A Fortnightly Review of
The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Edited by Hadley Haden Guest
Wesleyan University Press 2008. 558pp hardback $39.95 £35.50
By Peter Riley.
AS SOON AS Barbara Guest’s authority in poetical writing is established, which is in her first two books, there is an evident urge to tell the story, to push a discourse forward; there is an unfolding, a characteristic pressure towards completion. The poems are tellings and she wants them to tell in full. She wants the poem to reach its conclusion, beyond which there is only silence.
I think this condition holds through her entire career in spite of her development of an increasingly experimental writing which eliminates all possible subject-matter as well as any possibility of a connected narrative or location, or any form of address – the poems become collections of disconnected mentionings separated by empty space. But I maintain a faith (and faith is sometimes necessary) in her determined drive to completion in the working of the poem, and that as the silence after the end of the poem is incorporated into its structure the floating fragments remain meaningful as they interact with their surround, and that the primary vehicle of this is an intense condensation of figurative language so that from one point to the next an extended and often unknowable process has taken place whether of event or of thought.
Not that the early work is conventional. There is a range of commitment to unorthodox procedures, some original but many of them related to the New York poets she is mainly associated with (Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and James Schuyler) and their attachment to earlier French poetry, especially in her case Surrealism. She was in fact the eldest of these (born 1920) but didn’t publish her first book until 1960. But always, even in the most New-York-ludic pieces, there is a sense of pressing forwards quite earnestly, both in the progress of the poem towards a true ending, and in metaphors that reach further and further out into the unknown. Even the most unproblematic writing, such as this very early example–
I just said I didn’t know
And now you are holding me
In your arms,
Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.
Yet around the net I am floating
Pink and pale blue fish are caught in it,
They are beautiful,
But they are not good for eating.
even here, there is a reticence, an unwillingness to present a given situation, a disregard for circumstance, a delicate disconnection at times, and somewhat strange moves such as the ambiguous syntax of the sixth line, which may or not be figurative, and of course there is the bathetic caution about the inedibility of the fish. These mild disjunctions and distractions are held in a steady verse movement, and one feels that a series of poetical moves is given priority over any full account, or emotional declaration, while the tone remaining authentic, and this is confirmed in the paradoxical ending to the poem: “I am closer to you / Than land and I am in a stranger ocean / Than I wished.” The comfortable surface is rippled throughout by signs of uncertainty and apprehension but the poem is more than the depiction of an emotionally ambiguous condition because of curtailments (such as the first line) and excrescences.1
The first two decades of her writing produced a collection of attractive poems varying among themselves in the degree to which they transgress rational discourse, some of them outwardly straightforward, some decidedly dark, and all of them rewarding in the detailed skill of the writing, the just word-placement, the intuited metrics. They mostly mimic the speaking voice, giving an account which claims and then abandons its own intent and transcends its own singularity in search of a truly poetical and artistic summation. Increasingly punctuation is abandoned and the lines crowd the saying into a continuity which defines its syntax by words alone. What is happening is that perception is being brought to serve an abstractive formative process like an abstract painting; the necessary details of experience are so combined and transgressed as to create an elsewhere which is the poem itself as a finished artefact, an addition to the world rather than an event in it, no longer beholden to it.
The book Moscow Mansions (1973) in particular is full of solid, outwardly and deceptively discursive poems. The opening of the poem ‘Red Lilies’, from this book, shows admirably how her pursuit of such a course is, as it often is, carried into something like a comedy which loses control of its own imagery–
Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
They have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterwards lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone
The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats, repeats its birdsong.
Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
at night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches
The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.
The metaphorical extensions of a domestic scene are pursued until we don’t know what exactly is happening, but the pursuit remains warm and serious. Is “the snow pours out of you” a notation of joy or dismay? We can’t know, because what is happening is that the scene of some kind of failed dinner à deux, whatever it was in reality, if it ever was, is being made into an independent poetical and linguistic construct in order to liberate the verbal possibilities. This can only really be shown by quoting the whole poem, where the metaphors (if such they still are) constantly gravitate back to the mundane and rebound into high flight. The poem ends
The pilot light
went out on the stove
The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.
