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New Years Eve: No Party for Hardy December 29, 2009

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Of the three poems which Thomas Hardy penned for the occasion of the New Year (“The Darkling Thrush” [1900]  and “At the Entering of the New Year” [1918] are the other two), “New Years Eve” is the one poem that the Academy of American Poets does not want you reading this holiday season, so unseasonal is its agnosticism:

New Years Eve (1906)

"I have finished another year,' said God,
    'In grey, green, white, and brown;
I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
Sealed up the worm within the clod,
    And let the last sun down.'

'And what's the good of it?' I said,
    'What reasons made you call
From formless void this earth we tread,
When nine-and-ninety can be read
    Why nought should be at all?

'Yea, Sire: why shaped you us, "who in
    This tabernacle groan"—
If ever a joy be found herein,
Such joy no man had wished to win
    If he had ever known!'

Then he: 'My labours—logicless—
    You may explain; not I:
Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
That I evolved a Consciousness
    To ask for reasons why.

'Strange that ephemeral creatures who
    By my own ordering are,
Should see the shortness of my view,
Use ethic tests I never knew,
    Or made provisions for!'

He sank to raptness as of yore,
    And opening New Year's Day
Wove it by rote as theretofore,
And went on working evermore
    In his *unweeting way.

            — Thomas Hardy

*unweeting: unknowing

Was Hardy a killjoy? Perhaps. As a young boy, he would lie outdoors, a straw hat over his face, wondering why all the other children were so eager to become adults. Like the star characters of his novels, Hardy long suspected that the odds were stacked against his favor, that human existence was a cruel game played by higher-ups. He found little satisfaction in both his personal and professional life—his wife had some choice words to say about him in her diary, before passing away—and when charges of obscenity were too much to bear, he quietly turned to verse. (more…)

“Ashes”: The Endurance of John Ashbery May 5, 2009

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[This piece is raw around the edges. It lacks tautness and forward movement. Revisions are necessary. I post it, as I am trying to keep to a schedule. The entry will expand and morph over the next few days. Not that anyone but I will mind.]

John Ashbery

"Ashes" at 35, in 1962

John Ashbery had the worst nickname ever:

Down the dark stairs drifts the streaming cha-
cha-cha- Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide

— Frank O’Hara, “At the Old Place”

It’s rather ironic, given that Ashes has outlasted not just O’Hara but every original member of the gang of poets typically referred to as the New York School. Frank, Jimmy, Kenny, and Barb have all kicked the bucket: O’Hara, in 1966; James Schuyler, in 1991; Kenneth Koch (pronounced “COKE”), in 2002; and Barbara Guest in 2006.

But at the soon-to-be age of 82, Ashbery still endures in mind, legacy, and body. He has graced Boston with his presence at least twice this school year. I saw him last October give a reading at M.I.T., the occasion being the publication of his Collected Poems 1957-1986. And this past Saturday, Ashbery returned to his alma mater to accept the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal at the annual ARTS FIRST Festival.

In the small world of poetry, Ashbery is one of the true few celebrities. Since the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the mild-mannered Ashbery has gathered all the awards and honors possible for a poet, which makes it all the more difficult to fathom the fact that he was ever considered to be a fringe poet. How then did Ashbery become the gentle giant he is today? (more…)