Your Name Here
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (cloth)
Harvard University Press, $22.95 (cloth)
Fittingly, the opening poem in Ashbery's latest collection asks, "Why do I tell you these things? / You are not even here." Your Name Here is haunted by the dialectics of presence and absence, of being and imminent non-being. Each of these poems is like a cognizant mind unto itself, churning with life and the knowledge of its own death, as in the unsettling close of "Caravaggio and his Followers": "The experience / is ending. The time for standing to one side is near / now, very near." In another poem, he tells us: "Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later. / The vetch goes on growing, wondering / whether it grew any more today." Whether he's thinking about "summer … on its way / out, and autumn … still just a glint in its eye, / a chronicle of hoar-frost foretold" or the way that the grocer's boy "hasn't changed much in 80 years, nor have I," the past and its trappings are always fluid for him. Such an understanding allows him an odd and eloquent largesse: "If there is more to remember, I gift you with it / because of the eternal person you were sometimes, and the loveliness / of your being, shaken clear of you like duck feathers." Nostalgia can function as a red herring, an evasion of temporality rather than a true engagement with it; by attaching itself so fiercely to the objects of a lost time, on occasion it ducks the more slippery and dangerous issue at hand: mortality. One piece of Ashbery's genius is the way he's able to handle nostalgia as an object, deftly turning it this way and that in order to travel deeper ranges of time and of loss. And he explores the mechanisms of time and memory without ever sentimentalizing.Your Name Here is, simply, a beautiful book, funny and terrifying, as ingenious, strange, and shocking as Ashbery's work has always been. Its frequently elegiac, even sorrowful tone in no way diminishes the energy and inventiveness present in every poem. As he says, "We should all be so lucky as to get hit by the meteor / of an idea once in our lives."
Other Traditions, Ashbery's small book of essays about the work of several lesser-known poets (John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Laura Riding, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, and David Schubert) is a pure pleasure to read. Ashbery is a keen and knowledgeable commentator, paying graceful homage to these artists' work, to his own history as a poet and reader, and to the rich mysteries of poetry itself. In a brief amount of space, Ashbery manages to touch on an impressive amount of material. He explores the historical and aesthetic contexts in which the poets lived and wrote; provides thoughtful, absorbing readings of their work; and discusses their impact on him as a poet. One hopes the book, a quiet triumph, will garner these poets more critical understanding and attention in the future. Ultimately, Other Traditions is an exploration of Ashbery's own reading mind and his philosophy on poetry as experience: "no poem can ever hope to produce the exact sensation in even one reader that the poet intended; all poetry is written with this understanding on the part of poet and reader."
Heresy and the Ideal: On Contemporary Poetry
University of Arkansas Press, $40 (cloth), $20 (paper)
One of the great strengths of David Baker's Heresy and the Ideal is that despite the range of poets it considers—more than fifty, from Sharon Olds to Donald Revell, June Jordan to Stanley Plumley—both the thought and prose cohere: one never feels as if the book is merely a haphazard collection of occasional writing. Offered by Baker as "practical criticism" for a reader interested in contemporary poetry, the book fulfills Baker's introductory mandate of avoiding the unnecessary jargon that is used so frequently in literary criticism. Yet Baker does not slip into "New Critical" myopia. Steeped in American philosophical, literary, and cultural history, he makes stimulating connections and offers a particularly engaging reading of American poetry's Romantic roots. Moreover, his insights reveal wide reading and an embracing openness to a variety of different "poetries," which make this book a rare non-partisan delight. Even if one disagrees with Baker—for instance, about the importance of Miller Williams (President Clinton's Inaugural Poet in 1997) or about the definition of American Romanticism—one reads his discussions fully attentive because the prose is so inviting, the erudition so apparent and accessible. Baker's considerations of Donald Revell, Robert Hass, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, David St. John, and Albert Goldbarth are especially insightful—and he does not merely lavish praise on the poets. Baker's intelligence is demanding, his considerations even-handed. Further, the book resonates with the intangible passion of a life lived with poetry, touched by cadences, haunted by images, compelled by imagination's spirit. Baker asserts in his thoughtful introduction that "poetry seems healthy, resilient, relevant, and available." Reading this book, one may even believe that the same is true of contemporary criticism.
