Outward Bound Ideas

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

110. Essay on John Ashbery by Meghan O'Rourke

From: http://www.slate.com/id/2172871/

MTVu's Poet Laureate John Ashbery's postmodern poetry on a campus near you.
By Meghan O'Rourke
Posted Monday, Aug. 27, 2007, at 3:13 PM ET

MTVu—a college-oriented offshoot of MTV broadcast on 750 campuses nationwide—has announced that John Ashbery will be its inaugural poet laureate. The 80-year-old Ashbery, who is renowned for his dense, postmodern verse, has agreed to allow his poetry to appear in 18 different promotional shorts to begin airing on the channel and its Web site immediately. Why did MTVu think Ashbery would be a good choice—and what is the best way to approach this famously difficult, but ultimately quite readable, poet? In 2005, literary editor Meghan O'Rourke's column "The Instruction Manual" offered a primer for the Ashbery novice. The article is reproduced below.

John Ashbery wrote his first poem when he was 8. It rhymed and made sense ("The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds/ These are the fairies' camping grounds") and the young writer—who had that touch of laziness that sometimes goes along with precocity—came to a realization: "I couldn't go on from this pinnacle." He went on, instead, to write poems that mostly didn't rhyme, and didn't make sense, either. His aim, as he later put it, was "to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about." It worked. Early on, a frustrated detractor called him "the Doris Day of Modernism." Even today a critic like Helen Vendler confesses that she's often "mistaken" about what Ashbery is up to. You can see why: It simply may not be possible to render a sophisticated explication de texte of a poem that concludes "It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched/ His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country."

No wonder Ashbery is widely thought of as dauntingly "difficult"—or, in some camps, as something of a literary hoaxster. It would be a shame, though, if this prevented curious readers from picking up his books. Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. And the truth is that Ashbery's poetry is still very much invested in the reader's pleasure—more so than many supposedly "approachable" poets. Where Shall I Wander, his latest book, is an often delightful and arresting mishmash of battily comic poems about facing death—the poet is now 77—and coded reflections on his early years as part of what became known as "the New York School." Like much of Ashbery's poetry, it is challenging in a strangely inviting way.

It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery's poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness—what he calls "the experience of experience." On the one hand, the poems have the dashed-off look and feel of pop culture-inflected postmodernism, inspired by the radical innovations of Dada and French Surrealism. On the other hand, at their heart is a kind of high Romantic yearning for wholeness: In a sense the poems are simply about being unable to give up that longing. At the center of an Ashbery poem isn't usually a subject (à la Philip Larkin) but a feeling (à la Jackson Pollock). That feeling is conjured up by the interplay between aesthetic conviction and amiably bland bewilderment; amid all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life is the enduring hope that, as one speaker puts it, "at last I shall see my complete face." The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.

Ashbery may be poetry's first skeptical revolutionary. He is the first poet to achieve something utterly new by completely doubting the possibility—and the value—of capturing what the lyric poem has traditionally tried to capture: a crystallization of a moment in time, an epiphanic realization—what Wordsworth called "spots of time." Ashbery has updated the lyric poem by rejecting this project, finding it fundamentally inauthentic (though he'd never put it in such somber terms). As he writes in "Clepsydra," "Each moment/ of utterance is the true one; likewise none is true." The poet must somehow capture this paradox, to make a poem that is not a verbal artifact but a kind of living system. What's important is not art, per se, but "The way music passes, emblematic/ Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it/ And say it is good or bad/ . ... one cannot guard, treasure/ That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting."

Ashbery's second radical move was to change the way the poet saw himself in relation to contemporary society. Though particular poems don't have specific subjects, he may write more about America—and with a more persuasive ambivalence—than any of his peers. "You spoke from the margin," he says in Where Shall I Wander, a common enough artistic sentiment; but where Ashbery differs from Baudelaire or Eliot is that, like Whitman and Emerson, he (often) sees himself as fundamentally more like his fellow-man than unlike. In this, he marries two previously unmarried literary traditions—continental avant-gardism and Romanticism. Perhaps it's this hybrid impulse—his reluctance to identify too strongly with any single tradition—that motivates his bringing together all different kinds of dictions and styles in a single poem, from slapstick to the didactic, from the earnest to the skeptical, while privileging none.

This can make for strange reading. Ashbery becomes a kind of radio transistor through which many different voices, genres, and curious archaeological remains of language filter, so that the poems are like the sound you would hear if you spun through the FM/AM dial without stopping to tune into any one program for long. Sometimes (as you can imagine) this is infuriating. But in the best of Ashbery, the excess verbiage helps make the moments of lyric focus all the more propulsive and startling, like coming across a lost tune as you spin the dial—the sort of thing that briefly brings promise of "a movement out of the dream into its codification." Endings, in particular, are a forte of Ashbery's. Take the beautiful passage that concludes his famous long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror":

We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

Still, for the many readers daunted by all the static, perhaps some tips are in order—if not for easy listening, then at least for better attuned ears. First, bear in mind that Ashbery's subjects are big ones—time, memory, nostalgia—so don't get frustrated by what may seem vague. Second, trust yourself. If you're bored, skip the poem, or skim. But make sure to stay receptive to the farcical comedy in the poems, which often arrives out of nowhere—like a deadpan subway announcer in a good mood.

Monday, October 15, 2007

109. Janice Harayda - Philip Larkin, The case against poetry readings

From: http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/19/the-case-against-poetry-readings-quote-of-the-day-philip-larkin/
by Janice Harayda

Most poets today seem to give readings. One who usually declined invitations to do this was Philip Larkin (1922–1985), one of the great English poets of the 20th century. Larkin explained why in an interview with the Paris Review:

“I don’t give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go at your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may an audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the ‘score’ that doesn’t ‘come to life’ until it’s ‘performed.’ It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should ‘hear’ it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.”

Philip Larkin in an interview with Robert Phillips in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Seventh Series (Viking, 1986), edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by John Updike. This is one of the great interviews in the Paris Review series for several reasons, including Larkin’s genius, Phillips’s skill as an interviewer and the scope of the questions. You can find the full interview at the site for the Paris Review www.parisreview.com . (I’m having trouble linking directly to the interview, but you can find it by going to the site and entering “Larkin” in the search box. The interview appeared in the Summer 1982 issue.) Most libraries and many bookstores also have books in the Paris Review series.