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My acquaintance with Arthur Vogelsang is confined to the little strips of paper he sent me every year or so to gently let me know my poetry would not be appearing in an upcoming issue of the American Poetry Review, where he served as an editor since 1973.
But he’s probably best known as the unfortunate editor who was burned by the Araki Yasusada hoax when the APR published a special section devoted to an aged Japanese poet whose works were distributed, and probably written by Kent Johnson, then a professor at an Illinois community college. Vogelsang was published saying that the hoax is a “criminal act”, though he denies using that phrase.
So the piece that appears in the December 22, 2008, issue of the New Yorker is really my first encounter with Vogelsang’s verse. (He has published four books of poetry, the most recent of which was published in 2003.)
This poem seems to be written in the mode of Ashberyian whimsy except Vogelsang’s voice isn’t as whimsical and what? punctuated with elisions? Although the first reading of this poem was a disorienting experience (which I enjoyed) after another turn or two I found this poem very sensible. It almost has an argument at its core but mercifully avoids making an overt point.
A compression: whimsy is law. The poor’s seasons are not determined by the sun. They live away from the rich and their yellow grasses and their tony American towns in something called the fifth season where grass is not yellow but pink and white and the poor become powerful by stating their power and the fake becomes real and all law rushes past like a mountain stream; mutable and cold. And this season is fun for a while but the serious folk just want their yellow grasses back and the sun ruling the seasons.
That ‘s the nut. Like many Ashbery poems, it seems to be saying something without saying it. Using figurative language and extended metaphor is a tricky business: so much depends on the reader to take the box and figure out how to open it. (And many times the box is only that; a wonderfully-wrought, intricate box.) But unlike the best Ashbery poems where not only the box is beautiful but you open it to a novel toy ballerina pirouetting to strange music, this one was appeared like it would be fun to open but then diminished from there: a big, glittery box containing a gift card to Appelbees.
Elizabeth Bishop used parenthetical phrases to great effect in all of her poems; in most you discovered what she was really intending to say. It was like a red X saying You Are Here on a shopping mall map. The parenthetical phrase near the end of the poem about walking only inside the house seems to be pointing at something too. Critics, perhaps. Serious people who sequester themselves; serious people who pop off without empirical knowledge; serious people who resist change.