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