Friday, March 27, 2020
Week one of isolation is coming to a close in our household. Ryan has been on administrative leave from his job but also remains on call as needed. Same for the week ahead. And the week after that. Maybe longer but who knows, right now. I am trying to work as usual but can't focus on much for very long, so the days feel choppy and lengthy both, in a weird way. I keep forgetting about the pandemic for brief periods of time, then remembering with a jolt akin to seasickness. Turning to books still isn't working for me, but I keep trying. A list of what I've picked up and put back down, in the last two weeks:
Spirit of Place - Laurence Durrell
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
Autobiography - Morrissey
Songs of Unreason - Jim Harrison
The Diary of Virginia Woolf (found all five volumes)
The Early Diary of Frances Burney
Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad - Austin Kleon
I got 49 pages in with Durrell, 14 pages in with Marcus Aurelius, 47 pages with Morrissey, skipped around in Harrison before deciding not to continue, made headway in zero pages with Woolf, and started where I left off some months ago on page lxxxvii in the interminable preface of the Fanny Burney set. Austin Kleon's book is the only thing I might actually finish this week (Workman 2019). I'm on page 135 and am finding it most helpful. It is exactly what he says it is, a guide to working on your art, in any form it takes, no matter what. It's not too heavy but at the same time has a terrific big-picture vibe that is appropriately doomy.
Up next I have a copy of art critic Jerry Saltz's brand new book How to Be an Artist (Riverhead 2020), and I'm looking forward to being able to attempt to concentrate on it sometime soon. I could say the same about my own art practice. Oil painting is not happening for me right now. I keep picking things up in my studio and putting them right back down again. The one project I do seem to be able to make headway with is the little gouache illustrated book I started making last winter. I set it aside after a few months and it's been dormant since then. I decided to look at it again and see what I could do. This week so far I've made a number of gouache paintings, written a few pages of possible text - each page only has a few words on it, but hey, I'll take them - and interleaved most of them into my existing manuscript. Here are a few of the paintings, on bristol board. They are quite small:
Making one at a time, in short stints, is working for me, and I feel so grateful! Animals, birds, natural things like leaves and feathers, landscapes real and imagined - these are what show up and they help reaffirm my love of the natural world. Everything goes into mylar page protecters in a big three-ring binder, and the whole thing is starting to feel really good and book-like, when I flip through it. Some places need more illustrations and others need more words, but it's 90% done, I think. About a hundred pages, a gentle manifesto about the seasons and my beliefs. Yay me.
My other book, the long wordy one, sits the way my empty canvases do, waiting for me to settle enough to focus on them for long stretches of time. Time I have, focus I do not. So I will keep on with the small work and let the rest be, for a while. Normal life feels like a wonderful dream. Meanwhile we take it day-to-day and count our blessings, here at home. The routine I have is a good one. Early morning yoga, a shower (still with my hand in a plastic bag because of my finger, which is healing up), breakfast. Morning work inside, and when the sun is warm, morning work outside in the yard and garden. Lunch, then a long walk with Ryan. We are going three to five miles a day. Then afternoon work, and some quiet time outside again before sunset. An evening meal of sorts, keeping it light, then books I pick up and put back down, and videos we watch together. All this is interspersed with news, email, phone calls, and conversations with our neighbors out in the street, from safe distances. Only a few cases of the virus have been documented in our community, but state authorities assure us there are more that haven't been. And many more in nearby cities and towns. We stay apart to protect ourselves and others. Please do the same, whenever possible. Let the storm pass by, while we shelter from it. And protect the helpers, those living and working in the epicenters, who cannot shelter. Good prayers, for every day.
Friday, March 20, 2020
♫ ♪ ♪ Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes ♫ ♪ ♫ and make up your own next line, to this familiar song, because everything sure has changed, and fast. Ryan and I were talking last night about the great little library sale we went to almost two weeks ago, where we saw some old friends, browsed around with happy anticipation, purchased four bags of books, bought groceries on the way home, and generally enjoyed life. It seems like months ago, now. I cleaned, coded, and priced most of the books, the day after I bought them, and they still sit in the front hall today. They will be there for a long time, I think. They're not going anywhere. And neither are we. Except for necessities when we absolutely must, and of course to get out into the wild. We are so fortunate here in Maine that the big open spaces of nature are all around us, and remain accessible. Beaches, trails, land preserves, quiet roads we can walk on - as spring arrives they will be saving graces, as they always are. I am lucky in that I usually work on my own, and in solitude. That will continue, I hope. I don't yet know what will happen to my summer painting season, but since there is nothing I can do about that, and it is tiny in the grand scheme of things, I set it on the back burner in my mind and let it cool down. Ryan will be telecommuting after today, as the college he works at transitions to online everything. We have income, health insurance, and some savings, to help us get through, and share with family and friends who will be in need when things get worse, as it seems they will. A lot has shut down. Friends and neighbors are already out of work. We are planning to buy their goods and services when we can. Heartbreaking, all of this. I can hardly get my mind around it.
