Thursday, May 14, 2015
"A year and a half after Archambeau’s article," writes David Kaufmann, referring to "Charmless and Interesting," a piece on conceptual poetry I wrote for Poetry, "can we say that he is still right? I am going to argue that he is, but not in the way it might first seem."
Kaufmann's article, "Bullshit and Interest: Casing Vanessa Place," appeared in Postmodern Culture, and now you can read it on Project Muse, where it is available without a paywall. He has a lot to say about the kind of appeal conceptual poetry makes, the position in which it places the reader, and he even draws on philosopher Harry Frankfurt to offers a (complex, nuanced) answer to Doug Nufer's famous, or infamous, question about conceptualism: "isn't it just bullshit?"
We've reached a moment when we can look back on the initial burst of pro- and anti- conceptualist polemic and try to assess what it was all about, and Kaufmann's done it more interestingly than anyone else. I'm glad he's decided my essay still has something to it, even if it's not quite the thing one might expect.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Susan M. Schultz
And many, many more. Look for it soon from Steerage Press—and, if you run into Kass Fleisher or Caitlin Alvarez, break out the confetti and throw a parade!
Thursday, April 30, 2015
"Hot damn!" I thought, "it's Daisy Fried!" I was paging through the May issue of Poetry, and there, on page 138, was Fried's poem "The Girl Grew and Grew, Her Mother Couldn't Stop It." I've never actually met Daisy Fried, but I've been reading her forever, and we both spend too much time hanging out on Facebook. One reason I feel closer to her than I do to many of the poets I read is that we both have small daughters, and post about them with some frequency (actually, the fact that we're both on Facebook a lot, rather than dizzily pouring ourselves off some barstool somewhere, is also probably a parent thing). Anyway, I was happy to see a new poem by her, and doubly happy to see that it was on a topic close to my own experience. The poem's first line nails something very true about being a parent:"The girl grew and grew," writes Fried, "her mother couldn't stop it; it terrorized." The phrasing seems like something out of a horror story—where some kind of Frankenstein's monster grows too strong for its master and runs amok. But the terror here is subtler than that: its primarily the terror of losing one's small child, the inevitable result of successful parenting: they grow up, these children, they grow away from you, and you, acutely aware of their vulnerability, let them go.
What follows is, for a time, a nicely-drawn and keenly observed catalog of children's experience, a world of play and crafts and school projects, behind which we sense the child's ravenous acquisition of skills and symbolic codes—geometry, biology, systems of writing, fine motor skills, and the like:
What would the finger-dance do? Kindergarten art a buffet of markers
gluings of stuffs to seasonally-keyed paper, Elmer's pools drying clear.
A stapling and testing of cylinders versus spheres versus cubes
for kinetic and entropic possibilities, stuffing balled newspaper
into paper dragons, two sweet silver elephants with heads too small
and trunks too long, situated off-center, snuffling flowers. And silver rain.
And 16 silver hearts stacked vertically and strips of masking tape, colored
in reverse rainbow. Unnamable tendrils diffusing to scribbles. A bird.
Another bird, more rain, peace signs, a horse with sideways-flowing mane,
I enjoyed this as I read it, but wondered where it might go, how (if at all) the poem would turn. And then there was this:
and knowledge: that the sky's full of blackstruck Ms and Ws, drifting
clouds; that her kitty cats watch sunsets; sky doesn't reach
down to meet the earth;
Okay, I thought: we're getting a bit of a generalization, after all those particulars ("knowledge"), and we're getting a sense of the child's difference from the adult, the way the sky isn't represented according to the canons of adult realism. But then something really interesting happened: the final half of the final line comes along, with an end-word that turns the poem so sharply in a new direction that I'm surprised the page doesn't emit an audible shriek of squealing tires:
mother shrinks to the size of a penis.
What to do with this? Well, okay, there's the literal to consider: we're talking about a kid drawing something, and in that drawing the mother could indeed be the size of a penis. And we are invited to think about the diminishing importance mothers play in a child's life as that child grows up—the same diminishment that was so terrorizing at the beginning of the poem. But one could have said "doll" or "crayon" or, for that matter, "vagina." Why say penis? It's such an incongruously masculine word to apply to the diminishing role of the mother.
