The Poor Selections Of Frank O’Hara, The Vampire As John Ashbery, & The Vampire As James Tate Once Removed (or Bad Pinecones Make Worse Poets!)
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/19/02
Poets The Poems
Ever read a poem or poet that just misses being excellent or
great? Yet, despite such propinquity to the ineffable the poem may not
even be that good? If so, you probably have read (or should read) the
poems of Frank O’Hara, for he defined this near-miss quality- if not
embodied it. In my youth, I really thought very little of his poems. His
poor enjambment, occasional veers into cliché, & self-indulgence
were the work of a very sloppy poet. It did not surprise me to read that
he was very careless & lazy in his actual writing, habits, &
subsequent care of his poems. It is well known he would often give the
only copy of many a poem he’d scribbled on the spot to a friend. That
they valued his writing more than he did is a lucky thing. As I got
older & re-read FO my opinion changed from easy dismissal to growing
frustration. All the negatives I’d easily spotted years earlier were
still manifestly in evidence. Yet, many of his very strong pros were now
just as evident. Unique phraseology & metaphor, a narrative feinting
that suckers one in to a poem, & a way of coining old sentiments
newly show that this poet had greatness within sight- yet he never saw
it, most likely because he never really cared nor bothered to even look
that way. FO suffered greatly from poor selection- in 2 senses. 1st
off his choices made within the act of writing poetry itself. This poor
selection consists of the fact that FO rarely ever revised his poems-
his poor selections/choices were ‘no choices’ made. This lack of
selection has caused much misreading of both the poems, themselves
(others imbuing a ‘purpose’ behind manifestly poor choices), &
of FO as a man & poet. Prime among FO’s misreaders & acolytes
was/is poet John Ashbery, whose own misuse & steals from FO led to a
bevy of younger bad poets who lacked JA’s skill writing pale
imitations of FO, albeit unwittingly, since they were distorting JA’s
distortions of FO.
There is an evanescence in FO’s best poems- not just in subject matter, but in the wan construction- whether done deliberately or by happenstance. & that ‘evanescence’ is not merely the typical critical codeword for ‘nothing of any meaning’ being said. Unfortunately, in both his own work & in subsequent disciples, FO probably most resembles William Carlos Williams, although not too closely. Both poets have 20-30 poems of quality, some ranging into greatness, but a lot more of simply nice ideas that were just not worked over enough & brought to fruition. In short, they were lazy, & their fame has brought far less talented poets- of far more sloth- into their worship; & subsequent imitation. WCW begat, most famously, Robert Creeley. FO’s bastard (& unlikely) spawn is none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning doggerelist James Tate- via the unwitting interjunction of JA. JT was certainly circuitously influenced by FO (not in subject matter, as much as in taking FO’s worst qualities- regurged by JA- & expounding upon them), but moreso done nothing but further exacerbate the poetic trend toward self-indulgence & laziness with his doggerel, & his subsequent followers. This trope did not start with old FO himself, yet he was a major force behind its ascension. .
1st a brief biographical comparison of the 2 poets, & then onto a comparison of some of their most famous poems- all widely available online- & how FO reaches heights JT has never skimmed.
FO’s recognition as a poet has come though posthumous re-appraisals after an early accidental death in 1966, which was barely noted amongst the established literati of the day. He was wrongly associated with the infamous non-Academic Beatniks, even though he barely knew most of them. He was also wrongly called a New York School poet, ala JA or James Schuyler- although being in the same age range, white, middle class & homosexual was about all the commonalities that trio shared. JA, however, would later pluck FO’s corpse dry- an act of literary necrophilia used to great effect & advancement of his own career; as well pass on FO’s worst qualities to a certain future Pulitzer-winning poetaster-in-training. FO fancied himself a latter-day Guillaume Apollinaire for America. His anarchic subjects, pop-drenched approach to them, & erotic come hithers to men of all sorts, turned critics (at the height of New Criticism) off, even as it appealed to a growing coterie of devotees excited by the messages the poems contained- both political & sexual. Recall that FO’s death occurred 3 years before the birth of modern Gay Rights with the Stonewall incident. His poems, re-read with that knowledge, seem all the more daring in the political context of the somnambulant Eisenhower decade. Not even Allen Ginsberg’s homophilic verse could approach FO’s in terms of touching on the many aspects of homobilia. Yet, neither critics nor devotees seemed to focus on the ‘actual’ poems: the pros of their phrasing & music, & the cons of their occasional schmaltz, & poor construction, engaged neither group- so firm were they in their own preconceptions. FO was both reduced & raised to iconic stature as the years went by. The poems were merely addenda for the rest of us to dally with.
