John Ashbery Dies

AshberyMost of the news outlets I frequent have commented on the death, yesterday, of John Ashbery. The Guardian quoted Harold Bloom’s declaration from the mid 1970’s:

“No one now writing poems in the English language is likelier than Ashbery to survive the severe judgments of time.”

And now we get to find out. The Library of America, back in 2008 , impatiently decided to declare his canonical status while the canonball was still warm in the canon. (They’ll have to re-issue the second book to include whatever poems he’s written since.)  But it’s never been for the poet’s own generation to immortalize a poet. They nearly always get it wrong.

History is replete with dozens and dozens of Ashbery’s crowned in their day and forgotten the next. For example: William Cowper. Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time. Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”. Who reads Cowper these days? What about Robert Southey? He was widely read, more popular than Keats, Shelley and, arguably, Byron, and was poet laureate for 30 years, from 1813 until his death in 1843. There’s no doubt that Library of America would have published a two volume collection of his poetry in 1835. He would have been awarded a Pulitzer (though the Nobel would have gone to some singer). Who knows? My point is that contemporary fame is no guarantee. In fact, it’s very often a sure sign that the poet is a minor poet—anthologized at best and forgotten at worst. Why? Because any given generation tends to lionize the poets who speak most directly to their immediate concerns and aesthetic principles (almost always devalued and superseded by the next generation). They’re “of an age”. Jonson (who, in his day, was more highly regarded than Shakespeare) nevertheless recognized Shakespeare’s genius. He put it this way:

He was not of an age, but for all time!

Is Ashbery for all time? While every other eulogy rightfully notes his lists of awards, his reputation among contemporaries, and his influence (like Cowper’s), I remain skeptical. I don’t doubt that Ashbery, like Cowper and Southey, will always have his readers and fierce partisans, but I suspect his legacy will be that of a once highly regarded but minor poet. Being esteemed by professional colleagues simply isn’t enough once they follow the poet into the light.

I do think Ashbery deserves to be anthologized and it’s fair to call his poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror a masterpiece. I admire it too. Would that he had written more like it. Similarly, it’s fair to call Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, his masterpiece. Minor poets do write masterpieces which deserve to be read and remembered.

Nearly all the friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve discussed Asbery read him for his reputation rather than the lure of his poetry. Few have read any more than a handful of his poems or more than a single book. And less can remember any. The problem is typified by the reviews, at Amazon, of Library of America’s first Ashbery. The problem isn’t that they’re mixed, the problem is that there are only six. Library of America’s second Asbery book has none. By way of comparison, Library of America’s Wallace Stevens has 29 reviews; their Robert Frost has 36 reviews; their Walt Whitman has 623.

The critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke once suggested it was better “not to try to understand [Ashbery’s] poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music”. And that’s because the semantic content of Ashbery’s poems is indecipherable. But for the rare exception, there simply isn’t any. But the comparison to music is a poor one. Music has its own recognizable syntax and grammar—chord progressions—no matter the era. When the music ignores those expectations, listeners generally ignore the music. A rough equivalent to Ashbery, for the music listener, might be Karlheinz Stockhausen or Edgard Varèse. Try their musique concrète. There’s also the Beatles’ Revolution 9 on the White Album. No one does covers of Revolution 9. Right?

Well. Long live John Ashbery. May he inspire many a future poet.

the reappraisal begins…

Every generation, at some point, declares its independence from the one that preceded it; and the baby-boom generation is over-ripe for just such a comeuppance.

While not all the authors skewered in Anis Shivani’s article are baby-boomers, I was interested to notice those who are.

Here’s what he has to say about John Ashbery:

Exemplary Lines: “The sheiks protest use of / aims. In the past / coal has protected their / O long, watchful hour. / the engines had been humming / stones of March in the gray woods / still, the rods, could not they take long / More anthems until dust / flocks disguised machine.”

More responsible than anyone else for turning late twentieth-century American poetry into a hermetic, self-enclosed, utterly private affair. Displays sophomoric lust to encode postmodern alienation into form that embodies the supposed chaos of the mind. Though he has somehow acquired a reputation for the visionary (especially among the Brits, who think he’s the greatest American poet), John Berryman’s Dream Songs are infinitely more on the mark. Another amateur philosopher, like Jorie Graham, another acolyte of what he thinks is Wittgensteinian logic. Ran away with postmodern irony, eccentricized it to the point of meaninglessness. Now we have no working definition of irony anymore–thanks, John Ashbery! Mixes low and high levels of language, low and high culture, every available postmodern artifact and text, from media jargon to comic books, to recreate a reality ordered only by language itself. When reality=language (as his carping cousins, the language poets, have it, just like him), politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can and will step in. Has been a Mannerist after his own outdated manner at least since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Among the writers listed here, I want to like him the most–it’s too bad he’s been a parody of himself for so long.

