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Angela Ball
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Wow! I can't imagine a better poem to end the year with. A poem of beginnings, it floats in the ether that supports the best poems, a sacred and permanent form of the substance found inside the Magic 8 Ball, that buoys the answer, "Ask Again Later" out of blackness.
I love this poem.
Thank you so much, David! And thank you so much for the terrific challenge. The highlight of my week.
Words from a Painting by Giorgio Di Chirico I am mannequin and still life plucked from wire in Verdun. If you prefer, think of my eye cups as motorcycle glasses; if you prefer, think of my thoughts as fish, noble, never to be caught. I’ll mount my Ducati, speed through storms to Santiago de Compostella, become a holy shell in a field of stars.
Beautifully said, David. You were an ever-generous quizmaster, and it was always a lovely bonus when you included a reply--partial or complete--to your own prompt, in the spirit of sharing your craft as you asked us to share ours.
David, this is wonderful. I will be gifting it to my undergrads. Kudos!
Yes, David! You definitely should.
What a beautiful translation, David!
Wow! Enjoyed this poem so much. Especially the cascading ending.
So well said, David Lehman.
To enjoy David Lehman's "Ninth Inning" even more, watch Kurt Gibson's game winning home run, 1988, on YouTube.
David and Amy-- Already looking forward to the delayed second half of the last season--as much for your commentary, that blooms so many details we might have overlooked--as for the show itself.
In the radical simplicity of James Schuyler’s poetry, the world is constituted each morning in the form of what is here: a cup, an ashtray, a Korean Mum. The job of the poem is to converse elementally, without judgment or hierarchies, but with a saintly respect for the small details that bring us to life. Martin Heidegger, one of the philosophers most amenable to the New York School of Poets, made a plea against tracts exhorting large changes in society, but which in turn slight the present as "relatively impotent appearance,” "suggest[ing] that the fragile and transitory can safely be neglected." Schuyler’s style emulates that of artists Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher—both working against (Abstract Expressionist) fashion to represent the ordinary extraordinary of every day. (I include here images of two of Frielicher’s beautiful paintings—to this day she is represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery—and Fairfield Porter’s portrait of John Ashbery and James Schuyler.) In its intense interest in accepting the windows offered us, Schuyler’s poetic method implements in words Freilicher’s method of composing through gentle attention. Often in her work, the domestically pastoral (vases and paint jars of flowers) consorts with the matter of the containing city. (Freilicher was once offered a fellowship to travel anywhere in the country to paint a scene: she choose to stay in her apartment to make a new window scene.) Graduate poet Annette Boehm talks about Schuyler’s “unashamed reality”: Part of this fascination with what is real is accepting that what is real can be different from what is generally acceptable or generally considered beautiful. Lehman [in The Last Avant Garde] quotes Schuyler’s recollection of an incident in the early 1950s: “We were walking along the beach at sunset, heading for a cocktail party. The sun was casting those extraordinary Technicolor effects on the sea and sky. John [Ashbery] turned to me and said, ‘I always feel so embarrassed by these gaudy displays of nature.’ I didn’t feel embarrassed at all” (260). I think that Schuyler might enjoy hearing the journals from our class, the students’ daily observations of his work. Here is literature student Anna Williams (we are using the FSG Selected Poems): “March Here.” I like this poem for the way it positions the natural environment/weather with neon signs and tall towers. The wet of spring/March aligned with the wetness of “the hard-running river” and the “damp/from your bath.” I’m sure there’s a way to critique commodity culture in this. Also, the blurring of the lines between human and nonhuman worlds is critically rich. “December.” “Each December! I always think I hate “the over-commercialized event”/and then the bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink above the entrance/to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all/the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops/and how can I help falling in love?” Yup. Commodities are dazzling and tempting. And to a certain extent I think that’s ok…I mean, it’s necessary to be aware of the implications... Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
