the extremity of the sea! Free
To live with our calm self-nature. Now—
The old tangled nets, associated with enslavement as well as survival, are now “nets of white cloud,” a paradoxical image of openness and freedom (and to the extent that such nets are seen to “tighten around our lives” one which suggests protection and a safe means of being drawn up even further “above sea level”); similarly, the waves of dim, uncontrollable feeling which menace the earlier poems—and which are associated in this one with “undersea landscapes”—are now seen as green waves of grass, out in the open and inviting: a secure place of rest.
Though very different in tone and intention, the earlier poems possess their own considerable virtues, and their jagged, mercurial character is no less worthy of acceptance than the more obliging serenity of the Love Letters from Asia (in which “Above Sea Level” appears). Dominated by unmanageable loneliness and a restless, tense seductiveness which alternates at times with an aggressive impulse to withdrawal, these poems explore blind alleys of feeling, defunct possibilities for sustained human contact. The state of extremity produced by such painful realizations is only exacerbated by the conditions of city life in these early poems, and those conditions consequently come to be experienced as forms of personal assault:
Do you understand what Manhattan is like?
Phones ring at night. There is dog turd
Everywhere there is filth, noise,
Disregard of silence. The wire and the sound
Of banging bells
Are all over my nightgown and my shoes.
As these lines (as well as the passage from “Above Sea Level”) would suggest, in all of Miss Hochman's poems emotions tend to be regarded as an aspect of place, and new experience therefore demands a change of physical location. Thus, although the first of her collections is entitled Manhattan Pastures, that title must be taken as ironic: far from evoking the possibility of urban pastoral, again and again these early poems confirm the inflexible emotional limits imposed by the city block. “How we long/ For movement in this landscape,” Miss Hochman writes, and that longing suggests how thoroughly the sense of self remains bound by immediate circumstances. Since possibilities of feeling associated with one place (whether temporal or geographical) cannot be rediscovered in another, there seems to be no way of awakening to a changing sense of familiar surroundings; movement therefore becomes a painful necessity, and the wholeness of experience can be grasped only in retrospect.
And it is because it provides just such a retrospective view that Earthworks achieves a large measure of success. For while the poems in each section here afford their own distinctive pleasures, what is significant about this comprehensive collection taken as a whole is that it reveals a generosity and range of feeling which no single one of Miss Hochman's earlier volumes begins to suggest. Consequently, Earthworks establishes itself as something more than an arbitrary compendium; by placing all of Miss Hochman's work to date in a long perspective, it makes it possible to measure the impressive distance she has traveled in only ten years.
Rochelle Owens's I am The Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter4 also collects ten years of the author's work in poetry (1961-71), but with less positive results. (In recent years Miss Owens, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971, has become more widely known as the author of a series of controversial plays including Futz and Beclch.) Although this new book is possessed of an undeniable ferocity, its impact is diminished by the arbitrary (or at least unclear) arrangement of the poems included, and the narrowness of their range. As a result, the eruptions of energy tend to run into one another, and the effect of the individual poems is blurred.
But there are other problems too, problems related to the book's programmatic unpleasantness and to the often vicious sentiments which it tends to espouse. To begin with, Miss Owens is very much concerned with the prerogatives of power, and she often seems inclined to regard poetry simply as a form of coercion:
the best poets are the
ones who are always
little guys / the guys very eagerly
their tiny state of
being/ rose rose I love
you I have never been out of
thee! cry the best poets in the western world
I have forced a maiden
to the ground
made her wrists sweat
& her behind
The political implications which usually attach to celebrations of aggressiveness of this kind seem familiar enough; among the poetic consequences of such sentiments are the frequent adoption of a stance which identifies the person to whom the poem is addressed as a probable enemy and the heavy reliance on a rhetoric which vilifies and/ or vows revenge against him or her. (Hence such titles as “A Poem for Jewish Collaborators Who Betray Their Ancestral Homeland Israel” and “Wild Woman's Resentment of Fakery.”) A high proportion of the poems involves some explicit form of denunciation, and in some the denunciation is coupled with the threat of violence—as in the case of “Purple Worms of Vengeance,” for example, which takes the form of a grisly call to action:
congressman's digested sweet
sweetest apple/ sweetest plum/
like a fat worm/
into a plastic-
chockful o' good eatin' worms/ purple
that stuff on congressman's guts/
on his blond white children's guts/
on the president of america's guts
on guts of those that make small children
shrink in death. . . .
