Articles

The munificence of Trevor Joyce

At left, Trevor Joyce at the Prague Poetry Festival, 2009. Photo by Pam Brown.

For over four decades Joyce has sought a vitality and innovation in his writing that continues to distinguish his poetry among national and international communities of poets. Here, formal constraint is an enabling device through which the chosen themes, ideas, and source texts are aligned and vivified. Joyce’s willingness to delineate these sources indicates a poetry always in excess of its constituent parts. Sources recur across collections and the notes that organize one poem become a palimpsest for another. Director and co-organizer of the SoundEye poetry festival since its inception in 1997, Joyce is a dynamic force in Irish poetry as it continues to change and evolve.

Joyce was born in Dublin on October 26, 1947, and grew up in the city, spending summers with relatives in the Galway Gaeltacht. His literary heritage relates back to his great-granduncles, Robert Dwyer Joyce and Patrick Weston Joyce. Both men were eminent writers and collectors of Irish music whose influence is carried through in appropriations of their work in Joyce’s poetry. Joyce met Michael Smith in the mid-sixties and together they founded New Writers’ Press. The press provided a forum for young poets, national and international, whose work was not receiving an audience in an Irish publishing community preoccupied with the construction of Irish cultural identity. From the outset, NWP worked to make innovative poetry available to a wide audience through large print runs and low-cost production. Joyce’s Pentahedron (1972) serves as an example of the editors’ commitments with a combined total of 1200 hardback and paperback copies printed. In his opening address at the inaugural SoundEye festival in 1997, Joyce reflected on the aspirations of the Press, stating, “We certainly saw what we were doing as alternative to the status quo, but we never saw it as eccentric.” As well as publishing some of the most innovative poetry of the sixties and seventies, NWP was intrinsic to the recovery of Irish modernists of the thirties such as Brian Coffey, Thomas MacGreevy, and Niall Montgomery.

Between 1967 and 1976 Joyce published four collections with NWP, Sole Glum Trek, Watches, Pentahedron, and The Poems of Sweeny Peregrine. In 1983 he visited the People’s Republic of China as a member of the Ireland-Chinese Cultural Society before moving from Dublin to Cork in the following year. After a nearly twenty-year hiatus, Joyce returned to publishing in 1995 with a collection titled stone floods which began a period of extraordinary productivity for the poet. Syzygy and Hellbox were published in 1998 and Without Asylum followed in 1999. In 2001, with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold appeared, a veritable “body of work” bringing together The Poems of Sweeney Peregrine, Pentahedron, stone floods, Hopeful Monsters, Trem Neul, and a variety of poems spanning the course of his writing career. In 2007, Joyce published an extensive collection of new work titled What’s in Store and this was followed by Courts of Air and Earth in 2009 and The Immediate Future in 2013.

Critical analysis by Keith Tuma, Nate Dorward, Alex Davis, Marcella Edwards, and John Goodby among others offers strategies for reading Joyce’s poetry. This scholarship attends to the poet’s place within the national literary history and European modernist tradition and also considers, among other things, the importance of translation, theory, and philosophy to his writing. Such criticism did not always reach its deserved readership, either because of low print-runs or the ephemeral nature of poetry magazines and journals. The bibliography published with this essay consolidates that critical history and acknowledges the contribution of a variety of publishers to Joyce’s poetry. Since submitting the bibliography for publication several more references have emerged, and more will follow as Joyce continues to write and publish poetry.

Bruce Andrews: 'Debauching the Sine Wave'

“tipped / lobes”

Corona was the first book by Bruce Andrews that I read, circa 1976. I was drawn to it for its strict, if oblique, economies, but also because its exclusions reveal as much as its manifest content. I suppose my primary “rubric” for poetry is that it not assume a place for itself, but rather that it construct such a place in fidelity to the contingent logic that requires it to be as it is and not otherwise. For better and worse, as they say.

No less intriguing, however, was the sense that Andrews was building — that is, batching and sorting “mouth signatures” via “all kinds / of robbery” — a scalable vocabulary for the work to come, albeit I had no idea of how capacious that scale would soon become. Was the magisterial mayhem of The Millennium Project already present in nuces in the “tipped / lobes” of Corona?In hindsight, apparently so.

We can now adduce from its opening poem the method — “peel off” and “dislodge” — the métier — “inner vortex” — and the politics — “passport venom” — that have informed and enlivened his work ever since. Despite their precocity, then — a feature we know to distrust — the radical formalism of these early poems was, and remains, compelling.

“nitric burr”

Earlier still, as I soon discovered, Edge had declared the topographic feature that Andrews’s work continues to map, hone, bash, blunt, blur, blend, parse, nick, tease, test, limn, vex, query, fuse, fondle, fray, erase, and realign. And though edges may define a spectrum of entities that ranges from the edges of the known universe to the famously edgy behavior of quantum particles — it is to the intractably human, anxiously social, fractiously discursive, and multiphonically audible portions of that spectrum that his work directs our attention. And does so with wicked abandon.