One thing that's in play is simply surprise and novelty: it's an incongruous image, by being so masculine in a poem about motherhood, but there's a rightness in it too, in scale and in having to do with reproduction and therefore parenthood. And then there's a real sense of disempowerment that you wouldn't really get, at least not in the same way, with another image: the penis is so connected to connotations of power that whole schools of psychology, from Freud to Lacan, use the term "phallus" to mean something like "empowerment" and "castration" to mean "disempowerment." We get a sense of the mother's disempowerment as the child, through all of the innocent and sweet seeming play and craft-making detailed in the poem, grows beyond the mother's control—and putting the word "shrinks" near the word "penis" gives us a sense of the detumescent loss of power or potency.
There's more than this, too, I think: there's also the simple fact that the penis, here, becomes not just another iteration of the traditional symbol of power and potency: it becomes an image of smallness and disempowerment. There's something feminist in this, a reversal of the old Freudian model of masculinity as power and femininity as disempowerment. In a way, then, the poem isn't just a mother's lament for her loss of authority in the life of her growing child. It's that same mother's intervention in the realm of symbolism, aiming to undo some of the patriarchal imagery that still contributes to the disempowerment of women. It's a mother's attempt—as her daughter gains independence—to make the world that daughter will enter into a place less hostile to her. The mother works hard to help the daughter grow into strength and knowledge and independence—and, in the end, she also works to make the world itself a place better fit to receive that daughter.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
I recently had the privilege of looking over the proofs for the next (and, sadly, the final) issue of the great Prague-based journal VLAK, set to be unleashed on the world in 600-page splendor this September. It's a wonder: Charles Bernstein! Jerome Rothenberg! Lyn Hejinian! Vanessa Place! Rachel Blau DuPlessis! Clark Coolidge! Philippe Sollers of Tel Quel fame! And my own essay, "Fanaticism! Intolerance! Disinterest! Toward an Aesthetics of Camp." Which begins like this:
Camp remains one of our most poorly theorized aesthetic categories. It has a certain status in queer theory circles, to be sure, but is rarely a part of a more general discussion of aesthetics—in effect, it is a ghettoized term. The continued centrality of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” shows how narrow the discussion of camp has been: her important but provisional notes remain the most authoritative poetics of camp we have. I don’t propose to offer, here, an aesthetics or poetics of camp. But if I may use a term so ponderous and out of keeping with the lightness of camp that it practically comes out the other side as camp itself—I do hope to offer a prolegomenon to such an aesthetics or poetics. If camp calls for fun and elegance, I fear I will provide precious little of either—and, since I am confessing shortcomings, I suspect I will provide less by way of evidence and argumentative coherence than one might wish. What I do hope to offer, though, is a rationale for understanding aesthetic experience in terms of camp, and a sense of what is at stake in camp as a category of aesthetics. It is through an aesthetics of camp that we can go beyond a dichotomy that has long divided the aesthetic field into a dominant Kantian tradition based on dispassionate, Apollonian contemplation and disinterest, and a reactive counter-tradition based on (to take some words from Asger Jorn) “fanaticism,” “intolerance,” and a Dionysian disavowal of disinterest. Both the dominant tradition and its other lie open to forms of ethical and political criticism from which an unlikely hero—camp—promises deliverance.The essay ends like this:
Camp, in the sense I intend it, is a kind of ludic and aestheticizing attitude that is also a kind of deep commitment. Christopher Isherwood, the first to use it in this sense, puts a good description of it into the mouth of a character in his novel The World in the Evening:
High camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.
Camp, seen this way, is a cousin of aesthetic autonomy, since it elevates play and beauty over utility and morality—an elevation well understood by Susan Sontag in her seminal “Notes on Camp” where she writes:
1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.
2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.
Sontag goes on to add:
38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content, ’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’…
So far, Sontag has framed camp as a form of disinterest—involving an Apollonian distance from its object. Framed in these terms, it lies open to the same sorts of criticisms Nietzsche, Jorn, and others have leveled at the tradition of Kant and Schiller. But even as camp involves a kind of Apollonian aesthetic distancing, it also—contradictorily—embodies the Dionysian impulse to break down the barriers separating self and object. “Camp taste is a kind of love,” writes Sontag, and it “identifies with what it is enjoying.” The serious involvement of which Isherwood wrote is, in fact, an identification of self and object, a breaking down of the barriers of aesthetic distance, a Dionysian act of participation.
