Saturday, June 04, 2011

What’s a poet to do after ten or so books?

Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

Dean Young is one example and Michael Palmer is another. For Dean Young, the younger of the two, the plan is to just keep doing what he’s doing, with little variation (a bit of rhyme adds to the mix, but other than that it’s poetry business as usual). For Michael Palmer, the plan is to continue to work away from his pivotal work from the 1980s. The results, for both poets, is mixed, but that’s not my point right now. What I’m thinking of is the relationship I have (we have) with artists as they move through their later careers.

Picasso is the genius of change.

It is common for poets to have their most lasting aesthetic breakthrough in or around the age of 40 (Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, Wallace Stevens, to give a feel for it). For some, like William Wordsworth, and James Tate it was closer to 30. I guess this is what is meant by the “mature style,” and poets seldom, once they’ve moved into it, move back out again (so far that’s been the case for Charles Wright, as example). Some do, though. There are several cases of poets such as Yeats and Stevens, where a late turn comes in to color the work. It’s more pronounced in Yeats, but it gets talked about in Stevens quite a bit as well.

Michael Palmer is in this category, with Notes for Echo Lake, First Figure, and Sun all being published in his 40s (or close enough), and the transitional book, At Passages, in his 50s. He’s now 68, and Thread (New Directions, 2011) is the third of what can be seen as the inverse trilogy to his 80s work, where what to do and where to go seems to be to follow the trajectory of the late moves of Wallace Stevens (and bits of e.e. cummings-style wordplay, and WCW flatness). The mansion of Sun has become a minor house. Even so, there are reasons to visit and things to find there. He’s making set pieces in Thread. How these miniatures and series differ from his earlier work is their lack of interior fragmentation. Just as Stevens, in the poems in The Rock, went small and direct, so too has Palmer. Liking or loving his early work doesn’t mean you’re going to be interested in his later work and vice versa.

e.e. cummings didn’t change much at all. Ashbery, Armantrout, and Kay Ryan have all changed over the years, but relatively slightly.

Dean Young is in this category. The book titles, and the order of the poems, and what he’s going to say next doesn’t seem in any way causally connected to what came before or what’s to come next. As I’m fond of quoting, Neil Young said once from the stage, while recording the live album Year of the Horse, “They all sound the same. It’s all one song.” In Dean Young’s case, the song is entitled “Whoosh,” and it seems to have a life of its own, churning away. In other words, if you like one of Dean Young’s books, the chances are high that you’ll like any of the others about as much (with minor deviances for how often he’s “on”).

So what do we do with the late career of artists (poets, painters, musicians, etc)? Is saying that in Fall Higher (Copper Canyon, 2011) Dean Young is writing more Dean Young poems unfair? It’s certainly true, but it comes with a dose of dismissiveness, just as some people dismiss Ashbery or cummings for much the same thing. (It’s interesting as a side note that both Armantrout and Kay Ryan have largely been spared this dismissiveness, probably because they were ignored for most of their careers—which is an interesting comment on the nature of consistency over time.)

I have seen the great minds of my age . . .

Sometime in the late 80s, I remember someone (another musician, I believe) talking about the bad press Bob Dylan was receiving for his then recent wayward, inconsistent albums (oh, Empire Burlesque . . .). That musician said that if a new artist were making these albums rather than BOB DYLAN (as a brand name by that time), they would be touted as The Next Bob Dylan. I’ve been thinking about that for over 20 years now.

Is it true? Wishful thinking?

What if Fall Higher or Thread (or any number of new books by Brand Name poets) were instead a first book by some new poet? What would we be saying? Would Fall Higher be considered derivative of Dean Young, or an advance on the Dean Young aesthetic? Would Thread be considered a kind of talking back to the later modernists (or maybe something like John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems) and/or the sort of language as subject of Palmer’s earlier books, or a kind of pastiche of their moves?

Maybe that’s a hollow game. In other words, then:

James Dickey, remember him? Once he was all the rage . . .

I was travelling last week, and listened to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports while in an airport. Oh me.

The role of the artist is not decorative.

Does art have a stopping point? A method or subject? Should Charles Wright have shifted? Should Michael Palmer not have shifted?

