Michael Farrell (ed.): Ashbery Mode; David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (eds.): Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word

Ashbery Mode (Hawai’i: Tinfish, 2019, 130pp.)
Solid Air (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2019, 249pp.)

Anthologies tend to raise more interesting issues than individual books of poetry. It may be that they just raise different issues but that those they do raise are more obvious and pressing. They also have more structural issues than a book of poems by a single author. And then there is the question of what they assume their purpose is: to present the best, put some texts together for students, to establish a new literary-historical blueprint for the future of poetry, etc. Michael Farrell’s immensely enjoyable Ashbery Mode doesn’t try for any of these conventional aims. It is, essentially, a collection of poems celebrating the influence of John Ashbery in Australian poetry. I don’t think I have ever seen an anthology with such a rationale but that might just be an accident of my reading. At any rate, as a largely celebratory anthology – is it the poet’s equivalent of an academic Festschrift? – it makes no pretensions to creating new interpretations of the history of Australian poetry although, of course, it will select only poets seeing Ashbery as a valuable influence in their own work. And, as with a Festschrift, you have a sense of poets choosing which works to contribute. The book doesn’t anywhere say that this is the case but I’m sure, as a reader, that it is: in other words, the book’s structure isn’t entirely the work of a lone, godlike anthologist. One of its most charming features is its principle of organisation – always something of a bugbear for anthologists. It does this geographically, starting with Nicholas Powell and David Prater, Australian poets living in the reasonably remote Finland and Sweden, before working its way across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Australia, then up the East Coast, into East Asia and finally across the Pacific to the East Coast of the US.

As well as being a good introduction to some of the things that are happening in Australian poetry (or have been happening, as the assembling of this book seems to have taken quite a while and some of the poems included date back to late last century), Ashbery Mode is also a very interesting way of looking at the influence of a single poet, and the question of influence in general. Ashbery was a remarkable poet but even more remarkable is the extent of his influence, the consistently high regard in which he was held by younger writers pretty much throughout his life, but certainly from the publication of his third book, Rivers and Mountains, in 1966. I suspect that the earliest significant date for Ashbery’s reception in Australia is John Forbes’s Honours dissertation at Sydney University: it dealt with Ashbery’s first books when he was a very outré, avant-garde figure indeed. I’m not sure of its date (a copy is held in the Forbes collection at the Fryer Library of the University of Queensland) but it must be close to half a century old. And half a century is a very long time for a single poet to hold any kind of sway in English language poetry where fashions change quickly in response to the imperative that poetry should be new, individual and different.

Michael Farrell gives a long and convincing list of reasons for Ashbery’s continuing popularity as an influence in the brief introduction to Ashbery Mode. He begins with his own response which is that Ashbery’s tone enables him to convert language into extended poetic discourse. Again, this seems convincing enough. The length of Ashbery’s “long” poems and their modulations through images, disjunctions (the source of the famous “huh” interjections) and pseudo-logic seems to derive from some mechanism of almost endless fertility and the tone is a good candidate for the wellsprings of this. Farrell secondly isolates Ashbery’s interest in resurrecting old and (then) exotic forms like the sestina and the pantoum. Poems like “The Painter” and “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” might well be the first place a young poet in the last fifty years met the sestina form. I think this issue needs to be nuanced a little though. You would expect, for example, that Pound’s “Sestina Altaforte” or “Sestina for Ysolt” would be the most likely place for a first encounter with the sestina, but Pound’s poems come with a freight of medievalism that, if not positively irritating to someone in the last part of the twentieth century, would be, at least, not conducive to imitation. Ashbery’s sestinas feel “postmodern” in that they simultaneously show a mastery of a difficult form while at the same time giving the impression that it’s all a matter of poetic highjinks and not to be taken entirely seriously. So it becomes dependent, again, on tone: the slightly bland, “affable” bond between Ashbery and his readers.

I think the third of Farrell’s explanations for Ashbery’s extended influence is one of the most vital. Ashbery had no poetic creed to force upon the future of poetry. He did what he did, was interested in what interested him. The influence of Roussel, who produced large stretches of text spinning out from descriptions of items which were not justified by any thematic imperatives, can’t be underestimated here as the principal influence on Ashbery himself. As he says in the chapter on Roussel in Other Traditions (a work remarkable for searching out interesting and obscure moments in relatively little known poets but offering very little actual critical analysis):

No one denies that Roussel’s work is brimming with secrets; what is less certain is whether the secrets have any importance. In other words, is there some hidden, alchemical key for decoding the work, as André Breton and others have thought, or is the hidden meaning merely the answer to a childish riddle or puzzle, no more or less meaningful that the context in which it is buried?

This could well be a description of the reader’s experience of the work of Ashbery himself, especially long pieces like Three Poems, Girls on the Run and Flow Chart. But Ashbery doesn’t demand that poets reading him should go down this path of producing long texts whose internal dynamics and ultimate “meaning” are indeterminate. And so there’s a generosity and encouraging openness about Ashbery that one might not find if one looked at the poets who, before him, would be listed as the major influences on their contemporaries: Eliot, Auden and, in a narrower sense, Pound and perhaps Williams.