What camp offers, then, is Apollonian and Dionysian, disinterested yet interested. It breaks past the pallid individualism of the dominant tradition of aesthetics, but at the same time provides a kind of distancing from the potentially dangerous enthusiasms of those who seek in art and play an expression of the general will and general desire. This play of distance and identification has been best documented when camp addresses gender, but one can see it in broader terms as well: the camp misanthropy of a Philip Larkin or a Frederick Seidel, to the camp patriotism of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and far beyond, camp creates a play of interest and disinterest that awaits its full analysis. Camp’s pioneering theorist, Susan Sontag, ends the opening essay of the book that contains “Notes on Camp” with a call for an “erotics of art.” What aesthetics now cries out for is a poetics of camp.
In between those two parts there's a lot of Schiller, Adorno, and Situationism, and a note or two about the camp and the queer.
Saturday, April 18, 2015
|Trixie Sparx begins the burlesque portion of the Wake of Fallon McPhael|
One of the thousand reasons Ugly Duckling Presse numbers among the most exciting small publishing ventures in America is the annual appearance of Emergency Index, a compilation that documents performance pieces large and small across the country and around the world. It's a democratic assemblage, with big names and big-budget spectacles sitting side by side with the unknown, the marginal, and the full-on freakish. The nature of ephemeral nature of performance makes something like the Emergency Index incredibly valuable: just paging through the 700 pages of the thing broadens one's sense of the possibilities for what kinds of events could be put together—and awakens an appetite to put on a show of one's own.
The latest volume of Emergency Index, #3, edited by Sophia Cleary and Yelena Gluzman, includes an entry on a performance I helped produce, along with Larry Sawyer, Valerie Archambeau, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas: The Wake of Fallon McPhael, a fake wake for a non-existent poet, including tributes to the late, fictitious man by his former associates as well as audience participation, presided over by the Revered Pat McDonald, and concluding with an invasion of the stage by male and female burlesque dancers, as per McPhael's final will and testament. It was, I'm proud to say, a TimeOut Chicago pick of the week, in a city with a lot of staged events from which to choose. Here's the Emergency Index entry:
You will note the image of two unsightly mourners, Larry Sawyer and myself. Frankly, I'm surprised the editors didn't go with a shot of the burlesque dancers, Saucy Jack and Trixie Sparxx, for reasons that should be evident in these photos by Valerie:
|Saucy Jack near the climax of his act.|
|Trixe mourns Fallon McPhael's passing.|
|Saucy Jack in manly tribute to the late poet.|
|The grand finale.|
Here, from the photographic archives, are a few more shots of the assembled mourners:
|Kathleen Rooney and Virginia Konchan console one another.|
|Mourners consumed with sorrow.|
|Surprise appearance by the late Jim Morrison.|
|Barbara Barg recounts her exploits with the late McPhael.|
|The view from the lectern.|
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Rejoice! The new issue of Lou Rowan's always-too-cool-for-school Golden Handcuffs Review has dropped from the skies. Poetry by Fanny Howe and Joseph Donahue and Jerome Rothenberg! More poetry by Susan Schultz and Mark Scroggins! Fiction by Ken Edwards! Lost work by Reginald Edward Morse, edited by Rick Moody! George Economou on translation! Peter Quartermain on Jerome Rothenberg! And more! More! Including a little thing I wrote about Mark Scroggins' Torture Garden called "Proud Men in their Studies." It begins like this:
"Poetry, drawing away from the collective life of the court, can only withdraw into the privacy of the bourgeois study, austerely furnished, shared only with a few chosen friends, surroundings so different from the sleeping and waking publicity of court life that it rapidly revolutionizes poetic technique. Crashaw, Herrick, Herbert, Vaughn — all the poetry of this era seems written by shy, proud men writing alone in their studies… Language reflects this change. It is a learned man’s poetry."
That’s a passage from Christopher Caudwell’s 1937 book Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry, in which the young writer — who’d have proved a second George Orwell, had he not been gunned down in the Spanish Civil War — describes the formal changes that came about when English poetry stopped being a public game played at court and became the pursuit of solitary men among their books. No longer something for public declamation, poetry became learned, private, knotted with a kind of profound cleverness that, requiring time and erudition to appreciate, wouldn’t have pleased much as a glittering gentlemanly accomplishment at court.
