Every so often, an Ashbery poem lands like a revelation. “Sleeping in the Corners of Our Lives,” from As We Know, is one such poem. Here it is:

So the days went by and the nickname caught on.

It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious.
Afternoon leaves blew against the stale brick
Surface. Just an old castle. Enjoy it
While you’re here. And in looking for a more convenient way
To save one’s soul, one is led up to it like a season,
And in looking all around, and about, its tome
Becomes legible in the interstices. A great biography
That is also a good autobiography, at the station;
A honeycomb of pages with listings
Of the tried and true, that radiates
Out into what is there, that averages up as wind,
And settles back into a tepid, modest
Chamber with its mouse-gray furniture, its redundant pictures.

This is tall sleeping
To prepare you for the soup and the ruins
In giving the very special songs of the first meaning,
The ones incorporating the changes.

It is a poem about biography and autobiography, the sense we make of our lives. It is dominated by a contradiction and a pun. The contradiction is that the unnamed “you” of the poem is simultaneously sleeping (“This is tall sleeping”) and quite actively visiting a castle and reading. The pun is that the leaves blowing against the “stale brick / Surface” become the “leaves” of a “tome”—the tome that is one’s (auto)biography.

In the first line, I read “nickname” as referring to the addressee’s name—the suggestion is that it is not their true name, that there is no essential connection between the name and the person. “It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious”—after all, it’s just a name. We all have one. And yet it matters to us. Ashbery’s trademark grammatical shiftiness plays a key role here: the name becomes the old castle, and the old castle becomes the addressee’s soul, to be both enjoyed and saved. The name is somehow extrinsic, a mere “nickname”, yet also the addressee’s deepest reality. There is truth there.

There is something defeated about the end of the second stanza, where the biography becomes wind that “settles back into a tepid, modest / Chamber” with drab furniture and “redundant” decoration. But the poem undergoes a crucial shift in tone in the last stanza. It is the last two lines that make the revelation: “the very special songs of the first meaning, / The ones incorporating the changes.” It is that last word, “changes”, that gets me. Go back and re-read the rest of the poem in light of it. It is a sequence of dazzling changes, name–>castle–>soul–>leaves–>pages–>wind–>residence. But where the biography may be drab, there is life in the songs that incorporate the changes—Ashbery’s poem being one of those songs.

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Here are some remarks on some of my January reading.

Anne Carson. I received, as a holiday gift, Anne Carson’s Nox. I’ve previous read Plainwater (which I don’t remember well) and Autobiography of Red (which I loved). Nox is a different beast than either, a replica of a memorial volume Carson made for her brother upon his death. Two storylines are interwoven here: first, the story of Carson’s enigmatic brother, who disappeared to Europe at a fairly young age and, second, the “story” of Carson’s attempt to translate Catullus’ poem for his dead brother. Strange and moving resonances emerge from this. For the translation, Carson presented the Latin, then a series (spread throughout the book) of guides to translating each individual word, then, at last, her translation. The translator’s task was thus presented as one of selection, of taming the myriad possibilities the words offered into a single coherent English poem. In contrast, Carson attempted to portray a full portrait of her brother using only sporadic and oddly distributed information—nearly the opposite task. It is a wonderful, beautiful book.

Peter Reading. I read the first (of three) volumes of Peter Reading’s collected poems, published by Bloodaxe. As I explained in a recent post, I did not care for the book. Happily, however, I read it as part of a local poetry reading group, and I came away from our discussion with a bit more sympathy for Reading’s project. Not that I like it, but I was able to see more compassion in his work than I had previously, and less jadedness. To be sure, jaded inhumanity dominates the book, but I did come to see efforts of a struggle against it, on Reading’s part, and an element of admiration for those who don’t succumb to it.

Kurtis Hagen. Hagen is a philosopher, not a poet, and I had the pleasure of reading his excellent study of Xunzi’s philosophy, straightforwardly titled The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction. Hagen argues for a constructionist reading of Xunzi, according to which Xunzi does not see the Way as a fixed inheritance from the ancient sage kings, but inheritance it is our job to actively re-fashion to fit the world as we find it. On this reading, Xunzi fully digested Zhuangzi’s skeptical and relativistic insights about the nature of language and value, but saw how they could be used to promote Confucian ends. Hagen not only makes a compelling case for his interpretation of Xunzi, he makes Xunzi’s philosophy itself compelling. (A friend and I wrote about Xunzi and the logical empiricists here, largely basing our interpretation of Xunzi on Hagen’s work.)

C.L.R. James. On the recommendation of a friend, I read James’ The Black Jacobins, a magnificent history of the slave revolt in Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beyond being a riveting (if often horrific) story, James is concerned to support a few general points. First, he offers a reading of history according to which structural (especially economic) forces dominate, but in which there is limited room for individual agents to shape the course of history at key points. Second, he suggests that racial prejudice is fairly superficial. What really matters are economic interests: if the interests of two races align, racial prejudices can be forgotten rather quickly. It is an interesting thesis, of obvious importance today in thinking about the proper role for identity politics. James makes a compelling case in this instance; whether the more general thesis is right, I do not know.

