Thursday, April 28, 2011

Steve Kowit's Rules for Anti-Rules

After careful consideration, I decided to scream.

A Poet’s Anti-Rule Book
Steve Kowit

The Writer’s Chronicle
Vol 43 No 6

One of the things that fascinates me is watching people attempt to be open to all kinds of poetry and then crash and burn. The latest instance of this is Steve Kowit in The Writer’s Chronicle. It’s a lesson. Even as he says to watch out for the biases and hidden agendas of teachers and those writing about poetry, he not so subtly advances his own.

His agenda can be seen easily enough by his choices of the best-and-most-open-to-breaking-rules poets: Galway Kinnell, Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dobyns, Ray Carver, Billy Collins, Ed Field, Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, Ron Koertge, Ted Kooser, Suzanne Lummis, Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan, Jane Shore, Natasha Trethewey, Diane Wakoski, and Charles Harper Webb.

OK, so I’m not knocking the work of the poets he’s choosing to list out (some of whom I like [Thomas Lux, for example]) as “our best poets,” but I am knocking him for making claims that his essay is supporting the idea that “everything is permitted,” when, in reality, he’s playing in a pretty narrow corner of the aesthetic sandbox. A poet looking for a wide field of possibilities isn’t going to find it in this essay, even as Kowit seems to be promising just that.

In the final section of his essay, titled “Poetry Workshop Teachers and Their Biases,” he rightfully says that “It’s hardly surprising that poet-teachers bring their own predilections, tastes, prejudices, attitudes, and emotional responses to the workshops they facilitate.” The problem is that he’s pretending he’s above all that in this essay, when in reality, he’s pushing his biases, hard, on the reader.

Kowit’s essay is another instance of the way many poets these days think of the aesthetic position of “simplicity, clarity, and grace” that is “committed to accessibility” as a default position, one outside of theory and the need for interrogation. It’s just being sensible, unlike, say, those deluded and crazy postmodern poets out to be “obtuse.”

No one's an island, but anyone can be full of holes.  

For some of his essay, I’m with him. There are a lot of dumb rules that teachers and essayists oppress people with, and they need to be taken very skeptically. Things such as “Show Don’t Tell.” The irony is that he’s unwittingly participating in just this sort of silly rule-making without the least bit of self-awareness.

He hates the kind of poetry that he describes as “postmodern.” OK. That’s fine (even if that phrase is getting a little long in the tooth, I basically know what he means). I dislike the poetry of Mary Oliver, so we’re even. The problem is that he’s writing an essay that has at its heart the purported acceptance of experimentation and rule-breaking. He grudgingly accepts the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Crane, and Williams, barely, while attacking strongly any poetry that might be defined as “difficult” or “postmodern” or even mysterious:

“’Mystery’ seems to be a word that some poets, critics, and poet-teachers use as a synonym for mystification, and as a way of valorizing confusing or indecipherable passages, a way of coating an awkward fact with a patina of mystical romance. If one wants to valorize that quality in more intellectual terms, you can call it ‘indeterminacy’: that’s the modish, lit-crit version of ‘what the hell is he talking about?’ Now, if the workshop student wanted to be incoherent (i.e, indeterminate, mysterious) then fine. He’s succeeded. But if the poet had no wish for that passage to be indecipherable it might be advantageous not to seduce him with a term that validates a quality he is decidedly not seeking—and probably wishes to avoid.”

Kowit apparently lives in a world where the poem is either going be clear with the “grace, power, authority, and genuine humility” of Mary Oliver, or it’s going to be incoherently “drunk with theory.” This is a pretty wobbly dichotomy, and one I wouldn’t expect from someone who reads and reviews poetry on a regular basis.

The difficulty—and why Kowit is fighting here, rather than pitching the large tent—is that the poetry he loves, is, in his estimation, being ruled against in workshops, where the “postmodern notion that poetry needs ambiguity” is really an admonition against “socially conscious poetry.” Likewise, the “idiosyncratic” rule “widespread among postmodernists . . . to eschew the word ‘I’ so that—the explanation goes—one can escape the ego . . . [is] really meant as a prohibition against ‘personal’ poetry.”