Wicked? Yes. As in “wicked good.” As in “fierce” and “mischievous.” As in “reckless.” And — for those whose shibboleths it skewers — as in “morally offensive” as well. Poor dears, as if any poem, including Andrews’s lexical tsunamis, were obliged to pander to, much less be policed by, consensus-driven catechists of whatever dispensation. Yet, they too are among the company of readers that his work ineluctably addresses, more and less directly. So, “If thy ears offend thee, get the wax out.” Or, as Mr. T might have said, had the “A” of “The A-Team” stood for Althusser: “Interpellate this, fool.”

Hoodoo the polis in divers voices

You will forgive the musty allusion to Eliot, but the undead are a nuisance — wrapped as they are in their verities and pieties, and for whose neoliberal spawn “the Reverend Eliot” will serve as well as any other empty signifier. Happily, Andrews’s work provides the requisite prophylaxis: a lifetime supply of goofer dust — part powdered rock of ages, part stone-ground memes — which can be had for a veritable song and, as a matter of praxis, if not of fact, will induce “the paroxysm of the one recurring every day.”

Apropos such paroxysms, in deploded view, Andrews’s work presents a palimpsest or thick depiction of “the American idiom” (now plural) in the raw — while its obverse or exploded view reveals a disarticulated, randomly distributed, noisomely fulminant body-politic. But, not to worry. This, too, shall “compose itself” and be reanimated in a kaleidoscopic montage of speaking and writing subjects, purposively unmoored from the subjectivities their idioms instantiate. Their own mothers wouldn’t recognize them, and in that sense never did. The outcome of all this hoodoo, then, is a cagey “mutilation for whose benefit” any resemblance to actuality is no coincidence at all.

“antique faith”

–ak (the root of “edge”) denotes something “sharp” or “pointed” in proto-Indo-European. From which all manner of metaphors spring, to include “the cutting edge” so dear to marketing directors, as well as such temperaments as we call “edgy” and the “sharp tongues” we associate with them. As Washington Irving once observed, “A sharp tongue is the only edge tool that grows keener with constant use.” So it isn’t Andrews’s acknowledged place at the “cutting edge” of culture that concerns me here. Rather, it’s his commitment to the “ragged edge” of compositional practice, which, as we know, is always already a social as well as an aesthetic site — a contested site — of production brought forth in dissensus, where risk has consequences that far exceed the whimsies of cultural capital.

What I’m getting at is compassion — his in specific — though that’s not a concept one often (ever?) hears in discussions of his work. But I fear I must insist. It’s easy enough to be pissed off at the endlessly proliferating depredations of, and acquiescence that enables, globalized capitalism. But to simultaneously sustain that anger and transform it into art — especially art that makes by no means easy psycho-affective demands on its readers — requires a visceral belief that our current social arrangements could (and should) be radically otherwise. Given that Andrews’s work expresses its compassion for the suffering wrought by social injustice in relentlessly confrontational ways, its singular (signature) admixture of political anger and poetic jouissance is honestly and thoughtfully come by — as is its (allegedly) utopian casting of its lot with the premise that the materiality of language matters (a fundamental premise of Language writing).

Of course “the ragged edge” can be more technically rendered as “the theoretical limit of traction.” On analogy with a racing line, when a poetic line (broadly understood) exceeds 10/10ths of its limit — which is the only way it can discover that limit — the possible outcomes are few: you can back off, spin out, crash, or gain an edge. And every writer knows these outcomes from experience. But, since it’s the last of these that warrants taking the risk, the salient question becomes over what or whom does one seek an edge? And that, or so I think that Andrews’s work argues, is a political question no less than a poetic one. And, as I think it also argues, a question of jouissance.

Direct address

Dear Bruce: 2,800 road miles and a half-tank of gas say I won’t be attending the symposium on Friday, much as I’d like to be there. Instead, come the appointed hour — Happy Happy Hour, as Keats might say — I’ll raise a glass in your honor. After all, in former times, symposia were drinking parties (and I wish that they still were).

Grateful as I am for the work you’ve done, and the trove of plausibilities (“this is called catharsis”) that it masterfully unearths, it seems rather silly to thank you for having done what you were damn well going to do regardless. So I’ll thank you instead for the pleasure I anticipate from the work, yet to be done, you will have done. Meanwhile, keep on steppin’ and remember: Por el tango, el abrazo es más importante que al paso.

* * *

Editorial note: This essay was written for a symposium on Bruce Andrews that took place in New York on December 7, 2012. Page two of the event website published five poems that Andrews read at the event, four of which were previously unpublished. There is currently a wealth of information on both the symposium and Andrews at this Fordham University website. We are grateful to Jeff Hansen and Ted Pearson for making Pearson’s piece available to the readers of Jacket2.

