Commentary Magazine


The New Laureates

They are the two poets most closely attended to by poetry's present audience, the poets of their generation most often singled out for praise. Among reviewers in Poetry or the New York Times Book Review it is almost a habit to speak of their “greatness,” their certainty of lasting, their joining and surpassing of the “central tradition” in American literary art. But the election of A. R. Ammons and John Ashbery to such high favor is puzzling in many ways. Both are dense and difficult poets, whose imaginations move by design through realms not only remote from, but also, occasionally, hostile to the world of our common experience. Ammons's bleak meditations on nothingness and clinical inspections of the not-human, his joy “so winter skinny, such a bugless winter”; Ashbery's vacuous if colorful landscapes, his opaque verbal mysteries and complex toys of style—the visionary as trickster. What can the present chorus of their praise mean?

Taking shape over the past decade in the journals and classrooms of poetry has been something like a Wallace Stevens-William Carlos Williams controversy. Only at its worst has it been a contest of reputations, and its importance goes considerably beyond that of a polite literary-historical “episode.” Really it is a delineation, a major delineation by geniuses, of alternative cultural futures: a controversy of values, of rival prescriptions for the activity of imagination vis-à-vis the real world. At its best, then, it is a felt controversy among poets and readers of poetry, in which Williams and Stevens are alike respected and their differences of vision are seen usefully to counterpoint and interanimate each other. But inside a few of the more prestigious universities and among writers about poetry elsewhere, the relative ascendancy of Stevens is discernible. One sign is the prominence of the Stevensian critic Harold Bloom and of poet-critic John Hollander. Another is the current prestige of the poetry of Ammons and Ashbery.

To understand what is at stake in the Williams-Stevens controversy, and what an “ascendancy of Stevens” portends, it is probably necessary to spend what Stevens called an “ordinary evening” in Williams's Paterson—that is, in any blasted stretch of the American landscape. Urban, suburban, industrial: not Blakean-Satanic, hardly depressing at all, in fact, but almost transcendently the usual, the “ordinary,” in our life and times. It is such a landscape that Williams took to be the inexorable given, out of which American poetry must be constructed. Williams wrote of Paterson's “thousand automatons,” who

                         because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
            for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires—unroused.

—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees

bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!

“No ideas but in things”: a piece of polemic for which Williams no doubt needed the abrupt self-exhortation, “Say it!” He smarted under Stevens's judgment that his work was “anti-poetic.” He imagined, even, that the adducing of the hard, matter-bound exigencies of the real was a kind of poetic advance. But Stevens's verdict, in an essay intended as praise, reflected Stevens's very different project, the creation by poetry of a world alternative to the real world of Paterson. Such a world could only be a fiction, but it was not to be an evasion: a fiction made strong, even “supreme,” by the investment of the imaginative will of a strong man. That the imagined depends on the real Stevens scrupulously admits, scrupulously resents. But ideas for him reside not in things, but in the imaginative core of our being, remote from Williams's physical world.

Even so bald a description of the differences gives some idea of what an inclination toward Stevens suggests. One good reason for his preeminence in the universities is already apparent. Very little effort is required to misread Stevens in such a way that he underwrites—with genius, even—the quietist withdrawal into the vita contemplativa, the disengagement of mind from experience that is ever the academic fantasy. The terms of Ammons's critical success will suggest another reason.

_____________

In 1973 A. R. Ammons's Collected Poems 1951-19711 won the National Book Award, and subsequently his long poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion2 earned him the Bollingen Prize in Poetry. This means that many people hold in the highest regard the following lines, or others like them:

The sexual basis of all things rare is really
   apparent
and fools crop up where angels are mere disguises:
a penetrating eye (insight), a penetrating
  tongue (ah),
a penetrating penis and withal a penetrating
   mind,
integration's consummation: a com- or inter-

    mingling of parts,
heterocosm joyous, opposite motions away and
   toward

along a common line, the in-depth knowledge
  (a dilly)