JT was a prolific & lauded poet from college days onward- a self-sought & perpetual enfant terrible. His odd, ill-worded, & often very bad poems have seemed to fascinate certain critics for 35 years since his debut, even as others saw through their velleities with not much effort. In 1967 his first collection, The Lost Pilot, won the Yale Younger Poets competition. It was at about this time (none-too coincidentally?) that poetry series- as a whole- began a downward slide they’ve yet to rebound from. When the book appeared, JT was 23 (the youngest winner ever- still to this day) & a student at the University of Iowa's infamously bad MFA writing program. Years have added much of the expected hardware to JT’s mantel- the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, & loads of other lesser awards. JT has followed the classic post-WW2 trope into full professorship at a university (as did JA); yet he still seeks to cultivate the faux patina of ‘outsider’- garbing himself as a brilliant- albeit troubled- rabble-rouser who has never grown up. This ‘pose’ was 1 that FO never struck- for he was that genuine thing! FO was Academia’s bane, in ways artistic, sexual, & political.
For these reasons, however, FO was also accused of Peter Panism. He was 1 of the 1st modern ‘melodramatic’ poets- preceding Confessionalism by several years. While he often wrote of his personal feelings- championing ‘Personism’- to him life was a series of comic catastrophes: the death of a jazz singer, ‘serious film’, or a neighbor. Poets like W.B. Yeats also wrote highly personal poems- often with brilliance, but FO was personal & ‘light’ about most- Yeats’ poetry involved politics, intrigue, & Jungian archetypalism- as well as a controlled tightness FO never strove for. Maud Gonne was more than Maud Gonne. Billie Holliday was Billie Holliday- & all that entailed.
JT- by contrast- is merely another surrealist; a dreary lineage filled with poets who cannot really even define the word, much less the capital S movement. The only difference is he approaches his -ism in an O’Haran ‘light’ fashion. JT took this alien (to Americans) approach & made it folksy, apolitical, & far duller than the already snooze-inducing verse of his earlier European counterparts. That Surrealism has never (pre or post-JT) struck a chord in the US is understandable. Americans have always been more grounded in the Missourian ‘Show me’ mode. Another reason is that the US also had a bevy of capital M Modernist poets that Europe lacked, & whose work dwarfed Surrealism’s oeuvre in diversity, scope, & power. When 1 thinks of American High Modernism 1 thinks of Pound’s & Eliot’s didactic obscurantism, H.D’s neo-Classicism, Sandburg’s loose demotic raunch, Jeffers’ vatic naturism, Mariane Moore’s controlled syllabic quirks, Stevens’ grandee eloquence, or Hart Crane’s densely orgasmic lyricism. When 1 thinks of European Surrealism 1 thinks of Andre Breton’s….uh….Surrealism, & all the crap that word entails. But who else of any lasting consequence? Modernism was not a movement as much as a catch-all word for a variety of –isms & their practitioners. Surrealism was a singular brief movement that had no defining rationale- as witnessed by the very disparate & unconnected poets & poems that have worn the label- whether they chose it or not. This includes both JT & his mentor- JA. The fact that JT’s ‘surrealism’ followed in the steps of the Beatnik (& FO) penchant for ‘1st thought, best thought!’ (what else could explain the poverty of skill?), & was similarly ill-formed & sloppy, more properly places him as a precursor to the workshop self-indulgence he sprung from- which has apexed in the last 30 years. He is, in fact, far closer to the ostentatious & poorly-written dark Confessionalism of Sylvia Plath’s most famous wannabe- Sharon Olds- than he is any of the Surrealist horde from Europe. While detractors have called him a ‘Conversational Surrealist’, to me his is a fey, nebulous, flat-chested Olds. Whereas SO hides her poetic ‘persona’ behind bland, ill-wrought, excruciatingly private detail, JT hides his behind bland, ill-wrought, frustrating nothingnesses.
FO, too, had his flirtation with an –ism. But it was not a poetic –ism, rather the dread Abstract Expressionism of 1950s New York painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, & Franz Kline; all of whom were acquaintances. The media orgy surrounding these painters spilled over to hangers-on in other arts. FO rode these associations with a passion, right into publication via Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights books. So intent on style over substance, the myth of the poet over the hard work of the poem writer was FO that he brings to mind 1 of Ab Ex’s bêtes noir: the Pop painter, Andy Warhol- who, mirrored FO’s obsessions with celebrity. & like Warhol FO was mercilessly attacked by critics- often correctly, although like the youthful me they missed some of his great pros.
