Douglas Crase is an American poet, essayist, critic, and biographer who writes luminously about a range of subjects. Since 1981, he has published five books, two of which are poetry. None of his books is longer than 300 pages.
For those who do not know his work, the recently published Lines from London Terrace: Essays and Addresses (Pressed Wafer, 2018) is a good place to start.
The book encompasses work written between 1977 and 2016: it consists of essays and reviews that originally appeared in The Nation, Seneca Review, Art & Antiques, Raritan, Poetry, Poetry Pilot, Tether, and exhibition catalogs. It also incorporates an address he made at the Rochester Public Library in honor of John Ashbery in 1977, and statements and papers he delivered at various seminars and panel discussions. Crase has lots of intelligent things to say about the poems of Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Amy Gerstler, John Koethe, Lorine Neidecker, James Schuyler, and Marjorie Welish; the prose of Marianne Moore; the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson; the garden of the painter Robert Dash; and the philosophy of Richard Poirier. There is a section on the origins of the New York School which every aspiring poet and budding critic should read.
In his review, “The Poet’s So-Called Prose,” about The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (1986), edited by Patricia Willis, Crase traces the concept that poetry and criticism are inseparable back to Moore, a seemingly unlikely source for such a postmodern view:
But Moore, joyously quoting Eliot quoting Pound, actively believed that criticism and poetry were not exclusive (“’they proceed as two feet of one biped’”). Perhaps they were not even separable. Criticism, she wrote, inspires creation. More than that, “a genuine achievement in criticism is an achievement in creation”–her own prose being the case that proved her point, if not quite in the way she meant.
Crase’s view — one of many that he carefully develops in this indispensable book — challenges the received wisdom that the “bricoleur” impulse was imported to America from Europe, that we needed the writing of European intellectuals to understand what we were up to. Another point that Crase advances in this review is that reading and writing might also be inseparable.
The reason I am braiding these different kinds of writing (poetry, criticism, and quotation) together is because I think that the entire body of Crase’s work invites the kind of close attention that is usually reserved for poetry.
Crase, who published a book of poems, The Revisionist (1981), to great acclaim, did not publish another book until 1997, when AMERIFIL.TXT: A Commonplace Book was issued by the University of Michigan Press in its series, “Poets on Poetry,” edited by David Lehman. The book is a collection of quotations by twenty-three writers, from the colonial activist and Congregationalist minister John Wise to the American poets James Schuyler and John Ashbery. Other writers and thinkers that Crase cites include Rachel Carson, Emily Dickinson, W. E. B. Dubois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Langston Hughes, Charles Ives, William James, Robinson Jeffers, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. The citations are arranged under categorical headings listed in alphabetical order, from “Anxiety of Influence” to “Wild Blue Yonder.” This is the entry under “Equal Protection”:
And in this country one sees that there is always margin enough in the statute for a liberal judge to read one way and a servile judge another.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In his use and arrangement of found (or read) texts, Crase’s AMERIFIL.TXT shares something with the conceptual writings of Robert Fitterman, Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. However, living as we do in a ghettoized literary culture, it would not occur to many critics to see what is front of their eyes — most likely because they would associate Crase with a late generation of the New York School and, flaunting their biases, not bother to read him, especially since, by their lights, he has published one book of poems in 1981, supplemented by a thin book of thirteen poems in 2017, hardly enough production to merit attention.
Crase’s writing occupies an expansive, complex space that needs to be recognized. He does not teach in an English literature or creative writing department: he is not an academic worried about maintaining his or her position or accruing power, both of which are anathema to him. He is not interested in the hierarchical thinking and privileged constructs that so many literary critics delight in, what Charles North calls “papier-mâché.”
Crase is that rare figure in American letters: a subversive who challenges the received wisdom promulgated in English and American literature departments from sea to shining sea. His essays about Ralph Waldo Emerson are central to his thinking:
You’re wondering if I’m really serious, if it matters that an ill-managed president broadcasts a piece of mimetic vandalism grabbed up by a speechwriter. But tropes that make the earth unlovely make humans that do not love the earth. If theirs is the species that also has the bombs, or just the subdevelopment rights, then I think poetry has quite a lot to do with salvation
Writing about James Schuyler, he makes this statement:
To a poet like that, reality would be the one thing that is not commonplace, and it would stand to reason that life cannot fully be lived until the reality is faced without embarrassment or flinch.
In an essay about Ashbery, he states:
It is remarkable that a poem so periphrastic and evasive can be so frankly chilling at the same time.
Don’t Crase’s descriptions evoke the dilemma of our everyday life, with its intersection of changing weather, scientific discoveries, and constantly alarming news? What Crase shows by the example of his lines and sentences is that a writer need not be “cowed into euphemism.”
