One of the most acclaimed poetry books of 1956 was Richard Wilbur's The Things of This World, published by Harcourt, Brace. Here is the title poem:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple.
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go sweet and fresh to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance." (1)
This much anthologized poem (2) provides us with an interesting index to Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties. Its thirty lines are divided into six five-line stanzas, the meter being predominantly iambic pentameter ("Sóme are in smócks: but trúly thére they áre"), with some elegant variation, as when a line is divided into steps (see lines 4, 15, 18, 30), presumably to create a more natural look. A similar effect is gained by the absence of end rhyme, although there is a good deal of alliteration and assonance (e.g., "And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul").
"You must imagine," Wilbur remarked in an interview, "the poem as occurring at perhaps seven-thirty in the morning; the scene is a bedroom high up in a city apartment building; outside the bedroom window, the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky and one has been awakened by the squeaking pulleys of the laundry-line." (3) What interests me here is the pronoun "one." Indeed, in the opening stanza, the references are to "The eyes," not "My eyes," to "the astounded soul," not to "my" astounded soul. The claims the poem will evidently make are for the universality of the experience described. Or so it struck three poet-critics--Richard Eberhart, Robert Horan, and May Swenson-- who responded to Wilbur's poem in Anthony Ostroff's anthology The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. (4)
"The important thing about Wilbur's poem," writes Eberhart, "is that it celebrates the immanence of spirit in spite of the 'punctual rape of every blessed day.' The conflict is between a soul-state and an earth-state. The soul wins. The soul, felt as a vision of angelic laundry on awakening, must still be incorporated into the necessities and imperfections of everyday reality. Man is redeemed by the angelic vision" (AO 4). In the last two stanzas, as Robert Horan adds, "the soul (like the laundry emptied of too seraphic a breath), descends to accept the waking body, even though it be in bitter love" (AO 7) Indeed, the poem moves toward the "acceptance of the fact that the sweating, ruined, half-penitent world must be clothed with our compassion. The angel must become human, as heaven must become the street where we walk" (AO 8).
The ideal, for Horan and his fellow poet-critics, is the "difficult balance" of the poem's last line, the balance between body and soul, the material and the spiritual, the disembodied angels and the "heaviest nuns walk[ing] in a pure floating / of dark habits." "The modern lyric," declares May Swenson in her commentary, "is autonomous, a separate mobile . . . an enclosed construct . . . a package individually wrapped" (AO 12). Such an individual package depends upon the careful control of tensions and balances. Notice, for example, the tension between words of stress ("pulleys," "hangs," "shrinks," "gallows") and those of rest ("calm swells," "impersonal breathing," yawns)," between white ("angels," "water," "steam," "linen," "pure") and red ("rape," "rosy," "warm look," "love," "ruddy"). "The whole poem," writes Swenson, "is in fact an epitome of relative weight and equipoise" (AO 16).
The Age Demanded such equipoise, an equipoise, epitomized in 1956, in the poetry world of the Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, and so on, by metaphysical poetry, especially that of John Donne, and, more immediately for Wilbur, by the Yeats of "Sailing to Byzantium," who referred to the soul as "clap[ping] its hands" and singing. Responding gratefully to his three readers, Wilbur adds that there are also important allusions in his poem: the title, for example, comes from St. Augustine. And he adds: "Plato, St. Theresa, and the rest of us in our degree having known that it is painful to return to the cave, to the earth, to the quotidian; Augustine says it is love that brings us back. That is why the love of line 23 has got to be bitter--for the sake of psychological truth" (AO 18). As for Robert Horan's mild disclaimer that the poem is somewhat "fastidious" and "remote," Wilbur counters, "I've always agreed with Eliot's assertion that poetry 'is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality'" (AO 19). Hence, evidently, all those references to "one" and to "the astounded soul."
Depersonalization, ambiguity, tension, paradox. We need not dwell here on the merits (or lack thereof) of these New Critical values, for they are only too well known. Rather, what interests me about the laundry-as-angel metaphor, which is the heart of Wilbur's poem, is its curious inaccuracy. "The incident," writes May Swenson, "is so common that everyone has seen it, and . . . the analogy is . . . fitting in each of its details: a shirt is white, it is empty of body, but floats or flies, therefore has life (an angel)" (AO 13). But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which "the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky," the reality is that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan highrise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire-escapes under the newly installed TV aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.
But of course the awakening poet might not notice this because the laundry that, as Wilbur puts it, "is being yanked across the sky," as if by some blind external force, is certainly not his concern; the poet, after all, is represented as having been asleep when it was hung out to dry. Richard Eberhart seems to be aware of this aloofness when he remarks that Wilbur's "is a man's poem. Certainly not all women would like a laundry poem which pays no heed to hard work and coarsened hands. They might say, poet, have your ruddy dream, but give us better detergents" (AO 5). A remarkable fifties statement, this, in its assumption that woman is she who has "coarsened hands" from doing the laundry, while man, that ruddy dreamer, can view that same laundry as angelic. Or, to turn the dichotomy around, woman is she who only dreams of better detergents--a dream, by the way, the affluent fifties were in the process of satisfying-- whereas man dreams idealistically (and hence hopelessly) of "clear dances done in the sight of heaven," dances that might allow him to escape, at least momentarily, "the punctual rape of every blessed day."
"Punctual rape": it is the alarm clock going off, violating one's delightful daydreams, even as Donne's "busie old foole, unruly Sunne" intrudes, through windows and curtains, on the sleeping lovers in "The Sunne Rising." But in Wilbur's poem the intruding daylight is not chided, evidently because to be alive, however difficult, is to be blessed. The metaphor will not withstand much scrutiny, for here, as in the case of the laundry metaphor, the drive is to get beyond the image as quickly as possible, so as to talk about the relation of soul to body, spirit to matter--those great poetic topoi introduced by the Augustine-derived title, "Love Calls us to the Things of This World." The actual "things of this world," in 1956, it turns out, are studiously avoided. The poem refers to "rosy hands in the rising steam"--no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, an allusion to Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" (AO 4), but where are the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had seen "lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms?"