Such works speak for themselves, as does the poem dedicated to Sirhan Sirhan and entitled “Achtung! LeRoi the Sudanese Half Comprehends Your Anger” (which reads in part: “. . . I/ alone of the Jews understand/ your hunger strike!/ Your black flower eye/ blasting a prayer to Allah/ Your death blow on the heart of Golda/ Allen Meir Ginsberg/ Fat hermaphrodite Jew/ dropping from the cross!”). The underlying intention of such utterances is to shock, unsettle, and disgust the reader, to confound his sense of detachment and moral security by assaulting his sensibility, violating his sense of taste, and overstepping what he sees as the proper limits of poetic discourse (here implicitly regarded as a special category of political discourse).
Precedents for writing defined by such intentions exist throughout the history of literature, of course, but it is only in the modern period that insistence on the artist's preeminent obligation to maintain an adversary role in relation to the values and moral standards of his society has been used to justify any manner of abuse. The latter-day model which seems most closely related in tone and spirit to Miss Owens's work is Pound: the Pound of the “Usury” cantos and the saber-rattling “Sestina: Altaforte,” the Pound of the BLAST denunciations. But the most arresting moments in Miss Owens's work actually occur when the haranguing stops: those moments of sudden unanticipated hurt, for instance, when the live experience is intense and intimate enough to resist absorption into the bewildering tangle of ideological patterns which have been constructed to contain it.
If Miss Owens's work reveals the limitations inherent in the offensive stance, a contrasting uncertainty about precisely where to stand in relation to the reader tends to undermine Rochelle Ratner's A Birthday of Waters.5 But though they seem somewhat remote and disconnected at times, these poems possess the unquestionable authority of deep emotion carefully explored. Scorning familiar poses, they are acts of intense concentration which attempt to represent, through precise (albeit at times mysterious) notation, the ambiguous texture of feeling seized at the borders of consciousness. Consider “The Windows,” for example:
like greeting cards, yet
colorful, a thin arm
on my shoulder, chapping
lips at my side, my
glance a distinction:
she is the father, she,
she is, herself. I hold
her arm up to the light
with a piercing, like
a heavy weight
or stones rolled from the steps
or stones found in the grass
hidden from themselves between our watching.
It seems I have given her thread.
I see sweaters. I contain
all the memories
and the fanatic lights of the water.
Again the glow of a rifle
hurts my ears. A collar of white birds
flies over us, flying in twos.
As these lines indicate, Miss Ratner's poems generally take the form of chains of association; at their most compelling, they achieve a vividness and strangeness reminiscent of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl—but a Trakl drained of color, shadowy and more severe. Yet the somberness peculiar to A Birthday of Waters seems related less to abrupt transitions and violent transformations than to a quality which might properly be described as gothic: for almost invariably these poems record specific sensations and perceptions which serve to reinforce a central but unspecified sense of apprehension. As a consequence, the experience of reading them is often like that of finding oneself alone in an isolated room of a dark and unfamiliar house, listening to the inexplicable movements of unseen figures on the floors below: the mysterious thuds and murmurings produce a growing fear that the imprisoned emotion—the hidden emotion, the emotion defined only obliquely by its effects—will at any moment break through the wall of consciousness and bring the house down.
This pervasive effect is primarily a function of the vagueness of outline of many of the poems, and as might be expected there is frequently a question about the degree to which that vagueness is deliberate; at times it suggests that the poem is not entirely under control, and all too often it results in a dissipation of emotional energy, a diffuseness of feeling. It is no accident that the most frequent weaknesses in Miss Ratner's book should be structural, the result of a failure to find a form completely equal to the task of keeping the poetic experience intact and consistently intelligible: for like the veiled diction which is characteristic of these poems, their unstable structure often reflects an inability to sustain an awareness of an audience (if only an imagined one) to whom these utterances might conceivably be addressed. Still, although many of the poems in this volume are imperfectly realized, their cumulative effect lingers, a dark presence in the mind, long after their precise contents have been forgotten.