Books are not helping at the moment, but I think this state of affairs is only temporary, as I struggle to accept the changes. I can't seem to settle on anything. I've started a bunch of books in the last two weeks and each time I pick one up and read a little, I put it back down and think, Nope, that's not it. I don't know what I'm looking for. Peace, perhaps, and a lessening of anxiety, but those are both in short supply. Because of world events, yes, but also, did I mention that I cut my finger by accident last week, in the kitchen, and our local doctor glued it up for me, and wrapped it, and told me not to get it wet? Yeah, that happened. I saw her again this week, and she said the same. So. No full-on hand-washing allowed. I'm using little alcohol and witch hazel pads to swab the bandages down from time to time, and of course washing the rest of my hands and self as best I can, but wow, the latent ocd I usually manage to keep in check is raging right now! Which would be funny, if it wasn't! Anyway, a difficult situation is made more difficult by my own actions. Thanks for visiting, Fate. My finger will be fine, with time. It's on my non-dominant hand and is a worrisome inconvenience at most. I hold it up a lot to keep it out of the way (like now, while writing this) and it looks like I'm pointing all the time: Hey you, and you, and you! Yes, you.
What shall we do in the coming weeks and months to keep ourselves engaged and grateful and community-minded? I am blank on that, at least for now, but glad to see that some of my favorite authors are doing wonderful things. Like Rob Macfarlane, who is hosting a reading club on his twitter feed, and the book this weekend is the quietly magnificent nature memoir The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. I spoke of it after reading it in the summer of 2018. If you haven't yet tracked down a copy, this might be an excellent time to do so. It's in print, so you can call your local independent bookseller and they will ship it to you, or find it secondhand from a used book seller on Biblio, or from Powell's, which has had to close its doors for now but is still selling online. Emily Powell's letter about their shut-down says how we all seem to feel about what is happening in our country and around the world, the unthinkable. History is engulfing us as we speak. And yet I look out the window and see the first crocuses of spring, opening up, and radiating their essential nature. Let's do the same and continue to share the good, no matter what.
I'm going to take my old turntable up to the studio and listen to records this afternoon, while I gesso canvases. Preparing surfaces to paint on is always a joy, for me, and an act of faith. I anticipate filling the empty canvases with beauty, light, shadow, and life, in the months ahead. I hope with all my heart that we will weather whatever happens. Stay safe and be well, friends.
Saturday, February 29, 2020
take the leap
Extra day! I always think it's the strangest thing, leap year, and can't let it go by without marking it here. Even though I don't have much to say except I've been reading some good books, and visiting bookshops, and working on my own book. I'm about to take a break from that for, say, a month, since I am at the point with it when it looks pretty good to me. Meaning I can't see what else it might need. I hope a month away will make that crystal clear when I return to it with fresh eyes. Maybe I will post the foreword here at some point to help me put my intention to make it a public document, a real book, to be read by others, out to the universe. Meanwhile I have a ton of studio work to do - sixty paintings need framing and I've done about ten so far; and the catalogue for my next show needs to be finalized. It's nearly ready, I'm just dithering over a few minor but important details. There is more, much more, but I am working steadily and looking forward to the approach of spring, for real. We've had a few hints about it here and there. Spring fever means I'm out and about, and a few days ago we ended up at Stone Soup Books in Camden:
Ryan caught me browsing in the jam-packed shelves. Stone Soup is two small rooms, full from floor to ceiling as you can see, and nearby storage, so if you don't see what you're looking for, ask the proprietor Paul and he'll check elsewhere. I am assembling a hardcover set of Virginia Woolf's diaries, to read sometime this year, perhaps in the fall, and Paul had volume two tucked away. I also bought that Jennifer Bartlett book I'm holding. She's a painter I've been interested in for a long time but know zero to little about. Glad that's about to change. I also bought a volume of Shelley's verse, and a few other books to read. I didn't find any New York School additions to my collection. Truth be told, I am stalled out in that regard anyway. Ashbery and I are no longer keeping company, and I have nothing to report about the others in the group, having made zero inroads with Koch, or new ones with Schuyler. I've read all the Schuyler books I own at least twice already, over the last decade-plus, and my enthusiasm for writing a post about them after reading them again is low. I prefer to dip into them and revisit old favorites at this point. Here's what I currently have on hand:
These books have brought me hours and hours of joy, even at their most difficult. Something about his poetry gets me right where I live, and always has. I've quoted him often over the years, and even though I know I'm repeating myself I'll say again that this time of year always reminds me of these lines of his, from his long poem The Crystal Lithium, in Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1993, p.117):
"...January, laid out on a bed of ice, disgorging
February, shaped like a flounder, and March with her steel bead pocketbook,
And April, goofy and under-dressed and with a loud laugh, and May
Who will of course be voted Miss Best Liked (she expects it)..."