And here is his take on Mary Oliver:

Exemplary lines: “My right hand / was holding my left hand / which was holding the tree / which was filled with stars // and the soft rain– / imagine! imagine! / the long and wondrous journeys / still to be ours.”

America’s best-selling poet along with Billy Collins, and that tells you all you need to know about how the public views American literature. A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany. For example, 5 a.m., opossum, backyard, broken, it ran. Or 3 p.m., kitten, field, how real, peace. Only has to mechanically alter the variables, to get the same desired effect. United with other writers on this list by showmanship, calling attention to her own skills, putting herself at the center of epiphanies and moral goodness. Publishes a book a year with interchangeable contents–how she has put on the brakes on her own evolution is the real wonder. Poems are free of striking images, ideas, or form. Animals and natural settings are described in the vaguest of terms. Has long been enrolled in the Dale Carnegie school of winning friends and influencing people. As far removed from Emerson as Stephen King is from Melville. Here she is communicating with the snow crickets: “I looked down / into the theater of their perfect faces– / that frozen, bottomless glare.” Communicating with the hermit crab: “Once I looked inside / the darkness / of a shell folded like a pastry, / and there was a fancy face.” Her optimism, like Billy Collins’s, is a slap to the face of history. Again and again, she happily wonders: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” One suspects, she knows the answer.

He also has some opinions about Helen Vendler,  Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, and Billy Collins.

So far, the comments (following the post) are scatter shot – as one would expect. Many deride the criticism as subjective, but when has criticism been anything but?

What’s especially interesting is that fully half the authors are poets. Thinking back on my Let Poetry Die post, this must be the first time I’ve seen so many contemporary poets stuffed into a non-literary web site or publication. Unluckily for them (or justifiably) they’re being sauced like a pot of lobsters. Although I haven’t read each and every comment, very few of them mention any sort of familiarity beyond Ashbery (9 out of 10 negative) or the critic Helen Vendler (who seems to have been foisted on students by professors who couldn’t do better).

No one is jumping to the defense of these poets (as opposed to the novelists). And I’m not sure by whom these poets were overrated, other than by whatever academic institution hired them or teaches them. Of all the poets mentioned, Ashbery has the furthest to fall. I doubt his reputation will survive the next generation. History is overstuffed with artists who were lionized by their own generation, only to be swept into dusty anthologies.

It’s not me, it’s you.

A Bad Date

This, in a nutshell, is what too many modern poets and the poetry establishment, publicly and privately, has been telling themselves and telling the modern reader for over half a century: It’s not me, it’s you. Just recently I was discussing the matter with another blogger, who I like, but who contemptuously characterized the modern reader as only interested in greeting card poetry or  poetry for children.

Why I Wake Early - Mary OliverThe poetics of the last 60 years has largely been a failure. And who’s to blame? You.

What do I mean by failure? I mean that poetry, as a genre, has failed to engage the modern reader and audience.

There are exceptions. Mary Oliver would be an exception. So would W.S. Merwin. Oliver and Merwin, like all poets, have written good poems and bad poems (they don’t need me to defend them), but  they have engaged the modern reader in a way that no avant-garde  poet has equaled – certainly not Ron Silliman or Ashbery. At Amazon.com, Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early” has a sales ranking of 8,636 (the best, so far, of any poetry I’ve found). John Ashbery CollectedBy way of comparison, the best John Ashbery  (the darling of the modern poetry establishment) – The Library of America’s Collected Poems: Volume 1 – has a sales ranking of 245,215. The book that is considered by many to be his masterpiece and very best, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, comes in at 427,389. Ron Silliman’s Alphabet ranks at 523,241.

This means that, at Amazon, Oliver’s sales rank, compared to Ashbery, is 28 to 1; compared to Silliman 60.5 to 1.

And yet Ashbery was the poet who Library of America chose to glorify. In fact, according to Amazon, Oliver has consistently outsold every English speaking avant-garde poet on the planet. What does this say about her poetry? The ignored poets will tell you that popularity is no indication of quality, let alone greatness because: what do you know? – even while they themselves yearn to be read by you (read popular). This is a convenient belief and goes some way toward explaining why a poet like Oliver or Merwin, both of whom are far more widely read and appreciated by the modern reader, is overlooked in favor of Ashbery. And it gives you an idea of what the modern poetry establishment thinks of your taste: if the modern reader wasn’t such a lazy dolt with child-like attention spans and greeting card aesthetics, then the truly deserving poets (apparently not Oliver) would be popular. Really, it’s you.

