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From “stinko” to Devo
On The Continual Condition, by Charles Bukowski, edited by John Martin; Wheeling Motel, by Franz Wright; Unmentionables, by Beth Ann Fennelly; Easy, by Marie Ponsot; Unrest, by Joanna Rawson; and Planisphere, by John Ashbery.
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Charles Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994, but you’d hardly know it. In the years since, his longtime editor has overseen the publication of a shelf of books, including three volumes of letters and at least ten of new poems (of which the most recent, published a couple of years ago, was supposed to be the very last). Now comes The Continual Condition, as if there will never be an end. You can’t blame his heirs for shoving into print all the Bukowski they can, but you’d like some sense of the reserves—are they the size of the Genizah at Cairo? The North Sea oil fields? At this rate, in a few more years he’ll have published more books from the grave than he published while alive.
Bukowski was the great littérateur of American lowlife. His father was an American soldier in the Great War, his mother a German war bride. The family settled in Los Angeles, where Bukowski later slaved at odd jobs, working for long stints at the post office as letter carrier and mail sorter, but his true occupations were gambler, barfly, and sidewalk Casanova. Like a lot of angry young men, he had literary ambitions.
Before the advent of oral history, there were few memoirs from what Marx called the Lumpenproletariat; and those were some- times given the gilded touch by editors, when they were not forged outright. Writing well requires some measure of education, but not so much that a man of the mean streets loses his sense of self. Many a writer born to a trust fund has been drawn to the lower depths (as Gorky or his translator had it), as if life there were more genuine, though the poor are bound by the same webs of affiliation, of local debt and local vengeance, found in the Social Register. There have been intelligent tourists enough, like the Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London, but a visitor, however sympathetic, tends to sound as if he’s slumming.
What Bukowski brought to literature was an unaffected delight in every sleazy pleasure life offered. Dropping out of college, he was just educated enough, and just well-read enough, and had fallen just far enough, to take advantage of his milieu. What he lacked in literary grace he made up in pulp sensibility—few have written as badly as Bukowski and still had something to say.
Bukowski fancied himself a poet, among other things, but he rarely spared his poems the attention he gave to fiction. Poetry became a scrap heap where lack of inspiration was no impediment. The poems often read like the diary of someone who once read Lunch Poems on a lunch break.
Trivia can be its own reward, but after a little of this you want to drink a bottle of Draøno (if you want a lot of this, there are now five thousand pages to choose from). As a poet, Bukowski had the virtues of his prose, only less frequently:
Despite the irritating lack of capitals, such vignettes are scarcely less effective than Hemingway’s. You have to go through a lot of seedy passages to find something telling in Bukowski, usually growled out with dime-novel cynicism: “I don’t like us and I never did—is there anything worse/ than a creature who lives only to write/ poetry?”
A literary culture needs its Bukowskis, if the language is to be freshened and sustained. Without some sense of the rhythm and consequence of speech, poetry becomes an antiquarian exercise. It’s a pity that Bukowski’s poems are denatured prose whose instance, whose cunning, lies only in these lovingly sordid scenes (I’m charmed that his vocabulary goes from stinko to Devo). The poet’s hangdog manner, his mournful howls, his constant belly-aching—these are entertaining enough as shtick, though his every second thought turns to bimbos, booze, and the trifecta. Bukowski didn’t treat women particularly well (perhaps no man is on oath when recounting his sexual exploits), but whether mealy-mouthed or boastful, he sounded like an ugly cuss glad to get lucky. He’s the anti-hero’s anti-hero.
Bukowski remained a hard-boiled hack, even after he moved to a good neighborhood—he might as well have stayed in a rooming house pounding out prose on a battered manual typewriter. What distinguishes his work, meager though it is, are the gritty and immoral particulars. He’s more entertaining than Frederick Seidel because, though he too embraces the disgusting, the sickening, and the vile the way some embrace religion, Bukowski has a sense of humor. There are poets in love with beauty, and poets burdened with telling the truth. If you squint, there’s a little Catullus in Bukowski. Perhaps attitude and tone are not enough in poems that rely so much on force of personality, but you can imagine Whitman reading them with a rough nod of recognition.
Ah, The Sorrows of Franz Wright, America’s longest-running soap—for hair-raising plot twists and hair’s-breadth rescues (and hair-curling acting), you couldn’t find better on The Guiding Light. Wright has pushed his sorry tale to the center of his poems in a way that makes old-school confessionals like Lowell and Plath and Berryman seem sweetly out of date. He has drunk harder and drugged harder than any dozen poets in our health-conscious age, and paid the penalty in hospitals and mental wards. He presents himself as a latter-day sinner, saved by religion and the love of a good woman, with only the occasional relapse to suggest that his demons are not entirely at rest. For this poet, no good sin goes unrewarded.
