“The fate of a writer is strange,” writes Borges. “He begins his career by being a baroque writer, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favorable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.” For every poet in America, this passage will probably carry the shock of recognition. In the best poets it may plant a seed of self-awareness, and reveal the obvious bloat of sapling poems wildly overgrown, providing the opportunity to pare, concentrate, and modestly reform.
However, this will not be true for many poets, and in Adam Fitzgerald’s debut collection, The Late Parade, we encounter a baroque poetry which has already admitted defeat. The Late Parade is a collection that strains toward baroque mundanity, confusing youthful lyrical density for profundity. “Two Worlds at Once,” for example, begins “We worship at the same altar / of useless shit, and feel self-delightedly avuncular / when it comes to the showroom of wayward speaking” and ends at the altar, with only a little less enthusiasm:
Things feel a tad ghetto for me to go on like this.
Look, carefully, at where you are on the potted plains.
There are so many courses that could be unwritten easily.
Someone embarrassed as marble. Someone selling it.
The very thing we didn’t like turns out to be everything.
There is, in all great poetry, the double-bind of profanation and consecration—the rearranging of values. But in Fitzgerald’s poems, useless things are lifted up and then dropped back in the dirt. The world’s most base elements are infused with a rarified air, only to be deflated. Alternately, the young poet describes many a sesame cloud, castles in the air, without ever bringing them to earth. Too often, almost inevitably, there is simply no there there. Even in his most emphatic juxtapositions, the image-objects fail to interact or excite, as in the meek roll-call of “Toy History”:
The scene’s eye is carried over into rolling concrete;
such picknicked hymns and proud coral thunder.
Lettuce, arugula. And don’t forget your disquiet.
Accept arcana, these stilling machinations now.
Fitzgerald touches upon, or, more accurately, gropes at life, without any talent for transforming it. At his more ambitious he’s vandalizing monuments with cheap modern chalk: tweeting Hart Crane; imagining Keats in a jockstrap. In “The Map” he writes, “I scratched at things. / Not much scratched back.” This could be read as self-deprecating or ironic, but it is actually his poetic mode, one that is sustained throughout the book. How can the baroque develop into modest and secret complexity in a poet whose knee-jerk reflexes are to shrug, scratch his crotch, roll his eyes? Here are only an endless parade of epicene perorations, confetti, ruby-tonsil’d hymns,
waterproof gestures in this phlox-bank
Of light-patterns that articulate the instant
A toweling sun sets at your caprine back.
While Fitzgerald’s poems “fire dance around meaning itself,” as Joe Weill has it, they channel obvious heroes: Crane, Wallace Stevens, and especially John Ashbery. There is something like a voice, but it’s not the poet’s voice—and though this ventriloquist quality could be employed to wondrous effect, it is little more than a mélange of affects in these poems. They seem not so much “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind” but as thoughts kick-started and never sustained. It is poetry made for props (and he has gotten props, from The New York Times, from William Logan [faintly], and most notably from the great Harold Bloom). But by demanding comparison in this way, Fitzgerald further exposes the weakness of his work: he is nowhere near as visionary as Crane, nor as quietly de-familiar as Ashbery. His awkward grappling with verse falls flat: “asleep like a Subaru in the suburbs” isn’t good poetry, or good bad poetry—it is simply bad, almost adolescent and certain naïve. Here is a poet who hasn’t yet mastered the “superb verb,” who has maintained the attitude of a student of his masters (with several of those masters squarely in his corner).
One redeeming characteristic of the work, and the one that is indeed admirable—the one that was likely recognized by Fitzgerald’s many supporters—is ambition. It is not to be underestimated. To want to be a great poet is, in some regard, no less important than talent—but no replacement for it. This is a useful way to think about the under-achievement of Fitzgerald, a poet late to the parade, writing “noodling, soft stuff” and “awkward commotion” and begging us to disengage. He is eager for recognition, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to earn it; he knows the notes to play to please the critical consensus, but the effect is fleeting. When he cribs Andre Gide in “Caravaggio in Naples”—“One cannot be sincere and seem so too”—it is tantamount to a slogan (though, ironically, it also falls short of becoming an organic part of the poem). The sentiment colors Fitzgerald’s most apparently sincere work, and when he is intently channeling Hart Crane, to little effect, it comes back to undercut each line. Take “Eternal Farewells [I],” for example, where Fitzgerald is at his most Crane-like. The result is excruciatingly earnest, yet brittle and insincere:
Daft helicopters wave to stations behind us.
Militant mums pound drums of their dreams.
God bless you. Tucked away, carted away,
And sitting by sprouts in goodly kind fate,
I have a prayer that weakens this treasuring,
Specked with the debris of your wonderment.
In The Late Parade, the foil to ambition is inheritance. Limiting Fitzgerald’s gestures toward Crane, and all his work—perhaps this is American poetry’s problem more generally—is the towering figure of Ashbery. Like Eliot before him, Ashbery has spawned a school of poor imitators. They deploy a language that has zero shelf-life and shirk the responsibility to the immediate moment. In “Once More, with Feeling,” Fitzgerald seems to gently rib the older poet, but ultimately suffers in comparison:
Forgive me for asking, but why in this mottled world would
you expect another? Eccentric pilasters stand in the rain:
ruins for remaining ruined. My dreams, meanwhile, occur
in mercantile factory houses filled with shelves representing
gaps in the Now Culture: from surgical drilling leaflets
to new medicine ads. Reduced, though not so enervated
today, the reality of dingy parlor casements takes me while
parachuting to bed for lack of better thing to think or do.
The opening sentence, lacking context, is a mere turn of phrase, without sense or innuendo, words striking off-notes. You can almost feel the adolescent delight in each maneuver: the reader may not get it, but the poet has it all figured out. Where Ashbery’s genius lies in his ability to stand outside things, exposing phenomena with acute hearing and laser vision, Fitzgerald’s short attention span leaves him two moves behind. While Ashbery’s extended project of cataloguing the endless variations of poetic register is impressive, it is borrowed rather than internalized by poets like Fitzgerald.
Here we feel the poignant absence of Ashbery’s contemporary, Frank O’Hara, who was a master of rocketing low-brow language like roman candles into the summer sky. O’Hara and Ashbery seem to have understood the coding of desire, the French surrealists, the nightmare argot of Rimbaud and Nerval. It could be argued that O’Hara took these insights further in his short career than Ashbery has in five decades, adding to it a dialogue with the Russian futurist Mayakovsky. (The coded language of Soviet poets corresponded nicely to the coded language of forbidden desire, and O’Hara used that double-vision to develop a new American voice.)
In his time, O’Hara crowned himself the new Mayakovsky, just as Fitzgerald today would like to be known as the new Hart Crane. But the younger poet, trapped in the gravity of Ashbery’s poetic vision, doesn’t seem to have considered O’Hara as a model, or absorbed him as an influence. Nor has he written anything as funny or smart as “I live above a dyke bar and I’m happy.” The early loss of Frank O’Hara is deeply felt in the foiled ambition of Adam Fitzgerald, and one cannot help but recall these lines from “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”:
And don’t worry so much about your lineage
poetic or natural. The sun shines on
the jungle, you know, on the tundra
the sea, the ghetto…
James Stotts is a poet and critic living in Boston. His work has appeared in AGNI, Little Star, and elsewhere.