Certainly 21st century America has little enough in common with England in the 17th century, but when I read Mark Scroggins’ Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles, Caudwell’s passage on Crashaw, Herbert, and company came immediately to mind. Why, though? It’s not as if anyone would confuse a poem like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” with Scroggins’ “Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh”:
Animus deploys nurses exceptionally diligent
attention finely tuned skills culture
of detachment unreliable deceptive the
law of the negative everlasting
Nay structures of determination truth
of the labyrinth quasi-persons reeling
in customized systematic reeling pain.
But despite the very different texture, and the eschewal of reference and discursive meaning, Scroggins’ poems have a lot in common with the English 17th century as described by Caudwell: they are learned, private, written for the few rather than the many. And, like the works of that greatest poet of 17th century England, John Milton, they are angrily at odds with the dominant culture of their time.
To begin with, there are the matters of form and allusion....
Well, it goes on. But you don't want to stay here. You want to get your hands on GHR posthaste.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Sad news: The great Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer has died. Here, in memoriam, are some of his poems in translations I made with poet and critic Lars-Håkan Svensson when I lived in Sweden in the late 1990s. They originally appeared in a special Scandinavian issue of Samizdat.
Haiku by Tomas Tranströmer
with hanging gardens.
Thoughts stand unmoving
like the mosaic tiles
in the palace yard.
Up along the slopes
under the sun – the goats
were grazing on fire.
On the balcony
standing in a cage of sunbeams –
like a rainbow.
Humming in the mist.
There, a fishing-boat out far –
trophy on the waters.
Cool shagginess of pines
on the selfsame tragic fen.
Always and always.
Carried by darkness.
I met an immense shadow
in a pair of eyes.
have set out on a journey.
Hear the wood-dove’s voice.
Resting on a shelf
in the library of fools
the sermon-book, untouched.
My happiness swelled
and the frogs sang in the bogs
He’s writing, writing…
The canals brimmed with glue.
The barge across the Styx.
Go quiet as rain,
meet the whispering leaves.
Hear the Kremlin bell.
The ceiling rent open
and the dead one sees me.
Something has happened.
The moon lit up the room.
God knew about it.
Hear the sighing rain.
I whisper a secret, to reach
all the way in there.
A scene on the platform.
What a strange calm –
the inner voice.
The sea is a wall.
I hear the gulls crying –
they’re waving to us.
God’s wind at my back.
The shot which comes without sound –
a dream all-too-long.
The blue giant passes.
Cool breeze from the sea.
I have been there –
and on a whitewashed wall
the flies are gathering.
The apple trees in blossom.
The great enigma.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
I’ve seen a lot of them, lately: the bland, glamorous faces of models in advertisements for fashion and various luxurious commodities. They’re ubiquitous anyway, but my exposure has been amped up considerably by recent prolonged stays in airports and hotels, and a brief stint in hospital (I’m fine), where I’ve found myself leafing through glossy magazines.
The empty, blandly aloof gaze is everywhere in these magazines, in photo spreads as well as advertisements—a gaze we know from models on catwalks, too, a gaze so universally available that young people can mimic it effortlessly for the selfies they post on social media. But what lies behind that gaze? Why has it become the universal form of expression for glamorous images of human faces?
One possibility is that it exists to invite the viewer—that is, the potential consumer—in. As cool and off-putting as the expressionless face of the model may seem, it is, after all, an expression placed on the face of the consumer’s aspirational self. Whether the images appeal to the sexually objectifying male gaze is of secondary importance in most of the images, which exist to sell fragrances and clothing and accessories not to men but to women. The female viewer is, of course, expected to feel inferior to the woman in the image, but only because she has not yet acquired the product that (it is hollowly promised) will transform her, Cinderella-like, into the glamorous woman in the image. So a lack of expression could be a kind of invitation, a blankness or abstraction into which one is invited to project oneself.
