Accidents of Priority

John Redmond

  • Can You Hear, Bird by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 128 pp, £9.95, February 1996, ISBN 1 85754 224 X
  • The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems by Jorie Graham
    Carcanet, 220 pp, £12.95, March 1996, ISBN 1 85754 225 8
  • Selected Poems by Barbara Guest
    Carcanet, 220 pp, £12.95, May 1996, ISBN 1 85754 158 8
  • Selected Poems 1976-1996 by George Szirtes
    Oxford, 126 pp, £9.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 283223 9
  • Adam’s Dream by Peter McDonald
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £6.95, March 1996, ISBN 1 85224 333 3

Famous poems, like faces, are a particularly memorable kind of introduction to the person they conceal. Like other kinds of introduction, they are often what we remember a person for, or what we think of when we hear their name. Think of Larkin, for example, and what do your see? A head like a pale, bespectacled bean and then maybe an image or two from the better-known poems, the shabby lodger, say, of ‘Mr Bleaney’, or the stony couple of ‘An Arundel Tomb’. Such reflections, it might be objected, are very superficial, but as Wilde reminds us, it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

An image painted in the 16th century by Francesco Parmigianino on a half-globe of wood is the first impression which many people take away from John Ashbery’s poetry. The poem in which it appears, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, a meditation on Parmigianino’s strange Mannerist painting, suddenly made Ashbery’s name much less obscure than his work. The collection to which it lent its name won several prizes, including the Pulitzer, and was the first of his books to be published by Carcanet. The poem itself is the single piece of writing for which he is best known and the first poem many people will read by Ashbery, particularly people on this side of the Atlantic. Like other ‘anthology-poems’, ‘Self-Portrait’ derives its popularity from the agreeable accessibility of its central figure, the sort of image we see of ourselves on the back of a teaspoon: a face eerily distorted on something resembling a giant eyeball, an image which has the startling memorability of a successful advertisement: ‘the right hand/Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer/And swerving easily away, as though to protect/What it advertises’.

But even more than other such anthology favourites, the poem is a strange introduction to Ashbery’s work, a kind of looking-glass through which we enter the wide, inner world of his poetry. This is partly because the poem’s recognisable subject is a perfect metaphor for Ashbery’s own work, and yet by virtue of being a perfect metaphor is unrepresentative. As a highly unusual example of art criticism, it is also a neat introduction to Ashbery’s other, oddly straightforward career as an art critic, while at the same time being a criticism of Ashbery’s art. Nor is this point incidental: painting has deeply influenced his poetics. On the cover of his second, highly disjunctive book, The Tennis Court Oath, he announced: ‘I attempt to use words abstractly, as an abstract painter would use paint.’ So the ‘representational’ style of ‘Self-Portrait’ is unrepresentative of some of the abstract difficulties encountered elsewhere in his work. The poem acts more like the accurate sketch of a face which an abstract painter might produce to prove he is no charlatan.

Not a straightforwardly autobiographical or confessional poet, Ashbery had kept his real self withdrawn from the poems. Both Auden and Marianne Moore, with their ironically projected and protected poetic personae, are important in this respect and acknowledged by Ashbery as major influences. The title poem of Some Trees – his first book, published in 1956, for which Auden wrote the Foreword – ends with the lines ‘Placed in a puzzling light, and moving/Our days put on such reticence/These accents seem their own defence.’ Ashbery clearly does not revel in self-promotion and the ‘reticence’ (a favourite word of Moore’s) of ‘Some Trees’ is also an issue in ‘Self-Portrait’:

Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the ‘it was all a dream’
Syndrome, though the ‘all’ tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t.

That phrase ‘the shield of a greeting’ is at once an image of defence and a defensive image, loosely aligning the poem with similar images, from Satan’s shield in Paradise Lost (‘Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb/Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views’) through to Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and several poems by Marianne Moore (including ‘His Shield’ and, especially, ‘On Armour’s Undermining Modesty’). It also complements the defensive themes, the fighting shyness, in his own work. One of the troubles with introductions, with images and masks, is that their implicit defensiveness may lead to a kind of stiffness, an inability to go beyond formality. Ashbery, who likes to think about identity in terms of flow, has always worried about our projections of ourselves hardening too much, as a passage from ‘The New Spirit’, one of his long prose-poems from the mid-Seventies, indicates:

And now these attitudes which were merely sketched on the air of the room have hardened into the official likeness of what we were doing, there, the life has gone out of our acts and into our attitudes.

