In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had ‘Just a Smack at Auden’:
What was said by Marx, boys, what did he perpend?
No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end.
Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend,
Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.
By contrast, in a lecture on ‘Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry’ to the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961, Empson gave William Carlos Williams and his reviewers an exasperated wallop:
The most unexpected American critics will be found speaking of him with tender reverence; they feel he is a kind of saint. He has renounced all the pleasures of the English language, so that he is completely American; and he only says the dullest things, so he has won the terrible fight to become completely democratic as well. I think that, if they are such gluttons for punishment as all that, they are past help.
It may in fact have been Empson who by 1961 was past help – at only 55 he was already describing himself as an ‘old buffer’– for he was clearly unable to pick up the subtleties of intonation in Williams’s drawl in the way that he had instinctively been able to tune in to the rhythms of Auden’s Oxford patter. Empson’s is a classic English misreading and misunderstanding of American poetry, caused largely by lack of proximity but also by a wilful refusal to hear. ‘I suspect,’ Emerson wrote, ‘that there is in an Englishman’s brain a valve that can be closed at pleasure, as an engineer shuts off steam.’
The closing of the valve, the deliberate shutting off of steam, is one of the things that helps regulate English poetry, producing its iambic highs and lows, its mood-swings and its syncopations. In American poetry there is often no such clear cut-off, no shut-up or shut-down; the language seems to be on automatic, which can be disconcerting: ‘the English often feel,’ as Empson put it, ‘that some Americans quack on with a terrible monotony and no pause for the opposite number to get in a word.’ A.R. Ammons’s poetry is a case in point: his massive oeuvre amounts to a kind of giant bulk bin fed by his extraordinary brush-equipped pick-up belt of a brain, which has managed to load and deliver material at a speed of about one collection every two years for forty years, yet it is an achievement which remains either politely ignored or quietly sniggered at in England. His titling his latest book Garbage probably won’t help, but then his verse has always been something of a dumping ground for Platonic, Romantic and Emersonian notions of effluence, confluence and the common harmony of the created order. As he put it in Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974),
under all life, fly and
dandelion, protozoan, bushamster, and ladybird, tendon
and tendrel (excluding protocelluar organelles) is the same
Indeed, Ammons’s theory of poetic form, as set out in Hibernaculum, amounts to a kind of trashcan theory:
much have I studied, trashcanology, cheesespreadology,
laboratorydoorology, and become much enlightened and
dismayed: have, sad to some, come to care as much for
a fluted trashcan as a fluted Roman column: flutes are
flutes and the matter is a mere substance design takes
its shape in ...
According to William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, garbage archaeologists with the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, garbage ‘refers technically to “wet” discards – food remains, yard waste, and offal’, while trash refers to the ‘dry’ stuff – ‘newspapers, boxes, cans, and so on’. Refuse, however, covers both, and rubbish ‘refers to all refuse plus construction and demolition debris’. It is worth bearing such distinctions in mind, for Ammons’s Garbage is most certainly not rubbish; it is something far more wet and slippery. Ammons states that
garbage has to be the poem of our time because
garbage is spiritual, believable enough
to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
up, stinking ...
Garbage for Ammons, in other words, is nothing so simple as evidence of mere over-consumption: it is a kind of sacrament, an outward and visible sign of certain inward and spiritual truths – in fact, another illustration of the truths and graces of the Emersonian version of Neoplatonism that he has been espousing since his first collection Ommateum (1955) and which found its most profound expression in Corson’s Inlet (1965). Ammons’s is a philosophy in which, as he puts it in Garbage, ‘all is one, one all’; it finds a natural expression in paradox – ‘we’re trash, plenty wondrous’ – and often comes close to sliding into determinism:
oh well: argument is like dining:
mess with a nice dinner long enough, it’s garbage.