By nearly all accounts Schuyler was a difficult person at best, with recurring episodes of mental illness, a moochy personality, and a mean streak clearly evident in his diaries and letters to others. And yet. As with all of us, there is another side to him. The gardener, the heirloom rose enthusiast, the reader, the friend, the lover. Not to mention that he turns out exquisite verse, decade after decade, in spite of everything else. I will always honor him for it. His very life goes to show that you can be something of a mess regarding the day-to-day of things, and yet still win the Pulitzer Prize for your work. If I had unlimited funds to collect first editions, I would love to seek out all of his. Friends such as Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, and others I also admire, designed dust jackets for many of his first editions. Alas, most of them are beyond my reach. I have to be content with what I can get my hands on, in reprint.
That's all for now, I am heading out into this extra day to see what I can make of it. On we go.
Saturday, February 01, 2020
isn't it romantic
I have a few quiet hours this afternoon and have already completed today's needful chores, so I will preempt Valentine's Day by writing about what we love, now. I speak of the love of words. You know who loved words? John Ashbery loved words, that's who. I hesitate to say anything as definite as that, at any time, on any topic, about anyone, but I think it's safe to say it in this case. He uses words like so few other writers I've ever encountered. In his prose he is as clear as a bell and easy to follow, while still being as intellectually satisfying as any other brilliant writer I've ever read. But in his poetry, wow, what a different way of communicating he has. His poems are supple and complicated, and seem to speak the way we humans often think - in fits and starts, on tangents, and in circles. Clarity is rare.
There's a lot to love in his poetry but I must say, that after reading hundreds of pages of it, even while knowing that he is essentially a romantic, albeit a surreal one, there are very few poems of his that I love unequivocally from start to finish. Instead, almost always, there is a line, or several lines, or even a string of words - or just one word - that makes me smile, or causes empathy and understanding to rise, or one of many other available and possible emotions. A few: love, confusion, sympathy, envy, and even boredom. It's really hard for me to feel bored when I'm reading, or when I'm not, so it's a true surprise, when it shows up. The surprise of it is such an unaccustomed reaction that in and of itself it interests me.
HOWEVER. I love clarity. And I do want to love what I read, not just be interested by it. I am not getting any younger and a world of books still awaits, thank heavens. Tempus fugit and all that. So I think that Ashbery and I will be parting ways imminently. I made it almost all the way through the Library of America two volume set of his Collected Poems (both edited by Mark Ford, Library of America 2008 and 2017). And I do have a running list of his poems to revisit now and again, to see how they affect me over time and if I am able to grow toward a better understanding of his work. I have hope that they will engage my heart as well as my brain.
Meanwhile I do want to follow up with something I mentioned a few days ago, which is David Lehman's book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday 1998). Lehman explains Ashbery and the rest in ways that make sense to me and aid me in my attempts to comprehend what Ashbery in particular does in his work. I am not the kind of person to read literary criticism first (although this is both that and cultural history, and biography), before I dive in and read an author's work. And I think I did read some of Ashbery's Selected Prose (University of Michigan 2004) first. Yes, because I was anxious about the poetry, and thus postponing it, but still. Anyway, Lehman is a great exception to my usual rule. He says early on in his fine book (p.30):
"...Ashbery, perhaps even more than his fellows, is at heart a Romantic poet, who conceives of the Imagination as a realm apart from experience, or reality, or time, to which it lends the redemptive enchantment that we seek in art and that may come closer to fulfilling the promise of happiness than any other form of human activity."