This both consummates the details of the scene and extends into an independent image transaction. The last line is still an account of what happened, but blended into what happened in the writing of the poem, and thus the reality is enhanced beyond the occasion. You cannot say it is an interiorized representation of what it felt like, and it is not symbolical in any explicable way. It is more like a theatrical projection: the pilot light explains the accident in the stove, the errant paper becomes a dutiful accessory, all is reconciliation and then “other wings flew into the stone”. What was obdurate becomes permeable. This is the kind of process Barbara Guest went on to develop for another 400 pages. It never becomes possible, or desirable, to say what the newly hatched images, here wings, “are”. They are the word at its fullest reach – they are the winged word showing how it can subdue the hardness of stone.
THE ALMOST CONSTANT levity, or twinkle, in her diction doesn’t alter the fact that in her sense of mission Barbara Guest was the most serious and the most difficult of the New York poets of her generation. Not for her the jaunty “I-do-this-I-do-that” mode cultivated at times by O’Hara and Schuyler and later seized on by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. She doesn’t refer to Broadway operettas or night-club jazz, but there are several mentions of Schoenberg. The impression is of someone involved in leading a civilised existence focused on the arts, with quite a lot of globe-trotting (but did she actually go to all the places she mentions?) ever suave and discerning, with none of the Bohemian raucousness so common on the other side of American writing at that time. Within this ambiance there is a rich investigation of experience through scenes and people, fictions, paintings, and sometimes narratives, dedicated not to revealing their meanings but to uncovering the verbal possibilities of their existence, which is a meditational process seeking to hold them against the world itself through language.
The book Defensive Rapture (1993) most clearly marks her arrival at a technique of spatially separated disjuncts which dominates the rest of her career. But I think that before that there were at least two instances of remarkably strong works which could be said to represent a step back or a pause in the development of her manner. One is the long poem The Türler Losses (1979). This actually is about the loss of two Türler2 watches on two occasions – though it tries not to be. It shoots off in her usual unannounced way into image zones both near and remote, credible and impossible, but the losses keep insinuating themselves into the texts again and again, sometimes merely as words associable with time and clocks, as if defying her wish to forget them. So the text, rich as it is in material, constructs evasive tactics which fail. Loss as such is enjoined, including death, but in the same easily distracted mode, and a whole emotional life is drawn in as a source of the images which circulate around these losses. There isn’t a singular summation to these processes; they occur all the time. One of them is–
A child entered the room
wearing a clock costume
A child of pygmy size
unmodified by time’s blisters
And time’s throat burrs and time’s screens
across which time’s numerals
The depth of these lines is surely obvious, achieved in some measure, I think, by the classical feel to the lines which augments as the end approaches, but also in the noun/verb ambiguity of some of the words. The whole poem is a moving compilation of such moments focused on instances of memory and loss and it is striking how disparate images are held in the poem’s memory – it will not perhaps surprise anyone that it begins with the cry of a night hawk which seems to die in flight, and this is probably answered at the end in “A wrist for every watch/releasing doves”. But in miniature too, the reach of the verse can be extraordinary. The entire process of this long poem could be contained in the phrase “Loss gropes towards its vase.” which occurs very early on. The word “vase” is unprepared and thus all the more free to suggest Keats’ urn or any other signification we find useful, whatever receptacle we wish to store our losses in.
