Friday, April 15, 2011

Bacon and eggs in Huntly

My recent post on the joys of breaking down in Huntly prompted some strong and strongly opposed opinions on the merits of that often-maligned town. With either pity or disdain, Paul Scott explained that my fondness for Huntly was a symptom of personal dysfunction:

there are things that are good for you, and things that are not: One doesn't drive an Integra dude, and one doesn't go any where near Huntly. Try to pull your life together

Richard Taylor, though, went to the defence of the little coal town on the Waikato:

For years I have made a point of stopping at Huntly. I used to stop for sausages tea/and or coffee, tomato and eggs. I like places such as Huntly. I like the broad streets and wide footpaths of those rural towns, the yoked mix of beauty, stupidity and desolation, history (not that History is clear or specific in my mind, more a kind of feeling of time)...

I also loved going on the Limited (the train between Wellington and Auckland - it was steam when I was young, but it changed to diesel-electric) at night and stopping for tea and sandwiches at Mercer. I know that was not liked by others. I loved it. I prefer tea rooms to pubs. There is a greater feeling of isolation sitting and pondering in a tea room or a coffee bar. It is de rigueur for me to eat alone in such simple places...


Richard sent me a copy of his poem 'Lookout', which was first published in 1998 in the fugitive and short-lived literary magazine Salt, was republished a couple of years later in the similarly short-lived political mag Third Eye, and was collected in Richard's 2007 book Conversation with a Stone. 'Lookout' includes a scene set in a Huntly tea room, and has sometimes been referred to as 'the Huntly poem' by Richard's friends and editors.

After 'Lookout' appeared in Third Eye, an irate reader wrote a condemnation of the poem's 'impenetrable' manner, and of Richard's 'bourgeois' and 'elitist' tastes in literature. Richard produced a self-defence, a mixture of autobiography and polemic, in time for the final issue of Third Eye. Denying that he had 'ever had a silver spoon in me mouth', he characterised himself as a 'graduate' of New Zealand's 'working class university', the Otahuhu Railway Workshops. It was from other workers at Otahuhu, Richard explained, that he first learned about many thinkers and writers. Recalling the working class autodidact who handed him a volume by Jean-Paul Sartre one day on the train, Richard asked whether innovative literature was really as inevitably 'impenetrable' as his critic had argued.

Richard went on to explain that he began writing poetry in the late '80s, after encountering a book called Houseboat Days by a writer named John Ashbery. In the hours after he opened the book, Richard remembered, he didn't know 'whether I was insane or whether Ashbery was insane'.

John Ashbery has been one of the great popularisers of what is sometimes called the 'abstract' mode of poetry. Ashbery once explained his poems by saying that they aimed to recreate the experience of sitting in a crowded restaurant and overhearing bits and pieces of conversations from several different tables. An excerpt from "They Dream Only of America", one of Ashbery's most famous poems, gives an idea of the difficulties and pleasures of his style:

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
"This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat."

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily –
The lake a lilac cube.


In his entertaining book On the Outside Looking Out: John Ahsbery's Poetry, John Shoptaw argues that Ashbery's style developed in response to the politically and sexually repressive atmopshere of McCarthy-era America. Unable to discuss straightforwardly his lifestyle and worldview, the young Ashbery fragmented his language, substitued associative thinking for conventional argument, and used what Shoptaw called 'crypt words' to hide his secrets. Shoptaw's interpretation of the first stanza of "They Dream Only of America" shows the order hidden behind the poem's apparent absurdities:

The poem was written in Paris in the summer of 1957, probably on his thirtieth birthday. That day Pierre Martory, to whom [Ashbery’s second collection] The Tennis Court Oath is dedicated, made the luminous remark, "This honey is delicious/Though it burns the throat." In the summer of 1957 Ashbery was preparing for, and doubtless dreaming of, revisiting America; he did so from the fall of 1957 to the spring of 1958. Martory himself made a first, unplanned visit to America that spring. Though they traveled separately, the little poem looks forward to a fantastic voyage and an Edenic destination.