The surprise is that some of the new poems in Wheeling Motel are tender, considered pieces of work. Of course, there’s pissing and moaning in abundance, overwrought piety and breast-beating—Wright can never do something by halves, but there are moments when his flaws work almost like virtues.
Here he approaches the composure so often missing from his work, though soon he’s back ranting against Fate, the World, and God Knows Whom (“he played it too loud/ but fuck the neighbors—// a little intelligence sanity and beauty/ won’t kill them”). Anger is his oxygen—as many a blogger knows, blacken Wright’s name and he’ll threaten you with a smackdown in a New York minute.
Rage, even in his best work, descends too easily into intoxicating self-pity: “some subdoormat psychiatrist writing for just what you need lots more drugs// to pay his mortgage Lexus lease and child’s future tuition.” Wright would like to be a poet of rapture—a desire that has ruined better poets—but his access to the metaphysical proves slightly banal: “Everyone Lord who wakes up in a cell.// Everyone Lord who wakes up in the cancer bed.” Wright’s idea of religion is the cargo cult—there must be something in it for him.
Not much happens in these unapologetically male poems. There are predictable scenes in hospitals and psych wards, the mingled affection and resentment for Wright’s monument of a father (with nothing but fury left for his mother), memories of an abused childhood (Stephen Sondheim composed Wright’s motto in West Side Story—“I’m depraved on account I’m deprived”), and frequent probing and testing of the nature of God, carried off with an original mixture of wheedling humility and arrogant self-belief. It seems odd that the poet has such a lively black humor—who else would offer, as a Parthian shot, “love, the next best thing to being dead,” or claim to be “composing/ a letter/ to my inner no one”? What do we say when an artist so canny about life is so idiotic about himself? Ah, that he suffers from the human condition. Still, if a man whose father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet wants to be nothing but a famous poet himself, it isn’t rocket science to guess the dynamic at work. And what are critics but false fathers he flatters or holds in contempt?
The arrested adolescence of our Young Werther doesn’t sit well on a man of fifty-six. For all his posing, all his braggadocio, his evocation of lowlife is much less convincing than Bukowski’s—Wright is too literary, too weighed down by the romance with Baudelaire and Rilke. Yet at times he’s able to forget the pretense and produce lines touched with sentiment but sharpened by beauty:
The responsibility of address and aspect in half a dozen poems here suggests that all along there has been a mature poet within, just waiting for Wright to grow up.
Beth Ann Fennelly’s perky, up-to-the-minute verse has all the disadvantages of charm. The poems in Unmentionables skate along in helter-skelter fashion, picking up their subjects as they pass, then dismissing them with an airy wave. Most contemporary poetry is so modest in its ambitions, so sluggish in its designs, so mean in its aftertaste, you wonder why anyone would bother—not the poet, of course, since poets ever hope to occupy some rocky ledge on Parnassus, but the poor reader. A skittish, devil-may-care poet like Fennelly is a partial antidote.
This is a poet easy in her own skin, delighted by the provocations and exhaustions of sex, but knowing the losses of time—even love has its sell-by date.
Fennelly has a rackety passion for contemporary culture. She stuffs her poems with so many pop-culture references and brand names (Coors, Keds, Marlboro, Oreos), you hope her agent cut a good deal for product placement. The underside, however, is that she’s constantly trading better ideas for worse. A poem starts out about cow-tipping (soon to be another Olympic event), just the thing for the poet’s tomboyish personality, yet halfway through she loses interest in rural adolescence, with its hints of darkness unexplored, and offers a solemn meditation on … 9/11.
This is stupefyingly naive. Thank goodness Congress passed the moratorium on 9/11 poems last term.
Young poets are often seduced by the “project,” and there are projects galore here. The French Impressionist Berthe Morisot was a warmly expressive and flowery painter if rarely a striking one, her figures caught in knowing calm and self-possession—had she worked in Denmark, with its cold lights and icy darks, the black-eyed gazes might have registered as psychology. Bathed in the warm glow of France, too many of her subjects look bewildered or smug. Fennelly’s biography-lite is routine, dawdling, untroubled by shrewd judgment or sharpened phrase. Often the words are laddered across the page, as if by a disciple of a disciple of Charles Olson, impressionistic in the worst sense. What might be just anecdote embedded in the life of prose, in poetry seems too calculated, as if every happenstance were forced into parable. Fennelly’s version of Morisot requires far too many bludgeoning metaphors (“the stretched and primed canvas/ of my flesh”), with every shallow insight lit in neon (“I am a puzzlement to myself,” “once I learned this lesson,/ I was seared”).
For a poet of such energy and sprightliness, Fennelly’s work is oddly underpowered, cautious and prosaic in phrasing, and full of clumsy similes. The low moment in the book is another sequence, fifteen dream songs in homage to John Berryman. Berryman’s contorted syntax and jazzy vernacular looked dated after his suicide, but distance has confirmed his mastery of rhythm and idiom. The Dream Songs has its slack moments—and Berryman’s baby talk is hard to take—but his radiant intelligence carries a reader through the dead spaces. He has long been due for a revival.
That’s Berryman, Dream Song 187. Here’s Fennelly’s lazy reply:
That trademark inversion sounds, not like Berryman, but like some refugee from a Star Wars convention. There’s worse: “No sing, no sing to shay. Naughty Henry’s/ gone away and if I live a peckel/ he won’t be-O.” Instead of driving toward her emotional tie to the dead poet (Fennelly’s father, like Berryman, was a hard drinker), she offers page after page of embarrassing pastiche. In her second book, Fennelly hasn’t even begun to figure out her gifts. A handful of poems drawn from the poet’s past burn with Byronic bravado, as if there were acres of life yet to be lived. Such poems have a don’t-look-in-the-rearview fearlessness, though you wish a few more unmentionables were mentioned.
Marie Ponsot has an odd way of looking at things, and it’s hard to know if those things were odd to begin with or if it’s just her way of seeing that’s slant. As poetry has withdrawn from instruction and reflection in favor of observation or confession, poets who cast a strange eye upon the world have proved irresistible. (This might suggest that poetry’s function has gone from moral essays to escapism, though surely it has always indulged both—isn’t Paradise Lost early sci-fi?) Ponsot writes as if some stray thought had just rattled into her head, but that seeming lightness takes great labor. Her dyed-in-the-wool quirkiness has antecedents in Bishop and Moore, but Ponsot’s darker sense of the comic, of the gloomy, glowing bizarrerie of nature, is more reminiscent of a troubled metaphysician like Carroll.
Ponsot’s poems, which have been slow to find their audience, are offhand, spirited, and predatory—you think you’ve taken them whole, but a line or two catches at you just enough to force re-reading. To a garden: “For these few spring weeks you’re a sprawl// of flowers, you green the summer toward its rest// in fruited autumn. Yet it’s winter that’s best,// yes, to imagine joy, next. The winter test.” That’s the close of a sonnet, or quasi-sonnet (Ponsot’s rhymes and meter are often in pleasant divergence from a fixed scheme). The diction is curious as an outfit patched together from a Romantic charity-box—William Allingham’s “fruited autumn,” the Keatsian verb “green,” the luxuriant “sprawl// of flowers”—but it has gleeful individuality. The lines are edged with meaning, not thrust toward it but happening upon it by the way. You realize, gradually, that the darks here reveal a religious nature—however lovely the garden in summer and autumn, winter is the retreat into the wilderness. The garden makes us realize the joys of patience, of longing for fulfillment—that might be called the discovery of faith.
Ponsot’s poems work best when they sidle toward their meanings—the few poems that buttonhole the reader seem amateurish. Is the subject TV coverage of the war in Afghanistan? “Achilles is not there, or Joshua either.// Rachel is not there, nor Sojourner Truth.// Iwo Jima flag boys? not there.// Twin Towers first defenders? not there.” She doesn’t slip often into such pompous hectoring, but when she does she’s got chalk to spare and the laser pointer to go with it.
The poems in her new book have been set double-spaced, a harmless craze that afflicts many poets under forty. Ponsot, who is eighty-eight this year, gains nothing as a dedicated follower of fashion. I’ve heard young poets say they like the “space” or “air” this introduces to the poem, but how long before some poet wants every line in boldface twenty-four-point type, or given its own page? The liveliness in Ponsot’s work comes from the cunning of her lines—she doesn’t need to blare them out like TV ads.
