“the imperfect is our paradise” — Wallace Stevens
“God uses broken people to reach a broken world.” — Gov. Rick Perry
1. If There Could Be a Center
If there is, or could be, a center of American poetry — a suspect, much-derided supposition — then John Ashbery, needless to say, lives at or near it. Ashbery: presiding spirit, native genius! That courtly gent, whose arctic blue eyes, disappointed mouth, and eagle beak, convened for the camera, curiously resemble portraits of T.S. Eliot in old age. Ashbery’s parasol-like plumage spreads a kindly shade over more recent laboring; his generous blurbs brighten the back pages of scores of advancing young upstarts. The work of two of the most promising, Ben Mazer and John Beer, reveal a substantial debt to their mentor — combined with the influence of an earlier poet, lurking behind both as he does behind Ashbery: that is, yes, Eliot, old Possum himself.
How can we characterize this influence, this dual presence? Like nesting Russian babushka dolls, or those host-spirit figurines from Téotihuacan, the integral stance of a poetic forerunner — mind and heart, worldview and style — threads itself amid the aspiring weft of his or her followers. So before reviewing the work of Mazer and Beer, we will try to take a preliminary measure of their exemplars.
An argument can be launched that poetry in America — and perhaps in general — is born and subsists in a state of fundamental dissonance with, and deflection from, its own milieu; that the work which is finally authorized as permanent and classic is in fact that which is most at odds with its village, off-kilter; that what proves to be most whole in the long run seems, at first, most bent and broken. Whitman and Dickinson, Thoreau and Melville, all to some extent fulfill this pattern; moreover, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ashbery all do as well.
Ashbery emerged in the 1950s, in tandem with the ascent of U.S. hegemony on the world stage. This was an America moving toward historical apex: a coalescence of technological-ideological certitude and might, in an atmosphere fraught nevertheless with extreme stress (think Dachau; Hiroshima; Cold War). In the poetry realm, it was a golden age of criticism. The New Critics, impelled by the same Faustian drives which haunted the culture at large, saw in the figure of Eliot a model, above all, of masterful knowledge and control. Eliot’s aphorism, that “the only method is to be very intelligent”, was inverted to suggest that intelligence was, indeed, a method — the method — and the project was to methodize it further: an intellectual instauration. The well-made poem, that autotelic object, was offered as a model of perfection: of feeling perfectly objectified in art; of beauty technically refined in verse. There was something in these formulae reminiscent of the smug certainties of the Restoration, of a Dryden “smoothing out” the rough-hewn lines of Shakespeare. It was the rationalism of a time wrung dry by civil strife, more comfortable with mild truisms than with debate. Method and craft produced the polished poem, just as American know-how built the superhighway system.
Ashbery, with his first volume, Some Trees, turned on its head the perfectionism of the academic style. In so doing, he fulfilled the paradigm of American literary dissonance, not by jettisoning Eliot, but by following more truly in his footsteps. For many supposedly tradition-minded critics, Ashbery’s arch, unaccountable scat-singing, his parody and self-parody, his evasive “unreadability,” makes him suspect. It is not hard to get lost in his verbose output. Ashbery is weakest — a weakness magnified by his imitators — when his aleatory style of near-automatism becomes methodical, habitual. Often in later poems one can hear Ashbery’s sighs of frustration with the inherent limitations of his applied waywardness.
Yet a few poems represent kernels or matrices, something like a genetic code for the whole. I’m thinking of the early poem “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers.” Here’s the seed which flowered into a greater poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” In both poems, the diffident, evasive J.A. seems briefly to draw back the curtain, lift the mask — speak a little more directly to the reader.
There are threads running from “The Picture of Little J.A.” directly back to Eliot. Not Eliot the critic, devisor of pronunciamentos, progenitor of schools. Rather, they lead back to Eliot the poet, the broken man, the obsessed neurotic, the frightened emigré — the mesmerized Edgar Cayce of “Prufrock” and “Waste Land,” the one who felt on his pulses the radioactive mind and burnt-out heart of 20th-century civilization. All of this is replayed in “The Picture of Little J.A.”