The first poem of the book Fair Realism (1989) begins–
Wild gardens overlooked by night lights. Parking
lot trucks overlooked by night lights. Buildings
with their escapes overlooked by lights
They urge me to seek here on the heights
amid the electrical lighting that self who exists,
who witnesses light and fears its expunging
and goes on from this evocation of isolation and distance, into a comparatively straightforward account, without excursions elsewhere, of removing an abstract painting from a wall and replacing it with a scene from The Tale of the Genji, a moving encounter between Genji and his son at which “each turns his face away from so much emotion”. The poem is manifestly a different proposition from her usual: poised, deliberate, connected, laden with content… and stands out as such even though the whole book tends in that direction. It is also unmistakeably hers, and has become probably her best-known poem. There is a hint at a personal involvement in the story of filial encounter which perhaps motivated the piece but more importantly the whole poem is a meditation on conditions of light and darkness. It is an unusually orthodox treatment of the kind of material she usually handles, but it does extend out of the field of recognised discourse when it reaches for its ending–
The light of fiction and the light of surface
sink into vision whose illumination
exacts its shades,
The Genji when they arose
strolled outside reality
their screen dismantled,
upon that modern wondering space
flash lights from the wild gardens.
You could write reams on any of Barbara Guest’s successful poems, which is most of them. It is not only image, vocabulary, and figuration; it is also syntax, rhythm, form, lineation, sound values… and, as here, a kind of emblematic construction is formed which remains gently shrouded in the evident reality. There is something approaching a theme: singular light falling on wild or alien places, then an open, abstract landscape of widespread sea and sunset colours is replaced with a depiction of a human relationship… and then the ending. The message is that it is we, the humans, who create the darkness as we play our light of vision onto these static frames, and finally in our minds liberate the figures from the realism of the picture, and the world at large (wild garden) flickers both light and dark… The descent from the totalisation of the abstract to the human particular (a chiaroscuro which permits the figures to avert their faces) opens the way to an extended sense of home, of what we inhabit… Well, something along those lines, but how much more engaging it is at it stands, showing lights on the wild garden (etc.) worked through to lights from the wild garden, a turn from direct to indirect perceptive process.
IN THE LATER work, from the mid 1990s, the floating, spaced-out settings donate a certain serenity, but the linguistic displacement can become extreme to the extent that outlandish word choices make it impossible to follow her. To choose one of the most puzzling passages I can find–
than eyes adulterous surface –
the bruised arch – a sting
severely clothed – rich in dynamite –
xxxxxxxxcord to shallows –-;
xxxxxxa fluid haze divides –
the rhythm vault –
– single movement – topped with purple hills –
xxxxxxxxxxcontralto shift –-.
Obviously the relinquishing of subject matter, depiction, story, discourse, speech, and more, has reached an extreme. And when you do eliminate all those things what are you left with? Words. The words do occur in small groups but even there the mechanisms of connection which govern meaning can’t be trusted. No apostrophe on “eyes” so we have to break that line in two. “rhythm” not “rhythmic” so that that noun and “vault” merely stand in apposition. And we start to mistrust even the connections we are given: consider “the bruised” as standing for a plural noun and “arch” as a verb. But the worst stumbling blocks, of course, are completely unprepared context-destroying words such as “dynamite” and “cord”.
One thing that puzzles me about a passage like this is why I’m not annoyed by it, as I usually am by such things. One reason is that there is no hint of alienation or protest as the motivation: she is manifestly not tearing the language apart because it is the weapon of the commercial or political enemy. She is doing it out of a belief in the value of art as the creation of a self-sufficient world which has to be separated from the traits of normal (or “empirical” – see below) discourse. Another reason is that I have come to trust her poetical procedures even when they defeat me. I do believe that each of those impossible transitions is likely to be arrived at as a result of careful thought as well as associative flare, and that she is seriously concerned to enact these terms within a context which doesn’t distinguish between the immediate (experience) and the acquired (reading etc.). These scenarios are basically episodes of her life.
