In 1983, the Quarterly Review of Literature celebrated its fortieth anniversary by publishing a book of writings by and about David Schubert, a little-known poet whom both the editors, Theodore and Renée Karol Weiss, had known during the 1930s. I contributed a short essay to the collection, in which I made the remark: “To sit down for a little while and reread some of Schubert’s rare and poignant verse is like opening a window in a room that had become stuffy without one’s realizing it.”
Recently as I was writing about Schubert, almost by chance I came across a letter from William Carlos Williams to Theodore Weiss which was not included in the Schubert memorial volume. Williams wrote,
Many thanks for the Schubert poems, they are first rate—more than that, far more. They are among the few poems I read that belong in the new anthology—where neither Eliot nor, I am afraid, Pound belong. I wish I could get up that anthology where the rails are polished silver they are so clear in the sunlight I should provide. There is, you know, a physically new poetry which almost no one as yet has sensed. Schubert is a nova in that sky. I hope I am not using hyperbole to excess. You know how it is when someone opens a window on a stuffy room.
Needless to say, I was quite delighted and surprised to find that Dr. Williams and I had hit on the same phrase to describe the effect Schubert’s poetry had for us, or rather that I had fortuitously used the same expression some forty years after Williams. And not just because it seemed to justify my having chosen an important occasion such as a lecture in the Norton series at Harvard to talk about a poet whom almost nobody has ever heard of. It also seemed a kind of justification for the theme of these lectures, which I began by calling “The Other Tradition,” and, when that began to sound a little pompous, backed down and decided to name “Another Tradition,” then finally and more accurately, “Other Traditions.” It shores up my feeling that the poets (and of course this could apply to people in any line of endeavor) who become known and are remembered and put in anthologies are there as much from happenstance as intrinsic merit.
Perhaps it is a little truer of poets than of others because poetry is a somewhat neglected art to begin with; it has trouble making its way in the best of circumstances, and there are not too many judges monitoring the situation to make sure each one gets what he or she deserves. Poems get lost more easily than paintings do; even their authors tend to forget them in drawers or sometimes destroy them in a fit of rage, as Schubert in fact did with a large body of his work, including a novel whose first sentence alone survives: “Outside it …
Copyright (c) 2000 by John Ashbery. Used by permission. All rights reserved.