This kind of Transcendental shruggery gives his poetry its very un-English tone of patient endurance and content – ‘don’t worry, be happy,’ he counsels at one point in Garbage – and in this latest collection results in a reconsideration of waste products and wasted moments:
Marine Shale are said to be ‘able to turn
wastes into safe products’: but some say these
‘products are themselves hazardous wastes’:
well, what does anybody want: is there a world
with no bitter aftertaste or post coital triste:
what’s a petit mort against a high moment:
I mean, have you ever heard of such a thing ...
The restless and continuous movement of Ammons’s poetry is undoubtedly impressive but it is nonetheless semi-automatic: although he can and often does adjust the size of his nozzle to alter the pressure of mood, mode or tone in a poem, it’s basically always the same stuff coming out. For example, Tape for the Turn of the Year, first published in 1965 and recently reissued, is pretty bog-standard Ammons, with its reflections on ‘motions / and intermotions’, and surely was and now most certainly is remarkable only for having been written on a roll of adding-machine tape. With the tape’s length and breadth determining its shape and size, Tape for the Turn of the Year quite literally invites readers to never mind the quality but feel the width; when Ammons ends the poem with the throwaway phrase ‘so long’ some readers might welcome the words not only as a farewell but also as a statement of unfortunate fact.
Ammons’s extraordinary overflow also raises questions about quality control, a problem that he states as fact in ‘Cold Rheum’, from The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons (1990):
what’s not ...
Of course, snot is not always to be sniffed at. There is a children’s riddle:
Q: What is it that the rich man puts in his pocket that the poor man throws away?
Substitute ‘American’ for the riddle’s ‘rich man’ and ‘English’ for ‘poor’ and you have a workable definition of the differences between American and English poetry. In a gloss on the snot riddle in his book Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value, Michael Thompson explains that the riddle
succeeds by playing upon that which is residual to our system of cultural categories. When, in the context of wealth and poverty, we talk of possessable objects we unquestioningly assume that we are talking about valuable objects. The category ‘objects of no-value’ is invisible and we only notice its existence when it is pointed out to us by the riddle. But the riddle contains much more than this. If the answer is simply ‘an object of no-value’ (say, pebbles or sweet papers) it is not very funny. What makes it funny is that the answer ‘snot’ is an object, as it were, of negative value; something that should be thrown away.
One might describe Garbage as the logical extension of Ammons’s sustained attempt to dignify objects and experiences of no apparent value, a project in which silt, sludge and slurry are not so much by-products as the stuff of life.
Where Ammons’s inclinations tend towards the epic and the all-inclusive, Charles Simic is an avowed miniaturist. This has guaranteed him a more sympathetic reading than Ammons in an England still under the sway of the lyric. Simic is also, significantly, a rather more sentimental poet, his poems tricky little devices often oiled by tears. Simic shares Ammons’s Transcendental heritage, but has chosen to align himself with those within the tradition whom he calls ‘visionary sceptics’, writers like Dickinson, Frost and Stevens, who have had a ‘lover’s quarrel’ with Emerson. According to Simic, ‘God died and we were left with Emerson. Some are still milking Emerson’s cow, but there are problems with that milk.’ The main problem with Emerson’s milk is that it is both too rich and too little enriching: as vegans are fond of saying about cow’s milk, it’s all right for baby cows, but not for growing humans. Simic has successfully mixed Emerson’s milk with a little East European spirit (he was born in Yugoslavia), and so, unlike Ammons, has managed to wean himself from Emerson and learnt to fend for himself. Also unlike Ammons he is proud to be a city-poet rather than a ruralist manqué – he memorably describes nature as ‘the place where our mothers and our schools took us occasionally so we could get some fresh air’ – and while Ammons might best be described as essentially a nature poet who writes in the abstract, Simic is in several senses an abstract poet who writes in the concrete.
In the Sixties Simic was associated with, and became identified with, neo-Surrealists like James Tate, Mark Strand and Russell Edson, producing poems of boozy chance operation. During the Seventies he became renowned for his rather more sober so-called ‘object’ poems, such as the famous ‘Fork’, from his 1971 collection Dismantling the Silence (‘This strange thing must have crept/Right out of hell. / It resembles a bird’s foot / Worn around the cannibal’s neck’), work which in England compares in both its imitability and inimitability to the snap-together phenomenological poetry of Craig Raine. But as Simic’s later poetry, his essays and his memoirs make clear, his ambitions were always larger than the merely playful re-naming of parts:
– They’re not really object poems.
