Monday, November 26, 2007

Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.

“Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.”
—Geoffrey Hill

As quoted by Nicholas Lezard, here:

Something Burning

Nicholas Lezard hails the later work of one of the truly essential poets, John Ashbery, as he reviews Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery. (Guardian Unlimited)

Nicholas Lezard
Saturday November 24, 2007

Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems, by John Ashbery (Carcanet, £12.95)

You may, on reading Ashbery's work, be reminded of John Cage's infuriating remark: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry.” Let me give you an example: the first stanza of Ashbery's poem “This Room.”

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

So, what's all that about? You learn quickly, reading an Ashbery poem, that the word "about" isn't exactly the right tool with which to evaluate it. However, you also find that, once started, an Ashbery poem is hard to put down or dismiss. You might not understand what he is saying, but he has a tonal directness, an almost conversational charm, which makes reading him a pleasure.

I admit that I imagined it would be an easy matter to concoct a pastiche of Ashbery that would be indistinguishable from the real thing. I would put it in this review and pass it off as his and see if anyone spotted it. But, leaving ethical considerations aside, it turned out not to be as easy as I thought. Nor was it a simple matter to find a poem that would serve as the essential illustration of Ashbery's quality. For the poems here - a self-selection from his last 10 collections since 1987 - are well-chosen: they do not repeat themselves. One sometimes has the sense that Ashbery's poems are all part of the same monologue, or the same side of one long overheard conversation, and that one can tear them off as if from an endless roll.

Of course, his work is unmistakably his. The tone is so intimate and easy (they all begin with a hook that draws you in, in spite of yourself), and so at odds with the evasive relationship to reason, the frisson of disconcertment his progressions cause and involve. Each of his poems takes us for a ride, in the two main senses of the term: one of the pleasures in his work is that of making us feel like Dylan's Mr Jones, where something is going on but we don't know what it is.

I do not want to give the impression that his work is meaningless, or that there is a letter sitting in a New York lawyer's office waiting to be opened upon Ashbery's death ("To whom it may concern: I was having you all on"). There are nuggets of sense waiting to be picked out and savoured. His feel for language, its rhythms and cadences, is exquisite: it is almost as if this is what he wants us to concentrate on, above all else - the poetry that resides in the very words we use. "And where do the scraps / Of meaning come from?" he asks in "April Galleons". A good question. And the poem begins with one of his most arresting sentences: "Something was burning." This asks of us what it means to pay attention, to be alerted to something that we don't initially comprehend.

In the end, it is the mystery we appreciate. Or at least I do. Great poetry, as TS Eliot said, can communicate before it is understood: Ashbery communicates in a way that both pays homage to language and transcends it at the same time. He is also in the business of evading categories. The only label that has stuck to him - apart from his obvious indebtedness to Wallace Stevens - is that he belongs to the "New York School" of poets. And all that means is that he was one of a group of poets who started getting noticed in the 1950s in, er, New York.

I concede that £12.95 is a steep price to pay for what many will consider to be insurmountably baffling. But bafflement is part of the condition of modern poetry, and if there's a modern poet you need on your shelves, and in your head, it's Ashbery. As Geoffrey Hill - also an essential poet - once said, public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007


At 11/26/2007 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just quietly, I think that Geoffrey Hill sold poetry short with that comment.

Not saying that it should be dumbed down at all - poetry is a whole lot more than Plain English - but I will state that fences should not be built around works of art.

I'm all for the democratization of poetry, for the lines that don't exclude or shun: for poetry to regain some lost stature in this modern world, inclusion and populism are paramount.

At 11/26/2007 9:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'll go along with that. But for me that would be inclusion and populism in the same way that one might speak about it in jazz, or trees.

At 11/26/2007 9:49 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Poetry has a duty to be accessible. But "accessible" doesn't mean one thing only. To quote Inigo Montoya toward both "sides" of the accessibility argument: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

At 11/26/2007 9:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I prefer Montoya's comments to Count Rugan, myself:

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

But your point is well taken.

At 11/26/2007 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, you are uncanny. This is exactly what poetry has been whispering to me, every night, for six or seven years now.


At 11/26/2007 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can any artform have a "duty" to do anything? I'm serious. Doctor's have a "duty". Politicians have a "duty" (whether or not they fufill it or not is another story). Maybe I'm in the minority but I became an artist (poet) because it is one arena where you have total and utter autonomy. You can do whatever the f*&K you want. You're only "duty" is to create a poem, however you define it. If you *want* your poetry to be inclusionary and populist, that's up to you. But you sure don't have a "duty" to make it so. Of course, you can't have it both ways and then complain when people don't understand poems or find them frustrating. But I think there are plenty of poets out there who do *want* their poems to be accessible that all one has to do is point people in the direction of those. This whole "prescribing" a way of doing things really gets me going. (as you can tell ;0 )

At 11/27/2007 6:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, yes, the poems I like most seem to me poems that have been created out of a non-duty motivation (but not an "art for art's sake" motivation either), unless one could conceptualize duty as "the artist has the duty to make art" which sounds obvious, until you think of what others say an artist's duty should be . . . it's all in where one places the catagorical distinction.

(Psst: Don't tell Maverick and Schroeder, but I'm rather fond of the Geoffrey Hill quote, myself.)

At 11/27/2007 9:09 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I think you can certainly write any damn thing you want and call it a poem. However, at some point you also have to get at least one other person to agree with you that it's poetry, and that's (A) one way to define "accessible" and (B) as much a duty as almost anything in this world.

The quote is clever, but the I'm not fond of Hill's smug dickishness manifested in it.

At 11/27/2007 10:05 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

(Sorry, I just like to argue on the Intertubes.)

At 11/27/2007 10:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


There is the air of, if not smugness, at least dismissiveness, to the bit from Hill here, true . . . the tone of one who has to keep fighting the same battle over and over.

I also like that bit about getting someone to agree with you, as the question "what is art?" is constantly under pressure. "What is art," and then "What is art for," are catagories colored by numerous blood stains.

"Duty," though. That's pretty charged.

At 11/27/2007 1:16 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I'm obviously defining duty fairly broadly too...

At 11/27/2007 2:53 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Whenever I see "duty" in this discussion, I think "doody." Probably because the word "toilets" was in the Hill quote.

I admit that.

At 11/27/2007 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, I think that's just it--- I was defining duty fairly narrowly (like, you better do this or else!) which naturally, most of us creative types recoil from.

Geoffrey Hill is somewhat infamous for his smug dickishness-- even inside his poems. I sorta like it--because he's terribly politically incorrect, ala Frederick Seidel, etc.

But I can see how others would find it abrasive...

At 11/27/2007 8:55 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Damn it, now I'm going to think that too. Poetry has a dooty.

At 11/28/2007 2:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah... this is because you are non pronouncing it like a smug dick--

Mr. Hill would say


( i can say this b/c i'm a brit)



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