Let us look at another image of the "things of this world," circa 1956, this one not from a poem but from Robert Frank's book of photographs called The Americans, published by Grove Press in 1959, with a preface by Jack Kerouac. The Americans was the fruit of a cross-country trip, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship; its eighty-two images, culled from more than twenty thousand frames (5), range from Butte, Montana to Beaufort, South Carolina, from New Orleans to New York. Here is Frank's first picture, captioned Parade--Hoboken, New Jersey [Figure 1].
Like Wilbur's "Love Calls Us," this photograph positions the viewer/ reader at a window. But here the focus is not on what is seen (and metaphorized) outside the window but on those who are looking out and on the frame from within which they look (or don't look). Presumably these residents of Hoboken are watching a parade passing by below-- perhaps, as the presence of the flag suggests, a Veterans Day or Memorial Day parade. But who are these viewers? On the left is an elderly woman with blankly staring eyes; she wears what looks like a flowered house dress, and on her left, all but hidden by a curtain, we see an elbow encased in a sleeve made of the same fabric. Two women, then, in some sort of uniform, perhaps the insignia of inmates of an institution But the woman in the right-hand window, whose face is covered by the flag, is dressed differently; she wears a loose jacket or coat, and her upper hand looks like a prosthesis. Is the building a prison? A hospital? An old age home? Or just an apartment house? The picture is at once wholly literal and yet enigmatic: indeed, Frank may not know himself what it is he is shooting.
Interestingly, his photograph exhibits a symmetry that might be compared to the "difficult balance" of Wilbur's last line. The rectangular windows to the left and right meet the edges of the frame, the right one being cropped. The composition is divided into three almost equal parts, window, brick wall, window. Further, the horizontal rectangles--bricks, window sills, partially lowered shade in left window, and large billowing flag (which continues the lower border of the window shade)--create a deceptive grid structure--deceptive because although the windows balance one another, the figures within them do not. The accent, in any case, is on separation--of one body part from another, inside from outside, the flag from the patriotic event it supposely signifies, the viewers from the viewed. The framing, moreover, heightens the sense of confinement suggested by the uniforms--if indeed that is what the matching dresses are.
"Grainy and contrasty," writes John Brumfield, "the photograph is a bit on the harsh side, almost scuzzy, with a sour kind of bleakness emphasized by the immobility of the figures and the monotony of the building." (6) No playful "angelic vision" to redeem man here, no body waking and rising to the world in all its "hunks and colors," no acceptance of the "punctual rape of every blessed day." Which is not to say that Frank's photograph is primarily a protest image. We see women in the windows of a plain brick building bearing a ceremonial flag in honor of the parade referred to in the caption. Period. On the other hand, within the context of The Americans, Parade--Hoboken, New Jersey becomes a link in a chain, a larger image of an America in which the flag, brick wall, dark window, and people aimlessly looking, become part of a larger composition that includes countless juke boxes, lunch counters, motorcyclists, and large sedans at drive-in movie theatres. In Frank's images, people, whether alone, in twos and threes, or in crowds, always seeming curiously detached from one another. His people are nothing so glamorous as thieves to be reformed or lovers to be undone, and besides, the focus is not on their individuality but on their relationships to one another as well as to their culture.
When The Americans was first published, reaction was largely hostile, for its images did not conform to the ameliorist vision of the postwar to be found in the pages of Life and Look, or, for that matter, in The Family of Man exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in late 1955 and then travelled around the world with the subtitle "The greatest photographic exhibition of all time." Carl Sandburg, who provided the Prologue, exclaims:
Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the Family of Man aliving and continuing. Everywhere the sun, moon and stars, the climates and weathers, have meanings for people. Though meanings vary, we are alike in all countries and tribes in trying to read what sky, land and sea say to us. Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun. From tropics to arctics humanity lives with these needs so alike, so inexorably alike. (7)
So a photograph of lovers in Italy is juxtaposed to a "comparable" one from New Guinea (see figures 2 and 3), nude pregnant women roaming the rocky steppes of Kordofan (figure 4) are juxtaposed to a blonde pregnant American woman, cosily nestled under a blanket contemplating the pussy cat at her feet (figure 5), and so on. Everywhere, it seems, love calls us to the things of this world.
"Poems," Richard Wilbur remarked in an interview, "are not addressed to anybody in particular." The poem . . . is a conflict with disorder, not a message from one person to another." (8)The poem as "message from one person to another": Frank O'Hara, we shall see, adopted precisely this Wilburian negative, or rather, he had already adopted it before Wilbur made this pronouncement. I shall come back to this point but, for the moment, let's backtrack and try to understand this "conflict with disorder," this containment of chaos, or, as Reuben Brower called it in The Fields of Light, "the aura around a bright clear centre." (9) Robert Frank, an emigre from Switzerland (the one neutral country during the war), who came to the U.S. in 1947 at the age of twenty-three, to experience, at first hand, the fabled American freedom, (10) had nothing at all to say about bright clear centers. But the dominant discourse of the period, whether in photography or poetry, was both centered and centrist, even when, as in the case of Robert Lowell, it was much darker than Richard Wilbur's genial one. The "skunk hour" of Lowell's famous poem, for example, is defined by its allusive relationship to St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul, and centered by the sign of the "chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church" that dominates Lowell's Maine village--the emblem, for the poet, of a residual and dessicated Puritanism that could only poison human lives.
In "Memories of West Street and Lepke," which appears just a few pages before "Skunk Hour" in Life Studies (1959), Lowell refers to the decade as the "tranquillized fifties." The reference is specifically to Miltown, the first of the popular tranquillizers ("Tamed by Miltown, we lie on mother's bed" is the opening line of "Man and Wife"), but of course it points more generally at the supposed political apathy and complacency of the affluent fifties. Yet the adjective "tranquillized" gives us little sense of the actual faultlines of the period -- faultlines visible when we read Robert Frank's The Americans against The Family of Man and, as we shall see below, when we read the more radical poets of the fifties against a poet like Wilbur. First, though, I want to sketch in the tensions in question.
