Posts Tagged ‘Li-Young Lee

17
Oct
15

Quick Notes on John Ashbery

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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John AsberyJohn Ashbery (July 28, 1927) was born in Rochester, NY. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), won the hat-trick of literary prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This book is considered a masterpiece, or at least his masterpiece, and it is what I will try to work though.

In “The Tomb of Stuart Merrill,” Ashbery has a character ask a poet, “I really would like to know what it is you do to ‘magnetize’ your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” While it is jesting commentary about what someone might say to a poet at a reading or post-reading party, there is some truth in it, at least for me. It occurs is in the last part, “the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” I think I will mostly focus on this, because the circling back is caused by the manner in which Ashbery writes.

Like Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery is concerned with the reality or the presentation of the real. In that regard, both are metaphysical poets, but Ashbery may be the more metaphysical. Both think that reality is a fiction created by a person or an era, and that it does not sustain itself, which is what Stevens calls the “supreme fiction.” Stevens however tackles the metaphysics of what is real in a traditionally more poetic way – he uses meter, rhyme, and forms. Stevens has developed thoughts about reality. Ashbery, however, is in the moment of thinking and in traditionally non-poetic forms. It’s almost as if Ashbery is thinking on the page or retracing recent thoughts. When I read Ashbery, I find that I am following his thoughts, and then all of the sudden I feel lost. My expectations are subverted by his wandering mind. But this is the reality he is creating – the mind thinking in associations. It’s like a stream of consciousness, but not exactly. With stream of consciousness, the unconscious or suppressed emotions will often reveal themselves, but with Ashbery, we stay on the surface of language and a conscious mind as if “A speech in play consisting entirely of stage directions” (“De Imagine Mundi” 451). Whose mind that is or what stage it is I am not sure, nor is the speaker of “De Imagine Mundi,” who opens the poem: “The many as noticed by one: / The noticed one, confusing itself with the many / Yet perceives itself as an individual” (451). Is the “I” one person? or is fragments of people? or both? Are all fictions and possibilities something to be considered?

Nonetheless, the mind, whoever’s mind it is, is concerned with the present, the moment that is “perpendicular to the ground” (“Voyage in Blue” 445). I like that image of the present. It’s how I envision the present, at least the lyric present, or what Li-Young Lee calls “the vertical moment.” And while the present is perpendicular to the ground, it moves, or as he says in “Grand Galop,” “Here, as elsewhere / April advances new suggestions.” Which is to say the present advances with new suggestions, which feels like a metaphor of the mind thinking, or waiting, which is a theme of “Grand Galop.” The waiting is what “fills up the time between” the now and the future, but this waiting is a creative time – “The wait is built into the things just coming into their own. / Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait / Invests everything in its climate” (436). In this poem, the speaker inhabits, or waits in, the in-between space/time between the present and the next present, which is all anyone can really do. One way to try and describe an Ashbery poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is to refer to the end of “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

     knowing as the brain does it can never come about
     not here not yesterday in the past
     only in the gap of today filling itself
     as emptiness distributed
     in the idea of what time it is
     when that time is already past
                                                   (431)

This, in part, also describes my reading process of Ashbery, I often find myself reading a poem, then midway through stopping and going back a dozen or so lines to an earlier present in the poem, and starting over again, as I mentioned above. That can happen often in just one poem. This method, I assume, is his way of challenging the reader.

The pace or emotional intensity of Ashbery’s poems are even keeled. There are no rises in sudden enlightenment or understanding, no epiphanies, no grand gesturing. Though there is humor and parodying, such as “Love” (part one of “Poem in Three Parts”), where he parodies Wordsworth idea of “emotions recollected in tranquility” when he says about oral sex he once received, “Now years later, I think of it / Without emotion” (443). Later in the section he will also parody “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” A better example of even-keeled manner and parody mixed together is in “River.”

