Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jasper Johns: Painting, Poetry, and a Sense of Life

This week’s news about the death of Robert Rauschenberg, so closely associated personally and professionally with Jasper Johns, and my noting that today is Johns’s birthday (born May 15, 1930), brought to mind some miscellaneous memories and assorted thoughts about art and poetry.

I frequently have written about my interest in art, particularly in its relationship to literature. In a number of essays I have commented on the connections between painting and poetry, how even Ernest Hemingway once remarked that at times a writer could obtain information about perception and scenery by observing an oil on canvas in ways one might not gain when reading another author’s prose: “I learn as much from painters how to write as from writers.” In addition, I have enthusiastically reviewed collections of ekphrastic poetry and individual pieces in poetry volumes that have been inspired by visual artworks. Moreover, I always recommend my creative writing students investigate in their journals or poems those experiences they have when visiting an art museum or local gallery. My own ekphrastic poems have served as enjoyable opportunities to describe and explore subject matter by borrowing images and imagined perspectives adopted from artists as personae.

My curiosity about art, especially modern and contemporary works, and its relationship to writing or writers initiated when I was still a creative writing student in classes taught by two poets, Mark Strand and John Ashbery, whose varied views on an integration of art with poetry or prose influenced and encouraged me. Elsewhere, I have chronicled John Ashbery’s well-known reputation as a critic and commentator on art, whether when working as a journalist in Paris for the Herald Tribune or as an editor at Art News in New York. In addition, Ashbery’s most famous poem continues to be his meditation involving the artist Parmigianino in the title work from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, that award-winning collection released at a time when I was a student in Ashbery’s class. Likewise, I also have reported on Mark Strand’s beginnings as an art student, his enrollment at Yale to study with Josef Albers and earn a BFA, and the evidence of his continuing interest in art, whether as one who has produced artwork (as for his book covers) or who has published engaging essays and books about favorite artists, such as Edward Hopper and William Bailey.

Although I had always lived in New York City and visited the various art museums often, even as a young boy from Flatbush who would slip away from Prospect Park and walk through the Brooklyn Museum on rainy days, my true introduction to compelling contemporary art occurred when I attended the extensive “Jasper Johns Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum in the end of 1977. I recall especially being taken by the way familiar icons and certain other objects were rendered across a canvas and assembled within a collage or constructed as a sculpture. As others had done, Johns appeared to be depicting everyday images—such as bull’s-eye targets or American flags—in a context that forced observers to regard them in a fresh manner; however, his ability to present physical items in an abstract fashion seemed to me an admirable adventure in perception, especially when the work focused upon individual symbols extracted from any context, like letters of the alphabet or numbers. Those were forms I normally identified with printed material and considered abstractions in themselves, figures that only conveyed messages about the concrete world around us when linked with additional letters and numbers.

At the same time, I realized that by often placing his figures on a flat and solid field in different tints or even bleached of color, as he would do with the flag, Jasper Johns was stripping away many of the characteristics commonly associated with these representations, encouraging exhibition visitors to imagine inventive and innovative contexts or to reconsider traditional connotations the symbols sometimes carried for viewers. Similarly, when numbers or letters were isolated from a narrative context, they became more pliable in such a presentation, and interpretations of their significance could vary for each individual, adding intriguing layers of ambiguity or multiple possibilities of understanding.

The novelty of using widely known and seemingly simple images to invite imaginative interpretation or to communicate with unexpected complexity appealed to my idea of what I like about certain works of literature, especially poetry. On that early winter afternoon in 1977 as I strolled though the rooms of the Whitney Museum, the notion that art and poetry were uniquely related became more convincing. Those odd and almost unassuming paintings of Jasper Johns with their modest subjects set in a nearly self-effacing display persuaded me of the sometimes intertwined nature of the tangible and the abstract, the physical and the intellectual. I concluded the same could be said for the more powerful lyric poems I had read: mere images portrayed by linear black markings on a page related both a physical narrative and an allusion to the abstract; clearly comprehensible descriptions of concrete scenes evoked more complicated concepts for readers to consider.

Certainly, such concerns about the relationship between representation and abstraction or the ability of imagery to evoke emotion were not new, nor had they been left uninvestigated by me in my previous studies of literature. Nevertheless, like a key piece of impressive evidence revealed in a court case along with an extensive narrative and methodical summary to cement a jury’s verdict, the imagery in that Jasper Johns exhibit was convincing. At that moment, the depictions of targets, flags, and other objects were persuasive, and surprisingly they sealed the deal for me about how poetic language equally can create images filled with ambiguity and allusion that are just as suggestive for readers.