In contrast, Anne Waldman's No Hassles6 takes for granted an unusually well-defined, clubby, and indulgent audience; true to its title, it is a collection which makes even fewer demands on the reader than it did on the author and which it is consequently possible to forget even while one is turning its pages. Like background music at the supermarket or the white sound of talk on an all-the-news-all-the-time radio station barely audible behind the luncheonette counter, the language in this book fails to establish itself as anything more than an incidental aspect of an activity which is to be evaluated by other standards. Indeed, in this case the activity itself—the making of poems—is regarded as incidental to a state of being: that state of election (which seems to require no visible sign of any particular skill for its corroboration) which has come to be known as Being Creative:
Once the President came to visit. I hated him. He was a horrible President, always making war on everyone.
He said to me, “Anne? Your country calls!”
“Get lost” I said, “I'm a poet.”
One of the things made plain by this rather grandiose little fiction is that it is not the actual involvement in the difficult process of writing poems (much less the quality of, the poems produced) that is regarded as evidence of superior virtue and awareness, but simply the effortless advocacy of the idea of being a poet. What follows from this familiar presumption is an entirely predictable aversion to the sense of the poem as a deliberate construction rather than a high sign merely intended to testify to a general way of regarding oneself. In “Alive in Life,” for instance, Miss Waldman writes: “To be printed in a book, read, digested/ isn't the life of a poem/ No, no! Not that!” And “Balk,” printed on the same page, reflects the impatience with completed works—as well as conversations related to such works which inevitably results from regarding literary creation as an activity whose chief object is an emotional one:
All this talk of books books books books
When you're down & out, who needs it?
No Hassles is appropriately subtitled “An Unhinged Book in Parts”; indeed, made up of “poems, stories, heartaches, collaborations, comics & photographs,” and incorporating art-work and improvisations produced by other people in association with the author, it resembles nothing so much as one of those games and puzzles books that used to be given to children to keep them amused on weekends. And like all such miscellanies Miss Waldman's book can be diverting at times: it contains some poems of limited but genuine charm (e.g., the “Memoirs of an Elephant”), as well as gossip of the New York School and its affiliates, autobiographical disclosures regarding fallen underwear and related embarrassments, and a New Nostalgia list of one hundred typical memories that will help to pass the time about as profitably as any inventory of a child's closet (“English muffins & cokes at Blynn's,” “smoking in the girls' room,” “Ike,” “Dream, Dream, Dream,” “Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Madison Square Garden,” “‘Korea,’” “air raid,” “dog tags,” etc.).
Because so much of what is included here is indebted to other people in one way or another, however, and because in tone and general demeanor No Hassles relies so heavily on the more facile and uninteresting aspects of the style identified with the New York School—the studied ingenuousness, the arch exuberance and bafflement—in the end the book appears virtually anonymous. And more than anything else it is this obliteration of poetic identity by prefabricated style which makes the effect of these works so ephemeral.
Taken as a whole, Joe Brainard's Selected Writings7 has a similarly unsatisfying odds-and-ends aspect, but because it is the expression of an individual rather than a collective personality it is a more rewarding book. Assembling writings composed between 1962 and 1971, the collection often takes the form of a journal, and Mr. Brainard's engaging openness makes it convincing as a chronicle (although a rather discontinuous one) of personal and artistic development; haunted by suspicions of inadequacy and a recurring fear of failure, the confessional pieces included generally avoid self-glorification and reveal a striving for unselfconscious human contact which the author associates with the late Frank O'Hara, whose influence is in evidence here in a variety of ways. “If this writing is a bit boring,” Mr. Brainard observes at one point, “it's because I'm in a very in-between state of mind these days. I feel very much on the verge (at last) of being a little more free of myself. But not quite. I mean . . . less nervous, and more human. More vulnerable. It may be a perverse thing to want, but that's what I want. I want to be more vulnerable. Frank O'Hara. I think often of the way Frank O'Hara was. If I have a hero (I do) it is Frank O'Hara.”
