Poetry magazine, given a jolt of energy under new editor Don Share, continues to display an exciting eclecticism and openness to multiple traditions, including an ongoing special interest in the poetry of the New York School (a development I posted about here).
For example, the current issue, June 2014, leads off with a delightful sestina by Harry Mathews. Mathews, perhaps best known as the experimental novelist who for many years was the only American member of the largely French movement known as the Oulipo, is also a poet and an important early affiliate of the New York School. Mathews became close with John Ashbery after their meeting in Paris, and he co-founded, funded, and edited the journal Locus Solus in the early 1960s.
His poem in the June issue of Poetry, “Cool gales shall fan the glade,” recalls not only Mathew’s wonderful earlier sestina, “Histoire” — a poem which pulls off the remarkable feat of using “militarism,” “Marxism-Leninism,” “fascism,” “Maoism,” “racism,” and “sexism” as sestina endwords. It also reminds one more broadly of the New York School’s enduring love of the sestina for its artifice, generative constraints, and chiming repetition — whether in Ashbery’s “The Painter” and “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” or in the early Ashbery-Kenneth Koch collaboration “Crone Rhapsody” (in which every line had “to contain the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, a famous old lady, as well as the word ‘bathtub’”; in addition, “all the end-words are pieces of office furniture”).
Mathews adds an Oulipean twist to the sestina’s already byztanine requirements: he adds a letter to each end word, each time it reappears, so that “at” becomes “fat,” “fast,” “feast,” and so on as the poem progresses. (On the magazine’s always-interesting podcast devoted to this month’s issue, you can hear Mathews explain this procedure and editors Don Share, Christina Pugh, and Lindsay Garbutt discuss the poem and its effects in detail).
This is the first time that Mathews has ever appeared in Poetry, and it’s a real pleasure to find this word-drunk, playful, and moving sestina in its pages — as the poem puts it: “The alphabet’s such a horn / Of plenty, why cork up its treasure?”
The issue also features a good review by Yasmine Shamma of Ron Padgett’s widely-praised new Collected Poems (which was recently awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, among other things). Shamma situates Padgett’s work within the context of the New York School and observes that “the experience of reading Padgett’s poetry is like that of being in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day and feeling a sonic boom. He leaves his reader feeling jolted into humility, gasping and grasping for bigger things.” As she notes, “Forty-five years after Great Balls of Fire, Padgett’s poems still fuel our capacity for joyful incomprehensibility and subsequent mobility of thought.”
There are other traces of the New York School throughout the issue, including in Jonn Gallaher’s “In a Landscape,” a series of stirring, lovely poems that draws its title from John Cage and some of its spirit from John Ashbery.
There’s also at least one other subtle connection that I noticed in the issue. Dan Chelotti’s poem “Compost” ends with some lines that seem to echo the closing lines of a poem by Frank O’Hara.
Chelotti’s poem ends with a moment of intimacy:
Do you want some eggs, my love?
I have a new way of preparing them.
And look, look outside, I think this weather
Has the chance of holding.
Compare these lines to those that close O’Hara’s poem “For Grace, After a Party”:
Chelotti seems to be alluding quite deliberately and directly to O’Hara’s lines about breakfast and weather, love and routine. On the podcast, the editors observe that the poem’s focus on the idea of “compost,” on issues of decay and rebirth, extends to its own “composting” of various literary predecessors, including D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” Emily Dickinson’s “A narrow fellow in the grass,” and James Wright.
I’d second this observation, but add that O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party” would certainly seem to be another, rather prominent element in the mix of old poems out of which Chelotti’s poem grows.
The whole issue is full of surprises and pleasures. Check out it here.