Dreamily dramatised by a cast of thousands, Ashbery’s crowded solitude likes to counterpoint the bewildering flow of his thoughts with a kind of inner face-to-face meeting, as if the poet’s countenance were represented to us on a concave mirror and could see all parts of itself. His poems can usefully be imagined as having two levels. On the level of argument, they are an attempt, deeply convoluted in nature, to describe the world and our descriptions of it. Speed is an important feature of his work and this level of meaning is characterised by the rapidity of his transitions. Like the cartoon characters he sometimes writes about, his thoughts have the capacity to change direction, easily and quickly. On a second level, the level of tone, his poems come across as laconic, straightforward, almost intimate. The effect is like that of overhearing a telephone conversation, where one person, squeakily audible through the receiver, is engaging in a long, rambling discourse, and the other, in the room with you, is giving a series of grunts and aahs and mmms, every bit as expressive and perhaps more coherent. This second voice, more sound than voice, has the neutral, reassuring tones of a doctor’s or psychoanalyst’s.

In ‘The Problem of Anxiety’, one of the clearer poems in Can You Hear, Bird, Ashbery, with his Waspish reticence, asks the reader (perhaps the psychoanalyst part of himself) how he would represent himself given the opportunity:

Suppose this poem were about you, would you
put in the things I’ve carefully left out:
descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily
people behave toward each other’? Naw, that’s
all in some book it seems. For you
I’ve saved the descriptions of chicken sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.

The glass eye here may be related to Emerson’s famous image of a transparent eyeball voraciously consuming impressions, an image pro phetic of much American poetry, but it is hard not to read it as a look back to ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, as an oblique hint at its enduring, almost baleful power. That Ashbery seems to be looking back at ‘Self-Portrait’ from his later career may simply be due to the fact that we are looking at his later career from ‘Self-Portrait’, but this is just the kind of accident which his poetry broodingly anticipates – an accident of priority, of whatever happens to come first, chronologically or spatially, in the world around us. Nobody is more sensitive than Ashbery to such accidents.

Ashbery has followed Wallace Stevens in centring the poems on the flow of his thought, the Niagara-like rush and hum of his brain. But being less vain and more worldly than Stevens, he has mostly avoided narcissism – unless one imagines a Narcissus whose intensity of interest in himself is more professional than egotistical. Ashbery has said: ‘I guess I don’t have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another.’ His use of ‘you’, for instance, is especially hard to read. ‘Fragment’, a masterpiece which precedes ‘Self-Portrait’, provides an example of this in its monumental opening stanza:

The last block is closed in April. You
See the intrusions clouding over her face
As in the memory given you of older
Permissiveness which dies in the
Falling back towards recondite ends,
The sympathy of yellow flowers.
Never mentioned in the signs of the oblong day
The saw-toothed flames and point of other
Space not given, and yet not withdrawn
And never yet imagined: a moment’s commandment.

Although the texture of this is more difficult to penetrate than that of‘Self-Portrait’ (we never quite find out who the ‘you’ is), the calm, almost exhausted tone remains constant in both poems. Loosely grounded on the five-beat line and organised either into long strophes or large stanzas, ‘Fragment’, ‘Self-Portrait’ and ‘Wave’ (another glitteringly mysterious example of Ashbery’s success in the long poem) achieve a massive evenness of tone and quality. The diction in each is slightly elevated, with hints of Stevens’s Francophilia; a relish for puzzling prevails, but the effects are surprisingly natural: the cadences come as if by chance.