JT, as stated, started his hyper-hyped literary career straight out of college with critical rapture- however misplaced. The Lost Pilot (poem & book) was lauded as a Surreal Masterpiece. This early fawning may be a powerful reason JT has never matured beyond his collegiate poetry’s style- this fact’s force on many others may be worthy of an essay in its own right, someday. But its links to Confessionalism were obvious in the titular poem. His father, the ‘lost pilot’ was killed in combat over Germany when JT was a babe. This biographical factoid appealed to the Confessionalist crowd (then at its zenith), & dominated critical reception of the book. The Lost Pilot translated into ‘JT- The Lost Boy of American Poetry’. There was a critical cowardice in not damning the poor poetry; it was designed to protect ‘1 of their own’. Since then, however, JT’s verse has sunk from its meager beginnings- getting technically worse as it grew even more dull & hermetic. A disdain for a discerning readership seems to drip from many of JT’s later poems- especially the ridiculously bad Lewis And Clark Overheard In Conversation. 1 would think it merely a light-hearted put-on were JT’s affinities with JA, & the scornful Languagist tribe, not known.
FO never had a problem with exposing himself. &, certainly, FO embraced the public- what little he had in his life. Yet, his poems seem to be some grand put-on; the poet as consummate performer & (very importantly) charlatan. This may be his greatest asset as a writer- he sought to engage & please his audience on terms they were familiar with, yet subtly poisoning expectations with his own slant on things. How many poets who have been published in the last 30 years have even given a millisecond’s thought to therir readership’s pleasure or desires? Yet, FO was not all about pleasure- there’s an angst & pugnacity in what many feel is his touchstone poem- Meditations in an Emergency. The movies, gossip, the dull made sublime, New York City- all of these things ground FO’s characters in a reality & make their takes on things all the more interesting, even as they are more truly ‘surreal’ than anything JT- or JA- has penned. JT has oft-repeated JA’s error of mistaking surrealism with lobbing a bevy of disjunctive ideas, words, or images together, rather than starting with the familiar & proceeding to the unfamiliar in seemingly logical progression. Another artist FO’s surreal city vignettes bring vividly to mind is painter Edward Hopper. That is to say, FO’s surrealism (ala Hopper’s) takes the unexpected from a coherent starting point & brings you where you’d not expect, even as you might not notice such a sojourn. Exhibit 1-A of this is his greatest poem- (& a truly GREAT poem) Music. JT’s limp deluge of irrelations, poorly wrought & admixed with cliché, is 10th rate drivel by comparison.
However, JT was a great influence on other MFA-stamped & churned-out poetasters; at least early in his career. His style of Absurdist Surrealism (so silly was this conflation that few critics dared to point it out, if they could!) attempted to create a sequence of images as bizarre & creepy as possible; their dullness was rarely commented on- the failed goulash was the thing! This dull, but very easily ground-out style became the rage in 1970s MFA writing programs. JT was a hero (or even antihero) for young American Dead White Male poetasters-in-training. Then it ended- his dreadful poems soon drew hostile reactions. While JT never lacked apologists the early 1980s saw critics draw blood- although in comparison to the New Critics it was a very meager bloodletting: ‘monotonous’, ‘[JT's] development since The Lost Pilot has been predominantly negative’, ‘[JT’s] poems occupy the tenuous borderland between nonsense and disaster’, & ‘verbal doodling’, were about the worst it got. The rest of the reviews had the usual restrained pieties of poets who might 1 day seek JT’s aegis. A devastated JT retreated from publishing. He railed of being a poster boy for all that was wrong with Academia’s take on Contemporary Poetry, every bit as representative of that terrible ilk as the Nuyoricans would be of ‘street’ poetry’s horrors. It wasn’t until Academia felt guilted into giving him the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his dreadful Selected Poems that JT ‘re-emerged’ & started publishing with the ferocity of his youth. That there had been no artistic development in the intervening years, well….‘He’s a good sport, after all!’ would be the reply from the Masters of Mediocrity who ooze through the grim hallways of Academia. He’d 1st sucked ass, then taken it up the ass like a man; now was the time for kudos!
