John Ashbery, Selected Prose
Edited by Eugene Richie
University of Michigan Press
326 pages, $29.95
Richard Howard, Paper Trail, Selected Prose, 1965-2003
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
448 pages, $35.
James Merrill, Collected Prose
752 pages, $40.
Edmund White, Arts and Letters
350 pages, $24.95
OSCAR WILDE’S The Critic as Artist didn’t identify its author as gay, but any 1890’s reader with social experience instantly caught on: stylish fluency, irony, witty dismissals, camp, and a preference for art when it is highly wrought were instant giveaways. The famous “gay sensibility” begins in the 19th century but doesn’t end there. Firbank, Lytton Strachey, Auden, Carl Van Vechten, Glenway Westcott, Lincoln Kirstein, Charles Henri Ford, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, Edward Albee, Charles Ludlum, James McCourt, Andrew Holleran, Alan Hollinghurst, and Wayne Koestenbaum have all, at different speeds, kept the mirror-ball spinning. Fully operative in recent prose collections by Howard and Merrill, it persists only as a secondary element in John Ashbery’s and Edmund White’s. Chances are that its allure has begun to fade.
It’s for social commentators and gay theorists to determine why that is, but I can posit this much: the price of admission to the Temple of Gay Savoir, apart from sexuality, was a wide knowledge of literature and the fine arts, and few young gay men choose to pay up. All the energy formerly expended on reading, art shows, opera, ballet, concerts, theater, and European travel is now swallowed up by the gym, the beach, the circuit, the Crystal Methodist Church, and pop culture. Gay men in their twenties and thirties are no more expert in literature and art than their straight counterparts—exceptions admitted as just that, exceptions. Anyway, the role of cultural custodian, which gay men since Wilde exercised with a fervor all their own, has been adopted by the four authors of these collections, as though it demanded no effort at all.
The reviewer’s code requires stating immediately that I know all the living authors discussed here, and did know James Merrill before he died. That would disqualify anyone planning to hand out term-paper grades or best-buy recommendations, but I’m not doing that. All four are well known and laureated figures, so the value of anything they publish can be taken for granted. I notice, by the way, that some of the reviews or critical essays collected in these books concern artists or writers the author was or is quite close to; we have to be frank about gay culture’s interlocking directorates. Auden once began a review of a book of poems by his partner Chester Kallman with this comment: “That I have been very close to the present author for several decades shouldn’t prevent me now from doing a little log-rolling.”
I remember, too, a bit of dialogue in a grade-B Western made a couple of decades back. A cattleman says to Paul Newman (playing a Native American): “You Indians stick together, don’t you?” Answer: “We better.” During the second Bush Administration this home truth will be more apt than ever. If you’re tempted to dismiss the prediction as paranoia, consider the fact that, despite Pulitzer Prizes and all the rest, neither Ashbery nor Adrienne Rich nor Merrill nor Howard ever served as U.S. Poet Laureate or received a National Medal. Even in the pre-Bush era, the policy was clear: no gay poet need apply. What would Senator Helms have said? And what kind of reception can gay artists expect during the next four years?
All four of these essayists are primarily known as imaginative writers, with White the one novelist here among three poets (though Merrill and Ashbery have also written fiction). Reasons given in the prefaces for turning to criticism include the need to earn a living and the desire to be an advocate for neglected artists (some of these friends of the advocate). Each of the books also includes memoir: in fact, the complete text of Merrill’s A Different Person is included in his volume, and a long autobiographical essay is in White’s, in which he summarizes his experience trying to write and publish work with gay subjects. Both Merrill and White give an acute sense of what it meant to be a gay writer before June of 1969, the conventional date for the launching of the Queer Revolution, which opened the field for gay authors just as it seems in the long run to have decreased the number of their readers.
