Stephen Burt’s “The Poem Is You” and John Ashbery’s Invitation to the Reader

                                                  Image result for ashbery

Stephen Burt’s expansive new book, The Poem is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them, is both a well-chosen anthology of American poems published since 1980 and a generous introduction to the dizzying variety and wealth of recent poetry.  For each poem he has selected, Burt provides a characteristically smart, provocative, yet accessible essay about how to interpret and enjoy the poem.

Not surprisingly, given his catholic tastes and wide-ranging interests, Burt has selected poets from an array of backgrounds and poetic movements.  They range from titans of an earlier generation, represented by poems from their mid-to-later careers, like Robert Creeley, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, and Louise Gluck, to younger poets like Terrance Hayes, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Ross Gay.  As a whole, this book offers a wonderful, enlivening tour of contemporary American poetry, its landmarks and its lesser-known precincts, led by one of the most entertaining and knowledgeable guides we have.

But what interests me most here is that Burt decided to take his title — The Poem Is You — from a John Ashbery poem, and quite deliberately uses that poem to frame and justify his book.*

And it is an apt and resonant title for the book Burt has produced.  The phrase comes from the last line of Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” an anthology chestnut from 1981 that Burt uses to open the book and introduce its philosophy of poetry, if you will. The poem, which at first appears to be unusually straightforward and clear by Ashbery standards, begins with a rather direct address to a “you” who seems to be, at least in part, the reader of the piece itself:

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.

It ends with this gesture of intimacy and connection: “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”

Burt explains that he decided to deploy this Ashbery poem as both lead-off batter and title because it “does double duty as an invitation to read challenging, slippery poetry and as a claim about the connection between poet and reader, between ‘you’ and ‘me,’ that all poems at least attempt to make.”

Ashbery’s Whitman-like address to an elusive “you,” who may or may not be the reader, has long been a central, recurring feature of his work — from classic works of the 1960s, like “A Blessing in Disguise” (“I prefer ‘you’ in the plural, I want ‘you,’ / You must come to me, all golden and pale”) to the winking title of his late volume Your Name Here.

As Burt notes, Ashbery’s poem solicits our participation in the act of reading, asking us to converse with the poem, and the poet, and to enter into a strange kind of communion.  In the introduction, he explains

“My title — ‘The Poem Is You’ — means not that all the poems here reflect you exactly (not even the poems you might write yourself can do that) nor that all the poems will speak to you; instead (as the first essay in this book explains) it means that the poems invite you to try out, or try on, or simply encounter, the identities, the kinds of language, and the ways to see the world, that each poem opens up.”

The first essay then walks us through “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” in more detail, arguing that the poem is much more ambiguous and slippery than it first appears, playfully confronting us with a series of — you got it — paradoxes and oxymorons about the nature of poetry and our efforts to understand and possess it.

“Ashbery’s almost jocular late-summer non-sonnet is an ars poetica, a poem that designs to tell us what poetry — this kind of poetry, his kind of poetry — does.  It presents both a warning and an invitation, like a sign at the entrance to an amusement park ride: you must be at least this able to tolerate double and triple puns, irresolutions, cases in which a meaning is really a tease.”

Just as the poem reaches out and invites “you,” the reader, to join in this shared experience, it also “resists those things, pushing the reader slightly away; we are told as clearly as Ashbery ever tells us anything that what the poem means for one reader cannot be quite what it means or does for another.”

In this way, Burt sets up his conclusion, which opens outward from Ashbery to the book’s overall outlook on poetry itself:

“For all that it is an Ashbery poem, a foxy, teasing, slippery New York School poem, ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ thus resembles (and tells us that it resembles) and introduces (and tells us it introduces) many other kinds of poems, even poetry in general … Critics can — I can — guide you into their workings, help them make more sense, show you some of their intricacies, invitations, special abilities; but the rest is up to you.”

Throughout the book Burt rightly stresses the almost bewildering variety and diversity of contemporary American poetry.  But he also clearly, and understandably, positions John Ashbery as a central poet of our age.

For more on Burt’s The Poem Is You, see here.

* Fans of the New York School may also be interested to note that in addition to Ashbery, The Poem Is You also includes commentary on poems by other poets associated with the New York School, including Bernadette Mayer (“To Sleep”) and John Yau (“Modern Love”).

