Commentaries - December 2007

The AP wire is running a story today that is both unsurprising and also shocking. It begins this way:

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had a plan to suspend the rules against illegal detention and arrest up to 12,000 Americans he suspected of being disloyal, according to a newly declassified document.

Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, less than two weeks after the Korean War began. But there is no evidence to suggest that President Truman or any subsequent president approved any part of Hoover's proposal to house suspect Americans in military and federal prisons.

For more, go here.

The year '07 brought us a "selected later poems" from John Ashbery, a gorgeously designed volume (a large pastel-color-surrounded lower case mod-yet-serif "a" on the jacket) called Notes from the Air. First thought about the subtitle: a person must be and feel really old to consent — not sure how readily John did — to the phrase "late poems," although at least it's not "last poems" (that's in truth for later). Nonetheless, it's accurate. In the sense Edward Said meant it, as he himself, toward the end, was a later-filled person, these poems have the style and rhetoric of later. Someone might or has already argued that poetically JA was always already an old guy. His Harvard poems seem the work of a 50 year old — e.g. "Some Trees" with its "as far this morning from the world as agreeing with it." But in these poems one hears the lateness and untight-lined-ness of Wallace Stevens' long poems of the late 1940s and early 50s, e.g. "The Auroras of Autumn" and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven."

How far Stevens had come from "Sunday Morning" to an "Ordinary Evening" — the latter surely a weekday. (When you're old and still working, it matters less than it once did that you're writing your poem desperately on a Sunday, knowing Monday morning's "dirty light"** is coming along with other matters to which to attend. Tuesday will do just fine.)

The best example of the late Ashbery style in the new selected is toward the very end of a poem called "Tuesday Evening," Ashbery's version of an ordinary evening, to be sure. Here are some lines:

... And in a funny kind of way, the nifty
feeling of those years has returned. I can't explain it,
but perhaps it means that once you're over fifty
you're rid of a lot of decibels. You've got a tiger; so unchain it

and then see what explanations they give.

The thought does not end with the simple or easy unchaining of the tiger inside the sleepy-wakeful old poet. Things have quieted down, or you've successfully drawn away from the noise, and that's why the tiger — you'd think it'd be associated with the noise of early and mid-life wildness — can or will be liberated in you now. But then — well enough never left alone in Ashberyian rhetoric — we realize that once the tiger in you is free we are (yet again) waiting, waiting for something the arrival of which is not clear. Who is the "they" that will given the explanations? Not the tiger, which would be "it" or "he." Not the poet, the "I" who can't explain why old age brings back those earlier years, but a plural external authority or corrective agency. So the liberation of the wild inside — in the poem itself? — never gets realized in the poem, as there's always one more qualification before such freedom can ever be attained. Which is to say: never.

Yet one tries, and tries. And that's what the poems are, at this point. Gorgeous.

** See the very end of Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar."

The poets who founded the Berkeley Review were deliberate moderates. They admitted that they were one-eyed poets, although the ideal is the poet with both eyes open. Political poets had been one eyed, too, but it's the other eye, so the two — the Berkeley moderates and the old rads — share the fate of the half-done not-great, and yet they can be said to be opposites. Such a classic (and typically confused) metaphor of the post-political moment.

More than political

They felt that the artist's encounter "with the cosmos" was a real thing and shouldn't be avoided or ridiculed in poetry. It was real and so "is our desire for its expression — not to create another conformity but to encourage those who feel the discomfort of our modern existences [sic] in more than topical, political and material terms."

Poetry is going to be okay

The editorial statement — I've quoted from it just above — launching this poetry magazine in the late 1950s made these points:

[] poetry is alive and well; don't worry so much about its fate or future;
[] the political periods are over and no longer affect poetics;
[] we need a verse that is more subtle - an accepting and tolerant verse
[] nature poetry is okay;
[] "partisans of the pure" are okay but there are many kinds and all are fine.

Pure politicoes, pure lovers...what's the diff?

Here are a portion of this centrist manifesto:

"We do not contemn the pure nature poets; we greet them as compatriots of another eye, as, too, with pure politicoes and pure lovers — or any other partisans of the pure — but we have chosen to close the one eye, and they the other. Yet, in our half-blindness, we still search for a two-eyed king; we pray for a three-eyed god.

"We welcome the nihilist and the zealot equally, and those struggling to account for themselves at points between. We open to those who celebrate man's existence and man's end: to those who, either having or lacking it, pursue a faith and a meaning; to those who, under the dipolar pull of the scientist and the ad man, have seen the bottoms bared and, torn away, find themselves lost — or have found themselves.

"We feel that this is a need, too clearly marked in our society today, and that many of the one-eye poets have fixed their single beams upon this point. If this magazine can become a rallying point for these, then our major function is served."

In his review** of The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (1952), the modern art critic Thomas B. Hess posed these questions as the ones he felt we should be asking about dada:

[] What has the idea of a collective avant-garde become a matter of such sensitive importance?

[] What makes artists turn so readily to public statements of private positions?

[] How have the elementary strategies of shock and irresponsibility become such elaborate intellectual games?

Below: a portrait of Hess painted by Elaine de Kooning in 1956.

** Saturday Review of Lit,. March 1, 1952, p. 53.

Poetry Review of London was for many years a magazine that specialized in publishing poems that were not only conservative but were indeed themselves about the campaign that would have to be waged in order to save poetry from both the modern sensibility and poetry's entanglements with leftism.

In a 1950 issue of the magazine**, we find a two-line ditty by one P.E.B. Canny. It's title is "Nineteen Thirty-Seven." This is 1950 so we already have a sense of its skepticism or distaste. 1937: yuck. Can't be good. Indeed, the poem's two lines run as follows:

Can there be worse
Than this extra-Auden-airy verse?

** vol 41, no. 2, p. 64