Barbara’s comment-response to Terreson’s question as to her own ideas and way about poetry – that her choices of subject in her blog posts are reflective of her overall interests and commitments to and within writing, if I’m hearing her right – has me recalling my first foray into reading John Ashbery’s art writings collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 some years ago, and the subsequent recognition that learning a great deal about Ashbery’s sense of attention through these writings was opening me up to his poetry in a way that felt much freer than any approach I’d taken previously (I was something of a struggling reader at the time, the mid-90s, generally speaking – though I doubt I would have characterized myself that way back then).

What now seems especially useful out of that experience was catching that the range of subjects in those chronicles was fairly wide, and the types of detail that Ashbery honed in on and thereby felt capable of articulating (that may sound like a simple statement, but I’ve found in my own attempts at review writing that the things one notices and the things one can get at effectively in the writing don’t always meet) were typically placed in terms of an experience of the work as opposed to an assessment. There also appeared to be a very fluid dynamic of juxtaposition running across the writing and seeing simultaneously. All of this was helpful in giving me a sense of a mind at work, one that had an especially porous barrier between diction and perception, and I took that into my reading of the poetry and found I could sustain a deeper level of attention to the choices being made syllable by syllable.

This past summer I had the good fortune of being present for an informal talk by the writer Renee Gladman that in part covered her own process of getting from the constellation that is mind into the linear progression that is a sentence. At one point she posed a question that I took to be usable in a number of internal and external conversations: “what are the conditions that make this writer relate to language in this particular way?” It’s a fabulous question, as I see it anyway, in no small part because it’s meant to allow for a gradual recognition of a mind at work without trampling on the sensibilities of writer or reader. The question also allows for open speculation as to what those “conditions” might be, which means, I think, that another body of knowledge does not have to be necessary to begin formulating an answer. The idea is to get back into the writing and re-center one’s attention on the dynamic present between mind and language.

It’s also an easier question to ask of somebody else’s work, as opposed to your own, though I suspect any kind of answer you’d get out of placing yourself under that microscope would be useful so long as you had your story right (if that’s possible). One real difficulty might be having to account for your own idiosyncrasies that are not part of some moment of programming, if you’re even aware of them (or your programming, for that matter).  Some writers have a way with upending questions meant to be searching and “fair”. I remember hearing the poet and translator Vyt Bakaitis respond to a question at a q-and-a as to whether he dreamed in English or Lithuanian by pausing for a moment, then saying, “I don’t know that I dream or think in language.” He was very serious, and I’ve been “in love” with that sentence even since.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2009

The son of poets Alice Notley and the late Ted Berrigan and stepson of poet Douglas Oliver, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming...

  1. October 13, 2009
     pam lu

    hi Anselm, good to see you here, and great post. Ashbery's art writings also helped me get behind the sensibilities and movements in his poetry.\r

    Can anyone hope to ever get their own story right? Maybe this is a case of the curve approaching the line infinitely but never quite touching, or staring into the convex mirror with yesterday's hairdo, but as you imply it's still a worthwhile enterprise, and worth a try!