In Ashbery Mode then, fittingly, almost every possible response to the work of another poet is included. Some of the poems – those of Joanne Burns, Michelle Cahill, Tom Lee and Aden Rolfe, for example, sound a bit like Ashbery in their sudden meditative modulations:

. . . . 
& is there a dental clinic called the tooth
fairy; tootle’s wheels always seemed 
like lozenges of irish moss what is the relationship
between lungs and locomotives a question for poets engineers
or the medical fraternity, this word “fraternity”
think of a fence of weathered lattice that’s about to snap . . . (Burns)
. . . . . 
He knows the prices of things and tells me the same.
Blankets assist us in sleeping on the lawn, and stars
Break out as if they were jealous after having done so. I
Speculate on canvas lining and pull nuts
Out of my teeth. There exists no trick to honesty
People assure you, just do things and tell people about them
This much is clear to me. Promoted giggles
Spread about the room. Bread is the answer. Single
Lines shatter like a newly bombed lagoon
And dusk paints itself across the sky . . . (Lee)

Sometimes the connection is simply a reference in the poem or in an epigraph or, as in Hazel Smith’s case, a title which immediately suggests one of Ashbery’s books. Julie Chevalier’s two poems are from her book, Darger: His Girls, connected to Ashbery by the fact that Girls on the Run is a kind of Ashberian response to Darger’s text.

Many of the poems are, as one would expect, text-derived. The texts are usually Ashbery’s but not necessarily – Mark Mahemoff’s “Dear Superman” is made up from extracts of letters to Christopher Reeve after his accident. Stuart Cooke converts Ashbery’s name into “ash-brie”, Chris Edwards’ “Rat Chow” is “reconstituted from selected chunks” of Flow Chart, A.J. Carruthers and Cory Wakeling’s pieces are derived from specific Ashbery poems as is Toby Fitch’s “All the Skies Above Girls on the Run”. Whereas one might have expected John Tranter (an early admirer and friend of Ashbery) to be represented by “Anaglyph” – a poem made by retaining the opening and closing words of each line of “Clepsydra” and replacing everything else – he is represented by “Electrical Disturbance: A Dramatic Interlude” a longish, almost theatrical, piece imagined to be a debate between a “literary scholar” and “a company director taking on the guise of a naïve young man”.

This issue of text-generation is an important one in Australian poetry over the last thirty or forty years. Interestingly it is not part of Ashbery’s practice or, at least, I don’t think it is, based on my reading of his work. But since the reading of Ashbery’s work by even the most devoted admirer is likely to be fairly patchy there is no reason why I shouldn’t be wrong here. The only obvious example I can think of is the double-sestina late in Flow Chart which uses the same line endings as Swinburne’s “The Complaint of Lisa”. I’m ambivalent about text-generated poems which are clearly important in contemporary poetry (and probably enjoyable and rewarding to write). They also have impeccable postmodern credentials though the practice may be showing its age – it’s hardly new and I think of it as something more in keeping with the eighties and nineties. At any rate, they are a problem for critics: how can you write about a poem whose textual genesis you might have been told about but whose processes remain covered up? (John Tranter is probably an exception here because, as he has often stated, the various ways of computer-processing the originals provide only raw material which is then made into a poem. To put it bluntly, Tranter’s text-generated poems always seem like Tranter poems.) I think the results might be undesirable for the future of Australian literary criticism since it might lead to a kind of hermeticism whereby only those “in the know” – the friends and disciples – will be able to write sensibly about them. It could be said that something like this occurred in the case of Mallarme and of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – in the latter instance a group of clued-up disciples were encouraged to seed short explanatory essays in available journals. But one can be fairly confident that there aren’t many Mallarmes or Joyces lying around in Australia’s literary landscape.

But in what is essentially a celebration of an individual writer’s work and influence, text-generated poems seem an ideal mode. Imagine what a dreary collection Ashbery Mode would have been if it had been made up of solemn elegies commissioned from poets when the great man died! There have been anthologies like that in the past and they have, blessedly, sunk without trace.

One of the things that makes Solid Air, an anthology of a revived form of performance poetry, interesting is that its contributors include both Australian and New Zealand poets, thus forming a South Pacific bloc that should probably be encouraged given developments in global politics. Interesting also because when the poems deal with indigenous issues, we get the conjunction of both aboriginal and Maori culture – two entirely different perspectives. It has an interesting Foreword by Alison Whittaker which, in its focus on breath, seems like a modern incarnation of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain school. And it has a good Introduction by its editors, David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu, giving some kind of background to the Poetry Slam movement. This, inevitably, has a slight air of contest about it since it is keen to stress the importance of the material it is introducing. Like all such introductions, it has to balance the tension of claiming great successes and massive numbers while at the same time portraying itself as fighting a battle against an establishment (or Establishment) made up of publishers and print poets responsible for “poetry’s flagging popularity and book sales”. This inevitably is a cover version of a very familiar song: you can hear it as far back as the Beat poets and probably long before. It’s not a fiercely held position, either in the Introduction or in the poems included, but it does establish that there is an opponent. And all movements benefit from having an extendable, preferrably abstract opponent to keep their momentum going, even if one has to be invented.

