Struggling with John Ashbery and Jorie Graham

Robin Houghton‘s lovely blog has recently begun to document her mission to devour five poetry books a week. While I can’t match this, I think I might mention here some of the books I’ve been reading from time to time too. Especially when I’m on a learning curve. For example I’m not particularly drawn to American poetry but lately I have been trying to make amends by catching up on two major American poets who have, perhaps disgracefully, passed me by.

Your Name Here

Your Name Here by John Ashbery. My first few skirmishes with this book left me stone cold. Who cares if Your Name Here won a Pulitzer prize? I felt absolutely untouched by anything in it. But I thought I’d at least do it the justice of reading it again, cover to cover. So I read a dozen or so poems a night in bed. About the third night, something clicked in my head and there were one or two poems I began to find deft, funny, tangential and enigmatic. The poem that made me see the error of my ways is Variations on “La Folia”.

I’ll admit I had to look up La Folia to learn it was a tune first published in 1672 that appears in variations in the work of more than 150 different composers’s work. La Folia means madness too, and like several other poems in this collection the poem seems to be dwelling on old age. But suddenly, and without quite knowing why, its last lines began to speak to me.

We should all be so lucky as to get hit by a meteor
of an idea once in our lives. It would save a lot of hand-wringing
and bells tolling in the undersea cathedral,
a noise to drive one mad, past the brink of human decency.
Please don’t tell me it all adds up in the end.
I’m sick of that one.

So while I am still far from being a complete Ashbery advocate, he may be making me grow as a reader.

jorie graham never

Never by Jorie Graham. I bought this book, some time ago, and have picked it up several times only to find myself intensely irritated. I have learned, however, that poets or styles that annoy me on first encounter usually have the most to teach me.

There are things I positively don’t like in her work. There are accretions of abstract nouns and as a reader you are always looking for something to attach them to. And sometimes you have a sense that you are sitting over her shoulder and watching her waver over a word choices, and splintering options. Instead of choosing, she seems to write them all in. This is either fascinating or tiresome depending on your taste. And mood too. Sometimes I am simply not in the mood for Jorie Graham.

The upside of Graham’s technique is that you have a sense of text with strata, parenthetical fragments that glint up from shallower or deeper layers, and when matched with the right subject matter it can work brilliantly.  It provides a meditative dwelling on things, like watching waves, rooks pecking at an icy pond, looking at waves breaking on a shore, or in the first, and perhaps my favourite poem of the collection ‘Prayer’, which begins:

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a miniscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
                                                                                         infolding,
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit a deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change– 

With both Ashbury and Graham, persistence has paid off. Jorie Graham’s book has made me think about the process of writing and reading poetry far more than what I take to be her subject matter here: ecology, the impermanence of life and never being able to return to a specific moment.

About Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, plays, libretti, prose, journalism and so on. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
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