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

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Ashbery, Pierre Martory, and Jackson Pollock

When the finalists for poetry in this year’s National Book Critics’ Circle Award were announced the other day, The Landscapist, a volume of selected poems by Pierre Martory, seemed an especially curious and interesting choice. Published by Sheep Meadow Press, the dual-language collection includes translations and an introduction by John Ashbery. As the press information from the publisher explains, Martory—born in France in 1920—first met John Ashbery in Paris in 1956, where Ashbery had gone as part of his travels under a Fulbright fellowship, and the two lived together for most of the following ten years while Martory wrote for Le Monde and Ashbery, by his own admission, luckily found work as an overseas critic for Art News and European art editor for the New York Herald-Tribune.

Just before leaving for Europe, Ashbery’s first book of poems, Some Trees, had been selected for the Yale Younger Poets Award by W.H. Auden, who had influenced much of Ashbery’s early poems and about whom Ashbery had written his senior thesis at Harvard. Although that initial collection appeared fresh and even somewhat avant-garde to some, Ashbery adventured further into the territory of experimental poetry while in France, where he composed The Tennis Court Oath, a 1962 collection the poet dedicated to Pierre Martory. In an interview with Roseanne Wasserman that appeared in American Poetry Review in late 1993, Martory recalled the circumstances when he and Ashbery were together in Paris: “He was spending days and days writing, writing, writing. I heard him on the typewriter in the other room and I admired his determination to write and write and write.”

Martory already had published a novel and completed others, but apparently he also was turning toward creation of poetry more and more. In 1990, Ashbery first brought Pierre Martory’s poetry to the attention of many American readers through his translation of The Landscape Is Behind the Door, Martory’s premiere full-length volume of poems. Ashbery explains in his remarks about the poems of Pierre Martory, who died in 1998, he found a distinct affinity with Martory’s poetry and suspected a hint of mutual stylistic influence that may have existed between the two poets:

After I began translating Pierre Martory, that is, after I began to realize that his marvelous poetry would likely remain unknown unless I translated it and brought it to the attention of American readers, I have begun to find echoes of his work in mine. His dreams, his pessimistic résumés of childhood that are suddenly lanced by a joke, his surreal loves, his strangely lit landscapes with their inquisitive birds and disquieting flora, have been fertile influences for me, though I hope I haven’t stolen anything—well, better to steal than borrow, as Eliot more or less said.

As Adam Thorpe suggests in a recent Guardian review of The Landscapist, what that collection “certainly establishes is the importance to Ashbery's career of his nine-year stay in Paris in the 1950s, when he lived with Martory and discovered the richness of modern French poetry.” At the time, Ashbery also became fond of the writings by the early-twentieth-century French author Raymond Roussel, whose emphasis on the invented over the real Ashbery embraced. In his excellent collection of essays on contemporary poetry published in 1969, Alone with America, Richard Howard observed about The Tennis Court Oath: “The compositional techniques of Roussel and of his own understanding of vanguard art brought Ashbery, in this new collection—an extremely long and various one, by the way—to a pitch of distraction, of literal eccentricity, that leaves any consecutive or linear reading of his poems out of the question.” Ashbery’s poetry also reflected his growing interest in music, mostly classical, but also more contemporary composers like John Cage, whose pieces led the poet toward greater acceptance of chance as an element in art.

However, readers familiar with John Ashbery’s poetry developed during his stay in France also will recognize a significant influence of writing art criticism and his awareness of the composition process in the new schools of painting at the time, especially as one who earlier in his life had desired to be a painter. Indeed, the young Ashbery’s ambition to be an artist seems a contributing factor inspiring “The Painter,” a sestina he had written as a student influenced by Elizabeth Bishop, and he included the poem in Some Trees. In his excellent examination of the New York School of poets, The Last Avant-Garde, David Lehman regards this poem as a “kind of prescient parable about Ashbery’s own career”:


Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.

So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”

How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

In a 1962 article about the artist R.B. Kitaj, published in Art in America, John Ashbery wrote how poetry’s “stock of idea-images is endless, yet they are visible only to the mind’s eye.” He envied the painter or sculptor whose images had “weight and inevitability.” Ashbery considered: “How wonderful it would be if a painter could unite the inexhaustibility of poetry with the concreteness of painting.”

After Ashbery returned to the United States in the mid-1960s, he continued to write criticism as an executive editor for Art News, a position he held until 1972, when he began an academic career as a professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College. An insightful Art News article, “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” published more than four decades ago in 1968, not long after his return to the United States and a dozen years after Jackson Pollock’s death, provided Ashbery an opportunity to look back at his beginnings as a poet in the forties and fifties:

Things were very different twenty years ago when I was a student and was beginning to experiment with poetry. At that time it was the art and literature of the Establishment that were traditional. There was in fact almost no experimental poetry being written in this country, unless you counted the rather pale attempts of a handful of poets who were trying to imitate some of the effects of the French Surrealists. The situation was a little different in the other arts. Painters like Jackson Pollock had not yet been discovered by the mass magazines—this was to come a little later, though in fact Life did in 1949 print an article on Pollock, showing some of his large drip paintings and satirically asking whether he was the greatest living painter in America. This was still a long way from the decorous enthusiasm with which Time and Life today greet every new kink. But the situation was a bit better for the painters then, since there were a lot of them doing very important work and this fact was known to themselves and a few critics. Poetry could boast no such luck . . . .