The poem is divided into three parts. The opening line (“Darkness falls like a wet sponge”) parodies the opening of “Prufrock” (“evening is spread out across the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table”). The second stanza (“He clap’d me first…”) is a take-off on the “typist / young man carbuncular” episode in “The Waste Land.” The first section ends with a couplet designed to encapsulate Eliot’s medievalist ideograph of tradition, reduced to prep-school anecdote (“In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer”). Yet underlying the light parodic tone, one senses the bass-drone of an essential Ashbery theme: a recollection of, nostalgia for, childhood innocence (theme as well of his 17th-century template, Marvell’s “Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers”). Ashbery has, in good Eliotic fashion, taken a cut from the Metaphysical poets; not for purposes of formal perfectionism, but as an “objective correlative” for his own characteristic sensibility — a Proustian mélange of disenchantment and nostalgia.
The second section reverses the Eliotic irony of the first by ventriloquizing one of Eliot’s alter egos, Hart Crane (“…coming from a white world, music / Will sparkle”). Innocence is idealized in Crane’s “Chaplinesque” manner, as in “That beggar to whom you gave no cent / Striped the night with his strange descant.” I hear no particular irony in these lines. Ashbery is (provisionally) aligning himself with the spirit of Crane. Yet in the third and concluding section there is another turn, toward a kind of stoicism, a wistful, recherché sense that the only paradise is in our memories. Here, I think, Ashbery speaks most in his own person: “accepting / Everything, taking nothing”. He recognizes — as Eliot did — a basic indissoluble bond, in poetry, between feeling and words (and those that “yes, / Displace them”). The poem ends in an oddly heroic stance, a renewed innocence, as the speaker recognizes the distance between the lyrical bond of word and feeling, and the brokenness of the world outside. “For as change is horror, / Virtue is really stubbornness // And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.” (Think of the conclusion to Crane’s “Voyages”: “It is the imaged Word that holds / Hushed willows anchored in its glow…”) Poetry, in this view, is a mode of embattled feeling — not a stage for autotelic chess-feints, technical operations learnt in school.
Here we will not attempt a reading of Ashbery’s great sequel to “Little Picture,” i.e. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Suffice to say, the underlying stance is similar: a kind of disenchanted stoicism, tempered with wonder and a sense of limits; with nostalgia for a lost past; with acknowledgement of art’s disconcerting power to re-enchant all over again. In this poem, American poetry’s characteristic dissonance has been welded to a philosophical vision of the purposes of art in general — and in so doing, paradoxically, this “alienation effect” has maybe manifested its own cultural centrality (the touch of the classic).
In Ashbery’s poems, as in those of Eliot, this classicism is hedged by limitations: weakness, illness, melancholy, brokenness. American literature is haunted by the pathos of failure and insufficiency, and its greatest poets — its most interesting poems — embody and reflect these existential trials. Needless to say, the contrast between the poetry and the social rituals of a gatekeeping literary establishment (the professionalism, the pedantry, the shop talk, the prizes, the ceremonial applause), is a jarring image of dissonance itself: the Poetry World’s own convex, Borgesian mirror (complete with requisite Ashbery blurbs).
2. Jerusalem & Albion
Is the primary relation between poet and world to be defined by alienation? Or is the reality something closer to Eliot’s characterization, in his highly influential essay of 1922, “The Metaphysical Poets”: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience… always forming new wholes.” In this essay Eliot penned some offhand remarks which proved to be the bit of frozen run-off forming enormous snowballs of later scholarly ice fortresses: ie. his hypothesis of a “dissociation of sensibility.”
Eliot’s idea has been paraphrased often. He asserts that the so-called metaphysical poets of the early 17th century — Donne, Cowley, Crashaw, others — were not eccentric outliers, as claimed by later Restoration critics, but were part of the main stream of English poetry; that in fact they represent something normative and healthy in the “mind of Europe” which was lost, somehow, around mid-century — a unified, actively integrative style and a vital, emotionally-engaged intelligence, a “fidelity to feeling.” Eliot calls it, “a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.” But then dissociation set in and literary style became detached, rationalized, discursive, so that in the end, “while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude.” This calculation, this “smoothing-over” of experience through discursive abstractions and received wisdom (Enlightenment style), was followed by the predictable reaction of a “sentimental” era (Romanticism), followed in turn by an age of disenchantment — a submission to scientific positivism, industrial mechanization, fatalism (Victorian era). Eliot provides the evidence in verse, with juxtaposed excerpts from Donne and Tennyson; the sharp contrast in degree of basic vitality is telling (not to say damning).
The analysis, on a literary-stylistic level, was recognized as extraordinarily acute, a stroke of critical genius. But the essay left unanswered a key question: why did this dissociation happen? Eliot says it was “magnified” by the powerful verse of Milton and Dryden — yet the cause of the pivotal change remains unclear. The watershed that Eliot sketched out assumed the form of a founding myth for modern criticism, a source of endless literary-historical ambiguities and speculation.