Thus the opening of Sphere, which continues for seventy-nine pages. On the achievement of Amnion's longer poems—the later of the Collected Poems, Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), and Sphere—his supporters have staked the largest claims for his merits. And Sphere in particular suggests why. It is a difficult but not impossible poem, requiring, or rather allowing, the use of every available critical tool: a playground of interpretation. What is more, all that is found can be turned to account. Sphere coheres in The Form of a Motion, “the reconciler of opposites, commencement, proliferation, ontogeny.” This has enabled several critics to exclaim that they have found Ammons's “system.” Nowhere has Amnions confirmed that he has so reductive a thing as a poetic “system,” but his word for something similar is “heterocosm.” The word figures in Harold Bloom's praise for Collected Poems:

The time has come to suggest that the development of Ammons . . . constitutes the largest hope currently available for another renewal of the central tradition in American poetry. Ammons has all the qualities necessary to this tradition: imaginative persistence, an idiom of his own invention, total mastery of craft, an obsessive yet sanely insightful concern with freedom and fate, and beyond all this, a complete vision of his own heterocosm, at once an alternative world to outward nature yet also the actuality of nature given back to us again.

The endorsement of the world of Ammons's poetry, understood in this way, is evidently a means of fleeing the world and yet having it. It is a means of choosing Stevens's imagined world, of which the poet is creator and possessor, but smuggling into it the “actuality” that Williams's poetry honors in the real. It is the real world made discrete and governable, susceptible to diagram, to system, and to map.

True enough, Ammons has created an alternative world. Since the 50's a distinctive set of concerns, an idiosyncratic vocabulary and point of view have been evolving in his work with recognizable consistency and direction. There is an Ammons world, but its actuality is of a very special kind. Usually his settings are natural or rural, but he has one poem at least on Williams's home ground, called “North Jersey”:

Ninth-circle concrete
bending in
high suasions like
formal reductions of
perfect fears: refineries
oiling the air:
burnt reeds, a chemical
scald: gouged land &

shoved mounds:
and man
burning fast motions along
the steely wreaths,
the steely wreaths.

It is not among Ammons's best poems, but his talents are felt in it. He pictures a massive, concrete slab of landscape that is yet paradoxically in motion, rendered by verbs of action and violence. Some of Williams's meter is echoed, and something of his style. But in the word “suasions” is a clue to Ammons's personal presence in the poem: a favorite word, expressing weighted motion, a coordination of pressure, mass, and place—Ammons frequently has a weights-and-measures orientation to the physical. Equally distinctive, and more troubling, is the curious displacement of emotion. Fear abides in the concrete, but it is abstract, impersonal fear, no one's in particular, as anonymous as the “man burning fast motions.” The poem, in its own formal suasion toward the “perfect,” reduces rather than strengthens any human relationship we might otherwise have with the landscape in actually seeing it. Characteristically, Ammons's suasion is away from a personal encounter of man and thing, or man and man, and toward a perfection of form.

_____________

Ammons's eye for physical reality is exact, precise—I have used the word “clinical.” He prefers weeds to redwoods, and he is poetic about the displacement of water caused by the legs of an insect on the surface of a pond. But what animates the attention to physical minutiae in the brief, descriptive lyrics by Williams that may come to mind is missing in Ammons: the sense that the object of study, animate or inanimate, participates however invisibly in a continuum of vitality to which we ourselves belong. Things live, for Williams, in their relatedness to the human. Sometimes the relationship is only that of observer and observed, but in Ammons the observer himself vanishes into the hollow behind his own eyes. “Nothingness” licenses the trivial:

nothingness, far from being failure's puzzlement,

is really the point of lovely liberation, when

gloriously every object in and on earth
   becomes just
itself

The “brilliance” or “joy” purchased by such a platitudinous nihilism, however “silvery” at first, inevitably comes to feel a little cheap. According to Richard Howard, “Amnions is our Lucretius, swerving and sideswiping his way into the nature of things, through domestic doldrums, cardinals and quince bushes, fields of sidereal force, out into what he so accurately calls ‘joy's surviving radiance.’” It is not hard to see how Howard has been taken in. There is indeed a level of transcendent meditation in the poems, however pessimistic in tone, and on the other hand there is abundant particularization of the physical universe. There is nothing in between, however, to break the fall from one to the other. There is no middle range, nowhere like that world in which we live, where the generality of the particular, assisted by the imagination, can come to life. And this is the range, after all, of firmest meanings, of possible knowledge, worldly contemplations. Its absence may explain why the intellect feels cheated in reading Amnions, despite the dazzling mathematics of his formal concerns. For the result is not only that the trivia of life come to seem in Ammons's poetry more trivial still, by comparison to the dark intoning:

turn the deepest dark into touch, gape, pumping,
          at the
dark beyond reach: afterwards, shoveling the
   driveway,
warming up the coffee, going to the grocery
   store, opening
the cookie jar, washing, shaving, vacuuming . . .