FO’s greatest influence was not on poets younger than himself, as much as it was on some of his contemporaries- most notably JA. After FO’s death JA’s poetry became much freer & more pop-oriented. For about a decade after JA ruthlessly pillaged & mined alot of FO’s half-tilled field. His apex culminated in the mid-70s with his best book of poems- Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror. But, soon, after, JA’s talent wizened, repetition set in, & the last quarter century has seen him ape both FO & his earlier incarnation with less & less success each time out. JA’s most recent work has smacked of a man without direction, yet content to drown in his abysm. FO was an original- so much so it was difficult for even a talented- albeit creatively inert- poet like JA to vamp off him for too long. But JA’s mimicry made him a hero to a certain young poetaster who emerged right after FO’s death, & was the conduit that links FO & JT. The sometime imitator of FO became the revered icon of JT. But, somewhere in the mix FO’s best was lost, & the worst became the template for JT’s wan career. Is JA to blame? Probably not, as the decade following FO’s death was his creative acme. But it is a case study in the perils of – shall we say- ‘useful & second-hand plagiarism’.
JT, in contrast to FO & in sync with JA, has always been the consummate follower- of many –isms, but mostly FO- via JA. His work is- whether in his youth, or middle age- uniformly dull, prolix, flat, predictable, & very poorly wrought. There is not a scintilla of growth in approach, form, nor subject matter. Add to that that the very subject matter of his poems are trite & his purview so tiny, well….The real question is why any critics ever called them brilliant, humorous, innovative, etc. Obviously they are all on the back-scratching Academic Gravy Train. This is not the 1950s where (rightly or wrongly) FO could get gleeful disdain heaped upon his poems- not to mention snidely askance homo-hate. His lack of growth could be attributed to early death & his own philosophy. To what can JT’s similarly stunted growth be attributed? Perhaps just lack of any real poetic talent? Let us compare the poems of these 2 bizarrely unconnected poets- & find some threads of comparison- & vast differences.
will now compare several poems of JT & FO & show how superior
(if sometimes flawed) FO poems on a certain theme were transmuted into
something less by JT- or merely contrast the 2 poets’ takes on similar
things. I have chosen ONLY poems available on Internet searches because
these tend to always reflect the popularity of the poems & act as a
barometer for possible ‘influence’- if only by their popularity.
These poems are, therefore, among the poets’ most famed &
Case 1 will deal with poems of love & seduction. Let us lead off with a JT poem:
Again The Same
Speaking of sunsets,
last night's was shocking.
I mean, sunsets aren't supposed to frighten you, are they?
Well, this one was terrifying.
Sure, it was beautiful, but far too beautiful.
It wasn't natural.
One climax followed another and then another
until your knees went weak
and you couldn't breathe.
The colors were definitely not of this world,
peaches dripping opium,
pandemonium of tangerines,
inferno of irises,
all swirling and churning, swabbing,
like it was playing with us,
like we were nothing,
as if our whole lives were a preparation for this,
this for which nothing could have prepared us
and for which we could not have been less prepared.
The mockery of it all stung us bitterly.
And when it was finally over
we whimpered and cried and howled.
And then the streetlights came on as always
and we looked into one another's eyes--
ancient caves with still pools
and those little transparent fish
who have never seen even one ray of light.
And the calm that returned to us
was not even our own.
OK- let’s analyze this poem. The italics & underlines are mine- not the poem’s. This is not a terrible poem, but nowhere near a good poem, & a very lazy 1, at that. At least 11 clichés abound (underlined); including the whole romantic trope of sunsets & love. JT hopes to undermine these clichés but fails. There is no discernible music to the poem, & while not as poorly enjambed as other of his poems, this poem has no real reason to be broken into lines- is there a dramatic reason that the cliché of looking into a beloved’s eyes need be broken, then emphasized with a dash, just so we can get doubly clobbered by ancient caves & still pools? I think not. The 1st 4 lines emphasize that Conversational Surrealism mentioned earlier- but then we get the attempt at psychadelia midway through the poem. This is supposed to be the feint away from the expected, away from the conversational. This is to tell us a big finish is coming. What comes? 3 lines (underlined & italicized) which- in a well-wrought poem by a poet with real lyrical skill- might be said in 4-5 words. Then the return to cliché. Not even the nice little U-turn in the last line can save this poem from the inertial failure it has built up. But this is meant to seduce- the speaker, to the would-be wooed, is supposed to be revealed as being deep for taking such a classic love poem cliché & U-turning it at the end. But the twist, while nice, is not nearly enough. Perhaps in a tight sonnet it could work- but in over 30 lines of free verse? No. This poem suffers from a classic –it is: ‘showitis’. That is the poem is hoping its message is in how it’s told, or shown. Bad café poets often do this. Their goal? To write the definitive poem about being a bored poet in a café. They write ‘boring’ poems on said topic, but alibi, always, that the very lack of skill & thought is meant to show the boredom. This classic scheme has been co-opted for many other types of poems- usually political pabulum. Regardless, all the variants fail because their built-in excuses are a fundamental reason why the lazy efforts fail. This poem is a classic in that mold.