There are also contextual conditions which on the one hand offer to bring some coherence but can also feel as if she is deliberately laying a false trail. The above is the first section of the poem “Expectation” subtitled “Erwartung: Schoenberg”. I have followed the whole poem against both the music and Pappenheim’s libretto without locating any structural connection whatsoever. There is no chance that the poem follows a parallel course, of image, mood, or anything. All there is is occasional words or short phrases which seem to refer to music or possibly to moments of the libretto, “arch” and “vault” because in the monodrama a woman is groping though a dark wood at night looking for her lover, and “adulterous” could be relevant. For music: “the rhythm vault”, “movement”, “contralto” (but Erwartung is for soprano), and later “Chromatic rise” and “littered octave”. That’s about all really, which is almost nothing. The first section of the poem is followed by four more, headed “variations”; but Erwartung is not in variation form. So it seems we are offered the connection only to be denied it, and this is inevitable: we must not read her poem as a version of some other artifact or as saying anything at all about any other work or experience but its own. Erwartung is the source which is erased in the writing, the “absent subject” which leaves only its scent behind. And yet there are clusters of metaphor, especially at endings, which might well be the conclusion of the quest, not as summaries of the source but as the poem’s own discovery in relation to the source. In this case “littered octave – disrupted – [...] spells the translucent.” But my ellipses conceal two further terms (“knee-bound” and “mutinied”) which seem entirely to deaden thought.
THERE ARE OTHER apparently false trails laid – a group of poems entitled Dürer at the Window, Reflexions on Art and a much longer work, Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature. In neither case of course do the reflexions or notes conform to normal expectation, but the latter in particular is a finely wrought accumulation of quotations, epithets, references and Guest-type poetry hovering over the possibility of notes on literature, reaching a kind of plea for depth in the recovery of mythical vision–
Where are they, wood nymphs and the glittering
Beings – do they overstep each other…?
The Dolphin God – does he swim on the page?
The sections of this work are headed by quotes from, among others, Hegel and Adorno, which might give some indication, if we need it, of the rationale behind the poetry in an attachment of European idealism, a rejection of what Hegel called empiricism. But I am unconvinced that the poetry was conceived according to these precepts and rather suspect that they were attached at a very late stage. More telling is a short prose piece from If So, Tell Me (1999) concerning the necessary absence of the subject–-
It can be seen she encouraged the separation of flower from the page, that she wished an absence to be encouraged. She drew from herself a technique which offered life to the flower, but demanded the flower remain absent. The flower, as a subject, is not permitted to shadow the page. Its perfume is strong and that perfume may overwhelm the sensibility that strengthens the page and desires to initiate the absence of the flower. It may be that absence is the plot of the poem. A scent remains of the poem. It is the flower’s apparition that desires to remain on the page, even to haunt the room in which the poem was created.
This seems a thorough and honest account of her poetical method. But we should notice that it is not a cold manipulation of the text but a part-regretted perseverance motivated by the need to cope with absence. Perhaps we could even suggest that it represents a hope rather than a secure platform, and recognises that the problems created by subtraction as a creative method could be interminable.
There is an essay on the late poetry by Majorie Welish3 which describes very precisely Guest’s poetical practice, defined quite correctly, I think, as “lyric” (e.g. “syllabic acoustic relations at the expense of given subject matter”) and as a form of literalness. For me the most disturbing sentence in it is this one: “She leave traces of lyricism so imaginatively acute that a moral rectitude is the precipitate”. Insofar as I trust the late phase of Guest’s poetry I would agree at least to hope that such is the result and justification. It would be a welcome resolution if this emergence of moral rectitude could be demonstrated by close analysis but I doubt very much if that would be possible.
Barbara Guest’s Collected Poems should on no account be missed.
I FIND IT hard to think of a chronologically ordered collected poems which begins so impressively as Joseph Ceravolo’s does. Wallace Stevens’ occurs to me as one such. This consists of the small book Transmigration Solo dated 1960-1965 but not published until 1979, some thirty poems written in his late twenties. They take on the full possibilities of “New York” outlandish figuration and non-sequitur but held in a strongly vocal rhetoric, emphases and repetitions which signal a human presence bearing a tense emotional charge–
xxCold and the cranes.
Cranes in the
like cellophane tape
on a school book.
