Author: R.S. Stewart

JOHN ASHBERY: POET AMONG PAINTERS AND COMMONERS

By R.S. Stewart John Ashbery, who died on September 3rd at the age of 90, was the most highly praised English-language poet of the second half of the 20th century. He was also prolific and controversial. He came to modest fame in 1956 when W. H. Auden awarded him the prestigious Yale Prize for Younger Poets for his volume Some Trees, and came to a more encompassing fame in 1976 by winning the “triple crown” of poetry: the Pultizer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Critics Circle Award for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the only book of poems ever so honored. Why does Ashbery overshadow so many outstanding poets of his generation: Adrienne Rich, A. R. Ammons, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and many others? One reason could be his penchant for the long poem, abandoned since Wallace Stevens. Four of his volumes contain only one long poem in each; and other volumes contain a final closing long poem. He might be called the William Wordsworth of our era, since, like that Romantic poet’s The Prelude (sub-titled “The Growth of a Poet’s Mind”) Ashbery could distinguish himself as a searcher after life’s experiences as the only truth. Yet, even in his long poems, Ashbery himself is hard to find. He grew up on a fruit farm in Sodus, New York, near Rochester, and many images of ice-skating,...

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A Poet of Everyday Living

                by R. S. Stewart   The number of poems composed and published and not long afterwards forgotten in this country is  astounding. Unless a poet is anthologized frequently, taught multiple times, and written about in scholarly essays and books, the poet risks oblivion, especially in these times when literature is losing favor to computer science, when poetry as an art form suffers in a hectic and rushed society with little time set aside for studying the true pleasures of a finely-wrought poem, and when many poets are too busy writing, publishing, and promoting their own work to appreciate and ponder poets of previous generations. Ruth Stone (1915-2011) is a poet deserving a second look and remembrance. Even though she won the National Book Award for her 2002 volume The Next Galaxy, her name, itself poetic, doesn’t “ring a bell” with many readers. Her poem “In an Iridescent Time,” first published in The New Yorker under the title “Laundry” in 1958, has been a long-time favorite of mine for many reasons. Copyright regulations prohibit me from quoting the fifteen lines in full, but you can find it complete at             http//www.small-ruth.blogspot.com/2013/08/in-iridescent-time.html The most appealing aspect of her poem is that it is about something that all humans have need of. Who is not (we all should be) on...

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POETRY & BOOZE

Do poets drink for inspiration and not for other reasons that critics are hell-bent on discovering? This rhetorical question has been as thoroughly discussed as has the belief that poets and other artists are more “sensitive” than the general population.  Quick assumptions about art and where it comes from and what fuels it need to be reexamined and if not laid to rest, at least seen in a more enlightened and forgiving light. The mistaken place to begin is with definitions of “art” and “sensitivity.”  We have the Oxford English Dictionary to rely upon for root origins and multiple meanings, but how far will they take us in clarity of knowing something as wide-sweeping as art and depth-defying as sensitivity?  To define “alcohol” is much easier, an irony that will not pass by either poet or non-poet without a grin. Some poets come early to their calling. Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist and surrealist, wrote all he wanted to by the age of 19 and then abandoned literature entirely. Some come late; Amy Clampitt published her first book of poems at 63.  In stark contrast, Dylan Thomas and Anne Sexton also died young (39 and 45) because of heavy drinking; Sexton was also a suicide, another entire realm of poetic discussion. If age is not a factor in artistic achievement, what is? It certainly isn’t geographic location, since poets...

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FULL HAPPY LIVES? -A Review

Gina Ochsner’s second volume of stories is called The People I Wanted to Be, a phrase found mid-way in the third story, “How One Carries Another,” in which the narrator, a grown man, reminisces about his old paper route, walking in the rain and wind and seeing haloes of light in kitchens and on front walks of houses: “I’d watch people moving from one square of light to another, and I’d imagine the happy and full lives of those people I wanted to be.” Such a description prepares us for characters who are the complete opposite, caught in difficult...

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