William Corbett opens his marvelous book about the painter Albert York on an appealingly modest note: “York’s paintings are so clear, so able to speak for themselves, that writing about them can feel superfluous, if not rude.” But of course nothing can ever fully speak for itself. Especially the obvious. The visual is undergone first as experience, second as interpretation. And so it is with poems, especially those we love and come back to over and over.
For several decades now, Corbett has been one of our leading men of letters – the phrase itself has been rendered almost extinct in this age of ubiquitous bloggery and relentless peer-review – but I use it here to indicate a breadth of range and a fineness of attention that once upon a time was the norm, rather than the exception. As poet, essayist, memoirist, art critic, literary historian, publisher and tireless promoter of other writer’s work, Corbett is – yet ought not to be – sui generis. But even if the present time were more thickly populated by writers of comparable range, he would still be a force to be reckoned with, in a category of his own.
Yet you would never know it. He is all but ignored by the mainstream publishing industry and to his great credit he has never courted that kind of attention. Instead he has carved out his own dominion, guided only by his peerless discernment and an unstinting devotion to the art. (Here’s my disclosure: my chapbook, Antiphonal, was published in 2008 by Corbett’s Pressed Wafer. A year later, he officiated at my wedding. The chapbook is still available. The marriage, alas, is not).
Corbett’s affinities are bracing and wide: Schuyler and O’Hara; Oppen and Niedecker and Bunting; Williams, Creeley, and Heaney, all celebrants of the everyday, of lived experience, of the moment as it flickers and disappears before our startled and bemused gaze. In this sense, all poetry is elegy, because it testifies to the disappearance of a moment just after it’s appeared. Corbett’s other major vectors are painters: Philip Guston and York, to name just two. His eye is always alive to the possibilities of voice and inflection, line and form, color and tone, to “the music of what happens,” in Heaney’s celebrated phrase. What happens in a Corbett poem is the experience of the everyday rescued from penury – re-enchanted. Because “the everyday,” as the definitive category of common experience, is precisely that site where we feel at once most at home and most alienated.
This is, of course, the very definition of modernity, as documented by writers from Baudelaire to Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Frank O’Hara. Its focus is not the macro but the micro; the thousands of tiny, barely decipherable (if at all noticed) impingements on consciousness made by the 24-hour carnival that is life in the here-then-gone now. Benjamin, who perhaps more than anyone else, was the chief oracle of this momentous shift in human awareness, put it this way, when describing his massive and unfinished Arcades Project: “To detect the crystal of the total event in the analysis of the small, individual moment.” One word for what happens when the crystal shines brighter than “the total event” is poetry.
The everyday is what we take for granted, the unassuming substrate informing inner experience. It is not the medium we move through, though, so much as the medium which apprehends us, shaping and afflicting us in various and unpredictable ways. The moods, whims, obstacles, frustrations, and oddments of experience and memory, the present and the past, braid the nexus of the everyday. It is not, as the term might suggest, merely evanescent, something to undergo and shrug off, but weighted with its own history, its public ties and its secret affiliations. In a very real sense, the everyday is what comprises whatever we mean by identity – among others, and within our private rooms.
As Terry Eagleton observes, modern theories of aesthetics come in to being at precisely the time when philosophy first recognizes that some form of response to the lived experience of the body becomes necessary. This response encompasses “the whole of our sensate life together – the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of what takes root in the gaze and the guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world.” The sensate life forms the core of Corbett’s poetry. What we do. What we see. What we think. How we move.
Lapidary style is a phrase overly invoked by reviewers. What they usually mean is a kind of bejeweled yet skeletal prose. But Corbett’s poems are ones in which all excess has been pared away. They don’t shine for their own sake nor do they ever call attention to themselves. Such gestures would be flagrant fouls against the fidelity of perception. Instead they provide an irresistible and lucent rhythm: one you fall into and follow along. His best poems possess the rarest of gifts: a deceptively diaristic picture of the seemingly natural flow of thoughts as they lead from one perception to another. In this, Corbett follows Charles Olson’s urgent admonition, but in Corbett’s work these perceptions don’t move among a disparate array of history, science and the local, but within the common bounds of a life. Carefully constellated, they give the reader an accomplished form of immediacy that is at once utterly modest and thrilling. Corbett has taken to heart Basil Bunting’s stark injunction: “Pens are too light. Take a chisel to write!”