Let us now see FO’s most famous seduction poem- but I warn you,
no other critic has (to my knowledge) ever remarked on the seduction
If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf's
and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.
Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
I have in my hands only 35¢, it's so meaningless to eat!
and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you
to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world,
I must tighten my belt.
It's like a locomotive on the march, the season
of distress and clarity
and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter's
lightly falling snow over the newspapers.
Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet
of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.
As they're putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
put to some use before all those colored lights come on!
But no more fountains and no more rain,
and the stores stay open terribly late.
is a great poem- but before I comment a bit on its greatness let me
return to this poem’s misreading. It generally stems from critics’
own political axes to grind. Most have viewed this poem as FO condemning
rampant consumerism- a definitively political statement. This
interpretation is based- mostly- upon a critical misreading of the
poem’s end- especially the word terribly in the last line. In
the erroneous political take that word is seen as ominous, that
capitalism is forcing its minions to not only work later & later,
but its consumers to indulge their ruinous pursuit later & later.
But the word terribly is not spoken in the negative. In the
context of the poem it is meant more as merely very. Why? Read
the whole poem’s build up to the moment- the use of exclamation points
denote a coming rapture. The speaker is, at poem’s end, through with
the outside world & ready to head in to buy things! Yummy!
But the whole poem leads up to the seduction & love of consumerism the speaker conveys at its end. No real clichés- the ‘I must tighten my belt.’ line could be a cliché- but read what precedes it. The conversational tone, ‘it’s so meaningless to eat!’ (exclamatorily!) is no throwaway, just a cost of this seduction. Compare it to JT’s ‘I mean, sunsets aren't supposed to frighten you, are they?’ & it’s clear how much more utile, & ultimately served by the rest of the poem FO’s seemingly casual line is. Compare, also, JT’s streetlights & FO’s colored lights in their coming on. FO’s, again, is not worded as a cliché, nor serves as 1.
Did JT steal this seduction idea & ruin it? Of course not, But the more anomic tossed-off-the-cuff feel of JT’s poem, plus it’s more straight-forward take on a common trope- the seduction- bespeaks the difference between a very good & a bad poet. JT’s poem also is pallid JA, lacking some of the better phrasings. Yet JA’s best often uses many of FO’s colloquialisms & pop references. This is what influence is- although there is no direct connection between the 2 poems, 1 can readily see the influence of a poet who was influenced by another poet. It’s the copy-of-a-copy principle where each copy is lighter, & less sharp, than the original. It’s also why critics will attribute influence on a poet to someone the critiqued poet has never heard of. The catch is that they may be very influenced by a poet who was influenced by a poet who was influenced by a poet who was influenced, etc., by the ‘presumed’ influential poet.
Clearly, FO’s poem is far superior, & is a GREAT poem. Let us now compare 2 seemingly ‘nonsense’- or ‘light’- poems by FO & JT. This time FO will lead off:
At night Chinamen jump
on Asia with a thump
while in our willful way
we, in secret, play
affectionate games and bruise
our knees like China's shoes.
The birds push apples through
grass the moon turns blue,
these apples roll beneath
our buttocks like a heath
full of Chinese thrushes
flushed from China's bushes.
As we love at night
birds sing out of sight,
Chinese rhythms beat
through us in our heat,
the apples and the birds
move us like soft words,
This is a very light poem- its meaning? There is no ‘deep’
meaning- except for the delight of wonderfully musical wordplay. The
couplets give it a child-like quality, but the poem succeeds moreso
because it is lacking pretense of being more than just a sing-songy
poem. Perhaps that’s why he titled this merely Poem (as with
many of his other poems- although laze is the probable reason)? The only
mystery a reader might harbor is why the 1st 6 lines are a
stanza & not couplets- again, probably FO’s laze. Let us now turn
to a nonsense poem by JT:
My felisberto is handsomer
than your mergotroid,
although, admittedly, your mergotroid may be the wiser of the two.