One of the most profound attempts to respond to this challenge was a 1964 study by Harold Fisch entitled Jerusalem and Albion. Fisch connects Eliot’s argument to profound changes in the “mind of Europe”: a two-pronged assault on the static, traditional, medieval worldview. The first prong was a utopian scientism, a radical iconoclasm, programmatically defined by Francis Bacon. This was a direct attack on “mere words,” on all poetic-symbolic representation, to be replaced by the bare truths unveiled by scientific scepticism, observation, and experiment. In Fisch’s polemic, English literature has never quite recovered from the dethronement of the human-divine logos — the verbal synthesis of experience within a pattern of human meaning.
The second prong, according to Fisch, was the Puritan Reformation. Calvinism replaced the ancient Hebraic unity of human nature and divine law, as well as the medieval synthesis of incarnation and divine presence, with a “new” covenant between a pre-ordained Elect and a God approachable only through Scripture. God’s old redemptive covenants with Noah, and then with Abraham, were appropriated by Calvin for a chosen few, destined for a strictly otherworldly paradise. The living world however was irredeemably damned and simply awaited destruction in the fires of the Last Judgment. The consequences of this ideology for a general cultural attitude toward secular literature and poetry can be easily imagined (and some would argue they are with us to this day). The Calvinist doctrine of sola scriptura tends to de-sacralize any products of human art and imagination which do not proceed “literally” from the Bible.
For the most incisive critique of this new anti-poetic ideology, Fisch turns to the “prophetic” writings of William Blake. Blake symbolized these changes in his myth of the splitting-apart of the giant “Albion” (England) from the nurturing spiritual matrix of “Jerusalem.” But for Fisch, Blake himself, despite his acute vision, ultimately missed the mark when he appropriated the Hebraic covenantal bond (between earth and heaven, matter and spirit) for a purely imaginary, amoral, aesthetic paradise: a paradigm for all the Romantic and Decadent Bohemias to come. In Fisch’s grand literary-historical schema, Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility — and the spiritual state of which it is a symptom — remain, despite the countervailing strength of figures such as the writers of via media Anglicanism (Geoffrey Hill’s “old Platonic England”), Coleridge, Blake, and Arnold. The spirit of Bacon and Machiavelli was reconfigured and reinforced by such thinkers as Hobbes and Locke, who exiled any remnants of Spirit to the margins of a tick-tock cosmos, controlled and manipulated by disenchanted (essentially prosaic) scientific Reason, utilitarian raison d’état.
We recognize here many of the darker features of the desolate, apocalyptic 20th-century (mass war, holocaust, nuclear obliteration, environmental self-destruction), which the 21st century has yet to overcome. Poetry, in this scenario, along with other forms of imaginative making, is shunted to that corner shared, ironically, by the ancient magico-mythical Creator-God herself: nice fairy tales, but ultimately irrelevant to our disenchanted calculus.
3. John Beer: the comic mask
If it’s true that some of these profound impulses still shape what we have left of a “mind of the West,” then we should recognize some symptoms in contemporary poetry. Ashbery’s near-programmatic deflection of authorial commitment, his practical (and elegant) erasure of any mode of explanatory paraphrase, his dispersal — by way of parody, travesty, surrealism, automatic writing — of any “stable meaning,” all represent a stubborn, maybe courageous refusal of the hegemonic techno-functional mentality. But these “anti-transparency” techniques are also self-defeating. They reinforce the chasm between the “two cultures” of science and art, prose and poetry, ethics and aesthetics. They recapitulate the very dissociation that they were designed to satirize and resist: and this dilemma, with changes, remains evident in two of Ashbery’s most talented heirs.
In 2010 the Chicago-based poet and critic John Beer published a tour-de-force book of poetry titled, with classic poker face, The Waste Land and Other Poems. It would be one thing merely to replicate Eliot’s epochal title, but Beer mimics Eliot’s poem in toto, complete with scholarly footnotes and obscure inscriptions. Beer projects a streetwise, working-class, populist attitude onto an image of the collapse of modern / postmodern literature: a sort of implosion of aesthetic detachment into the low comedy of under-employed post-grad-school anomie, as in this typically campy passage from “The Waste Land”:
You could give him a little credit, though, for standing up
against corporate hegemony.Â He always buys his coffee
from locally-owned establishments, and he shoplifts
all those books of poetry from Barnes and Noble.