Michael Palmer was once called the first poet of the new poetry. But he’s now, 20 years later, seeming to have more in common with the old poetry, where nearly any phrase from Wallace Stevens’s The Rock could fit neatly into any poem in Thread.

As if we were the ones this movie is about, where the singing woman sings to the trains and suddenly night and silence.

The difficulty about talking about poetry is the difficulty of maps. Art is the guided tour where the point is to get lost.

The risk in art—to risk, as a writer, getting to a place where you might be failing and not know it.

The great artists achieve a kind of timelessness that can’t be seen in their time.

We can only guess. (Why do we want to guess?)

A different sort of importance falls on those who typify their time. We don’t study Emily Dickinson as an example of what the typical poem of the time was like. That’s what Tennyson is for.

Who is this attractive young man? Let's see what he has to say!


At 6/04/2011 4:28 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

> That's what Tennyson

Oh snap!

At 6/04/2011 4:39 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That's right. I went there.

At 6/04/2011 7:45 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I don't think that's what Tennyson is for.

Kay Ryan does get criticized for repeating herself; and Armantrout has, I think, changed.

Notably prolific poets who changed significantly, without getting much worse, after about age 60: Yeats, WCW, Merrill, Merwin, possibly Hardy, possibly Whitman (Lowell died at 60) all come to mind immediately...

At 6/04/2011 7:54 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And here I thought I was being generous about Tennyson. Oh well.

Armantrout and Ashbery both have changed over the years, but the sort of changing they've done over the years seems to be the sort that detractors can dismiss. Ashbery, for instance, has three or so distinct periods. Armantrout has about that many as well. The books she did with Silliman is certainly different.

At 6/05/2011 10:14 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Not all of Tennyson!

He's got some stuff that is pretty odd (actually, In Memoriam is a very weird poem). Early, he had some obsession with quantitative meters. In school, I wrote a paper on his bizarre and completely dismissed "Hesperides," showing rather convincingly, as I recall, that the poem (widely regarded by critics as an unaccountable "metrical failure" by the most sophisticated prosodist in the language) is a transposition of classical quantitative feet (with the amphimacer, or "cretic," as base foot--the setting of the poem is in Crete, in fact) into accentual-syllabics.

I should try to find that paper and see if Jacket2 will publish it.

At 6/06/2011 5:39 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Isn't the fragmented, disunified quality of "In Memoriam" atypical of its time? "In Mem"s not exactly a traditional elegy. It foreshadows early Eliot, a poetry of dovetailed fragments. Eliot admired and imitated Tennyson.

At 6/06/2011 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But it's infinitely more interesting to talk about "In Memoriam" than it is to actually read it, seriatim, as a poem. The tragedy is that Tennnyson couldn't bring himself to trust the integrity of his compositional process as a formal contour.


At 6/06/2011 6:52 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Please don't compare Kay Ryan and Rae Armantrout.

At 6/06/2011 6:57 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Well, I don't know, Eli. I think it's a pretty good read. Very melodious. I confess that I've never read it seriatim, but then I don't read anything that way, not even novels. I don't even watch movie scenes consecutively--unless I'm in a theater.

At 6/06/2011 7:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I understand. But I think I can put away how differently I view their accomplishments (Armantrout YES, Ryan NO), to think about the arc of their work.

I could also compare Ashbery and Levine in that way.

The difference is that I think Ashbery and Armantrout are consistent in the syntax of their projects (they are consistent in how they process language, but the language they process changes over time) while Levine and Ryan are also very consistent in their content as well as their syntax, so for me, Levine and Ryan quickly tire while Armantrout and Ashbery continue to surprise me.

At 6/06/2011 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're right, of course--if that's how you read. I tend to assume the author arranged the work in a particular way for a particular reason. (Tennyson certainly did; the arrangement of "In Memoriam" is its own story.)

The book is a theater, is the thing.


At 6/06/2011 7:41 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


"The book is a theater, is the thing."

And all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

At 6/06/2011 9:31 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>Please don't compare Kay Ryan and Rae Armantrout.

I know! With all her major prizes (and prolific publications in places like the New Yorker), Armantrout is by now really more Mainstream than Ryan.

