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-a-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.
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