In addition to the above, all of which I’ve completed, I’m also in the middle of a few other books, about which I hope to have more to say later. After Peter Reading, the local reading group is doing Jack Gilbert’s collected poems. So far, I love his work. I’ve also picked up John Ashbery again, picking up where I left off with As We Know. Lastly, I’ve begun Tsong Khapa’s massive Ocean of Reasoning, a thorough commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakārikā. It is scholastic as hell, expanding Nāgārjuna’s taut verses into extended, labored arguments. None of this is a criticism—the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is a fascinating (and I would say eminently plausible) metaphysical view, and it deserves this sort of thorough treatment.

I do not like Peter Reading’s poetry. I do not like its relentless, empty cynicism, which treats all enthusiasm as stupidity. I recognize his talent, but I see no value in the uses to which he has put it.

I have been making my way through the first volume of his Collected Poems (Bloodaxe), and have read the first three collections therein: For the Municipality’s Elderly, The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery, and Nothing for Anyone. I intend to finish the volume; perhaps I will find work more to my liking in what follows. But I am not encouraged.

A blurb on the back of the book promises that Reading’s poetry is animated by “his contempt for cant, ‘wrong-headed duff gen’ and poetry that refuses to face up to grim realities.” I have found this. It also promises a “complex, self-accusing sense of compassion and impotence.” I have found the self-accusation and the impotence. I have not found the compassion. Therein lies my fundamental distaste for the work.

Reading is very much anti-cant. Much of the work involves the humorous (humor is attempted, at any rate) takedown of absurdities. “The Con Men”, for instance, goes after the cant of preservationism:

It isn’t that we care about the Hippo,
but that we want our children’s children’s children
to see it for their entertainment.

……………………………..…………………It’s
our children’s children’s children precisely who
make the extinction of the Hippo (and
themselves) inevitable. (p. 132)

And there is much else in the same vein. In itself, it’s not a problem: cant is cant, and ripe for takedown. The trouble is that Reading appears to detect cant wherever people show any enthusiasm for anything whatever. That is what I mean when I decry his cynicism. As someone prone to that sort of mockery of enthusiasm, and who must guard against it in myself, I don’t find much pleasure in reading the work of a poet who appears to treasure it. Of course, this makes my distaste quite personal—but that is as it should be.

The exceptions to his cynicism are informative. In “Address Protector”, for instance, Reading makes his contribution to the grand poetic tradition of praising drink:

I know (no names/no pack-drill) of a drunk
who seeks unconsciousness because he can’t
stomach his fellow-men: but when he drinks
he strikes up new acquaintanceships – which means
more twerps to seek escape from the next night…

[…]

Aloofness is not that easily achieved.
Colt’s the only foolproof way yet known. […] (p. 123)

It isn’t unreserved praise, but it is praise. Drink is worth seeking: it is one route to aloofness, to the avoidance of other people, who are of course full of cant. The one enthusiasm he can stomach is the one that protects him from people and their enthusiasms.

There is a larger background picture animating Reading’s cynicism: the view that we exist in a large, impassive universe, that we are not special, and that, given the forgoing, our actions and enthusiasms are basically arbitrary. (I largely agree with this view, as it happens. I dislike the uses to which Reading puts it.) This is given its most direct expression in “CUT COSTLY RESEARCH!”:

CUT COSTLY RESEARCH!

Is aerosoled on
the Chemistry Wing.
VIVA RESEARCHERS!
say I. Long may my
heroes pay homage
to what ennobles
sapiens man – the
great non-mystery
of what is conceived
by puny us to
be mysterious. (p. 125)

Reading likes the word ‘puny’: its appearance in this poem is a reappearance. Its first use in Nothing for Anyone reveals a great deal:

Hymn

We’re crusted enough to know
we can’t immortalize this,
but gooey enough to want to
try to honour a morning
as honeyed as England ever
gifted a couple of spooners with.

So let’s hymn this: that at 8
on a summer morning the dew,
licked from the roses we nuzzle
nose to nose in the garden
of lichened Pipe Aston Church,
is luscious as Gewürztraminer.

And if anyone wants to see
they can in the Visitors’ Book
our puny dignified gesture
(the most we can do, Little Mortal,)
that today we are here. 17th
of June 1975. (p. 105)

 Two things are worthy of note here. First, the opening lines contrast the “crusted” realization of our puniness within the universe with the “gooey” way in which we still have enthusiasms, despite the pointlessness of it all. Knowledge is crusted, passion is gooey. That is Reading in a nutshell. There is no escape from these poles, each ugly in its own way.

