Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ashbery, John

(Daniel Pritchard has a lively discussion about John Ashbery going on at his blog The Wooden Spoon, the subject of which seems to be another bout of head-scratching over the purpose of the poet's work. Respondents, sympathetic and contrarian, offer up their views. Here are my comments.)

That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places it smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of “meaning”; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing its worst instincts. What Ashbery would oppose, if he were a polemicist (which he isn't) is the idea that the “meaning” that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route. Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man-made things in a natural world, and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets, are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and “conquer” a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualistic approach to dealing with the world.

 The contradiction between our ready-made distinctions and Nature whose essence is constant change, unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world, solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them commingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of “meaning”, oftentimes spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confounded so.

For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music does..it’s not a static, contemptible thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture.– John Ashbery
Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists before manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the difficulty loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.
What Poetry Is
John Ashbery

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

This poem talks about representations of things captured at moments of aesthetic iteration and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where some readers despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable. There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school /, All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative strategies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterward, is to know something more about the experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery in his many good moments gets the dissolution perfectly, beautifully. Confounding, but beautiful.


  1. The risk which accompies Ashbery's subtle position -- that meaning is an access point to whatever usually-fleeting experience of human psychology it is which poetry contains, rather than the totality of that experience -- is that if one is not careful, one steps off the edge of seeming-meaningless into meaninglessness. JA, when he's doing it right, is great at the former task. What I think Daniel Pritchard was getting at, was that often he lapses into the latter habit. And when he does, there is much to see in common between that non-denotative, means-what-you-want-it-to-mean mode, and the infantile (read: languageless) character of certain popular kinds of political speech in our coddled post-modernity. Such verse (and not all of his) is a reflection of the zeitgeist -- if not a product of it, or partner to it.

    Thanks for such a nuanced setting forth on all of this.

  2. I have to disagree here.

    To try to make the case that a meditative poet, such as Ashbery (or Stevens, or Moore, or Merrill) can be identified or associated with a political tendency, is just about as risky as critical commentary can get.

    There are poets who openly espouse political positions in their work. Take Neruda, for example, or Mayakovsky. It's quite redundant to "object" to the political content of their work, while on the other hand, it may be valid to criticize their method as being unworthy of their program. Mayakovsky, for instance, uses a blaring, declamatory style which seems intended as a demonstration of the iconoclastic nature of its purpose: To sweep away cobwebs and break glass cases.

    But with a poet as subtle and as prolific and various as Ashbery, you have to be very careful not to impute straightforward motive to his work.

    What, exactly, do you think a poem which seems to be an exercise in successive disguises, is intended to "accomplish"? Is ambiguity a weapon to confuse the masses? Please....

    There is NO connection between the meditative wit and shifting authorial position in JA's work and some kind of incoherence (or inarticulateness) amongst the general population. "Zeitgeist"? Nah. That's like saying Sandburg's work is populist sermonizing for unions.

    Ashbery's work is not "infantile" or "languageless" or "coddled" or some other kind of fellow-travelling disinformation campaign. Not consciously, and not unconsciously. It just isn't.

    You're going to have to do better than that to make a case against his method.

  3. I didn't associate or identify Ashbery's writing with a political position -- you're subtly misreading my post, much as you did with the writing over at The Wooden Spoon. Caution and care, friend; let's make sure we understand one another. I mean to indicate that there is a recognizable relationship in both JA's writing and a rightist politics, between "language as meaningful act" and "language as infinitely malleable rhetoric."

    I'll say it clearly, although I feel I shouldn't have to denounce the obvious -- I don't think Ashbery is often a political writer.

    As for what motive I'm imputing as at play, I often think there is none -- the verse is just a play of language. But again, as when a poet is working with near-meaninglessness, and lapses into actual meaningless, poetry that doesn't set out to express something, runs the risk of expressing nothing. Such a failing I found in some of JA's writing. You ask what I think a poem-as-exercise-in-successive-disguises, is intended to accomplish. The poetry performs, it has a semantic liveliness, but is devoid of propositional content. This to me often seems a lack. Such ambiguity does confuse many, and rewards none. But note that I make a distinction between SUCH ambiguity, and other kinds of ambiguity which result from the same methods, only those methods are deployed successfully. If you agree that Ashbery's work is risky, takes risks, has something at stake, then you might follow me to the consequence -- that at times, the verse falters and succumbs to the risk.

    I didn't characterize Sandburg as any kind of preacher; let's not resort to analogies. Clearly you're coming to this discussion (and the same discussion elsewhere) with a lot of passion for the project. Passion is good; apologetics, on the other hand, lead to a shoddiness which we are right to shirk off and smirk at. I won't build straw-men from your defense of Mr. Ashbery's verse, if you can vow not to build straw-men out of my (admittedly idiosyncratic) critique of his non-denotative methods.

    To counter another instance where passion strays into antagonism:
    I did not write that Ashbery's language is ever"infantile" or "languageless" or "coddled." I was suggesting the the surface realization is the same, between those poems by Mr. Ashbery which fail to make the most of non-denotative methods, and those instances of political speech which adopt the form of meaningfulness but which collapse under examination.

    I'm not making a case against his method; I'm observing -- as Daniel does at The Wooden Spoon -- that JA's primary mode (these past 20 years, say) is risky and consequently sometimes unproductive. When it is thusly unsuccessful, it shares a remarkable structure with certain kinds of political speech (these, which are infantile, coddled, and debased).


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