[lit-ideas] Ashberyiana vs Helmiana

  • From: Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 4 Sep 2017 17:32:16 -0700


I have never managed to appreciate Ashbery; although I haven’t given up the hope of doing so.  Not so very long ago I bought Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987, the Library of America edition.  I also have a handful of commentaries, none of which has inspired me to like him more than I do.  Maybe my problem is that I am not willing to spend the time to make him accessible.

But I agree with what he is depicted as saying in the following: “What they are is about the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our own thinking.” Ashbery adds: “And in that way, they are, I think, accessible if anyone cares to access them.” Skeptical of the standard narratives of literature, Ashbery keeps to a personal aesthetic that seems to his admirers, as he once wrote of O’Hara, “entirely natural and available to the multitude of big and little phenomena which combine to make that unknowable substance that is our experience.”

I have thought while reading your notes, is there any point in my past where I wished I had made a different choice so that I could be like the famous poets of today.  The most critical event in that regard would have been not to marry and start a family at the age of 20.  Had I not married, I could have afforded to go on and get my Phd and teach some place.  But I ran out of money half way through my M.A. and was discouraged by the behavior of some of the professors I was still in contact with (while I worked at Douglas Aircraft Company in order to pay my bills).  Thus, after a few years I reconciled myself to staying in aerospace.  I was good at engineering and there was always time to crank out a poem or two during the day.

Thus, thinking of my career as an engineer who has written and still writes poetry and comparing it to the biographies I have read of poets who have gone all-in to be POETS, I have remained happy with my choice.  I have never read a biography of a poet and thought, “I wish I’d done that instead.”

And as regards accessibility, if by some chance my poetry made it into a posthumous volume a hundred or so years from now, I’m sure the editor would have no difficulty explaining who Susan, Ben, Jessica and Duffy were and footnoting explanations of occasional factual obscurities.  Which is to say, that while I am not an experimenter like Ashbery who has written poetry in many different styles, I have pursued . . . what perhaps should perhaps be called psychological events.  I write best when I have somehow, such as in dreams, accessed something I have been dwelling on at a subconscious level.

Although not everything is grist for that mill.  In the last dream I can recall, I was walking along a country road.  Next to it was a cornfield and in the cornfield adjacent to the road was a path. I planned to get off the road and go up the path, but I saw some military or police up the path.  One policeman was in the prone position pointing a rifle in my direction.  However they weren’t after me and I turned around to go back the way I came.  After walking a short distance a young man of eastern European extraction walked up to me and handed me a handgun in a holster. I told him I wasn’t the police.  He needed to go up the path to find them.  But he waved his hands as though to say it didn’t matter and kept going.

At that point I became concerned about my my problem.  If I turned around in order to give the gun to the police, perhaps I would become a “person of interest.”  At the very least I would be taken in to get with a sketch artist so I could give them a description of what this fellow looked like, but I already in my dream I had forgotten that.  So should I throw the gun into the cornfield? No, my fingerprints are sure to be on the holster.  I stuck the gun into my belt and walked on while I wrestled with what to do with it.  I considered taking it home and burying it, but that would only work if I never gave the police “probably cause” to dig up my yard; which I probably wouldn’t, but still it would be something I would be constantly worrying about, and I continued worrying about it as I woke.

I haven’t used the above dream in a poem, nor do I expect to.


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