By the way, and because the subject will inevitably come up, here’s how Amazon’s Sales rankings can be understood:

47.9% of Amazon’s sales consisted of titles ranked better than (under) 40,000. 39.2% of their sales were books ranked between 40,000 and 100,000.5 Titles ranked between 100,000 and 200,000 accounted for 7.3% of sales, while titles ranked from 200,000 to 300,000 accounted for only 4.6% of sales.5 Anything above that accounts for only 1% of sales.

Researchers at MIT (Brynjolfsson, Yu and Smith) studied publisher-provided data of one publisher’s weekly sales for 321 titles, and compared the figures to Amazon’s sales rankings for the same week. The observed weekly sales of these books ranged from 1 to 481 copies and the observed weekly rankings ranged from 238 to 961,367.5 Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books also analyzed performance based on a brand new book he published. Combining the information culled from both studies, if a book is ranked 100,000 you’re looking at selling about 1 copy per day. At a ranking of 30,000 it’s averaging between 1 and 2 copies per day. The 10,000 ranking calculates to 2 copies a day. The 1,000 ranking is estimated at 11 sales that day. A book with a rank of 10 is estimated to get 700 sales a day.

Keep in mind that a ranking at any single point in time is not indicative of actual sales. Selling two copies of a title, regardless of whether it has ever sold before, will propel it into the top 50,000 for at least a few hours. If the same book otherwise sells very rarely, or never, it will drop 100,000 rankings the next day, 400,000 rankings over the course of the week, another 200,000 rankings the next week, and so on. Eventually it will hover around 2,000,000.

So, keeping that in mind, I’ve been watching the sales rankings of both books, Oliver’s I Wake Early and Ashbery’s Collected Poems, for the last 8 weeks. They have both remained fairly stable. And as this post ages, you can check them again and update me. I’ll do the same. I’m all about the evidence. The long and short of it is this: Oliver’s book represents a part of the 47.9% described above, Ashbery’s book represents a part of 4.6% (which is all the more damning given the fanfare surrounding the Library of America’s publication). And if we’re making a fair comparison (single book to single book), Ashbery’s Masterpiece is found in 1% of Amazon’s sales.

Lastly, and as of 2008, Amazon represented 70% of the online book market. By any standard, that makes Amazon a fairly reliable indicator.

Is the audience out there?

Another refrain you will hear is that the audience for poetry no longer exists; poetry isn’t a genre that people care about. And you may also hear that the modern American reader can no longer distinguish between great poetry, good poetry or bad poetry. Both of these have to be among the most self-serving arguments ever concocted. It’s you, really, it’s you. We’re writing great poetry, you are just too clueless to recognize it.

In Tyler Hoffman’s book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, he opens with a lovely anecdote: “In 1919, Frost wrote a letter to his daughter Lesley. who had entered and lost a poetry contest, urging her to beware of caring about the reception of one’s [sic] work: ‘Setting our heart when we’re too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.'”[Intruction p. 1]

Hoffman continues:

As Vernon Shetley has shown, this hostility to modernist difficulty is not unique to Frost; other sophisticated readers saw that such difficulty spelt the demise of the “common reader” – a condition Shetley argues, from which we have not recovered: “The last time they [general readers] were sighted in large numbers was in Frost &  Politics of Poetrythe 1960s, refreshing themselves in the New England landscapes of Robert Frost.” Although the recent rap-meets-poetry scene has done much to reenfranchise the common reader, or, more accurately, the common listener, Shetley’s point is well-taken. [Ibid 2]

And finally:

To be sure, Frost’s poems seem on the surface fairly accessible by virtue of their colloquial sounds, and the appearance of his poetry in such mainstream magazines as Haper’s, New Republic, and Scribner’s attests to his success in attracting a popular audience. (…) In a 1913 letter, Frost made clear his ultimate intention of getting out beyond the poetry circle in his hunt for money and fame:

[T]here is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands…. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Ibid 3]

And this is what Frost’s poetry continues to do, along with Oliver’s. They reach the crowd. And the crowd, contrary to the insinuations of modern poets, has no trouble recognizing the good poetry from bad. They continue to buy Yeats, Frost, Dickinson, Cummings (today’s sales rank 32,675), Keats, Eliot, etc… If they didn’t sell, publishers wouldn’t stock bookstores with multiple issues – never mind the numerous books on haiku, sonnets, love poetry, erotic poetry, etc…

Don’t be fooled. The audience is out there, but if sales are any indication, they don’t want to read disjunctive, non-grammatical poetry. A great poet may emerge out of the conceptual or avant-garde aesthetic, but it won’t be by badmouthing or ignoring the judgment of the “common reader”.  If these poets want to succeed (and with more than that success “of esteem” or the teapot-approbation of their own establishments) they will have to do it the same way every great poet has done it, by engaging the “common reader” intellectually and emotionally (which is what those other best-selling writers condescend to do, otherwise known as short-story writers, dramatists and novelists).