First, I’ve never heard of either rule, either as a student, teacher, or in conversation with even the most theory-headed poet about his or her art. Kowit is still fighting a battle with the 1980s, it seems to me, and that old fight cheapens greatly the other things he has to say that can be of use. I mean, what do these poets want anyway? Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are the two most popular poets in America. What’s there to fight about?

To posit Billy Collins and Mary Oliver as, apparently, “socially conscious” and “personal” against the postmodern mystifiers who are NOT socially conscious and personal (C.D. Wright? Rae Armantrout? What names do we place in here?) is easily negated by examples. So it’s really neither of these he’s really worried about. It’s about this thing called “clarity.”

I feel a little like Kowit, myself, at times, as I keep having this same argument with the way people like him frame the debate between “clarity” and “incoherence”. I believe in clarity and find little use for incoherence, but usually (especially in essays such as this where there are no examples of what he means by “incoherence”) what they mean by incoherence is poets such as John Ashbery. I rather like the poetry of John Ashbery, and I don’t care for these reductive arguments that paint “all of that” as some “postmodern” delusion. We’re talking about art here, not trying to hail a cab.

PS. The fact that he doesn’t mention Kay Ryan makes me think there might be something to her poetry after all.

Sure, they say it's harmless, but would you want to get on?


At 4/28/2011 4:55 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I was just thinking that "we're talking about art here" could be in an Ashbery poem. "I mean, we're talking about art here,/ not the oily blandishments of the empyrean,/ not the lambent, leonine lay of the land--/ inflamed, uninflammable--underlying our most cogent/ assumptions of irresponsibility as a bass line/ underlies the cacophony soundtracking the dream,/
the pageant of pitchy fire." Is that incoherent enough?

What the hell is that roaring I keep hearing here?

At 4/28/2011 6:07 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was just thinking that "what the hell is that roaring I keep hearing here" could be in a sleigh over rooftops in late December.

Ho ho ho. Is that coherent enough?

At 4/29/2011 5:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember his book on writing poetry In the Palm of Your Hand. I used it years ago. I haven't thought of him in a long time. Seems he's more edgy these days.

- Chris

At 4/29/2011 5:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, DG: That's a decorous JA riff, but I don't know what you're trying to show with it. Did you enjoy writing it?

Not sure about the JG Santa thing, either. What are you trying to un-show with it?

Other than that, I hope everyone's having a nice day.

- Chris

At 4/29/2011 8:19 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I wasn’t trying to show anything; I was trying to tell. No, seriously, I just thought “we’re talking about art here” sounded like Ashbery in that the demotic style is at ironic variance with the gravity of the subject matter. (“Now I want you to go out there and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too. They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one…”) I hope the effusion of mellifluous gobbledygook after the opening line sounds vaguely Ashberyesque as well. Yes, I enjoyed writing it. I enjoy writing the way I enjoy trimming my toenails.

As for John’s reply, “Ho ho ho” is obviously a description of the rue St. Denis.

At 4/29/2011 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm guessing you moved quickly through your last paragraph because you've fought this fight so many times already, but I'd still be curious to hear you elaborate a bit.

When you say you like clarity and you like Ashberry, it's not entirely clear if you mean that you like clarity AND you like Ahsberry, or you mean that Ashberry is an example of the clarity you like ... which would suggest that your conception of clarity is different from (and likely more nuanced than) Kowit's. If the latter is the case, I'd love to hear your thoughts on clarity in relation to this broader argument.

At 4/29/2011 9:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Nice. But, try as you might, you didn't achieve gobbledygook:

"underlying our most cogent/ assumptions of irresponsibility as a bass line/ underlies the cacophony soundtracking the dream,/"

Is pretty coherent to me. I've often felt that way about cogent assumptions, myself, and feels persuasive. It reminds me a bit of Kowit trying to write an example of over-sentimentality:

Oh Belinda, you're dead, boo hoo, boo hoo. / And will never to me be returning. I don't know where in this poem to begin, / my heart for you it really and truly is burning / with your little nose and your chinny-chin-chin. / Oh a million boo hoo hoo hoo hoos."

From his perspective it's a failure of over-sentimentality, but from my perspective it's a flarf riot. Then title it "The Writer's Chronicle Vol 43 No 6" and now it's satire . . .

At 4/29/2011 9:25 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

You're quite right, John; what I wrote is coherent. (My Malley-like games usually result in unintentional coherence.) I just wanted to hear someone say that. And the lament for Belinda is funny.