The lead story of the January 23, 1956 issue of Newsweek was called "The Eisenhower Era." Although the President had not yet made up his mind to run again (that didn't happen until March), and although the public worried that Ike's failing health would put Nixon, who was generally disliked and mistrusted, (11) just "a heartbeat away from the presidency," Eisenhower was enormously popular. Polls gave his performance a 75% approval rating, and no wonder: as Newsweek records, jobs were up from 61.3 to 65 million, taxes were cut although inflation was down, and 57% of Americans owned their own homes as compared to 55% in 1952. The country was at peace--ten years after the end of World War II, three years after the end of the Korean War, and a decade before there was full-fledged war in Vietnam, Americans were not fighting anywhere on the globe. And even McCarthyism was losing its force: the Senator, curtailed by the Senate's condemnation motion of December 1954, was to die within the year.
In his Introduction to Colliers's new series on "The American Tradition," Henry Steele Commager asked, "What has America meant to mankind?" and he replied:
It has meant a chance to prove that men could govern themselves, and to show that a vast continent with the greatest diversity of interest and mixture of peoples could nevertheless hold together as a single nation. It has meant an example to the whole world of expansion without imperialism and power without militarism. And it has meant freedom--freedom from tyrannical government, freedom from economic oppression, freedom from ignorance and superstition.
These are all part of the American tradition, and so, too, those less dramatic and quieter things--the land itself, so spacious and various and beautiful, the struggle with the frontier carried on from generation to generation; the spread of plenty and well- being over a large area; the widest experiment in public education in all history, schoolhouses in every village and town, and colleges and universities in every state of the land; the elevation of the status and dignity of woman; philanthropy on a scale never before practiced; the spread of libraries and museums and orchestras and the quickening of pride in the commonwealth. All this, too, is part of the American tradition. (27 April 1956, p. 21)
From the hindsight of 1996, we tend to read these optimistic and patriotic declarations of '56 with great skepticism. But it's important to remember that there was a grain of truth in Commager's article: the creation of new universities, orchestras, libraries, and cultural centers was astonishing as was the affluence that made it possible for, say, the young Allen Ginsberg, arriving in San Francisco in 1954 with only $20 in his pocket, to land "almost immediately" a market research position with Towne-Oller Associates, an elegant firm on Montgomery Street. He had a secretary and was making up to $450 a month. (12) And when, a few months later, Ginsberg told his psychiatrist that what he really wanted to do was to stop work, write poetry, spend days out of doors, visit museums and friends, and cultivate his own perceptions and visions, Dr. Hicks replied, "Well, why don't you?" A challenge that Ginsberg quickly accepted, managing (on what?) to produce the poems to be collected in Howl (1956). (13) On the other coast, meanwhile, Frank O'Hara, living with a succession of friends and lovers in a succession of wonderfully cheap apartments (c. $60 a month), was able to find work at the ticket booth or card shop of the Museum of Modern Art so as to support his poetic habit. But then of course O'Hara and Ginsberg were hardly members of the working class. They were Ivy Leaguers (Harvard and Columbia respectively), and in the mid-fifties Ivy Leaguers could always get by somehow.
Indeed, the affluence of the Eisenhower years was nowhere more visible than in the booming university culture (thanks to the GI Bill) and arts establishment. It was a time of ardent Francophilia: on Broadway, Julie Harris was starring in The Lark, Jean Anouilh's sentimental psychodrama about Joan of Arc, and Giraudoux's version of the Trojan War, La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu was a big hit in Christopher Fry's verse translation, Tiger at the Gates. The Comedie Française on tour presented Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme and Marivaux's Arlequin poli par l'amour. Simon and Schuster brought out an English translation of Proust's Jean Santeuil (reviewed in The Nation by Mina Curtis), Vintage published Montaigne's autobiography, Baudelaire's art criticism (under the title The Mirror of Art), Bergson's Comedy, Gide's Strait is the Gate and his Journals, and Camus's The Rebel. And Harcourt Brace published a new translation of Molière's Le Misanthrope by none other than Richard Wilbur.
It was still a time, then, when mainstream publishers brought out "serious" literary works, preferably French or at least foreign (but rarely, in this early postwar period, German). And not only literary: Doubleday, today a largely commercial house, published a new translation of Diderot's Rameu's Nephew, Ortega y Gasset's Dehumanization of Art, Henri Frankfort's Birth of Civilization in the Near East, Arthur Waley's Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, and, what was to be a central work for both John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, Suzuki's Zen Buddhism, Selected Writing.
The reader will have noticed by now that, so far as foreign high culture is concerned, Writer almost invariably equaled Male, Simone de Beauvoir's Mandarins, being a major exception. At the same time--and this is an interesting spin on the culture industry--the U.S. novel (as well as a fair amount of the poetry, from Leonie Adams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Bogan, to Babette Deutsch, Carolyn Kizer, Elizabeth Spencer, and Ruth Stone) was largely the domain of women. Katharine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools, serialized in the Atlantic in 1956, was one of the major literary events of a year that also boasted the publication of Mary McCarthy's A Charmed Life and Caroline Gordon's The Malfactors. An important story by Flannery O'Connor, "Greenleaf," appeared in the summer issue of the Kenyon Review. And, although I haven't done a count, reviewers in the mainstream journals and little magazines were more likely to be women in 1956 than in 1996: Bishop, Miles, and Kizer reviewed frequently for The New Republic, McCarthy, Vivienne Koch, Mary O. Hivnor, and Margaret Avison for the Kenyon Review, Dorothy Van Ghent and Marie Boroff for the Yale Review, and so on. Given the large number of women among fiction readers, women were allowed--indeed encouraged-- to write fiction, but they were almost never editors or publishers, and, with such exceptions as Hannah Arendt and Suzanne Langer, not eligible to be major "thinkers."
No wonder, then, that when a Pittsburgh TV station (WQED), aided by special funds from the Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, inaugurated a series of monthly programs on intellectuals, it was called "Wise Men." The first Wise Man of the Month was Robert Frost. "Tapping the top of a high-toe shoe," we read in Colliers (27 April), "he says poems simple in sound, profound in thought, and amazes his audience with the range of his knowledge" (p. 42). In Pittsburgh, Frost faced an audience of thousands and he was interviewed by another "Wise Man," Jonah Salk.
In response to Salk's question about poetic form, Frost made his famous declaration, "I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down," a pronouncement few established poets at the time seemed eager to quarrel with. As Wilbur put it, "I have no case whatever against controlled free verse. Yet I think it is absurd to feel that free verse--which has only been with us in America for a little over a hundred years--has definitely 'replaced' measure and rhyme and other traditional instruments." (14) As for the larger function of poetry, Frost declared that "My poems are my adjustment to the world," a revealing statement, for adjustment was one of the big watchwords of the psychoanalytic fifties, the drive to be "well-adjusted" dominating so much of the personal life of the period. In Freudian parlance, moreover, "well-adjusted" was a code-word for "straight": the "well-adjusted" got married, had families, and lived what were then called "normal" lives.
A paradox of this high-culture moment, when funds were as readily available for "Wise Men" series as for symphonies and museum exhibitions, is that, so far as the Literary Establishment was concerned, the practices of the early-century avant-garde--of Futurism, Italian and French, as of Dada and Surrealism and Russian Constructivism--might just as well have never existed. (15) The free verse / metrical verse quarrel, for example, doesn't even begin to take account of such voco-visual poetic experiments as Kurt Schwitters's Ursonate. In the Kenyon and Sewanee, the poet of choice (as Wilbur's "Love Calls Us" confirms) was John Donne (see, for example, the symposium on "English Verse and What It Sounds Like" in the Fall 1956 issue of Kenyon Review, where Seymour Chatman and Arnold Stein and John Crowe Ransom discuss Donne's prosody), the "great" modern poets, Yeats, Frost, and the Eliot of Four Quartets and the verse dramas.
Perhaps "playing tennis with the net down" seemed so dangerous because the cultural order, impressively artistic and intellectual as it was at one level, could not easily deal with the tensions just beneath the surface. In the mid-fifties, the U.S. was the richest and most powerful country in the world but also, as one critic puts it, the "most jittery." (16) And for good reason. In 1956 not an issue of Look or Colliers or Newsweek went by without some reference to the Cold War. Articles bear names like "Must our Air Force be Second Best?" (Look, May 1), "Ex-Stalinists of the West," (a discussion of the response of the various European Communist parties to Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin, which took place in April of '56; see New Republic, April 9), "The Red Atom" (Colliers, November 23), "Algeria--can France hold on?" (New Republic, April 9), "Communism in South East Asia" (Yale Review, Spring 1956), and so on. One of the most startling articles, from the perspective of later developments, is Peter Kalischer's "Upsetting the Red Timetable," in the July 6 issue of Colliers (p. 29). "Two years ago at Geneva," writes Kalischer, "South Vietnam was virtually sold down the river to the Communists. Today the spunky little Asian country is back on its own feet, thanks to a 'mandarin in a sharkskin suit,'" who was none other than President Ngo Dinh Diem. "Today," we read, "a republic nine months old, South Vietnam is alive, kicking, and pugnaciously anti-Communist." Or so it was hoped, given that, as early as 1956, according to Kalischer, 53% of all U.S. foreign aid was going to buttress the South Vietnamese armed forces.
But the obsession with the Soviet Union's possible and projected acts of aggression, excessive as it may strike us now that the Cold War is over, was by no means a figment of the Pentagon's imagination. For by the autumn of 1956, just two weeks before Eisenhower was re-elected in a landslide, an event took place that marked a significant turning point in Cold War politics. That event was the aborted Hungarian Revolution. Fighting broke out on October 23 and by the 28th, the Imre Nagy government proclaimed a cease-fire, demanded withdrawal of Soviet forces from its capital, reconstituted the pre-1947 democratic parties of workers and peasants, and announced the abandonment of a one-party regime, withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, neutrality, and free elections. The Soviets hesitated but when the West made no move, on November 4, they moved in tanks, brutally crushing the rebellion. Almost 200,000 refugees came to the U.S. within the next few months.
The press devoted a good deal of space to the failed revolution as to the Poznan workers' riots that took place almost simultaneously in Poland. Together with the Suez crisis of July (which signalled the end of British imperialism in the Middle East) and the Egypt-Israeli war that broke out in October, the year that began with such euphoric commentary on American affluence and world peace was ending in a kind of nightmare. No longer could the U.S. trust in Kruschchev's "revisionist" intentions. Even The Nation, which in the earlier months of 1956 had reported enthusiastically about the new Five-Year Plan for consumer goods (Alexander Werth, "Russia's Hopes for 1960: Steel, Power and Food," February 18), and about the Soviets's good intentions so far as disarmament was concerned (Paul Wohl and Alexander Werth, "New Soviet Blueprint: Challenge to the West," March 3), was forced to admit that the Russians were not to be trusted. "10 Days that Shook the World: The Counter-Revolution," was the title of Mark Gayn's November 10 piece about events in Eastern Europe.
And further: the difficulties abroad were matched at home by the aftershocks of the Desegregation of the Schools Act of 1954. Indeed, although one would never know it, in reading, say, The Kenyon Review or even the Black Mountain Review (Black Mountain College, incidentally, closed in 1956), the race wars were an especially poisonous feature of the discourse of these years. Even Adlai Stevenson, the darling of the liberals, was not exempt. The Montgomery bus boycott, which began in December 1955, came to a head in January '56 and brought Martin Luther King to national attention. But, as Carey McWilliams points out in an article called "Mr. Stevenson on Jim Crow" (Nation, February 18), Stevenson paid little attention to the problem.
In the September 24 issue of The New Republic, L. D. Reddick, then a student at Fisk University, reviewed Robert Penn Warren's little book, Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South. Warren, who was teaching at Vanderbilt, was extremely cautious about integration. It shouldn't, he observed, come too soon, for the Negro was not ready for it. Such caution was the theme of a Look special feature (3 April), evaluating the Desegregation Act. The issue begins by reprinting the famous Supreme Court Decision, as expounded by Chief Justice Earl Warren: "'We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place." But this view is countered in Senator Sam Ervin Jr.'s "The Case for Segregation," with its current wisdom that "people like to socialize with their own" (p. 32). And in an ostensibly neutral article called "Fear underlies the Conflict," William Atwood writes:
Whatever they may tell you, white Southerners are afraid of the Negro in their midst. And they are afraid of him today as never before. For the Negro no longer behaves like the amiable 'dark' who knew his place and did not question the white man's right to give orders.
The fear is partly political. In the Black Belt, white men shudder at the prospect of Negro bloc-voting that might put them under the jurisdiction of colored officials. Still haunted by the nightmare of Reconstruction, they now feel that any concession to Negro demands for equality means another surrender, another Appomattox.
The fear is also economic. Industrialization has enabled Negroes to earn wages that are making them independent of an economic order based on discrimination. . . . A negro with money in the bank is no longer at the mercy of the dominant race; he becomes a customer to be catered to.
And the fear is social, with profound sexual undertones. To a white Southerner, classroom integration implies a kind of social equality that does not exist even on an assembly line. He will tell you that sooner or later, some Negro boy will be walking his daughter home from school, staying for supper, taking her to the movies . . . and then your Southern friend asks you the inevitable, the clinching question, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Nigra?"
And there is nothing you can say to quiet his fears . . . that mixed schools will "mongrelize" the race. (p. 27).
Atwood doesn't say he subscribes to this point of view but neither does he condemn it. And again, it may have taken an outsider like Robert Frank to show us what everyday life in the South looked like in 1956. (figures 6 [Funeral--St. Helena, South Carolina], 7 [Charleston, South Carolina], 8 [Trolley, New Orleans]). In the latter photograph, for example, seven people -- up front, a formally dressed white man and, behind him, white woman, in the rear, a shirtsleeved black man and casually attired black woman, and in the center, two white children, dressed up in what look like party clothes, with their all but invisible black nanny hovering behind them-- are placed within a tight grid: windows separated by metal strips, upper rectangular panels, reflecting only dimly what is going by outside the streetcar, and the metal surface below the window, again broken up into rectangles, separated by a studded strip. The grid indicates not only race but gender separation and hierarchy: in all three cases, the man (or little boy) comes first.
None of the passengers look at one another; rather, all are looking out at something--but what? The white man's face is veiled by the reflection of the glass because his window is down, the white woman's head is cropped as is the black woman's elbow. But whereas the whites sit facing front in "normal" position, the children and tbe black man and women are turned 90%, facing out of the window, the black woman in back looking over her left shoulder. The photograph makes no overt comment on segregation, the faces of the blacks at the rear of the car, for instance, show no anger. But the image of the jail-like grid is there, startling testimony that the Family of Man, the entity that Sandburg called "one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being," is more accurately an aggregate of wholly separate beings placed together in a series of arbitrarily defined spaces that have been assigned to them. "Robert," said Allen Ginsberg in a 1985 piece on Frank's work, "had invented a new way of lonely solitary chance conscious seeing, in the little Leica format. . . . Spontaneous glance--accident truth." (17)
"Lonely solitary chance conscious seeing": Ginsberg might have been talking about his own poetry or, for that matter, of the "New American Poetry" as it manifested itself in 1956, the year of Howl, as well as of some of Frank O'Hara's most important "lunch poems," (18) and of John Ashbery's Some Trees, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for 1956. The usual view is that Ginsberg was a "public" poet, O'Hara and Ashbery much more private and "apolitical" ones, but it would be more accurate to say that in the work of all three (and this is also true for their intersecting but different circles), the political is internalized in very curious and complicated ways. Complicated in that, unlike their avant-garde precursors of the early century (Mayakovsky, an important model both for Ginsberg and for O'Hara, is a case in point), fifties poets, however radical or counterculture they took themselves to be, seem to have had no meaningful access to a public sphere that operated according to increasingly incomprehensible laws.
A terrifying and ideologically charged war had just been "won," but before the lessons of that war and the Holocaust could in any way be assimilated, much less digested, our former allies, the Soviets, were shown to have committed genocide that rivalled Hitler's--genocide, moreover, against their own people, beginning with the destruction of the peasantry in the course of the collectivization of the farms and culminating in the Gulag. The cycle of totalitarianism and death seemed to be starting all over again, this time with the new threat of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Cold War was just that--cold--which is to say a very distant reality to those who actually lived their everyday life in the New York or San Francisco of the later fifties. If you were a male white poet, even a gay male white poet in 1956, the reality of everyday life was the reality of possibility. New ballets to see and great Italian movies to go to, new gay bars in the Village or in North Beach, new art galleries showing breakthrough painting and performances of John Cage's "Music of Changes." At the same time, for Ginsberg, as for O'Hara and Ashbery, possibility was consistently threatened by the awareness that there were jobs they, as gay men, could not hold, places they were not wanted, and that the bars they frequented were regularly raided.
Diagnosis and critique, thirties-style, were out of the question, there being no specific "them" to blame for international conditions and no commitment, as yet, to focus on the plight of minorities at home. Better not to think about politics at all and to concentrate, as fifties poetry did with a vengeance, on personal fulfillment. Even Ginsberg's "angelheaded hipsters," after all, were those who, in the words of "Howl," "drag[ged] themselves through the negro streets" (notably not their streets but the streets of Harlem) "looking for an angry fix," or "drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity." (19) En route to vision, there was a good deal of contradiction, as in Ginsberg's marvelously comic, marvellously painful ode of 1956 called "America." It begins:
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can't stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don't feel good don't bother me. (20)
Warren Tallmann rightly called "America" "the nearest thing to a purely clown poem Ginsberg has." (21) It's not that the poet isn't genuinely worried about the atomic bomb and the Cold War, but the relationship between public and private has become so fractured that the strongest urge is to opt out. "I don't feel good don't bother me" is a candid admission that he, at any rate, doesn't want to participate--not in war (Ginsberg was not drafted because of his near-sightedness), but not in oppositional activity either. The only way to respond, it seems, is to play the fool:
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument. (AGCP 146)
But what is rarely remarked is that the droll self-deprecation we find in "America" is itself a function of affluence. Consider the following lines:
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet. . . .
My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right.
I won't say the Lord's Prayer
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations
America I still haven't told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I'm addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It's always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious.
Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America,
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven't got a chinaman's chance.
I'd better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints ot marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour
and twenty-five-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live
in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic. (146-47)
The latter part of this passage acts as an index to the U.S. "concerns" of the day, as reported in the newspapers-- the U.S. obsession with Communist China, the flaunting of "national resources," the burgeoning prison and mental-hospital population (Ginsberg knew the latter at first hand), and the public indifference to the underprivileged "liv[ing] in my flowerpots" (a foreshadowing of the homelessness to come two decades later). And Ginsberg is wonderfully deft at weaving together the clichés of press talk ("Asia is rising against [us]") with ordinary racist cliché ("I haven't got a chinaman's chance"), memories of personal oppression, as in the reference to Uncle Max, jokes about middle-class morality ("I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go"--this latter, a reference to William Burroughs, who went there for the sake of the drug culture), and finally with the common wisdom of the day (pace then Senator John F. Kennedy) that a Catholic could not be elected president in the Protestant U.S.
But it is also the case that Ginsberg's absurdist "holy litany" is predicated on the availability of possessions undreamt of by the citizens of other nations in 1956-- plenty of free time, liquor, marijuana, the public library, and money to pay the psychoanalyst-- so that the "national resources" he lampoons so brilliantly are also ones he takes for granted. Again, the catalogue "America free Tom Mooney / America save the Spanish Loyalists / America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die / America I am the Scottboro boys" and the spoof on anti-Communist paranoia in Ginsberg's "cigar-store Cherokee" (22) parody dialect--"The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages. . . . Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations" (H 33)-- is undercut by the campy conclusion:
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Here is a twist to "Love Calls Us to the Things of this World" that Richard Wilbur didn't have in mind. Ginsberg's candor and colloquialism, his pointed imagery (so different from Wilbur's elegant metaphysical conceits), his defiantly anti-poetic, non-scannable chant-like verse, his willingness to let it all hang out, his refusal to play the game, his admission of weakness--these were surely a breath of fresh air in the poetic world of 1956. Indeed, the stunning conclusion, with its allusion to Whitman's equally queer if more decorous apostrophes to America, remains a watershed in postwar American poetry.
Yet--and this is a signature of the time -- no matter how "oppositional" Ginsberg's stance purports to be, its disengagement (drop out, get high, have sex) may leave us feeling slightly queasy. Unlike its models--Whitman's "Song of Myself" and "I Hear America Singing," Blaise Cendrars's "Easter in New York," "Apollinaire's "Zone," Mayakovsky's "Cloud in Trousers"--poems where personal vision goes hand in hand with serious social critique --here putting one's "queer shoulder to the wheel" is not likely to lead to anything. "I'm in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet." Is it a wise passiveness? Or just, in the words of Ginsberg's first book title, an "empty mirror"?
A somewhat different spin occurs in a related poem of 1956,
Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them.":
It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in the sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks : it is 12:40 of
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they'll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. (23)
In this famous "lunch poem," public events obviously play much less of a role than in Ginsberg's "America." Indeed, its oppositionality would seem to be all on the level of rhetoric. For Wilbur's highly crafted stanzas, O'Hara substitutes a nervous short free-verse line, breaks coming at the least expected junctures and creating a taut suspension, as in the very first lines, "It's my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs." (24) Again, for Wilbur's studied impersonality, O'Hara substitutes the intimate address, whether to a friend or to himself, he describes in "Personism," (25) and for Wilbur's elaborately contrived metaphor (as in the case of the "angelic" bed-sheets, "rising together in calm swells / Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear / With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing"), O'Hara's "I" substitutes persons, places, and objects that are palpable, real, and closely observed.
The poet's lunch-hour walk, presumably from the Museum of Modern Art on 53d St. between 5th and 6th Avenue in the direction of Times Square, is full of enticing sights and sounds: cabs hum, laborers in hard hats (whose "dirty / glistening torsos" the gay poet subliminally desires) are eating sandwiches and drinking Coca-Cola, the skirts of girls in high heels (the then proverbial office uniform) "flip" and "blow up over / grates," the myriad cut-rate jewelry shops on 6th Avenue try to outdo each other with "bargains in wristwatches," the huge Chestfield ad above Times Square blows smoke at the cigarette-friendly pedestrian, a black man, hanging out in a doorway makes eyes at a blonde chorus girl walking by, and the Puerto Ricans on the Avenue are enough to make it, by the poet's Dadaesque reasoning, "beautiful and warm." Pleasurable, too, are the absurd contradictions representative of New York life: the "Negro . . . with a toothpick, langurously agitating," the "Neon in daylight" and "lightbulbs in daylight," the lunchspots with fancy names like JULIET'S CORNER that serve cheeseburgers and chocolate malteds, the ladies with poodles who wear fox furs even on the hottest summer day,, and so on.
But, as James E. B. Breslin noted in his excellent essay on O'Hara (JEB 210-49), the poet seems to be "a step away," not only from the dead friends (Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock) he will memorialize later in the poem, but from all the persons and objects in his field of vision "Sensations," writes Breslin, "disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Objects and people . . . remain alien to a poet who can never fully possess them"(JEB 218). The question is why. For Breslin, the poet's malaise, his inability to hold on to things, to move toward any kind of transcendence beyond the fleeting, evanescent moment is largely a function of O'Hara's unique psychological make-up. But since, as Breslin himself suggests, O'Hara's fabled "openness is an admitted act of contrivance and duplicity" (JEB 231), we might consider the role culture plays in its formation.
Consider, to begin with, the repeated metonymic displacements of specific metaphors. New York's yellow cabs are compared to bees ("hum-colored"), but their color relates them to the laborers' "yellow helmets," worn to "protect them from falling / bricks, I guess." Yellow helmets, yellow jackets: the poem's brilliance is to connect these disparate items and yet to leave the import of the connection hanging. Is the tentative explanation ("I guess") about "falling bricks" tongue-in-cheek or serious? In the same vein, "skirts" are no sooner seen "flipping / above heels" in the hot air than they are described as "blow[ing] up over/ grates," even as the sign high up in Times Square "blows smoke over my head." "Blow," for O'Hara, always has sexual connotations, but "blow up," soon to be the title of Antonioni's great film, also points to the vocabulary of nuclear crisis omnipresent in the public discourse of these years. And now the muted and intermittent sounds of skirts flipping, smoke blowing, cabs stirring up the air, and cats playing in the sawdust give way to the moment when "Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12.40 of / a Thursday." Here sound is illogically related to time: gridlock in the streets, an absolutely ordinary event in midtown Manhattan, somehow makes the poet look up at the big clock above Times Square and have the surreal sense that time iscoming to a stop. The connection is momentary (rather like an air-raid siren going off), but it changes the pedestrian's mood. At 12:40, at any rate, lunch hour has passed the half-way point, and now thoughts of the dead come to the fore--or were they already there in the reference to the "sawdust" in which the cats play? The pronoun "I" shifts to the impersonal "one"; "neon in daylight" is no longer such a pleasure, revealing as it does the "magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT," and the mortuary-like "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down," the reference to the Armory in the next line linking death with war.
By this time, the "great pleasure" of the poet's lunch hour has been occluded by anxiety. Not the fear of anything in particular: O'Hara's New York is still a long way from the crime and drug-ridden Manhattan of the nineties. On the contrary, the poet's anxiety seems to stem from the sheer glut of sensation: so many new and colorful things to see-- new movies starring Giuletta Massina, new Ballachine ballets for Edwin Denby to write about, new editions of Reverdy poems, new buildings going up all over town. Colorful, moreover, is now associated with persons of color: the poet, exoticizing the Other, takes pleasure in the "click" between the "langurously agitating Negro" and "blonde chorus girl" (a sly parody of the scare question being asked with regularity in the wake of the Desegregation Act of 1954, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Nigra?") (26) , and he observes playfully that "There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." Yet--and here the contrast replicates the juxtapositions found in Look or Colliers-- for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow ups and blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet's Corner suggests, tombs. In this context, ironically, the actual death references in the poem ("First / Bunny died . . .") function almost as overkill.
The "glass of papaya juice " of the penultimate lines sums it up nicely. Papaya, now sold in every large city supermarket, was a new commodity in the fifties; the new Puerto Rican emigres (who, for Frank, make it "beautiful and warm") were opening juice bars all over Manhattan. Papaya juice was considered not only exotic but healthful, the idea of drinking fruit and vegetable drinks that are good for you being itself a novelty in this period. The juice bar O'Hara frequents on the way "back to work" makes a wonderful contrast to the hamburger joint where he had lunch. Cheeseburger & malted: this all-American meal, soon to be marketed around the globe by McDonald's, gives way to the glass of papaya juice--a new "foreign" import. But the juice the poet ingests is also contrasted to the heart which is in "my pocket" and which is "Poems by Pierre Reverdy." The heart is not in the body where it belongs but worn externally, in the poet's pocket. And again it is a foreign (in this case, French) vintage.
In the boom economy of the late fifties, such new foreign imports created a daydream world of exotic pleasures. But the yellow helmets (also reminiscent of air raid helmets) and falling bricks, the sudden honking, the large-scale razing of buildings, and the Bullfight poster remind us, as they remind the poet, that the delights proffered by the culture are not only transient, as Breslin suggests, but that there may well be nothing behind the "neon in daylight" surfaces. Which--and this is the poet's as well as the reader's quandary --doesn't make them any less desirable. On the contrary, whereas Wilbur's "Love Calls Us," argues that we must accept the fallen world with love and compassion, "A Step Away from Them" asserts that, yes, of course, our fallen world (fallen from what?) of "dirty glistening torsos" is lovable (whether it "deserves" our love is a question O'Hara would never presume to answer!), but wonders how the hell we can survive those artificial waterfalls and falling bricks. To which the answer, in the words of the neighboring "Song [Is it Dirty?]" is "you don't refuse to breathe do you" (FOH 327).
Thus the personal becomes the political. O'Hara's close friend John Ashbery, who was, in these same years, translating Reverdy, internalized the "march of events" even more fully. His response was to produce fragmented narrative in which the hackneyed discourse of the popular press, patriotic sloganeering, literary and film allusions, and highly private references were woven together in a seemingly seamless whole, the poet shifting roles so rapidly that it was impossible to identify his voice in the poem. When it first appeared in 1956 in an edition of 817 copies, Ashbery's second book, Some Trees (Yale University Press) was a hopeless anomaly, despite its prize-winning status. (27) The poet himself was not available to defend it; he had left the U.S. for Paris in '55, not to return for a decade. In a 1988 interview with O'Hara's biographer Brad Gooch, Ashbery sketches in the background for this decade abroad:
I couldn't write anything from about the summer of 1950 to the end of 1951. It was a terribly depressing period both in the world and in my life. I had no income or prospects. The Korean War was on and I was afraid I might be drafted. There were anti- homosexual campaigns. I was called up for the draft and I pleaded that as a reason not to be drafted. Of course this was recorded and I was afraid that we'd all be sent to concentration camps if McCarthy had his own way. It was a very dangerous and scary period." (28)
But the reality of 1956 was more complicated than this later rationalization would suggest. The "danger" and "scariness" does enter the poetry, but its mediations are multiple. Here is "Two Scenes," the opening poem of Some Trees:
We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn't heard so much news, such noise.
The day was warm and pleasant.
"We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains."
A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.
This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world's history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
Terrific units are on an old man
In the blue shadow of some paint cans
As laughing cadets say, "In the evening
Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." (29)
Ironically enough, this particular poem was first published in The Kenyon Review (Spring 1956), where it was wedged between two quite conventional poems, Herbert Morris's "Twenty-Eight" and Theodore Holmes's "The Life of the Estate," the latter containing such passages as "The house sits up on the hill; and has that satisfied look / Of a head taking credit for the comfort the body enjoys in bed." (30) Given its title and its "normal" stanzaic appearance ("Two Scenes" has two nine line stanzas, its lines ranging from six to fifteen syllables), the Kenyon readership might have glanced at it and concluded that it was just another pictorial poem, with pastoral references to "tips of mountains" and "a fine rain." Those who did actually read it, however, must have been more than a little confused.
"We see us," the poem opens, "as we truly behave." Not as the familiar adage has it, "We see ourselves as others see us," and certainly not "We see ourselves as we truly are," but, inconsequentially (for how could it be otherwise, given that the other's behavior is the one thing we certainly can "see"), "as we truly behave." The assertive opening statement is thus no more than tautology, and hence empty gesture, even as the lines that follow convey perfectly reasonable information that doesn't add up because there is no context that relates "a" to "b." "From every corner comes a distinctive offering": a simple enough sentence and suggestive of formal ceremony: the journey of the Magi or homage to the Queen on her birthday, perhaps. "The train comes bearing joy" is equally reasonable, but how do "The sparks it (the train?) strikes illuminate the table"? What table? And in line 4 the expected train conductor or engineer turns out to be a water-pilot; perhaps, then, the table of line 3 was a water table. The ominously repeated reference to "destiny" defies explanation, at least at this point in the poem, but clearly the arrival of the boat (which has now replaced the train) is significant: "For long we hadn't heard so much news, such noise." Line 7 in contrast, is straightforward description: "The day was warm and pleasant" sounds like the opening of any standard short story in a highschool textbook. But again the statement is undercut: the familiar pop song line "I see you in my dreams" becomes the absurd "We see you in your hair," "hair" now rhyming with the "Air" that opens the next line, a line that recalls a Chinese or Japanese brush painting where air seems to rest "around the tips of mountains." This last statement is in quotations, but who says it?