The appeal of relative abstraction as a method of inviting the spectator to project his- or herself into an image is a well-established principle of graphic art. Scott McCloud, in his seminal study Understanding Comics, tells us “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another,” however, “when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself…. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled.” This has everything to do with the abstraction, the relative blankness, of the way characters are represented. We identify with the more abstracted features of the character, write McCloud, but
…on the other hand, no one expects audiences to identify with brick walls or landscapes, and indeed, backgrounds tend to be slightly more realistic. In some comics, this split is far more pronounced. The Belgian ‘clear-line’ style of Hergé’s Tintin combines very iconic [that is, abstracted] characters with unusually realistic backgrounds. This combination allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world. One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be.Certainly there is something to this, but it is equally true that, along with the pulling-in effect of the glamorous face, there is a pushing-away, a remoteness or aloofness. Roland Barthes, in his famous essay “The Face of Garbo,” gets something of the effect when he describes the blankness of Greta Garbo’s face in the film Queen Christina:
…the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the color, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive.The abstraction of the face and the inexpressivity of the eyes elevated Garbo above the realm of ordinary mimesis: in Queen Christina she represented not a particular woman, in particular existential circumstances, but “offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature,” a creature “descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light.” Her remoteness is the remoteness of an ideal, and the blankness of the gaze is an important part of this removal from the sublunary world of particularity.
The blank gaze of the glamour model shows how she inhabits a purer, more ideal world than ours, a world beyond contingency and circumstance, a world where everything is sufficient unto itself. It repels us and our messy, flawed world—even as it provides a blank space into which we can project ourselves, as the consumers of the advertised products (and therefore as the inhabitants of the idealized world). John Berger, in the passages on envy in Ways of Seeing, describes exactly the self-sufficiency portrayed in the glamour model’s bland gaze:
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely on not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest—if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and others) of their power…. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.There’s a reason the blank gaze has become the ubiquitous expression in advertisements for aspirational products: the combination of exclusion and potential inclusion, of aloofness and space for us to project ourselves, is a powerful vortex. And unless we enter some future mode of social organization in which social ratification is satisfied in more substantial ways than the promise that one will be envied if one buys what a particular glossy ad is selling, it’s a gaze to which we will continue to be subjected.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
One of the unexpected pleasures of the recent Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, for me, was running across Anthony Madrid in the corridors between sessions. I hadn’t seen him for months, not since he pressed a collection of Edward Lear’s verse into my hands in a tiny used bookstore under the Metra tracks in Evanston, and was glad to let him pull me into a nearby room where he was about to join other members of the Wallace Stevens Society in a panel on Stevens and rhyme.
Madrid spoke first, beginning with a general précis of his argument about the trajectory of rhyme in English verse. I’d heard this before, when Madrid joined Don Share and Lea Graham on a panel on the poetry of Michael Robbins I chaired at the Midwest MLA a year ago, but it’s such an intriguing argument I was happy to hear it rehearsed again. The gist of it is that after the Elizabethan period, whole categories of rhyme are, essentially, decommissioned from English verse, or become far less common (critics of Madrid’s theory love to find exceptions, but a full reading of his doctoral work in The Warrant for Rhyme reveals a strong case for a general trend of the kind he describes). Rhymes that involve strong semantic links—semantic similarities, or opposites, or rhymes from the same semantic category—greatly diminish over the course of the seventeenth century. So me/thee, mine/thine, he/she, berry/cherry, and the like become far less common. Madrid makes much of this: the link between rhymes becomes less rational, he says, and more a matter of mystery, as if the poet wills the rhyming words to belong together for reasons unknowable to the intellect.
The anti-semantic nature of rhyme becomes a norm in the eighteenth century, and it is only with Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, an antiquarian’s selection of old ballads and other poems, that the older style of rhyme begins to return for the Romantic era. A Romantic like Byron, when he is serious, as in Childe Harold, rhymes like an eighteenth century poet, but when he’s comic, as in Don Juan or Beppo, he makes rhymes that go out of their way to draw attention to themselves, and appear as stunts (as Butler’s comic rhymes in Hubridas did). The rhyme becomes something deliberately original, frame-breaking and winking. And this sounds the death-knell for rhyme, since over the nineteenth century rhyme becomes less a holistic part of poems and more of an attention-grabbing device, until in the modern era it is all-but abandoned.
This brings us to Wallace Stevens, whose poetry only rarely rhymes—11 early poems are consistently rhymed, and after that rhyme occurs as an occasional grace, like alliteration. When it does rhyme, it almost always uses the classical rhyme of the eighteenth century, which does not seek to draw attention to its cleverness (an exception being “übermenschlichkeit/ word soon come right”). There is rarely a semantic quality to the rhyme, and Madrid argues that this is aligned with Stevens’ belief in the mysterious powers of the imagination—the rhymes are convened only by the power of imagination, not on some rationally apprehensible basis. Stevens rhymes less and less over time, too, as the poetry becomes less overtly musically-driven and more liturgical.