At 4/29/2011 9:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Oh, you’re right. I feel I’ve been doing versions of this argument for twenty years. I’m getting slack with it. Ashbery isn’t meant here an as example of clarity, but I do find his work to be “clear.”

What Kowit means by “clarity,” I’d call “message clarity,” where the poem is meant to communicate some agreed-upon totality: “This poem is about X. It’s theme is X. The characters are in scene X. The speaker is in X situation.” That sort of thing.

For Kowit, that seems the goal of writing poems. And all other goals are incoherent. It’s like trying to describe Rothko’s paintings through the lens of Hopper. Painting has done this battle. It still surprises me that poets keep saddling up for it.

The clarity that I find in Ashbery isn’t necessarily “message clarity,” though one can often “read” Ashbery’s poems though this lens and find there’s a lot more message clarity than one suspects. Ashbery’s words are clear, and they remain clear in sequence, but the totality, the complete poem, twists and meanders.

I feel that poetry that ties things up in boxes often does so by lopping off the loping way experience works, and I’m more interested in experience than thesis. Our different desires for poetry will steer us toward different poetry, and I want essays like Kowit’s to respect that.

I understand though, that even as I hold this belief, when I’m in the process of defending the type of poetry I prefer, I’m not always as respectful of other poetry (Mary Oliver is a great example) as I should be. There are some fundamental disagreements. We can’t be Unitarian all the time . . . but in essays of general advice in The Writer’s Chronicle we should strive to be.

At 4/29/2011 12:46 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I always enjoy these posts, though I feel I've responded a lot with more or less the same thing each time.

What troubles me the most about his essay (which I haven't read) is that he accepts the work of people like Eliot and Pound, it seems, because they've been canonized. Their work requires much more scholarship and theory to pick apart than say, Ashbery.

My general feeling is that the people who repeatedly dismiss him go into the poems wanting too much, or at least, wanting more of what they already have, which is not what Ashbery does.

At 4/29/2011 1:21 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


In my reading of the essay, I agree, it feels like he's only OK with the high modernists because the canon says so. He doesn't have to be so kind to whatever he means by the postmodernists. He never tags any of them by name (Ashbery was my insertion), which allows him to play pretty fast and loose.

We generally read Frost differently than we read Stevens. Different strategies of reading. And we read both of them differently than how we read Hopkins. So why should we have to read Ashbery the same way we read Mary Oliver (as he singles her out several times as a model)?

I wish he would have been large enough to go into what choices of composition mean, and how meaning differently is generally (outside of tribal battles) a good idea for art.

But here I go again getting myself worked up when I have this HUGE pile of work on my desk, which has made me dream of Guadalajara.

At 5/01/2011 6:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Gary B. Fitzgerald has been trying to leave the following comment, but blogger doesn't seem to be allowing comments right now, so I'm trying to repost it.

John Gallaher said:

“I feel that poetry that ties things up in boxes often does so by lopping off the loping way experience works, and I’m more interested in experience than thesis.”

This, in my opinion, is the antithesis of the very purpose of poetry. What is the point of poetry that emulates the “loping way experience works.”? We are all immersed in ‘experience’. We try to survive it every day. Why do we need to be reminded of it in a poem?

I’m not saying that a poem should be an escape from reality like a novel or a movie. It must, of course, reflect reality or it would have no meaning, but poetry’s true value is to clarify this reality and “tie things up in a box” so, at least, we will have a clearer understanding of the chaos and irrationality of the “loping” reality that surrounds us. Poetry must entertain, but it should also comfort and enlighten. What other use could poetry have? If you simply want distraction and “experience”, well…isn’t that what music is for?

Following is a comment I made on the blog ‘Squandermania’ that may more accurately make my point here:

“Poetry should focus on the existential and spiritual mysteries we all share. Any further use, e.g., to comment on contemporary political or social issues, is equivalent to opening your finest bottle of Bordeaux to serve with the hot dogs you just grilled up in the backyard. A truly good poem will always transcend the temporary and address the significant social and political issues of any given time. Otherwise, don’t waste your time… just write an essay.”


At 5/01/2011 6:34 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Apparently I'm the only one who can post comments on my blog right now. Lucky me.

