Heavy Lifting

John Palattella

  • Other Traditions by John Ashbery
    Harvard, 168 pp, £15.50, October 2000, ISBN 0 674 00315 2
  • John Ashbery and American Poetry by David Herd
    Manchester, 245 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 7190 5597 0

A little over thirty years ago, John Ashbery delivered a lecture at the Yale Art School called ‘The Invisible Avant-Garde’, in which he asked whether the distinction between the avant-garde and the mainstream has become obsolete. ‘Looking back only as far as the beginning of this century,’ he remarked, ‘we see that the period of neglect for an avant-garde artist has shrunk for each generation. Picasso was painting mature masterpieces for at least ten years before he became known to even a handful of collectors.’ Since when the period of neglect ‘has grown shorter each year so that it now seems to be something like a minute. It is no longer possible, or it seems no longer possible, for an important avant-garde artist to go unrecognised.’ Ashbery’s sense of historical change is too tidy, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of his claim: the centre has absorbed the periphery and the periphery has grasped the power of the centre. ‘Is there nothing then between the extremes of Levittown and Haight-Ashbury, between an avant-garde which has become a tradition and a tradition which is no longer one?’ Ashbery hardly needed further confirmation of his thesis, but he got it eight years later when he was profiled in the New York Times Magazine under the dubious title ‘How To Be A Difficult Poet’. It was just the thing for readers in Levittown.

One approach to this predicament, as described by a character in Don DeLillo’s The Names, is to cultivate your insignificance. ‘If I were a writer . . . how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghost of literature. Lovely.’ Those who think that invisibility is a sham – what if no one else believes in such ghosts? – can always accept the challenge raised by Ashbery’s ‘The Invisible Avant-Garde’: carve out a space between a vanguard and a tradition, remaining receptive to both, but immune to the enervating forces of each. Other Traditions, a series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1989-90, is the poet’s most recent answer to the conundrum, and suggests that it is possible for an individual to consort with a tradition without becoming locked in an oedipal struggle or a fatal embrace. Each of the six lectures is devoted to a poet who has quickened Ashbery’s work without dominating his style. He has assembled them here as a tradition without, of course, marshalling them into a Great Tradition. Five of them – the exception being Raymond Roussel – he reads habitually ‘in order to get started; a poetic jump-start for times when the batteries have run down’.

The surprise is that instead of lecturing on Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore, all of whom he acknowledges as ‘major influences’, he discusses an eclectic group of 19th and 20th-century poets who for the most part have endured long periods of neglect: John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding and David Schubert. ‘I myself value Schubert more than Pound or Eliot,’ Ashbery says, and one can imagine some members of his audience gasping. In the introduction to his 1966 anthology, 19th-Century British Minor Poets, Auden provides four tests for being a ‘major poet’: write a lot; show a wide range of subject matter; exhibit an originality of style and vision; and have a style and vision that mature over the course of a career. Among the things Ashbery has to say about his six poets is that they all flunk at least one of these tests. This is something that pleases him a lot and one of the many reasons why Other Traditions is a motley and valuable book.

Over the course of the lectures Ashbery sketches something like ‘A Portrait of the Elder J.A. in a Prospect of Poets’, in which several reflections, partial or fractured, form a familiar face. When Ashbery defends the experience of tedium in Beddoes’s work – ‘the gold in Beddoes is inextricably entangled in the ore of the plays . . . There is no way, really, except to sign for the whole bill of goods and hope that prospecting will turn out to be worth the trouble’ – he might as well be defending the experience of reading parts of his own long poem Flow Chart. When he says that the poems of John Wheelwright, an American who wrote during the 1920s and 1930s, are sometimes like ‘higher mathematics’ because one can ‘sense the “elegance” of his solutions without being able to follow the steps by which he arrives at them’, he might very well be describing the elegant clamour of Rivers and Mountains or Girls on the Run. And when he explains that Laura Riding thought her poetry was a kind of criticism and as such made any criticism of it (including her own) superfluous, he is reiterating his longstanding belief that his poetry, not an interview with him or an essay by him, is the explanation of his thought, ‘whatever that is’. The reticence of Riding seems to inform Other Traditions.

These lectures perform an invaluable service, in that they create a new context for the reconsideration of neglected poets. Ashbery offers thumbnail biographies of each poet while focusing on the way in which the poems themselves lead their own life. With the exception of Clare, little of the work that Ashbery discusses is easily accessible. Some has rarely appeared in print. Wheelwright published four volumes during his lifetime, but he now has only one book in print in the US. There are eight Roussel books in print, but most have been produced by small presses. Schubert’s one volume of poetry, Initial A, which his wife managed to get published in 1961, fifteen years after his death, is out of print, and the poet himself is absent from the current edition of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, although six of his poems are included in the Library of America’s new two-volume anthology of 20th-century American poetry. He has not fallen off the map, though he’s pretty close to the edge.

