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

Sunday, July 27, 2008

John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter

When commenting about apparent influences on poetry determined by perceptions and perspectives represented in paintings, or when remarking upon the various relationships between contemporary poets and their fellow visual artists, I have rarely observed as initially unlikely a pairing as that of John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter.

At first glance, the approaches to their work shown by each of these men appear contrary to one another. Porter’s nearly classical composition for poses in portraits and clearly realist depiction of figures or settings emphasize accuracy of details and a dedication to re-creation of an incident with a great degree of clarity as though hoping to preserve the fresh expression felt at the moment an instance is stilled, as well as wishing to render a frank evaluation of its rich atmosphere. On the other hand, in an Ashbery poem, according to Porter’s own assessment, “language is opaque; you cannot see through it any more than you can look through a fresco.”

Although one sometimes wants to associate Fairfield Porter’s paintings with those of his more famous countryman, Edward Hopper, possibly an early influence—and a case could easily be made for connecting the two through some similarities in their styles or subject matter, particularly in their use of concentrated light when presenting landscapes, buildings, and domestic interiors—the sense of loneliness or the presence of an ominous overall effect often created by Hopper appears absent in Porter’s paintings.

Fairfield Porter’s frequent employment of a vivid mix of colors and subtly softer surfaces or rounded shapes most likely suggest a more relaxed atmosphere than the hint of a less pleasant tone usually witnessed in a Hopper treatment of his outdoor scenery and the isolated or melancholy mood detected in individuals populating Hopper’s rooms commonly pictured with sharp slices of light opposed by angular areas of shade. In Porter’s portraits, as in this accompanying painting of John Ashbery, individuals are more softly illuminated, a less intense contrast between light and dark offers viewers a subtler situation, and there are fewer indications of a threatening exterior world or of a fear about the uncertain future looming ahead.

One of the art critics who certainly appreciated Porter’s paintings, even during a time of distinct praise for abstraction in art, John Ashbery described (in his 1983 Newsweek review of a Fairfield Porter retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) the painter’s distinguishing characteristics, particularly those evident in the more mature offerings: “The works from the early 1950s are Impressionist in handling and subdued in color. These have an undeniable charm. But the drama of Porter’s achievement is the slow conquest of a looser, broader handling and the storms of joyous color that erupt in his late work, which still takes place within the comfortable confines of life as he saw it around him daily.”

Oddly, some of Fairfield Porter’s developments as an artist and much of the wider discovery of his work apparently are owed to his longtime friendship with Willem de Kooning, the Abstract Expressionist who, despite their very dissimilar styles, first championed Porter and who introduced Porter’s work to a number of crucial connections in the contemporary art scene of New York. Nevertheless, Porter often was considered an outsider to the art establishment as well as unaffiliated with any specific school of the time or fashionable style of the day. He was regarded by the New York Times as “a realist in an age of abstract art.” In fact, Porter and his brother, a photographer, were acquaintances of Alfred Stieglitz, and the influence of photography’s ability to capture an event in the manner it actually occurs also seems as much an influence in Porter’s paintings.

In a brief piece John Ashbery contributed to Art in America in January of 1976, a few months after Porter’s sudden death from a heart attack during a morning walk, Ashbery described the artist as one who “was both contiguous to the art scene and a little apart from it, but never in the sense of shunning it: his friendships as well as his admirations in painting were selective and idiosyncratic.” Further on, the article defined what Ashbery perceived as “the lesson of his painting,” and one must wonder, despite this pair’s differences in delivering images, how closely the poet’s own approach to writing was reflected in his statement about the painter: “ . . . there are no rules for anything, no ideas in art, just objects and materials that combine, like people, in somewhat mysterious ways (in his book on Eakins he quotes the latter as saying that the painter ‘combines, never creates’); that we are left with our spontaneity and that life itself is a series of improvisations during the course of which it is possible to improve oneself but never to the point where one doesn’t have to improvise. In a time when art has become pathetically dependent on dictums, dogmas and manifestos, he was a fierce defender of his right not to entertain them.”