To reply to GBF:

Precisely. This is why people have to be very careful in offering general rules or anti-rules for art. We disagree, and it will always be so.

At 5/01/2011 6:43 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"One recalls Ashbery’s chewing over Auden’s line 'poetry makes nothing happen.' Ashbery: 'It doesn’t, but its value is precisely the fact that it doesn’t, because that’s the way it does make things happen. The pleasure that you get, if you love poetry, is a pleasure that’s going to cause you to act, it forces you back into life. Poetry is in fact—I was just reading a quotation from Hazlitt—not a branch of literature but life itself...'"

from Isola di Rifiuti, "Ashbery's Auden"

At 5/01/2011 7:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

From a new interview with Ashbery on his new translation of Illuminations at BR

When Some Trees, Ashbery’s very first collection, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by W.H. Auden, the connection cropped up again, though this time vaguely censorious. Ashbery recalled once in an interview: “He mentions me as being a kind of successor to Rimbaud, which is very flattering, but at the same time I’ve always had the feeling that Auden never read Rimbaud. He was very outspokenly anti-French.” Here are Auden’s own words, which not only tie the two poets together, but also single out Illuminations for parallel consideration with the then emerging Ashberian project:

Where Wordsworth had asked the question, ‘What is the language really used by men?’ Rimbaud substituted the question, ‘What is the language really used by the imagining mind?’ In “Les Illuminations” he attempted to discover this new rhetoric, and every poet who, like Mr. Ashbery, has similar interests has the same problem. . . . the danger for a poet working with the subjective life is . . . realizing that, if he is to be true to nature in this world, he must accept strange juxtapositions of imagery, singular associations of ideas, he is tempted to manufacture calculated oddities as if the subjectively sacred were necessarily and on all accounts odd.

Auden was more blunt in a letter to the runner up for the same prize, Frank O’Hara: “I think you (and John [Ashbery] too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any ‘surrealistic’ style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.”

At 5/01/2011 11:02 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Auden may have been anti-French, but didn't he read French stuff anyway? He once wrote that Rimbaud's process of thought was easier to follow than Marianne Moore's. (If I remember right. I lost my copy of The Dyer's Hand in a tornado or something.) And he wrote a brilliant-of-course intro to Baudelaire's Intimate Journals.

"which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue": I don't get that. That's like saying you shouldn't make love because it'll just tire you out. Consider some surreal images by Knott: "a skyscraper tied into a bow-knot," "beaks of headless measuringtape," "Her murder-ballad collarbones." Delightful surprises--better than anything in, for example, O'Hara's "Easter" or "Second Avenue"--but you can get enough of them. Temporarily. When fatigue sets in, read somethng different. Eventually you'll tire of NOT being surprised, and you'll want to read surrealism again.

At 5/01/2011 11:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm not sure if I'd really call Ashbery's work Surrealism, though it is associated with the surreal. Maybe a neighboring country . . .

I, by and large, don't get tired of Ashbery or surrealism, but I understand whatAuden was getting at. There are times where I tire of James Tate's recent work. Or Edson's. But then again, I have moments where I tire of most any poet. It can't be all one thing all the time. Luckily for us, it doesn't have to be.

At 5/02/2011 6:41 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I actually see Ashbery's poetry in closer to relation to the "Cubist poets" like Apollinaire and Reverdy than Surrealism. I read this poem yesterday, one I've never been particularly struck by, but it seemed to be engaging with the issues that this essay raises:

At 5/02/2011 7:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yeah, I agree: plenitudes (and channel flipping in language at a plain level).

At 5/02/2011 5:21 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/02/2011 5:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Sorry, but I'm packing and won't be able to get to it in any fashion that will please you. Which is my point, actually. We DO disagree, and it WILL always be so, about this.

So we both like Bowie. Well, imagine this as something from Station To Station, maybe that will help. Bowie is a good cognate, as he often works with found text collage.

You miss it. It misses you. We all go on.

At 5/02/2011 5:39 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

The comment John is responding to has been deleted due to an egregious typo. I am now reposting it. Sorry.

However, would I be right in assuming that Ashbery's poem is addressed to a disinterested lover for whom it was written, or have I missed this boat entirely.


Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

John said:

“We disagree, and it will always be so.”