Ponsot’s poems have always been hit or miss. A delicate run of observation may be followed by some bright banality. (Does a reader really need to know that the “plane’s nose always gets there first”?) In this alone, she resembles Les Murray, a poet of great appetite who’s often tone deaf. She lets her lines come dangerously close to cliché before saving them with a little twist of perception. To seize that risk, sometimes poems have to fail. It’s hard not to admire a poet, however, who finds so many poems in odd corners. Her subjects can be as kinked as her delivery: here a soliloquy by a turkey, there Herr Grimm talking to his brother about “Hansel and Gretel,” then poems on Peter Rabbit’s sister, or pet dogs, or waste pipes. She’s caught by the mean, lovely detritus of life—and sometimes, fortunately, that is life.
The poems in Easy are late work, a little undernourished or contorted in meaning, but there’s hardly a page not touched by this poet’s unpretentious flair. Many whole books lack lines as warmly idiosyncratic as “Green states its claim” or “they’ve put their old-time pre-TV faces on.” You hear in her the hyperactive thought of Dickinson, quickened with the abundance of her own perception, and the longing of Hopkins, that patron saint of rapture, though she seems more doubtful about the other world.
Joanna Rawson’s subjects have been smuggled in from the headlines—illegal aliens trapped in a box-car in the desert; a young woman walking through Baghdad, strapped to a bomb (the sections of the poem tick backward from six to one); pilots back home practicing strafing runs. If you read just the titles in Unrest, you’d be forgiven for thinking the poet a war correspondent: “Kill-Box,” “A Summer under Occupation Reports Its News & Weather,” “Provisional Endings during Wartime.” These pieces contrast the horror of war, the terror of dying immigrants, with the cozy life of the poet and her family, the lushness of nature, the quiet certitudes of the garden. As rhetoric the contrast is powerful, as argument cheap and nasty:
Cumulous? Miniscule, elsewhere? Graywolf needs a new copy-editor. This falls in the poem about the suffocating illegals, so the startled girl isn’t metaphor, but the lines soon slip into bad taste: “How long did the banging on it go on?// Exactly what sort of noise did the collateral spray of their one last bang on this hot/ communicating wall make? …// Haven’t we asked these questions of boxcars?” It’s not just that “collateral spray” (so forensic—very “C.S.I.”); it’s that the poet has dragged in the boxcars of the Holocaust.
Rawson might reply that, when you’re trying to shock an audience numb to violence, any rhetorical device is fair—the coquettish underplaying (“Isn’t it starting to get a bit hot in here?”), the staccato narration (“Paid a coyote $1500 each for the ride./ The hatch locked from outside”). But the coyness risks an insulting comedy and the breathless fragments are cheesy attempts at moral emergency. The poet, despite the long arm of her empathy, can have little idea what dying immigrants or a suicide bomber are thinking.
Rawson’s juxtaposition of the weedy American garden with strafing runs and the deaths of illegals suggests that everyone is implicated, everyone guilty. She favors bardic statements warily circling a theme—the lines are often provocative, mysterious, laggardly, as if they can’t summon up the energy for enjambment. The poems work better in sidelong ways (“most of what goes wrong in a garden// does without meaning to,/ without malice”). When juxtaposition becomes judgment, however, the poet’s guilt seems a highly privileged one; the acts of rhetoric and attention, so striking singly, prove empty when they offer only complacent outrage.
There’s another problem. Rawson’s style has Jorie Graham’s thumbprints all over it— mile-long lines and stunted stanzas, theatrical pauses, a highly caffeinated obscurity, and a tedious minute-by-minute record of consciousness. Influence and imitation are necessary to poetry, and nothing new is written without significant debt to the past, but to borrow so much, as if Graham’s style could be worn like a Halloween costume, risks denying the poet’s own impulses. Taken to extremes, imitation is the sincerest form of sycophancy. One Jorie Graham is more than enough.
Though the richest parts of Rawson’s imagination are drowned in the sludge of the older poet’s style, she writes of the natural world with original grace:
Her homely detail may conceal something devastating:
Graham often implies that the irrelevance of the personal is relevant, even culpable (there’s something almost Jungian in the notion). Almost a quarter of Rawson’s book is given over to episodes from some occupied zone, but the reader emerges no wiser about where that is or what it means. There’s an endless poem about a garden, a dead horse, and the fighter jets tested nearby, but the connections are vague, slippery, and far too contrived. Rawson’s guilts and accusations seem unlocated (don’t Iraqis and immigrants love gardens, too?), as if there were evil afoot, somewhere, as if bad men were in charge, somehow.