“Walking Basil” (not the poet, but a dog presumably named after Bunting) exemplifies this. I quote from part of it:
It’s not that I
want to be the man
bent to a reading lamp
or the woman with
a phone to her ear
but want that world
of domestic light
home from work to wine,
cooking smells and talk
of events, ordinary
and renewable daily.
A world always more
intense in passing
colors knit like
a lamplit Vuillard
because we eavesdrop
and are enchanted
until we long
for what we have.
In this poem, the need to belong to oneself turns outward to the greater need to belong to an intimate order. The “reading lamp” (by which this poem was, metaphorically, composed) can’t take the place of the “domestic light,” the site where the gaze is directed from the page to the beloved. In this way, the ordinary transcends its own confines, becoming re-enchanted, that is, remembered, if remembering can be thought of as a kind of eavesdropping on oneself: the experience of being both outside the self and inside, too.
Poetry must be bicameral, or not at all. The ordinary, for Corbett, is where we live our lives at their most prosaic and intense, amid “cooking smells and talk/of events.” This poem, one of Corbett’s most powerful, recognizes that the power of enchantment is not so much otherworldly, as rooted in the texture of the everyday. To long for what we already have may be the most complete enchantment there is.
John Ashbery famously described the subject of his poems as meditations on the “experience of experience.” The differences between the two poets are large and yet an apt description of Corbett’s work might claim it as “the process of experience.” The distinction, and it’s a major one, is that while Ashbery absorbs and recasts experience into a circumambient hall of mirrors, simultaneously opaque and transparent, his poems always seem to fall back into themselves; however much recognizable territory one of them takes in, it is, finally, centripetal.
In a Corbett poem, the impulse to connect thrusts outward from the interior to the social. Not that his poems are somehow bereft of interiority. On the contrary, an undertone of contemplative melancholy runs through his work, early and late. These are just a few examples, grabbed more or less at random from his New & Selected Poems:
Already fall’s harsher
light cuts blown
leaf shadows into
from “September Song”
hold my ear this
second with their
Will the field
fill again with
grackles who hunt
and eat them?
My eyes smart. Huge trucks
shift gears down the avenue,
roar off with loads of rubble.
Sitting here holding my breath
murmur of traffic overtakes my ears.
“When I Read John Wieners’ Selected Poems”
The abiding note here is plangent. “September Song” not only nods to Kurt Weill. It belongs to a tradition of English song that stretches back from Edward Thomas and A.E. Housman to Thomas Campion and Edmund Waller. Masters of melody, all.
Unlike Ashbery, Corbett doesn’t chase down the fallen Romantic idol of a once exalted symbolic order, not even one dismantled by gentle irony. Nature is no longer Baudelaire’s forest of symbols, but teeming with William Carlos Williams’ things. Though often thought of as a New York School poet, Boston chapter, Corbett’s vision is really an Objectivist one. In the words of Louis Zukofsky, he thinks with things as they exist, directing them along a line of melody, especially when those things are the processes of thought: memory and desire, regret and yearning.
This austere practice yields a powerful and often tender illumination. It is a wholly personal response to the world, grounded in what Zukofsky called sincerity: the refusal of an easy, inert subjectivity in favor of a constellation of words that remain faithful to the poet’s process of perception. There is never any straining in Corbett after metaphysical certainties. He belongs to an American tradition that emphasizes how the work of seeing forms the basis of the poet’s ethical contract with the world around him.
In this sense, Corbett’s poetics exemplifies what the film critic Manny Farber called “termite art,” work that tunnels through its own boundaries, constantly dissolving them, shucking off any claims to Major Significance, just following its nose through an endless warp and weave of tangled words and images. Pound founded his poetics on Aristotle’s metric for aesthetic genius: “swift perception of relations.” This is the key quality of Corbett’s poetry and while it may appear “natural” and effortless, it is the result of a painstakingly achieved form.
