On Ashbery’s A Wave

John Ashbery’s A Wave is an itch I would scratch if I could. I am drawn to this book, out of all of Ashbery’s books, time and again, drawn to the very mystery of its attraction.

True it does contain the gem Just Walking Around, perhaps one of his most celebrated poems.

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Michael Brodsky: Writing as Exposure

Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait with Palette, 1889

The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.

…. if you go on struggling to name…. you come up with all sorts of ingenious explanations for why you cannot nor ever will get the hang of the naming game. And through the deployment of those explanations you begin to name yourself—to find a name for yourself—the only name worth knowing.

The only real promise of reward issues from a state of affairs that offers no promise….
—Michael Brodsky, Lurianics, p 33-4 & 347**

I hesitated before using the phrase, “writing as exposure” for fear of appearing heavy-handed, something Brodsky deftly avoids. He does deploy big themes but he never loses sight of the worm squirming inside them. But then in trying to write about Lurianics, his most recent novel, I found myself briefly chased into The Phenomenology of Spirit, about the heaviest thing I can think of reading. And I had to remind myself of the obvious: he is not writing this, I am. Somehow I have to get past my awe of his power. Since the death of John Ashbery last year, Michael Brodsky is the living writer in my native language I most admire.

It’s hard to characterize his work. You might get a glimpse of its flavor if you tried to imagine a mind meld between Proust and Kierkegaard with some Beckettian wit sprinkled in. But there’s nothing, anytime anywhere, like it. Above all his writing is a triumph of style, the most powerful and unmistakable style I’ve seen since Kurt Vonnegut. Pick a book, any book. In the first few sentences you know you’re reading Brodsky. It couldn’t be anyone else. And once you’re into the middle of it it’s as massive and unstoppable as the Mississippi. Continue reading

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Falling in love with a poem

Have you ever? And without being sure why (and half wishing not to know why)?

I’m falling in love with a Frank O’Hara poem, untitled (unless you consider “Poem” a title), written circa 1950 when the poet was in his twenties. It strikes me as not only very smart but wise as well. And yet no doubt dashed off, the way he did so many poems, and didn’t even bother to give it a title. Funny, the poem immediately struck me as about love, but I’ve just now noticed the word “love” is not mentioned nor is it specified that the “we” is a couple, although one might see a suggestion of a certain tree in a certain garden which conjures an image in the mind of a naked couple–well naked at first, then trembling ashamed and running for cover.

But I don’t know if he’s referring to that tree or not. I’m still getting to know the poem. But why do I have a feeling that O’Hara has constructed it so that I will always be just getting to know it? Yes, I do think that’s a possibility. I really admire this poem, and without fully understanding it. That is to say it’s alluring.

I think it’s about love because when you’re in love with someone you have the good sense not to analyze everything. You feel more than understand that if you did, your whole world together would fall apart. O’Hara cites tremendous things: trees, pyramids, fire, death, treasure, mountains–all things that are bigger, last longer or will consume a human being. They’re nature or the cosmos that encircles the couple that I like to see holding hands in a forest or a vast landscape.

We don’t know exactly what the speaker knows. He isn’t saying. So maybe we are the object of his love.

Notice that it is not just trivial or mundane pursuits we must keep interested in (this is the only part of the poem that is dated. Today we might substitute something like Facebook for “foreign stamps”) but “abnormal psychology” as well! We are in love, not stupid.

When you’re in love there are things that should remain unsaid. We all know, in our own situations and hearts, what those things are. If O’Hara was more prosaic on this point (why a chestnut tree? why “about to flame or die”?) we wouldn’t get it. Or maybe we would. But it would be like reading a menu or watching someone else eat.

And if you do say the things you shouldn’t, “all [will be] lost”–the couple’s connection to the cosmos. The whole universe may as well crumble because connection to the loved one is the whole universe.

And then that picnicker thrown in there! Just because the world has ended doesn’t mean it isn’t still going on, just as before. All of your ties to it have just been severed, that’s all.

Life goes on. But we’ve lost our innocence. And we know it! Each knows that the other knows, and isn’t saying. And this not saying is what we have a duty to. And this is a profound love, a love one can grow into old age with. And look how perfectly chosen his metaphors are. They actually take my breath away:

…. And now it’s our tree
going up in flames, still blossoming, as if

it had nothing better to do! Don’t we have
a duty to it, as if it were a gold mine

we fell into climbing desert mountains,
or a dirty child, or a fatal abscess?


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William Carlos Williams: the power and the limits of poetry

William Carlos Williams’ The Flower (a petal, colorless) from 1930 is to my mind a quintessential Williams poem (you can read it here if you bear in mind that Williams wrote it in couplets). No one else could have written it, and not just because it’s autobiographical. Not that it’s one of his best poems, but it has the ingredients one associates with his poetry: imagination as personal affirmation, ideas in things, imagism, low and high juxtaposition, and the relationship between the personal and the social or public—these ingredients are presented in American vernacular English—a combination that has served American poetry well for one hundred years. Continue reading

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Lou Reed: Power and Glory

Power and Glory—The Situation
by Lou Reed

I was visited by the Power and the Glory
I was visited by a majestic hymn
Great bolts of lightning
Lighting up the sky
Electricity flowing through my veins

I was captured by a larger moment
I was seized by divinity’s hot breath
Gorged like a lion on experience
Powerful from life
I want all of it—
Not just some of it

I saw a man turn into a bird
I saw a bird turn into a tiger
I saw a man hang from a cliff by the tips of his toes
In the jungles of the Amazon
I saw a man put a redhot needle through his eye
Turn into a crow and fly through the trees
Swallow hot coals and breathe out flames
And I wanted this to happen to me

We saw the moon vanish into his pocket
We saw the stars disappear from sight
We saw him walk across water into the sun
While bathed in eternal light
We spewed out questions waiting for answers
Creating legends, religions and myths
Books, stories, movies and plays
All trying to explain this

I saw a great man turn into a little child
The cancer reduced him to dust
His voice growing weak as he fought for his life
With a bravery few men know
I saw isotopes introduced into his lungs
Trying to stop the cancerous spread
And it made me think of Leda and The Swan
And gold being made from lead
The same power that burned Hiroshima
Causing three-legged babies and death
Shrunk to the size of a nickel
To help him regain his breath
And I was struck by the power and the glory
I was visited by a majestic Him
Great bolts of lightning lighting up the sky
As the radiation flowed through him
He wanted all of it
Not some of it

The title of the song is Power and Glory and its poetic genius (as well as its beauty) lies in a one-two punch. One is the double use of “I wanted/he wanted all of it”. The other is the way Reed prepares us to see a man reduced to a child by disease while exhibiting uncommon bravery–to see him as one of the wonders of the world. Continue reading

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Dear Reader or I Want!

William Blake, I want! I want!

I’ve been obsessed with the poem Dear Reader by James Tate for some months now. Continue reading

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Wild at the CDC Poetry Project

I’m stoked to be kicking off National Poetry Month at the CDC Poetry Project.

Each poem in the project uses all seven words banned by the Trump administration from all Centers for Disease Control communications: entitlement, diversity, vulnerable, fetus, transgender, evidence-based, science-based.

Trump sailed into the White House on a wave of loose talk that his supporters find exhilarating as if it’s bold or somehow fearless to be a blowhard. Yet his administration is so afraid of how these seven words might be used (I mean, “fetus” for God’s sake!) they’ve been banned from CDC documents. Pathetic.

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