but also that the human, ostensibly personal concerns, when they do surface in the poems, are denuded, hollowed out, confined by form.

This very matter, of the reductive transformation of reality by art, is the explicit theme of some of the poems, including “Corsons Inlet” (1965). The poet walks by the sea and finds

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and

     blends of sight:

Such liberation enables him to apprehend the formlessness of the natural world, “not chaos” but patterns “over a wider range/than mental lines can keep,” and to understand that in this freedom from form the beauty and the “risk” of being consist. He has a vision, finally, in which a viable attitude toward form coheres:

    I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will

not run to that easy victory:
   still around the looser, wider forces work:
   I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder,
              widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality
          of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,

   that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

All the more regrettable, then, given such knowledge, to find that “narrow orders, limited tightness” mar the shorter poems in Briefings and Uplands. “Corsons Inlet” itself is a beautiful poem, deservedly his best-known and most anthologized, written appropriately in loping, generous, inclusive cadences. But Ammons's sharp emotional limitations appear in the poem with special force, and something ironic only can be meant by calling it, as Harold Bloom does, one of the most “moving” contemporary poems. However intense its rhetorical condition, it is a poem about the structure of poetry. Its “content” is a question about form. Behind it there is a fear of contentlessness, which would be ghastly enough as a metaphor for personal consciousness, if that were Ammons's emphasis. Instead, in “Corsons Inlet” as in “Hibernaculum,” and indeed in the poem called “Essay on Poetics,” Amnions is primarily the poet of the shape of poetic thought. And he shows himself quite as colorless and cold a poet as that implies in volume after volume of severe and radically unpeopled landscapes.

_____________

What was most eagerly to be hoped for, then, from Ammons's newest collection, Diversifications,3 was the development at last of a mutuality of implication between the abstract intricacies of form and the mind's experience of itself—Ammons's most human theme when he has one. Unhappily, one finds instead among the short lyrics the same thinness, a language so spare and hampered as to appear almost self-disdaining:

Looking for clear water he
came from murky lowlands

to the desert and
after high plains & higher mesas

saw a white mountain
and going up into the sharp reaches

fell down and drank melt:
the cold water bore no
dream: he perished,
swilling purity.

The sadness here is what indeed comes to maturity in the new volume. Thorough now is the poet's knowledge that purity kills, and yet its attractions for him are greater than ever and not to be resisted—as he announces by his style in most places, and more directly in such poems as “Imago,” “The Make,” and “Glass Globe.” “Facing” is a lovely anomaly, a love poem suggesting how much it is to be regretted that Ammons so rarely favors any but the most austere of his gifts. There are moments, too, in the final, longer poem, “Pray Without Ceasing,” when the poet's awareness of “com- or intermingling of parts” in the universe results in a gesture of community among selves. But such a community is approached as a limit: there is as yet no one but Ammons in Ammons's poetic world.

_____________

The judgment that Ammons is in large measure a poet about poetry also implies that he will be judged an “interesting” poet at the present moment. Just now the death-of-literature is as hot a literary topic as the death-of-God was a theological one a few years ago. Those who have convinced themselves of its demise have nothing but autopsies of texts to perform with their exegetical instruments: hence the deconstructors and demystifiers, equipped with the new semiotics. Ammons himself speaks enough French to read a lesson in the nouvelle critique to Shakespeare, who “never got it straight that in talking about the/actual king and the symbolical king he was merely/engaging a problem in rhetoric.” But the convenience Ammons offers to critics of this persuasion resides especially in his self-consciousness as a poet, both in those poems in which self-consciousness substitutes for subject-matter, and in others, like Sphere, which endlessly offer structural descriptions of themselves: the self-deconstructing poem.