If  the vast majority of latter, 20th century poets aren’t read as widely as they might be, maybe it’s because their poetry isn’t as good as it might be?

Is it them, and not you?

And of course, my standards apply to me. If my own poetry is abysmally under read (and it is), then I’m not going to blame the readership. The audience is out there. I’ve certainly failed to reach it and I have failed to market myself (this blog is a start). I happen to think my poetry is great poetry but I haven’t put it to the test. I blame myself for that. Given the chance and exposure, suppose I fail?

Emily DickinsonThen it’s likely I’m a poor judge of poetry, especially my own.

I’m not going to blame my lack of success on the mediocrity of the masses.

Is popularity the same as quality?

This is the direction these discussions inevitably go. If one judges the worth of a work according to its sales, what about all those mediocre poets and artists who were also, in their own day, best selling? Think of Longfellow or Salieri.  Longfellow wasn’t a bad poet, but was hardly the equal of Whitman or Dickinson.

But the question isn’t whether mediocre artists can’t also be popular, but whether the better poets weren’t.

The foremost example of the great poet who wasn’t popular is Emily Dickinson. But her example is flatly misleading. In her own lifetime, Dickinson never courted the public. She effectively sequestered both herself and her poetry. What if she had tried to court the public? We don’t know. What we do know is that once her poems reached the public, after her death and, albeit , in an edited form (primarily normalizing punctuation and spelling according to scholars), they were a definitive success – rapidly adopted by the reading public.

Poetry FreedomWalt Whitman achieved considerable success during his own lifetime. So did Tennyson, Shelley, the Brownings and Wordsworth. Keats didn’t live long enough to see success in his own lifetime. And though his reputation ebbed and flowed, his influence was ever present. Among the moderns, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were both recognized by the general public and saw their work widely disseminated.

Looking back through history, the pattern is the same (though what it meant to be successful depended on the era). Shakespeare retired a rich man.

The bottom line: modern poets can’t argue that obscurity or neglect doesn’t portend continued obscurity and neglect. If this generation’s self-selected great poets are being largely ignored by the general public then, according to history, it’s a reliable sign that they will continue to be ignored.   How long will the current generation’s establishment continue to champion poets who aren’t being read? Probably right up until the next generation quietly (or not so quietly) removes them from their pedestals. That’s the way it’s always been.  While popularity isn’t a reliable sign of greatness, it’s a fairly reliable sign of mediocrity. Poets who courted the general public and were marginalized in their own day continue to be marginalized by later generations. Right now, I can’t think of any exceptions.

What poets are being read by the general public? They are, first and foremost,  the poets who write to be understood. Their poems possess imagery that the average reader can make sense of, along with clarity and unity of thought. The public continues to buy and read poetry written in rhyme and meter. The youngest audiences instinctively gravitate toward language that possesses rhythm (accentual and accentual syllabic meters) and rhyme. They find it in nurseryThe Shadows of Sirius - Merwin rhymes and later in rap and popular music. Go to a site like Poetry Freedom if you want to see what the youngest poets and readers enjoy.

It’s easy for modern poets to dismiss these young poets and their poems as trivial and mawkish, but the techniques they use, are learning and enjoy are the techniques of the great poets: Frost, Keats, Shakespeare, Cummings, Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats, along with poets like Simic, Merwin and Oliver. They’re the audience of the future.

My bet is that they know great poetry when they see it.

(W.S. Merwin’s Book, The Shadows of Sirius, as of July 22nd, 2009, has a sales rank of 5,406. Just checked at 4:30. Someone must have bought another copy, Merwin’s ranking jumped to 2,879.)

[The Frost book which I’m following is the Library of America Edition – same as the Ashbery. So is the Whitman, which I’ve included just out of curiosity. Ron Silliman is represented by his new book, the Alphabet. Christian Bök is represnted by Eunoia.]

———–Oliver-|-Ashbery–|-Merwin-|-Frost—|-Silliman-|-Bök——-|Whitman

July 23: 8,632 –|-346,513—-|-15,010—|-181,394-|-630,876—-|-555,938—|43,348
July 24: 8,192–|-371,296—-|-4,085—-|–71,003-|-678,531—-|-631,346—|38,318
July 26: 5,255–|-87,204——|-11,116—-|-184,614|-705,812—-|-206,932—|127,792
July 27: 8,618–|-94,564——|-8,527—–|-87,657-|-252,553—-|-344,750—|122,208