John Ashbery, that charming old fox, that master of flimflam and bunkum, has been up to his tricks so long they seem almost new. It’s hard to remember that he published his first pamphlet when Nixon was a newly minted vice-president. Ashbery has long been a master of American vernacular, his language as fresh as whatever comes waltzing down the catwalk, yet his poems betray only the smallest awareness of the historical present—it would be hard to know whether the country was at war or peace, in profit or panic, wearing flip-flops or white spats or hoop skirts. Except for the carbon-dating of idiom, his poems might have been written during Gadsen’s purchase.
Ashbery has published a dozen books of new work since turning sixty. This exuberant fecundity has in raw numbers long outdistanced the late poems by Stevens or Hardy, but that very facility exposes the contradictory nature of Ashbery’s recent achievement—the poems seem entirely nov- el, but also slightly mechanical, as if they’d emerged warm from a cracker factory. Yet the eighty-two-year-old Ashbery doesn’t sound eighty-two—his poems reveal nothing of the gravitas of age. There are no elegies for fallen comrades in the art, no summing up as the curtains begin to close. No, every couple of years Ashbery comes strutting out in tie and tails, freshly barbered, shining with bonhomie—what other poet his age would toss into his poems “trial period,” “sticker shock,” “in real time,” “glad rags,” “same old same old,” or “I’m outta here”? He seems younger by the minute, as if he were aging backwards.
The poems in Planisphere are no great surprise, for Ashbery has become as reliable as an old song-and-dance man who can still carry a tune and hit his marks, night after night. The rambling sentences, the ear-to-the-pavement demotic, the rimshot logic, the feeling that you’re overhearing a slightly demented monologue—all these have been characteristic of his poetry for twenty years or more. Perhaps after he turns a certain age, you don’t buy the poet, you buy the brand.
There’s no imitating this, though many poets have built minor reputations trying. Yet would the poem be much different if “spring” were replaced by “Congress” or “love” or “death”? Or “Donald Duck,” for that matter?
Ashbery long ago took the shock out of Dada and made it as toothless and housebroken as poor Rover. (Ashbery! He house-trained Dada!) When was the last time an Ashbery poem upset anyone? The aggressively nonlinear, absurdist verse of his twenties and thirties was written half a century ago. The last true avant-garde book was Flow Chart, twenty years back—and it was terrible. The unhappy truth is that Ashbery has become as mannered as a diplomat, capable of politesse and an agreeable smile, but little else. Yet when you compare him to other poets in the same vein, how pedestrian they seem. Ashbery is his own man, with no dog collar upon him—and isn’t that what we have expected of American poets, from Whitman forwards?
Much of what Ashbery has denied his poetry (the ordinary logics and meanings, the drive toward conclusion) are things it’s hard to imagine giving up—and I’m glad not everyone has. But I’m secretly pleased to know that poetry can exist without them, just as I might be delighted that a man could live without a brain, or a heart (when you enter Ashbery’s world, you’re as close to Oz as you’re ever likely to get—and you’ll get no extra credit for guessing who Dorothy is). When I read a tall stack of new poetry books, the young poets so desperate to say something, the older poets saying the same old things, Ashbery seems like the sorbet course in a long meal.
The poems in his new book have been arranged, with a cheerful nod to chance, alphabetically by title, which makes the book a kind of alphabetical tour of Ashbery’s imagination. Doesn’t the heart lift a little at titles like “For Fuck’s Sake,” “Giraffe Headquarters,” “Idea of Steve,” “Not My Favorite Shirt,” “The Plywood Years,” and “Um”? Not that the titles have much to do with the poems, not that you couldn’t fling them at poems completely different and be just as happy. The best poem, arguably, is a list of movie titles beginning with “They,” and perhaps the next best a floundering rehearsal of the plot of a Thirties horror film called The Tower of London, a jumble of half-remembered details and half-forgotten actors.
It’s his usual meta-commentary on memory and age, on the Brownian walk of association that somehow, canting off in one direction, then another, gets you somewhere.
There are passages in Planisphere that seem to have been written while Ashbery was comatose (“Spray-on sex, he botanized./ That could never happen.// He’s being held by Egyptian matrons”) and one sentence that just about defeats me (“If we enjoyed spring spells later/ it was because the motoric finish/ spalled”); there are perfunctory metaphors galore; there are poems that start with everything and end with nothing; and there is the terrible suspicion that, for all their debonaire grace, Ashbery’s poems are missing something profound at center. Yet American poetry would be a more tedious business without a nonesuch like that ever intriguing, ever frustrating Mr. Ashbery.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 December 2009, on page 55
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