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September 16, 2002

Modern Poetry

Friedrich --

I spent my walking-around-the-city time over the last few days listening to poetry audiotapes: Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Anne Sexton, and John Ashbery. (I work in the media; I get mucho arty toys for free.)

How do you do with modern poetry? I tend to grumble in annoyance and laugh in scorn -- it brings out the rube in me. What a put-on! Hooo-eee, are these people having one at our expense! What are they doing, trying to impress other people in their class? If poets only write for other poets they're going to disappear up their own ass any day now! Have any of them ever worked for a living? And you know what? I'll take good country-western lyrics any day! Haw haw haw.

But if I persist, I can start to slide past my resentment. I get to feeling not exactly benevolent, but tolerant. What the hell: it's just a specialized taste, a niche market. Where's the harm? Even the pretence that what they're doing has earth-shattering importance seems forgiveable -- people engaged in teeny-tiny, overlooked activities will tend to puff themselves up.

I also got over some of my aversion to high-modern poetry when I took a how-to-write-poetry class. To my intense disappointment, the teacher didn't drill us in traditional forms, but instead immersed us in a modern-poetry bath. Annoying as I found that (and rooked as I felt of my tuition money), I went along.

A few things came to me that I found helpful. Herewith my rules for appreciating modern poetry: Don't take a modern poem as "poetry," take it instead as a short piece of writing that has had some poetic techniques applied to it for effect. Don't even bother to read a modern poem unless you're ready to read it twice, the first time just to get through it, the second to look at it holistically, out there hovering in space. It's a little verbal, words-on-the-page, made thing -- try to see it as such. And (best Michael rule), pretend a good friend wrote it.

I'm still anything but crazy about modern poetry, and I do root for the current rebirth of traditional poetic forms that's going on. But I'm not as clogged full of exasperation as I once was. And, once past some of my exasperation, I start to make distinctions.

randall jarrell.jpg
Randall Jarrell

The distinction I award Jarrell, unfortunately, is that he has got to be one of the worst readers of poetry ever. He's got the whiney tone of a country pastor who's watching his congregation shrink with every passing year. I found the poems themselves ok but also embarrassing. This was an era when autobiography, psychoanalysis, and action painting -- picking open wounds, then keeping them from scabbing over -- was felt to be the royal road to truth. When Jarrell writes about his grandma killing a chicken (awww!) and then reads it in his wavering voice, you want to take him aside and suggest politely that maybe it's time for him to try a different shrink.

anne sexton.jpg
Anne Sexton

Lowell does an effective haute-WASP number. Sexton has a kind of boozy-smoker, hormonal-gal surliness and accusatory theatricality that probably hits some women -- the perpetual-undergrad, love-me-love-my-PMS crowd, I'd imagine -- pretty hard. Not a surprise that she committed suicide.

By now, I'm in there, really in the modern-poetry game. And, to my surprise, Ashbery, who I usually find annoying beyond belief -- all tricks with scarves -- starts to look not just good but great. (But don't trust my judgment!) I start to understand (I think) why other writers and poets find him liberating. He pulls into his poetry all kinds of imagery and language. "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," for instance, has elements of essay, interior rhapsody, autobiography, art history (at one point Ashbery actually quotes some art historian), and much else. The language and diction is sometimes as highfalutin' as can be, sometimes just plain banal. But the poetry is freewheeling.

John Ashbery

That said: Lordy, do I spend a lot of my modern-poetry time feeling double-d dumb. There's a line in one Ashbery poem, for instance, where he compares something to a portrait of Mme. de Stael as painted by some painter with a German name. I've got some fancy lit degrees, and I'm a bit of an art-history buff. I've even read Mme. de Stael, and I'm pretty sure I've seen a portrait or two of her, though I can't recall whether she was short or tall, thin or fat. But I've never heard of the painter whose name Ashbery used, and I have no idea how he'd have painted Mme de Stael.

Now: is your average Ashbery reader a lot more refined and educated than I am? Unlikely. So maybe the point of the line is the higher-whimsicality of the comparison -- the near-camp, look-at-me gesture of it. If it is, I guess I'm amused, though my taste in camp runs to earthier jokes. Then I start to wonder if this state of amazement, annoyance, skepticism, amusement and confusion... I mean, maybe it's what Ashbery was hoping I'd feel. But why?

Charles Simic, a poet who generally writes short poems that mix autobiography with Eastern-European surrealism (and which I often like), sums up Ashbery this way: "John Ashbery is either our finest, most innovative poet of the last thirty years or he is simply just another shameless purveyor of incomprehensible, self-indulgent nonsense." My view, for what it's worth, of Ashbery is: maybe he's both.

By the way, Ashbery has written a lot of art criticism. Have you read any of it? Really good; he's smart, he knows painters and the painting scene, and he's very free and generous in his responses and enthusiasms. He championed an unusual cast of characters, from John F. Peto to Leland Bell, Fairfield Porter to Patrick Henry Bruce. If you go through his book, you'll meet a lot of artists you probably haven't given much thought to.

John F. Peto's "Reminiscences of 1865"

At his best (as a poet and critic) he makes me think of houses out at the Eastern end of Long Island, stays at the Rome Academy, a rootless, gay existence of exquisite taste, perversity, leisure and friendship. (And where no one, but no one, has anything the people from the Republican small town I grew up in would consider a real job.)

All that said, I have a much easier time playing the modern-painting-appreciation game than the modern-poetry-appreciation game. The non-linearity of the visual arts seems to free me: I can explore and sink into modern-arty things at my own pace: Wow, I can really see the movement in that brushstroke! Ha-ha, that concept, what a brilliant move! And that stain/drip mark over there, it suggests worlds merging, explosions, beginnings and ends, eggs and sperm -- creation itself! I don't seem to expect something visual to make coherent verbal-style sense. With words, I can't help myself; I go looking for sense and meaning.

Final reflection: all these poetic voices seemed to come from so long ago, from a time when it was a big deal to be a "poet," and to speak with the voice of "the poet." Art was the culture's religion, the poets were its preachers, and everyone showed up on Sunday. (Ashbery, all pirouettes and elusiveness, swishes and horses around in the churchyard outside.) And could these poets put on airs or what -- the tragic stance came so easy to them. And people listened, read and respected! Do many people still? Outside of creative-writing classes, I mean?

Really, though: most of the time I don't know what the hell's going on in these poems.

Do you listen to or read modern poetry for pleasure? How do you react to it?



posted by Michael at September 16, 2002


>Do you listen to or read modern poetry for pleasure?

Not on purpose. As with all lit. undergrads, I had to read my share of it. There was not a single thing I read that I can recall with any fondness. I remember actively hating a lot of it. But I was young and had the energy to hate things that didn't matter.

I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, and some of the "bigger hits" of poetry of the past, and would even admit in a crowd of fellow lit. majors that I honestly liked Robert Frost - though only after the booze had been flowing for a while. I preferred derisive laughter to shouting and a dressing-down.

My final disqualification is that I have always loathed the "poetry" of T. S. Elliot, and it p!ssed me off to no end he managed to end up in both the American and British anthologies, so I had to read his dreck twice.

Now that I've exposed myself as a peasant (again), I would like to say that poetry is alive and well in popular songs. Even some new ones. Recently I was reading some article in "Atlantic Monthly" and listening to the new U2 CD, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." I had the lyric booklet out and ended up comparing some of the poems in the Atlantic to the lyrics. Bono won hands down.

So, I'll use Bono's line to describe my general feeling for most modern poetry (that's not a song), "I can't see what you see, when I look at the world."

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 18, 2002 3:01 PM

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