April is National Poetry Month and, to celebrate, Robert Day (my teacher at Iowa, the man who walked into the classroom the first day and wrote across the length of the blackboard REMEMBER TO TELL THEM THE NOVEL IS A POEM) herewith offers a witty and casually erudite meditation on the poems of John Ashbery and Tadeusz Różewicz, this “chance encounter” taking place in a dining room in Kansas City. Yes, folks, in America today, despite all the narrowness, spleen and vitriol exhibited in the legislatures of the country, it is still possible to find a dining room in Kansas City where two people talk intelligently about poems, quote lines, and pass books back and forth across the table. Now if we could just spread the light.
I should add that Bob, in his amiably noncommittal way, has allowed as he might do more of these literary “chance encounters” for NC, make them a semi-regular or irregular feature. Please help me twist his arm.
“….that old woman who/is leading a goat by a rope/is more necessary/and more precious/than the seven wonders/of the world/any one who thinks and feels/that she is not necessary/is a mass-murderer…”
—Tadeusz Różewicz, from In the Midst of Life
“…Ah nerts,/…this guy’s too much for me.”
—John Ashbery, from Self –Portrait on a Convex Mirror
–Look at this, I said.
If the world of political religion were only as generous and accommodating as the world of poetry we could all live in un-interesting times, unless you count reading verse that makes nothing happen (in both senses of Auden’s famous phrase) as interesting. Which I do.
That these two poets are popular and splendid in ways beyond their received definitions (Ashbery, the modern master of Ars Poetica yoked to back stories; Różewicz, the voice of poetry as assertion), is evidence that some small part of what passes as modern civilization is free from cant, hypocrisy, and contempt—not to mention drone strikes, suicide bombers, female circumcision, and the mass murders of innocents by tyrants fat and skinny.
An Ashbery poem—at least like “Resisting Arrest”—begins in the middle of…. what? And goes from there with interruptions by folk mostly inside the poem. Exits and entrances pursued by themselves. The stanzas are verbal brush stokes (in French coup de pinceau, as I recently learned from writing a short story) that are being applied (even as we watch) to the making of abstract expressionist verse. It is what William Stafford called the “adventure” of writing. But for most poets we don’t watch the adventure in process. Ashbery’s process is his poetry.
He told a cheering crowd the infighting was over
at least for that day. They had more affairs
to remember than just that one time. Why,
he went over it and that was that. Plethoras
to be announced, etc. You’re telling me.
That is not the first stanza of Resisting Arrest, but why not? Begin anywhere, to borrow the title of Frank Giampietro’s astonishing poem from his book by the same name (Alice James Books).
However, Różewicz is narrative. His strength is the absence of mystery about who is talking, and about what:
Tuesday April 23
the 113th day of 2002
I have the day off
I listen to the rain falling
I read poems
By Staff and Tuwim
…………………….(From: “ luxury”)
An adventure of sorts, but it does matter where we begin: elsewhere and everywhere in New Poems:
On the road
of my life
which has been straight
round the bend
there were whirlings
on the road of life.
…….. (From: “on the road”)
Różewicz’s is the road taken, and there are plenty of folk along the way:
I read Chekhov smile at him
What a kind good man
He must have loved people…
“ich sterbe” he said and passed away
….. (From: “The poet’s other mystery”)
not to be fond
of capitalists and money lenders
he sought to drive the merchants
from the temple…
too bad Pound never finished
Before he started extolling
………………( From: “Too Bad”)
We meet people in Ashbery’s travels as well, but mostly they seem residents of the poem:
A pleasant smell of frying sausages
Attacks the sense, along with an old, mostly invisible
Photograph of what seems to be girls lounging around
An old fighter bomber, circa 1942 vintage.
How to explain to these girls, if indeed that’s what they are,
These Ruths, Linda, Pats and Sheilas
About the vast change that’s taken place
In the fabric of our society, altering the texture
Of all things in it?
……….( From: “Mixed Feelings”)
What both poets have in common is the allure of their language. In Ashbery it is mystery coupled with glamour. In Różewicz the language is attractive because of his minimal bluntness. And both poets are diarists; it is just that Ashbery’s entries are coded, and Różewicz’s are not. That, too, is part of their respective allure.
–Poetry is what gets lost in explaining it, I say to Fred, sort of quoting (I think) Frost.
–Talking about literature is as natural as breathing, Fred says. Eliot.
I am trying to remember what Philip Larkin said about all this so I can keep our verbal duel going, but my mind shoots blanks some days—and this is one of them.
“Globed fruit” comes to mind, but I know that is not Larkin. To cover my tracks, I read two poems out loud, one from each:
should be put to sleep
before it starts
before it starts
to cast about
summoned to life
in a forgetful moment
attuned to word
it seeks deliverance
from a philosopher’s
passerby walk on
don’t lift the stone
under it a tiny white poem
Paradoxes and Oxymorons
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 want to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be
A deeper outside thinking, a dreamed role-pattern
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know it
It gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.
It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.
Fred and I are quiet for a moment wondering (at least I am) can anyone not know to whom these poems belong? Then we talk more about language, and how Ashbery’s vernacular becomes literary in spite of itself:
The difficulty with that is
I no longer have any metaphysical reasons
For doing the things I do.
Night formulates, the rest is up to the scribes and the eunuchs.
………(From: The Preludes)
As for Różewicz and his plain style, at the end of “learning to walk” Jesus edits him as follows:
then He came to a stop
strike out one “big word”
from your poem
strike out the word “beauty”
Which apparently Różewicz did, as it does not otherwise appear.
By chance: It is also true that The Library of American’s edition of Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987 and Archipelago Books’ edition of Różewicz’s New Poems, are both elegant in binding and design—albeit, like the poets themselves, in different ways. Which brings me to (in fact) the opening stanza of “Resisting Arrest.”
A year and day later the wolf stopped
by as planned. He made conversation
about this and that but you could tell
from the way he favored his gums that all was not
well. Later the driving pool shifted.
I had no idea that you were planning
to stage an operation but it’s all right
this time. Then I read your account and
was dully impressed, right at the edge
of the sea where the land asserts itself.
–What’s that about? Fred asked.
–Beginning anywhere, I said. And maybe the end of “No meaning except in things.”
–William Carlos Williams, Fred said.
–“Globed Fruit.” Archibald McLeish. I said.
–I think so, Fred said.
Robert Day‘s most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short stories published by BookMark Press. His novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. His short fiction has won a number of prizes and citations, including two Seaton Prizes, a Pen Faulkner/NEA prize, and Best American Short story and Pushcart citations. His fiction has been published by Tri-Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Kansas Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, and New Letters among other belles-lettres magazines. He is the author of two novellas, In My Stead, and The Four wheel Drive Quartet, as well as Speaking French in Kansas, a collection of short stories.
His nonfiction has been published in the Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes FYI, Modern Maturity, World Literature Today, and American Scholar. As a member of the Prairie Writers Circle his essays have been reprinted in numerous newspapers and journals nationwide, and on such inter-net sites as Counterpunch. Recent book publications include We Should Have Come By Water (poems) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction).
Among his awards and fellowships are a National Endowment to the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, Yaddo and McDowell Fellowships, a Maryland Arts Council Award, and the Edgar Wolfe Award for distinguished fiction. His teaching positions include The Iowa Writers Workshop; The University of Kansas; and the Graduate Faculty at Montaigne College, The University of Bordeaux.
He is past President of the Associated Writing Programs; the founder and former director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House; and founder and publisher of the Literary House Press at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland where he is an Adjunct Professor of English Literature.