After Madrid, Eugene Vydrin of NYU took the stage to speak about rhyme and the adherence of the poem to reality in Stevens, and was followed by Joon Soo-Bong of Seoul National University, who spoke about schematic rhyme as essentially antithetical to Stevens’ aesthetic of flow. All very interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by Roi Tartakovsky, who turned to empirical linguistic research to explain rhymes and other sonic effects in Stevens’ poetry.
Tartakovsky noted that one of the most important recurring patterns in Stevens’ poetry is that of the recurrent pair of sonically similar words—as in the “sea” and “she” that come up at the start of the first and second stanzas of “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Linguists have told us that acoustically similar words are actually less well reproduced in the memory than other words, and tend to become confused—but that rhyme words are, in fact, remembered well. So Stevens works with a combination of words that aid in the recollection of argument or thesis, and words that actually blur rational or argumentative distinctions. I’d be very interested in seeing a fully-worked out analysis of Stevens drawing on this insight.
Of course there was much more to see and hear (and eat and drink and argue over) at the conference, but I’m glad I was pulled into the little demimonde of the Stevensians, and I’m glad to see rhyme returning as a category of serious critical analysis.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
|"Jimmy and John" by Fairfield Porter, depicting James Schuyler and John Ashbery|
You're probably feeling something like despair if you know you can't make it to the University of Louisville for the 1:00 pm session of the The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Humanities room 111). You'll miss Andrew Epstein talking about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and their relationship to the New York poetry scene of their day, and you'll John Gallaher talking about Michael Benedikt as a nexus figure of the New York School. You'll also miss me giving a paper called "John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World," but don't fret about that. The text—minus any tweaking it may receive among the nervous grad students in the lobby of the Brown Hotel or at the Mayan Cafe, where the Gnostic poets hang out and summon mystic wisdom over bourbon and tamales—is here:
John Ashbery and the Poetics of the Art World
…I had to find a way out of the woods.
Now, in some cases, this is easy—you just walk straight along a road and pretty soon
you're out of the woods and there are suburban backlots. In my case,
though, it wasn't that simple, though it wasn't extraordinarily demanding either—I
just lay down in a boat and slept, Lady-of-Shalott style. Soon I was gliding among you
taking notes on your conversations and otherwise making a pest of myself.
I pretended to be angry when onlookers jeered and cows mooed and even the heralds told me to shut up,
yet at bottom I was indifferent. I knew my oracles
for what they were—right about 50% of the time—and I also knew their accuracy wasn't
In these lines, from John Ashbery's Flow Chart, the poet presents himself as Tennyson's Lady of Shalott—and the comparison is apt. Consider the plot of Tennyson's poem. The lady is confined to her tower, isolated from the thriving world of business and love beyond the walls. She weaves a tapestry of what she sees, and in so doing becomes a symbol for many things. Firstly, she is a woman in a world profoundly masculine in its institutions and structures of power. Moreover, she is a laborer in a time when labor conditions—particularly in textiles—are becoming more and more rationalized and alienating. Finally, as a tapestry weaver she is a figure for the artist. All of these things, Tennyson implies, are alienated, confined, set off from the world where barges ply their trade on the river and young lovers meet to wed. We can think of Tennyson’s poem almost as an allegory of John Ashbery's situation, in that three kinds of alienation—having to do with his sexuality, his relation to conventionally productive labor, and his status as a certain kind of poet in midcentury America—led him to a peripatetic life and what me might call a poetics of wandering or drift.
If you want to think about Ashbery and queerness, John Shoptaw, in On the Outside Looking Out has done a better job of it than I could ever do. If you want to think about Ashbery and alienation from labor, read his poem “The Instruction Manual” and write the article about that poem that still needs to be written. If you want to hear about Ashbery and the importance of the art world he entered as a young man in New York at the end of the 1940s, I hope I can help.