Whereas your mergotroid never winces or quails,
my felisberto is a titan of inconsistencies.
For a night of wit and danger and temptation
my felisberto would be the obvious choice.
However, at dawn or dusk when serenity is desired
your mergotroid cannot be ignored.
Merely to sit near it in the garden
and watch the fabrications of the world swirl by,
the deep-sea's bathymetry wash your eyes,
not to mention the little fawns of the forest
and their flip-floppy gymnastics, ah, for this
and so much more your mergotroid is infinitely preferable.
But there is a place for darkness and obscurity
without which life can sometimes seem too much,
too frivolous and too profound simultaneously,
and that is when my felisberto is needed,
is longed for and loved, and then the sun can rise again.
The bee and the hummingbird drink of the world,
and your mergotroid elaborates the silent concert
that is always and always about to begin.
This is a bad poem because, despite contrivances, this poem wears
only the veneer of ‘nonsense poem’- right from its Carrollian title.
Yet, for such references & nonsense words (mergatroid is even
misspelled- murgatroyd is the correct spelling), the poem has no
real music- it is really prose broken into lines, & is laced with
faux intellectua: ‘titan of inconsistencies’, ‘bathymetry’ &
the last line & ½. The poem is O’Haran in conception- it attempts
to be playful- yet Ashberian in result- although devoid of any music.
Cliché is present: deep-sea, fawns of the forest, a place for darkness,
life can sometimes seem too much, & sun can rise again. JT hopes the
reader will find felisberto & mergatroid so cutesy that they will
abandon any attempt to make something of the poem- this inducement of
light-headedness will therefore make the trite ending seem profound-
cliché will be the Blyvian deeps, instead. But FO, even without real
effort, leaves more to think of: why do his protagonists play willfully
& couple? By the 3rd mention of JT’s felisberto &
mergatroid the reader is bored. & note how JT talks of ‘of wit and
danger and temptation’ while FO shows the ‘play’ he speaks of in
his poem. These 2 poems illustrate the divide between FO & JT
greatly. The link is JA. But before I elucidate, another comparison or
2. 1st JT:
Lewis And Clark Overheard In ConversationI am ill today but I am not
then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs then we’ll get us some wine and spare ribs Now FO:
Digression On Number 1, 1948
A fine day for seeing.
ceramics, during lunch hour, by
Mir6, and I see the sea by Leger;
light, complicated Metzingers
and a rude awakening by Brauner,
a little table by Picasso, pink.
I am tired today but I am
too tired. I am not tired at all.
There is the Pollock, white, harm
will not fall, his perfect hand
These 2 poems represent both poets’ attempts at
self-conscious Post-Modernism. JT’s comes after L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry
(haven of early JA worshippers), & FO’s before- although its
subject matter is Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock’s work.
JT’s poem is a typical Languagist 1-Trick pony- why the need for 23
lines of the same sentiment? Perhaps a numerologist could find beauty
here- the rest of us? But even if you try to argue its redundancy makes
it the ultimate ‘nonsense poem’- redundancy is anything but fun-
& the poem is not musicked in any way. This is the lazy man’s
‘daring’. Write something so matter-of-factly, repeat it over &
over, & some critical acolyte will intone ‘genius’ over
something ‘so simple’ being ‘so deep’. FO’s poem, on the other
hand, starts off with 2 lines of brilliant negation playing off a
wonderful title. The painting this is inspired by is no consequence-
even were it more intelligible than a Pollock. Music abounds- there are
some weak line breaks but overall it is an outstanding poem that
ruminates not only on self- but self in relation to things beyond self.
I am not going to go on about this poem, even though I could, because
the reason I mention it is as contrast to the intellectually vapid JT
poem preceding it.
