Jon Anderson Critical Essays

Anderson, Jon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anderson, Jon 1940–

Anderson is an American poet. In Sepia is his third collection of poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

In Sepia has the severe virtue of possessing a central fable to which no poem (not even the Middle English pastiche about two dogs) is irrelevant. The fable might be summed up as follows. We begin, in youth, with the mesmerizing fear of death as the pure opposite to selfhood. But in "the middle years"—as vivid points stand out less from the general flow of time, as we no longer expect our lives to form patterns or stories leading to conclusive revelations, and yet longing remains, diffused into our sense of indefiniteness—our experience of life becomes curiously like our fantasy of death, "The same measure, or passing of time,/ Where we dissolve." Thus, in the poem I have been quoting from, "Stories," the desire to shape one's life into a story dissolves in the fascinating monotony of a drive across the Midwest "gliding without force toward / Night & sleep." And in this there is a paradoxical release, or joy…. Permanent indefiniteness places us indissolubly in our context, in greater "belief"; it frees us, among other things, from the need to give other people meaning solely in terms of their effect on us, our emotions, our story. But in another poem Anderson endows the matter with a more sinister beauty: "These are the raptures of falling in space forever."

Anderson's concern with friendship (how central a concern, the title of his second book, Death & Friends, suggests) gives a human richness to his work; but it too leads back to the question of ambiguous boundaries. Anderson fears loneliness, and, still more, the false semblances of connection. But he also struggles with extreme experiences of connectedness, both consoling and frightening: the idea of inter-identity ("friends … so enclosed within my reasoning / I am occasionally them") and the sense of others' personalities as pure essences, numinous forces. These sensations can never quite be explained away, because they reflect ambiguities in self-perception. Trying to correct the suspicion that people become pure spirits once out of sight, Anderson realizes that he too vanishes, into a translucent but not transparent medium….

For a poet so concerned with imaginative projections of the self, he is curiously sparing in his use of visionary modes—for which … he has a considerable gift. Is this, as with Stevens, the sign of an essentially analytical temperament, which it would be foolish to wish different? Or is it a mildly cramping effect of our anti-epiphanic age? A little of both, I suspect. Anderson occasionally shows a slightly embarrassed need to lower his style, as when he begs his favorite poet-hero, "Please John Clare, there was time"—incongruously echoing Frank O'Hara's plea to Lana Turner.

My other reservation seems to me graver, though it applies only to a few passages. Perhaps because Anderson has, by his own admission, "seldom mentioned … Those events or names by which / I was compelled to write," I grow uneasy when he takes an elevated moral tone—even in self-deprecation—about his unspecified personal life. The worst, and the only aggressive, instance occurs in "Rosebud," where Anderson asserts that his wife, in directing "an ironic comment" at him, has "hurt the land." There has to be a grain of priggish self-importance here, however many layers of sincere animist feeling have accreted around it. Anderson's justness of tone—perfect for the metaphysical ramifications of relationship—is less reliable on the terrain of strictly emotional autobiography. (pp. 47-9)

Alan Williamson, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1974.

In ["In Sepia"], Jon Anderson leaves behind the surface flash associated with the Iowa Writers' Workshop, for philosophical long lines of unostententatious subtlety, influenced by Ashbery and Rilke. The book is an unusually unified meditation, on the approach of the "middle years," the changing sense of death, the pattern of life, and the meaning of friendship. It gives us the mature voice of a poet who has long stood out, in his generation, for the philosophical depth of his subjects. (p. lvi)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).

Jung said: "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." One is enlightened reading Jon Anderson, but not by light. The book is titled In Sepia, the color of old photos, monochrome drawings, the color of dried blood, an exact shade of memory. The language is acutely tuned to remembering—and to the origins of memory. Anderson is writing from the darkness where memory begins, making that darkness conscious.

This book is a history of the imagination—and again the mood is Jungian, Jung being another nonbeliever in "events" of autobiography (for him, only the "memories, dreams and reflections" survive). Anderson lives at that crossing where imagination usurps memory; the act of remembering is of necessity an act of the imagination. He is where "light is nothing/it enters and reflects" but the darkness is germinal … "You lie awake/you watch the stars revolve, repeat," "the photograph quickens," "stages of memory darken and go by" and "synapse shuttles through the skull."

Despite the gentle oriental gestures of self-effacement ("Whatever I do, I am always leaving"), these are not poems of death's annihilation or the oblivion of darkness; their preoccupation is with death and the beginnings of self. The resignation of lines like "These are the joys of falling in space forever" or "Out of a cloud I come falling into a cloud" is deceptive. There is an ironically insistent tone, a vague possessiveness for what is lost and irrevocable—the sincerity and compulsiveness, the self-consciousness of the ghost who feels obligated to haunt you. The secret of poetry, "friends," (in case you were wondering) is "cruelty," the "one cold flower" the poet leaves on your windowsill, whose beauty renders you "inconsolable" all day.

This is a quickening before birth, the conspiracy of the unborn: "I had secretly thought to accrue a life/to imply the passage of time/of myself, as citizen from here to there." And

        I desired a single terrible event
        the passage from which would measure time.

The desire for birth and the tremendous loss inherent in being born, of giving oneself life and, simultaneously, death, is a major paradox. The poet is forever sleepwalking between conception and birth—on the level of ideation he is doomed to abstraction, with the impossible task of making the abstract a supportable form, a beginning for the real. "I would remember my conception, not the act." We would not accept this hesitancy, this fanaticism for the philosophically exact from a lesser poet. But this cultivated atropism, this turning-away, is pure, the purity of a poet who almost is an idea, who can remember or imagine (the same thing for the unborn) his own death—and knows how, still and all, to survive and to be conscious in survival. (pp. 114-15)

Like Mark Strand, whose influence is felt here, Anderson chooses to tell the "story of our lives," with the same certain sense of loss and anxious arbitrary documentation, the familiar ironic exactitude in "haunting" time—satirizing its content and forging its signature….

These poems of strange, almost unbearable beauty and subtlety are all we need to know forever and for now of ourselves, if we could only read ourselves and tell it out. These poems glow darkly, their strength lies outside of time and in darkness—in the given mysteries, the histories by which we invent ourselves. (p. 116)

Carol Muske, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976.