At 6/06/2011 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent's back. So sure, let's try and make this a fight about who's more mainstream.

Way to go, yippie, and all that.

At 6/06/2011 9:50 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>So sure, let's try and make this a fight about who's more mainstream.

Oh, there's no reason to have a fight about it. The institutional denouement of the "post-avant" has been a forgone thing for some time.

At 6/06/2011 10:26 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

On the subject of "Mainstream" and the new poetic professionalization, and so forth, there is a forum in the latest Chicago Review, just out, in response to Keith Tuma's essay from previous issue, "After the Bubble." Contributors are Cole Swensen, John Gallaher, Rich Owens, and me, with a droll and mildly cantankerous reply from Tuma.

At 6/06/2011 12:10 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Is anyone surprised that the post-Avant has become institutionalized? Marcuse covered this in One-Dimensional Man, which, if what I've read is true, was an oft-read text in the 60s and 70s.

At 6/06/2011 12:25 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Fuzz, Kent, and Anon,

Well, to take what Fuzz just wrote one step further, it all depends on the institution. One can just as easily say that all art has become institutionalized (at least in America), as institutions are how culture is done in America.

There's only one stream, and the current will do the work. No need for the paddles.

Even Chicago Review, as Kent mentioned it above, is an institutional journal.

At 6/06/2011 1:52 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


I think that's the case. This whole conversation seems to be leftover from the post-War years when there was a great need to examine and break down all received forms of authority.

At 6/07/2011 9:43 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Well, maybe John will write something on the blog about Tuma's long response to his and Swensen's demurrals. Tuma goes after John pretty hard there. And pretty mercilessly dismantles Swensen's response, I'm afraid.

Speaking of institutions, just today I got an email with PDF of an article from College English, in which one of my poems is named through some kind of involved survey-study with MFA students as one of the five "most successful contemporary poems." I haven't had a chance to read the article yet, but it looks interesting, sort of a yoking of axiological value to social- science methodology. The authors are now going to do a book based on the study, and they've asked the poets chosen to contribute in some way. The article's titled "How We Value Contemporary Poetry: And Empirical Inquiry." I had no idea this article had appeared--and seven months ago, apparently. Had anyone else seen this? If you did, thanks a lot for telling me.

At 6/07/2011 9:44 AM, Blogger Daisy said...

You mention Picasso. What's notable about him is that you can see him engaging with artistic movements throughout his career, trying things out getting changed by things. Something about staying open and also staying yourself at the same time...

At 6/07/2011 10:12 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

"one of the five most"...

Now I see I came in fifth, beaten out by C.D. Wright, David Berman, and Joyelle McSweeney.

Oh well!

On another note, has anyone seen the new Fulcrum, finally out after long wait? Pretty amazing. 620pages, some amazing stuff in it, including a terrific section of recovered writing from Frank Stanford, accompanied by essays from Matt Henriksen (who edited the section) and others and also a large gathering of stunning photos by a French photographer from the 1970s, though I can't remember her name now.

At 6/07/2011 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent, it's in College English 73.2 (November 2010). As a counterpoint, there's also a letter in which Tony Hoagland condemns your alleged Twitter relationship with Congressman Weiner. Your copy's probably still in the mail.


At 6/07/2011 10:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"Tuma goes after John pretty hard there."

Oh well. I was sympathetc with his basic thesis, I just thought he was going at it in too polemic a fashion. Sounds liek he's continuing to do that. Even so, I remain sympathetic. Love the sinner, hate the sin, and all that.

At 6/07/2011 11:05 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

OK OK Kent, just don't have a stroke.

At 6/08/2011 9:34 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Thanks, Paul. I'll check out that Hoagland letter. By chance, I have a long, three-sectioned poem in rhymed couplets that is all about Tony Hoagland and his circle, and its appearance is imminent. Seriously.

And Jordan, you, too, will one day turn fifty. And then soon after that you will die, as we all must. I know you don't think you will. I know you feel immortal in your youth. Randall Jarrell has a poem about young people who think they are invincible. There is a turret ball in it. And a hose.

At 6/08/2011 10:37 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Kent, my allusion to the Siskind poem was meant in kindness -- I thought you might at least enjoy the Kochean figure of Grandma Gogarty.