John Ashbery has a double life: as “John,” the person; and “Ashbery” the poet. His poetry, too, has such a life. In J.D. McClatchy’s formulation, derived from “Trefoil,” a poem that describes “trees / of two minds, half caught in their buzz and luster,” it is ”buzz” (the voice of the quotidian, the silly, the shop-worn phrase) and “luster” (the voice of beauty that arises from memory and is expressed in language, but is somehow independent of both—in short, art). It is both dimensional, riverine and mountainous, and a “planosphere” unfolded on a table. “Memories of Imperialism,” from his twentieth book, Your Name Here, is based on a silly, deliberate mistake—the conflation of two Deweys: the admiral and the librarian. But according to the logic we follow every day, the mistake makes sense: we are our names—we inhabit the blank provided. Ashbery’s poem simply takes the system at its word, creating a beautifully comic, bewildered character who embodies the absurdity and sentimentality of history as we mostly experience it: “Dewey took Manila / and soon after invented the Dewey decimal system / that keeps libraries from collapsing / even unto this day.” The poem brilliantly juxtaposes the “flatness” of a numerical system with the “roundness” of experience—the collapse described at the poem’s start seems both a matter of weight and a matter of abstract order. (Another poem in the volume, “Full Tilt,” mentions “a terrible syllabus accident.”) And, poignantly, the poem evokes the predicament of outliving one’s moment. The young take it in stride that old heroes are supplanted by new. It’s another thing entirely to know oneself redundant: one may be called “Admiral” still, but no longer admired: To this day schoolchildren wonder about his latter career as a happy pedant, always nice with children, thoughtful toward their parents. He wore a gray ceramic suit walking his dog, a “bouledogue,” he would point out. People would peer at him from behind shutters, watchfully, hoping no new calamities would break out, or indeed that nothing more would happen, ever, that history had ended. Yet it hadn’t, as the admiral himself would have been the first to acknowledge. Your Name Here is dedicated to Ashbery’s partner of many years, “Pierre Martory, 1920-1998.” It ends with the title poem. Isolated, this phrase reveals its strangeness. A signature is both personal and impersonal—the space, which could be filled by anyone, implies a comic togetherness rather than a tragic uniqueness--but it is you, in two-dimensional form. It indicates the round of a life: volition, commitment. I think that “commitment” (to fixed ideas of truth, for example) is a quality that Ashbery runs from, while many poets pursue it as prize. Also, there is the weirdness (fatality) of a phrase that functions both as command and description, as if the filled space is already a fait accompli. As if the name already occupies its line, so like the one that connects two dates. The declaration is also an indisputable fact: each of us occupies a... Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Possibility is the enemy of the solemn. Solemnity is a drying agent, a fixative. It says that we should not only own the tradition we inherit, but wash and wax it and shampoo its carpet. The New York School of poets saw and sees such veneration as beside the point. Humor is in our blood, and we should let it circulate! The kind of transcendence (through mediation and/or drugs and/or study of Asian religious models) aspired to by Beats has been eschewed by the NYS. One thinks of Wallace Stevens’ rejection of “the dividing blue.” Once we can live horizontally--on the surface of the earth instead of escaping it—multivalent connections grow. We may live in the city, but we should also resist it. What is the city without the country? Critics including Timothy Gray have pointed out that urban poets have traditionally used the pastoral as foil and as escape from their daily identities. Even socialites want to be milkmaids once in a way, as the businessman may wish to be a fishpond. Each poem is, in a way, sui generis. It shoulders its way into view, throwing off or evading all that is not-poem, attracting all that is. All possible forms, all possible dictions are available to it, withal. Freedom of form provides its own change of scene. Kenneth Koch emulating Byron’s terza rima (but in his own way—often hilariously rhyming banalities), Frank O’Hara writing quasi-Keatsean odes, John Ashbery creating a pastoral cartoon sestina—all have one thing in common: pleasure, both comic and sublime. We laugh the tops of our heads off. (DOGS IN BED) "In the dog bed / I cannot sleep" - Kenneth Koch, "In Bed" I first read Kenneth Koch’s “You Were Wearing” in 1971. It was included in Mark Strand’s wonderful anthology, The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940. As others, including Billy Collins, have reported, it was a revelation to me. It begins, as you will recall: “You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse.” / In each divided up square of the blouse was a picture of Edgar Allan Poe.” Though it didn’t occur to me at the time, Koch was a prophet of the Postmodern. He understood the addition of meaning to surface, and the commodification of same, before it had truly gotten underway. (I think that the names dropped in “You Were Wearing” also parody the Greek and Roman mythology pasted onto the solemn poems of the university quarterlies and reviews of the day—intellectual currency.) Indeed, the “printed cotton blouse” of the first line is fashion-speak—the talk that sells the clothes that make us. Both Roland Barthes (in Mythologies) and Walker Percy (in Message in a Bottle) portray the Postmodern distancing of experience—the gradual replacement of the genuine, whatever that is, with nostalgic facsimile, until we become souvenirs of ourselves. As Koch’s poem goes on to follow its “you” and “I” through various activities, the products grow more three-dimensional. They sit on the “Abraham Lincoln swing”: “You sat... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I had imagined discussing the big four New York School poets in an orderly fashion, one by one. But since their work percolates from shared springs, it seems to me better to talk back and forth among them. As I have said, my class and I are collaborating on understanding the ongoing collaborations of the New York School poets. Here is one example: wonderfully, Kenneth Koch found Frank O’Hara’s previously unknown “Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” after his death (and read it at O’Hara’s funeral). That Kenneth Koch wrote of the circus is very apropos—so much of what he did (for one thing, the tremendous range of his teaching of poetry, including even children at the M.D. Anderson clinic, where he himself was being treated) was death defying. Here’s graduate student and fiction writer Jennifer Brewington discussing him in her reading journal. (We’re using the American Poets Project Selected Poems, edited by Ron Padgett.) Kenneth Koch is my favorite New York School poet so far, and I am very surprised. I thought it would be O’Hara. Though I’d never read him before, I wasn’t expecting to be so taken in by his work. It’s no wonder to me that O’Hara writes often about him in his poetry. He uses a lot of the same techniques that I’m now realizing are a part of the school. The naming of friends and places and events in poems puts all of them in conversation with one another in a way that feels inclusive. I noticed that before but did not realize it was a common technique among them. Still, there is something about Koch’s ability to turn a phrase, to contradict himself within the same line, to conjure just the right image that makes him stand out for me among all of these brilliant writers. In “Days and Nights,” he writes, “It came to me that all this time/ There had been no real poetry and that it needed to be/ invented” (96). Going into this book, I felt like I knew something about poetry. I had almost the opposite feeling. Now, though, I feel he’s done just that. He’s invented poetry, or reimagined it, in a way that is haunting, daring, and incredibly effective. The images in his poetry are so clever and lovely. My favorite poem in this collection is “Alive for an Instant.” The title itself draws me in and the first line keeps me present. “I have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach/ and a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals/ and a lion in my genitals and I am after you but I have a song in my heart” (45). How perfect is that! The repetition of genitals somehow perfectly captures how it feels to be both physically and chemically attracted to someone and how it feels to also love them. Speaking of love, in class, graduate fiction writer Nick Benca talked about the build-up of feeling... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I write from Mississippi on a rainy Monday, and from the middle of a class on The New York School of Poets and the New York School diaspora. The class has graduate fiction writers and poets who are part of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, and a graduate student in literature, as well. All are fully engaged in exploring the NYS aesthetic and how well it suits our current condition—how in John Ashbery’s poetry city can turn itself inside out into farmstead; how New York is a peoplescape in Frank O’Hara, and the past socializes with the present; how Kenneth Koch revolutionizes the apostrophe and makes comedy and tragedy compadres; and how James Schuyler seamlessly joins the human and the natural in lines like these from “Closed Gentian Distances”: “A nothing day full of / wild beauty and the / timer pings.” Mississippi may seem very far from New York—but the New York School imagination specializes in motion. It goes everywhere on its nerve, and its energies are enlivening the work of poets all over the place. (Sometime during this week I hope to include a report on the NYS in Poland.) Our course will end with a special symposium, to which you are all invited. For details, go to and click on the Moorman Symposium link. Our celebration will include readings by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, along with award-winning poets Denise Duhamel, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, and BAP’s own David Lehman, who will moderate a panel discussion on the New York School Diaspora. True to form, my students are teaching one another—and me—new things about the NYS. Over the next few days you’ll be hearing their thoughts about the big four New York School poets and beauties, energies, and perplexities their work provides. - Angela Ball Continue reading
Posted Mar 3, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 27, 2014