The wind bangs
the car, but I sing out loud,
as sky gets white
xxand whiter and whiter and whiter.
Where are you
xin the reincarnate
xxxxxxblossoms of the cold?
Whatever awkward questions arise – What kind of cranes? How can either kind resemble cellophane on a school book?… their awkwardness is held in the urgency of the voice, its distress and its confrontation with contradiction.4 A drama is in progress, there is not time for the suitable metaphor and this speed delivers us into a more challenging place. A stanza from ‘Pain Songs’–
The path, the path is where?
It’s the cow’s, o but
to be near the cow.
Let’s be near some old
realization that just died.
Near some depowdered
head that comes round
the horseshoe curves of sense.
The sense of desperation is typical, typically crossed with the rhythmic and imagistic confidence of the writing, the strong syntactical engagement of the self with scene and object and the imaginative leaps from figure to figure. So too is the dramatic repetition and re-starting, many poems having governing words repeated through the text as impulsions to continue. How a dead cow comes round to being an archaic head moving in ellipses to create sense is not for me to say, but it does.
Ceravolo is generally mentioned as a “second generation” New York poet (born 1934) and obviously he found his initial impetus in the procedures established by the older poets, indeed he attended a writing class run by Kenneth Koch. But he also kept himself to some extent separate, not least by living outside the city and being employed all his life as a civic engineer. The question of how he would develop the mode of Transmigration Solo thereafter raises itself acutely, but unfortunately he didn’t. He shot off into something completely different, in the long text Fits of Dawn, which was actually written in 1961, therefore concurrently with “Transmigration Solo”. It’s all like this:
mumbbler of gash-
Rice! hold you
festive running Choose!
Leap confide ballad
ashame, oh stump!
moons of drimp confuse.
Tiens corner tien
I generally find it best not to comment on this kind of writing, which many still value highly, except in this case to note that the emotional charge now has to be supplied by exclamation marks. It is anyway clearly a move to push the volatile figuration of New York poetry as far as it will go in the wrong direction, where no thought process can possibly take place in either poet or reader and no autonomous artistic “place” can be created except one which is uninhabitable. Such is obviously the intention (rather than simply the failure) and it is astonishing that he located from somewhere (Dadaism?) this extreme textuality at such an early date, before even Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets (1964), the “classic” second generation work of wildly disordered language which is actually far less obstructive.
CERAVOLO’S PROGRESS AFTER this shows a slow and faltering return to modes of address, in increasingly open poems intermittently hindered by experimentalism, bringing him to Spring in the World of Poor Mutts, actually his first published book in 1968, which was awarded the Frank O’Hara prize and at once established a reputation for him which was more than local. There are many vagaries of manner in this book but it does recapture the skill shown in Transmigration Solo, generally in a calmer tone, though there is normally a sense of emotional struggle. The life hinted at behind the verbally led texture becomes familial, a child is involved and the child’s voice is repeated in the text. There are even some family scenes, but always within the tense uncertainties of a poetical voice which holds the language unto itself, denying the reader full entry into the experience. There is, for instance, this startlingly candid sexual poem uniting male and female involvement in birth, but in which we have to go through an enigmatic episode towards an ending which is loudly glad and suddenly inconclusive. But these are, in principle, precisely the moves which make the poem an enactment of the particular rather than a question of any-man and any-woman.
Pregnant, I Come
I come to you
with the semen
and the babies:
ropes of the born.
I rise up as you go up
in your consciousness.
Are you unhappy
in the source?
The clouds sputter
across the ring.
Do the birds sing?
Is the baby singing in you? yet.
I’m also struck by short poems of perceived nature marked by the decision not to extend, not to devolve perception any further, but to trust it as it appears to be, in sharp contrast to the distrust of unmediated perception in much of Barbara Guest’s work.