Had Ashbery written only these three poems he could confidently be placed among the five or six best living poets in English, but he has written many others. Can You Hear, Bird, his 16th collection, contains just over one hundred, including another long rumination called ‘Tuesday Evening’. One of the problems with ‘Self-Portrait’ as an introduction to his work is that it does not capture the throwaway quality of his lesser work, and, as Can You Hear, Bird demonstrates, there is a lot he might have thrown away:

The deputy returned
the peashooter I have learned
to plait wasps

into a bronze necropolis.
The ticket and the water
only endure, as one can

in the right circumstances,
mon cher tommy. I think the theme
created itself somewhere

around here and cannot find itself.

This is the end of ‘Theme’, a characteristically puzzling poem. Even in context the transitions here fail to make much sense. The sentences are laid down together but there are deep chasms of meaning in between them. Nevertheless we can gather that here, as elsewhere in the volume, the tone is rueful, the voice sounds slightly lost. What seems to have changed over the years is that Ashbery’s controlling tonal voice has lost its evenness, has lost its quality of endless patience. The long, convoluted explanations are no longer grounded by what articulates them.

The poems in Can You Hear, Bird are ordered by title alphabetically from A to Y and I can see no obvious reason for this, unless it is intended as a whimsical allusion to his own name. The book’s slightly masked theme is age and this is worked out in a host of subsidiary concerns: the mindless ‘fun’ (a favourite word) which animates younger America: country retreats, what one poem calls ‘the sandtrap/of bucolic enthusiasm’; and the perfidy of academia. With the ‘end of his journey’ insight, Ashbery permits himself a few covert glances back at his career, so that some of the poems have an almost manically valedictory quality:

                                 I’ll be
off now, the tide is running,
the ship writhing in the roads, and I must finish
my diary by midnight, or be fated
to continue this file into the next. O
brothers, sisters, friends, catamites –
it’s been a long and intelligent journey, hasn’t it?

Not that Ashbery should be too closely identified with his own narrators – it is better to think of characters like Salinger’s Buddy Glass or Vonnegut’s Rabo Karabekian, who share a large number of their narrator’s opinions but with whom the author does not completely identify. Nevertheless, the jokily wistful tone which we encounter throughout Can You Hear, Bird (‘No grouch/am I, yet hardly an earth-mother either’) appears to be heartfelt. The poems are punctuated with arch (or archly used) phrases (‘Methinks’, ‘zounds!’, ‘Pretty please’, ‘Yoo hoo’), daft, slightly old-fashioned exclamations (‘by Gosh’, ‘by George’, ‘by Golly’) and corny ones (‘Heck’, ‘Darn!’, ‘nifty’, ‘critter’, ‘dangblasted’). This fits in well with the book’s obsessive concern with past fashions, games that are no longer played, flowers that are no longer worn, and words which are no longer used. It’s the kind of voice which hints that all this sentence-building and image-turning is a ridiculously overblown activity. Ashbery at times adopts, or perhaps reveals, a persona like that of the later Auden: an amused, well-meaning and sagelike crankiness. One notable similarity is a consistently negative and dismissive attitude to academia, which however much we sympathise with it, makes the poems sound uncomfortably impatient:

Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and en joy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one ...

Reticent ironists (like Auden, Moore and Ashbery) face one peculiar occupational hazard. Disdaining a poetry of grandiose gestures, which they see as ill-masked egomania, they write serious poems while carefully playing down the idea of The Poet. But as Yeats, the poet of image, knew, if people take your projections seriously they will probably take you seriously. Jorie Graham, who is by no means a reticent ironist, takes poetry very seriously and, given that The Dream of the Unified Field has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize, clearly that’s how many people take her. We often expect poems with grand titles to be ambitious, humourless and downright bad. So after one reads the titles in The Dream of the Unified Field – ‘Notes on the Reality of the Self’, ‘The Tree of Knowledge’, ‘The Visible World’, ‘Short History of the West’, ‘History’, ‘Mind’ – it is slightly discouraging to find that the poems are ambitious, humourless and downright brilliant. The optimism with which American poets handle the big problems of metaphysics might be blamed on their never experiencing a Movement. Certainly, after the largely negative poetics of Davie, Amis and Co, the dominant poetry in these islands (which happened to come from Northern Ireland) took on big problems, whether political or metaphysical, with a chastened obliquity. There could be no beginning a poem, as Graham begins ‘The Visible World’, with the words ‘I dig my hands into the absolute,’ and yet the poem in question overcomes one’s post-Movement prejudices.