John Ashbery's self-consciousness is more continuous and pervasive still—his newest volume is titled, almost satirically, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror4 (after Parmigianino)—and has a different significance as well. Critics have noted with excitement, over the years, what they take to be Ashbery's evolution toward a “pure” use of language, a finally impossible condition in which words are stripped of referentiality and the text is a fabric of solipsism, allusion to itself. In fact this teleology is probably a critical myth. Harold Bloom is closer to the truth in saying that Ashbery is the “most legitimate of the sons of Stevens.” His poetry does indeed evolve, but toward an ever more militant extension of Stevens's “poem of the mind.” Stevens's aestheticism, his assertion of himself against the world by imagination, was not effete or naive. He suffered, to be sure, a pre-Raphaelite hangover of prettiness, he loved words like “Montrachet” and “finisterre,” but he took seriously the world's resistance to artifice and imagined forms. The “essential” poem toward which he pointed was to take the place of the world, but could only do so satisfactorily if it could compel, as the real world does, a sufficiency of emotion, of love. There are poems in Ashbery's first book, Some Trees (1956), where the young poet came nearly as close to such a feat of imagination as Stevens himself ever did:

All beauty, resonance, integrity,
Exist by deprivation or logic
Of strange position. This being so,

We can only imagine a world in which a woman
Walks and wears her hair and knows
All that she does not know. Yet we know

What her breasts are. And we give fullness
To the dread. The table supports the book,

The plume leaps in the hand. But what

Dismal scene is this? the old man pouting
At a black cloud, the woman gone
Into the house, from which the wailing starts?

Ashbery set out twenty years ago, then, with an uncanny ability to take us into his confidence about the falsity of his images, and yet to command, nonetheless, our interested response to the images as if they were real and true. What has happened since, however, is that he has come to slight more and more the authenticity of the claims imagination has upon us. In the poems in Self-Portrait—in, for example, “Mixed Feelings,”—we come to feel unpleasantly deceived:

How to explain to these girls, if indeed that's

    what they are,
These Ruths, Lindas, Pats and Sheilas
About the vast change that's taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it? And yet
They somehow look as if they know, except
That it's so hard to see them, it's hard to figure

  out
Exactly what kind of expressions they're wearing.
What are your hobbies, girls? Aw nerts,
One of them might say, this guy's too much for
    me.

We want to believe in a script that he insists on kidding, and ultimately we tire of the increasingly complex, increasingly unfresh reiterations that these are only words, the objects merely imagined, the people disembodied shadows in the poet's mind. That this is true does not redeem its interest; the strength of Stevens's “supreme fiction,” to compel as the world compels, has lapsed

Some critics, a little inevitably, are delighted. David Kalstone wrote in the Times Book Review, about The Double Dream of Spring:

Ashbery may think of himself as a kind of restorer, removing the varnish and grit from a canvas, or perhaps taking away the canvas entirely, asking us to think the shapes back into the painter's mind. More than any other poet writing now, he sees familiar objects and dimensions only as revealing an interior landscape. At that, most of the bric-a-brac is removed, and only the larger landmarks remain.

Kalstone is here responding to a theme that Ashbery himself frequently puts forward in those places where his poems begin to talk about themselves. The theme is ellipsis, the central role played in Ashbery's poetry by leaving things out:

This leaving-out business. On it hinges the very
   importance of what's novel
or autocratic, or dense or silly. It is as well to
  call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling
  attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said

  I am not ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation,
    and shall not,
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say
    the carnivorous
Way of these lines is to devour their own nature,
    leaving
Nothing but a bitter impression of absence . . .

“Absence” is one of several unlikely words about which Ashbery is likely to become sentimental. The above passage “devours it own nature” by being tedious—that is, by leaving nothing out. But the “carnivorous way” is an accurate description of Ashbery's style in the 60's, in The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1967. These volumes were the work, in a way, of the freest possible imagination; detached, nervelessly hallucinating in lurid colors, its meanings all but obliterated by “this leaving-out business.” At times the poems seemed exercises in a relatively innocent surrealism: their obscurity perhaps insuperable, but they made no apparent claims, at least, to a decipherable content.