In addition to the diary entries, Selected Writings includes a long series of “Selections from I Remember” (a list finally almost as irritating but still considerably more absorbing than its counterpart in Anne Waldman's book) which serves a limited autobiographical function. But not everything collected here is autobiographical, either in substance or intention: there are stories, meditations, character sketches, an entirely expendable TV commercial for Colgate dental cream, bits of advice, recipes, and art appreciations as well (“. . . I like Andy Warhol. I like Andy Warhol. . . . And that is why I like Andy Warhol. . . . I find Andy Warhols to be spectacular, grand, clean, courageous, great to look at, and likeable. I like Andy Warhol. And there is more to be said. I like Andy Warhol.”). Despite their often frivolous appearance, many of the pieces evince a surprising quality of concentration, and they almost invariably reflect an underlying seriousness—although more often than not it is that equivocal seriousness associated with the observations of a writer like Cocteau:
Looking through a book of drawings by Holbein I realize several moments of truth. A nose (a line) so nose-like. So line-like. And then I think to myself “so what?” It's not going to solve any of my problems. And then I realize that at the very moment of appreciation I had no problems. Then I decide that this is a pretty profound thought. And that I ought to write it down. This is what I have just done. But it doesn't sound so profound anymore. That's art for you.
Like some of the more worthwhile examples of Pop Art, at their most fully realized the writings collected here reveal a sensibility alternately amused and appalled by a vision of the banality of even the deepest experience as soon as it is rendered in contemporary language, a sense bordering on despair of the inadequacy of exhausted, day-in, day-out language as a medium in which possible nobilities of thought and feeling may be kept alive. But it is Mr. Brainard himself—a gifted visual artist—who in a piece entitled “December 22, 1970” asks the most pertinent question about his own writing: “I wonder,” he reflects, “How much longer I can keep writing poems and pretend not to be a poet?”
Although it happens to be dedicated to Joe Brainard, Kenward Elmslie's Motor Disturbance8 is a very different kind of book, one which deliberately rejects the possibility of autobiographical justification. Written over a period of at least ten years, the poems collected here do not claim their validity as documents read into the record of experience, but rather as highly abstract acts of language. As a consequence, the book is never easily accessible, and tends to frustrate any attempt on the reader's part to understand its contents as a series of points on a graph of continuous development.
The poems in Motor Disturbance are conceived as resistant objects, highly-wrought constructions which seem to owe a good deal less to principles of verbal organization than they do to the various techniques of juxtaposition employed in contemporary visual art. Mr. Elmslie's “Girl Machine,” for instance, seems more closely related in its conception to the works of Rauschenberg and Rosenquist—or even Richard Lindner, at least in the manner of its iconography—than it does to the range of models afforded by recent American poetry, including that of the New York School:
|what a life,||just falling in and out of|
|what a life,||just falling in and out of|
|bigtime floorshow||bigtime floor show|
|bigtime floorshow||bigtime floorshow|
As in the works of the contemporary artists mentioned, the image in many of Mr. Elmslie's poems is created in time through momentary contrasts and associations. The successful construction of such an image requires that each of its component elements be realized with absolute clarity, but that the combination of elements as a whole not be liable to verbal summary or resolution—that is, that it remain a puzzle which defies the possibility of resolution through translation into other terms (just as Mr. Elmslie's own works resist translation into the terms of autobiography):
you know of jungles where diamonds explode
(the ones that relieve themselves on any swollen
leaving behind only valueless snakeskins
like envelope windows caught in bare city trees
These lines appear to refer to sexual frustration or disappointment, but what is notable about the technique employed is that through extreme concentration it succeeds in associating that frustration with anticipation, danger, disgust, abandonment, treachery, mutability, banality, and despair: the whole emotion, seen in all its aspects, is transmitted immediately and directly, without the mediation of a unified representational image or a narrative “plot.” If there is a related poetic model for this particular form of compression (which represents a further development of imagist technique, and helps to explain the association of imagism with such movements as cubism in the visual arts), it is the technique employed by John Ashbery in The Tennis Court Oath—that book which emerges from the period of Mr. Ashbery's most intense concern with the possibilities of abstract composition.