Posted in Bernadette Mayer, John Ashbery, John Yau, Stephen Burt, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frank O’Hara’s “For Bob Rauschenberg,” on His Birthday

Robert Rauschenberg, “Estate” (1963)

Today is the birthday of the groundbreaking painter Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who would’ve turned 91 today.  Rauschenberg, who Frank O’Hara once called “the enfant terrible of the New York School,” was of course both a good friend and inspiration to O’Hara, Ashbery, and their circle in the 1950s and 1960s.

This link is nowhere more apparent than in a wonderful poem by Frank O’Hara called “For Bob Rauschenberg” (1959), which I’ve always felt should be better known.  Here it is in its entirety:

For Bob Rauschenberg

Yes, it’s necessary, I’ll do
what you say, put everything
aside but what is here.  The frail
instant needs us and the cautious
breath, so easily drowned in Liszt
or sucked out by a vulgar soprano.

Why should I hear music?  I’m not
a pianist any more, and in truth
I despise my love for Pasternak,
born in Baltimore, no sasha mine,
and an adolescence taken in hay
above horses —

                        what should I be
if not alone in pain, apart from
the heavenly aspirations of
Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,
who have a language that permits
them truth and beauty, double-coin?
exercise, recreations, drugs –

can heaven mean up, down, or sidewise
who knows what is happening to him,
what has happened and is here, a
paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

In this poem, O’Hara suggests that he has made a choice to throw his lot in with Rauschenberg and the new aesthetic the painter was developing in the late 1950s. “Yes, it’s necessary,” he concedes. “I’ll do / what you say, put everything / aside but what is here.”

O’Hara indicates that he too will pursue an art devoted to the immediate, the concrete, the small and transitory, rather than other, grander, or more metaphysical aspects of experience.  The poem sets this materialist, empiricist, quotidian impulse against a more romantic, spiritual approach to the world that O’Hara feels is foreign to him (after all, in another poem he refers to himself as “the opposite of visionary”).

For O’Hara, the afterlife is elusive, even fictive; it pales in the face of “what has happened and is here.”  With its skepticism of “the heavenly aspirations” of other, more Romantic poets, like “Spenser and Keats and Ginsberg,” with its incredulity towards the language of “truth and beauty” and “heaven,” this poem declares its commitment instead to the here and now and to daily life.

In 1955, Rauschenberg had written of his own everyday aesthetic: “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made.  (I try to act in that gap between the two).” The striking image  O’Hara uses to close his poem for Rauschenberg

paper rubbed against the heart
and still too moist to be framed.

suggests that close attention to “what is here,” to the immediate and daily, results in an art object that is poised, uneasily and paradoxically, in the gap Rauschenberg describes — between art and life: a piece of paper glistening with the raw, red blood of experience, still too wet, too fresh, too much a part of “life” itself to be fully captured in a traditional artifact.

O’Hara’s poem “For Bob Rauschenberg” seems to be a central statement of the profoundly influential aesthetics of everyday life the two figures shared.  This is one reason why I was so grateful that I was able to use the painting above, Rauschenberg’s “Estate” (1963), for the cover of my new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, which takes its title from O’Hara and explores the broad fascination with the quotidian O’Hara outlines in his poem for Robert Rauschenberg.


Posted in Frank O'Hara, Poems, Robert Rauschenberg, Uncategorized, Visual Art | Leave a comment

Peter Gizzi’s “masterful” new book (and its James Schuyler epigraph)

Image result for peter gizzi new york school

Over at the New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich reviews the “masterful” new book by Peter Gizzi, Archeophonics, which was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. Petrusich notes that this is “perhaps Gizzi’s most personal book; it is tender, lyric, strange, and chatty.”

Gizzi has long been one of the best contemporary exponents and perpetuators of New York School poetics (as can been seen in his Ode: Salute to the New York School, as well as across his body of work as a whole).  So it’s not surprising to learn from Petrusich that “the collection features an epigraph from the poet James Schuyler: ‘Poetry, like music, is not just song.'”

The line comes from Schuyler’s wonderful villanelle entitled “Poem“:

I do not always understand what you say.
Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

Words’ meanings count, aside from what they weigh:
poetry, like music, is not just song.
I do not always understand what you say.

