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Scoops From the Tide Pools

Scoops from the tide pools
Helen Vendler
Times Literary Supplement

The allegories and mimicries of Mark Ford

Writers influenced by John Ashbery more often imitate his manner than grasp his import. They scramble a metaphor, write a melting close, insert pop icons, make a comic allusion - but the essence of Ashbery doesn't lie in these tricks. When I read in 1992, with instant delight, Mark Ford's Landlocked, I found a poet who had internalized the inner, more than the outer, Ashbery. What does the American Ashbery offer the English Ford in the way of moral and stylistic example? And how does Ford's poetry, even while benefiting from Ashbery's, attain its own different allure, both in Landlocked - his only published volume to date - and in the many poems published since?

Ashbery's moral importance, for Ford and other younger poets, lies in his being the first notable American poet to free himself from nostalgia for earlier religious, philosophical and ideological systems. Or, to be more precise, he includes systems and creeds in his general nostalgia for everything from sunsets to Popeye. In Ashbery's work, a comedy of plenitude and inception, both in theme and language, is constantly - and effortlessly - cancelling out the general wash of nostalgia. Ashbery places himself wholly in the secular world.

Stylistically, Ashbery's poetry reproduces what he calls - in the beautiful prose poem "Whatever It Is, Wherever You Are" - "not the infamous 'still, small voice' (of conscience) but an ancillary speech that is parallel to the slithering of our own doubt-fleshed imaginings, a visible soundtrack of the way we sound". By this form of speech, he confirms a psychology that is not vertical - addressed to a Platonic standard - but horizontal, slithering unstably around on the human plane. And Ashbery avoids ringing closure (though lingering closure pervades his volumes). He is more likely to start up a new poem in the last several lines of the old than to let the old come to a complete halt. Often he closes with a pratfall of anticlimax occluding the ever-present, if often comically presented, Ashbery pain. "Aloof, smiling and courteous", like life in "Haunted Landscape", this poet who admires everything and wonders at nothing babbles on, naivete and sophistication his changes of garments. There is a persistent sense of plot aborted, of journeys on circular tracks, of aspiration engaged in and mocked, of synapses of allusion constantly making electrical sparks and then fizzling out. Human meaning is made and exploded, and no large systematic backdrop of action or belief guarantees either its fittingness or its permanence.

Is this what life feels like in Mark Ford's rendering? As I read Ford, I answer both "Yes" and "No". Yes, there are deliberately parodic and inconsequential moments, and yes, there are forms of suffering, usually understated, subtending the comic anticlimax. But while Ashbery tends to write within explicitly human terms, and to be continually "incoherent" in exposition, Ford is more allegorical; he can be a "misguided angel" (the phrase is the title of a recently published poem) or a "huge green amphibian", who, in "Outing", follows his girlfriend as she shops:

If only it were truly impossible, and less like being a huge green amphibian
made to inch my home-sick coils between the different counters
of your favourite store, taking all these fancy cautions
to keep my head down, and out of other shoppers' way

. . . .

Now as I glide towards the whirr of sliding doors, I half-hope
its electric eye won't respond to my irregular approach. Another
spanking clean threshold! "Open Sesame," it cries, "Hold tight!"

The cliched cries, "Open Sesame" from The Arabian Nights, and "Hold tight" from The Waste Land, exhibit the tag-ridden overload of the Ashberian literary synapse, but the film of the self as a homesick alligator about to evade the high-placed electronic sensor of the automatic doors has more fairy-tale jollity and more consistency of plot than is natural to Ashbery. Ford's lyrics tend to depend, as Ashbery's do not, on a storyline, frequently an absurd and allegorical one. In "A Swimming-Pool Full of Peanuts", for instance, Ford creates a perfect mimicry of the absurd medieval trial, the protagonist rising to a furious zeal in an attempt to discover what secret lies hidden under the innumerable peanuts; but the knight of the swimming pool, in lieu of finding victory, succumbs ingloriously to collapse. Such a parabolic poem - applicable to all the deranged and deranging strivings of youth to make sense of the confounding world - aims to make us believe entirely in its frustration, while disbelieving its lunatic story.

Ford's more recent poetry is less indebted to the Ashberian comic, but continues to practice the silent Ashberian undermining of the ground one stands on. The "Discordant Data" - to quote the title of a recent Ashbery poem dedicated to Ford - will not add up. Even so, the frustrating wish to create order persists: as Ford puts it in "Living with Equations", "As I emerged from my hip-bath it suddenly dawned / The facts might be remarshalled and shown to rhyme"(TLS, December 12, 1997). But the poem comes to grief in a very Ashberian way: after the time of equations has lapsed, The remainder can only imperceptibly dwindle, retreating Backwards until their long lost premises turn inside out.

The avoidance of the comic, the tragic, the sublime and the just in such an ending places it in exactly the aesthetic of human scale defined by Ashbery.

Yet there is one central practice of Ford that differentiates him strongly from Ashbery. Ford includes in his writing a physically sensuous documentation that is not present in the ever-theatrical Ashbery of the virtual world. One could say that Wordsworth and Hopkins, with their sense of skin against wind, breath against earth, lie behind the moments of natural presence we come across in Ford. Although the poem "Penumbra" includes an Ashberian bon mot - that one man's loss is another man's devastation - we find that Ford brackets the Ashberian dark comedy with bleak scenic passages:

I lean into the wind that blows
Off the lake, and scours the sodden fields; the sky's
Reflections ripple between ruts and bumps

. . . .