This isn’t really true. I love all kinds of poetry just as I love all kinds of music. I enjoy the Stones as much as I do Mozart, the Beatles as well as Willie Nelson. I like Coltrane, Leon Russell, Neil Young, U2, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, the Dead, the Chieftains, Bowie, etc., etc. etc.,


let’s get down to brass tacks here. I’ve read the following poem five times. Please be so kind as to explain it to a poor dumbass like me or, at least, explain why I would want to recommend it to anyone else as opposed to, say, Frost, Thomas, Eliot, Blake or even Ginsberg.

To quote one of my own poems:

“Oh, I get the point, all right.
I just can’t find the poetry.”

Paradoxes and Oxymorons

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

- John Ashbery

At 5/02/2011 5:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yikes, where do you get the lover thing from? I mean, the poem can most easily be read as being about the reader, you, Gary. The fact that you exist teases John Ashbery into writing poems. Joke's on all of us though, as it turns out the reader is the poem . . .

At 5/02/2011 6:36 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Okay, I’ve read this poem ten times now and have come up with several different interpretations. I think I get it! The point is that the context is so nebulous that it will have many meanings to many people, or different meanings to the same person on multiple readings. Is that it?

I have read more than a few Ashbery poems and have struggled with his intent for some time now. In my local paper they have a puzzle section right next to the comics page…Jumble, Word Sleuth, Sudoku, Wordy Gurdy, the Daily Crossword. It’s interesting that they put these puzzles right next to the Funnies. I thought about this for a while and had an epiphany. I have concluded that John Ashbery is really just a pseudonym of Billy Collins, who has been fooling us all along.

And, sure travel a lot.

At 5/02/2011 7:23 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Okay, I read the poem one more time and I think I finally get it. Ashbery's poem is about his poems.

I did the exact same thing myself in a poem I called 'The Poems Speak'. I tried to explain why my poems try so hard to address things in a simple way. Ashbery's poem appears to try and explain why his poems address things in a difficult way.

Is this close?

At 5/03/2011 6:20 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

You're listening to Zappa for the love songs. When you read an Ashbery poem, don't worry about "what it's about." It's not about anything; it's a chain of thoughts. (It might appear to be about some recurring idea or image, e.g., a Parmigianino painting; but the digressions turn out to be more important than the ostensible subject.) Ashbery breaks off some links of an endless chain of thoughts in his head and calls them a poem. He doesn't write poems; he writes poetry. Often you can't tell how he got from one thought to another; his associations are very free, and they're not "about" a subject--they ARE the subject. He's not going to write "a poem about," say, the pity of war (I'm thinking of Wilfred Owen); you already know war's a pity, so what would be the point? Besides, as Auden said, "poetry makes nothing happen." Anti-war poems don't prevent war. As Zappa said,"There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make us do anything, we'd all love one another."

I don't necessarily subscribe to this apolitical aesthetic. I'm just describing it.

Ashbery tries to find order by looking for disorder, meaning by looking for randomness. He tries to create beauty by being reckless. He's a surrealist, kinda sorta; doesn't make sense, often collages disparate gleanings, might at times remind you of Tate or Zapruder or French guys with affinities with surrealism, like Mallarme.

I think you just need to approach A. in a more Zen-like state of mind. Check your preconceptions about poetry at the door. Imagine you're going to see an exhibit of Jackson Pollock paintings, and leave your traditional ideas about painting at the door.

At 5/03/2011 6:33 AM, Blogger Shane said...

The pleasure I get from reading Ashbery's poetry is hard to put into words, but there's a quote by Magritte, I think that describes this situation perfectly:

"People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. No doubt they sense this mystery, but they wish to get rid of it. They are afraid. By asking, 'what does this mean?' they express a wish that everything is understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things."

At 5/03/2011 6:48 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/03/2011 7:08 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

David and Shane:

Thank you for your insightful and helpful comments.

David, it’s interesting that you mentioned both Frank Zappa and Jackson Pollock. I am a big fan of both. You have either experienced some of my occasional internet outbursts or this is a perfect example of synchronicity. Pollock is, in fact, my favorite painter.

The difference between visual and verbal, however, is significant. Color and form are easily manipulated to create new images and even emotions, but are, after all, still color and form. Red is red and blue is blue. Words are different because every word has some, or several, specific meanings and their assemblage together (grammar) elucidates that meaning. Words are intended to communicate, not obfuscate.