All these temporary critics have masters degrees with the exception of Merrill, whose reading was nevertheless extensive enough to make his essays on Cavafy, Dante, Ponge, and Bishop more than exercises in pure appreciation. Richard Howard, because he has read all the important poetry and fiction in the Western tradition, as well as the secondary literature about it, has all the equipment required for the critical enterprise. The essay here on Dickinson, for example, is more acute than the typically humdrum monograph that clogs academic quarterlies. But Howard chooses to be something simultaneously more and less than professional. Reading him, you’re always conscious of a loyalty to imaginative rather than academic criteria. His sentence structure and diction are too elaborate and archaic for the MLA, and he aligns himself with none of the current theoretical approaches. Instead, he offers a non-parochial expertise in several fine arts, “sensibility,” paradox, irony, verbal wit. His style is the closest thing in captivity to Henry James, himself a departure, even in the Edwardian era, from journalistic standards of economy and clarity. I’ve often wondered why Howard, who obviously could write in the usual way, has opted for the baroque. My guess is that he assumed it would lend authority to what he said, a replacement for a doctoral degree and regular academic titles. And so it does, at the cost of accessibility and a larger number of readers. While Ashbery and Merrill cite pompousness as a literary fault to be avoided more than any other, Howard hardly gives a thought to that risk, a risk he acknowledges only in the form of occasional deflationary quips—some of these involving sex—that an academic would instantly delete.
Possibly some of his most extravagant passages are conscious of being over the top, offered, actually, as a rarefied form of camp; for example, this from an essay about being attacked by a Bard College student on the grounds that his poems used historical subjects, various dead Europeans, etc.:
I quote this little colloquy to its appalling end to take the burden off my poems, of course—the sublimity of such ignorance, like Heidegger’s rationalism, cannot be sufficiently praised or blamed. … And was such a thing, ontologically ripped from the gossip column, the chronicle, the matrix of our records of each other which the French so wisely call commérage—was such a thing poetry?
Howard’s debate about the value of poems based on the history of Western culture revisits an æsthetic dilemma he first isolated in an earlier collection of essays devoted to his contemporaries titled Alone with America. That book proposed that American poets who first published in the 1950’s eventually ditched the Midas-like affliction of technical polish and high culture so as to make accessible—to themselves and to readers—a rawer, truer version of experience. Howard’s contradiction is that he himself didn’t follow their lead, or only occasionally did, in his least successful poems. The conflict of loyalties has apparently become acute over the years; this volume tips the balance back in favor of the golden touch, at least when he posts a brief for poets like Hollander, Merrill, Hecht, and himself.
On the other hand, the younger authors selected for a poetry series he edited usually belonged to the “uncooked” category. The book concludes with a series of introductions to first volumes Howard chose for Braziller in the 1970’s and 80’s, the choices odd in that they don’t conform to criteria argued elsewhere in the book. Most of his young hopefuls haven’t in subsequent decades turned out to be important, or not yet. Still, it’s impossible for an editor always to bat a thousand; to have helped launch the poet Frank Bidart, or the man of letters and librettist J. D. McClatchy, is something—in fact, something for queer lit. Considering the new poets he likes, it’s puzzling that Howard no longer has any use for Ashbery, whom he wrote about sympathetically in Alone in America, but whom he now regards, mistakenly, as cut off from tradition. I wonder if we should attribute that blind spot to some personal, non-textual antipathy. But everyone has special aversions, and, noting that these two poets don’t require each other, we can leave it at that.
To point out that Ashbery has an exponentially larger number of followers than Howard proves nothing, because so did Dylan Thomas when he was alive. Popularity wouldn’t matter if Ashbery’s pages failed to reward careful reading. Nor should he be judged by his disciples, most of them trying to equal him without bothering to prepare themselves as he did, and without his gift for imagery, verbal music, or montage. The new collection of essays and memorials, added to an earlier collection of writings about visual art and the volume of his Norton lectures, establishes full competence; these essays refer to a dizzying range of earlier writers and artists and couldn’t be written by someone cut off from tradition. His antecedents are the French symbolists, the American Modernists, Auden, and several French surrealists. Major figures in the tradition, though, he is willing to leave to others, probably because they are already well known and don’t need advocates.
