Thoughts About J.A.’s “Litany”

“The manner in which trains of imagery and consideration follow each other through our thinking, the restless flight of one idea before the next, the transitions our minds make between things wide as the poles asunder, transitions which at first sight startle us by their abruptness, but which, when scrutinized closely, often reveal intermediating links of perfect naturalness and propriety – all this magical, imponderable streaming has from time immemorial excited the admiration of all whose attention happened to be caught by its omnipresent mystery. – William James, “Association,”


Ashbery’s long poem “Litany” begins, “The two columns of “Litany” are meant to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues.”  We are introduced immediately to a puzzle, a conundrum, and a kind of attentional and ideational scope that seems near-impossible to achieve, let alone conceptualize: for how does one go about reading simultaneously two independent monologues?  My point is that this is impossible, and yet hauntingly, enigmatically, tantalizingly possible, i.e., that while we cannot read the two monologues at the same time, the idea of reading such independent monologues seems to the active and attentive mind almost possible, if only because the mind itself seems to constantly prompt various monologues into being, like a theater in the mind; and, if we accept that the mind itself is pluralistic, non-linear, and much less rational than we hope it to be, then Ashbery’s experimentation in “Litany,” while at times seeming utterly strange and difficult, may at the same time not seem so strange or difficult.  For what Ashbery is doing is simply (simply?!) calling our attention to the way in which our minds work, function, operate.  How do I mean?  Here is William James:

Reason is only one out of a thousand possibilities in the thinking of each of us.  Who can count all the silly fancies, the grotesque suppositions, the utterly irrelevant reflections he makes in the course of a day?  Who can swear that his prejudices and irrational beliefs constitute a less bulky part of his mental furniture than his clarified opinions?  (552)

In other words, our minds are far more complicated, perplexing, convoluted, and enigmatic than we normally imagine; and, because “we never have an isolated sensation,” it follows that every perception, sensation, thought and feeling trundles after it a whole cacophonous barrage of thought, feeling, sensation, perception.  A poet, like Ashbery, who is consciously and unconsciously investigating the myriad resources that compose or constitute the mind; who is exploring the symphonies and chamber musics that pass through the mind daily and nightly in the forms of thoughts and feelings; who is a kind of visual artist of thought and feeling, splotching and slicing and dripping the canvas with his alive imaginings; would be more attuned to the very nature of the mind’s monologues, the mind’s swerves and reactions, responses and clarion calls, not to mention the associational worlds carted behind every word we utter.  For that reason, Ashbery is a poet, not only of consciousness as such, but of residual consciousness, or, as James puts it,

no one will deny the existence of a residual conscious affection, a sense of the direction from which an impression is about to come, although no positive impression is yet there.

 Ashbery, then, is not only a poet who writes about the experience of experience, but he is equally interested in the memory of memory, the imagination of imagination, and the perception of perception, etc.  He complicates our thinking by giving us tone-poems that are rich and almost dripping with what James calls “psychic overtones,” “suffusions” or “fringes,” i.e. “the influence of a faint brain-process upon our thought, as it makes it aware of relations and objects but dimly perceived.” 


What does it mean to say that words are “fringed”?  Here is the beginning of “Litany”:


For someone like me

The simple things

Like having toast or

Going to church are

Kept in one place.


            Like having wine and cheese.

            The parents of the town

            Pissing elegantly escape knowledge

            Once and for all.  The

            Snapdragson consumed in a wind

            Of fire and rage far over

            The streets as they end.


And here is the second monologue, running simultaneously with the first:


            So this must be a hole

            Of cloud

            Mandate or trap

            But haze that casts

            The milk of enchantment


            Over the whole town,

            Its scenery, whatever

            Could be happening

            Behind tall hedges

            Of dark, lissome knowledge. 