Star-crossed

Corona, 2011, collage, digitized print, 16 ½ x 16 ½ inches, by John Ashbery. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

I knew John Ashbery before I met him, by which I mean that I subsequently realized that I’d adopted in my teens and early twenties more or less the same tastes and attitudes as John had a generation earlier.

I actually first came across John’s name as the translator of an essay on Raymond Roussel, the French protosurrealist writer who felt from early childhood that he was predestined for greatness, to the extent that he thought he had been born with a star on his forehead.

Written by Michel Leiris, the essay “Confection and Reality in the Work of Raymond Roussel” was published in the spring 1964 issue of “Art and Literature.” Reading the essay was to change my life as an artist at the impressionable age of twenty-one, describing as it did several of the techniques Roussel had utilized in writing his bizarre books, techniques that I myself would later use to paint my own bizarre paintings.

The article that John had translated also contained a wealth of Rousselian anecdotes, including the occasion when Roussel had visited the great French astronomer Camille Flammarion. Such was Roussel’s admiration for Flammarion that, after their meal was over, Roussel kept a little star-shaped cookie as a souvenir, and subsequently had a star-shaped glass container specially made to preserve his pastry treasure.

A few months after reading John’s translation, I learned that the translator himself was due to give a reading of his own poetry at the American embassy in London. I cut classes at the Royal College of Art where I was a student in order to attend, and I’m glad I did, since it changed my life just as surely as the Roussel article. Not that I actually met John at the reading — I was far too shy to introduce myself. Little did I know at that time that John was a shy person himself.

I realized through John’s reading that poetry could be as rich and inventive as painting and contain as many ideas and — this was especially important to me as a young painter — contain as many images as a painting. I later realized that it was the richness of John’s vocabulary that led automatically to a richness of imagery, as it had for Roussel.

To close his reading, John read his poem “The Skaters,” a poem which concluded with the lines:

To refuse the square hive, postpone the highest …
The apples are all getting tinted
in the cool light of autumn.
The constellations are rising
in perfect order:
                       Taurus, Leo, Gemini[1]

The final lines hit me with the force of a thunderbolt, relating as they did to Roussel’s little star-shaped cookie I’d become obsessed with, and also because simultaneously I was becoming enamored with Joseph Cornell’s boxes, many of which had astronomical charts pasted onto their rear surfaces.

John and I were obviously on the same wavelength, since a couple of years later, when he reviewed a Cornell retrospective, he concluded the review with the spot-on observation that, and I quote:

The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.[2]

This conflation of the large with the small, adult vision with childhood vision, was important to both John and Roussel, too, and became one of the characteristics of my own painting, mainly as a result of reading John’s Cornell article.

Jump ahead another year or so, when I’d moved from London to New York. John arranged that we should make a pilgrimage together to visit Joseph Cornell in his nondescript house on the inappropriately named Utopia Parkway in darkest Queens. I took along a copy of Roussel’s “New Impressions of Africa” as a present, a volume ending with a drawing of a star-filled sky.

After eating some rather unbearably hard — if not downright stale — cookies that Cornell had specially bought from the only automat in Manhattan that still had the gall to sell them, we all three went downstairs to Cornell’s workplace in the basement, a spooky basement straight out of Psycho. The workplace was lined with shelves laden with various-sized boxes, bearing such labels as “silver balls, clay pipes, white sand, stardust.” As Cornell was opening one of his thimble peepshows on the table before us, I noticed a cheap, transparent jewel box beside my elbow. It contained a heap of glass stars.

 

 


 

1. John Ashbery, Collected Poems (New York: Library of America, 2008), 147.

2. Ashbery, “Joseph Cornell,” in Reported Sightings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 13.

Boiled Dinner

A Tasteless Comedy in One Act

John Ashbery.
John Ashbery.

THE CAST:

Jean Hache-Béret, a famous French poet
Miss Guinevere Moxley, a pursed American poet
Ambrosine Philpotts, a humorless Queer Theorist
James Schuyler, himself
Velma Handler, a powerful literary critic
Pearl Indeterminate, a slightly less powerful literary critic, archrival of Handler
First Café Waiter, an American PhD candidate writing about Jean Hache-Béret
Second Café Waiter, a poet and graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop who blatantly imitates Hache-Béret in his work

THE SCENE:

Le Select, a once-famous literary café in Montparnasse. The reclusive French poet Jean Hache-Béret is sitting one table in, stage right, drinking a martini and looking rather bored. At the table next to him sits American poet Miss Guinevere Moxley, writing in her journal. She pretends not to notice him, though she knows perfectly well who he is. The bar is to the back and left.
 
Somewhere in Paris a large gathering of American academics are holding a conference on Hache-Béret’s work.
 
