Posts Tagged ‘John Ashbery

17
Oct
15

Quick Notes on John Ashbery

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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John AsberyJohn Ashbery (July 28, 1927) was born in Rochester, NY. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), won the hat-trick of literary prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This book is considered a masterpiece, or at least his masterpiece, and it is what I will try to work though.

In “The Tomb of Stuart Merrill,” Ashbery has a character ask a poet, “I really would like to know what it is you do to ‘magnetize’ your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” While it is jesting commentary about what someone might say to a poet at a reading or post-reading party, there is some truth in it, at least for me. It occurs is in the last part, “the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” I think I will mostly focus on this, because the circling back is caused by the manner in which Ashbery writes.

Like Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery is concerned with the reality or the presentation of the real. In that regard, both are metaphysical poets, but Ashbery may be the more metaphysical. Both think that reality is a fiction created by a person or an era, and that it does not sustain itself, which is what Stevens calls the “supreme fiction.” Stevens however tackles the metaphysics of what is real in a traditionally more poetic way – he uses meter, rhyme, and forms. Stevens has developed thoughts about reality. Ashbery, however, is in the moment of thinking and in traditionally non-poetic forms. It’s almost as if Ashbery is thinking on the page or retracing recent thoughts. When I read Ashbery, I find that I am following his thoughts, and then all of the sudden I feel lost. My expectations are subverted by his wandering mind. But this is the reality he is creating – the mind thinking in associations. It’s like a stream of consciousness, but not exactly. With stream of consciousness, the unconscious or suppressed emotions will often reveal themselves, but with Ashbery, we stay on the surface of language and a conscious mind as if “A speech in play consisting entirely of stage directions” (“De Imagine Mundi” 451). Whose mind that is or what stage it is I am not sure, nor is the speaker of “De Imagine Mundi,” who opens the poem: “The many as noticed by one: / The noticed one, confusing itself with the many / Yet perceives itself as an individual” (451). Is the “I” one person? or is fragments of people? or both? Are all fictions and possibilities something to be considered?

Nonetheless, the mind, whoever’s mind it is, is concerned with the present, the moment that is “perpendicular to the ground” (“Voyage in Blue” 445). I like that image of the present. It’s how I envision the present, at least the lyric present, or what Li-Young Lee calls “the vertical moment.” And while the present is perpendicular to the ground, it moves, or as he says in “Grand Galop,” “Here, as elsewhere / April advances new suggestions.” Which is to say the present advances with new suggestions, which feels like a metaphor of the mind thinking, or waiting, which is a theme of “Grand Galop.” The waiting is what “fills up the time between” the now and the future, but this waiting is a creative time – “The wait is built into the things just coming into their own. / Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait / Invests everything in its climate” (436). In this poem, the speaker inhabits, or waits in, the in-between space/time between the present and the next present, which is all anyone can really do. One way to try and describe an Ashbery poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is to refer to the end of “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

     knowing as the brain does it can never come about
     not here not yesterday in the past
     only in the gap of today filling itself
     as emptiness distributed
     in the idea of what time it is
     when that time is already past
                                                   (431)

This, in part, also describes my reading process of Ashbery, I often find myself reading a poem, then midway through stopping and going back a dozen or so lines to an earlier present in the poem, and starting over again, as I mentioned above. That can happen often in just one poem. This method, I assume, is his way of challenging the reader.

The pace or emotional intensity of Ashbery’s poems are even keeled. There are no rises in sudden enlightenment or understanding, no epiphanies, no grand gesturing. Though there is humor and parodying, such as “Love” (part one of “Poem in Three Parts”), where he parodies Wordsworth idea of “emotions recollected in tranquility” when he says about oral sex he once received, “Now years later, I think of it / Without emotion” (443). Later in the section he will also parody “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” A better example of even-keeled manner and parody mixed together is in “River.”

     It thinks itself too good for
     These generalizations and is
     Moved on by them. The opposite side
     Is plunged in shade, this one
     In self-esteem. But the center
     Keeps collapsing and re-forming.
     The couple at a picnic table (but
     It’s too early in the season for picnics)
     Are traipsed across by the river’s
     Unknowing knowledge of its workings
     To avoid possible boredom and the stain
     Of too much intuition the whole scene
     Is walled behind glass. “Too early,”
     She says, “in the season.” A hawk drifts by.
     “Send everybody back to the city.”
                                                               (455)

This recalls Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” where “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But in Yeats’ poem there is great drama as “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “Spiritus Mundi” arrives. Ashbery’s poem, however, is less dramatic. There is a surreal river thinking and picnickers arrive, and the only dramatic thing to occur is that they are out of place, as they are there too early in the season. They are unexpected as the “hawk [that] drifts by,” as opposed to Yeats’ dramatic “rough beast” and other mythic creatures. This poem, like many Ashbery poems, meanders like a “river of consciousness.” The mind moves from noun to noun with only the stream of consciousness connecting the movement, and here in this moment, with no beginning, or an in media res beginning, drifts around from river to people arriving to a hawk to people leaving, which isn’t an end it’s just part of the ever flowing and shifting present. It’s almost as if Ashbery’s poems don’t try to create meaning; they just try to create a mind creating a fictive understanding in a real and mutating moment.

Much of what Ashbery is doing might be best realized in the second stanza of “Ode to Bill”:

     Or, to take another example: last month
     I vowed to write more. What is writing?
     Well, in my case, it’s getting down on paper
     Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe;
     Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
     Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
     Someday I’ll explain. Not today though.
                                                                    (461)

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Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery: Collected Poems: 1956-1987. New York: The Library of America, 1997. 425-487. Print.