The winner of the Frank O'Hara Award for 1971, Motor Disturbance is an ambitious and accomplished book, and the difficulties which it presents are for the most part interesting and instructive, a legitimate consequence of experimentation rather than a sign of technical bewilderment. And despite the somewhat limited range of the collection, at their best the poems included here reveal a mordant lyricism, a sustained concentration, and a sureness of execution which make them worthy of attention.
But in the end it must be said that none of the books discussed here can be considered in a class with John Ashbery's Three Poems,9 a book whose symphonic sweep and richness take it far out of the realm of possibilities defined by most recent American poetry and place it in the great romantic line which runs from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens. To begin with, except for minor works like Eliot's “Hysteria,” the three poems which make up this new volume are probably the only completely successful prose poems ever written in English, and in view of the scale on which they are executed (“The New Spirit” runs some fifty pages, “The System” fifty-three, and “The Recital”—a kind of coda—eleven pages) this alone would constitute an extraordinary achievement. But the technical breakthrough—which really amounts to nothing less than the invention of the form in English—is never made to call attention to itself: it is simply taken for granted, as if it represented a way of using words that had always been available and in plain sight.
In general, the language of the Three Poems is enormously restrained; it never strives for dazzling immediate effects, which would agitate the verbal surface excessively and consequently interrupt the sustained poetic discourse. The language does its work gradually, so that the appearance of the picture changes and moods succeed one another almost imperceptibly, without the reader's ever being aware of the precise moment of transformation. As a result, the poems have that quality of daydream associated with watching the clouds moving through the sky. the perfectly familiar and apparently textureless language is made to reflect changing inner states in the same way that the sky reflects changes in the weather, now darkening, now brightening, now becoming more turbulent, now flattening and becoming more serene. This fluidity of language is inseparable from the book's primary intention, which is to establish vital connections between ostensibly discontinuous realms of experience, to show how easily the ordinary may come to be seen as the transcendent, as incomparably rich and strange:
Certainly the whiff of nostalgia in the air is more than a hint, a glaring proof that the old irregular way of doing is not only some piece of furniture of the memory but is ours, if we had the initiative to use it. I have lost mine. It has been replaced by a strange kind of happiness within the limitations. The way is narrow but it is not hard, it seems almost to propel or push one along. One gets the narrowness into one's seeing, which also seems an inducement to moving forward into what one has already caught a glimpse of and which quickly becomes vision, in the visionary sense, except that in place of the panorama that used to be our customary setting and which we never made much use of, a limited but infinitely free space has established itself, useful as everyday life but transfigured so that its signs of wear no longer appear as a reproach but as indications of how beautiful a thing must have been to have been so much prized, and its noble aspect which must have been irksome before has now become interesting, you are fascinated and keep on studying it. We have broken through into the consequences of the grey, sagging flesh that was our due, and it is surface enchantment, healing to the eye and to the touch.
As such luminous passages indicate, what the Three Poems record is the process of awakening in the present, an awakening seen as indistinguishable from entry into the endless dream of possibilities implied by things as they are.
This quality of waking dream (“Have I awakened? Or is this sleep again? Another form of sleep?”) suggests something of Mr. Ashbery's debt to Dante, but that debt is indicated in a number of other ways as well. The first of the poems, for example, entitled “The New Spirit,” is evidently patterned on the Vita Nuova. Concerned with spiritual renewal, it too alternates passages of prose reflection with lines of verse which have the effect of excursions into music. A reference on the second page to “the middle of the journey,” however, as well as numerous extended similes throughout the work, make it clear that Mr. Ashbery also has the Dante of the Comedy in mind, the Dante of the allegory of salvation.
In “The System” the spiritual journey is concluded (“Today your wanderings have come full circle”) and the poet reenters the world of time: “But that is the wonder of it: that you have returned not to the supernatural glow of heaven but to the ordinary daylight you knew so well before it passed from your view, and which continues to enrich you as it steeps you and your ageless chattels of mind, imagination, timid first love and quiet acceptance of experience in its revitalizing tide. And the miracle is not that you have returned—you always knew you would—but that things have remained the same. The day is not far advanced. . . . The person sitting opposite you who asked you a question is still waiting for the answer. . . .”