The misrepresentations of "‘They Dream Only of America’" are homotextual. The "thirteen million pillars of grass" suggest not only Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass but the "pillar of salt" to which Lot’s wife, no pillar of the community, was reduced for looking back on the destruction of Sodom...The dismembered names of the perpetrators, "Ashbery" and "Martory," may be partially reconstructed from the line "And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily – ." The romantic secrecy of the fugitive gay lovers is parallel here to the French Resistance (Martory fought in its ranks) waiting for America’s liberation...The utopian "American dream" here fantasizes a time and a place where gay lovers could come out of their lilac cubes...

When and where is (or was or will be) the liberation? Was it when the American Ashbery arrived in Paris? Will it be when "they" arrive in America? (But Ashbery had left the United States partly for relief from its repressive political climate.) In the barns of Ashbery’s childhood in rural upstate New York? In the dandified countryside of Martory’s prewar France? It is always elsewhere, a state better dreamt-of than reached...


For Richard, who had published a couple of short stories as a young man but had then given up writing for more than a decade, Ashbery's freewheeling, defiantly anti-realist style was not only shocking but liberating. Ashbery's example gave Richard the confidence to spurn the linear narratives and arguments he had once associated with literature, and to instead record the flights and meanderings of his own mind.

I have always regarded the reference to Huntly near the end of 'Lookout' as a little gesture of cultural nationalism, or perhaps of cultural regionalism. Richard's poem visits Oxford and New York City, but descends from the towers and dreaming spires of these self-important 'cultural capitals' to a small and slightly grotty town at the bottom of the world, where the narrator enjoys not a learned philosophical or literary 'dialogue' but 'tea, poached eggs, and bacon'.

Richard was taught to idealise Britain by his Anglophile parents -'my mother said there were no baddies in England, only goodies and scones' he wrote in one poem - and developed, after discovering John Ashbery and other contemporary American poets, a fascination with Ashbery's adopted hometown of New York City. He made a long visit to New York in the '90s, but eventually decided to return to the working class Auckland suburb of Panmure, where he grew up. For all their abstraction, his poems are determinedly part of a local cultural tradition.

Lookout

He threw up his black boot, and the yellow
instructions, striped by this time, descended the
resurrected mountain slopes into Good Wood and
gathered. Don Quixote was nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, the boot, possessed of a seemingly
endless derring—do and a fucked old poker face,
achieved great success in later life, and finally got
itself retired into a joy drum while it guarded an
ancient enquirer. What say we enter into a dialogue?
It doesn’t need to make sense. Come on. We could talk
to the stars, or write them? Could we not respirate,
or partake of a new cheese, or stop when we stop?
These quibblings thrill me. As only...it’s so like
Brautigan’s library of unread books: something taps
out a message about bullets and an insane
artiste...anyway, all that aside, everything’s so
terrible today I feel like a one-legged ant trying to
surmount the heights of Oxford at Balliol College
trying to impress a beautiful Professoress - as if
people had sexual feelings: it would be good to talk,
but I long ago dissolved into the eyes of your sea
blue wiseness, and forgetting pre-forgathers those
clouds of recollection as the kids kick footballs and
the woman asks jolly questions. I was never at the
right time but remember the intense astonishment of
the dead, and a woman, thirty or so, crying beside
the Empire State. In Huntly I...tea, poached eggs,
and bacon. Colour. Something’s missing, but the sun
burns energetics into the bean leaves, with its
intense, staring, and nuclear joy.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Poetry Noodle said...

Taylor is also the most far-out blogger in NZ
http://richardinfinitex.blogspot.com/

4:47 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I read somewhere that Ashbery's ambition was to write poetry that no critic could prentrate or usefully discuss in any rational or normatively logical "way". Remember he also wanted to do a thesis on Raymond Roussel.

I read him for years before finding almost by chance that he was homosexual.

I recall that I wrote to Third Eye. I talked about my interest in the poems and plays of Brecht (goes back to about 1968) and also Beckett. Later Stein. I wrote a poem based on Brecht's poem about a tree burning down, a symbol (probably) of fascism coming, also one about 'Old Mother Courage')

I like the "comic" aspects of Ashbery and Beckett, for me Beckett is hugely funny as in say "Endgame" or "Not I" or "Watt". In fact like Ted Jenner I love all his works.

(I leant Ted some old issues of SALT by the way last weekend).