Romance is here in his poems, yes, in all senses of the word. Lehman says further (p.113-114):
"Reading Ashbery one felt one was on the edge of comprehension (or of incomprehension, which means the same thing). But the state of uncertainty to which his poetry transported one was as oddly intoxicating as it was perplexing. The bafflement itself produced a mental commotion not unlike that of the uncanny, in which a familiar image is suddenly bathed in a foreign light."
I do not like being intoxicated, however I understand now what he means. Lehman also quotes Kenneth Koch (p.237), who says about Ashbery's poem The Skaters: "'It's not about anything, it's a whole philosphy of life," in response to then-student David Shapiro asking Koch, when he saw the poem in manuscript form, "'What is it about?'"
I cannot stress how helpful I find this passage. It feels like unlocking a stubborn door with a magic key. There's more. Lehman quotes Ashbery himself, speaking in 1995 about his work, after decades of writing (pp.371-372): "'I wanted to stretch, not sever, the relation between language and communication.'" (Lehman pp.371-372)
Again, from Ashbery (p.37): "'I am aware of the pejorative associations of the word 'escapist' ...but I insist that we need all the escapism we can get and even that isn't going to be enough.'"
Yes to escapism, yes to romanticism! And one more, Ashbery says (p.96): "'Very often people don't listen to you when you speak to them. It's only when you talk to yourself that they prick up their ears.'"
That's it. He is so himself, which is among my criteria for any great writer or artist, and something I strive for in my own work: how to make it the most YOU you can possibly make it. Therein lies uniqueness, even in the midst of our collective humanity and the homogenity of language, art, you name it. Yes, it's all been said and done before, ho hum, but not by YOU, today, in your own way. I get it now, I really get it. And I want to love his poems, but I'm not there yet. I do love his use of words, and as I said, many of his lines, so I am well over halfway.
Shall I mention some of his words? They are remarkable in their context and I keep noting them down, as I encounter them. They seem to make up a self-portrait in the way his house in Hudson, New York does, the one that you can visit online. Some of his adjectives are: measly, miasmal, wacko, plangent, glabrous. And nouns: aviary, bougainvillea, morass, swansdown, glop, permeation, ventilation, occlusion, saraband. One poem that I did warm to is entitled Hoboken (A collage made from Roget's Thesaurus), in the Library of America set (Collected Poems 1991-2000 p.741-745). It is just what the title says, a built-up city of collaged phrases lifted from Roget, and is equal parts infuriating and delightful. Similarly, I often love his poem titles, which are amazing, but then the poems themselves... well. I must find myself at fault when they don't break my heart. Here's what I mean:
Whatever It Is, Wherever You Are
Operaters Are Standing By
Nobody is Going Anywhere
Poem on Several Occasions
The Songs We Know Best
Not Now But In Forty-Five Minutes
The Garden of False Civility
Amid Mounting Evidence
But What Is the Reader To Make of This?
The Romantic Entanglement
Winter Weather Advisory
What fantastic poem titles; what great phrases. I suppose I now know to love them for their words, and the posssible meaning I bring them, not necessarily for what Ashbery may have intended, if anything. All that and I haven't even quoted a line of his poetry yet. Lord. Here's a passage that addresses this day as it looks to me at the moment. It's gray out, snowflakes are wisping around, and the flock of robins I saw in the yard this morning are long gone. Ashbery says in his (prose-)poem Haibun (Collected Poems 1956-1987 p.765):
"Isn't the point of pain the possibility it brings of being able to get along without pain, for awhile.... Unprofitable shifts of light and dark in the winter sky address this dilemma very directly."
More, the opening lines of his poem Vaucanson (ibid p.830):
"It was snowing as he wrote.
In the darkened room he felt relaxed and singular,
But no one, of course, ever trusts these moods."
How about this one-line poem, which is just a title and its single line, and certainly feels appropriate for our times as they now stand (ibid p.676):
"I Had Thought That Things Were Going Along Well
But I was mistaken."
Another, the opening lines of his poem A Lot of Catching Up To Do (Collected Poems 1991-2000 p.766):
"Dark days, lit by a falling flame
from time to time. A door stands open
or not. It's much the same."
Mmm, how wonderful. I'll leave on that slightly higher note. Other Ashbery-thoughts will have to wait, for another day, if ever. Here is picture of a stack of books, as a reward of sorts for anyone who actually read what I just wrote (Thanks):
Five of these books I have already read (one I re-read), and three I am planning to read, whenever my New York School winter reading project winds down. I have miles to go before I sleep, however: two Kenneth Koch books I've had for years and barely ever looked into, another Frank O'Hara book I'm only halfway through, et cetera. Good problems to have. Happy Valentine's Day early, romantics and word lovers.