When I hear in the Beatles song ‘Hey, Jude’ the words “Nah na na nah na na na”, they are pleasurable because it is music. If I were to read “Nah na na nah na na na” on a page in a poem…well.

Shane, I think you have confirmed this opinion by quoting Magritte…another painter.

I do understand the theory behind Ashbery’s work, so we’ll just consider it a difference in philosophy. I believe poetry should be used as a portal to understanding or, at least, sharing with each other the confusing mystery of our world. Poetry that is simply ‘art for art’s sake’, a meandering distraction, an art form in itself, like ‘junk art’, is, in my opinion, a waste of words and talent.

At 5/03/2011 7:57 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Jackson Pollock was a Cubist

Jackson Pollock was a Cubist,
Picasso painted pears.
Oranges and apples,
bananas and pears.
Some once wrote in rhyme.

Picasso found a new dimension,
Pollock the dance the organic shares.
Poets touched the meaning
of the unstructured now,
Picasso the structure of time.
Pollock found the Tao.

a poet never wrote,
forsaking poetry.
Like Pollock and Picasso found
the finite boundary,
and then, too, went beyond.
Beyond the page and ink to sky,
to wind and clouds and breath
and birds,
to perfect symmetry.
He wrote new poems every day
without the need for words.

His life was poetry.

Copyright 2005 - Evolving-Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 5/03/2011 8:18 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


To John

“What poets were you influenced by?
Who most inspired your poetry?”

Well, I replied, I’d have to say
it was seagulls. And Jackson Pollock.
Sailing ships and timber wolves
and everyone who ever died.

(Reality itself is not poetic,
just its origin and fruits)
The seed and the flower.

I don’t understand, you said.

Being, my friend! Being dead!
Just this. Who cares why?
That’s what inspires!
The physics of quantum,
the quality of light,
all the tears that were ever cried,
the emptiness and the power.
The beauty of the mystery.

I still don’t understand.

That’s it! Not understanding!
Negative capability.

Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns-New and Corrected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 5/04/2011 7:15 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I should note that I am Shane as well. I didn't realize I posted under a different gmail account until today.

At 5/09/2011 6:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Fitzgerald, you said, among many things, "Words are intended to communicate ... " by which I assume you mean they're intended to communicate something concrete. But whatever, your use of the word "intended," much like in your previous statements about what poetry is for, suggest a prescriptive approach to language in general and poetry in particular.

This is the root of the impasse. If you can imagine a possibility for broader uses of both language and poetry, then Ashbery (and hundreds of other semi-likeminded poets) will stand a chance to fall into your grasp. Otherwise, they won't.

At 5/10/2011 7:16 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

GBF is trying to post this and it's not working, so he asked me to do it:

‘Anonymous’: you say:

“Mr. Fitzgerald, you said, among many things, ‘Words are intended to communicate ... ‘ by which I assume you mean they're intended to communicate something concrete.”

I find this ironic because my poetry generally addresses things of an insubstantial and ephemeral nature, anything but “concrete”, i.e.: things of a spiritual nature such as Being, time and death (except from a somewhat different perspective than most). There is nothing in existence that could be deemed “concrete”.

You also said:

“But whatever, your use of the word ‘intended’, much like in your previous statements about what poetry is for, suggest a prescriptive approach to language in general and poetry in particular.”

1. Of or relating to the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method.
2. Attempting to impose rules of correct usage on the users of a language.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. I write with meter and rhyme and I also write in free verse. I have written sonnets and one and two line poems. You should read me sometime. I have no objection to the evolution of language, but it must still communicate something or you might as well just hum a tune.

I would also like to comment here that you are doing yourself a disservice by posting as ‘Anonymous’. If you choose to be a generic entity, you will get a generic answer. How does one know that you aren’t actually John Ashbery or just some High School kid, a University professor or somebody’s Grandma in Peoria? If a response can’t be tailored to the individual then the response will surely be lacking.

And regarding your final comment:

“This is the root of the impasse. If you can imagine a possibility for broader uses of both language and poetry, then Ashbery (and hundreds of other semi-likeminded poets) will stand a chance to fall into your grasp. Otherwise, they won't”

To this I can only say: Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Here’s another dictionary definition for you:

NON•SENSE /nän-sen(t)s/noun

1 a) words or language having no meaning or conveying no intelligible ideas.
b) (1) language, conduct, or an idea that is absurd or contrary to good sense.
(2) an instance of absurd action .
2 a) things of no importance or value.