     It thinks itself too good for
     These generalizations and is
     Moved on by them. The opposite side
     Is plunged in shade, this one
     In self-esteem. But the center
     Keeps collapsing and re-forming.
     The couple at a picnic table (but
     It’s too early in the season for picnics)
     Are traipsed across by the river’s
     Unknowing knowledge of its workings
     To avoid possible boredom and the stain
     Of too much intuition the whole scene
     Is walled behind glass. “Too early,”
     She says, “in the season.” A hawk drifts by.
     “Send everybody back to the city.”
                                                               (455)

This recalls Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” where “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But in Yeats’ poem there is great drama as “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “Spiritus Mundi” arrives. Ashbery’s poem, however, is less dramatic. There is a surreal river thinking and picnickers arrive, and the only dramatic thing to occur is that they are out of place, as they are there too early in the season. They are unexpected as the “hawk [that] drifts by,” as opposed to Yeats’ dramatic “rough beast” and other mythic creatures. This poem, like many Ashbery poems, meanders like a “river of consciousness.” The mind moves from noun to noun with only the stream of consciousness connecting the movement, and here in this moment, with no beginning, or an in media res beginning, drifts around from river to people arriving to a hawk to people leaving, which isn’t an end it’s just part of the ever flowing and shifting present. It’s almost as if Ashbery’s poems don’t try to create meaning; they just try to create a mind creating a fictive understanding in a real and mutating moment.

Much of what Ashbery is doing might be best realized in the second stanza of “Ode to Bill”:

     Or, to take another example: last month
     I vowed to write more. What is writing?
     Well, in my case, it’s getting down on paper
     Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe;
     Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
     Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
     Someday I’ll explain. Not today though.
                                                                    (461)

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Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery: Collected Poems: 1956-1987. New York: The Library of America, 1997. 425-487. Print.

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30
Jan
13

James Longenbach’s Draft of a Letter (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.

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James Longenbach – Draft of a LetterIn a previous issue of Redactions, we put out the question, “Can you use ‘soul’ in contemporary poetry?” Many poets responded with fine answers. Somehow Longenbach got wind of this question, as he mentioned in a reading at Writers & Books in Rochester, NY, & though he didn’t respond to the question through Redactions, he did respond. Longenbach, instead, explored using “soul” in poetry in Draft of a Letter (University of Chicago Press), & he succeeded. He affirmed what most of our responders said to the question said: Yes.

It’s not like every poem has “soul” in it, but, ah, they all have soul. You can feel it in the lines. The slow lines with long pauses at their ends. The implication of each line is: “Hey, reader/listener, read & listen. When my line ends, hold on to it for a moment. There’s more magic that will happen if you stop before making the turn. The unexplainable occurs here. Listen to the reverberations. Listen for the echo of the line that is about to arrive.” And then Longenbach, in a way, tells us this in these lines, which are not directly about poetry:

   In time,
   Without trying,
   I found a rhythm
   Of thought ineffably
   Hesitant, serene.
                              (“Draft of a Letter”)

I also want to mention one more thing that I hadn’t planned to talk about until I read Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet [which appears in an earlier review]. My first encounters with Longenbach were his critical books on poetry and Modernism. All very good and intelligent, which you can gather from an early review/celebration of mine in Redactions on The Resistance to Poetry. Between that review and Draft of a Letter, I read Fleet River, which is a fine book of narrative poems, with wonderful vertical moments ( that is, Li-Young Lee vertical moments and not the vertical moment I mention in the Dan Gerber A Primer on Parallel Lives celebration/review). So Wiman says two things:

I have little patience for people who see the application of critical intelligence as somehow inimical to poetic creation. (p 61)

The worth of a poet’s critical awareness will have been determined by the truth and intensity of the poetic activity that preceded it, the depth to which he descended in his poems. (p 62)

I agree totally with those two statements, and I’m overwhelmed when a person can both be critically intelligent and have intense poems, especially when the poems are accessible. And Longenbach does this. The poems in Draft of a Letter are accessible with a music of tones and with rhythms of a soul that have found depth, or a person who found the depths of his soul.