Drawn into the orbit of precocious literary friends at Harvard, John Ashbery joined an artistic milieu in New York City that was intensely aestheticist and that emphasized the autonomy of the art object and the primacy of the medium itself. Ashbery's poetry, too, has been, non-dogmatic and intensely concerned with the medium of language. His particular form of aesthetic expression involves aleatory techniques and linguistic disruptions, and, especially, a kind of narrative drift. Characteristically, his form of narrative, or pseudo-narrative, drifts and observes, and Ashbery does not expect his oracles to change the world: the poetry that comes from them will exist for itself, not—as in the hopes of modernist greats like Yeats, Pound, or Eliot—for the renovation of the culture. Unlike those poets, Ashbery is as pure an aesthete as any poet of the 1890s. This is not to say that he cannot be read politically—he has been, and has welcomed it—but the characteristic qualities of his work stem from early formative experiences in a very particular moment of the New York art world of the late 40s and early 50s, a moment perhaps more extreme in its commitment to aesthetic autonomy than any other in the American 20th century.
The New York to which Ashbery moved in 1949, when he began his graduate studies at Columbia, was the epicenter of America's visual art scene, but it is easy, given the later lionization of the abstract expressionists, to misremember the situation of American art in 1949. The art world then was small and isolated. When John Bernard Myers, a founder of the Tibor de Nagy gallery, was putting together artists for his early shows, he found the art world tiny indeed: "it should be stressed that… almost everyone knew everyone else" and "all of them lived in Manhattan." The possibility of connecting with the world beyond the art scene, let alone influencing it, seemed extremely remote: during her 1947 visit to New York Simone de Beauvoir came to the conclusion that "there is no informed public" for the arts—hyperbole, to be sure, but a good indicator of how America in the late 40s appeared from a European intellectual's position. And native intellectuals tended to concur, even in the use of hyperbole.
The alienation that permeated the art world did not manifest in political radicalism, but rather in an emphasis on the isolated artist's authenticity, and on the autonomy of the work of art. This was, after all, the era of The God That Failed, with its documentation of the left's painful disillusionment with Communism, as well as the time of the blacklist and the general suppression of the American left. Even the once-radical Partisan Review crowd had largely retreated from politics by 1947, and, having abandoned first Stalin, then Trotsky, they now bent their knees to art. The depoliticization left many artists adrift, a condition Robert Motherwell expressed in in 1944 when he said "The artist's problem is with what to identify himself…. Hence the tendency of modern painters to paint for each other."
The preservation of individual authenticity and autonomy, rather than any movement on behalf of class or faction, was the artist's mode of opposition—and the means of opposition was the autonomy of the work of art. As Thomas B. Hess put it in ARTnews, “There was nothing to do but paint. The self-directed community became self-oriented. Art replaced revolution in its eschatology…. Never before in painting had art itself so preoccupied the artist.” Ad Reinhardt was more extreme in his formulations than most, but he was not out of step with the general temper of the art world when he declared that art "should have no connection with anything, not God, Morals, Politics, Movements, Aesthetics, Philosophy, Science." Even that soberest of academic art critics, Meyer Shapiro, declared that the artist must now "cultivate his own garden."
But poets came to the garden of the postwar art world, too: a phenomenon, we may be surprised to note, unprecedented in American history. John Ashbery offers two statements about what that felt like in 1949:
I hadn't realized it, but my arrival in New York coincided with the cresting of the 'heroic' period of Abstract Expressionism, as it was later to be known, and somehow we all seemed to benefit from this strong moment… We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage's music, Merce Cunningham's dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to the movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone.And
This is not the place to wonder why the poets Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest and myself gravitated toward painters, probably it was merely because the particular painters we knew happened to be more fun than the poets…If we look beyond the flippant assertion that the poets entered the world of the painters because the painters had more fun, we will not only find a more substantial explanation for the melding of the poetic and artistic scenes—we will also understand more about how the poets "seemed to benefit" from the fervent experimentalism of the art world.
The first thing to acknowledge is that in the years after the war it was by no means an obvious thing that poets should become involved in the world of art. Although there had been exceptions, like Wallace Stevens, who frequented artist's studios and studded his prose with references to painting, the French-style alliance of poets and painters was rare in early 20th century America. As Dore Ashton puts it in her seminal study of the New York School painters, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, "One of the peculiar aspects of traditional American culture had been the total isolation of the different arts. American artists noted early in the century that, unlike artists on the Continent, they had no literary companions." This only began to change after the war, when "well-developed suspicion on both sides" faded, and there were "attempts to bring about a rapprochement."