When I recall a couple of my previous posts about Ashbery’s relationship to art or artists, particularly my commentary on “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and my note on Ashbery’s use of a title from one of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings for his book The Double Dream of Spring, the poet’s link to Fairfield Porter appears more understandable. Indeed, in his book, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, David Lehman explains the seeming contradiction in John Ashbery’s enthusiasm for the artwork of Fairfield Porter: “It is a paradox in keeping with Ashbery’s art of iconic paradox that he should conceive himself to be more in tune with representational painters—from the mannerist Parmigianino to the Surrealist de Chirico to the luminous Fairfield Porter—than with the Abstract Expressionists who seemed to furnish more immediate precedent for his labors.”

Furthermore, Lehman reminds readers that decades earlier Fairfield Porter, who had a fascination with poetry—his wife was a poet and he also wrote poems—and maintained friendships with members of the New York School of poets, including an intimate relationship with James Schuyler (who lived for extended periods of time in the Porter home), had come to the defense of Ashbery when his first collection of poems, Some Trees, received a negative review. Porter wrote a spirited rebuttal, declaring Ashbery’s poetry represented a “new kind of music,” and his “verbal phrases are to me ideas in the way that musical phrases may be so considered.” Porter formalized his thoughts on the connections between art and the writing of poetry by Ashbery, as well as other individuals among the New York School of poets, in a revealing article of critical commentary, appropriately titled “Poets and Painters in Collaboration.”

One of the artworks Ashbery identified as exemplary in his Newsweek review of the Fairfield Porter retrospective was the 1969 painting, Interior with a Dress Pattern (pictured above). Ashbery praised the painting as “a technical tour de force that has few parallels in his oeuvre. Here Porter seems to be looking over his shoulder at the pyrotechnics of Velásquez’s Meninas and the complex spaces of de Hooch’s Dutch interiors. Yet life goes on as usual in the big living room of the house on Great Spruce Head—one daughter is emerging from the kitchen while another tends the fireplace; assorted chairs join in games of perspective that no one would ever have noticed if the painter hadn’t been there. The dress pattern of the title is the last thing you see, spread out on a table, a fragile, fluttering reminder of work.”

Porter once related a memory of his first encounter with Ashbery’s poetry and his initial evaluation of its impact: “Before I met John Ashbery, I saw his poem, ‘Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,’ which appeared in Partisan Review in about 1949. I couldn’t have given a paraphrase of it; I couldn’t have extracted an essence to substitute for it, but when I read it I thought that here was a new and absolutely first-rate poet.”


He was spoilt from childhood
by the future, which he mastered
rather early and apparently

without great difficulty.

—Boris Pasternak


Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas. “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

“He clap’d me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered. But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence.”

In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.


So far is goodness a mere memory
Or naming of recent scenes of badness
That even these lives, children,
You may pass through to be blessed,
So fair does each invent his virtue.

And coming from a white world, music
Will sparkle at the lips of many who are
Beloved. Then these, as dirty handmaidens
To some transparent witch, will dream
Of a white hero’s subtle wooing,
And time shall force a gift on each.

That beggar to whom you gave no cent
Striped the night with his strange descant.


Yet I cannot escape the picture
Of my small self in that bank of flowers:
My head among the blazing phlox
Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus.
I had a hard stare, accepting

Everything, taking nothing,
As though the rolled-up future might stink
As loud as stood the sick moment
The shutter clicked. Though I was wrong,
Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. For as change is horror,
Virtue is really stubbornness

And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.

—John Ashbery

For his part, in wording that perhaps could be viewed as an apt complement or suitable companion quotation to Porter’s comments of praise embracing his poetry, Ashbery delivered a complimentary and now well-known evaluation of Fairfield Porter as an exceptional painter in the final sentence of his 1983 Newsweek review, during which he declared “Porter as perhaps the major American artist of this century.”

Finally, as July 28 marks John Ashbery’s birthday, born in 1927, I invite readers to revisit my comments written about the poet last year on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Also, for those interested, an amazing collection containing nearly 10,000 images in the digitized archives of Fairfield Porter’s papers, correspondence, photos, and art sketches is available online at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.