When the curtain rises, Velma Handler enters Le Select with an imperious attitude and goes to sit at the bar. Following behind, though not with her, are Pearl Indeterminate and Ambrosine Philpotts. Hache-Béret raises the “Best Books of the Year” issue of the Times Literary Supplement in front of his face in an attempt to hide.

Guinevere (to Hache-Béret): You can’t hide from them, you know.

Hache-Béret: You certainly can. They’ll never notice you.

Guinevere: Meanie.

Pearl (glancing at Handler): Oh, of course Velma Handler had to be here. She thinks she owns Hache-Béret’s work!

Ambrosine: So do you. And you’re both complicit in the heteronormative matrix of late-capitalist household dwellers.

Pearl: Oh brother.

Ambrosine: See what I mean! Your very word choice proves my point, enforcing familial relations which privilege gender norms and masculine dominance.  

Pearl and Ambrosine sit at a table to the right of Hache-Béret. They immediately recognize him.

Guinevere (to Hache-Béret): You won’t be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher much longer.

Hache-Béret (insouciantly): Cocktail hour and its discontents.

Pearl: Oh! Monsieur Hache-Béret, I’m sure you remember me, Pearl, Pearl Indeterminate. I just delivered a paper on your intransitive and copulative verbs!

Hache-Béret: Dear me.

Ambrosine: Heteronormed and depoliticized!

Pearl: This is my colleague, Ms. Philpotts.

Ambrosine: Please call me Ambrosine.

Guinevere: I’m a political poet. (They ignore her)

Hache-Béret (to himself): Some days hell seems very near.

First Café Waiter (to Ambrosine and Pearl): Mesdames …

Ambrosine: Do you have any guava juice?

Pearl (to the waiter): So this is where you’ve been hiding. You owe me several chapters!

First Café Waiter: I know, I know. But I can’t write the conclusion to my dissertation until Hache-Béret stops writing books!

Second Café Waiter: My poetry is just like his and I went to Iowa, why don’t you write about me?

Guinevere: And what about me?

Second Café Waiter (to Guinevere): Oh give me a break, you’re way too determinate. Besides, you’re a girl.

Guinevere: Woman. I’m a middle-aged woman.

Ambrosine: Gender distinctions must be abolished.  

Hache-Béret: Miss Philpotts regrets.

First Café Waiter (turning to Hache-Béret, picking up his empty martini glass): Please stop writing poems.

The ghost of James Schuyler appears behind Hache-Béret’s chair. He is chubby and wears angel wings. Only Hache-Béret can hear him.

Schuyler: What a cutie.

Hache-Beret looks confusedly about.

Hache-Béret: Jimmy?

Schuyler: Bettina to you.

Guinevere: I thought your camp name was Dorabella.

Schuyler: That waiter is hung like a horse.

Hache-Béret: Shhhhh!

Schuyler: Don’t worry, no one can hear me.

Guinevere: I can hear you.

Schuyler (bitchily): Fag hag.

Hache-Béret: Yes, and what kind of name is Moxley? Ms. Moxley, Moooooxley!

Guinevere (in all seriousness): You can’t say it that way any more! It means, “she who comes from the mouse-infested wood.”

Schuyler: It should mean “she who took all her best moves from Jimmy,” including that tacky pseudonym.

Hache-Béret: Geneviève?

Guinevere: It’s Guinevere — like the queen.

Schuyler: Not any queen I know.

Guinevere (to Hache-Béret): At least I don’t write like those legions of straight-boy-Iowa graduates who relentlessly imitate you, all hoping to repeat your 1975 triple crown!

Second Café Waiter (to himself): I wonder if I should read more French theory?

Hache-Béret: Don’t kid yourself, “The Sense Record” practically plagiarizes “Self-Portrait.”

Guinevere frowns and hurumphs.

Hache-Béret: And your poem “The Drip” would be nothing without “Clepsydra.”

Guinevere: That’s not fair. Those editors asked me to respond to “Clepsydra.”

Schuyler: So there.

Hache-Béret: You could have politely said “no.”

First Café Waiter (bringing Hache-Béret another martini): Would you like more poems with that. I mean, would you please stop writing poems!

Ambrosine: Queerness denied in every one.

Pearl: Don’t be foolish Ambrosine. His indeterminate strategies decenter the subject.

Schuyler (though they can’t hear him): Jean is devoted to the impossible.

Ambrosine: Nevertheless Pearl, his conformist closet works to globalize the heterosexist episteme.

Schuyler: Janis?

Guinevere: No, its Pearl Indeterminate, a critic.

Schuyler: Oh ick, that’s the one who called my wit “camp.”

Handler (to the audience): I own the meaning of Hache-Béret.

Pearl: He’s mine, he’s mine. Stay away Velma Handler, Hache-Béret is my poet!

Schuyler: Why is this play called Boiled Dinner?

