Ashbery, Tate, Ossip, and Logan's Avant-garde
William Logan’s been thinking again, and while I never find much to remember or value from it, he does make for an interesting read. When he sticks to the likes of Oliver or Olds or Komunyakaa, he’s on pretty safe ground, complaining about the angle of vision, the voice, the taken-for-granted, but when he strays into the territory of poetry that is more unlike his own, he tends to complain in larger, more suspect ways. This, occasioned from looking at Cole Swensen, illustrates the point:
“The avant-garde aesthetic almost demands some form of one-upsmanship, yet there are only so many ways of torturing syntax or splashing words onto the page. (Certain avant-garde mannerisms have been around so long, Calvin Coolidge could have written respectable poems with them.) If the avant-garde wants to make it new, in Pound’s dictum, what can be left to accomplish when the etiquette has been as codified as the place setting for a twelve-course banquet? Most experimental poets still come out of William Carlos Williams’s pickle jar or Charles Olson’s boot heel.”
What I’m getting at, is that Logan fails to see that all texts are in some ways artificial, and that none of them in any really complete way can be experience or perception fully, but to take for granted the suppositions behind the style of poetry that mirrors discourse (Oliver & Olds & Komunyakaa here) while complaining about the suppositions behind the style of poetry that attempts to enact the way perception works (which has been behind the attempts of what he’s here terming “the avant-garde”), is to reveal a blind spot that one who considers himself a broad-based reviewer and critic should either think his way out of or cause him to stop writing about the sorts of poets he’s here terming “avant-garde.”
That said, Swensen does come off better from Logan than either Oliver or Olds or Komunyakaa do, so I’m not accusing him of dispatching the “avant-garde” out of hand, but the terms of his conversation regarding poets changes when encountering the “avant-garde.” He just doesn’t know quite what to say or how to say it, which I suppose is understandable, as I wouldn’t have a clue what to say about Mary Oliver . . .
Anyway, enough of that. A few more poems I like, to continue my December anthology:
Yes, “Señor” Fluffy
And the clouds fretted and flew, as though
there was a reason for their acting distraught.
There may have been, of course, but at this distance,
better to act dumb and accept the inevitable
as a long-anticipated surprise. Then if what lands
on your plate stares angrily at you and the other guests
“can’t wait” to hear your reaction, why, it’s checkout time
at the gazebo and no one will forget you too heartily
as the next-to-last spectator always glimpsed on the premises,
feigning the concern for the victim that marks you as the killer,
for sure. As for being in touch with you guys
another time, we’ll take it under advisement.
So this moment’s tremors mingle with others
on the departure platform. Who knew it would be this silly,
and so dense? Nevertheless, we have a right to know,
to have our impulses regulated and calibrated in the
interests of farther and fainter reaction-shots. Sure,
you’ll get your rights read to you and sooner
than you may have counted on. Let the monotonous
group of listeners pump you for details, we’ll provide
backup and terminal ecstasy at the way stations.
It couldn’t have been any other way. You knew that.
What’s your name down there?
Despite misgivings, the story clicks to a halt,
as always. The credits surge. People rush to leave.
The shiny cars of another era are coming
to take us where we wish to be taken, lest we
outstay our welcome and sink in the embrace
of another mood.
* * *
Land of Little Sticks, 1945
Where the wife is scouring the frying pan
and the husband is leaning up against the barn.
Where the boychild is pumping water into a bucket
and the girl is chasing a spotted dog.
And the sky churns on the horizon.
A town by the name of Pleasantville has disappeared.
And now the horses begin to shift and whinny,
and the chickens roost, keep looking this way and that.
At this moment something is not quite right.
The boy trundles through the kitchen, spilling water.
His mother removes several pies from the oven, shouts at him.
The girlchild sits down by the fence to stare at the horses.
And the man is just as he was, eyes closed,
forehead against his forearm, leaning up against the barn.
* * *
My 20th Century
We are having tea and
dobosh torte, my mother
and I, dressed in hobble
skirts and buttoned boots,
in Peacock Alley of the
old Waldorf. (She thrives on
luxury.) Hey Ma, I say,
this Sigmund Freud says neuroses
arise from repressed sexual
fantasies! She clatters her cup
in a kind of trance.
We’re having tea and Ritz
crackers, my mother and I,
dressed in chemises, shingled and
bobbed, in the sitting room
of my first apartment. (She’s
a little jealous.) Hey,
Ma, I say, Susan Anthony
won! We’re getting the vote!
She moves like a brown
bird on a brown branch.
We’re having tea—the sugar
is rationed—my mother and
I, wearing trousers and snoods,
in a soldier’s canteen. (I’m
her supervisor.) Hey, Ma, I
say, have you seen that
movie about Scarlett O’Hara, the
heroine who proves, once and
for all, that a woman
can be hard as nails
yet loved by millions? She
hefts a widget, not too friendly.
We’re having drinks in the
Sputnik Lounge, in daydresses and
ballerina slippers. (She’s dating a
pilot.) Hey, Ma, I say,
y’know Rock Hudson, that
actor you like? Well, I just
read in Tittle-Tattle . . . She
hits a high note like
a wigged castrato.
We’re taking spoonfuls of blue-
green algae in the solarium
of the nursing home (I’m
getting tired; her joints are
sprightly). We’re dressed in
leopardskin aerobicwear. Hey,
Ma, I say, there’s this
guy who says all religions
derive from a shared mythology.
What do you think? She
swivels and rides
away on her trike.
I’m eating bread and water
alone, naked as the day
I was born. Hey, Ma,
I say, though she’s not
around, you won’t believe this.
Physicists say that in
addition to a yes and a
no, the universe contains a maybe.
Off in the distance, under the stars,
she moves like a platypus,
neither here nor there.