Saturday, June 13, 2009

Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. and the strange case of John Ashbery

When my daughter Radhika burst forth with her "waste of space" comment about Paul Naylor's new Tinfish Press book, I happened to be holding in my hand the Library of America volume of John Asbhery's Collected Poems 1956-1987. "See, here's what happens when you try to save paper!" I remember imagining myself saying. But Radhika is seven years old, after all, and despite her cluedness about many things, the semiotics of book publishing may still be beyond, beside, and/or beneath her. Where Naylor's book puts a premium on the page as a jam session between blankness and print, silence and language, the Library of America Ashbery (like the LoA anybody) puts its premiums on text, and text within a pre-determined space, let's call it 5X8 inches, or about the size of a mid-sized photograph. Where Naylor's book features paper of a certain heft (negotiated between the designer and money bags here), the LoA features paper that feels like the old airmail stationery, light because it had to travel. Well, we all know that Ashbery travels, but this format and material has me, if not seething, then grumpy, if not grumpy, then giggling. When the reader arrives at The Vermont Notebook, written by JA and illustrated by Joe Brainard, the paper betrays us all.

Is this the raciest thing ever to grace an LoA book? One wonders. While on the one hand, I'm thinking that the book format is simply too fancy kine (or hybolical, in Pidgin) to support the work of a poet who writes lines like "'once I let a guy blow me'" (442) or "Hunted unsuccessfully, / To be torn down later / The horse said" (79) or any number of unconcorded quotations one can mine here or in any JA volume. And yet in this campiest of JA texts (see Susan Sontag, I'm not going there!), the reader can see through the naked man with no right eye to what falls below him, namely a clock (it's 3)(not a cock, oh the parentheticals multiply!) and a washer and dryer (no apparent make). The Granary Books edition of The Vermont Notebook, published in 2001 along with Z Press in Vermont (9-ish by 6 1/2 inches, if you're counting, and I am), allows no such peep hole of transparency. Published originally in 1975 by Black Sparrow, there's a certain 1950s quality to the schematic illustrations, which draws out for me the contrast (not the word I need, but that one doesn't exist) between the lounging naked man and the appliances that keep our clothes clean and our day itself in order. So, as the LoA attempts to render JA a canonical figure, the American version of a French Academie-approved poet, they have succeeded in drawing out what makes him most interesting, the wacky wavering of his diction, the jumpy juxtaposition of his thought images. Here's what you see through to:

But I'm being too kind; I'm justifying the LoA atrocity by reading it against itself. Bad critic! The intent of the Library, according to its own website, is this: "The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher, is dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing." Ah, the authority! the dedication! the bestness! the significance! the selling! (They rather smartly have a shop at their site, as well.) It's this authority that comes through to my students when I, on rare occasion, teach JA's work in my Hawai`i classrooms. Last time I taught a book, April Galleons, to a graduate class, the reaction was mostly one of confusion. One woman from the east coast loved it; another from Hawai`i loved it, but left the class (scheduling problems). Another student, let us call him Kimo A., attacked JA as one of those establishment white poets out to take over the world for his kind; you know, John Milton, Walt Whitman, et al. "But isn't he gay?" someone asked along the way. Now, while identity politics can be annoying, this kind is inevitable here. Why should we be reading this obscure, somewhat identity-less (hence all-encompassing) poetry, when there's so much else more "relevant" to us. Well, that was the rest of the semester . . . A colleague, Gary Pak, now dear to me, said on a panel in the very early 1990s, when I was a babe on the island (babe in the sense of youth, not in my bathing suit), that "we do not want to be John Ashbery!!!" He says I seemed scared of him after that, shuddered in a stairwell when he passed. I was scared because JA was my man.

And this edition does nothing to argue against that notion of JA as the great white whale-man of contemporary poets; instead, it presents him proudly as a poet whose poems never cross the ordinary boundaries of the book. "Litany," which required an odd-shaped conveyer (As We Know is 8 1/2 by 6 /12) due to its two columns of text, is here rendered as a column per page with a wedgie in the middle. It's also given short shrift in the Selecteds of JA because of its odd bulk. While JA's books are fairly standard in design and size, even the doofy ones had their charms. The first JA I read (in a Silliman College--not Ron, but Yale--poetry seminar taught by Alfred Corn in 1977) was Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The book was small and ugly, aside from the photo of the author leaning on a farm fence on the cover. [Ed. note: the poet is not leaning against a fence--that was Three Poems. Instead, he is looking out of a door on the left side of the book, while the title descends on the righ. Still ugly, just different from my memory of it.] Dark book, dark heavy print, nothing to write home about. But I want that book in my hand instead of this book where "Tarpaulin" and "River" and the beginning of "Mixed Feelings" are all glommed together on a single flimsy yet noisy to turn page. (Have you ever heard a lecture class of a couple hundred students turn the pages of their Norton Anthologies at the same time?) Not "A pleasant smell of frying sausages/ Attacks the sense" (455), but a jumble of readable and unreadable texts (as I wrote above, the other page shows through) causes the reader more than the "MIXED FEELINGS" advertised at the top, as if this were a phonebook.