The writers he bothers to champion are generally minor, on the barely tolerated margin because of their weirdness or opacity: Henri Roussel, De Chirico (not in his guise as a painter but as the author of Hebdomeros), David Schubert, John Wheelwright, and F. T. Prince, all of whom receive star treatment in Ashbery’s criticism. With the exception of Prince, I’d say it’s better to read the Ashberyan survey than to have to slog through these authors themselves. Any aspirant to the condition of being cultivated should have a passing acquaintance with Roussel, so I’m glad Ashbery has been willing to run interference where that bizarre, unreadable magus is concerned. Maybe it’s fair to say that he crystallizes in his own poetry whatever qualities his night-table authors possess, this time in a form we can actually respond to. The words magic and mystery crowd his essays and stand for the values he most prizes in art. By contrast, what is standard, official, familiar, approved, conventionally moral, blue-chip, or gilt-edged leaves him cold. Just as God is in the details, mystery flourishes for Ashbery in out-of-the-way corners and crevices of experience and writing.
That’s a little hard to square with his endorsement of poets like Frank O’Hara or Kenneth Koch or James Schuyler, whose chief virtues are not mystery, magic, and luminous opacity, but instead realism, humor, and descriptive skill. But they were his friends, the famous “New York School,” and so the basic sympathy requisite for appreciation of any artwork, in their instance, came ready-made. You intuit, by the way, that his friendly admiration isn’t unalloyed, Exhibit A being the double-header interview with Koch reprinted here. Beckettian or Pinteresque in its sparring, circular futility, it begs for Off-Off Broadway production and would provoke hysterical laughter with the right audience. But I don’t know what actor would be willing to play Koch, who comes across here as a schlemiel twirled like a top and bound fast by the silken hawsers Ashbery spins. It’s an example of museum-quality bitchery, which is one of our charming gay characteristics, people claim. Besides, speaking of mysteries, what friendship lacks a cruel streak?
The Merrill volume is the third in a series of Complete Works now being issued and follows a volume of shorter poetry and another of fiction and plays. A selection of letters is on the way, and all of these sumptuously produced volumes will have appeared hardly more than a decade after the author’s death. Given that he several times subsidized publication of his own books, it’s possible that the Complete Works, too, will enjoy posthumous sponsorship, as Witter Bynner’s did. I mention this as part of the effort to come to terms with Merrill’s mixed reputation. His detractors often mark what he achieved at a discount, citing his privileged status as a writer born rich and under no compulsion to accept salaried work. He had a lot of free time to spend on his poetry and the material means to attract potential champions of it; the “level playing field” counted for almost nothing in his book.
It follows that he was just as free to turn down writing assignments, so presumably all the topics he tackled were important to him. Many of the fugitive pieces collected here are introductions to readings given by his friends, along with several eulogies spoken at memorial services. Virtually all the Merrill interviews ever conducted are included, along with a commencement address, a few short stories, some undergraduate term papers, and intros to the poetry books he chose for the Yale Series. The collection gives a new edge to the word “miscellaneous,” and its exhaustiveness scores in a deeper impression of the micro-managed narcissism that also characterizes his poetry—a narcissism still identifiable even when it does a backflip into autocritique. The scalpel used for self-dissection can be extremely sharp, especially when directed at the naïve schoolboy scribbler he can only recall with a shudder. But the subject of so much fascinated scrutiny is still Merrill, who during his career produced version after version of the egotistical sublime—acne, literary ineptitude, and relaxed sexual mores not omitted.
Merrill is witty at his own expense and at others’, and I defy anyone to get through this book without experiencing guilty, participatory pleasure in its brilliantly calibrated putdowns. Some of his novelistic skills come to the fore when he discusses other authors, and his perceptive survey of Cavafy’s poems is leavened with an amusing anecdote about a Cavafy impersonator who tricked a young, partly literate Belgian into thinking he’d been swept into the arms of the great Alexandrian poet himself. Diffident about his qualifications as a critic, Merrill substitutes style, charm, and sophistication for regular professorial competence. In its way, his “voice” is an artifact as curious as Howard’s, blending formal English, posh idioms, and locutions no longer current (such as the impersonal “one”) with slang, phrases in French or Italian, and puns. He enjoys applying falsetto italicization for emphasis; deploying ingenious, sometimes hilarious metaphors; and counterfeiting the homiletic tone and diction of a retired Choate headmaster, but undermined and made quaint through the offices of irony. Sample:
The poet I was most in awe of at twenty was Rilke, as much for his poems as for the uncompromising example he set. Desiring nothing less than the full flood of unconscious or—who can say?—divine inspiration, he saw that it was out of the question to force the issue. What he could do while waiting for the lightning to strike was to keep his instrument in order by writing poems that came to him in the usual way: set pieces, minor brainstorms, beautiful feelings, bits of life which caught his eye. Such modest pursuits never kept him from giving himself the most insufferable airs.
