Ashbery and Conceptual Poetry, Part 2

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:

Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
that was OK too. From palace and hovel
the great parade flooded avenue and byway
and turnip fields became just another highway.
Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
Departing guests smiled and called, “See you in church!”
For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
that tomorrow again would surely bring.
As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.


And here is an excerpt from Goldsmith’s “Day”:





Anatomically Incorrect

How Movies

How Simple Can You Get?

Ideal Motif. Stieglitz, Weston,

Adams, and Callahan

Modern Living 2

New York Salon

The Observer: Cartier-Bresson

after the War

Paris Salon

The Rhetoric of Persuasion

Seeing Double

…piercing beauty, lots of sexy ugliness and

a wealth of challenging ideas. -The New York Times

Paris Salon

Sample the range of painting that appeared in mid-century Paris-works that highlight the competing definitions of modernity during this turbulent era. This exhibition includes paintings by Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, Raoul Dufy, and many more.

The Rhetoric of Persuasion

The turbulent 1930s inspired many outstanding artists-including Jacob Lawrence, Dorothea Lange, and Diego Rivera-to lend their talents to social causes.

Modern Living 2

The sequel to Modern Living 1. See how Eero Saarincn, Alvar Aalto, and Charles and Ray Eames adapted their architecture and design concepts to technological advances after World War II.


The Museum of Modern Art

11 West 53 Street, NY (212) 708-9400 Closed Wed.

Clockwise from top right: Three Women (Le Grand déjeuner). 1921, Oil on canvas. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund © 2000 Estate of Ferdand Léger/ARS, N.Y. Charles Eames, Chaise Lounge 1948. Prototype for a stressed-skin shell: hard rubber foam, plastic, wood and metal. Gift of the designer. All works from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. Dorothea Lange. Woman of the High Plains. Texas Panhandle. 1938, Gelatin silver print. Purchase

Made possible by The Starr Foundation, Generous support is provided by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro in memory of Louise Reinhardt Smith. Additionial support provided by the Contemporary Exhibition Fund of The Museum of Modern Art, National Endowment for the Arts., Jerry I. Speyer and Kathleen G. Farley and The Contemporary Arts Council and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art Education programs accompanying MoMA 2000 are made possible by Paribas. Interactive environment supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.


Orientalist Works from the

Dahesh museum of Art

Through December 30


Dahesh Museum of Art

601 Fifth Avenue at 48th St.

Tel 212-759-0606

FREDERIC ARTHUR BRIDGMAN (American, 1847-1928)

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae, 1896 (detail)







Thurs., Sept. 7th

from 6pm – 9pm

Please RSVP

by Fax or E-mail



386 West Broadway,

New York, NY 10012

phone: 212 334-4649

fax: 212 224-4609

Gallery Hours:

Tue.-Sat. 11am – 6pm


The New York Times The New York Times The New York Times The New York Times The New York Times The New York Times The New York Times The New Times The New York Times

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.”

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