Friday, May 31, 2013

Quick Question, (No Answer?)

I'm in love with John Ashbery's new collection of poems. I have to admit, I'm no poet, and I'm not very widely read in poetry (historic or contemporary...I have a very hit-or-miss knowledge of the artform generally), but there is something about this collection that's captured my imagination, and I want to share it with you.

Ashbery is a poetry of magnitude. The inside flap of "Quick Question" features the supreme blurb: a quote from Harold Bloom comparing Ashbery to Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, and Hart Crane. He's published more than 20 book previously, won a Pulitzer, etc. etc.

But that's not why I love "Quick Question." This is why I love it:

The Jacket Design & Cover

You have to see this in person, but let me attempt to describe it. The coverart: a background of crumpled paper with two uneven question marks, the second bolder than the first, creating a downward slope as you your eyes scan across the cover; the author's name and title in evenly sized, capitalized, sans-serif typeface, left-justified and moving very deliberately toward the bottom edge of the book; an absurdly decorative spine featuring floral patterns, bright colors and various textures, and the title and author's name in capitalized type-written typeface. This thing is freaking gorgeous.

The Language

From the title poem: "Here in the museum we do not invite trouble, / only establishment woes, sort of. We can bet farther / and classier with no returns. Sometimes late at night / cars droned and paled: Splurge and repent -- / wasn't that the idea? It was your initiative / that brought us here, through the difficult part / of a city. Some angels / seemed to teeter on the wooden fence. / Were we all they knew?"

This is typical of the collection; simple, colloquial language structured grammatically to give the illusion of meaningfulness; various and juxtaposed images that put you into a strange state of mind, a state where the absurd is commonplace, a place where the nonsensical becomes familiar, a dreamlike, uncanny sort of place; and references to the reader in the second person ("It was your initiative / that brought us here") -- playful, almost accusatory, like finding pointed letters directed at someone else and lacking all other context, like feeling that such a letter was somehow still "meant" for you.

For those who fear nonsense (believe me, I'm typically such a person when it comes to poetry) -- the collection does have a cumulative logic (for instance: the image of a sunset as a great wall in the sky recurs as an image of hope in the face of mortality -- who knows, perhaps there are seraphim just behind that wall, perhaps the sky is a place from which we, too, will look down on these disparate images and efforts, perhaps things will make sense then), though it only emerges upon multiple, patient rereadings.

The Tradition

Ashbery is in a long modernist poetic tradition. One that finds it's roots in T. S. Eliot and his ilk. His contemporaries include Ashbery's friend and (local) renown poet John Koethe (see Koethe's latest book of poems below). This tradition, I think, is a beautiful and complex. A bold counterpoint to the straightforward technical and analytic language of everyday American life. Plus, Ashbery is one of those poets whose body of work will give you a backlog of solid reading material.

(Koethe's most recent book of poems, available at Boswell.)

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