First, it is incumbent upon us to recognize how eerily ironic the first five lines are of the first monologue: “For someone like me / The simple things / Like having toast or / Going to church are / Kept in one place.”  The stanza is ironic because the poem itself – in its length, complexity, structure – seems to be the comic antithesis of the voice of the speaker of that stanza.  It is as though Ashbery were saying, “here is one example of something people think,” before he explodes this example through the mind-bending qualities of “Litany.”  And as we read on, the passage begins to complicate itself wonderfully: we read about the “parents of the town” who “escape knowledge / Once and for all,” of “Snapdragons consumed in a wind / Of fire and rage far over / The streets as they end.”  Things are not what they seem, we can hesitantly say, and everything seems drowned or submerged in a metaphorical world that brooks no literalization; for we cannot say (and this is a typical Ashbery device) that the snapdragons consumed in the wind are merely flowers blown hither and thither by some zephyr, but must assert rather loudly that these snapdragons are metaphors for a kind of mood, a change in the weather, a tone that juxtaposes jarringly and humorously with the stanza that precedes it. 

But meanwhile a whole other monologue is happening on the adjacent page, like a thought stream flowing through our mind contiguous to another stream.  And in this stream we have a kind of reflection on what is happening in the poem: “So this must be a hole/ of cloud / Mandate or trap / But haze that casts / The milk of enchantment // Over the whole town, / Its scenery, whatever / Could be happening / Behind tall hedges / Of dark, lissome knowledge.”  Again, we are inundated with juxtapositions that make a mess out of rational knowing – for first we had heard of parents who “escape knowledge / Once and for all,” and now, perhaps serendipitously, we hear about “dark, lissome knowledge,” harking back to Elizabeth Bishop’s formulation of knowledge in “At the Fishhouses” as

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

drawn from the cold hard mouth

of the world, derived from the rocky breasts

forever, flowing and drawn, and since

our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.


Like Bishop’s formulation, it is impossible to pin down Ashbery’s manner of articulating what knowledge might be, for it is “flowing, and flown,” quick to escape our grasp, and seemingly “utterly free.”  And there seems to be, through all of this, a skepticism about knowledge, as there is a critique of the rational mind’s conception of itself.  When Ashbery writes, “So this must be a hole / Of cloud / Mandate or trap”, it is as though he is using language to critique language, calling our attention to the fact that as soon as he states his thoughts or feelings or imaginings in words, he has pinned those words down like butterflies to the grey sticky mat, and in doing so belied the complicated nature of the mind he is intent on arguing for.  Yet to utter these words in such a way as to preserve their “milk of enchantment” – to speak a poem that does not ignore the haloes behind words, but somehow in its genius for association, to present these trundlings more clearly – that is the poem’s object, goal, reason for being.  Words are fringed, therefore, because no word exists in isolation – and that is what “Litany” is primarily about. 

“Litany” (a word connoting processions, successions, recitations, petitions) is about the associational nature of the mind, and so it is an exhaustingly inclusive poem.  For there is nothing the mind cannot associate or convert into some logic, some metaphor.  In other words, if Ashbery talks first about a donkey,

            The casual purring of a donkey

            Rouses me from my accounts:

            What given, what gifts.  The air

            Stands straight up like a tail.


and then, in the next stanza, writes,


            He spat on the flowers.


then we are given various ambiguities of tone, narrative, structure, perspective, diction, to sort through – ambiguities which our mind attempts to connect somehow, to associate, whether we are intended to or not.  We have the ghostly recurrence of “a tail” after the “casual purring of a donkey,” and then are given cold water in our face with the jarring turn of “He spat on the flowers.” 

And we begin to realize that perhaps this poem isn’t about habitual association so much as unconventional association, juxtapositions that shock us into wondering.  Ashbery is then not only the poet of the fringe, but of the unconventional fringe – which seems to be one way of talking about metaphor, as metaphor is also involved with the pairing of two things associated somehow in the mind.  Ashbery is thus a kind of wise fool, a trickster, who, in his metaphors, jolts us into thinking about ourselves and the world in new ways.       

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