At that time I felt the avant-garde very exciting, just as the young do today, but the difference was that in 1950 there was no sure proof of the existence of the avant-garde. To experiment was to have the feeling that one was poised on some outermost brink. In other words if one wanted to depart, even moderately, from the norm, one was taking one’s life—one’s life as an artist—into one’s hands.

A painter like Pollock for instance was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn’t, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter. It must often have occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn’t an artist at all, that he had spent his life “toiling up the wrong road to art” as Flaubert said of Zola. But this very real possibility is paradoxically just what makes the tremendous excitement in his work. It is a gamble against terrible odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?

The doubt element in Pollock—and I am using him as a convenient symbol for the avant-garde artist of the previous school—is what keeps his work alive for us. Even though he has been accepted now by practically everybody from Life on down, or on up, his work remains unresolved. It has not congealed into masterpieces. In spite of public acceptance the doubt is there—maybe the acceptance is there because of the doubt, the vulnerability which makes it possible to love the work.

Although “The Invisible Avant-Garde” originally was delivered as a speech at the Yale Art School in the spring of 1968, part of a series organized by painter Jack Tworkov, Ashbery’s analysis of Jackson Pollock’s situation and the painter’s approach to his art frequently seem to mirror the poet’s own path. Certainly, Pollock’s famous methods of paint application emphasized the artist’s process to viewers almost as much as the finished product on the canvas, just as Ashbery’s lines of poetry engage the reader with the poet’s meditations and revelations of his thought process.

Indeed, even the poet’s suggestions of Pollock’s possible state of mind, including any doubts, appear as though they may be projections of Ashbery’s thoughts about poetry and his personal work, as well as his relation to readers or reviewers, some of whom may harbor their own doubts. Like Jackson Pollock, John Ashbery has won over most critics since his days as a symbol of the avant-garde, and the poet has been accepted by the audience for poetry among academics to the point that Ashbery now may even represent to many an august figure of the literary establishment, enough so that today he easily can serve for readers as a trusted guide to others’ poetry, such as the work of Pierre Martory in The Landscapist.

Nevertheless, despite the multitude of awards and honors John Ashbery has received over the decades, puzzlement or uncertainty still characterizes the reactions of many contemporary readers, paralleling responses by viewers to Jackson Pollock’s paintings, unveiling a “vulnerability” that yet adds to the mystery and the continuing curiosity about the poet’s work.

[Visitors are encouraged to examine other articles at “One Poet's Notes” concerning John Ashbery or Jackson Pollock: “John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter,” “John Ashbery: 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,'” “Poet of the Year: John Ashbery,” “John Ashbery: 'My Philosophy of Life,'” “Poetry, Painting, and Economy: Rothko, Warhol, and Ashbery,” and “Frank O’Hara and Jackson Pollock.”]


Mars Will Send No More said...

Poems about poetry (or the poet) are the worst - but this poem about painting speaks volumes! It's a great image, like a short story, and very appropriate for Uncle Jack's bday.

Jackson did indeed find the means of letting nature sieze his canvas. As he said, I AM nature. In bypassing theory and simply following his natural impulses when faced with a brush and canvas, he did not express the ocean but expressed that inner nature that he had in common with the ocean.

Great column.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Thanks very much for the article. One of the fun things about reading blogs like yours is that I realize how much more of the world I have yet to discover. That's a fun feeling to have.

Jason Crane


Anonymous said...

EB -- We are closing in on the 100th anniversary of the modern painting exhibition in London when Virginia Woolf declared, "on or about December 1910 human character changed." The avant-garde has been on the ascendant or in the saddle since then. I very much doubt there remain any substantial uncertainties for current poets or painters in the modern mode, however much they or their critics may indulge the sentiment.

I heard Ashbery at Harvard in the eighties as a graying eminence. He read his poems in a dignified, colorless fashion with no elaboration and was received with a corresponding, dignified applause. I could discern no uncertainty on his part or his audience that his poems were anything less than worthy at the highest level.

I love many of his Ashbery's poems. I'm not here to knock him. And when he set forth on his voyage in the early sixties, I know that was a big risk for a young American poet, but it hasn't been edgy for two or three decades now. In fact these days I consider Ashbery's style one of the safest strategies available, and I see it duplicated, albeit in a diluted form, repeatedly by MFA poets capable of swinging publication of their first book.

John Guzlowski said...

Terrific essay, Edward.

What I find most interesting about the selection of The Landscapist is the absence of that kind of writing among young poets. From what I read, they've had enough of those uncertainties Huxley above mentions.

Modernism -- and I could be deluding myself -- may have said what it had to say and then fallen asleep.

Anonymous said...

Edward thanks for calling attention to this fascinating article. I love that Ashbery basically used the place of Pollock as a stand in, consciously or not, for himself and his own position. Furthermore the idea that perhaps it is the impenetrability of work from artists like pollock and ashbery, that, like religion, accelerates and maintains our fascination. If we knew Ashbery was a genius would we still approach his work with the same wonderment and befuddlement as we do now?