Language as a Coral Reef: Newness and Oldness in Ashbery’s Vocabularies


In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty writes that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.”  (7)  For Rorty, change does not happen through “an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis.  Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises new things.” (9)  Why a “half-formed new vocabulary”?  Because

someone like Galileo, Yeats or Hegel (a “poet” in my wide sense of the term – the sense of “one who makes things new”) is typically  unable to make clear exactly what it is that he wants to do before developing the language in which he succeeds in doing it.  His new vocabulary makes possible, for the first time, a formulation of its own purpose.  It is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide. (12-13)     

 In this short essay, I want to argue that John Ashbery, like Galileo, Yeats or Hegel, is “one who makes things new.”  I wish to show, furthermore, the way in which Ashbery, in his poems, (to his credit, not his detriment), “is typically unable to make clear exactly what it is that he wants to do before developing the language in which he succeeds in doing it.”  This provides for both a confusing and exhilarating reading process, because we feel, while reading Ashbery, that we are stumbling upon something, almost unbeknownst to us and against our will, and the poems are often completely illuminated by this sense of discovery, by a “half-formed new vocabulary” shaping itself as it is formed, and in the process discovering its purpose.  What Ashbery wishes to do – the purpose of such a vocabulary – I will be arguing more generally, is to replace the old with the new.  But I don’t mean this only in the sense of literary history, i.e. Ashbery’s desire, as David Herd has written about, to replace the older, coiling diction of a Robert Lowell with something different.  I mean something more general and pervasive in the poetry, and perhaps in great poetry in general – that Ashbery’s poems, at the level of the line and even the word, replace what has been said almost immediately with something different, rush in to fill the space that has been left, thereby calling attention to the instability of all of our conceptual frameworks, which hope for stability even as they constantly, relentlessly change.  Ashbery’s poems can therefore be interpreted as microcosmic representations of macrocosmic changes in culture – of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies – and thus as a “picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are.” (9)  


Why don’t Ashbery’s poems help us to an “understanding of how things really are”?  This is because Ashbery helps us to “substitute Freedom for Truth as the goal of thinking and of social progress” – “an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth.”  (Rorty xvi)  By making this claim, I am attempting to categorize Ashbery as what Rorty calls an “anti-representationalist,” someone who “does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.”  (ORT 1)  I say this because I think Ashbery’s poetry forces us to, a la Rorty and his hero, Donald Davidson, “stop thinking of language as a medium” that either expresses some inner reality (what Rorty associates with Romanticism) or represents some outer reality (what Rorty associates with Platonism). (19)  Instead,

Davidson lets us think of the history of language, and thus of culture, as Darwin taught us to think of the history of a coral reef.  Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors.  This analogy lets us think of “our language” – that is, of the science and culture of twentieth-century Europe – as something that took shape as a result of a great number of sheer contingencies.  Our language and our culture are as much a contingency, as much a result of thousands of small mutations finding niches (and millions of others finding no niches), as are the orchids and the anthropoids.  (16)

 Ashbery’s poetry, too, because it often embodies in its praxis this notion of “language as a coral reef,” makes us aware of the role that contingency plays in its own formation.  (“The mark of things belongs to someone,” Ashbery writes in “A Last World,” “But if that somebody was wise / Then the whole thing might be different.”)  “The difference,” Rorty writes, “between genius and fantasy is not the difference between impresses which lock on to something universal […] and those which do not.  Rather it is the difference between idiosyncrasies which just happen to catch on with other people, […] some particular need which a given community happens to have at a given time.”  Ashbery’s poetry might thus be viewed as “the accidental coincidence of a private obsession with a public need.” 


What does language formulating itself in its search for its purpose look like?  It would have to be confidently tentative, tentatively confident, assertively stumbling, stumblingly assertive.  In lieu of these qualifications, here is the first stanza of “Fragment,” a long poem from Ashbery’s fourth book, The Double Dream of Spring.  (I’m choosing to look at “Fragment” because it is a good example of a poem in which meaning itself is reticent and contingent, even in some regards fragile and tentative, these being effects, I will be arguing, of a poem that discovers its purpose in the process of its own formulation.) 