Yes, Longenbach can play both sides of the ball, well.//

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Longenbach, James. Draft of a Letter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.//

20
Jan
13

Dan Gerber’s – A Primer on Parallel Lives (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.

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Dan Gerber's – A Primer on Parallel LivesHoly cow, an American lyricist who’s accessible. What a rare find. And Dan Gerber is a damn good one in A Primer on Parallel Lives (Copper Canyon Press). He can even write narratives. What’s more, Gerber’s got a Spanish soul. A bloody, dusty, old Spanish soul. He’s got Machado, Lorca, and Jiménez all rolled up in him. And when he does the lyric, or the meditative, it speaks to the universe and to us. As for the Spanish soul, what do I mean by that? I mean: he risks the sentimental. He rubs right up against it, but, most important, the language is fresh, the images are new, and the language and images connect us humans and our souls. It’s a poetry that lets everyone in and excludes none. For example:

   Facing North

   Ninety billion galaxies in this one tiny universe –
   a billion seconds make thirty-two years.

   No matter how many ways we conceive it,
   this generous wedge called Ursa Major
   more than fills my sight.

   But now, as I turn to put out the lights
   and give my dog her bedtime cookie,
   my eyes become the handle of the great Milky Way,
   and carry it into the house.

Except for one line, this poem flirts with the sentimental, builds towards the sentimental, then yokes it all together in the final burst of the last line.

Gerber is also what I want to call a “vertical poet.” What do I mean by “vertical poet”? Well, let me divert my attentions for a moment. Vertical has nothing, or very little, to do with content or how the poem moves or with Li-Young Lee’s vertical moment. It has to do with staring while composing. From what I can tell of American poetry (and maybe English poetry in general), most of the older poets – over 50, over 100, six-feet under – wrote with pen or pencil on paper. They stared down at the page. Their eyes staring into the words/page (perhaps beyond). They hovered over what they wrote and revised. The back of their heads faced the universe, gods, and infinity. A conduit was established between the page, the poet’s mind/imagination, and the universe. Of course there are exceptions – Ezra Pound typing in a prison camp near Pisa, William Carlos Williams typing out those triple lines. Pound and Dr. Carlos (as Pound affectionately called W. C. Williams) faced the page and stared with a similar intensity as the pen/pencil poet. Poets like Ez and Dr. Carlos are horizontal poets. The former (the pen/pencil poets) are vertical poets.

Today in American poetry there seems to be more horizontal writers – and many of them write on the computer screen, as I am doing now. (Perhaps we should call them “neo-horizontal poets” as they use the screen instead of a piece of paper curling in front of them.) The neo-horizontal poet stares into the screen. The neo-horizontal poet tends to neglect the universe. And from what I’ve noticed, the lyric is dying (at least the comprehensible, non-ellipitcal lyric), and there is a predominance of the narrative, especially the narrative about the individual. There is nothing wrong with any of this, except the universe is being neglected and the lyric is disappearing. (The lyric is our oldest form of poetry, no?) With the neo-horizontal poets, there is more dedication to time instead of the obliteration of time. I mean, don’t all us poets want to obliterate time? When are we at our happiest? When we are writing. When we come out of our half-unconscious, mostly hypnagogic state, and realize that hours have gone by, when it only felt like 10, 20, or 30 minutes. The lyric poem best destroys time.

I’m not saying the vertical poet can’t be personal and narrative. They have been. But they are more often in both veins lyrical and narrative. (I’m including meditative poetry under lyrical poetry, by the way). But with the rise of the neo-horizontal poet has come the decline of the lyrical poem and the connection with the universe.

And as I said, Gerber is vertical. His poetry connects the universe. I’ll leave you this as an example:

   Six Miles Up

   The shadow of a hand brushes over the mountains,
   as if smoothing rumpled sheets.
   And now I see that the mountains are clouds.