Thursday, January 30, 2020
tracking the marvelous
As I peer into 2020 through new glasses, the world seems in sharper focus than ever before. I have been working intensively for weeks - weeks I say - on my island painting book and it is looking good to me. More or less. At over 100,000 words, and 300 pages, I am slightly sick of myself and need to take a break between draft edits. This is without doubt the most difficult creative project I have ever attempted. And I used to set type, print by hand, illustrate, and bind my own books! I have made paintings that are six and eight feet long! But this, this is much harder. Good authors make it look so easy. I wish I knew how they did it. I will persevere and see it through. I'm almost at the stage where I will need editorial help, and oh how I am looking forward to paying someone who doesn't know me to read this manuscript and give me some suggestions on what to leave out. I suppose it's better to have too much material, rather than not enough. But wow, is it hard to winnow out the dross.
That's the status of that. On to READING. I have been listening to and watching some of the impeachment trial, and then sinking with relief into some wonderul books to revive me and remind me that we humans are also capable of this and not merely that. I attended a nice little library sale in December, right before the holidays, and came away with three cartons of books for a little over a hundred dollars. One of the items I bought was a Grove Press set of Beckett, which I priced and put into my book booth. It sold within days. So gratifying. Keep the faith, booksellers of the world! I say that as a pep talk for myself as well as others.
Here is the short stack of books I kept for myself, from the sale. Plus the book my niece lent me to read, since it was also here on the table:
John Cage! Morrissey! Virginia Woolf! Sylvia Townsend Warner! It was a great library sale indeed. I did read the book from my niece, John Hodgman's Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches (Penguin 2018) and loved it. It was just the ticket for my current state of mind. Which is solipsistic, from working on my own memoir for too long. To get wrapped up in someone else's was a delight. What a funny, awful, terrific book. "Vacationland" is the hapless unofficial motto for the great state of Maine, by the way, for anyone who may not know that fact. It's on our license plates, so it must be true, right? Hodgman's use of it is tongue in cheek, since he doesn't exactly talk up Maine and Mainers in a warm and fuzzy way (because we are not, by and large, a warm and fuzzy people). Then, just when you think he's been sarcastic for long enough, he turns on a dime and melts your heart with some piece of elemental truth, via his own experience. David Sedaris-ish. Recommended.
I have yet to read any of the other books in this stack, because I am still wandering the hallways of the New York School, and may be for some time to come. I stalled out with John Ashbery earlier this month, after reading most of the Collected Poems 1991-2000. I haven't found the right time yet to read a few of his book-length poems, and I don't want to immerse myself in them until I have hours and hours to do so. Thus they wait, or I wait. I'll follow up with him soon.
Meanwhile I'm casting an eye around the book room for some of my favorite titles by the players, outliers, watchers, and other movers and shakers of the time. These I've read before, and they provide insight and shine sidelights on to the whole cast of characters:
John Gruen's The Party's Over Now (Viking 1972) and Tracking the Marvelous: A Life in the New York Art World (Random House 1983) by gallerist John Bernard Myers are two of the best contemporary accounts of the poets and painters of the time (that aren't written by themselves, I should say). They are chatty and gossipy in a not-always pleasant way, but they were there, saw what they saw, and lived to tell the tale.
A few more sidelight-books, only one of which I have read cover to cover, and most helpful it is:
The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets by David Lehman (Doubleday 1998) is the one I have read, and not just browsed in, like the other two (thank you David Lehman, for helping me overcome my trepidation and even fear of approaching the work of John Ashbery, after all this time). I have listened to Frank O'Hara read one of my favorite poems of his, however, from the spoken word cd inside the back cover of All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s by Daniel Kane (University of California Press 2003), and have gone looking for familiar names in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing 1960-1980 by Jerome Rothenberg, Steven Clay, and Rodney Phillips (Granary 1998), which is a fascinating tour of little magazines.
Throughout the month of February I will continue to track the New York School in my own collection. The James Schuyler books I already own are up next. I wish there were more! I love the best of his poems even more than I love Frank O'Hara's, but luckily it isn't a contest. At least not for me. It might have been, for them. I can't find the quote so will have to paraphrase Schuyler, who said something like this, about the plethora of poets around at the time: There sure are an awful lot of stars in this opera. Back soon.