Republics of Reality: 1975–1995
Sun & Moon, $14.95 (paper)
Alternately classical ("Music strays, will's composed / Pleasure strikes when feeling stays"), techno-code ("autonomous explosions / taste as / blocks, circling / like (star), fl…m…n…g…") and gonzo ("Who would have thought Paul McCartney would be / the Perry Como of the 1990s?"), Charles Bernstein builds perfect little units—as if he were updating Elizabeth Bishop's "Monument" or re-casting the condensed jewels that are Vasko Popa's poems for our age. Republics might move readers, then, beyond their initial reaction to his work once they see he has as much to do with Milton as the Language movement: there is not a word that doesn't belong in these tight, crystalline artifacts, in which there are seldom an unoriginal revelation, joke, or philosophic/aesthetic stance made ("Figment / only blinds / when care freezes / & flips / over its own / (homely) / recourse"). Because these poems defy categorization, Bernstein's use of poetry as a political ground continues stronger than ever, but hopefully the breadth of style in Republics will remind many that Bernstein's head has never been buried in the sand—that he's as much a lyric bard, prose poet and Romantic as he is an "experimentalist," a "renegade."
What was Language poetry? A farce, a revolution of banality, a savvy marketing effort? Readers who hold of any of these opinions will find plenty of grist for their respective mills in Charles Bernstein's Republics of Reality: 1975–1995. The book offers a peculiar overview of Bernstein's career in that it includes poems from eight of the poet's previously published chapbooks and a clutch of previously unpublished new poems. The collection is a dissonant symphony cobbled together from minor scores, and its herky-jerky mix of comedy, philosophy, and lyric is a reminder that Bernstein is an avid experimentalist who strikes out in many directions. Farce: "Take this / split (splint / of sound / mumbling / murky dormer / as in" ("Revolutionary Poem"). A revolution of banality: "here. Forget. / There are simply tones / cloudy, / breezy / birds & so on. / Sit down with it. / It's time now. / There is no more natural sight" ("Poem"). Branding: The jacket copy reminds readers of Bernstein's central role in the Language poetry movement, but it also insists that, "as these poems reveal, Bernstein's allegiance has not been to any one kind of poetry, but to an 'artificed' writing that refuses simple absorption in the society around it." Of course, this begs the question of why society would feel compelled to absorb such writing in the first place, and why such writing consequently finds its only refuge in the university. Bernstein's language, it seems, now has just a lower-case "l". Is he running from success or failure? One thing is certain: Republics of Reality weighs 15.4 ounces.
"I'm not going to change my language," Charles Bernstein writes in "Sentences," from his first book, Parsing. But he did—and, more importantly, he changed ours. Republics of Reality collects eight early books of perhaps the most public figure in Language poetry and adds a substantial group of newer poems. Contemplating the rise of Language writing in the twenty-first century may be, as the title of Bernstein's selection of new poems puts it, "Residual Rubbernecking." Yet Republics of Reality is valuable both as a record of a movement and as an account of a singular poetic struggle. Bernstein's mature signature style is as recognizable as any incontemporary poetry—bob-and-weave, pugilistic punning through multiple discourses, with syntax and line deployed as an endless series of (often comic) head fakes. But in early books, such as Parsing, Shade, and Poetic Justice, we find Bernstein fascinated with the workings of ordinary language, in poems deeply informed by Bernstein's early training in philosophy. Elements of Bernstein's later approach appear as early as Shade (in poems such as "Take, then, these…"), but their later dominance hardly seems inevitable. Indeed, elements of the early work that were later abandoned seem more intriguing than the new poems. The philosophical earnestness of these early pieces connect Bernstein to the total movement of Language writing. By Resistance (1983), Bernstein has hit his stride, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine has folded, and Language writing itself has started to become an object of academic attention. Republics of Reality is a Burgess Shale of a poetic explosion; we see not only what happened, but what might have and didn't.