Guinevere: It was originally going to take place in Maine.

Schuyler: I wish I were paddling an Old Town canoe with red and peeling shoulders.

Hache-Béret: The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism and the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.

Second Café Waiter (writing in a small notebook): What a great line.

Guinevere: But I’ve invested so much in the individual!

Ambrosine (to Guinevere): Your complicity with the system denies the possibility of revolution. Just listen to your language, “invested.” You’re no different than a venture capitalist.

Schuyler: The word is fag hag. (To Guinevere): Why did you change the location?

Guinevere: Hache-Béret wouldn’t come to Maine.

Schuyler: Not for you anyway.

Guinevere: Meanie.

Ambrosine (to Hache-Béret): You must write explicitly about your sexuality!

Pearl and Both Café Waiters: Please no, don’t!

Schuyler: Why can’t we just be witty?

Guinevere: What about my sexuality?

Ambrosine: Conformist.

Hache-Béret: These decibels are a kind of flagellation.

Guinevere (to Ambrosine and Pearl): Why don’t you leave us poets alone.

Second Café Waiter: Be quiet! Don’t upset Ambrosine, I’ve just asked her for a blurb.

Guinevere: So sorry!

First Café Waiter: Please stop writing poems!

Handler: I own the meaning of Hache-Béret!

Pearl: No, I own the meaning!

Hache-Béret: I have to go to the bathroom.

Guinevere: Me too.

Schuyler (fading away): Talulah banks off to the head, toot-da-loo you two, two to the loo … adieu

Guinevere grabs Hache-Béret’s hand and they sneak down the stairs of the café, while the rest continue to argue, repeating variations on their previous lines.

CURTAIN

Excerpts from 'The Poet as Art Critic'

Acrobats, c. 1972, collage, 3 ½ x 5 ½ inches, by John Ashbery. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

Being an art critic is for the most part a low-paying job. It is particularly insecure if you do not have a position at a university. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was far worse than it is now. In an informative interview with the English poet and literary critic Mark Ford, Ashbery talked about the financial side of being an art critic living in Paris:

I got the job of art critic for the Herald Tribune, but that wasn’t until May 1960. That didn’t pay anything but it did open the way to other things that did pay. Even after five years in the job I was only making about $30 an article, but they could pay slave wages because there were so many Americans in Paris who were dying for that kind of work. So I really just lived from hand to mouth.[1]

In 1961, in addition to his regular job at the Herald Tribune, Ashbery became the art critic for Art International, a magazine. He also wrote articles for ARTnews.

Ashbery may have felt that he backed into his career as an art critic, but his first reviews are not tentative. In his first published review (on Bradley Walker Tomlin[2]), he is poetic and precise, and gets the viewer to want to look again:

In Number 8, 1949, the nervous energy of a pattern which seems to be made up of scythes and swear-words in Chinese is tempered by the sweet blue background. This contrast between form and color was to be the central idea in all the pictures Tomlin painted until his death in 1953.[3]

Often, after summing up the subject he is reviewing, he steps back and argues eloquently for both the difficult and the impossible. He ends his review of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (1956) for Poetry with the following observation:

Stanzas in Meditation is no doubt the most successful of her attempts to do what can’t be done, to create a counterfeit reality more real than reality. And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.[4]

Is it all that surprising that this is the first and last time Ashbery reviewed a book for Poetry? Thus, shortly after publishing Turandot Other Poems (1953) and Some Trees (1956), he started his career as a critic by defining a worthy aesthetic goal as doing “what can’t be done,” which is “to create a counterfeit reality more real than reality.”

Three years later, in an essay on Pierre Reverdy, Ashbery wrote:

The lines drift across the page as overheard human speech drifts across our hearing: fragments of conversation, dismembered advertising slogans or warning signs in the Metro appear and remain the rock crystal of the poem. And far from banishing poetry to the unconscious, he lets it move freely in and out of the conscious and unconscious. Since we do not inhabit either world exclusively, the result is moving and lifelike.[5]

Elsewhere in this review, while comparing Reverdy to the film director Robert Bresson, who “created an ascetically transparent world,”[6] Ashbery wrote:

Like Reverdy he has a keen ear for le langage de la tribu and a deep feeling for nature. Trees, clouds, lakes, automobiles, the texture of a woman’s skin and of her dress are shown for what they are and are also undetachable from the story being told; they are like electrodes in the limpid bath of a precise context.[7]

Already masterful in his ability to shift tone and focus, Ashbery has consciously rejected transparency, received notions of realism in poetry, and confession, all of which were (and still are) believed to be allegorical narratives that naturally culminate in revelation, universal truth, or epiphany. All too often, these states of illuminated insight are familiar and border on cliché. The revelation is not something the poet discovers in the process of writing, but is something he or she already possesses, and must figure out how to package. Such poems are full of detachable symbols and images, triggers that set off the reader’s sympathetic Pavlovian response. Ashbery is against both the predictable and the detachable, which allows a poem to be reduced to a theme or be summed up.

Ashbery’s interest in both “counterfeit reality” and the “lifelike” helps explain why, nearly twenty years after writing about Stein and Reverdy, he would write his widely acclaimed poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The poem is ostensibly about Parmigianino’s trompe l’oeil painting, a counterfeit reality that depicts the artist as if he is looking into a convex mirror. By being a “mirror” of the absent painter, the self-portrait displaces the viewer who is standing where the artist once stood. We see his imprisoned reflection looking back at us. On both the visceral level and in a larger sense, the artist’s absence reminds us of our immediate and impending departure. At the same time, the painter stares at us, locked inside the wooden sphere, his hand in the foreground, as if protecting him from us and from time. This is one of the ways Ashbery describes the portrait:

The soul has to stay where it is,

 Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the

 pane,

 The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the

 wind,

 Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay

 Posing in this place

 

Don’t poetry and art share the paradox of embodying a frozen time, while outside its domain, time (“autumn leaves”) keeps surging ahead?

Ashbery’s description of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry is particularly apt about both his own writing and Parmigianino’s arresting and disturbing painting:

We live in a quandary, but it is not a dualistic conflict between inner and outer reality; it is rather a question of deciding how much the outer reality is our reality, how far we can advance into it and still keep a toe-hold on the inner, private one.[8]

Ashbery’s observation also applies to his choices as an art critic. For one thing, he has never been known as a critic who either celebrated hyperbolically or grumbled mightily about the work of artists that were or weren’t in the spotlight. I suspect this is because early on in his career he recognized that the outer reality (or what the art is intently focusing on at a particular moment) would subsume him if he advanced too far into it.

After all, he chose to live in Paris, not New York. And he never tried to stay young and become the Paul McCartney of art criticism.

*

About the art criticism of Ashbery, the question boils down to this: what does he stand for and against? I would like to approach this question by beginning with a distinction he made in an essay about Artaud:

His famous pamphlet on Van Gogh (Van Gogh or The Man Suicided by Society) is great not because Artaud was a great critic (which he wasn’t because fortunately he could only create, not criticize) but because of what it says about all artists[9]

This is what Ashbery says about artists and the critic’s relationship to them: “To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern.”[10] He is championing art that exists outside of language, particularly when it is academic discourse. It might make his job tougher, but he is against any kind of art that can be explained by a preexisting discourse. Thus, in this same review of Brice Marden’s monochromatic paintings, he writes: “it is not an abstraction but an object made by and for the senses.”[11] This observation is in line with his statements about art and poetry that is “lifelike,” and that moves between the conscious and unconscious.

Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that all art “aspires to the condition of the music.” The difference is that Pater is seen as paving the way for abstraction, while Ashbery began publishing poetry and criticism after abstraction’s triumph. Thus, he wants an abstract art that is an object made by and for the senses. In other words, he isn’t interested in abstraction as an idealized state, but in something messier and closer to life. He believes in art and writing that are autonomous but not removed from reality. This is why many find it nearly impossible to write about his poetry; it keeps slipping through one’s fingers and reconstituting itself just beyond one’s grasp.

While Ashbery isn’t particularly interested in criticizing an artist’s work, one should not deduce that he wasn’t critical of artists, because he was, but in a way that can only be described as creative.

Leland Bell is a painter and a polemicist. Seeing him in his studio, vigorously at work on a number of canvases and meanwhile sounding off on his various pet peeves and enthusiasms, one has the feeling of coming upon an almost extinct variety of a whooping crane, alive and well in its environment, happily honking around the pond and causing quite a commotion. For polemics, and by extension commitment — to art, that is — is all but extinct in the art world. Where polemics seem to flourish, it often turns out to be the wishful thinking of artists dedicated to the hopeless task of doing away with the art of the past, and must therefore be construed as a romantic metaphor rather than a practical exercise in persuasion.[12]

What is striking about Ashbery’s irreducible view of Bell is that it is simultaneously comical, critical, cold, entertaining, and even sympathetic. After all, none of us wants to see any animal, particularly a whooping crane, become extinct. Clearly, the tonal shifts and multiple voices that are an integral part of Ashbery’s poetry are also found mainly in his essays. Even though many of his essays are assignments and commissions that appear in art magazines and weekly journals, he has an original prose voice. He isn’t afraid of using a rich complex metaphor or citing a popular term. He isn’t a miser who feels compelled to hoard his metaphors for his poems.