Monday, December 30, 2019
ideas about thoughts
This gray day, with snow in the forecast, finds me peering ahead into 2020 like I am asking a Magic 8 Ball to read my fortune, and all of our fates besides. Magic 8 Ball says... well, I wish I knew. I wish I had good news to report, but all I've got is my country field mouse eye view from here, which doesn't feel like much at the moment. I have high hopes for the year ahead, though, and I believe in truth, beauty, and the greater good with all my heart, so I will keep to that positive message whenever possible. I can say that today, since I'm on day six of a post-Christmas cold and just starting to take an interest in the world again, after some time of not. I felt pretty low but was never too sick not to read - to which I say hallelujah - and I am happy to report that I finished the first volume of the Library of America set of John Ashbery's poems. It was nearly 1000 pages, whew, a cascade of words, and I read the rest of Karin Roffman's book as well. They complement each other, and since finishing Roffman's The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017) I feel like I have gained a foothold-understanding, finally, of what Ashbery was doing in his work. Over and over in her book she explains Ashbery's motivations, at least in his early work, but also in the themes that developed into lifelong concerns and fascinations of his. Such as this (p.111):
"'Poem,' even in its title, suggests Ashbery's developing attitude toward poetry as a form in which to address unanswerable mysteries of private experience..."
Many of his poems, obliquely or otherwise, touch upon his difficult childhood on his family's farm in Sodus, in upstate New York, the death of his younger brother there, his abusive father, his kind mother and grandparents, his childhood friends, and his growing up and away from all of that, to make a life for himself as a poet and as a gay man in New York and later, Paris. Several times in her book Roffman mentions this. First (p.187):
"Using the singsong quality of nursery rhymes and simple vocabulary (one- and two-syllable nouns), he created an effect in which fragments of childhood memories flicker through the poem..."
And, on Ashbery hearing the performance of a John Cage piece (p.203):
"He was hearing a musical equivalent to the world of his childhood: the vast expanse of the lake, hours on the farm with nothing to do, days that were silent, melancholy, and conducive to simmering creativity. He had hated that dull world and wished to flee its many pains and constraints, but he also knew best its slow rhythms and wandering moods."
And again she mentions (p.207):
"...John's obsession with Sodus as a mythic land of strange and deeply ordinary wisdom and pain."
At one point late in her book Roffman describes the rediscovery of a short film that had been sitting forgotten in the co-director and cameraman's garage for sixty years or so. The film was never finished, but is based on a play by James Schuyler called Presenting Jane, and features Frank O'Hara (driving, typing), John Ashbery (passenger, reader), Jane Freilicher (passenger, water nymph/goddess), and Schuyler himself as a silent watcher, the outsider everyman. I'd read about his play and the missing film before, in other books. So of course I wondered if I could now see it. Of course I could. It's available on youtube as part of a 2017 talk by Roffman at Harvard (the film itself begins at 4:57). The film is black and white, and silent, and only a few minutes long. Roffman says that Schuyler's script or perhaps a piece of music was going to be added, but never was. I turned off the sound to see it with no commentary for the first viewing, then went back and watched it again with sound. Seeing it was so moving - here are these people who still live on the page, and on canvas - here they are now, alive, young and gorgeous, glamorous even, at the start of their life's work. Roffman's talk also includes footage of Ashbery and Freilicher and others watching the film for the first time in all these years, together. The old friends were then in their late 80s, and are now both deceased. Oh my heart.
After finishing Roffman's book, I now want to go back and revisit a lot of the poems in Ashbery's first Library of America volume Collected Poems 1956-1987 (edited by Mark Ford 2008). I have a list of the ones that I loved when I first encountered them, with not much context to speak of, and now want to read again with my newfound knowledge of his early life. I suppose I set aside his work for so many years because the poems of his contemporaries felt more immediately accessible and understandable, full as they are of cultural signifiers and references I recognize or could surmise easily, even when the poems themselves were not easy by any means. As with so many other great authors and books I finally read after years of feeling intimidated or not up to the task, those worries soon evaporated when I started to read. For a long time Ashbery was a secondary presence to me, there in the background, in a blurry photograph, when I read about his friends, especially Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher. They were ascendant in my affections and I don't quite understand why I hadn't instictively warmed to Ashbery's work in the way I did theirs. I remember when I worked in a new-book store and would stock Ashbery's books, sell them, and reorder them, but not read them, even though I loved the music of their very titles: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Flow Chart; April Galleons. I did buy a secondhand copy of his collected art reviews (Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, edited by David Bergman, Knopf 1989), and read that closely, but didn't seek out or keep more of his books when I came across them over the years. How I regret that now! But I am making up for it, and it is a joy.