By contrast, Three Poems (1972) is an arrogantly complexifying, self-confounding piece of work. Three long prose meditations—in sequence, we are assured—allegorizing something or other, presumably something about the imagination and the unconscious. Every now and again it needs to be said that accessibility is a virtue in a work of art. Occasionally, qua virtue, it must be surrendered, but then with reluctance and only so much as is required. But John Hollander has called Three Poems

a meditational masterpiece, calm in its encounters with minor fictions, desperate in pursuit of a supreme one. Its flutterings are those of the fledged Imagination, its difficulty, that of the Truth.

Difficulty, we know by now, attracts critics, especially difficulty with a hint of secret codes: the second of Ashbery's meditations is called “The System.” There is every sign, in fact, of another “heterocosm,” but the fate of the real world in Ashbery's poetry is very different from what it is in Ammons's. If the “objective” world is decimated, pulverized in Amnions, or diminished or smothered under the enormous wrappings of his attention to form, in Ashbery it is pointedly evaded, ignored. No one speaks, indeed, of Ashbery's world as “the actuality of nature given back to us again.” Instead, his is “the magic world,” as he tells us in Three Poems:

The magic world does not really exist. Its dumbness is the proof of this. Indeed any sign of activity on its part would be cause for alarm, since it does not need us, need to signal its clarion certainties into our abashed, timid, half-make-believe commerce of every day.

Little good can be said, in the end, of criticism that is content to decode Ashbery's well-kept secrets, or to map his magic world, his heterocosm—as Bloom does in the essay that Ashbery includes in The Double Dream of Spring—without putting, at some point, the question of the value of what Ashbery has to say, without judging his preference for the “clarion certainties” of his private imagination. But the question can only be put and the judgment made with reference to the irrefragable locus of values, the human experience of the world that Ashbery rigorously excludes. It would be unfair to complain of Ashbery that his landscapes are unreal, as unfair as telling him to go write a poem about a tree. In fact he has provided and sustained a beautiful and brilliant flow of images, to be had for their own sake. On first reading especially there is an associational richness, a remarkable variety of tone. But it is decisively disappointing to find behind his fictions, as behind Ammons's apparent scrutiny of the real, no pressure of feeling, no conviction, no intensity, other than what little attaches to a poetic program and a desire to be abstract.

_____________

I have been examining the heads upon which laurels lately have been placed with the intention of learning which way “we”—or the official representatives or the professional fashioners of our choices—are inclining. The answer is nothing so simple as saying, as I began by doing, that we incline toward Stevens. For one thing, Stevens himself is badly served by some of his most prominent critics and disciples. There is a strong Stevens, whom J. Hillis Miller calls a “poet of reality”: His “supreme fiction” was meant to vie with reality as a preferable sphere of being, not to provide fictive shelter from it, which is what is cherished in the heterocosms of Amnions and Ashbery—erudite Lands of Oz. Moreover, Stevens does not share with Amnions and Ashbery that which is most striking in what they share with each other: a profound indifference toward the lived human life. And the human is a curious blindspot, frightening to observe, in poets so honored among their fellows. It is disturbing to think that we have drifted so far from a sense of poetry as a medium of communication and sympathy among persons. Is our cynicism about the possibilities of literature so replete?

Appropriately here I could name poets, “legitimate sons” of Williams, who represent in our time his alternative vision, his active, impassioned engagement of imagination and experience. The poetry of James Wright, Philip Levine, and David Ignatow comes to mind or the earlier work of the heir-apparent in Williams's protest against “academic poetry,” the Allen Ginsberg of Kaddish and Howl. But the pity is that, as I believe, none of our contemporary poets is more abundantly gifted or skilled than A. R. Amnions or John Ashbery. Simply the time has not yet arrived when the best of our poets, in every sense, come down from the studio, out of the backyard, down the steps, into the streets, “to man,/ to Paterson.”

_____________


Footnotes

1 Norton, 396 pp., $12.50.

2 Norton, 79 pp., $6.50.

3 Norton, 98 pp., $6.95.

4 Viking, 96 pp., $6.95.

_____________


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