Of course, I also was aware of the existing links between Jasper Johns and literary figures like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. The social circles for artists and writers overlapped significantly in New York City, and Frank O’Hara’s position as both poet and art critic, as well as serving as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, provided a bridge between the two. In fact, O’Hara had been a good friend of Ashbery when they were both students at Harvard, and the two became central figures in the New York School of poetry.

Additionally, as David Lehman indicates in his fine account of the era, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, O’Hara, Ashbery, and the other poets in their group seemed more in tune with Jasper Johns: “In place of the high seriousness that engulfed the Abstract Expressionists, they opted for aesthetic pleasure. They were ironists, not ecclesiasts. They favored wit, humor, and the advanced irony of the blague (that is, the insolent jest or prank) in ways more suggestive of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg than of the New York School painters after whom they were named.” Similarly, in the introduction to her 1997 edition of Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters, Marjorie Perloff has concluded: “O’Hara's aesthetic is closer to the conceptualism of the John Cage-Merce Cunningham-Jasper Johns-Robert Rauschenberg circle of the fifties and sixties (a circle of gay, if notably closeted and discreet, artists) than to the openly emotive and expressive gestures of Action Painting or Black Mountain or Beat aesthetic.”

Indeed, in a review of a Jasper Johns exhibit that John Ashbery wrote for The New Republic in 1968, “Working Toward the New,” the poet contributed complimentary comments, and the words seemed to hint at a kinship between the two. Ashbery described Johns’s pieces as works that attract attention, but also cause quizzical responses: “One may puzzle over his pictures, but one does not escape them.”

Furthermore, when David Bergman wrote an introduction to Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, John Ashbery’s collection of reviews and essays about art, he offered an opinion that Ashbery may have identified with the approach Johns took toward his work and any acceptance by audiences. Both take “delight in throwing off their admirers.” Bergman continued: “Ashbery is at pains to show how one can admire Johns without claiming to have assimilated him, that appreciation need not be consumption. But Johns and Ashbery are linked in another way. Ashbery asserts that he is ‘one of the few people’ who have ‘shared . . . enthusiasm’ for Johns’s latest work. The critic like the artist must go it alone, following a private aesthetic journey.”

Frank O’Hara met Jasper Johns in 1957, and he dedicated a handful of his poems to Johns. When O’Hara was first asked about Jasper Johns’s paintings, he recommended to the director of the Museum of Modern Art that some of the works be purchased for their collection. In an interview with John Yau, Johns has indicated that he initially became interested in poetry in 1949 when he heard a radio recording of an Edith Sitwell reading, and his interest apparently grew when he encountered other poets in readings, including Frank O’Hara.

In New York during the 1950s and 1960s, poets and painters usually provided each other with an enthusiastic and encouraging audience. Jasper Johns produced various artworks referencing O’Hara and his poetry, including Skin with O’Hara Poem, 1963-65. One of the most direct connections between Johns and O’Hara can be witnessed in the above painting, In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara (1961), which is titled after an O’Hara poem. In 1967 Jasper Johns, along with a number of other artists who knew Frank O’Hara, contributed a similar illustration to the Museum of Modern Art’s book, also titled In Memory of My Feelings, that honored O’Hara after his untimely death, caused by an accident the previous year, and was edited by Bill Berkson.

Aa I was writing the reminiscences included here, I remembered how Frank O’Hara would draw readers into his poems by imitating the natural speech spoken when relating everyday events to a friend or recording one’s daily details in a journal entry. In “The Virtue of the Alterable,” Helen Vendler’s essay on O’Hara that stands as a chapter in Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, she describes the poet’s process: “O’Hara, in his fundamental prescinding from the metaphysical, believes neither in problems nor in solutions, nor even in the path from one to the other. He believes in colloquies, observations, memories, impressions, and variations—all things with no beginnings and no endings, things we tune in on and tune out of.” Nevertheless, in the end O’Hara’s best poems eventually appear compelling, even in their spontaneity, and their details seem essential, unavoidable, and indelible.

Looking back at my initial impressions of Jasper Johns’s work more than thirty years ago, I find in his paintings a parallel pattern to O’Hara’s poetic process. To me, then Johns’s art often appeared straightforward, perhaps at times even arbitrary, offering an illusion of simplicity to the viewer. Yet, each piece contains necessary elements allowing the possibility of one conjuring complex reactions that remain with the observer. As Jasper Johns has stated in his perception of art, which also could be a working definition of poetry for my creative writing students or an apt description of O'Hara's poems: “I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion . . . has to be, not a deliberate statement, but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.”

1 comment:

kerribuckley said...

As a poet and former art history major, I find this essay to be liberating. I've read it several time, and each time I glean more from it. Thank you.