Sludge, restless drifts of leaves absorb
The haggard light.

In his grasp of natural metaphors for the de-pressive moods of the body, Ford belongs to the line of British poets - from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes - who are willing to describe nature in its unlovely moments; but he differs from them in allowing the reflections arising from such moments to take on Ashberian inconsequence and comedy.

Ford is also more likely than Ashbery to set himself in a recognizable location or a stable incident. Where Ashbery is protean, an absent centre through which all discourses move, Ford lets us see a speaker irritated (in a poem called "Plan Nine") by "the dreadful telephone again", facing in the morning a super whose "reign of terror / And mind like glue" are relentlessly present. Horrible twentieth-century prescriptions for good living are imposed on a "case" resembling, we are sure, the poet's own, as a "caustic voice" says to "a clutch of bright-eyed interns", "No mohair, no alcohol, / Lots of plain yogurt certainly, no foreign languages, no tete-a-tetes" (TLS, November 29, 1996). The parodic mockery of medical discourse suggests Ford's debt to Ashbery, yet such a passage is located closer to a life-plot than Ashbery's work tends to be.

In a review for the TLS, Ford once praised in James Tate qualities that can be found in his own work: the "refusal to elide the illogic of experience", the "treacherous instability" of meditation, and the way in which poems work by "collaging disparate materials into a seamless fluency" (TLS, August 29, 1997). The kind of lyricism that Ford finds in Tate - one both "intimate and impersonal" - is one he desires, I think, for himself. In rendering the poem intimate though impersonal, Ford is closer to Hart Crane than to Ashbery:

There is no controlling
One's renegade thoughts, nor striking the fetters
From blistered limbs.
Inflexible etiquette demands
Every gesture be also a memory: you stare
Into space where fractions and figures still pursue
Their revenge.

Crane's verse, as Ford said in a review of Crane's Selected Letters, was motivated by the poet's "need to embody the physical, the mundane, the fleeting" (TLS, September 19, 1997). Whereas the mundane and the fleeting are amply present in Ashbery, the physical is less so. Ford is most himself when he grafts a physical instress on the Ashberian comic, and a firm allegorical storyline on the aslant angle of vision. A recent Ford poem, "Twenty Twenty Vision" (LRB, March 19, 1998), remarking centrally that "my doom is never to forget / My lost bearings", opens in a mode learned from Ashbery:

Unwinding in a cavernous bodega he suddenly
Burst out: Barman, these tumblers empty themselves
And yet I persist.

Yet, very shortly, "Twenty Twenty Vision" turns into a marvellous lyric autobiography, reminiscent by turns of Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot and Crane, but dominated by no single influence. The fact that we can read such an oblique poem with understanding is due to Ford's predecessors in modernism, including Ashbery. But the memorable lyric itself - its storyline, its alternately understated and overstated emotional vicissitudes, its surreal scenic vividness - is all Ford's own. Here are its last nine unsettling, if intermittently ironic, lines:

A pair of hungry owls
Saluted the arrival of webby darkness; the dew
Descended upon the creeping ferns. At first
My sticky blood refused to flow, gathering instead
In wax-like drops and pools: mixed with water and a dram
Of colourless alcohol it thinned and reluctantly
Ebbed away. I lay emptied as a fallen
Leaf until startled awake by a blinding flash
Of dry lightning, and the onset of this terrible thirst.

In an interview with Graham Bradshaw (in Talking Verse, edited by Robert Crawford et al, reviewed in the TLS, March 1, 1996), Ford repudiated the literal autobiographical poem:

I can't bear poems about grandfathers, or fishing expeditions, or what it's like to move into a new house, unless they're very very good poems . . . . I start off prejudiced against them because I find the subject matter so boring . . . . I guess basically I'm always looking for gaps, little fissures where "a thought might grow", to use Derek Mahon's phrase.

I associate the literal lyric with the United States, in which recently it has been argued that specification of gender, ethnicity, class and family relations adds authenticity to a poem. The classic lyric, on the other hand, the lyric from which Ford derives, engaged in various sorts of despecification so as to make its voice assumable by many readers. Originally, the generalized speaker was - by an invisible convention - expected to pursue his thoughts along normal logical lines. Ezra Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore and Crane, by allowing more wayward associations into lyric, created a modernism that curved the rails of thought. Then Ashbery, the disciple of Rimbaud and Mallarme, dared actually to remove sections of the rails themselves, leaving in their place a barely visible dotted line.

The enthralling thing about Ford's lyrics is that though he has adopted the newer techniques of curves and gaps in "looping the loop" of consciousness (the phrase is one he used for a title), he has allowed them to remain unexpectedly hospitable to the old - not in the Ashberian mode of knowing allusion, but in the way of kinesthetic sense-memory. As he said in the interview with Graham Bradshaw - using a metaphor for tradition that might have surprised Eliot but not Wordsworth or Hopkins - "You scoop up a bucketful and enjoy as much as you can the various life-forms that happen to be in it". We have the stimulus of watching Ford scooping up, from the tide-pools of both America and England, the life forms and language forms of the 1990s. The poetic exchange-system in which these life forms participate is one of "the circulation of small largenesses", in which the ordinary pains and elations of human life accrete, when examined and described in poetry, into sums of believable, and large, moral and imaginative consequence.

This essay is an edited version of a paper given at a recent conference in London on Anglo-American poetic relations, and is reprinted on this website without permission.

January 1, 1999 in Essays | Permalink