In 2011’s The Whalen Poem, which is probably Corbett’s most singular achievement, the movement of thought is brought to an acutely bracing pitch and tempo. As a testament of late work, it belongs to the modernist tradition of fragmented anthem and elegy: a kind of latter-day "Briggflatts," a summing up, or what Bunting called “spiritual autobiography,” an account of the inner landscape and its weathers. Whalen proves catalyzing for Corbett. On the back cover of The Whalen Poem, Corbett offers a simple account of his process:
"I spent the summer of 2007 reading the galleys of Philip Whalen's Collected Poems. I was in Vermont and had the leisure to read slowly, ten or so pages a day. About halfway through the master's poems I began to write THE WHALEN POEM. I kept at it until just after Halloween. No book I have written, poetry or prose, has given me the deep pleasure I felt in writing THE WHALEN POEM."
What he takes from Whalen is a more daring form of parataxis, or what Whalen himself described as “a picture or graph of the mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is a history … and you.”
It’s typical of Corbett’s generosity in what is his most achieved work that it bears the name of another poet. Poetry, for Corbett, is always a conversation. His readings – and he is one of the finest readers I’ve ever heard – testify to this: they are interwoven with poems from other poets, some well-known, some all but forgotten. The Whalen Poem gains its tremendous power from the variety of experience it takes in, the ways in which things are noticed and notated, and from its paratactical flow.
In a typical Corbett poem, the ordinary slips into the uncanny and back again with remarkable fluidity. In many ways, The Whalen Poem looks back to Corbett’s first book, Columbus Square Journal¸ from 1976. That book thrived on a combination of celerity via juxtaposition and witty discursiveness. To cite one brief example, from the poem “Valse Not”:
Transience of all things
ruins something any
thing two step.
I had a teacher
he wrote a book
One Man’s Meter
he sang Keats to
“you’re the cream
in my coffee”
and advised me
“Read a good book
after dinner every night.”
This is not only an apercu on the canon and its secular Talmudists, but the whole tradition of scholarly transmission, filtered by way of Tin Pan Alley, and pulled off with amazing compression and ease. Like the man said: “Dichtung=condesare.”
In The Whalen Poem, this process is accelerated, raised to an even sharper pitch. The book begins by invoking Proust in a joke about modernism and what follows takes its cue from that: a search not just for lost time, but the time of the present, too, with all its flooding impressions, its ephemeral worries and urgencies, and amid these, its contingent and extensive joys. It’s also a damned funny poem:
Clyde B. Tolson gave birth
To J. Edgar Hoover’s lovechild,
A masculine one, Tom Ridge!
As a delightful riff on Luca Brasi’s wedding wish to Don Corleone, these three lines comprise a seemingly offhand, yet trenchant, critique of our current political crisis and its inbred corruption.
Throughout the shifts in tempo are audacious, yet never jarring, moving from playful anecdote (Corbett, Ron Loewinsohn, and Michael Palmer trying to steal Whalen’s absurdly over-priced On Bear’s Head from the Harvard Coop just after Nixon’s first electoral victory) to moving meditations on mortality and the wages of both poetry and living.
Bly saw in his empty shoes
Two open graves.
Melodramatic? Not when
You’re on the road.
Thomas died there drinking
Shots, eating candy bars.
Auden, too. Vienna hotel
Room after a reading
Broken by the mighty
Pull of poetry
And “the chemical life.”
Is there another world
Truer beyond personality
And real life where
Poetry’s mother lode dwells?
And who can square
I want nothing at all
With I want it all?
Characteristically, Corbett poses this grave spiritual dilemma in the form of a question, rather than presuming to offer an answer. As Frost knew, the mortal stakes of poetry is both a serious business and pure play. This small (yet enormous) gesture by itself defines a metaphysical compass. To think with things as they exist. To dwell with the problems as they exercise us. Corbett’s sympathy for another poet – Robert Bly, grown somewhat pontifical by the time he wrote The Man in the Black Coat Turns – is generous. In a single phrase – “not when you’re on the road” – he zeroes in on the displacement, the risk, the exile, that poetry so often inflicts on anyone foolish enough to take up its call.
In The Whalen Poem, such moments and details accumulate haphazardly, jostling up against one another: mortality, baseball stats, actors who’ve played Phillip Marlowe, a long account of an old war story told by his father’s oldest friend, dark musings on America’s wars, the sheer weight and evanescence of the quotidian – “Answered emails/Deleted spam/Paid AT&T bills” – all folded into a singular voice that seems to be now here, now nowhere, now everywhere at once, speaking to us in our own voice, if we could think with such speed and grace, addressing our concerns – about money, about phone calls, about meeting friends for drinks and the wages of a life spent devoted to writing poems.