At 5/10/2011 7:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And I reply:

In no way can the poetry of John Ashbery (for example) be read as nonsense, so your comment misses the point.

You can say you don't like it or you don't like the way it makes sense, or that it doesn't make the kind of sense that you prefer, but you can't say it doesn't participate in sense-making.

At 5/10/2011 7:26 PM, Blogger fitzgera.gary said...

I'm not the only one who believes this, John.

Why is that?

At 5/10/2011 7:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That's a pretty thin line of reasoning. I could just as easily say the same thing. And so could the Rosicrucians.

At 5/11/2011 7:43 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


Posting the definition of nonsense as a way to express your dislike for Ashbery's poetry is extremely childish. We get it. You don't like his poetry. Why not post a serious critique (I've yet to see one) or at least a comment that adds something to the conversation?

At 5/11/2011 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be charitable and assume Mr. Fitzgerald was accusing me, not Ashbery, of committing nonsense.

But then again, he also accused me of being Ashbery, so it might not make any difference.

At 5/11/2011 1:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or as Ashbery has it in "Houseboat Days":

But I don’t set much stock in things
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:
The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,
leads one subtly away from the beginning, where
We must stay, in motion. To flash light
Into the house within, its many chambers,
Its memories and associations, upon its inscribed
And pictured walls, argues enough that life is various.
Life is beautiful. He who reads that
As in the window of some distant, speeding train
Knows what he wants, and what will befall.

At 10/25/2015 12:58 PM, Blogger MissStarliteMotel said...

Via a Google search for material, I am coming upon this conversation late -- very late indeed, since Steve Kowit is himself now among the Late. Yes, the thing he could not imagine, yet vividly imagined anyway, happened, and with his usual foresight he documented the aftermath of his death in a poem called "Last will," which can be found here and there, and has a good shot at enduring a stretch or two longer than many of today's peak-of-fashion, generously-rewarded poems. (Of course, everything dies in the end, people, their poems, the planet.) It's good that Steve's essay inspired discussion and comment on this site, and no matter that much of these comments are skeptical, critical or, to some degree, condescending. Steve was something of an extremist in the long-running Clarity v. Difficulty (Obscurity, or the Non-sequential, or the Elliptical) argument. He was more extreme on his position than I ever was. Me, I'm good with a swath of mystery, inexplicable wildness, or a couple open ends, so long as the thing doesn't wind up in The Realm of the 'Whaaaa...!?' I think Steve believed that a passionate, persistent, unyielding argument must be made to counter some of the most dominating and hollow theoretical constructions of the other side. I believe he felt that these were a threat to poetry itself, and that they were, in their essence, life denying, and that whole generations, or portions of generations, of MFA students had been subtly indoctrinated. In this last, he was most certainly right. To me, with so few people reading and engaging with poetry, anyway -- so few bookshelves, so little poetry on them, anyway -- it's no great matter. There are bigger fish to fry or grieve over. But Steve had devoted years to the study of great evils around the world, the unimaginable yet must-be-imagined, atrocities of history: each century's contributions to the annals of persecution, enslavement, massacres. I have never in my life known, never again will know, such a joyful person who was, at the same time, tormented by such a heap of dark knowledge. But, point is, for Steve, with respect to poetry, with respect to humanity, there were no small matters. Poetry must Not be separated from delight, from the possibility of humor, from a clear, true, ringing human voice. I'm not such an extremist as he was -- but I kinda see his point.

At 10/30/2015 7:18 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Or as Ashbery has it in "Houseboat Days":

But I don’t set much stock in things
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:
The rest is optional. To praise this, blame that,
leads one subtly away from the beginning, where
We must stay, in motion. To flash light
Into the house within, its many chambers,
Its memories and associations, upon its inscribed
And pictured walls, argues enough that life is various.
Life is beautiful. He who reads that
As in the window of some distant, speeding train
Knows what he wants, and what will befall.

I know it's been almost five years (hey...maybe I'm a little slow), but I get this poem and I've decided that I really DO like John Ashbery.

Okay! Are you happy now? I know I am.



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