These attempts were certainly successful, if we are to judge by the reception Ashbery and his peers received among the artists and, even more importantly, the gallerists. Indeed, it is in part through the schemes of gallerists operating in difficult commercial circumstances that the rapprochement of different creative worlds in postwar New York came about.
New American art, in the postwar years, did not generally find patrons among the upper class, but among a small part of the professional middle class, and among other artists. Sensing an opportunity to expand the market beyond visual artists, Myers intuited that "more interaction among all the arts might speed us on our way." At a time when there was no off-Broadway theater as we know it in New York, Myers learned from a friend of Parisian theater in which plays by poets were given sets by contemporary artists and featured music by avant-garde composers. So Myers worked with Frank O'Hara, James Merrill, and others to found the Artists' Theater in 1953. Soon, poets, composers, and visual artists were working together on a variety of productions—including John Ashbery's play The Heroes, with sets by the artist Nellie Blaine. The Artists' Theater, and projects like it, became the crucible in which was forged a multi-arts creative scene, an audience composed of people concerned with, or practicing, different arts, and a culture of collaboration. Born of a desire to survive the indifference of the general public, such a scene, centered on aesthetics and artistic production for artistic producers, was a far cry from the political movements in which artists of the 1930s tended to come together and collaborate. It was a scene in which Theseus, in Ashbery's play, could deliver the line "I now possessed the only weapon with which the Minotaur might be vanquished—the indifference of the true aesthete" and have it received by an audience with approving laughter.
One way to think about the presence of the poets in the postwar art world is to see it as the natural path for experimentally-minded poets, given the aesthetic ferment of American painting and the relative conservatism of American poetry under the rising sign of the New Criticism. But to see the experiment-oriented art world as a draw for experiment-oriented young poets is to see only one part of a dialectical process: it is just as true to say that the art world encouraged and emboldened the poets who entered it to become more experimental. The poems Ashbery wrote at Harvard are not terribly outré by the literary standards of the time. But much of the work he wrote in postwar New York went much further afield.
The sociologist Howard S. Becker notes that "art works always bear the marks of the system which distributes them," and that and poets depend on the audiences reached by their publishers for "shared traditions" and "background against which their work makes sense." When we consider where much of Ashbery's early writing was being published, and to whom it was being distributed, we see that it was going to a sharply defined audience, one rooted in the art world and accustomed to a degree of abstraction and experiment alien to the literary establishment of the times—to sensibilites more attuned to Willem de Kooning than to de Kooning's literary contemporary Cleanth Brooks. Much of Ashbery’s early writing appeared in Semicolon, a journal published by art curators and distributed at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the Artists' Club, and the Cedar Bar—all art world institutions. Moreover, the small collections of poems that precede and follow Yale's publication of Some Trees are both art world productions: 1953's Turandot, with four drawings by Jane Freilicher, was published by Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1953; and The Poems, with silk screen work by Joan Mitchell, published in 1960 by Tiber Press (a publisher of the visual arts). It should come as no surprise that Ashbery came to see the poetry of the literary establishment as too conservative: he and his early audience were immersed in a milieu that accepted and encouraged experimentalism far more than did the established literary institutions of the time.
Within this restricted sphere of reception, there was an even smaller sphere: the little coterie of the poets themselves, a hyper-aesthetic demimonde within the New York aesthetic demimonde. As James Schuyler put it, "John and Frank and I were almost like a mutual admiration society," affirming and enabling one another. Glossing Schuyler's comment, David Lehman underlines the sense of a small world removed from both the literary establishment and the general reading public: "since acceptance or rejection of [their] works was an indication of neither success nor failure, the poets looked to themselves as ultimate arbiters." Tennyson's friends rejected poems like “The Lady of Shalott” and urged him to be a moralist for the broad reading public—the poet of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the laureate; Ashbery's were satisfied if he delighted them and them alone.
The situation reminds one of a remark made by Pierre Bourdieu in his examination of the rise of autonomous art. In the absence of pressures to conform to religious, political, or market forces, or to otherwise conform to the norms of a public, artists find themselves "in a position to rebuff every external constraint or demand, are able to affirm their mastery over that which defines them and which properly belongs to them, that is, the form." If we understand this, we understand Ashbery.