Oh, everyone deserves a little credit. All the angry
little men in angry little rooms can write
their diagnoses, xerox their zines, and dream
that someday they’ll become the next Debord.
In the meantime, how am I supposed to live?
None of us is getting any younger. . .
The template of the original (1922) Waste Land — its collage of post-World War moral ennui — is flipped by Beer and set like a transparency atop current “poetry culture.” The familiar stance of arty detachment — of Eliot and / or Ashbery — is mocked with self-disgust and judged to be morally vacuous and politically impotent. This is the argument underlying Beer’s alignment of Ashberian insouciance, Eliotic despair, and the poetic tradition of “Orpheus” (mutated in the “Sonnets to Morpheus” section, a self-japing low take on Rilke’s high-modern O altitudo). The agonized despair voiced in the 1922 poem evolves, in Beer’s remake, into simmering paranoia: the musical-hall “he do the police in different voices” emits a strong odor of 1984 in the new Waste Land. “Morpheus” is flanked by two other sequences, first a series of pseudo-philosophical prose non-sequiturs titled “Theses on Failure” (a riff on collegiate idols Marx and Feuerbach), and second a parody whose target combines the original “Waste Land” and “Four Quartets,” called “The Perfumed Crypt or Four Quarters in Eight Bits.” The title gives away the schtick, and Beer’s method is intentionally sophomoric. He can get away with it because he is adept at simultaneously echoing and slightly mocking Eliot’s pensive, near-ponderous, tone:
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
I can smell the different perfumes,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France,
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell. . .
In such passages, Beer almost breaks through his own manic-parodic pessimism, his mask. Fittingly, it is the primary, primitive sense of smell (beneath the pastiche) that points toward some restoration of integrated “sensibility,” something hugging sand and earth under a heap of desiccated literary perfumes. But the overwhelming impression presented by Beer’s volume is one of travesty: a grinning juvenile rictus, a presiding spook-mask, prancing in a death-hop over the moral illusions and self-serving sentiments of a perfectly sidelined literary culture. It seems Beer is only capable of making a moral-political statement by eviscerating the pretensions of artists themselves — by revealing, by way of a mock Waste Land, the real void at the heart of poetry. Read, in particular, the passage in Beer’s “Waste Land” on the almond tree (Hebraic symbol nec plus ultra) and the speck of unpainted canvas: a very Ashberian self-canceling ambivalence, as in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. Plangent pathos seeps through these lines of double-bound frustration: here Art subsists, debased, on its Marginal Way of cultural dissonance and dislocation.
4. Ben Mazer: the tragic mask
John Beer and Ben Mazer together diagram a paired dissociative offshoot from Eliot and Ashbery. Beer’s poetic stance radiates bitter, self-canceling ratiocination, whereas Mazer’s stance represents unaccountable, free-floating emotion. Beer mimes a sardonic, midwestern Baudelaire, while Mazer seems primed with Keatsian negative capability. Indeed, there is something curious, nigh uncanny, at play with Ben Mazer. He is a little out-of-step. He brings to mind the wayward, mystical, semi-abortive Samuel Greenberg. He seems to pursue, intentionally, a blend of the gauche-awkward with the adept-sophisticated. The result is a refreshing contrast to that predictable, aspirational, impeccable (Puritanical?) vocationalism of the authorized American guilds.
Mazer dares open his collection Poems with an egregiously bad poem (“The Double”), whose bland strung-out phrasings (“Nora Laudani was the best actress in our elementary school”) remind one of Eliot’s own self-parody, the “Dry Salvages” movement of “Four Quartets.” But Mazer is capable of delicate, sonorous, metrically-refined pentameter, and he channels Eliot like no one else, including John Beer. Beer is merely an Eliot mimic. Mazer is an Eliot redivivus. More precisely, Mazer triangulates Eliot by way of Ashbery and Hart Crane, with the added factor of some fourth, deeply-encrypted dimension: something sub rosa, genealogical, having to do with Wales, by way of a pre-Lowell, parochial Boston.
Mazer replaces gimlet-eyed Yankee empiricism (details, details!) with a dreamy, sea-washed vagueness. Yet his best poems have a seahorse spine. See for example “The Long Wharf,” in which a simple stroll to the end of a shoreline shopping gallery manages to indict — without a single line of direct sarcasm — a whole nation’s (and world’s) materialist ethos. It is a mode of dramatic indirection, shaped into moral allegory, both placed (localized) and displaced (universalized). It illuminates how poetry, like painting, can embody meaning, rather than rationalize it into dead buzzwords.
