Monday, September 27, 2004

Picked up Ashbery for the first time in a while, struck that his poems not always but one mode of them do something like what Jeffery Bahr imagined a poem might do, change the actual lines as you read along; that is, that most poems as we know them trace out a three-dimensional shape, something like that blind person feeling out an elephant all around to know it wholly. That's the subtext, or the 'under,' or whatever you will call it. That Ashbery not only changes around the same topic, he changes the affective/subjective continuity as he goes--there's a lot of change there held together by that glib flowing surface. The under changes, and I guess I'm saying that I'm so used to his style that it can be shocking when you notice just how weird and strange what he does is. The elephant changes to the Sunday Times, I mean, but you never (well, that's not true, it depends on his mode, in some poems you never know, in some you do, in many he even holds the foundation he walks on straight) really know what under the over is referring to, because it has changed, though you get the feel/taste of it enough before it changes. All this (obviousness, probably) with "Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox" in the background. Lovely poem (with timely references to the book of "Jonah" even inside).

And thought I'd put up this striking little thing excerpted from Stevens, whose 'strangeness'I never don't notice. Funny thing, that so many love Stevens so, to me, because I was introduced to him as an 'undesirable,' 'uncool' poet. My first poetry workshop, the prof. on the last day went around the room and told each of us her/his "Bloomian" anxiety (gave himself Keats, naturally). I was last, and he said, "Stuart, don't take this the wrong way, but . . . Wallace Stevens." I said who? Growing up with the name Stuart, a little formal-sounding, you can imagine, and then to hear "Wallace," I could only imagine that guy, his poetry. In any case, the group affect was not positively valenced. Yet I bravely hiked down the hill to the bookstore and bought the Collected Poems a few days before I went abroad for a semester, and spent the semester reading it (and, in the background, Auerbach's Mimesis, Joyce's Ulysses, and the action-parts only of Moby-Dick, which I found the most difficult of all these for some reason). So I had a fairly substantial bubble where I thought I was the only one who knew just how great this poet was, and he really did sink deep into me/I deep into his work. Which is, I think, the best way for anyone to get to know a poet's poems. Now, of course, I'm grateful to not be such a freak, though I do think I've taken him a little more directly than most my age, since I didn't read Ashbery for years. Maybe that's just an egotism talking, I don't know.

Anyhow, striking little Stevens fragment (from "Primordia," which is in Opus Posthumous):


The birch trees draw up whiteness from the ground.
In the swamps, bushes draw up dark red,
Or yellow.
O, boatman,
What are you drawing up from the rain-pointed water?
O, boatman,
What are you drawing up from the rain-pointed water?
Are you two boatmen
different from each other?

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