Here are 2 final comparison poems. JT’s leads off, & is the best we’ve seen from him thus far, although hardly a ‘Surreal Masterpiece’:
The Lost Pilot
for my father, 1922-1944
Your face did not rot
like the others–the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him
yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot
like the others–it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive
orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,
with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested
This is a poem about alienation- its ending is strong but the poem should be compressed by nearly ½ its length- too many tautologies sap emotion. Clichés are, for once, scarce, & the poem has a decent, subdued music. The loss of the father leads the speaker to this yearning. This is not bad, in & of itself, but it is not a fresh approach (JT hopes the novelty of a forever airborne dead pilot dad will be the novelty sought- but the dad’s occupation is inconsequential compared to the ‘moment’.)- neither is the attempt at leaving us hanging in the speaker’s angst. Here is an alienation-tinged FO poem of similar length:
A Step Away From Them
It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S
CORNER. Giulietta Maina, wife of
Federico Fellini, é bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full of life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they'll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
Compare this to JT’s poem: although bad line breaks are evident, the imagery & narrative zip along. There is motion where there could easily be just observation- as in JT’s poem. Very little could be compressed without losing the demotic sense of the sensory. Yet the very act of alienation the poem’s title implies brings the speaker back to himself- the revelation of the book of poems is (despite the cliché that frames it) far more interesting than JT’s end- even though it says nearly the same thing about the placement of things in a grander scheme. Look how angst-free, however, FO’s poem is. FO finds the inwardness by being 1 with the outside world (still a fresh approach), while JT is ever alienated. While technical problems & some poor phrasing prevent FO’s poem from being great, it is vastly superior to JT’s.Note all of the things which make all 4 pairs of poems similar & dissimilar, FO’s poems better than JT’s, & keep these things in mind as we now connect some dots
FO & JT share
more than just ‘surrealistic’ poems & a tendency for structural
laziness. I’ve pointed out their divergences, but it is their
convergence that is the crux of this essay. I contend that it is a
convergence in the form of John Ashbery- the guru of the infamous Cult
Of John- poets who take willful obscurity to new heights, or lows. Most
famed of this tribe is none other than JT himself, although Ann
Lauterbach, David St. John, & even the contemporaneous Robert
Creeley are cited. [How in the hell does RC get conflated with so
many other unconnected figures? I guess when you give so little others
can toss you around with ease!]
JA is at once original & wholly dependent on other poets for his existence. Although a writer/poet such as Paul Metcalf has been very up front about his borrowing for his collage (or architectronic) style of writing, JA is no less indebted to others, albeit far more dismissive of charges of ‘borrowing’. JA started off as a formalist in the Richard Wilbur mode. By the early 1960s he was hailed a Languagist. He then plundered Wallace Stevens, John Keats, Weldon Kees, &- most of all- FO, alike. Usually his plunderings are what they might seem- minor knock-offs of others’ superior poems. His best poems, some great, are those rare times where he shucks off others’ influence & speaks for himself. 1 wonders what a poet with JA’s raw talent would have done had he ever had an original idea, & not been so amenable to mimetics. Unfortunately, despite the many ‘phases’ of his career, JA’s poetry has been wildly inconsistent in quality & shown little growth- mimicry is not growth. It was a template from which a young JT saw Academic neon! & save for a talent gap between he & JA he may have reached Ashberian highs. But while JA’s 1960s-1970s period greatly influenced younger writers as JT, it was alot of epigonal FO! Here is a typical selection of JA’s that illustrates this ‘bridge’ quality nicely. This snippet is from Daffy Duck In Hollywood:
‘Something strange is creeping across me. La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars Of "I Thought about You" or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything--a mint--condition can Of Rumford's Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller's fertile Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged Stock--to come clattering through the rainbow trellis Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland Fling Terrace. He promised he'd get me out of this one, That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he's Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug's attenuated Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit Are its lineaments--fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist's Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you'd call Companionable. But everything is getting choked to the point of Silence. Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky Over the Fudds' garage, reducing it--drastically-- To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover. Suddenly all is Loathing. I don't want to go back inside any more. You meet Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island--no, Not people, comings and goings, more: mutterings, splatterings, The bizarrely but effectively equipped infantries of happy-go-nutty....’
In just this piece we can see
much of the pop allusions that FO brought into poetry. Yet, note how
thickened & larded with pseudo-intellectualism & willful
obscurity JA’s poem is. Just a few decades down the reader already has
little point of reference to what is being described. Compare that with
FO’s ‘A Step Away From Them’- & how FO’s poem flows gently
between incident & the described. JA’s poem- no. JA wants to tell
us how smart he is- how ‘Joe Regular’ he is as well- what with Daffy
Duck & all. JA adds on poor music, preening pseudo-intellectualism,
& unneeded prolixity. Greatly diminished is the pop sensibility that
roams free in FO’s best, & even lesser poems. & this goes well
beyond any of the samples of poetry shown here- read all these poets’
poems & my argument only becomes clearer than it already is.