But a positive picture does emerge: we can make puny, dignified gestures, which do not exactly immortalize us but which do… something. Satisfy our gooeyness I suppose. Reading here is taking his stand on poetry’s greatest cant: the search for immortality. “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, &c. Reading is at his gooiest when contemplating people whose lives have not been futilely monumentalized. This occurs especially in For the Municipality’s Elderly. Here is a clear statement, from “Brabyns Park”:

The only permanence is, I suppose,
in having been – and whether known or not
to others, hardly enters into it. (p. 30)

Here is a thought. Permanence in having been. Reading hints at a view that sees self-sufficiency in having existed: having one’s existence be known, especially after one’s death, doesn’t enter into it. But just how gooey is Reading here, really? I don’t find that he especially develops the positive side of this picture, the one that points toward a view of how to live in the world as he portrays it. (If he does, it’s to praise the search for aloofness, which hardly counts.) Instead, it really does seem primarily aimed at distinguishing him, as a poet, from those other poets who sought immortality. His apparent praise is not really praise. It is criticism only very slightly veiled. One might call it: cant.

I return in this young year to my long project of familiarizing myself with the American poetic tradition. Richard Henry Wilde is next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry.

The first poem of his included is “The Lament of the Captive,” a poem in three stanzas. The first goes like this:

My life is like the summer rose
That opens to the morning sky,
And, ere the shades of evening close,
Is scattered on the ground to die:
Yet on that rose’s humble bed
The softest dews of night are shed;
As if she wept such waste to see—
But none shall drop a tear for me!

In the final analysis it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s less tortured than much of the work in this volume so far: it’s easy in its rhythm and natural in its rhymes. It flows smoothly within its formal constraints, rather than calling attention to them. And turning the nightly dew into tears is a nice touch. The subsequent two stanzas are much the same, with different images, each culminating in an image of nature lamenting (“The wind bewail the leafless tree” / “On that lone shore loud moans the sea”). As printed on the page, the poem’s failure to develop is a blemish, though as a song (it was set to music) it is more forgivable.

Taken by itself, then, I think it’s one of the better selections in the volume thus far, though still such as to justify Emerson’s sense that the United States still lacked its national literature. But the appeal of the piece fades when one realizes that Wilde was a slaveowner. True, he was writing about his brother, but it cheapens the feeling behind the piece to discover that it was so haphazardly applied.

The other selections from Wilde are the forgettable sonnet “To the Mocking-Bird” and selections from his unfinished long poem “Hesperia”. Interestingly, in both cases Wilde shows a fondness for within-line lists (if there’s a more technical term for this, I don’t know it):

Thou pour’st a soft, sweet, solemn, pensive strain… (“To the Mocking-Bird”)

Hill, dale, brook, forest, lake, or lawn supplies… (“Hesperia” 3.50)

Wood, water, rocks, turf, flowers, salute the eye… (“Hesperia” 3.101)

Victims of love, hope, anger, fear, remorse… (“Hesperia” 4.67)

Gigantic Sauri, lizards, bats, and fern… (“Hesperia” 4.86)

A fertile, verdant, woodless, boundless plain… (“Hesperia” 4.91)

All that can awe, delight, o’erpower, amaze… (“Hesperia” 4.104)

He’s not as good at it as John Donne, alas:

All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes… (Holy Sonnet VII)

In Wilde’s hands, it feels like a crutch.

It isn’t that Wilde isn’t capable of a nice line here or there, sometimes even a nice stanza (“Hesperia” is written in eight-line iambic pentameter stanzas with an ABABABCC rhyme scheme). The skeptic in me especially enjoys the stanza that begins with the line, given above, about the “Gigantic Sauri”—the stanza goes on to tell us how these fossils might teach us “How limited at last is human thought!” (I may like the sentiment more than the poetry, I admit.)

But, so far as I can tell from the selections provided, “Hesperia” is a sort of paean to the American landscape, turning breathlessly from beauty to beauty. But in doing so it doesn’t capture anything of what it is to be American, to live in this landscape. It is pure spectation. Most frustrating is that Wilde at times hints at a better version of his poem:

If the romantic land whose soil I tread
Could give back all its passions—first and last—… (“Hesperia” 4.74)

But this is left as a mere tantalizing hint. Nowhere in the given text does the land give back its passions. Wilde himself almost realizes this, when he laments his inability to tell certain stories, and wishes for an “Indian Dante” or Homer:

Stern Nature’s monument of savage pride,
[…]
Before that rock of famine well might quail,
Did but an Indian Dante tell its tale. (“Hesperia 4.92)

Assiniboin and Sioux both confessed
Such prize well worth the struggle to destroy
A kindred people; but no Homer kept
The memory of thy charms, and so they slept. (“Hesperia” 4.105)

All that Wilde is competent to give us, unfortunately, is “a scene to gaze on!”, as he writes in one stanza. And in another:

…Where fields of cane, with orange-groves between
Embosoming white villas, interlace,
Making a bright and happy sylvan scene,
Viewed by its very serfs with laughing face… (“Hesperia” 4.69)

A scene to gaze on. But, it would seem, nothing more.