Since I got a lot of hits, thanks to Kenneth Goldsmith’s generous retweet, on my last blog entry, I’ve decided to follow it up with further, hopefully fruitful comparisons between Ashbery and Goldsmith.
Here is an excerpt (the first stanza, out of two) from Ashbery’s “A Wordly Country,” from a book with the same name:
And here is an excerpt from Goldsmith’s “Day”:
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Now, how are these passages similar?
They both evince a desire to draw in as much as possible, to include as much as possible in the poem – and in so doing, they force us, through the power of the poem, to think about language in new ways. I’ve said this kind of thing often, the notion of thinking about language in a new way. But what do I mean, more specifically?
I suppose I’m wondering if Ashbery is our last great lyric poet, and I’m wondering if, in the wake of Goldsmith’s work, we will ever have another poet like Ashbery, whose mind in some ways seems to have anticipated the vast distracted attractions of Google. I’m wondering if Ashbery is our last great lyric poet, in the same way that I wonder (with many others) if the phenomenon of Bob Dylan could ever happen again, knowing full well that the answer is most likely “no.” Institutions have changed, the way we think about music and receive music has changed, and the next Bob Dylan does not have to drive from Minnesota, say, to New York during a cold winter just to make his name known.
But has our relationship to language changed? It doesn’t take much looking afar to find an answer – think about what you are reading right now – a blog post by someone without any reputation at all. Language has become more democratic, more anarchic, more egalitarian, more 15-minutes-of-fame-ish – I mean anyone with a passable talent for reading and writing can tweet something which will be sent, in one fucking instant, throughout this interconnected world. This is pure “duh-hickey” stuff. So the way we receive language has changed. That’s one thing. And the amount of people we read, the amount of strangers we’re able to interact with, that has changed also, in a way that I think, tentatively, is miraculously wonderful.
Has language itself changed, outside of the way in which we receive it? Of course. I think of a compliment someone once paid either Virginia Woolf or T.S. Eliot – (it might have been Eliot speaking of Woolf), the idea that they pushed the darkness further away a little bit through their language (pardon the paraphrase). That’s what Ashbery has done, and that’s what Goldsmith is doing – both are presenting to us the language we use in a new way, and in the light of this new context, new language practices are bound to be created. Before Ashbery, we did not have this kind of voice, this kind of vast expressive private wackily marvelous world, this kind of difficult stream of thought that, with a little effort, we too could enter into and feel transported. Reading Ashbery is like reading some kind of Ur-Google – you can find anything and everything in an Ashbery poem. And before Goldsmith, we did not have the same kind of mirrors, mirrors to hold up to our language practices and make us strange and new again. Perhaps this is why Mark Edmundson, in his much-discussed article in the Atlantic, was unable to find a poet using the “we” – I mean, Ashbery exploded our pronouns years again, and who dares attempt to speak for all of us, when we are already, too late, utterly heterogenous, pluralistic, and exploding with richness? Another way of putting this is, if we do need a poet to represent the “we,” we already have one, and his name is John Ashbery. Ironically, but not too ironically, his work is of the utmost variety possible. But then again, so are “we.”