Now, let’s compare JA’s bit to JT’s poems. A poem like ‘My Felisberto’ is a good poem to use. In this poem, as in most of his poems, JT has boiled away a good deal of the denseness of JA’s prolixity, retained some of the pseudo-intellectualism, & not improved the musicality 1 iota. But, also missing are FO’s true humor, & musicality, plundered by JA, yet ignored or discarded by JT. It’s as if 1 were watching 1 of those computer morphing devices where JA is the middle face between the handsome FO & the ugly JT. Even JA’s chief shill, Harold Bloom- Critic of Doom!, has commented on how dependent JA’s poems are on other innovators. This dependence has led other critics like Dana Gioia, to term JA as something of a failed major poet, but a brilliant minor poet; or poet Mark Jarman to sneer derisively from New Formalism’s shaky redoubt; or- more memorably- critic Charles Altieri to call him the ‘major poet of our minor age’ [Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984)], or Mary Kinzie [The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet's Calling (I993)]: ‘[JA] is the passive bard of a period in which the insipid has turned into the heavily toxic.’ Others, like David Lehman, lob gratuities JA’s way, in exchange for recognitions.
While Gioia & Altieri are on to something, Kinzie’s swipe is far more apt when applied to JT. After all, aggressive thievery is hardly ‘passive’ & despite JA’s sometimes laconic approach to poetry- inside & outside the poem itself- it’s hard to imagine a poet (outside of the vast extremities of Languagism & Slam Poetry) being more technically passive than JT, more totally induced into sonorous cliché, & prosaic phraseology- in short: insipid! This is absolutely 180° from FO, despite his many shortcomings & technical sloth. JT is the poet whose ruminations are hand-me-downs from JA (who raided Wallace Stevens), & his ‘lightness’ comes via the same channel from FO: JA! Yet, whereas JA’s earlier comic poems show an affinity with FO’s humor, JT’s ‘comic’ poems (see ‘My Felisberto’) share far more with JA’s later sonorous tautologies. In aping an ape JT has been left with a brown banana of mushy tasteless verse.
Where FO’s poems had clichés they were manifestations of his technical laziness & failure; where JA’s poems have clichés they are manifestations of his failed attempt to do something more because he valued cliché, even though the clichés used very rarely rise beyond cliché; where JT’s poems have clichés they are manifestations of both technical laziness & failure to even attempt something more. A cliché is not a cliché merely because a set of 2 or more words occurs, rather it is a series of words or images that occur within a spectrum of other predictable & met expectations- other phrases, dramatic/narrative placement, requirements of the poem’s music, etc.
This is the peril of aping or vamping off of others. Removed from a direct source, vamping has no direction but downward: it’s the copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a….theory writ in verse. Once removed, ala JA, 1 can still reach moments & heights that equal or exceed the source- twice or more removed it is virtually impossible. JT chose to lazily ape the poet who valued the trite & aped another, rather than directly ape a poet who was original & merely lapsed into cliché. Who knows if JT would have chosen to ape others had JA not been so successful at it? Who knows how much closer to Sharon Olds JT’s verse may have strayed had he not so thoroughly inculcated himself with JA’s injunction to willful obscurity of self. It’s as if JA warped T.S. Eliot’s call to exterminate the self by lighting stale farts into the wind to make seekers of the poet behind the ill breeze turn all the more quickly. Not too coincidentally, is the fact that while FO comically celebrated his homosexuality, JA rarely reveals any passions personal or sexual, much less his homosexuality. As would be expected, JT (after his 1st book) has been even more obscure than JA, but without any of the technical wordsmithing skills that propelled JA to write some great poetry amid the course of his nightly returns to FO’s (& others’) tumulus. This is what passes for influence these past few decades.
But, who influenced FO? WCW, Sandburg, cummings, Patchen? Not really, although minor influences pop up on occasion. Who influenced JA? 2 obvious suspects- FO & Wallace Stevens- although JA’s poems are inferior to the others’ better poems. Who influenced JT? Other than JA, obviously, in a sense, everyone & no one. He is a poet without definition or qualities of any note- a cipher in virtually every aspect. While FO is probably American Poetry’s greatest What If? (because Hart Crane & Sylvia Plath at least produced unassailable corpuses of poetry, while FO’s whole corpus is very hit & miss)- & a worthy subject of true emulation, JT is probably American Poetry’s greatest As If- Pulitzer Prize & all- & a bloodless simulation. His work is a testament to laziness, none-too-subtle appropriation of others’ means & methods, & playing the Academic Gravy Train game to a T. He is the unique, brown, downward tip of a drying, drooping, dying conifer’s branch of imitative, blind, soulless, & talentless poetry. If you love good, inventive, & original poetry, go read FO- just let the damn pinecones be!
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