In a jackhammer world that glorifies the transparent, the obvious, the literal, and polemical above all, the practice of this patient mode of symbolic representation is a lonely battle. Mazer reveals his discouragement: or rather, he mimes discouragement and near-despair. His heroes are sacred victims, like Hart Crane and Weldon Kees; he has an affinity for the disaffected Ashbery, to whom I believe he alludes obliquely (I could be mistaken) in these comically-botched lines (from an ambivalent fan letter?) in “Death and Minstrelsy”:
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.
Mazer’s imagination seems obscurely rooted in the late 1930s, as if attempting some alchemical transumption of Eliot, Crane, and Ashbery, some alloy which will prove more sound than that of any of his ancestors. The question is whether he can succeed at such a haunted, hifalutin’ high-wire act. Sometimes the archaizing comes across as quaint Bostonian dandyism, an effete turn toward a private circle of admirers. At these times, the Eliotic rhymery reads like ventriloquism rather than symbolism: sound outruns meaning, the poem tips out of balance. Often enough these weaker efforts are combined with a certain facile closure: the poem snaps shut with a wave of indifference. For example, “The Exile” is a brief 16-line poem in blank verse, which sketches with a few strokes a sort of fragment from a Cold War-era spy novel set in Europe: “I was handled by the handler’s handler . . . The villagers were lobbying new plans. . .” The poem’s mood is one of Eliotic disaffection — the “cosmopolitan” twin of Beer’s Chicago anomie; but a problem with narrating diffidence is that form often follows function too faithfully, and the style goes slack. “The Exile” concludes:
In the best house I recognized my host,
and he who had fulfilled a noble life
exhibited no need for conversation.
Then I was swept up in the exultation
of thousands of revelers’ descent to hell.
The stereotypical image leaves the reader with the dregs of a poem that seemed to end before it began. However, the last thing we should look for in the pages of Ben Mazer is consistency or preening self-righteousness. Mazer is a maze-maker. He flies under the flag of Keatsian feeling. He doesn’t care for exactitude; his olympian indifference even extends to spelling and syntax, sometimes. He aims to transmute sense into music, and only occasionally the music gets ahead of argument and logic. Whether his avoidance of stable ground (in logic, in ethos) will prove to be programmatic, as in Ashbery, remains to be seen. What we have though, for now, represents John Beer’s melodic alter ego. The weakness and brokenness that exists in the best American poetry represent some quality rejected by Faustian mastery and technocratic suprematism, by the cultural watershed that Eliot diagnosed. It is something imperfect and human, enduring — something broken, requiring hope and trust but full of beauty and pleasure. This dimension — a sort of heartiness — is present in both Mazer and Beer.
Along with his volume “Poems”, Ben Mazer found a publisher for another quixotic project, requiring a large dose of hope: a verse play titled “A City of Angels.” Brief, sketchy, vague to the point of muzziness, but also suffused with melody, Mazer’s small-press sortie has already attracted a number of reviews, all mildly negative. The play is boring. The characters are undeveloped; the verse bland; the plot fuzzy; etc. It involves a kind of quest: a young man returns to a small town in Wales, in 1938, to establish a new kind of theater, and must confront Shakespearean ghosts from his own past. Thus lurks herein a type of play-within-the-play; in the scholastic-Dantean schema, an anagogical sense.
The players in “City of Angels” gesture toward the quiddity of poetry — a continual effort to be renewed by the past, reconciled to the future. Perhaps there is a kind of metadrama in the comedy of the play’s dismissal by its first reviewers. In this day and age, we don’t expect verse drama to exist, much less succeed. Mazer, the poet, fares forward, hefting his throwback, antiquarian style against the grain and toward that distant (pre-Metaphysical) exemplar, Shakespeare, toward the whole Elizabethan Renaissance. In that way he is much like his central character, John Crick, in “City of Angels”. It is a very Eliotic quest (think, “Murder in the Cathedral”). “A City of Angels”, remember, is a paraphrase of Los Angeles — which is a metaphor for Hollywood — which may be, in the end, an echo too: a parody of Holy Wood, that sacred wood where Eliot’s Fisher King lay wounded, stranded.
Henry Gould is a poet and critic living in Rhode Island.