Before the dusk grows deeper
Now comes a little moth dressed in
rose pink, wings bordered with yellow. Now
a tiger moth, now another and another another
I think this book will remain Ceravolo’s principal achievement, but there is a lot to follow it which is by no mean negligible. There is first a poem called Hellgate filling 28 pages, which starts very well but later takes some banal routes and is plagued by the bardic tone of a “spiritual journey”. It is a plea for authenticity, of great scope and an impressive performance, but something has happened. With Hellgate Ceravolo’s relationship to the reader changes, and this concerns all the many (over 300) poems which fill up the rest of the book. Up to this point even the plainest writing (such as ‘Dusk’) is rendered as a verbal proposition, and so relates primarily to the reader’s experience of language, constantly tested against recognition of the actual. In this way, you could say, reader and poet connive in the realisation of the poem. Subsequently the poet undertakes to declare himself to the reader directly, most noticeably in the involvement of his religious beliefs, and this spreads into a deliberately artless offering of bald statements about a world he finds misconceived (“this vampire, America”), as well as reflections on his reading, which seems to be within the “general knowledge” area, and the voicing of an evidently disturbed private life from within a personality which seems to have been hard work. But the change is not absolute. He vagarises constantly between wilfully artless writing and all the poetical expertise he has gained, switching between them from poem to poem or in the middle of a poem or innocently blending the two.
So the book ends with this large collection of poems which I find intriguing as we constantly witness this veering to and from poetically conceived writing, and if the retreat from New York poetry can produce distressing commonplaces it can also release disarming simplicities, as well as moments of complete candour. The art he renounced is in fact never very far away and can be servant to startling episodes of plain speaking.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is a preludial assembly of about 90 very short poems entitled INRI published in 1979 (described in the introduction as 20-syllable poems, but some of them are twenty-word poems and some of them are neither. There is nothing in the book to relate to its title.) Ceravolo here comes to a perfect compromise; the poems are entirely evident in their purpose and address, even epigrammatical sometimes, but the brevity brings out all the skill he had developed in controlled wit and the handling of image and sound, and produces an uninterpreted but carefully placed detailing, low on active verbs, which begins to feel quite Chinese. Two examples:
Clean cutting breeze:
a little brutal too much.
My child asleep
in my arms
Runs Me Over
Sometimes when I sit here
eating in the hot sun,
a great sadness
runs me over
Ceravolo’s Collected Poems is in some degree a surprising event – I would not have thought his reputation had reached this stage yet, though I am glad it has. It was thus a bold venture on the part of editors and publisher. It is also a revelation of a body of work of which the most meticulous devotee can hardly have suspected the bulk or the range.
JAMES SCHUYLER’S Collected Poems was published in 1993 as a volume of 430 pages, and Other Flowers is a book of additional poems which escaped the collection. The first thing to be said is that there has been no barrel-scraping. These are all finished poems from right through his career preserved by Schuyler but never published, and discovered in his archive. They stand as equal to most of his previously known poems; perhaps only the very long The Morning of the Poem (published 1980) represents an order of achievement not represented here.
People generally turn to James Schuyler with a sense of relief and admiration; it is felt that his poetry is highly achieved but does not present problems. He wrote a lot of conversational poems which read like diary entries (some of them were originally diary entries), or missives to poets and lovers. The admiration is for his impeccable craft in forming these poems, which however casual they may be are never facile, but by sonic and rhythmic detail, by bathetic wit or its opposite, and by the art of pressing on regardless, always become seriously engaging. The throw-away ending which returns us to actuality was a speciality, but he could also begin a poem, “A nothing day full of/wild beauty and the/timer pings.” This is not actually bathetic at all; it places two notations, large and small, on the same plane, as continuities. There is a poem, “The Smallest”, which is a disquisition on this question of scale: the smallest “contains alphabets” and “is infinite”. There are many disquisitions on given topics working quite logically through to a conclusion, or just as likely to throw in an ending which turns the whole thing upside down, both moves governed by a sense of the quality of perception amidst the clutter of living or the hurts which pierce the fabric of enjoyment. Everyday living is woven inextricably into his poetical textures but it is not the whole story; he is basically a serious poet exploring his own distress. The new book is full of the sense of personal address which is his principal vehicle, so it is perhaps salutary to remind ourselves what else he was capable of–
Crystal flesh, starry lice,
gilden silver scows, ivory
death-mask fall feathered,
wrists’ anemones, eyes’ dials,
a viol slashes currant-red
damask love-seats and lapis
spittoons. Riots. Axes drip
drip, a basket of heads. Of
embassies, of retaliant tune,
hawkers, harpers, chronicle.