– What are they then?
– They are premonitions.
– About what?
– About the absolute otherness of the object.
– So, it’s the absolute you’ve been thinking of?
– Of course.
One shouldn’t be misled by the footling titles of some of the essays in The Unemployed Fortune-Teller (‘Don’t Squeeze the Tomatoes!’ or ‘Fried Sausage’), since Simic always has bigger and more important matters on his mind. The Unemployed Fortune-Teller is the third collection of his essays published by the University of Michigan Press. All of this work is worth reading and re-reading, since even at its worst Simic’s prose is cheerily anecdotal, and at its best is witty and wise. The Unemployed Fortune-Teller gives new meaning to the phrase ‘food for thought’ (‘Nature as experience – making a tomato salad, say, with young mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, and olive oil – is better than any idea about Nature,’ he writes in ‘Fried Sausage’). The book contains as much interest and insight in its discussion of the relative merits of burek, pishingers, girice and olives as in its comments on Heidegger and the metaphysics of awe.
Frightening Toys, Faber’s selection from Simic’s four most recent collections of poetry, begins with ‘December’:
and still the derelicts
carrying sandwich boards –
the end of the world
the rates of a local barbershop ...
This is an archetypal Simic poem. There is first of all the statement about the weather. Simic’s is a poetry which invariably takes place on dull and damp afternoons, with the darkness and drizzle often intended as signs of an unseen and underlying psychological or political dis-ease, or even, as in ‘Windy Evening’, as metaphors for apocalypse itself:
Better grab hold of that tree, Lucille.
Its shape crazed, terror-stricken.
I’ll hold the barn.
The chickens in it uneasy.
Smart chickens, rickety world.
Then there is the poem’s double focus, the two derelicts with their sandwich boards, who serve as Simic’s down-at-heel stand-ins for the two thieves crucified with Christ, about whom Augustine famously taught: ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved: do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’ The sandwich-board derelicts introduce Simic’s characteristic fifty-fifty focus on earth-shattering catastrophe, on the one hand (‘the end of the world’), and humble human habitude (‘the rates of the local barbershop’), on the other. They also gesture towards the shadowy figure of the barber, who throughout Frightening Toys acts as reminder of a common history (we have all of us had our hair cut) and a common destiny (we shall all of us be tonsured by the hand of Time: ‘History’, as the title poem reminds us, is ‘practising its scissor-clips’). ‘December’ is typical of Simic’s work, then, in being both abrupt and ambitious; it is a poem and a poetry that is simultaneously underplayed and overdone, inscrutable and entertaining, a poetry, to modify one of Simic’s hair-care metaphors, busked on paper and comb.
Simic is one of a posse of American poets brought together and brought over to England by Faber, in what is clearly and self-consciously a re-establishing of what Faber is calling its ‘American Connection’. The American poets – Simic, August Kleinzahler, and Chase Twichell – have all been done out in plain white-cover paperbacks, with modish modern art miniatures on the front and, in a revival and reversal of the old frontispiece-principle, author photographs on the back. The jacket photograph of Simic shows him slightly jowly, bespectacled and ageing, with thinning hair and an imperious smile. The photograph of August Kleinzahler shows a rather raddled and puffy-faced bohemian. Twichell is steely-eyed and serious. Faber’s use of author portraits makes an appeal to the primitive association between poetry and the individual voice and says as much about Faber’s editorial policy as any statement of principle. It is a dangerous and dubious business to try and read the character of a poetry from the face of the poet, or vice versa, but it is nonetheless hard to resist, and it would probably be fair to say that Simic’s poetry, like his face, does have a slightly professorial air (he is indeed a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire), whilst August Kleinzahler’s poetry really is as laid-back and worldly-wise as he looks.
