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.