You would hate, when with me, to meet by day
What at night you met and did not think wrong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

I sense a heaviness in your light play,
a wish to stand out, admired, from the throng.
I do not always understand what you say.

I am as shy as you. Try as we may,
only by practice will our talks prolong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

We talk together in a common way.
Art, like death, is brief: life and friendship long.
I do not always understand what you say.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

Petrusich also notes that the book, a meditation on loss, is filled with “allusions to outdated objects and systems, and the ways in which we gather, mourn, and give them new value: the old document, the old language, the archive, the archival. The old apple and the used bookstore. ‘The days go and are gone.'”

And what could be more James Schuyler-esque than a line like “The days go and are gone”?  You can check out the rest of Petrusich’s review here.

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Eileen Myles Reads James Schuyler (and Chats with Paul Muldoon)

Image result for james schuyler chelsea                  Image result for eileen myles young

The New Yorker’s Poetry Podcast asks poets who have published in the New Yorker to choose a poem from the New Yorker’s pages, read it, and discuss it with poetry editor Paul Muldoon, before reading one of their own poems that has appeared in the magazine.

The most recent edition offers a treat: Eileen Myles reads a poem by James Schuyler and talks with Muldoon about Schuyler’s poetry and her sense of the New York School and its lasting significance.

As Myles explains, Schuyler was already something of a hero to her when she first became immersed in the New York scene, even before she (famously) worked as his assistant when he lived at the Hotel Chelsea in the late 1970s.  (Myles memorably wrote about her experience working for Schuyler in the title story of her celebrated collection Chelsea Girls).

On the podcast, Myles talks with Muldoon about her affection for Schuyler’s work and her strong identification with the poetry of the New York School, and reminisces about her exciting early days in the 1970s East Village poetry scene that centered on the Poetry Project at St. Marks, when rents were cheap, downtown was still a haven for writers and musicians, and poetry flowed like wine (or amphetamines, or something).

She then reads Schuyler’s late poem “White Boat, Blue Boat” (which appeared in the New Yorker in 1989), followed by a poem of her own, “Dissolution,” which just appeared in the magazine in August.

You can hear the podcast here, and you can read some of my own recent work on Schuyler here, and in my recently published book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture.

Posted in Eileen Myles, James Schuyler, Podcast, Poetry Project at St. Marks, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

“Schuyler today and the students” by Kate Angus

Image result for james schuyler  Kate Angus

Today’s “Poem-a-Day” posted by the Academy of American Poets site is a lovely poem by Kate Angus called “Schuyler today and the students.” It’s about an experience a relatively small number of us know quite well — teaching the poetry of James Schuyler and watching students light up with excitement about his work.

In a note on the poem, Angus explains that

“I wrote this after an afternoon class when my students fell in love with James Schuyler—how joyful his poems felt to them after the other work we’d been reading (Berryman,Plath, Sexton), and how easy for them to enter. That afternoon, our seminar discussion felt like a door opened. And, of course, I was thinking also about what I love in Schuyler’s work and about New York and about someone I loved that I’d lost touch with, and how sad and beautiful and happy I was about everything.”

I was particularly drawn to the lines where Angus relishes in Schuyler’s work “the idea that it’s enough to think / one thing and then say it: maybe a stapler sits / like a black jaw on the desk while the aloe / stretches half-parabola curves / towards the light and an avocado shell / waits to be rubbish.” In a chapter on Schuyler in my new book, Attention Equals Life, I argue that a “philosophy of ‘enough,’ a poetics of what will suffice,” lies at the heart of Schuyler’s work.

This philosophy of “enough” — which I posted a little about here a couple months ago — can be found in lines like these, from “Hymn to Life”:

Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself.  In the
Garden now daffodils stand full unfolded and to see them is enough

And in these, from “June 30, 1974“:

Enough to
sit here drinking coffee,
writing, watching the clear
day ripen (such
a rainy June we had)
while Jane and Joe
sleep in their room
and John in his. I
think I’ll make more toast.

Here’s Kate Angus’s poem:

Schuyler today and the students

wake up when he mentions colors
and light, streets they’ve walked—
Second Avenue, West 20th, Park.
This guy is happy, right? they ask;
who am I to answer. What I like
about Schuyler is the way sonatas
and Coca-Cola flourish in the same stanza,
morning glories opening
their bright mouths, and trailing down
tender vines.