Addressing itself to “the pragmatic and kinetic future,” the last of the Three Poems, entitled “The Recital,” explores the implications of this vision of daily experience as a realm of continuous revelation; in so doing, it inevitably comes to reflect (in a manner recalling Wordsworth, who is quoted here) on the persistence of childhood as that state in which the self ceaselessly demands the world for its completion. Echoing the first two poems, “The Recital” begins with a reference to awakening from sleep; with its final sentences, it brings the book to a close like the curtain speech in a late Shakespearean comedy, leaving a quickened sense of possibility alive in the air as sleep returns: “The performance had ended, the audience streamed out; the applause still echoed in the empty hall. But the idea of the spectacle as something to be acted out and absorbed still hung in the air long after the last spectator had gone home to sleep.”
The visionary intensity of the Three Poems, the wonderful fluency and exquisite modulation of their language, are triumphs immediately perceived, but not the least remarkable quality of the book is the delicacy of its wit, which gives a fine cutting edge to its assertions and keeps them from becoming tediously earnest in the manner of much romantic exhortation. Thus, describing those deluded souls who believe that they have actually achieved a state of permanent grace in this world, Mr. Ashbery observes: “Hence the air of joyful resignation, the beatific upturned eyelids, the paralyzed stance of these castaways of the eternal voyage, who imagine that they have reached the promised land when in reality the ship is sinking under them.” And at one point the poet launches into an address in the Augustinian manner to the soul seized with trepidation:
As a lost dog on the edge of a sidewalk timidly approaches first one passerby and then another, uncertain of what to ask for, taking a few embarrassed steps in one direction and then suddenly veering to another before being able to ascertain what reception his mute entreaty might have met with, lost, puzzled, ashamed, ready to slink back into his inner confusion at the first brush with the outside world, so your aspirations, my soul, on this busy thoroughfare that is the great highway of life. What do you think to gain from merely standing there looking worried, while the tide of humanity sweeps ever onward, toward some goal it gives every sign of being as intimately acquainted with as you are with the sharp-edged problems that beset you from every angle? Do you really think that if you succeed in looking pathetic enough some kindly stranger will stop to ask your name and address and then steer you safely to your very door?
It is in this way that epic, romantic, and meditative conventions are adapted to the requirements of the work, fitted to its resolutely unexaggerated perspective; but it should be pointed out that these conventions are never used simply ironically, for in addition to being regarded as perfectly valid ways of comprehending experience they function as a means of defining the true scope of the poetic ambition embodied here.
Clearly conceived under the pressure of the contemporary situation in which “certain younger spectators felt that all had already come to an end, that the progress toward infinity had crystallized in them,” Three Poems may also be seen as representing the full realization of intentions first indicated (although on a much smaller scale) by the poet in earlier works like “The Suspended Life” and “The New Realism” (in The Tennis Court Oath), and developed further in “Clepsydra” and “The Skaters” (Rivers and Mountains) and the more recent “Parergon” and “Fragment” (The Double Dream of Spring). But this new volume marks more than an epoch in Mr. Ashbery's own career; it establishes itself as one of the dozen or so genuinely important books of poetry published in America in the past fifty years. In addition, it provides an experience rare in this century: the experience of meditative verse worthy of comparison with the best of Stevens and Auden and Eliot's Four Quartets. A magisterial achievement from the standpoint of technique, Three Poems is also an unforgettably beautiful book, one in which visionary power, while refusing to give up the world as it is, succeeds in bringing into being a new world of feeling in its place.
1 University of Massachusetts Press, 95 pp., $6.00.
2 Mushinsha/Grossman, unpaged, $4.95.
3 Viking, 210 pp., $10.00.
4 The Kulchur Foundation, 140 pp., no price indicated.
5 New Rivers Press, 85 pp., $2.50 (paper).
6 The Kulchur Foundation, 121 pp., no price indicated
7 The Kulchur Foundation, 121 pp., no price indicated.
8 Columbia University Press, 75 pp., $1.95 (paper).
9 Viking, 118 pp., $5.95.