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05
Jan
13

On Allan Peterson’s Fragile Acts (2012)

A version (and a better edited version) of this review may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 16.//

   
   Epistemology Follows   

   The ocean seems endless when two dolphins divide it.
   Epistemology follows. We know they have bones
   below their smiles because two lost vertebrae sail
   in our standing glass cabinet. Phylogeny follows.
   The linked oceans are peptides cleaved by those dorsals
   so the gene of understanding can be inserted by thought.
   Years ago trains threw oars of light from their windows.
   In endless black you could see them rowing through Kansas

Allan Peterson – Fragile Acts_96dpiSometimes when I read a new book of poems I come across an image I’ve never experienced before. An image so startling that it stops me. It stops me in such a way that I’m not sure if I want to read anymore of the poem or the book. I just want to keep on experiencing that image. Or it’s an image so rich and unique, I wonder why that image wasn’t already part of the common language of the description of things. This is what happened to me when I read the above poem (of which only the first half is quoted) in Allan Peterson’s Fragile Acts (McSweeney’s).

The image “trains threw oars of light from their windows. / In endless black you could see them rowing through Kansas” stopped me dead in my tracks. At this point of the reading, I was reading the poem silently in my head, so when I read the image, I exclaimed aloud to my empty room “Wow.” This is one of the few times I was glad I was reading the poem in my head instead of aloud. (Maybe that image does need to be experienced in silence.) Luckily, I continued through the rest of the poem and then reread it a few more times and then continued through the rest of the poems. But if I hadn’t, if I had dwelled and remained on that image, I would have been a happy reader, and the book would still be successful.

I did continue and there were more unique images to experience, like the opening line to “Evolution,” “So our toes and fingers were all roots, once touching.” Or the final stanza to “Local News”:

Last night in the yard I passed Minneapolis
but it was only gardenias calling bees
no news at all but pleading
As a child I knew I was sleeping when I began
falling through still furled in my sheets
and I would look over other people’s shoulders
to see what they were reading
The headlines the footnotes
EXTRA EXTRA
a boy has left his room through the map on the wall

Or the beginning to section three of “In the society of glass, one shatters for the least mistake . . .”

   It was like opening Webster's to "emptiness," void,
   the invisible axis around which a rose opens

I want to pause and talk about this image for two reasons. One, I want to experience this unique image again. Two, I want to show what it is doing. In this image we experience language as language and on a meta-level by referencing the dictionary and the words “emptiness” and “void” as words. We also experience an abstraction in “invisible axis,” and we experience the image of “a rose.” On one level, Fragile Acts is the fragile act of negotiating between the abstract and the image and the awareness of language, which seems a rare occurrence to me in today’s poetry. Usually, a poet is successful at incorporating one of those, such as image, and occasionally a poet is successful at combining two, such as abstraction and the meta. Often the poet follows Pound’s lead, “Go in fear of abstractions,” which is still sound advice when fully understood. But Peterson treads where few poets fear to tread, and he steps right into all three: image, abstraction, and meta. But it’s not Peterson embracing all three that makes for the successful poems, but it is by embracing all three that his poems are able to create a deeper experience. That is, we get to see the mind of a Peterson poem working on three levels experiencing an event. We see “how a mind could make a world” (“There was an Era of Ashes . . .“). The images become three-dimensional. They become round instead of flat. Roundness creates experience whereas a flat image creates observation, and Peterson’s poems are images of experience that are discovering.

This negotiating also occurs on two levels. The one level is within the poem, as just described. The other is on the level of the book as a whole. This book is interestingly organized. There are sections . . . of sorts. There is a section of poems followed by a longer poem composed of its own multiple sections followed by a section of poems followed by a longer poem composed of its own multiple sections, etc. The sections of poems tend to be very vivid with images and occasionally with the abstract and/or meta. The sections of poems have 16 poems, 12 poems, 10 poems, and 11 poems. After a section of poems, the book rolls into the a longer poem which change the velocity of the book and slightly alter the book’s direction. In the longer poems are where the image, abstract, and meta interact to full effect. And when the effect is completed, they blossom or overflow into a section of poems of vivid images. Eventually, the book concludes (or appears to conclude) in the longer poem “We put up with gravity . . .”.

There’s so much to experience in this book that the book can’t contain itself. Even after the “Acknowledgements” page there is a poem. And when you close the book, on the back cover, in secret, is another poem. It’s not obvious to the eye, but it’s there under the back cover label of comments from John Ashbery, Laura Kasischke, and Lewis Lapham. Normally, a publisher prints those comments directly on the back cover, but not McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s has done a beautiful job in designing this hardcover collection of poetry. It’s not a manufactured product, as books often are these days. No, this is a book. And on the back cover is a sticker with those authors’ comments. Underneath the sticker, rumor has it, as mentioned, there’s another Peterson poem. I can indirectly verify this, as I can faintly see the words to the poem below the label, but I will not involve myself in the fragile act of trying to peel off the label. No, in this case I will stop reading the book, and be happy that I experienced it. Or maybe I don’t want to peel off the label because it would be too overwhelming, such as the end of “Here at the Intersection”:

   [. . .] Mr. Lincoln pulled back the curtains on the French doors
   and left the White House on three occasions to have his son dug up
   just to look again upon his face.

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Peterson, Allan. Fragile Acts. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2012.//

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For a high-res, full-size image of the cover, click: Fragile Acts cover.//




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