Collected Poems 1957-1987 is rich and rewarding. Even while it's a thicket of words. Sometimes I feel like Ashbery used all the words. All of them available in English! Like a scrambled-up dictionary or encyclopedia, rearranged into a new and less rigid order. Many poems I still cannot fathom but I feel at peace about that now. They just are. (There is almost always a beautiful line, or choice of words, or a few laughs, even.) And many do help the worried reader understand how and why they were written. This often feels like a kindly hand extended from the writer out to us, the hapless readers, lingering here on the verso of the page. As in the opening lines from his poem "The New Spirit" (p.247):
"I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way."
And from the poem "Ode to Bill" (p.461):
I vowed to write more. What is writing?
Well, in my case, it's getting down on paper
Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe:
Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
Someday I'll explain. Not today, though."
If ever! These lines also describe painting to me - how a painting can be "about" something, have a subject, yet with almost any painting, if you contemplate it long enough (or attempt to make it yourself in the first place), what the painting is really "about" is an undefinable shimmering something, beyond or behind, under or around, or through, any thoughts and ideas and specifics about what it might be. Ashbery's phrase and suggestion "...leave all out..." says it so well. Perhaps what remains and is described, is pure feeling, or experience.
Speaking of painting, a bit of shameless self-promotion is at hand. I will return to Ashbery again soon, when I finish volume two of the Library of America set, but I must mention that the arts writer and poet Carl Little (author of a slew of highly-regarded art and poetry books) came over for a studio visit this fall. We walked up the hill behind the house, too, so he could witness the logistics involved in beginning one of my paintings. His article about me and my work was just published online in the January/February issue of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine. The print copy will be out next week. I am so pleased, to say the least. If this is any indication of what 2020 has planned, well, I'll say hallelujah once again.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
let it snow
Light flurries are just starting to fall, now. The woodstove is going, our tree is decorated and lit, the Christmas shopping is finished (mostly for my nieces and nephews at this point, oh how I love to give them books). The house is clean, which always feels like a tiny victory. The doors on the advent calendars are opening one after another, too quickly. I wish these quiet days would slow down. We went to a concert a few nights ago and heard carols in the round, by candlelight. I am humming my favorites, picking them out on the piano in the evenings, and letting the calm of winter settle into my being. I love this time of year in Maine, when the sere and bleak gives us a rest from the lushness of spring and summer. The landscape changes, and we change alongside it. The outer echoes the inner. My birthday approaches - I am turning 52 this year, and what kind of an age is that, I ask you - as does the solstice and the new year. I have all kinds of plans for 2020, some quite elaborate, some cloud-castle best-case-scenario kinds of things, because why not. Why not put the most hopeful items you can think of on your Christmas list, for your look ahead. Some of them might just come true.
But that is for the future, for the new decade fast on approach. Meanwhile here we are, about to turn the corner into official winter. My winter reading project is keeping me busy and interested. The New York School of poets and artists is satisfying to read about for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is the interleaving of lives. I read a biography of one person, all the rest are there too. I read another person's collected essays, and many of them are about the others in the group. Each book adds to the complex picture of the whole circle. Which was made up of friends, lovers, frenemies, and rivals (and often all of the above). I read about John Ashbery and discover facts about Fairfield Porter I never knew, despite having read about Porter extensively. In Porter's paintings, there is Frank O'Hara, and John Ashbery, and Jane Freilicher. I read about Frank O'Hara and there is Grace Hartigan, and Patsy Southgate, and Bill Berkson, and James Schuyler. I read Ashbery's essays and there is Jane Freilicher. I read about Jane Freilicher and there is John Ashbery. I read James Schuyler's poems and there too is "Ashes."