In 2004, Crase published Both: A Portrait in Two Parts, a book that melds the biographies of the botanist Rupert Barneby and the aesthete Dwight Ripley, who was the financial backer of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Crase’s double biography recovers an important story about “the poets of the New York School […] and their own romance with the painters of their time, notably the painters of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.” Ripley was more than just the gallery’s financial “angel”: he was a polymath who published poetry in Catalan and Polish, exhibited his drawings, made important contributions as a botanist. He and Barneby, working collaboratively, discovered a number of rare plants, one of which was named after him — Cymopteru Ripleyi. Barneby and Ripley had what Barneby called a “lifetime partnership.”
Their fascinating story is one that chroniclers of the New York School of poets and the Second Generation of New York School artists have left out until Crase came along. The footnotes are just as fascinating and replete with detail. Crase’s biography is the story of two men who met at a premier English boarding school when they were teenagers, and began a “sudden boyhood romance” that lasted a half-century, until Ripley’s death.
In the first pages of Both: A Portrait in Two Parts, Crase recounts how his partner, Frank Polach, brought him to meet Barneby shortly after Ripley’s death: this opening turns the biography into a memoir detailing Crase’s discovery of the lives these two men led. In writing about Barneby whom he grew to know personally, and Ripley, whom he set out to understand, Crase’s biography is about the domestic life of two men, as well as his own relationship with Polach, who, at the time, worked “as a plant information officer at the New York Botanical Garden.” On that first visit meeting with Barneby, he sees an oil painting by Joan Miró and two drawings by Jackson Pollock, piquing our interest and his. The book ends with Crase and Polach burying Barneby’s ashes in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, where they live, following Barneby’s suggestion. Next to his interment, they buried the ashes of one of “Dwight’s unfinished drawings,” and marked it with a headstone.
If Guy Davenport is the geographer of the imagination, Crase is most certainly the geographer of places and histories that are folded deeply into what is called America: “Poems […] made of land and air and rock,” as he writes in his consummate essay on Lorine Neidecker, “Neidecker and the Devotional Sublime,” included in this collection. Crase’s essay is about Neidecker’s poem, “Lake Superior,” which he characterizes as “that spare ferropastoral of a poem in honor of the rock and mineral wealth […].”
Crase also states: “As far as the commonwealth is concerned, every one of us must know it would be better if we had never arrived.” But we did arrive or were brought here, and what followed is a chain of events that bring us to the present, which Crase never turns away from and never becomes genteel in the face of.
In his “Afterword” to Donald Britton’s book of poems, In the Empire of the Air (2016), Crase begins with this statement:
The appearance in print of the selected poems of Donald Britton is an affront to cynicism and a triumph over fate.
Britton (1951-1994) was one of the many thousands of individuals who died of AIDs in the 1980s. This is how Crase puts it in his “Afterword:”
We had heard of a mysterious illness among gay men in May 1981, only two months after Italy [Britton’s first and only book of poems published in his lifetime] appeared, but the first friend Donald or I knew to actually die was Larry Stanton, the painter, in 1984. After that, one lived with the certain apprehension that the friends who defined your life might suddenly wither, suffer, and disappear. The critic David Kalstone, a source of wisdom and encouragement to many of us, was hospitalized the next year and died at home on West Twenty-Second Street in 1986. Tim [Dlugos] tested positive in 1987 and Donald the month after he moved to Los Angeles in 1988. Howard Brookner, who stopped taking the debilitating drug AZT so he could complete his first feature-length film (Bloodhounds of Broadway; it stars Madonna), was moved into an apartment in Frank’s and my building and died there in 1989. Tim and Chris Cox died in 1990; Joe Brainard, then Donald, in 1994. We say “died,” but of course they were killed, by a threat they never could have foreseen.
When Crase, in an essay I cited earlier, asks the reader if he or she is wondering whether he is serious about an “ill-managed president” reciting a phony poem, you know that he is. This is the same president who deliberately ignored the AIDS epidemic until May 31, 1987, six years after the first cases had been reported, essentially sanctioning suffering and death with a folksy smile.
In all of his writing, Crase gently places himself (and his mortality) into the words: he and Frank take a 50-minute subway ride to “the unfamiliar Bronx” to have dinner with Dr. Rupert C. Barneby; Howard Brookner moves into the building where he and Frank still live. Crase and Polach’s wedding is reported in The New York Times (May 13, 2011). Their domestic relationship is one of the foundations upon which Crase’s writing is built. The dead and living are everywhere.
In AMERIFIL. TXT, under the category “Sons and Lovers,” Crase cited the following:
Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Whoever or whatever he is writing about, in whatever form he explores — from poems to essays to biography to memoir — Crase shows us something about ourselves in the constant commotion of what we inhabit.
Lines from London Terrace: Essays and Addresses (2018) by Douglas Crase is published by Pressed Wafer and available through Small Press Distribution.