The second slightly awkward situation in which the editors find themselves is that this is a print book. It belongs, in other words, to the museum culture of the printed word. Ideally, one expects in an anthology of performance to have a CD of readings inside the back cover (as Grand Parade Poets did with Benjamin Frater’s book) or, perhaps, a set of website links. The Introduction gives an elegant but sketchy justification for the lack of these when it says, “On these pages sit words that have often first been performed in a live context to an audience. The pulse of those moments still hangs between the lines.”

My response to Solid Air is to be interested in it and as responsive as I can be. I think it comes from a perspective and practice which is completely alien to me since I avoid even conventional poetry readings. But that is just me – I have a resistance to performance of almost any sort but I wouldn’t want to try to raise that to the level of an intelligently held position rather than a personal failing. It’s intriguing to find some poets whose work I know (“normal” poets, “conventional” poets, “establishment poets”? – the terminology is going to be a problem) turning up here: Jennifer Compton, Nathan Curnow, Ian McBryde and Π.Ο. for example. As the biography of the first of these says, “When it comes to the poetry side of things she likes to have it every which way possible . . . And she also very much likes the hurly burly of the open mic”. It makes perfect sense that a poet might see his or her own poetic practice as lying in a zone where full-on performance offers valuable experience and feedback. There are also other “conventional” modes which lie in a space just next to performance: found poems for example. Here Pascalle Burton’s textually-modified “found” poem, “What is Your Ceiling”, derived from the US Army’s wartime Japanese Phrase Book, could work well both in performance and on the page.

Putting Solid Air next to Ashbery Mode makes for interesting and revealing comparisons. They do not share a single contributor and it’s hard not to see both of them as outliers in the vast world of poetry. I have a suspicion that the contributors to either of them might be more hostile to the other than I am: as an outsider my task is to observe what happens in Australian poetry not to set myself up as someone to legislate or pass judgement about it. Being invested in the course of literary history is a dangerous game to play, anyway. When a definition of what is desirable in poetry gets floated, poetry seems to take this as an opportunity to do exactly the opposite. My sense of Performance poetry is that it is a phenomenon which flowers quite intensely and but doesn’t have long-term staying power. In the past, the existence of established venues could keep an outburst alive for a while, even decades, but they are often dependent on the energy of individuals and individuals have a habit of passing on (or away). Poetry Slam has introduced a new structure in its large list of prizes and they may well help to formalise the movement and prolong it. I have a wicked image of a future in which performance poetry becomes the only acceptable mode of poetry in Australia. If it ever happened it would be typical of poetic history for angry groups of young poets, all with published tankas and minimalist love poems spilling out of their pockets, to be picketing the performance halls.

Does a renaissance in performance poetry mean that souls will be saved for poetry? Will people who had avoided poetry on the grounds of an unpleasant school experience with an odd piece of text whose meaning wasn’t clear, be gathered into the fold and even, eventually, venture on some more of that difficult stuff that lies between the covers of a book? I’ve heard this argument made though, admittedly, not in the case of the kind of poetry collected in Solid Air. But I can’t see it happening: there is just too great a divide between the experience of a verbal performance and that of engaging with a poem on the page. Nothing experienced by a member of the audience for these performances is going to prepare an innocent new reader for Yeats’s “Byzantium”, say, let alone Dante or Homer. I think this derives from the fundamental difference between what goes on in a performance and what goes on in a reading. It’s the reason that, though we are fascinated when poets read their own (printed) works because it gets us closer to the creating experience, it’s always rather irritating when they are “performed” by someone else. The more skilled and intelligent the actor, the more irritating the reading. Coming to terms with a “conventional” poem is a powerful experience of connection with a personality which, in good poetry, immediately appears as distinctive. Often that poet is dead (and yes, probably white, male, right-handed, from an imperial centre, etc etc) and when that happens we have the especially potent experience of meeting a poet whose values are likely to be entirely different from our own – it’s what Auden called “breaking bread with the dead” a cornerstone of a “civilised life”. I realise that this looks like a distinction not between printed poetry and performance poetry but between contemporary poetry and the poetry of the past but it does help to introduce what for me is the overwhelming experience of the poems of Solid Air and that is how completely conventional their content is, how unconfronting. This must derive from the performer/audience nexus where the former must be speak the latter’s language, but for someone like me who values distinctiveness and difference, Solid Air is a bit of a wasteland: Indigenous people have suffered, and still suffer, discrimination; women must continue the struggle against the Male and, pace Emily Zooey Baker’s “Hey, Mary Shelley”, Mary Shelley was a great writer who invented science fiction.