David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Naming Names

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Michael Lista nails it with his review of The Open Door: One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine, the anthology celebrating 100 years of Poetry, edited by Don Share and Chistian Wiman. University of Chicago hails the collection as a “new kind of anthology.” But it is less an anthology than a curatorial enterprise. It’s less a monstrous aesthetic statement of the Big Fat Art of Poetry Over the Last Hundred Years in America as it is, well, more like a special issue of the magazine itself — and if memory serves, Poetry has published special anniversary issues in years past. “Pretty much every post-Modernist poet of significance has published in Poetry,” Christian Wiman writes in the introduction. “Don Share and I decided early on that in this book we would focus on poems, not poets, not names, that we would celebrate poetry, not Poetry.”

But a hundred years is special indeed. The year Harriet Monroe launched Poetry in 1912 the African National Congress was founded in South Africa and the Titanic sunk, Jackson Pollack, Woody Guthrie and Julia Child were born while Clara Barton and August Strindberg died. Congratulations therefore to the editors and the staff of the magazine. Once a month for a hundred years. Whoa. Not bad.

So The Open Door is a selection of poems culled from the archives that the current editors favor. That’s a solid curatorial basis for an anthology. Who is included and who is excluded really shouldn’t matter much. The editors are clear that they were uninterested in being exhaustive. I mean, it’s not criminal to exclude poets from an anthology. If you want to read the entirety of poetry published in Poetry over the last hundred years — where nothing is excluded — go to the website’s comprehensive archive. It’s all there on what is perhaps the world’s largest and most diverse anthology ever — and it grows every month.

But that won’t stop the screechy music, will it? If my inbox is any indication, the grumbling has already begun. (Note to readers: I don’t open e-mails with the subject line “Do POETRY’S Editors Hate Poetry?”)

What Michael Lista nails in his National Post poetry column, meanwhile, is the issue of the missing John Ashbery:

Ashbery, like Whitman, is a dangerous influence on a contemporary poet, because his windy, channel-surfing style can feed into the particularly American solipsism that a poet’s personality, and the sociology that exalts it, is enough to franchise a style. Many of Ashbery’s poems are mannered to recreate the associative processes of the poet thinking. But the effect, which strains against epiphany, is almost always at the expense of a reader’s patience. Or rather, the patience of the reader is taken for granted. This leads to poetry, not poems, and there’s a very important difference between the two (Wiman says that “poetry is made up of poems”). Almost anyone can write poetry, and almost no one can write poems. Wiman writes: “We have embalmed poems in sociology, have created a kind of machine-speak critical jargon that any sane person would simply laugh at. We have exalted poets whose verbal and associative skills are immense but who have, finally, not very much to say.”

So Ashbery is left out. Is that so bad? Ashbery’s poems have always made me laugh out loud. I read him for his zany foray into foray-ness. Reading John Ashbery is like dreaming of swimming in an open lake that turns out to be bowl of gazpacho. He’s goosey and bitchy and absurd. But his influence exceeds his talent. There, I said. He’s an urbanist with a corpuscular streak and smart ass’s intelligence. Ashbery’s influence on the generation born in the 1960s and afterward is gigantic. But doesn’t it seem, more and more, that you can locate that influence as akin to Ezra Pound’s or Samuel Coleridge’s after their time? I mean that the influence is greater than the art. (Agree? Disagree? Feel free to hash it out below).

One of Ashbery’s chief influences on contemporary American poetry is that perception and sensation are liquefiable in a poem. As with Coleridge, there seems to be nothing under the sun that Ashbery’s mind hasn’t grazed. He has what William Hazlitt said of Coleridge a “tangential” mind. And that mind makes other poets want to think similarly. As with Pound, Ashbery’s influence on new poets is that language must modulate and interplay, that facts are tethered to voice more than to reality. He makes me laugh, as I say. But unlike so many poets, Ashbery is a book-maker more than a lyricist. I can see why he might have been left out of the book. Don’t like it? Edit and publish an anthology called Another Door: 100 Years of Poems Not Published in Poetry Magazine.

Poetry Wire Gossip Alert: Christopher Buckley (the poet not the son of the founder of the National Review who has had the unique task of writing terrific obituaries of late for Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal) has written what appears to be a pre-obituary for Philip Levine. I thought it might be a little icky when I first started reading. But: it turns out to be a gooey stroll through the post-Vietnam War era poetry circuit. A dash through Fresno State, a stopover at Bread Loaf, a goodly amount of name dropping (“we were having dinner with Bill Matthews and his new love, Celia”), and a wet kiss for Phil. Who doesn’t love a little po-biz porn quickie? Yum.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →