The Odd Couplet

Most long poems blend lyric and narrative, the impulse to embody the self in language and the drive to tell others' stories. Nineteen ninety-eight brought a spate of book-length poems— namely W.S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs, C.D. Wright's Deepstep Come Shining, and Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red. Lyric, in big poems, tends to associate itself with the inward and the aesthetic, with beauty as its own excuse for being. Narrative in long poems presents at least some people who aren't the poet, showing them in action— which may be why story in the modern long poem sometimes gets associated with ethics, giving poets and readers reasons to think about what people ought to do.

John Ashbery's and Les Murray's new book-length poems fall at either extreme: Ashbery denies readers the rewards, and the lessons, we associate with stories; his feints and withdrawals and mere hints of story line leave us instead with the pleasures of odd, baroque language. By contrast, Murray's novel-in-verse drenches its readers with story, history, characters, adventures, even morality. If Ashbery gives us inspiringly odd modes of thought, Murray dramatizes ways to behave.

Skim John Ashbery's new long poem, Girls on the Run, and it will look like a story about the whimsical girls of the title. Read it carefully, and the story dissolves into snippets, asides, blurry half-persons mentioned and then obscured. Following it from cover to cover can be as exhilarating, and as frustrating, as trying to follow 10 feature-length cartoons played at the same time. Girls presents a cast of girls and grown-ups— Jane, Judy, Persnickety Peggy, Trevor, Emily, "good General Metuchen," Dimples, and Shuffle (among others). It begins as if at the start of a story: "A great plane flew across the sun/and the girls ran along the ground." But (as Ashbery's readers will expect) no tales it offers ever quite coalesce: the local coherences can't be fit together.

All aboard: Les Murray gives us an around-the-world adventure novel in verse.
Peter Solness
All aboard: Les Murray gives us an around-the-world adventure novel in verse.


Girls on the Run
By John Ashbery
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 64 pp., $20
Buy this book

Fredy Neptune
By Les Murray
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 255 pp., $27.50
Buy this book

Yes, Stuart Hofnagel, they came to you, they'd expected big things

of you back in Arkadelphia, and now you were a soured loner like anybody.

Old town, you seem to remember otherwise. That was you backing into love, wasn't it? So we all came and were glad that day.

That was all a fine day for us.

What happened to Stuart? A few lines later Hofnagel is not even history: he is as forgotten as dreams, even though when we made his acquaintance we couldn't help treating him as a character with a past. (We meet him once more for two lines on the poem's next-to-last page.)

Learning to enjoy Ashbery on his own terms means learning to live without plot, learning to enjoy and sympathize with his playful "seething ambiguity" and to appreciate his category mistakes, pseudocausality ("This/pen is for you because you're about twenty-four"), mock argument ("Count the dogs as furniture/as otherwise there will be no chairs"), and deictics that could point anywhere.

What in Ashbery's short poems form into ideas or symbols here become tactics that defeat our ways to organize language into stories about a world. If those ways get defeated too rapidly, we cease to invoke them at all, and confront a barrage of directionless phonemes. Girls proves Ashbery's genius by compelling our attention even as the props of plot go AWOL; his creative fecundity and supple syntax set scenes up as fast as he knocks them down.

Ashbery shows that we can feel for what we can't quite follow: Girls is frequently moving, and it sustains its emotional ballast whenever the scenes and tricks run thin. Ashbery's endings, in particular, can be frankly elegiac, real grief for friable memories amid the trompe l'oeil storefronts:

They closed

the place, the food court, they all

have gone away, it's restless, and mighty, as an ark

to the storm, yet the letter

of the law is obeyed, and sometimes the spirit

in forgotten tales of the seekers O who were they?

Mary Ann, and Jimmy no but who were they?

Girls may promise a story (and fail to provide one), but it gives us instead a way to feel and think about the stories in our own lives— if we don't know Ashbery's Jimmy, each of us might have a Mary Ann of our own.

Poems like Fredy Neptune, on the other hand, show us the passage of time in the world, how other people have lived, and how history has changed their plans. Murray is at least as famous in Australia as Ashbery here; Fredy Neptune is Murray's best work yet, an almost completely successful round-the-world adventure novel in enticing, flexibly slangy (and very Australian-sounding) eight-line stanzas. Murray follows the intercontinental travails of Fredy Boettcher, an ethnic German Australian seaman, from the start of the First World War to the end of the Second. Fredy sees Armenian women burnt alive in Turkey; the trauma gives him temporary leprosy, and when it subsides he has superstrength but no sense of touch or pain.

Fredy's shipboard jobs, and his flights from police states, take him to Cairo, Berlin, Jerusalem, Hollywood, Paris, Shanghai, and New Guinea, where he works or doesn't work as a reporter, a fisherman, a circus strongman, a steelworker, an extra in the American film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, a logger on an Australian riverboat, and a hobo, among other things.

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