The happy ending of my teaching story was that the student who most hated Ashbery wrote a wonderful poem based on "Finnish Rhapsody" ("write a poem in which the same things happens twice, in different words, in each line"). It was a scary poem about an unhappy family. It took place on the North Shore, in Haleiwa (if my memory serves me). It was a marvelous, complicated Hawai`i poem. Ashbery's poem about the quotidian is full of aforesaid "mixed feelings"; it's a sad clown of a poem until the end. Kimo's poem is likewise sad, "Truncat[ing[ the spadelike shadows." Is it any accident that Ashbery's poem ends not with a dismissal, but an acknowlegment of, identity: "But perhaps only to oneself, haply to one's sole identity." And this may not be a good thing in any case, whether in New York or Haleiwa.

August 1 will mark my 20th anniversary living in Hawai`i. Many things I know here I did not know before I arrived. Many things--like the work of John Ashbery--I thought I knew. Like an Ashbery poem or the sheen from a space blanket turned from sun to cloud and back, nothing stays still. Never known for their stillness, Ashbery's poems stay stuck in my consciousness but alter in the signals they send out. Somewhere JA mentions a woman from Honolulu; remembering where in JA's oeuvre a phrase can be found is like remembering a cinder cone but being unable to find it on a topo map. From Honolulu (or more properly, Ahuimanu, where this woman sits at her computer), Ashbery does indeed seem a creature of the east (coast)--gee whiz do I hate poems or blog posts that end where they began--yet he still travels well. But read his poems in their original formats or post-originals like the Granary Books The Vermont Notebook, not in this literary equivalent of homeland security with all its neat borders and red, white & blue flourishes! Or you can just peep through the pages' transparencies. Feel the frisson lidat.


Jonathan Morse said...

Test from Internet Explorer. Any secret words?

Jonathan Morse said...

And of course it isn't just pictures that expand and glow in the luxe of an edition de luxe, Mme. Des Esseintes. Consider, for instance, how dead-on-arrival drab Adrienne Rich's language has been since the 1970s -- that is, since just about the time W. W. Norton began packaging that language in dreary, posthumous, required-textbook typography. It's almost as if Rich's words looked around at their downmarket neighborhood and gave up. In the Bloomian struggle between the words and their imprisoning book, the book has won and now asserts its priority. First comes the Times Roman with stingy kerning on gray paper; then comes poor meekened Adrienne Rich, pushing the broom of a woman of didactic letters as she murmurs, "Oh well, they don't know any better. Just look at what they think is pretty. I'd better spell things out."

Adrienne Rich on papier d'Arches? What an idea! But it might have been worth trying. Thanks for the post!

Ross Brighton said...

I read this great chapter on the relationship between JA and Harold Bloom ....

I've always been fascinated by that bleed-through between pages, especially text. I've often wondered what it would be like to read an edition of Susan Howe's Eikon Basilike printed on cheap paper like that. There would be even more noise, even more competeting thoughts - though maybe a loss of some of the earnest contemplation and careful diction.

I do find it disappointing when poetry publishers don't take the care to produce books as objects that befit the contents - another example is the Penguin edition of Self Portrait.

Though on the plus, someone who has been producing consistantly beautiful (though pricey) books for nigh on thirty years is ALan Loney.

Anonymous said...

You are VERY wrong about LOA--you write as if you know nothing about them--do you know the story behind the press???? Its non-profit status???? ands the incredible importance of its decision to keep its entire list in print forever???? LOA has given readers and scholars affordable access to works they would only otherwise be able to get at the Library--or buy at great great cost. Its great that you have access to better editions of the Ashbery/Brainard collaboration--but not everyone does--and your missing the whole point of LOA--which is in part to make available correct scholarly editions of american writers wide audience at the most affordable price--given how crass and horrible for profit publishers are to attack this valuable press-- is just beyond my comprehension

susan said...

Dear Anonymous--

I'm not attacking LoA--I have a slew of their volumes--and it's inevitable that their formatting won't be good for many books, especially books of poems. But the sense of authority (the Pleiade-ness of the series) does carry overtones to me of the way the "canon" is perceived in Hawai`i. Now LoA has also done slave narratives, etc., so that's a good thing. By the way, my press is non-profit (anti-profit, actually) so I'm very much in sympathy with publishing books for their own sakes. The larger point, I think, has to do with the way binding and format sways reception.

John Gallaher said...

LoA is a compromise. I always approach the volumes something like how I would a translation. They are useful for reference, but for actual reading, I avoid it. But I'm thankful it's there.

As formatting goes, the second selected (Notes from the Air) is friendly. That's what I'm currently carrying around. Other than that, it's the original volumes.