Saturday, January 25, 2003

Last Wednesday would have been my father’s 76th birthday. It’s been 38 years since he died from burns suffered in a plant explosion while working at a Westvaco paper recycling operation in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s been 45 years since I last saw him. I tend to think of those days as being the very distant past, but then I pick up a book like Chinese Whispers by John Ashbery, a poet born the same year as my father.

Ashbery is one of just a half dozen or so poets from the Donald Allen New American Poetry who are still actively publishing new poetry on a regular basis. Chinese Whispers is at least the fifth book by Ashbery since Flow Chart to gather Ashbery’s short poems into a relatively slim volume & the 16th such volume in his career. It’s a form & format that has stood Ashbery well. When I first recognized it as such, which was absolutely by Rivers and Mountains if not The Tennis Court Oath, I was convinced that the model was one adopted in the 1960s by Wesleyan University Press – original publishers of The Tennis Court Oath – and functionally, even subliminally, defined the “academic” book of poetry.

The Wesleyan roster, from the founding of the Wesleyan Poetry Program in 1959, through 1970 is worth thinking about. The press published the following books of verse:

  • Barbara Howes, Light and Dark, 1959
  • Hyam Plutzik, Apples from Shinar, 1959
  • Louis Simpson, A Dream of Governors, 1959
  • James Wright, Saint Judas, 1959
  • David Ferry, On the Way to the Island, 1960
  • Robert Francis, The Orb Weaver, 1960
  • Donald Justice, The Summer Anniversaries, 1960
  • Vassar Miller, Wage War on Silence, 1960
  • Alan Ansen, Disorderly Houses, 1961
  • Robert Bagg, Madonna of the Cello, 1961
  • Donald Davie, New and Selected Poems, 1961
  • David Ignatow, Say Pardon, 1961
  • John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, 1962
  • Robert Bly, Silence in the Snowy Field, 1962
  • James Dickey, Drowning with Others, 1962
  • Richard Howard, Quantities, 1962
  • Chester Kallman, Absent and Present, 1963
  • Vassar Miller, My Bones Being Wiser, 1963
  • Louis Simpson, At the End of the Open Road, 1963
  • James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break, 1963
  • James Dickey, Helmets, 1964
  • David Ignatow, Figures of the Human, 1964
  • Donald Petersen, The Spectral Boy, 1964
  • Vern Rutsala, The Windows, 1964
  • Tram Combs, saint thomas. poems. 1965
  • Donald Davie, Events and Wisdoms, 1965
  • James Dickey, Buckdancer’s Choice, 1965
  • W. R. Moses, Identities, 1965
  • Turner Cassity, Watchboy, What of the Night? 1966
  • John Haines, Winter News, 1966
  • Harvey Shapiro, Battle Report, 1966
  • Jon Silkin, Poems New and Selected, 1966
  • Richard Howard, The Damages, 1967
  • Donald Justice, Night Light, 1967
  • Lou Lipsitz, Cold Water, 1967
  • David Ignatow, Rescue the Dead, 1968
  • Michael Benedikt, The Body, 1968
  • James Dickey, Poems 1957-1967, 1968
  • Edwin Honig, Spring Journal, 1968
  • Philip Levine, Not This Pig, 1968
  • Vassar Miller, Onions and Roses, 1968
  • Marge Piercy, Breaking Camp, 1968
  • James Wright, Shall We Gather at the River, 1968
  • Gray Burr, A Choice of Attitudes, 1969
  • Leonard Nathan, The Day the Perfect Speakers Left, 1969
  • Marge Piercy, Hard Loving, 1969
  • Anne Stevenson, Reversals, 1969
  • Richard Tillinghast, Sleep Watch, 1969
  • Michael Benedikt, Sky, 1970
  • William Harmon, Treasury Holiday: Thirty-Four Fits for the Opening of Fiscal Year 1968, 1970
  • David Ignatow, Poems 1934-1969, 1970
  • Charles Levendosky, Perimeter Poems, 1970
  • Clarence Major, Swallow the Lake, 1970
  • James Seay, Let Not Your Heart, 1970
  • Charles Wright, The Grave of the Right Hand, 1970*

The form was relatively simple – maybe one “major” poem of as much as twelve pages, surrounded by a series of one-page pieces, coming to anywhere between 60 & 100 pages total &, if you were part of the “core” group, one such book every three or so years.

Laughable as it might seem today, those of us of a certain age will remember when this modest list – usually just four slim books per year – was the closest thing to a hegemon as existed in American poetry. Simpson won the Pulitzer in 1964 for Open Road, Dickey won the 1966 National Book Award for Buckdancer’s Choice, Justice’s 1960 volume was a Lamont Poetry Selection. There are, of course, some decent books here – Wright’s later two volumes, the two by Ignatow, Harvey Shapiro’s book**, Justice’s ’67 volume, Michael Benedikt as seriously out of place as Ashbery. If you follow the dates, you can see that part of the program’s success lay in its relatively cohesive aesthetic approach up through 1967 – the sense of shape & scene is as important for conservatives as it is for the post-avant world – at which point the social impact of the 1960s in general appears to have intervened, with leftists both real (Piercy) & nominal (Lipshutz, Levine, Levendosky, the poet laureate of Wyoming) suddenly showing up as well as a writer of color, Clarence Major. By 1970, the Wesleyan “moment” had passed.

But the great irony of Ashbery’s parody of the Wesleyan form (and it had more than a few counterparts among other presses during that period), nearly four decades hence, is that, of all these books, his is perhaps the only volume that will still be remembered distinctly forty years from now. Indeed, unless one is an avid (or masochistic) reader of Hilton Kramer’s neocon New Criterion, the one overtly rightwing cultural journal in America***, most of these names have already receded from general public awareness. Indeed, Tram Combs would be a plausible candidate for what Jonathan Mayhew once referred to as “sillimanning” (“rescuing from literary oblivion in great, painstaking detail”­). But overall, a list like the one above exists as “the unmarked case,” the normative median against which the interesting work of that decade was written – with the notable exception of Ashbery.

I’ve heard the complaint more than once that Ashbery’s books have become too predictable & that he hasn’t evolved in any particular direction in nearly 30 years, writing the same colorful, not quite surreal poems again & again. I’ve heard similar complaints about Robert Creeley. Frankly, I could continue reading both gentlemen with great pleasure for the rest of my days even if they waver not a single iota for the remainder of their careers. In part, I think such complaints reflect the enormous impact each has had on contemporary poetry & a misplaced expectation that, having changed poetry to some degree in their own image in the past, these writers shall – or should – continue to do so in the future. I think such an expectation misjudges what it was that they actually accomplished, and what writers can & do achieve when they exert a serious impact on their peers & descendants.

If, from Some Trees through Flow Chart, John Ashbery’s work evolved in directions that would expand the terrain of the possible for poetry, it was not, I suspect, out of any sense of historical mission that he worked. Rather, like any poet (you included), he wrote the poems he needed, and having arrived at a scope that gives him ample room in which to work, he to some degree has settled in. One can see this exact same process at work in Creeley as well, from The Whip & For Love through A Day Book. If the work since then has operated within that territory each poet articulated over decades, it is hardly a failure of the poets themselves.

* This list is taken from the back matter of the second printing of Ashbery’s book, issued in ’67, then supplemented for later years through Abebooks, although I have much less confidence in the year of publication for the latter source.

** Even if it was published primarily to ensure that the rest of the series would be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, which Shapiro edited for many a year with absolutely no hint of aesthetic shape.

*** The Atlantic is still politically in the closet, though editor Michael Kelly seems determined to catch up with Kramer & poetry editor Peter Davison will have no trouble obliging Kelly’s new order with a musty formalism.