But recall Maps you read Marjorie Perloff's "Witggenstein's Ladder" and she talks there of Beckett and codes. For Beckett was in the French Resistance. What was her point re "Watt"...!!! ?? (Of course Watt has the double meanings of electrical power (low) and the question...)

I wasn't completely convinced of John Shopwtaw's essay but I saw his point, but that "coding", if true, is only one aspect of Ashbery's way of writing. Coding like that can also be a technique.

That poem was from "The Tennis Court Oath" (the title refers to a painting of famous incident in French history done by a bitter intriguer [David who did the notorious 'Marat'] in a moment or time of great intrigue and even terror and excitement just before the "French Revolution". Ashbery was an art critic in France. I also was fascinated by his "Self Portrait in Convex Mirror" which won the Pulitzer. It is based on a painting by Parmigianino the great Renaissance mannerist.

And the glance toward Whitman is for sure.

The "autodidact" Railway worker (carpenter) was CP member Charlie Baker, from Glasgow, Scotland, who was a Sergeant in the British army before and during the 2nd WW and read hugely and also taught himself Marxism. He had a book about Sartre's existentialist Marxism and was reading it on the train to and from work (before I moved to Ponsonby (ca. 1969) I got on at Tamaki (no longer in existance) he at GI) and showed it to me. (I thought such a thing rather strange at the time.) He read a lot. E.g. I recall him reading "The Arms of Krupp".

11:02 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

yes, the reference to Huntly was deliberate as I had referenced all kinds of things (rather rapidly) and the word "Colour" was deliberately spelt as C o l o u r not c o l or.

I had various 'references' and then I paused at the Huntly thing I and felt myself almost "putting the brakes on" as I was writing that poem (so fast).

It was published in the US and editor of the magazine wanted colour to be color etc and I tried to resist the various emendations e.g. she got rid of "fucked" but it didn't matter as lately I have republished it as it is. Those poems were also influenced by such as Trakl, Reverdy and others. BUt Ashbery was big for me (maybe Schuyler his friend and even Berrigan also). Also John Berryman. Later Alice Notely.

Ashbery and the Language poets, to use Wystan Curnow (in conversation about Silliman's "Paradise" "give one permission").

The references to England was in part satiric. My father was not keen on London (well in 1927 when he left for NZ he wasn't...my mother lived in Australia from England but always referred to England but they both loved NZ as did my maternal grand parents who were English. My father became a very keen reader of the new Yorker and was enthusiastic about Nixon (or more impressed by him than I was! He also always voted National as he was in a profession, he was not a worker, he was an architect.)

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Ashbery is also a visual artist:
http://www.nytimes.com/
slideshow/2008/09/12/arts/0914-COTT_index.html

11:42 pm  
Anonymous ashbery shits - and the critics eat it up said...

But Ashbery's pictures are better than his poems. He can’t even rhyme decently when he tries. Little skill, big vocabulary, small mind. O’Hara’s much better; it’s as if Ashbery became the “academic” O’Hara. Ashbery says nothing rather well for a time, but the investment proves pointless, as the tantalizing appearance of meaningful substance nearly always steps back from itself. He dances with himself.

But hey...all the no-nothing critics in their postmodern need to be cool lap it up.

11:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

He threw up his black boot, and the yellow
instructions, striped by this time, descended the
resurrected mountain slopes into Good Wood and
gathered. Don Quixote was nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, the boot, possessed of a seemingly
endless derring—do

"The American editor wanted an "m-dash" here. But originally it was "derring-do". She was very nice, but a bit obsessed with quibbles about m-dashes, proper grammar, and how things were done in the US...perhaps one can learn from Jack Spicer (who refused to copyright any of his books and made up words etc) (he was also gay (but from California rather than the East Coast)), and drank himself to death (but I don't advocate any of those things necessarily!!))."

and a fucked old poker face,
achieved great success in later life, and finally got
itself retired into a joy drum while it guarded an
ancient enquirer.

