Thursday, August 09, 2007

Poetry as Mystery?

John Ashbery and James Tate, of course, are the two poets that so many poets get compared to these days. There’s a way that Ashbery and Tate inhabit mystery (with irony, humor, fractured sensibility, etc) that does seem to be emblematic, or an overview, perhaps, of what a lot of poets are up to these days. But the tendency is much larger, I think, and includes poets as diverse as Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Lyn Hejinian, Russell Edson, Michael Palmer, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, and the list goes on, of poets who foreground mystery, not just as subject matter (mystery [unknowing] as subject matter is common for all poets), but in their process.

I think this is why Wallace Stevens has become the poet so many poets are now talking about (much more so than in the 1980s and earlier, it seems to me), as his poetry can be seen to, within his constant investigation of imagination as subject, but also as process, contain a primer on this stance. But one could just as easily trace it back to William Carlos Williams, and the “so much depends upon” that hovers over the scene, or, more obviously (deceptively so), Gertrude Stein, who, when you look at the arc from Three Lives to Tender Buttons, you can get something of a feel for the gamut of the stance.

Mystery’s not the best word for what I’m thinking about. “Unknowingness,” or “Process Unknowingness,” seems more descriptive. Or, as their critics would term it, a sort of muddy, non-specific, generalness. Unresolvable tenor. Or perhaps it can be thought of as embracing the idea of “Necessary Fiction.”

The next generation, which includes Martha Ronk, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Dara Wier, among many others, simply explodes into process mystery. And in the generation(s) after that, which include Matthew Zapruder, Reginald Shepherd, Susan Wheeler, Michael Dumanis, Zachary Schomburg, Jaswinder Bolina, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Kate Greenstreet, Joshua Kryah, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, the stance is even more prevalent.

This list seems to have a lot of crossover with Stephen Burt’s “Elliptical Poets.” But he goes about his naming from a different direction (by how far one stretches the language as language or that which refers to a thing). What I’m interested in, here, is poets who do the dance of the veils.

And its not a problem of “things” for me, as things are often leaned on and asserted by poets who foreground mystery in their process. One can believe in, and assert, the veil, while knowing, and admitting, it’s veils all the way down.

There are, of course, many ways that poets can negotiate something as fundamentally large as unknowableness, as poets as different as Lucie Brock Broido and Martha Ronk attest, but I think there is something useful in the attempt, as both of them have much more in common with each other than either does with, say, Sharon Olds, or Philip Levine. And poets don’t fit neatly into categories usually, as they tend to mix and match ways of doing things in their own personal ways, as well, some poets move into and out of the tendency. Jorie Graham, for instance, is foregrounding this much less in her recent work than say, in the late 80s and early 90s.

But, even with that, there are two general tendencies through this stance that are interesting me right now.

Ironic Mystery (which is an enacting of mystery through fractured scene or narrative) – Which comes from John Ashbery and James Tate (among others), through Martha Ronk and Dara Wier (among others), to Matthew Zapruder and Cate Marvin (among others).

Earnest Mystery (which is an assertion of belief or philosophy into a vacant or unknowable sphere) – Which comes from Charles Wright and Jorie Graham (and others), through Donald Revell and Bin Ramkes (among others), to Joshua Kryah, Reginald Shepherd, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson (among others).

What is a fragment, but a leap through mystery?

What is a period, if not the same?

In that way, all poets deal with this stance in some manner, but what I’m thinking about is poets who foreground this stance, who hit it head on.

One can look at The Waste Land as a created ruin, or an assemblage shored against the ruins, but one can also look at it as an enactment of how perception really works, privately, associationally.

Anyway, I’ve thought of this tendency in the past as Poetry of the Irrational Imagination, but I’ve becomes less fond of the word “irrational.” Maybe I should just embrace it again.

Interesting anti-stances to this might be Albert Goldbarth and Mark Halliday, who use leaps of association and sensibility not to foreground mystery, but to reveal connections. Maybe?

Anyway, I’ll keep working on it. My thinking is still a bit rough. Perhaps it will always be so. And I wouldn’t want to describe it too well. That would reduce it.


At 8/09/2007 1:42 PM, Blogger ed skoog said...

I think you're right to suggest Halliday and Goldbarth as using these processes for alternate, sidereal purposes, though I'd say they're doing a heavier sort of work to connect, though there is a considerable throwing up of hands in both.

Right on, man.


At 8/09/2007 6:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, I don’t know about the heavy or not work (one could say that Ramke’s or Cole Swensen’s sort of fragmentations the heaviest of all…), but yes, it’s an interesting divide, isn't it?

By the way, I thought only cannibals threw up hands.


I’ll be here all week folks, two shows a night and no two shows alike…

At 8/14/2007 7:46 PM, Blogger Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi John,

This is a very smart and thought-provoking post, and I appreciate being mentioned in it. I have to say, though, that I am not of the same generation as Joshua Kryah or Joshua Marie Wilkinson (both of whom I greatly admire as poets), being both considerably older and having published considerably more and for a longer time than either of them. I am of the generation between Jorie Graham, Bin Ramke, and Bin Revell that also includes Peter Gizzi, Timothy Liu, and Carl Phillips, all poets who make room for mystery in their work and are indeed prodded and inspired by the presence of mystery in the world and in words.

Take good care.

peace and poetry,


At 8/15/2007 8:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey Reginald,

Well yes, I guess that's true about the generation thing, but what is a generation anyway?

I like to think (mistakenly so, I'm sure, but I'm sticking to it), that after the 1980s, it's all one generation.

Or, as my students report: we're all kind of old.


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