Although Kleinzahler’s work has hitherto only been available in small press publications in this country – Dainties – Viands was published by Newcastle’s Galloping Dog Press in 1985, Blue at 4 p.m. and The Last Big Snow by Northern Lights, and On Johnny’s Times by the Pig Press in 1988 – he has for some time had a loyal and prestigious following in America. For example, in a review of Helen Vendler’s Harward Book of Contemporary Poetry in the Threepenny Review in 1986, Thom Gunn declared himself utterly unimpressed with what he described as an ‘obviously worthless book’, but went on to compare and favourably contrast Kleinzahler’s first full-length collection Storm over Hackensack (1985) as ‘something new, something perhaps inconceivable to the reader of the Vendler anthology’. It may have been disingenuous of Gunn to play an overweight anthology off against a slim first volume and then to accuse the anthology’s readers of the faults of its editor, but he was nevertheless quite right to praise Kleinzahler for his ‘sensory force’, his enthusiasm, and his sense of responsibility towards his subjects. None of the poems in Kleinzahler’s Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow compare in their exuberance or range to earlier poems such as ‘The Sausage Master of Minsk’ or ‘A BLT with Old Ed Hopper at Gimbel’s Luncheonette’ (which in a brilliant conceit describes the ruminant Hopper, ‘Glum as a cow’, contemplating ‘the pink swivel chair / and the doughnuts under glass’), but he does continue to deploy his usual Imagist procedures and to make the most of his unusual synaesthetic abilities, as in ‘Spring Trances’:
The wind carries music up from the street,
a skewer running through him
that he slowly turns on in the scented dark.
Or, from the title poem, whose title alone is a poem, but which goes on:
A gathering aroma of earth and fruit
As the sauce darkens with the juices of meat, craters and thickens
Somewhere back there, early in the second movement
The clarinet located an emotion, one long forgotten ...
Kleinzahler has always been good at registering the impact of long-forgotten emotions via the description of freshly ground sights, smells and sounds, but his new poems give off an unsavoury and unmistakable stench of impending doom, the smell of death, which in ‘East of the Library, Across from the Odd Fellows Building’ he compares to ‘That bummy smell you meet/off the escalator at the Civic Centre’. Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow is filled with rumours and apprehensions about the future, which make Kleinzahler all the more determined to record the treasure among the dross, as he attempts to do in ‘Sunday, Across the Tasman’:
Bartók liked to pick out a folk melody
and set it, a jewel in the thick
of hammered discords and shifting registers:
not unlike this dippy Mamas and Papas tune
floating along nicely among the debris.
Extraordinary, as Noël Coward put it, how potent cheap music is; extraordinary also how sad. According to Chase Twichell in the poem ‘Why All Good Music Is Sad’, from her first Faber collection Perdido (1991),
That’s why all good music is sad.
It makes the sound of the end before the end,
and leaves behind it
the ghost of the past that was sacrificed,
a chord to represent the membrane,
broken only once, that keeps the world away.
Twichell, even more than Kleinzahler, is obsessed with imminent endings, and has abandoned herself in her poetry to a representation of life, as she puts it in the poem ‘Chanel No 5’, as ‘a sort of gorgeous elegy, /intimate with things about to be lost’.
Twichell’s intimacy with loss is apparent everywhere in The Ghost of Eden, her agonised and often agonising second collection from Faber, in which she demonstrates her painful awareness of what in ‘The Ruiner of Lives’ she calls ‘the sin of despair / for the world my species has spoiled’. Twichell defiantly inhabits a world where God is Dead (the ‘higher power’ in ‘The Devil I Don’t Know’ is ‘gutted, garnished, laid out on ice’), and where pleasures are passing (‘The earth as it has always been,’ she writes in ‘Touch-Me-Not’, ‘is saying its good-byes’). Yet Twichell is as snug within this world as a pit within its fruit, as she explains in a recent essay: ‘For years I had been unable to look out across the valley without flinching at the shadow of death that darkened it, but now I look out and see the storms building, the snow, the secret purples and greens of spring, and I feel like an animal inside it, which is what I always wanted to be when I grew up.’