John Ashbery is the writer I have been focusing on for the past few weeks, after my long visit with Frank O'Hara. Ashbery has mystified me for the better part of three decades. Largely because I have never taken the time to seriously investigate his work, until now. His poetry is opaque. Recognizable narratives are largely absent, at least as far as I can tell. But I have always put his work aside instead of wondering why that is. I ordered secondhand copies of both Library of America volumes of his poetry, to see if I could get to the bottom of it:
Collected Poems 1956-1987 and Collected Poems 1991-2000, edited by Mark Ford (2008, 2017). I also found a used copy of Karin Roffman's recent book The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2017), the frontispiece of which helped me immeasurably when I was feeling like I could not understand Ashbery's poems, no matter what I did. Here it is, across from the title page:
A little cut-up, a collage, a poem. A light bulb went off in my head when I saw it. OH, I thought, I think I get it, even without getting it. I knew that he sometimes collaged his poems from other sources - the newspaper, magazines, the mail I guess, but I don't really know - but the message is right there. The poem starts "Here is everything for everyone" and finishes "...tawny, tantalizing." The lines between them don't make any kind of sense, but they do contain messages, beauty, snippets of this and that, and specific words, which resonate in a nonlinear, un-thinking kind of way. When I began to suspect that this was his whole point (maybe? I mean, I am really guessing here, but will back up my guess with some supporting statements below in a moment, so please bear with me), to engage some other part of his own mind and ours, the readers', I thought OH, again, and turned back to his poems as if I were planning to read Tristram Shandy, knowing it wasn't supposed to "make sense" in any way I had thought it might. Instead of thinking I don't understand this, bah, and setting it aside, I realized that understanding it was beside the point, and I have been able to (for the most part) let Ashbery's veritable blizzard of words rush past, and let my expectations go with them. This has been a real challenge for me, a reader who loves beginning-middle-end, romantic stories, traditional narratives, understandable poems, and whole lives that resonate with meaning (not Tristram Shandy, which a few readers may remember that I could not cope with at all, and never finished).
Not pictured above is an essential volume, Selected Prose by John Ashbery, edited by Eugene Richie (University of Michigan Press 2004). I just finished reading it, and I have to say that every essay in it had me wishing to know more, wanting to read more about the people and works he deals with, even when I don't think I'd even enjoy reading their work. The essays, reviews, and talks within illuminate his own work in helpful ways, while also enabling an understanding of why he writes his poetry the way he does. Besides, pretty much every piece in this volume is brilliant. He writes about Gertrude Stein, Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Kenneth Koch, Jasper Johns, Frank O'Hara, Jane Bowles, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Louisa Matthiasdottir, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and plenty of other people I had never heard of until now, mostly writers. The pieces are mostly short and as I said, intellectually satisfying. And as I read them, more light bulbs were further brightening things up. In the essay on Joan Murray's poetry, Ashbery writes (pp.298-299):
"How did we get from there to here, and what have we been told? As so often, this remains partly or even largely mysterious. What we are left with is the sense of an act accomplished, an act of telling, and a feeling that we must take this communication away to study it; something important is hidden there. Repeated readings may not reveal it, but the mere act of reading Murray's poetry always seems to be pushing one closer to the brink of a momentous discovery."
OH. Okay, now we are getting somewhere. Earlier in the book, in writing about the poet John Wheelwright and his work, Ashbery says (p.141):
"Even while beginning to wonder what this is all about, one notes its crochety sense of conviction.... I am unsure of what is being said, but also fairly sure that it doesn't matter, that we are in the presence of something as dumbfounding as Cubism must have seemed to its first spectators and as valid as it now looks in retrospect."
Unsure, but it doesn't matter! I love that. And this, about Frank O'Hara (p.83):
"Like Pollock, O'Hara demonstrates that the act of creation and finished creation are the same, that art is human willpower deploying every means at its disposal to break through to a truer state than the present one. The work of both is in the form of a heroic question: can art do this? Is this really happening?"
AHA. I am getting closer to Ashbery's poetry. I think. I've read over half of each of the Library of America volumes and his work glimmers. For good reason. I've taken a few notes here and there, and gone back to re-read certain poems that linger in my mind. I will write more about them soon but they still feel almost hopelessly difficult. Immersing myself in his work has shown me that you can read all you want about someone and read reams of their own words but they remain essentially unknowable. I get these little flashes but that's it, in the same way I look at a Fairfield Porter painting of Ashbery and find it beautiful but inscrutable. It's too hard to put into words. I want to become more comfortable with not having to know. I look out the window here this afternoon and wonder about everything and its meaning. And the snow falls. I can't stop it, I don't want to. It is so beautiful, even as it obscures the familiar and creates a new kind of reality. I remember that things do not have to make perfect sense all the time, in fact they usually don't. Ashbery among them.
Work on my painting memoir continues, speaking of things that don't make sense. I took up the most recent draft again, after letting it sit for nearly six months, and currently I am editing, adding, and subtracting. Some sections need more, some need a lot less. These homebound winter days will help me see it through. I'd like to be able to call it finished, sometime in 2020. But. This is just one more thing I do not know. Which is a lot. My brain hurts! I'm going to go stoke the stove and make gingerbread. Cozy up, everyone! Peace on Earth, and Joyeux Noël.