Dusty oxen scamper in hills,
green, spiked, wheel cut.
Time, bite your tail, hoop
snake the steak-sliced neck.
Surely this poem also offers no problems unless we demand them of it. It is a list of the attributes of an elsewhere, somewhere in the bejewelled past, ordered so as to pass into tokens of harm (mainly in images of cutting), ending in a plea for protection from the ellipticality of time.5 Many of Schuyler’s surreal or cryptic scenarios, meditations on paintings etc. are similarly harmless if you don’t ask the wrong questions. But happy endings are not common, and even what is manifestly a joke poem will refuse one–
The sky in here is very blue
and made of wood.
You are very great,
Ruth is great.
Have a brandy.
Nobody lives for ever
and it’s a fucking shame.6
There is felt to be something elusive about the quality of Schuyler’s poetry; more than once I have seen the question put “How does he do it?”, especially regarding the unfailing vitality of so many poems. I can’t answer this question but I can suggest two possibilities. One might lie simply in the qualities of “good writing” as such, in prose or poetry, which he could have mastered early in his career and never abandoned – his first published book, in 1958, was a novel. This would be a matter of clarity and completion in large or small, helpfulness towards the reader, the dramatic organisation of a sentence or passage to project its point, and so forth.
Secondly, Other Flowers, by presenting more of his work from the 1950s than we are used to, shows that among the various modernistic or New-York-ish forms he practised there were also intermittent exercises of a different kind, such as the poem “Beautiful Outlook” (1953), which begins–
Passersby see it as prison, grave or den
into which their fear of what they fear lurks there
could drive them. Within, the walls are hung with light
like any room, meals are punctual and time
speeds, goes slow, does not exist, to suit the need
of each victim of the other side of love.
This is a direct address on a given subject, concerning one of the hospitals which Schuyler periodically had to enter because of his mental ill-health, a subject from which it does not deviate and behaves in just the writerly way I have spoken of. It shows, of course, how outright in his discourse and thoughtfully serious he could be, in this tone as in others. But if the lines have the feel of a classical measure, that is because it is the first stanza of a formally perfect sestina. There are two other sestinas in the book, a “sonnet” in couplets and other incursions into traditional form, some fragmentary. You do not, I would think, write a poem like “Beautiful Outlook” without studying formal metrics and it is arguable that this reveals another source of his notable confidence in moving around within a poem. The poem ends in the obligatory triolet–
A hospital is not a den. The men in there,
the sick, saw light shatter, heard the tick of time.
Each man had his ugly need, each deserved love.
THE ARTISTIC AND poetical boom in New York from the 1950s onwards for, at the most, three decades, is a strange and in some ways artificial phenomenon. The poets built their success on the backs of the painters, of course, and they in turn built theirs on the backs of the Parisian art scene earlier in the century. Almost all of the poets were heavily involved in the art world and devoting energy to constructing a parallel or consanguineous relationship of the two activities. Poems were conceived as being structured as an abstract painting was, or sometimes a tension was created between a real subject and the painted one (“an evening real as paint on canvas” as Schuyler put it). This relationship is often offered as the key to understanding the more difficult poetry, though I don’t think it is. The poem will always in the end have to stand alone. The poets also mixed with the painters, indeed lived with them – Schuyler lived in Fairfield Porter’s family for eight years, O’Hara was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, Guest was herself a painter, and so on and so on. They all (except Koch) wrote art journalism and the take-up of French poetry was entirely in line with what the painters had done (and incidentally produced a rather unhelpful anti-British polemic).
