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.
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:
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
in forgotten tales of the seekers O who were
Mary Ann, and Jimmy no but who were
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.
He flies over America in a zeppelin; escapes from Nazi Germany with a retarded man whom he’s saved from castration; gets shipwrecked in the Pacific; and finds his way into and out of a pan-European secret state run by a countess. Everywhere Fredy tries to defend the helpless and gets in trouble for his plural loyalties. “The world’s divided. Not me,” Fredy explains. “I won’t shoot my left hand, nor my right.”
Murray’s strong plot, clear scenes, and memorable characters control his poem: his style serves them, not the other way around. Murray’s poem yields excerpts in the same ways as movies yield footage for previews. Here’s one scene from the L.A. section:
I was home with a cut face from an
in an oater I’d been on, and Jayne the
was in the backyard with little Charlie; he
was watering things
with a dribbling hose, but he’d made a full
circle of soak
when whing! down comes a wire from a
knot of them on a pole
above the fence, and the wet ground jitters
all round the baby. Jayne grabs for him,
steps on the wet
and howls and backpedals; I’m straight
down the stairs
and run and grab the wire.
Our hero meets Chaim Weizmann and T.E. Lawrence, and befriends a fellow German-speaker in L.A. named Marlene Dietrich. But the important supporting characters are invented, Australian, and multinational, like “Sam Mundine the Jewish Aboriginal/bait-layer from backblocks Queensland.” Fredy’s journeys and frustrations make him both an ill-fated pacifist superhero and a 20th-century Everyman, sensitive to (and on the fringes of) the worldwide horrors of the century, of which he becomes (in his leprotic phase) a map: “I opened my clothes and showed my islands and countries,/white, with red crust borders.”
Murray gives us as much adventure as we could wish, but his poem is really about Fredy’s ethics, which contrast charity, private life, and solidarity with cruelty, snobbery, nationalism, snooping, and snitching. Though some readers will balk at their Christian components, it is hard not to find most of Murray’s lessons simply valuable: “There’s a common human level you can strike with any people/if you don’t impose on them, or scare them, or sound strange. . . . Outside this, all things slope towards war.” If Ashbery’s slippery lyricism offers pleasures we might call postmodern, Murray’s long, globe-spanning, narrative poem gives delight that
isn’t really modern at all: it’s a gigantic, fast-paced adventure story, as good in its way as Kidnapped! or as Star Wars; like those deservedly popular tales, it wears its morals on its sleeve, and recommends ways to behave even as it presents action we can enjoy.