Graham’s poetry converges with Ashbery’s in a number of ways. Both have an interest in visual media (Graham has a number of poems with the words ‘Self-Portrait’ in the title). Both find the simple lyric constricting and are at their best experimenting in longer forms. Both derive from Stevens a desire to describe the fluidity of their own cognitive processes. But the results of all this are as different as their temperaments. Ashbery’s poems make large leaps of sense, moving from one topic to another at lightning speed, while Graham’s thoughts move more sedately and are allowed more time to develop. Nevertheless Ashbery’s phrase, ‘the epitome of something experienced’, a description of what his poems aim to be, also describes Graham’s intentions. Her poems repeatedly face the problems of capturing a moment and being faithful to the process of its capture. Hence any representation of the natural world immediately loops back to the way the subject’s mind represents it:

The self-brewing of the amaryllis rising before me.
Weeks of something decomposing – like hearsay
growing – into this stringent self-analysis –
a tyranny of utter self-reflexiveness –

Graham’s poems are a search for the basic stuff of reality. An earnestly inquiring spirit allows her to use poetry as a kind of loose combination of science and philosophy. What results is the evocation of a living world that seems more alive, because it is more examined, than the one which we think we inhabit.

Tell me, where are the drumbeats which fully load and expand each second,
bloating it up, cell-like, making it real, where are they
to go, what will they fill up
pouring forth, pouring round the subaqueous magenta bushes
which dagger the wind back down on itself,
tenderly, prudently, almost loaded down
with regret?

The poetry is full of filaments, ribbons, arabesques and flimsy stalks (this same poem speaks of the ‘never ending stringy/almost maternal lurching of the wind’), long, soft phenomena, which are like the living objects we see under microscopes, or in photographs of the ocean’s depths, and which, given one’s prejudices about such environments, cause a surprising, almost guilty, recognition of kinship. As Graham likes to suggest resistance to gravity, she favours objects which tend to float or billow like cloth in the wind or elements which naturally rise like fire. In an early poem (not collected here), called ‘Pollock and Canvas’, she provides a metaphor for all this by describing, with evident sympathy, the long DNA-like drips used in Pollock’s painting process. Graham (who has studied filmmaking) has a very strong visual sense of her own, which, with a perfect sense of pace and progression, she manages to dovetail with the processes of her thinking:

In the rear-view mirror I saw the veil of leaves
suctioned up by a change in current
and how they stayed up, for the allotted time,
in absolute fidelity to the force behind,
magenta, hovering, a thing that happens,
slowly upswerving above the driveway
I was preparing to back clear out of ...

Although her work is not, in the conventional sense, devotional, something in her Italian-American upbringing has shaped the gloomy spirituality which presides over it. There are, for instance, many references to angels, to saints, to the idea of spirit and this, combined with the intense visual quality of her poems, reminds one of the gaunt ascetics in many of El Greco’s paintings, where starvation seems like a prerequisite of ascension. In very many of her poems the lines are alternately indented, giving them the boniness of a fish skeleton and their loose, vertical motion ensures that, of the prepositions on which she so heavily relies, ‘up’ is the conspicuous favourite. Her sense of vertical forms is perfectly matched by serpentine sentences and strophes which undulate around a never-ending set of questions.

Carcanet’s increasingly impressive list of American poetry also includes Barbara Guest’s Selected Poems. Like Ashbery, whose work she admires. Guest frequently uses the vocabulary and tone of art criticism ‘hard edges’, ‘colour fields’, ‘depth’, ‘perspective’, ‘frame’, ‘horizon’ – which she superimposes on wave after wave of exotic imagery. Even more than Graham, she takes painting as a point of departure and the poems evoke a gothic, claustrophobic, greenhouse-like world, overshadowed, as it were, by Gauguin’s palms, Pollock’s looping lianas, and Miro’s crazy asterisks hanging like giant spiders. Often the best ingredient of her poems, her descriptions, like those of ‘hard-mouthed’ prairie houses ‘with their/robust nipples the gossamer hair’, have the enduring surprise of good surrealism. Guest is even more withdrawn than Ashbery from her own work, and so the poems begin and end with their accumulation of painterly effects. In a manner reminiscent of the film Toy Story, her experiments convey novelty, charm and enthusiasm within a sharply circumscribed range of feeling:

            the paper on which the poem would
rest was grainy with colour flashing lights
and the depth, the deepness of the country lane
on which shadows found repose was a wilderness of
colour ...