In my experience it is never an act of kindness to suggest to someone that they reread a Randall Jarrell poem.

At 6/08/2011 10:42 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


I hope you sensed I was being lighthearted.

And I'm crushed you don't seem to have gotten my Jarrell reference. I mean, he IS your predecessor.

At 6/08/2011 11:14 AM, Blogger Jordan said...


At 6/08/2011 11:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Because I want to help:

Best Things to Say in an Argument

1) I'm just really tired

2) It's funny to hear you say that now

3) Who taught you to jump around like that?

4) We're missing the changing of the guards

5) Listen

6) I am adorable

7) This is not about the bleach

8) I think you mean "whom"

9) Jinx!

10) It was never your straw

At 6/08/2011 1:08 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Some of the precepts by which I judge poetry come from Jarrell's criticism, which is readable as well as trenchant, and Pictures from an Institution is worth reading, if you like DeVriesian kind of stuff, academic satire with lots of zingers. Jarrell was so witty. He may not have been as good a poet as Lowell--bad ear, sentimental, etc., as they say--but he was a good writer nonetheless.

I don't see it as my duty to exhume unfashionable writers. I'm just sayin.

Armantrout, Armantrout, FLARF, Ashbery, Dean Young, Armantrout, gurlesque, Armantrout...

At 6/08/2011 1:33 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Comment fields.

At 6/08/2011 1:44 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

David, I don't care much for Jarrell's poems, but I see a lot to admire in his books for young readers, and am told by many people that his criticism is excellent. And someone recommended Pictures from an Institution to me today, so there's something in the air, apparently.

Something you could wash out with a hose, I don't know, maybe?

How about that Siskind poem.

At 6/08/2011 1:54 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Yeah, keep your ball turrets clean. Ryan, Collins, Oliver...

At 6/08/2011 7:04 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Rae Armantrout came up earlier. There is a new interview with her, just up at The Argotist, wherein Amy King asks her the following, certainly one of the oddest (funniest?) queries ever posed in a poet interview:

>Do you think aliens use language, and if so, do they write poetry? What would they think of the human enterprise of poetry? Do you think human power dynamics, which you tackle so often in your poems, work outside of the realm of the human as well?

At 6/08/2011 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

">Do you think aliens use language, and if so, do they write poetry? What would they think of the human enterprise of poetry? Do you think human power dynamics, which you tackle so often in your poems, work outside of the realm of the human as well?"

Wow. Likely not her intent, but I think she's created an entire new school of criticism. What would it be ... Alien Repsonse Criticism? Or is this just another definition of New Criticism?


At 6/09/2011 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I always have this rather comforting idea that any one poem contains all the other poems one has written." – Kay Ryan

At 6/09/2011 8:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Why on earth would someone find that idea comforting?

Everything can't be an overture all the time.

At 6/09/2011 8:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I also think the question of aliens using language is a rather odd thought experiment. The context for this seemingly left-field question helps (RA's answer, by the way, is one version of the answer. There are other versions of "infinity" that don't include more than one "you."):

AK: You’re reading The Hidden Reality… Are you at all intrigued by the possibility of alien life? Do you think aliens use language, and if so, do they write poetry? What would they think of the human enterprise of poetry? Do you think human power dynamics, which you tackle so often in your poems, work outside of the realm of the human as well?

RA: The Hidden Reality doesn’t deal with aliens per se. It describes different versions of the multi-verse idea. As I’m sure you’ve heard (or thought), if space/time is actually infinite, there will be an infinite number of “yous”—beings just like you or like you except for one perhaps very significant detail. In an infinite multi-verse there’s a planet just like earth except you are the president of the United States at the moment. Now this, of course, sounds a lot like the way people choose to imagine themselves in past lives more romantic than the one they’re living now. But, nonetheless, it’s a possibility physicists are contemplating. [...]

At 6/09/2011 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my unambitiously mono-verse oriented thought experiments, it's easier to imagine aliens as archaeologists than as critics.

They'd sift through the rubble to figure out what went so spectacularly wrong, making discoveries like, "wow, the most intelligent creatures here cut down trees to wipe their asses," and "towards the end they had things called poetry slams."



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