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.