Thursday, May 14, 2009

STL #84: Lines of Influence

(On Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, and Edward Field)

I have been sitting on this one for a while now so to crank it out I'll resort to both my writing tricks: 1)I'll declare an arbitrary time limit for myself (let's say one hour) and 2) begin by stating what it is I want to do with this piece.

In this piece, I want to consider the question of influence in the work of Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, and Edward Field. This focus seems especially apt given the obvious stamp of Wallace Stevens on Guest's early work, Schuyler's articulation of abstract painting's influence on his cohort of writers, and Fields's apparent separation from that primary influence of other, more well-known of the "New York poets."

I've read and enjoyed Guest's work from the 70s and 80s, and while I like these poems they are obvious apprentice work. As I said above, you can clearly see the influence of Stevens in the tourism of poems like "Santa Fe Trail" and "Piazzas," the gentile conversationalism in "Sunday Evening" (the very title of which beckons for a Stevensian comparison) and the focus on the imaginative intelligence in all the poems. These elements all come to a head in  "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher." It begins with an address to an interlocutor which is straightforward in tone but deceptively obscure in meaning:

I just said I didn't know

And now you are holding me

In your arms, 

How kind

The very next line is the refrain that provides the title.  It's not an easy line to interpret. The following imagery suggests the parachute is billowing in water as the speaker floats up past "[p]ink and plae blue fish." Following the repeated phrase, though, the speaker is trembling in "mid-air,"  having just finished swimming, and by the end of the poem she is "treading water/Near it, bubbles are rising and salt drying on my lashes, yet I am no nearer/Air than water." She is "closer to you/Than land and I am in a stranger ocean/Than I wished." This is a wonderful, mysterious poem.

In "Poet and Painter Overture,"Schuyler argues that the poets of New York are more influenced by their painter friend and colleagues than anyone else. In the New York of the 1950s, "writers and musicians are in teh poet but they don't steer.".. If you pursue too literally the analogue between painting and writing, you are bound to be disappointed. While there is something to mapping non-representational use of words in something like John Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath to abstract art, it might be better to compare the arts more loosely. I wrote a paper in graduate school (that I think was quite good, actually) that compares the New York painters' flatness with the poets' "flatness." See how clever I am with the quotation marks there--the picture field actually is flat and the the painters can manipulate that fact with techniques ranging from distorted perspective to collage. For writers following the painters' lead, "flatness" is more in attitude than anything else--as Schuyler says, "'Writing like painting' has nothing to do with it." It's hard, impossible, pointless, stupid therefore to make a direct comparison between a flat field painting by Robert Rauschenberg and the interior monologue in "Freely Espousing": 

or Quebec! what a horrible city

so Stubenville is better?

the sinking sensation 

when someone drowns thinking "This can't be happening to me!"

the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the Romans

the sinuous beauty of words like allergy

the tonic resonance of 

pill when used as in

"she is a pill"

on the other hand I am not going to espouse any short stories in which lawn mowers clack.

That last quoted line I read as a dig at the suburban fiction of John Updike and his ilk. As we wander toward that wonderful destination, we pass through a number of 'items' arranged on a field--places, thoughts, words as words, none inflected nor poignant as the inevitable central image/symbol of a lawn-mower-clacking story.

While Schuyler establishes connections with New York painters, Edward Field looks to different fellow artists. In his bio he discloses "I am trying to make the New York theatre scene." I can't find online that he ever made it, but I re-examined his poems to look for any performative influence. Read with that in mind, I guess they both sound a bit like monologues: they don't advance 'plots' but can be read as psychological portraits. El Interneto says he used his theatre training to develop a compelling reading style. I can see that, though the poems don't particularly grab me.

Further reading in Guest and Schuyler, but not Field.