Monday, October 20, 2008

Ashbery/Brainard: The Vermont Notebook

The Vermont Notebook, John Ashbery with Joe Brainard (1975; in Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987, Library of America, 2008)


One of the grand old hold-outs, the Library of America has finally shifted over to a matte finish for their dust jackets; now only the author's name ("Calligraphy by Gun Larson") and the tricolor band remain in the traditional high-gloss finish. End of an era; oh well, I thought that when they started using full-color author portraits, as well. Nice to have 30+ years of Ashbery in one brick volume (happy birthday to me – thanks, Stephanie), tho something just feels wrong about his making it into the series before Dickinson, Moore, WCW, Oppen – well, we won't go on with names, will we? Wouldn't mind a Joel Barlow volume, either.

I don't know the back story on The Vermont Notebook. It feels like a vacation fancy, a fun collaboration between the poet (JA) & the illustrator (Joe Brainard), setting Brainard's sketchy monochrome copies of photos in counterpoint to all manner of Ashbery ramblings: lists of products, shops, proper names, elements of the townscape; Steinian exercises in repetitive prose; reproduced magazine copy; even a real live poem or two. Pleasantly diverting, all in all – tho I'm sure I'm not the only one to bemoan the LOA's bible paper in this case: even tho the Brainard drawings are reproduced (well) in gray, they glare thru the recto of every bloody page.


mongibeddu said...

I'd buy that Barlow volume!

I'm prepared to believe that copyright issues determine the LOA's lineup of moderns (and the same would be true I guess of Dickinson), but I'm baffled by how little attention the premoderns have gotten. Where's Whittier? Or Bryant? And why a selected Longfellow? Where's Edward Taylor?

Most of all, I'd love to see a new edition of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman's poems. That Oxford Collected edited by N. Scott Momaday is long out of print.

Ben F.

Joseph said...

The Longfellow volume is pretty substantial, though I don't know what is left out, but yes, I agree that copyrights are a huge factor. And as it is not a non profit, I think LOA has had to deal with the lack of interest in certain parts of American literary culture, so single volumes of 19th century poets aside from Whitman, are probly not in the chute.

I am amazed that no more recent edition of Tuckerman is around. And then there's Trumble (?)Stickney, a pretty terrific poet. At some point Talisman considered reprinting these two, and there were difficulties, though I no longer remember what they were.

mongibeddu said...

I'd have to go back to Longfellow's books and the LOA volume to be exact, but I remember that there's only an abridged version of "Tales from the Wayside Inn." And that it was a shame to lose the totality of a perfectly structured book like The Seaside and the Fireside (in general nineteenth-century American poetry makes a lot more sense when you go to the original books).

Penguin did bring out a good selection of Tuckerman a few years ago, in a volume that also includes Melville and Robinson, and the editor there included revisions to the Oxford text. Maybe that signals movement toward a new collected.

Jennifer Moxley has an interest in the American symbolists, and I was hoping she would make an anthology (maybe she still will). Stickney would have a prominent place there. In general, that period of American poetry, between the end of Reconstruction and the start of World War One, is pretty obscure. It's definitely obscure to me.

I'm sure the LOA has complicated issues to negotiate in deciding its catalogue. Even so, the balance has begun to tip over toward recent and contemporary authors in multiple volumes, and away from creating a library of classics. I love Dawn Powell and Raymond Chandler and am glad to have those four volumes at hand when I'm in the mood for another of their novels, but their books are also readily available in paperback. Imagine if, instead, we had, oh, Bryant, Whittier, Tuckerman, and Lanier (or Taylor, Barlow, Melville, Sarah Piatt, Dunbar). Or―if it's really true that single-author collections are not tenable in those cases―then a huge, well-thought-out anthology of the Fireside Poets. In any case, a coherent pattern of publication is needed for American poetry before modernism. It's kind of maddening how much of it is unavailable.

Ben F.

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