Is Merrill the great gay male American poet of the 20th century? Contenders include Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Auden (if he counts as an American), Ginsberg, O’Hara, Schuyler, Ashbery, and Howard. But Ashbery’s poems almost never touch on gay experience, at least not identified as such. Only a few of Howard’s launch into the subject, and almost always in the key of painful, in fact corrosive, irony. Happiness doesn’t come into it, or even jollies. But he can hardly be blamed, given that the literature of American gay life is a practically unrelieved panorama of perverseness and misery. You can say this much about Merrill: love, threatened from all sides, never permanent, and the source of pain when it ends, is active and palpable in his poems. He at least knows what it is, the pain of loss being an extra certification of feelings that were real and vivifying while they lasted.
Edmund White includes essays on Merrill and Ginsberg and is easily able to adore two poets who didn’t like reading each other at all. White is a kind of Janus figure in literature, fully in command of the culture of the past but open to less refined cultural products that have emerged in the last few decades. He is the champion of Proust, but also of William Burroughs, and at least mildly appreciates Elton John, whose portrait here is funny but not venomous. You can say that White’s criticism, partly because he had to fill out his income by working as a cultural journalist, has brought him into contact with figures he might not otherwise have observed and analyzed so carefully. He makes it a gain for himself and for us. The concept of “glamour,” sternly repudiated by the serious contemporary intellectual, holds no terrors for him; quite the contrary. Hence the pieces here on Yves St. Laurent, Catherine Deneuve, and David Geffen. His portraits turn figures who’ve been up to now disembodied icons into credible characters. I was surprised by his essay on Geffen, which presents the pop music and movie mogul as a person concerned with honesty and ethics, someone you might actually like.
White is a quick study and willing to do his homework. The pieces on George Eliot and gay authors such as Wilde, Gide, and Isherwood are informed and well-argued. After all, he has already published authoritative biographical / critical studies of Genet and Proust. A special strength of his critical surveys and introductions is their exemplary style—economical, fresh, perfectly clear, and never pretentious. Diana Vreeland once defined elegance as “refusal,” and White’s elegance is based on a decision to manage without decoration or bookish diction. I can imagine him being dismissed as a popularizer; but detractors often said the same about Susan Sontag, and, considering the plight of high culture in the 21st century, this supposed failing might actually amount to a virtue.
If any critic is capable of reeling the gay audience back in and interesting it in the arts, it’s probably Edmund White. Part of his appeal comes from his ethical passion (distinct from any prim sexual morality), which translates into political perspectives as he moves from private cruelty to injustices larger in scope. He makes cogent observations about racism, anti-Semitism, institutionalized oppression of women, and the Palestinian cause. Aware that preaching is ineffective, instead he spreads the cards out on the table so that we can understand the implications at our own pace. A powerful instance is his comment on the grisly death of Joe Orton, who was murdered (with the assistance of a hammer) by his jealous partner Kenneth Halliwell. White imagines a voice from Orton’s tomb applying to Halliwell a statement that Wilde addressed to Alfred Douglas: “Your terrible lack of imagination, the one really fatal defect of your character, was entirely the result of the hate that lived in you.” Lack of imagination, which goes hand-in-hand with hatred, is fatal, then, as much to the artist as to the person who tries to choose well among competing alternatives. White leads us to see breathtaking instances of that deficiency in his essays. This new collection has already been reviewed in this journal, so let me conclude just by saying that his essays, like his fiction, suffer from no lack of imagination.
Alfred Corn’s most recent book of poetry is Contradictions (Copper Canyon Press).