   In my dreams,
   I search for what I won’t remember in the morning,
   but I do remember the searching.

   In Venice I ate cuttlefish, steamed
   in its own black ink,
   and now it’s coming out of my fingers.

   Across the aisle in a window seat,
   a man like me is
   reading a book in which words appear,
   tracing an indelible line
   through the invisible sky
   while the pilot’s skill keeps us flying.

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Gerber, Dan. A Primer on Parallel Lives. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.//

18
Jan
13

Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (2006)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 8/9, which was published circa April 2007.

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Li-Young Lee's – Breaking the Alabaster Jar“Hey folks, there is a cosmic consciousness,” said Allen Ginsberg during a SUNY Brockport Writers Forum interview. I think he was right, and now I further agree after reading Li-Young Lee’s Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions), Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll.

Within the collected interviews, there are many recurring themes: Lee’s father, The Bible, alienation, being an Asian-American poet, & the interconnectedness of the universe – especially through its vibrations, as everything vibrates.

But first let me get to how I trust Lee. In the first interview from 1987 with William Heyen and Stan Rubin, Heyen and Rubin ask Lee some strong questions, which almost seem like an initiation ritual into entering the world of poets, which are questions that only one committed/seduced/given to poetry could answer. Lee answers, but he says something startling. His answer is unexpected to me. It’s an answer that only someone truthful could give. His answer, “I have, in fact, a handful of readers that I think about. . . . Oh, if so-and-so sees this, then they’ll really think I’m a poet. I always have this feeling I want to prove I’m a poet myself to a handful of people” (p 27). Do all us poets, especially young ones, have this secret urge within us? Lee also adds that he writes for soul-awaking, too, but it’s the first answer that sucks me into believing him.

The interviews that follow are all interesting. All have new angles (slants of light), even when he similarly responds to similar answers. And each interview, each question and answer, accrue and inform the following interviews. Each interview has Lee thinking more.

During Tod Marhsall’s interview, my way of thinking about poetry changed. Marshall asks Lee the right question with the right words, and Lee responds. Here’s how it goes:

Marshall: I feel those poems as moving vertically, down the page with a push. The movement in the memoir – we’re pushed along in a similar way, but the pace is much slower.

Lee: Even now, in the poems I’m writing, although they have longer line breaks, I can see now that the sentence is my concern. I like the idea that the line breaks make notation for the mind actually thinking. I like that. But it’s ultimately the sentence that I’m writing. Not the grammatical sentence, the measure.

[. . .]

Marshall: So you don’t see yourself as ultimately despairing that you can’t capture this litany.

Lee: [. . . ] I started to entertain some of the “stuff” that’s in the canon; I forgot for a little bit that that was the horizontal, the cultural, and that wasn’t the richest mode for me. If you look at the earliest poems in Rose, you’ll see the vertical assumption. The assumption that vertical reality was the primary reality and all of this was fading away, just “stuff” spinning off on that more important reality. The change was just in the realization. (p 138-39)

So what I realized after reading this and reading what had preceded is that the horizontal movement is when the poem talks to culture. (I had believed that poems intentionally talk to other poems & poets.) The vertical moment, however, talks to the self and the universe. This changed my thinking of writing. Instead of writing for other poets & poems, I should be writing for the depths of my self while simultaneously shooting up to speak to the universe. If you do that, do it well, do it with honesty, then you’ll catch the vibrations of the universe & your soul, and then necessarily/accidentally, the poems will have horizontal movement and talk to poems and poets naturally. To write is to write lines (“a literary activity”), which is vertically neglectful. But to write vertically (as if creating a conduit between you & the universe) – well, if you make the connection with the universe, then reverberations will happen, and it will vibrate up & down & horizontally.

As for Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee as a whole, the interviews inform through accretion and the thinking poet – though he thinks of himself as a body poet – but that’s another theme you should read about in these interviews.//

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Lee, Li-Young. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2006.//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

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After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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