Trixie, the water can speak! Like a boy
it speaks, and I’m not so sure how little all
how much fuss shouldn’t be made about it.
—John Ashbery, “The Burden of the Park”
I am large. . . . I contain multitudes.
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Bully for Whitman, but what about poetry now—slandered as a gabbling elitist, lonely and long rumored dead? According to CUNY’s Angus Fletcher, poets must master “a language capable of expressing the common fact of being perpetually overwhelmed” by the multitudinous world around them, be it the speechless wonders of unmediated nature or the stunned blur of urban flux. In his upcoming study-cum-manifesto, A New Theory for American Poetry (Harvard), Fletcher celebrates the immersive “environment-poem,” a shadow tradition that originated with the Romantic-era Englishman John Clare, reached an apotheosis with Whitman, and found a later exemplar in Ashbery.
“This is not a poem merely about the environment, but the poem actually is an environment,” explains Fletcher, who is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at CUNY Graduate School, in an interview with the Voice. “That is, we readers feel we are entering into a surrounding. The poem creates a newly perceived horizon for the reader and fills in this boundary with pieces of our lives.”
While the compensatory imagination associated with the Romantics might survey the grounds in search of allegory or epiphany, “the environment-poem gets me simply to join in, become a citizen within the scene,” Fletcher says. “Whitman and Ashbery present these subjects to us more in the manner of a virtual landscape we readers begin to wander about in.” According to this rubric, a poem is a self-sustaining place unto itself, as well as an exploratory, present-tense chronicling of its own becoming—attaining no conclusions but constantly venturing toward skylines unattainable, as in an Emily Dickinson poem with its vector-like dashes.
The idea of the American poem-as-ecosystem has a long and diverse lineage. In his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson wrote, “From the moment [the poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—put himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself.” Denise Levertov built upon the concept in 1965 with “Some Notes on Organic Form,” as did Olson’s onetime Black Mountain College colleague Robert Duncan in his “Equilibrations” of 1968 (“The poem is not a stream of consciousness, but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it”) and Lyn Hejinian in “The Rejection of Closure,” published in 1984, which reads very much as a proto-crystallization of Fletcher’s thesis (and incidentally, could provide a worthy title for an Ashbery study).
The newness of A New Theory perhaps lies in the triangulation of Clare, Whitman, and Ashbery, who “all write poetry as if it were a revelatory or metaphysical journalism,” as Fletcher states in his book. Clare, the least well-known of the nexus, was a day laborer in English fen country, born in 1793, who shared an editor with Keats; the “peasant poet” enjoyed a brief London vogue before sinking irretrievably into poverty and insanity. (He spent the final 28 years of his life in asylums, where he wrote some of his greatest verse.) Ashbery devoted the first of his Norton lectures at Harvard in 2000 to Clare, praising the 1827 volume The Shepherd’s Calendar as “a distillation of the natural world with all its beauty and pointlessness, its salient and boring features preserved intact.” Ashbery’s prose poem “For John Clare” performs another distillation of perpetual overwhelm: “There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different.”
According to Harold Bloom, the “absolutely Blakean” short lyric “A Vision” is Clare’s crowning achievement (“I snatch’d the sun’s eternal ray/And wrote till earth was but a name”), but Fletcher wouldn’t want the poem’s title to mislead. ” ‘Vision’ usually means Romantic transcendence of some sort, or a Ronald Reagan version of ad copy,” he says. The environment-poem, by contrast, privileges description over inscription, the mind’s motions over its destinations, pure perception over prophecy—summoning a “democratic vista,” to borrow Whitman’s phrase, that eschews what Fletcher summarizes as the “grand, egotistically sublime Wordsworthian vision.” (Nor should you necessarily judge Fletcher’s own book by its cover: As A New Theory‘s author declares, “I can tell you that 95 percent of all so-called theory and ‘theorizing literature’ has been glorified junk; that is, mostly mindless networking jargon.”)
The environment-poem doesn’t necessarily represent a counter-Romanticism—after all, wasn’t it Coleridge who spoke of “form as proceeding”? See Ashbery in “The Art of Speeding,” when the speaker announces himself “A free-lance artist. The last and first of the romantics.” Fletcher provides a gloss: “First because Ashbery is a radically Romantic thinker in his dreaming out loud, and a great student of poets from that time, and a believer in romantic love. Last because he comes late in the game, and would preserve all the force of Romantic vision by giving it a new turn.”
Born in 1927, Ashbery had a kindred spirit in the late A.R. Ammons (1926-2001), whose monumental Garbage (1993) is as quintessential an environment-poem as Ashbery’s Flow Chart (1991), and in his onetime co-author James Schuyler (1923-1991), whose stream-of-conversation nature walks practiced what Schuyler once called “the intimate yell”—surely a modulation of Walt’s barbaric yawp. (Surprisingly, Fletcher declines to nominate a single living writer who can keep visionary company with the godhead Ashbery, the most influential poet of both his generation and the next.)
In aligning Whitman and Ashbery, A New Theory may disturb the thumbnail consensus on both: big bear Uncle Walt, the “accessible,” “earthy,” “popular” former newspaperman who translated High Romantic sublimations into the American demotic; and the elusive JA, the “difficult,” “abstract,” “private” New York School star, scion-in-verse of Wallace Stevens. How would history be different if, say, Bill had given Monica a copy of Ashbery’s (in)famously experimental The Tennis Court Oath? (Blatantly unrepresentative sample line: “the clean fart genital enthusiastic toe prick album serious evening flames”!)
Especially after reading A New Theory, though, the ample affinities leap and spark: Ashbery’s “At North Farm” scans like the answer-poem to Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Some Trees” appears as the forest neighbors to “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” and so on and on. “Whitman and Ashbery share a fascination with the myriad small details of life that make it what it is, day to day,” Fletcher says. “They project these details into a tapestry, a larger description of our democratic life and hopes and fears. They share a freedom of form; they keep inventing new poetic shapes. They write poems endlessly, as their chosen form of life, as their continuing biography of the soul.” And they implore us to make a fuss, to pay attention: “The environment-poem stays in the present,” Fletcher says, “and tells us always, There is more here than meets the eye, so keep looking.”