All of these disparate things are linked together, not by narrative logic, but by an implicit faith that the trivial and the meaningful reside side by side in the mind; indeed, that sometimes the most trivial details are often the most meaningful – and vice-versa. That finally to make distinctions between the two is false—the ultimate instance of bad faith. Corbett finally is a pure phenomenologist. He takes things as they come, bracketing metaphysical speculation, in order to sing them along a line of melody. The act of perception is the meditation because when guided by melody it gives form to experience. The easy movement from one thing to the next is itself the most exact rendering of consciousness, its anxieties, its confusions, its appetites, its small, quickly vanquished, victories.
In The Whalen Poem, especially, an unhurried parataxis saves perception from the amnesia of the everyday by making the poem an experience of its own process. Not enshrined as an object of beatific contemplation but re-enchanted through a journey from immediacy to unselfconscious reflection: a sense of distances traveled measured against what’s been lost and what’s been retained. Corbett’s poetry continually moves inside this tension – between the now and the then – and breaks it down, turns it inside out, not to arrive at some impossible origin, but to undergo the process itself.
By eye, by ear
This field in front of me
Slopes to the lake
Looked at and over thousands of hours.
What do I see?
Goldenrod, white and purple asters –
It’s the last day of August –
Ferns brown and crisped,
Blackberry brambles, chokecherry,
Cattails, various nameless weeds,
Faded Joe Pye weed and aware
All I don’t see
What do I know?
Packing up to go home
Bucket of used-up inflatable kid toys
The field? Useless beauties
And discreet, will give up their secrets,
But not to me.
In this typically understated but mesmerizing pastoral interlude, the ordinary visible world induces an extraordinary humility. A scene seen many times is re-disclosed through a poetic gaze which finally must admit to knowing nothing but what little it’s able to take in. As the painter Frank Stella once quipped about his own work: “What you see is what you see.” But as with Stella, Corbett’s act of looking is not so much a call to minimalism as a rejection of abstraction and its metaphysical murkiness. “Don’t think: look,” is the title of one of Corbett’s books (the line is borrowed from Wittgenstein). He is not concerned with music for its own sake, or the vatic utterance that discloses the real to itself, ala Rilke. His poetics is rooted in an idea of language as a form of basic civility, an abiding faith in the poem as inherently social form of experience and cognition. The Whalen Poem closes with one of the most remarkable ends of any recent poem I can think of.
Is it possible
Emptiness has room
For all departure
Here’s a chocolate
Chip cookie bigger
Than your hand
Corbett dallies here with a question of perilously Rilkean import, though it also calls to mind Whalen’s lifelong practice as a Zen monk, who listened for the wavelength of emptiness. Yet as Corbett smartly comments on James Schuyler’s work: “Rilke believed in angels, that the real world is not here and now but in transcendent realms of the imagination he strove to enter. Poetry was one ladder and painting another. For Schuyler ordinary life is real life.” I’m not convinced this was what Rilke avowed. His angels may have appeared above the fray, but they deeply depended on the mortal and the fleeting, on that which dissolves, for their witnessing function. They are not Dantean at all, not confined to praising the eternal, but enmeshed with the real as much as we are. The current of eternity, Rilke’s word for the inner realm of the imaginal, is nothing unless it’s grounded here, in this world. There is only this life. There is no other.
Corbett’s response to the question he poses – is it a response? or simply a breathtaking and impeccable leap into the quandary of the transcendent? – is accomplished by an astonishingly deft shift in registers, from the formal language of his vatic query to the off-handed colloquial rejoinder. This shift offers a figure for the affirmative generosity of poetry itself, one that insists that the world is always more than what we think it is, and that the poem extends this promise by continually bringing us back into presence, to being alive, here and now, in a body.
This is the authority of poetry: to not only acknowledge our appetite for the sweetness and largesse of living, but to feed it. To say: here it is, take it. William Corbett’s work answers the question: what is art for? To praise. To acknowledge the pain of the passage so far. To say, this happened and it is still happening. And that that is all we may know of grace. Singular. Enchanted.