Counterpoint, $23 (cloth)
In this his ninth collection of poems, Hill explores the evil that rhetoric has inflicted on society and the resultant depredation that society has performed on language. Throughout Hill's 120 "days of Sodom" (twelve-line stanzas of loose blank verse), the reader is barraged with broken, misleading phrases and slogans that initially seem to press the point of how meaningless our public—political and commercial—language has become. But patterns soon emerge; glancing coherence and expressible truth crops up amid the sonic rubble. Hill's allusions to European (principally German) history remind us that Nazism, that greatest of twentieth-century evils, arose primarily out of public rhetoric. The postwar reaction, Hill suggests, has not been greater attention to the moral implications of speech, but an ever-expanding decadence of rhetoric and a mistaken denial of the potent good and evil inherent in words: "Tune up an old saw: the name-broker / is carnifex … / Footnotes to explain BIRKENAU, BUCHENWALD, BURNHAM /BEECHES, DUMBARTON OAKS, HOLLYWOOD." In the aftermath of public evil and amid the swell of commercial spiels from RAPMASTER to Elton John, Hill does not further bewail and damage the power of language, but works toward a restoration of caution and respect in its use: "When all else fails CORINTHIANS will be read / by a man in too-tight shoes. No matter. You / shall not degrade or debauch the word LOVE / beyond redemption." Hill has long been regarded, along with Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, as the greatest of his generation of British poets, and although the lingual bombardment of Speech! Speech! can get a little numbing, it is a well-crafted, occasionally beautiful, and undeniably important work for our time.
—James M. Wilson
The Selected Levis
Edited by David St. John
University of Pittsburgh Press, $22.50 (cloth)
"It is not an exaggeration to say that the death of Larry Levis in 1996 … sent a shock wave through the ranks of American poetry," writes David St. John in the afterword to The Selected Levis, and after reading the book, it is easy to see why. Levis's poems reek with fragrance, like the fruits and crops harvested on his parents' farm in the central San Joaquin Valley. Few of Levis's generation of American poets wrote with such a passion for humanity, and this volume exposes him as a late twentieth-century, West Coast Whitman, a man who walked among the downtrodden (migrant farmers, alcoholics, prostitutes) in search of beauty and a national identity. Take, for example, this excerpt, from a sequence titled "The Perfection of Solitude": "What does it mean, American? // It means, mostly, to go unnoticed, to watch the streets filling with crowds, & then / To step into the crowd, to be suddenly, to type behind a desk all day where no one / Sees you. To conceal all that you are." It is unfortunate that this final volume omits selections from Elegy, which was published posthumously and exhibited Levis at the height of his poetic power. Still, St. John's choices inThe Selected Levis will benefit us as a precursor to the remarkable poetry that Levis composed before the tragic end of his life. Undoubtedly, they will also establish Levis as a poet who deserves much more of our respect and critical attention.
The Wind Dog
Faber & Faber, $13 (paper)
Conversational yet charged with political and cultural tensions, Paulin's The Wind Dog embraces the traditions of Irish poetry. His easeful play with the disjunction between spoken Irish-English and accepted orthography reminds one of a lazy Joyce (who makes several appearances), as his desire to find public and private meaning in dialect and slang brings the Heaney of Wintering Out to mind. Such unblinking, playful attention to language offers some wonderful moments, but too often slips into some sort of confessional poetic of grammarians: "the dangerous main road / at the bottom of Wensley Drive / in Leeds Yorkshire / in Leeds Yorkshire / which is a change of sound accent place / so let me trawl and list / a couple or three sounds in my archive." Obsessive denotations of the variations of local accents so pervade the book that Paulin—born in Leeds, raised in Belfast, and now teaching at Oxford—seems to have but one observation to offer. The manic, short lines and frequent nonsense repetitions do little to offset this impression; Paulin sometimes seems lost in a childish treasury of words: "tick tick tick / a cold tickle / not Rikki-tikki / no not quite." Nonetheless, The Wind Dog musters many powerful passages and a handful of excellent poems. A smart and prolific writer, Paulin addresses the violence of life in the North and the struggles of faith with frequent genius—so much so that one might nearly forget the occasional trivialities: "so this single word / is a kind of tunnel / away from a wider / daylight theme / —away from the sun / its great Now of light / and into blind night / into messy or trivial things."
—James M. Wilson