Ashbery has always been preoccupied with the sense of time passing – ‘the roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices/Of the days,’ as he puts it in ‘The Other Tradition’ in Houseboat Days – and at the very least such asides are a poet’s reminder of how rarely one can outwit time. Several of the poets whom Ashbery discusses didn’t even live to be 45. There’s Wheelwright, who during the 1920s dressed like a dandy on an allowance of fifteen hundred dollars a year; who during the 1930s joined the Socialist Party and worked on behalf of the American Committee for the Defence of Trotsky; and who was killed by a drunk driver in 1940 at the age of 43. And there’s Schubert, who in the mid-1930s enrolled in Amherst College (where he befriended Robert Frost), dropped out, rematriculated and dropped out again; who suffered bouts of depression and underwent electric-shock treatment in the early 1940s; and who died of tuberculosis in 1946 at the age of 33. As for Ashbery, he worked on the Norton Lectures while revising Flow Chart, which he wrote in 1987-88 after his mother had died. Death was still not far from the door.

Besides acknowledging ‘The omnipresent possibility of being interrupted/While what I stand for is still almost a bare canvas’, as he writes in ‘Around the Rough and Rugged Rocks the Ragged Rascal Rudely Ran’ (A Wave), Ashbery’s vivid sense of the role of chance and contingency in a poet’s career also hints at the equally fragile nature of any tradition invented to preserve or salvage it. ‘The present only, keeps the past alive,’ Eliot wrote in 1920, and Ashbery’s remarks point to the serious labour needed to invent a tradition and keep a past alive: the heavy lifting involved in resurrecting a poet – excavating poems from old periodicals, tracking down out-of-print monographs and anthologies, and writing essays to publicise one’s discoveries and introduce the writer in question. The lectures in Other Traditions are the record of abiding passions. Ashbery first wrote about Wheelwright in 1973, and ten years earlier had sparked a revival of interest in Roussel after publishing essays about the poet in American and French periodicals. Patience is obviously a requirement, too. Ashbery’s lectures reveal his extraordinary curiosity and stamina as a reader; he is willing to wade through tedious stretches of verse and revisit a poet’s work frequently, with nothing to go on but the memory of having once been stirred. ‘I feel enormous empathy’ for Roussel, Ashbery admits, ‘though I can’t say that reading him ever directly inspired me to write. The influence came in a curiously backward and indirect way, so that I was only conscious of it much later, and am still discovering traces of it I hadn’t realised were there.’ Decades of reading lie behind this statement, as well as the understanding that the work of a writer and his or her place in a tradition change over time in unpredictable and illuminating ways.

Accounting for the unpredictability and variety of Ashbery’s own poetry is the aim of David Herd’s book. Ashbery’s poetry is so polyphonic and endlessly inventive, Herd says, because it is always dealing with ‘the occasion of its own writing’. But Herd does not mistake Ashbery for Mallarmé. He argues that Ashbery is concerned about more than the poem and its formal progress: he is a pragmatist who wants a poem to show that it owes its existence to nothing more than attention to the current moment and all its tangled, muddy, painful and perplexing details, both private and public. Striving to avoid imposing a false coherence on four decades of poetry, Herd plots Ashbery’s career as a series of phases, an approach that permits him to discuss general modulations in Ashbery’s attitude and focus, prompted by cultural shifts and changes in the poet’s reputation, while still accounting for the rich variety of tones, forms, and postures.

How exactly does influence – a shock of recognition, an unbidden tug on the sleeve – figure in Other Traditions? Ashbery says that when he was working on the Schubert lecture, ‘almost by chance I came across a letter from William Carlos Williams to Theodore Weiss which was not included in the Schubert memorial volume.’ The volume in question, David Schubert: Works and Days, is a collection of Schubert’s writings published in 1983 by Weiss (who had known him during the 1930s), and includes a short essay by Ashbery. In 1946, on receiving some Schubert poems from Weiss, Williams sent him a note of thanks, writing that ‘Schubert is a nova in that sky. I hope I am not using hyperbole to excess. You know how it is when someone opens a window on a stuffy room.’ Ashbery was ‘delighted and surprised’ by the letter because it revealed that Williams had hit upon the very same conceit – opening a window in a stuffy room – that Ashbery himself used forty years later in his essay in Works and Days to describe the effect of Schubert’s poetry.

Ashbery tells the anecdote to bolster his remarks about Schubert – ‘it’s a relief to have an authority of the stature of Williams to back me up’ – but there is something more mysterious at work. In ‘The System’, the centrepiece of Three Poems, Ashbery writes about the history of neglect in the arts, and of what is neglected as constituting an ‘other tradition’:

The facts of history have been too well rehearsed (I’m speaking needless to say not of written history but the oral kind that goes on in you without your having to do anything about it) to require further elucidation here. But the other, unrelated happenings that form a kind of sequence of fantastic reflections as they succeed each other at a pace and according to an inner necessity of their own – these, I say, have hardly ever been looked at from a vantage point other than the historian’s and an arcane historian’s at that.

The ‘stuffy room’ coincidence suggests to him an aspect of Schubert’s poetry that impels the same judgment from two quite different sources and must surely exist according to an ‘inner necessity’ of its own, one that has eluded even the arcane historian’s eye. Other Traditions shows that any tradition is a continuous work of invention, something obtained not by inheritance but by scholarship and re-evaluation. At the same time, Ashbery seems to say, a tradition, or even the work of a single dead poet, chooses you as much as you choose it.