Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ashbery, Dunn, and Kunitz

At the beach on the Washington coast, I read three books of poetry by three venerable poets: Where Shall I Wander [no question mark] by John Ashbery; The Insistence of Beauty, by Stephen Dunn; and a later Selected Poems (circa 1995) by Stanley Kunitz.

Although Ashbery is of the New York School and bears some relation to L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E* poets, he's pretty much a school unto himself, drawing on a vast range of diction, creating expressionistic collages of language, infusing his poems with allusions and droll linguistic wit, and almost never, it seems, being interested in straightforward rhetoric, accessible narrative, or otherwise conventionally representational poetry. I've always found his poems to be amusing and extremely clever, but I don't like them as much as many of my cohorts do. I tire of them quickly, and I do get the sense that sometimes he's just effing around--that one could take out a couple lines and replace them with other lines, give the poem to someone, and not have that person catch the switch. (I can't imagine doing that [and getting away with it] to poems by Housman, Hopkins, Dickinson, or Auden, for instance, but I think it would work with some of Ashbery's poems.) As linguistically rich and surprising as his poems are, there is nonetheless something insular or insulated about the work. I start to yearn for poetry that's more sanguine, robust, and grounded, less academic, upper-middle-class, and enervated. Ennui abounds. A lot of his poems sound like J. Alfred Prufrock on roids or Franz Kafka on laughing gas. But Ashbery's an extremely famous, celebrated poet, so I think I'm in the minority in my view; also, Ashbery's ear for all the odd phrases we're flooded with each day is extraordinary; out of nowhere will come a line like, "Attention shoppers."

Dunn's poetry is quite clear and grounded, and his voice is interesting. This particular book is a bit too insular for me--not in the way Ashbery's is, however. The book seems centered on Dunn's own immediate experience, including such things as romantic break-ups. I found myself wanting a broader range of experience represented, and sometimes things got predictable. In a poem apparently about a new lover, he speaks of the woman's former lover and brings in the old reference to three people (figuratively) being in the bed. That idea seems worn out. "Grudges" is an intriguing, well crafted villanelle, modified, about 9/11. It doesn't quite capture the global nature of the mess we're in, however. For me, it personalized 9/11 a bit too much--shrank the event. There's more than a grudge involved when planes get flown into towers and the U.S. invades a country for trumped up reasons--at a cost of a trillion dollars. Like Ashbery, however, Dunn is a venerable, much celebrated poet--of the plainer style.

I read Kunitz's book third and was glad to do so, for I felt as if earth, sky, water, air, fish, ordinary folk, fire, wood, recognizable landscapes, and less preciously rendered experiences were suddenly let back into the room. Things had gotten a bit stuffy with Ashbery and Dunn. As much as I enjoyed Ashbery's rare, relentless cleverness and Dunn's spare, self-grounded work, I was really hungry and thirsty for the kind of poetry Kunitz writes, so the order of the reading worked out beautifully.

Anyway, props to these three veterans of American poetry. Solid books, established reputations.
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