I don’t drink soda and I never listen
to Faure as much as I should
(What voice
is chanting always be better?). What I like is
the pyrotechnics always just past
the paper horizon,
waiting to burst from underneath.
It’s the idea that it’s enough to think
one thing and then say it: maybe a stapler sits
like a black jaw on the desk while the aloe
stretches half-parabola curves
towards the light and an avocado shell
waits to be rubbish.

There are, of course, always going to be people
who hook us under the sternum and pull
us forward with wire until our own bones break
to make us relinquish them. And in their wake we watch
their boat sail away with a mast solid as the Empire
State Building and all flags in array. Goodbye, little sailor,
I’ll miss you
when I drift down under dark water
where there are shipwrecks and bleached whale
bones and fish bright as constellations, but not enough
to keep swimming.

The poem can be found here, along with an audio recording of Angus reading it.

Posted in James Schuyler, New York, Poems, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From James Schuyler’s Diary (August 5, 1968)

James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch

Here is an excerpt from James Schuyler’s diary on August 5, 1968, 48 years ago today, at Fairfield Porter’s home on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine:

Blue, with a few sharp streaks of white.  The water is making its knitting noise, Lizzie [Porter] and Katherine [Koch] are talking on the floor in front of the fireplace, where they slept on quilts after Bruno woke them up at 6 and they in turn woke me.  Kenneth is in the kitchen asking Anne [Porter] for advice and favors.  Fairfield is painting a new view from his porch looking east, an intimate one of a little, wild enclosure (that which is enclosed being, of course, nothing)…

Went for a long walk with Kenneth [Koch] yesterday noon and swam at Skokey (sp?) Beach, lying naked in the cold water that was a little warm on top and looking at the pebbles and snails and tiny shrimp-like creatures. Hot sun, air and no clothes: a recipe from the “classic cuisine.”

Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter, “The Table on the Porch” (1971)


Posted in Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Ashes’s Birthday — Frank O’Hara Writes “To John Ashbery”

Today is John Ashbery’s 89th birthday, and for the occasion, here are two poems Ashbery’s close friend Frank O’Hara wrote for him over 60 years ago.

Over the nearly twenty years of their friendship, O’Hara wrote many poems dedicated to and about Ashbery, whom he affectionately called “Ashes.”  First, here is “Ashes on Saturday Afternoon,” which O’Hara wrote in 1952 (with the original title “Poet to Poet”). In it, he begs his friend and fellow poet to provide him with some inspiration — “you, dear poet,” he says, “must save me from the void’s external noise.”

Ashes on Saturday Afternoon

The banal machines are exposing themselves
on nearby hillocks of arrested color: why
if we are the anthropologist’s canapé
should this upset the autumn afternoon?

It is because you are silent. Speak, if
speech is not embarrassed by your attention
to the scenery!  in languages more livid than
vomit on Sunday after wafer and prayer.

What is the poet for, if not to scream
himself into a hernia of admiration for all
paradoxical integuments: the kiss, the
bomb, cathedrals and the zeppelin anchored

to the hill of dreams?  Oh be not silent
on this distressing holiday whose week
has been a chute of sand down which no
factories or castles tumbled: only my

petulant two-fisted heart.  You, dear poet,
who addressed yourself to flowers, Electra,
and photographs on less painful occasions,
must save me from the void’s external noise.

And here is the tender 1954 poem “To John Ashbery,” in which O’Hara imagines himself and Ashbery reading their “new poems to each other / high on a mountain in the wind,” like a pair of ancient Chinese poets.

To John Ashbery

I can’t believe there’s not
another world where we will sit
and read new poems to each other
high on a mountain in the wind.
You can be Tu Fu, I’ll be Po Chü-i
and the Monkey Lady’ll be in the moon,
smiling at our ill-fitting heads
as we watch snow settle on a twig.
Or shall we be really gone? this
is not the grass I saw in my youth!
and if the moon, when it rises
tonight, is empty —a bad sign,
meaning “You go, like the blossoms.”

If you’re interested, I discuss both of these poems, and what they suggest about Ashbery’s friendship with O’Hara, in my book Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry.

Happy 89th birthday to John Ashbery, who has been saving so many of us from the void’s external noise for many decades now!


Posted in Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Poems, Uncategorized