What, then, is the poem all about? In II, which by no means follows I, the first five lines (the first three are rough hexameters) rhyme on unstressed suffixes of abstract nouns: "machinery," "honesty," "history," "authority," "poverty." The verse lumbers on dully, rather like badly written skeltonics. Yet this stanza does refer back to Scene I. The fine rain anointing the canal machinery takes us back to the movements of the water-pilot; perhaps he is steering his ship down the canal. The destiny that guides the pilot is real enough, since "This is perhaps a day of general honesty / Without example in the world's history / Though the fumes are not of a singular authority / And indeed as dry as poverty." A mock-announcement is about to be made but it never occurs. Rather, the poet's camera zeros in on "an old man / In the blue shadow of some paint cans." Picasso (and Stevens's) "man with the blue guitar"? Or just an old housepainter? We can never be sure: "As laughing cadets say, 'In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is."
The last line with its Wittgensteinian twist might serve as an epigraph for any number of Ashbery poems and, for that matter, for the language poems that are their successors. On the one hand, procedure is all--everything has a schedule, a formula, an instruction manual. On the other, you can never "find out what it is." Its meaning eludes us. But the "if" ensures that we keep on looking. And indeed, "Two Scenes" is not at all non-referential. When we reread it, we note that it foregrounds the basic need to decipher what one sees--to catch that "distinctive offering" coming to us "from every corner." And the ciphers are indeed tantalizing, the train, the sparks that illuminate the table, the water-pilot making his way through the canal in a fine rain, the canal fumes, the blue shadow of the paint cans, the laughing cadets. Is this a journey up river in a Conrad novel? Are we witnessing a love scene ("We see you in your hair")? Or a film account of mobilization, the laughing cadets waving goodbye to those of us who remain behind?
One way to approach these questions it to read the poem as a cultural as well as a lyrical text. The mid-fifties, as we have seen in Henry Steele Commager's paean to America, was a time bloated with patriotic and nationalist slogans. "Destiny guides the water-pilot and it is destiny," surely echoes Roosevelt's ringing "I have a rendezvous with destiny" as well as the Hollywood film God is my Co-Pilot. "This is perhaps a day . . . without example in the world's history" recalls the President's reference to December 7 (Pearl Harbor) as a day that shall live in infamy, even as "general amnesty" punningly and absurdly reappears as "general honesty." At the same time, Ashbery's "story-line" alludes to the drive toward epiphany so characteristic of Kenyon Review short stories ("The sparks it strikes illuminate the table"), as well as to the master narrative of the period which was relentlessly Freudian, authoritatively guiding those ways in which "we truly behave," even as the movies increasingly guided the ways in which we looked. There is not an image in Ashbery's poem that we haven't seen somewhere else (think of all the fifties movies where a train chuffs into town, purportedly bringing "joy"), not an image that hasn't been recycled from another unnamed source. And the laughing cadets serve as a reminder of military operations, of the boy soldiers about to given a schedule, but for what? It seems that even here war is not so far away.
Ashbery's lines are ungainly, his language like "Terrific units" designedly anti-poetic. Allusion, used pointedly and sparingly in poems of the Wilbur tradition, is now the very fabric of the poem--everything alludes to something, if you can find out what it is. Note that unlike Wilbur, Ashbery makes no claim to know "the things of the world"; indeed, things have become so much "canal machinery," as equivocal as Robert Frank's quite literal but ultimately opaque images. Unlike the Ginsberg of Howl or the O'Hara of Lunch Poems, Ashbery does not place himself at the center of the poem. "I" becomes "we" becomes "you." The subjectivity of the poet is thus everywhere and nowhere, which is another way of saying it is inextricable from the poetic language itself. Perhaps, in the wake of "Wise Man of the Month" discourse, this was the most adequate way of coming to terms with a public sphere as baffling as it was impenetrable.
Ashbery's lyric mode in this, the very first of the texts in his Selected Poems (a mode, incidentally, that has not changed significantly over the years) has enormous implications for the poetry of our own time, although it is only fair to say that in the nineties, as in the fifties, the dominant poetic paradigm is not unlike the Wilbur model (or module), with its drive toward profundity, its desire to "say something" about body and soul, love and war. The later fifties mark, in this respect, an important turning point. In 1956, we might say, public spectacle, especially as filtered through the media, had become at once so threatening and yet so remote that the easiest poetic (or artistic) path was to pretend none of the negative symptoms existed. Didn't The Family of Man prove that love, childbirth, illness, and death were the same the world over? And weren't those elaborate conceits treasured by mainstream poets timeless and universal?
In this context, counterculture poetics could only respond with what was quite literally an opening, but no more than an opening, of the field. Questions of politics were neither dramatized as, say, in Yeats's great "Easter 1916," which was, after all, an insider's view of the "Irish Question," nor used parabolically as in Auden's poems of the early forties. Rather, the political was internalized, whether in the campy rhetoric of Ginsberg's "America," or in O'Hara's unwillingness to rationalize everyday experience, or in the complex parodic versions of Ashbery's "'They Dream Only of America'," poems, where the political is always present, "if you can find out what it is." In this sense, oppositional poetry of the fifties was cool rather than hot, mordant and witty performance rather than its more contemplative, engaged, and analytical European counterpart, as found, say, in the lyric of Paul Celan or Ingeborg Bachmann. War as daily reality (rather than as newspaper report or speculation about nuclear testing) seemed very far away. Thus, when actual revolutionary struggles occurred, as they did in Montgomery in January and in Hungary in October of '56, the poets seemed to be looking in some other direction. Rather like the riders on the trolley in Robert Frank's great photograph, looking out with rapt attention at the images going by, but remaining, at least for the moment, "a step away from them.