“Stolid and literal, I take my stand.
Art is decision, not the chance, unplanned
Performance of a trivial, vulgar act.
It is selection of the crucial fact.
Though brute particulars still litter sense,
Art’s the suppression of irrelevance.
Life’s the constant pressure of the new,
But art, the final judgment of the true,
Measures resistance to inane distraction.
Art is the model of coherent action.
It is not my confusion or confession,
It tells you nothing of my worst obsession,
It’s not a gossip’s tale concerning me:
It is the meaning of my history.
It is constructed and can be construed
As proposition and as attitude.
Then art is structure: nothing can be said
Without the order in which it is read.
Art is technique, by which the masters say
That ends are realized in a métier.
Art is distinction: process is not being.
The words you see are all there is worth seeing.”
The first line echoes “Dixie” and the Southern Agrarians’ manifesto, appropriate to a work of defiance. Gullans likewise echoes the thinking of his one-time teacher, Yvor Winters. Both can be loosely thought of as classical-minded. Winters gave his essential thought memorable expression: “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience.” No gush, no self-indulgence, no “confusion or confession.” For Gullans, art is “the final judgment of the true.” His teacher wrote in the introduction to Primitivism and Decadence: “I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth.” Such notions must sound quaint in today’s literary culture, in which irrelevance is not suppressed but exalted. An Ashbery poem is nothing but irrelevance, and celebrated as such.
The poem is a linked series of adagia on the nature of art, which Gullans calls decision, selection, structure, technique. He’s a scrupulous poet: “nothing can be said / Without the order in which it is read.” I wish I had read him a long time ago. The background to several of the poems in Letter from Los Angeles is a failed or failing love affair. There’s a cool sadness to them, an ironic counterpoint to Los Angeles and its sunshine. “Adagia” is rousing in its principled provocation.