One wonders why in his review of Selected Prose, Charles McGrath made this observation:

On the evidence of Selected Prose, in fact, it’s tempting to conclude that prose is something Ashbery isn’t especially good at, which makes him unusual among poets of his stature. Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, to take the two most obvious examples, are brilliant critics and essayists, with prose voices as original and pleasing as their poetic ones. Ashbery’s prose writing is clear and competent (he worked as a journalist and art critic for many years) but also dutiful and uninspired. Most of the pieces in this volume are the equivalent of literary chores — and from them you get no sense of how much fun Ashbery can be or what a master of tone and voices he is, able to shift gears in a single line. Most of Selected Prose is written in an all-purpose monotone.[13]

On the evidence of McGrath’s review, one is tempted to conclude that he never read Reported Sightings, and that being, as his byline describes him, “the former editor of the Book Review and a writer at large for the Times” means you don’t have to know a whole lot more about your subject than the average reader of your publication.

Written more than a decade before the emergence of appropriationists, a number of whom were championed by Hal Foster, Ashbery’s observations regarding polemics have a particular relevance in both the art world and literary culture. One doesn’t think of what appropriation artists such as Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine do as being a “romantic metaphor,” and certainly that is not how their work has been framed and written about by art historians involved with postmodern pronouncements such as the death of originality and the death of the author. And while it certainly wasn’t on his mind when he wrote this in 1970, nearly a decade before the emergence of Language poets and others who (influenced by European theorists) proclaimed the death of the author, as heated arguments mounted against the use of “I,” it should be noted that Ashbery’s use of “I” is unlike that of any other poet. Ashbery’s “I” is porous and changing, and the reader doesn’t sense that it is connected to a fixed personality, as it is in the writing of James Tate, Charles Simic, or Jorie Graham, just to name three obvious examples. I would further suggest that something of the personality of such poets as Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Leslie Scalapino comes through in their work. Thus, whether one uses or doesn’t use the “I,” and publicly believes in or doesn’t comment on the death of the author, isn’t really the point, is it? Making statements about these issues is really a way of announcing to others what club you belong to or are trying to be admitted to.

Influenced by contemporary art — and here I am thinking of Jean Hélion and Jasper Johns (two artists he has written about) — Ashbery has submerged his personality in favor of something that is seemingly objective and distanced. His descriptions of Johns’s work seems particularly applicable to his own poetry:

Johns is one of the few young painters of today whose work seems to defy critical analysis, and this is precisely a sign of its power — it can’t be explained in any other terms than its own, and is therefore necessary.[14]

For more than four decades Ashbery has defined, defended, and championed the difficult and unexplainable, not because he is “a harebrained, homegrown surrealist,”[15] but because he recognizes that the beginning of modernism, which is manifested by the poetry of Baudelaire and the painting of Manet, is marked by the collapse of collective language. How can you be edifying when there is no collective language or set of symbols to rely on? Within this situation of absence, particularly of moral authority, the writer has two choices: write poems as if there still existed a collective language or try to write poems that achieve complete autonomy. Ashbery chose the latter.

Both T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound tried to erect a collective language, however gloomy or willed, but Ashbery never tried to achieve a didactic totality. Thus, in his poem, “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” one named river replaces another, and there is no sense of landscape (context) or use of the word “I.” Reality is indifferent to us, and its constant, relentless change carries us along, whether we like it or not. Each of us begins in the middle of it:

Far from Rappahannock, the silent
Danube moves along towards the sea.

Without fanfare, Ashbery often challenges some of our most cherished views of art. In his essay on Edwin Dickinson, which appeared in New York (October 13, 1980), he made the following observation:

Coming on this shoe fresh from Whitney’s [Edward] Hopper retrospective made me wonder once again if we really know who our greatest artists are. I would be the last to deny Hopper’s importance, but even in the smallest and most slapdash of these oil sketches, Dickinson seems to me a greater and more elevated painter, and all notions of “cerebralism” and “decadence” — two words critics throw around when they can’t find anything bad to say about an artist — are swept away by the freshness of these pictures, in which eeriness and vivacity seem to go hand in hand, as they do in our social life.[16]

Hopper, of course, is the artist everyone points to when they want to prove that a collective language of representation still exists. It is Hopper who many fervently claim most powerfully evokes our urban isolation and alienation, which is all well and good. At the same time, meaning has been detached from Hopper’s paintings, making them into a background against which a very programmatic conversation can unfold. Hopper is easy to sum up, while it is impossible to do so with Dickinson. However, without ever denying Hopper’s importance, Ashbery brings up “eeriness and vivacity” as aspects of our “social life” we might want to pay more attention to. Hopper hints at his figures’ inner life, but everything we see takes place on the painting’s surface. It is why so many mainstream poets have used Hopper’s paintings as a starting point. With Dickinson, however, it is all but moot to discuss what constitutes inner and outer reality.

One of the painters that Ashbery became friends with while living in Paris was Jean Hélion, whom he championed many times. A provocative, commanding painter who challenges one’s assumptions about art, Hélion worked both abstractly and figuratively, and did not “attach much importance to the two categories.” He is impossible to categorize, and, in that way, is comparable to Philip Guston. The difference is that Hélion worked in four different modes of abstraction before shifting to figuration; he was both more stylistically restless and less seductive than Guston. Like Guston, Hélion tried to deal with dailiness after he moved away from abstraction.