New York’s largely successful bid to become the modern art centre of the world was specifically designed by dealers and officials, rather than the artists, to replace Paris when the latter was disabled during the occupation and many European artists were fleeing to the States from Europe, and it is said with authority that government funding, including C.I.A. money, went into supporting this drive with publicity, including the funding of European exhibitions. This does not devalue the New York paintings nor the poetical association, but it was not a spontaneous flowering. Kinds of abstract painting one moment considered beyond the pale, a small minority avant-garde interest, were suddenly worth a fortune, and I note, without understanding it, the apparent strain placed on the artists in terms of breakdown, suicide, drugs, and alcoholism. A lesser pain seems to have spread to the poets, where drugs and alcohol were commonplace, and I wonder sincerely what mechanism dictated that male homosexuality should have such dominance among them.
These things may be seen as a product of a particularly fervid local scene, and yet very much the same description would apply to the smaller poetry scene in San Francisco at the same time (Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan et al.) so perhaps some larger and more mysterious force was at work in a national spasm of late Romanticism.7
The New York poets saw the support and promotion of painting as part of their function, in poetry as much as in prose, and took pride in dropping the artists’ names in their social poems. There was obviously a pressure to innovate in the art/poetry context which for the poets meant a careful violation of what was considered the proper (weighty) substance of poetry, by intense, “abstract” configurations as much as by anti-poetical everyday banter. I find it impossible to know what the balance will finally be between recognition of the remarkable, original, moving and sometimes profound poetry made possible in this unusual context, and a verdict which considers it as all little more than a set of aestheticist gestures, 1890s style, thrown up by a manipulated market. But there is no doubt that all three of the poets under review used the situation they were in to extend the conceptual bounds of poetry on the basis of quite traditional lyrical skills which always show through the dazzling web in one way or another. For me, Schuyler’s work might in the end prove the most valuable as, having grasped the opportunities of New York poetry in a virtuosic but entirely genial way, he then cultivated the art of staying where he was, while the other two were pushed further and further into a linguistic avant-gardism turned to an intellectual purpose (Guest) or tangled with the need to escape from it (Ceravolo). The opportunity offered by these books to obtain a comprehensive view of what was done is invaluable.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
A revision to correct an editing error was made on 18 June 2013.
- The fifth line (parachutes) is also the title and is emphasised by occurring twice during the poem. I leave in a footnote my uncertainty about the fact that parachutes are generally indented for descent rather then flight, and if one carries you into the stratosphere something has gone seriously wrong – is this another of the poem’s submerged questions? ↩
- My research on eBay shows that these Swiss watches can be very expensive – thousands of dollars – but are not necessarily so. ↩
- Some at least of this can be read on the web as “The Lyric Lately” in the periodical Jacket. At the end it says “to be continued” but I know of no evidence that it was. ↩
- My experience of cellophane on school books is that it tends to lift and peel off with an effect of whitening the tape which sits well with the imagery of this poem, but to each his own school books. ↩
- There is a note by Schuyler among the annotations at the back of the book saying how this poem was made from a book of pictures concerning Marie Antoinette and “the late-eighteenth-century vogue of wearing a red ribbon à la guillotine”, etc. This does attach the poem to a real history, but I prefer it in its own light. ↩
- Duff’s was a New York restaurant at which the poets used to gather. It is now a heavy metal bar subtitled “Duff’s alcohol abuse center”. You have to be over 17 to enter their website. Sic transit… ↩
- On the topics touched on in this paragraph, see Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983), F.S. Saunders, Who Paid the Piper (2000), and The Cultural Cold War (2001), and Frances Stonor Saunders, “Modern art was a CIA weapon“, The Independent, 22 October 1995. The more recent commentaries interpret the CIA’s intervention as more directed against Russia and Communism than Paris. ↩