Like Ashbery, Graham and other poets who have a lot to say, George Szirtes is somewhat more successful in the long poem. Unlike the three American poets, his work has a straightforwardly classical texture: five-beat lines, full rhymes, conceptual clarity and sequential narratives. One of his major concerns is the fate of Central European Jewish communities before, during and after the Second World War, The effects which Szirtes derives are not particularly surprising, but that does not stop them from being powerful. Among his influences appears to be Derek Mahon, with whom he shares a slightly old-fashioned existentialist sensibility, Symptomatic of this is his over reliance on words like ‘city’, ‘winter’, ‘dark’, ‘light’, ‘time’ – one feels that the recurrent image of a train station somewhere in Europe, its lines vanishing into unknowable histories, has been seen too often before. Selected Poems is nonetheless a strong book. Szirtes has a gift for character observation, and his depictions of old women carry particular conviction:

Inside every grandmother there sits
an attractive young girl mouthing pieties,
complaining of sore lips or God knows what.
They prophesy the past with unerring accuracy;
history for them is painful gossip,
halfway between myth and memory

A fine sequence entitled ‘Metro’ carries as an epigraph a line from Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’: both poems meditate, in very different ways, on communities pushed aside by history. The memories in ‘Metro’ are of Budapest, especially of family members; a picture of the poet’s aunt which he saw as a child elicits the lucidity and toughness characteristic of the volume:

Ascending to her skin, which is rough
About the mouth, with hard nodules, like rice,
(Her face glows like a lantern) and she says
There is a God, the God of the Jews, of Moses and Elias,
But this is not the time to speak of him.

Peter McDonald has the misfortune of being introduced as one of the most promising of the younger generation of Northern Irish poets. It is of course another accident of priority that the work of any young Northern Irish poet now writing is going to invite comparison with an extremely successful older generation – nobody wants to end up being to Muldoon what F.R. Higgins was to Yeats. In this respect it is easy to imagine a Bloomian reading of a passage which comes towards the end of the title poem in Adam’s Dream:

is it to be our lot, however deserving,
to be shadowed always, to be accidental figures
among the intransigent, huge forms?

The subject of this poem is architecture, the speaker the 18th-century Scottish architect Robert Adam, who entertained some fanciful notions of rebuilding Lisbon after the earthquake of 1757. But the real subject is form, and how it can keep anxieties about the self at arm’s length. McDonald’s interest in form is apparent not merely in metre, rhyme and stanza-shape, but in the fleeting shapes and shadows of the visible world. He is most comfortable with evocations of open sky, bare landscapes, emptiness, wherever human presence is absent, or at least its emotional content largely excised. That is why, here, the major focus is on a city which exists in Robert Adam’s mind, a city as yet unbuilt. The result is that McDonald’s poems have no emotional attachments or colour, Many refer, almost conspiratorially, to the ‘delicate matter’ or ‘the situation’ without spelling out what is at issue. He likes words such as ‘consequences’ and ‘distances’ which have a neutral, abstract feel, or words for physical disposition, like ‘balance’ and ‘edge’, which transmit only the faintest emotional signals. Between his first and second collections, he has gone from treating form as a strategy to treating it as a subject. His first collection, Biting the Wax, had more personality, mainly because it wasn’t his own, but an amalgam of personalities – forbidding precursors like MacNeice, Longley and Muldoon. Adam’s Dream, by contrast, is more focused and more original so that even if it is not a better book, it holds more promise:

The flat road with no corners and no end
will take you on, in either direction,
into the state of Texas; even at night
this is hot ground, it should be glowing red,
but instead the franchises are lighting your way,
part-empty, cool, just waiting you quietly
whenever you come, and you come sometime.