"This came from when I was maybe 10 or so at primary school a teacher told us about a philosopher who lived his whole life in a barrel- it may have been a ref to the "Get out of my shadow Alexander" (the Great or not) Diogenes- but I don't know- I just liked the (rebellious)idea from all those years"

What say we enter into a dialogue?
It doesn’t need to make sense. Come on. We could talk
to the stars, or write them? Could we not respirate,
or partake of a new cheese, or stop when we stop?
These quibblings thrill me. As only...it’s so like
Brautigan’s library of unread books:

"Brautigan is another writer I am quite fond of and he has a book with a story of a library where unpublished books are stored. He is a very poetic and sometimes very moving and comic /original writer.)"

something taps
out a message about bullets and an insane
artiste...anyway, all that aside, everything’s so
terrible today I feel like a one-legged ant

"This is from a crazy story by comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Two ex Army flogs are talking over whiskey etc about the old days and there is long rambling (and crazy) story of a struggle between an ant ("...with only one leg, and one eye..."), Squatter, and also the British army in Bahrein..('A pretty bloody place' "

trying to
surmount the heights of Oxford at Balliol College
trying to impress a beautiful Professoress - as if
people had sexual feelings:

"Conscious non sequiters a la Ashbery"

12:35 am  
Blogger Richard said...

it would be good to talk,
but I long ago dissolved into the eyes of your sea
blue wiseness, and forgetting pre-forgathers those
clouds of recollection as the kids kick footballs and
the woman asks jolly questions. I was never at the
right time but remember the intense astonishment of
the dead, and a woman, thirty or so, crying beside
the Empire State.

"I saw this. She looked as though she might have been on drugs, and one bloke went to her aid but then started shouting at her that she was "bloody stupid" or something. I was about to go up the Empire State Building and didn't know what to do, so I did nothing, as did Squatter when confronted with ant "with immense courage, he immediately did nothing, which stupefied the ant." But in "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" the viewer of the art is "stupified" according to Vasari (who is quoted by Ashbery in the poem, now on reflection Ashbery's target here is virtuosity itself, he has no problem with it...and the so-called Mannerists or men of art (or literature) at that time had no problem with outdoing each other in what they called virtu..(according to a book I just looked at about mannerism)...similarly Ashbery used "The Hotel Lautreament as title of one of his books...showing his interest in in surrealism..."

In Huntly I...tea, poached eggs,
and bacon. Colour. Something’s missing, but the sun
burns energetics into the bean leaves, with its
intense, staring, and nuclear joy.

"This switches from the more general to the regional to the local, the here, to the strange "real" and even right down to the immediacy of my own garden and the bean plant that was then growing on my own shed wall, with scarlet runners. The sun is a huge nuclear reactor (it's action is fusion not fission as such, so that hydrogen is smashed onto hydrogen and this creates helium and so on releasing vital energy which is used for life here by plants in their leaves via the Krebs cycle that produces sugar, this complex and mysterious biochemical process starting with the actions of a single photon affecting chlorophyll and displacing one electron..."

12:36 am  
Blogger Richard said...

O'Hara and Ashbery were good friends and were both at Harvard (or similarly higher education). Schulyer who I love very much is another and they all knew Auden. I also like O'Hara. Tragically he was killed while quite young.

For me Ashbery is a genius (but that is only my reaction, I'm not very keen on the Beats). But Schuyler is up there also.

As to rhyme, Milton abandoned it for his 'Paradise Lost'.

But it is not a is better than b etc there are many styles and everyone has a different way of seeing poetry art etc.

Ashbery and O'Hara were very much into films and popular as well as "high" culture. Not sure you can quite call him a card carrying "postmordernist"...he is unique. Very inventive.

12:49 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...

John Ashbery is also a visual artist:
http://www.nytimes.com/
slideshow/2008/09/12/arts/0914-COTT_index.html

"

Thanks for this and the article. I knew he was very interested in art but didn't know he did collages. I knew of his association with Brainard and his (or their) brilliant "Vermont Note Book." (Possibly one of his best books) That they did. Also he is keen on "Baxter" and many other artists (Ernst, de Chirico and Joseph Cornell, Jeff Poons etc) He also likes the musicians Charles Ives, Eliott Carter, Respighi and others (as I do) and poets such as Mathew Arnold (I love his Dover beach and Emedecles at Etna) or other slightly less fashionable writers.

Amazing individual, but I have never felt any arrogance in his writing or attitude. He is witty and ingenious but gentle.

1:27 am  
Anonymous Harry Doyle's Mum said...

Richard Taylor looks like Frank Sargeson with the wrong hat on.

8:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what if you don't get it?

11:35 am  

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