A friend of Raymond Queneau and Francis Ponge, Hélion published They Shall Not Have Me (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943), a memoir about his experiences as a POW in World War II. His letters to Queneau are full of bright gems about art. He wrote poetry before switching to painting. In the late 1920s, he became known for his abstract paintings that excluded “lyricism, drama, and symbolism.”[17] In the early 1950s, Hélion, who, by the way, was a big influence on Leland Bell and his polemical stance, began working on “fantastically realistic still-lifes.” Writing about these works and a portrait he was working on, Ashbery concludes his essay on Hélion with this:

As he once said: “I realize today that it is the abstract which is reasonable and possible. And that it is the pursuit of reality which is madness, the ideal, the impossible.”[18]

It so happens that there is a retrospective of Jean Hélion currently on tour. It opened at the Centre George Pompidou, Paris, and will have stops at the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, and the National Academy Museum, New York. The accompanying catalog contains essays by French, English, and American art historians. However, Ashbery’s early championing of Hélion — and he was pretty much one of the only American critics to do so — seems to have made no impression on any of the historians, and none of his writings are included in the English version of the catalogue. It is just another example of a lost opportunity.[19]

Being a poet and art critic means that much of your writing will appear in fugitive publications, in small magazines, middlebrow magazines with a short shelf life, and catalogues that only a few people will ever see or read. Most of the people who read the poetry probably won’t read the essays about art and vice versa. The mainstream literary establishment won’t pay much attention and that part of the literary establishment that thinks it is avant-garde or radical also won’t pay much attention because art, after all, makes money and therefore it must be corrupt. The art world still largely ignores poet-critics. And yet, despite the absence of attention in this area, and even though nobody might have bothered to notice, it must be apparent by now that Ashbery does take positions in his art criticism and literary essays, and that throughout his publishing life he has done so with remarkable clarity and precision. It seems not to have mattered to Ashbery whether or not someone read what he wrote about art. He would take a stand even if no one were listening. That, I believe, is the definition of integrity.


Excerpted from “The Poet as Art Critic,” published in
The American Poetry Review, May/June 2005.

 


 

1. John Ashbery in conversation with Mark Ford (London: Between the Lines, 2003), 43.

2. In contrast to many of the other abstract expressionists, Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899–1953) moved in both the commercial world and downtown bohemia. He was both a successful illustrator and painter. He designed covers for Vogue and House and Garden. In the last five years of his life, Tomlin used a vocabulary of ribbon-like calligraphic strokes, which are the temperamental opposite of Franz Kline’s clashing slathers of paint. Both Philip Guston and Robert Ryman have admired Tomlin’s tonalities and matter-of-fact, structural brushstrokes.

3. First published in ARTnews (October 1957). Reprinted in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987, ed. David Bergman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 193.

4. First published in Poetry 90, no. 4 (July 1957). Reprinted in Selected Prose, ed. Eugene Ritchie (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 15.

4. First published in Evergreen Review 4, no. 11 (January–February 1960). Reprinted in Selected Prose, 21.

6. Ibid., 22.

7. Ibid.

8. John Ashbery, “Throughout Is This Quality of Thingness: Elizabeth Bishop,” in Selected Prose. First published in the New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1969. For those who are interested in the degree to which Ashbery has dissolved the distinction between inner and outer realities, I would recommend they compare the early poem “The Instruction Manual,” which makes a clear distinction between these two realms, to his recent poem “Interesting People of Newfoundland,” where one is unable to apply such distinctions.

9. First published in Portfolio and ARTnews Annual 2 (1960). Reprinted in Selected Prose, 32.

10. “Brice Marden,” first published in ARTnews, March 1972. Reprinted in Reported Sightings, 214.

11. Ibid., 213.

12. First published in ARTnews (February 1970). Reprinted in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987, ed. David Bergman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 195.

13. Charles McGrath, “Mapping the Unconscious,” New York Times Book Review, March 6, 2005, 10. McGrath reviews both Where Shall I Wander (New York: HarperCollins 2005) and Selected Prose.

14. First published in ARTnews 65, no. 3 (March, 1966). Reprinted in Selected Prose, 69.

15. “Second Presentation of Elizabeth Bishop,” in Selected Prose, 164.

16. See Reported Sightings.

17. From the manifesto authored by Theo Van Doesburg that appeared in Art Concret, no. 1 (April 1930): 1.

18. “Jean Hélion Paints a Picture,” in Reported Sightings, 65.

19. Although I haven’t been able to verify this, I’ve been told that an essay by Ashbery is reprinted in the French and Catalan versions of the catalogue.