The last block is closed in April.  You

See the intrusions clouding over her face

As in the memory given you of older

Permissiveness which dies in the

Falling back toward recondite ends,

The sympathy of yellow flowers. 

Never mentioned in the signs of the oblong day

The saw-toothed flames and point of other

Space not given, and yet not withdrawn

And never yet imagined: a moment’s commandment.

 This stanza, like much of the rest of the poem, holds its occasional opaqueness close to its chest.  It begins with a metaphor that seems to gesture towards ends, towards finalities – “The last block is closed in April” – that would seem to serve, then, more as an ending of a poem, its closure, rather than the opening line.  But what happens, as in many other Ashbery poems, is that what seems to be a narrow enclosure, a kind of corner of attention or attrition, opens out unexpectedly into an entirely new vista, compelling us to wonder about the ways we corner ourselves in our own thought, our own constructions and representations.  Indeed, the block is closed “in April,” the line thus suggesting a kind of background of possibility – (fecund April, the “cruelest month” because so beautiful and germinative) – despite the mysterious “last block” being closed.  The poem, almost immediately, introduces a dynamic between corners and vistas of attention, between “the sympathy of yellow flowers” and “Space not given,” between “not withdrawn / And never yet imagined”.  We hear of such hazy but charged words like “memory,” “dies,” “intrusions clouding over her face.”  There is, in the action of these word’s connotations, a dance between dimness and vividness, between what we know and what we have never conceived.  Taken as a whole, it seems impossible and unhelpful to attempt to paraphrase the stanza; yet we can say, with a certain uneasy confidence, that the poem deliberately sends out certain clues, hints and indirections, which rivet the reader’s attention, and compel him or her to continue reading, even as the whole of the meaning of the passage is ungraspable.  Thus, as the poem develops, we have the feeling that we are getting everywhere and nowhere – everywhere, because we have the sense that Ashbery is articulating the very conditions by which we attempt to make meaning, the very openings/closings by which we strain and stumble, fumble and take pains; and nowhere, because our quixotic search for meaning is not a linear developmental given, but instead proceeds by fits and starts, simultaneously and endlessly.  The second stanza thus continues this metaphorical dance:

            These last weeks teasing into providential

            Reality: that your face, the only real beginning,

            Beyond the gray of the overcoat, that this first

            Salutation plummet also the end of friendship

            With self alone.  And in doing so open out

            New passages of being among the correctness

            Of familiar patterns.  The stance to you

            Is a fiction, to me a whole.  I find

            New options, white feathers, in a word what

            You draw in around you to the protecting bone.        


“Teasing into providential reality” – again, the sense of the conditions that underlie our phenomenologies, coaxing into being our current moment of awareness.  We see a face in this flux, “the only real beginning,” a kind of vista of attention, only to “plummet” back to “self alone,” another (perhaps) corner.  The passage, in the attempt of formulating its purpose, is extremely tentative, zigzagging between “your face, the only real beginning” back to the “self alone,” only to then “open out / New passages of being among the correctness / Of familiar patterns.”  We as readers are given a kind of metaphysical whiplash, whereby each assertion, each image, is counter-balanced by a different, even opposite assertion or image, creating a dialectic of newness replacing oldness, not easily, but dialectically: of what “I find” balanced by what “You draw in around you,” of “stance to you / Is a fiction” balanced by “to me a whole.”

Along with this fragility of meaning, this tentative dialectic, comes also an all-purpose generality, equally useful for a vocabulary that is attempting to catch on, even as it is busy shaping itself and its purpose.  In the next stanza, we read near the end of the passage,

            Day covers all this with leaves, with laughter and tears.

            But at night other sounds are heard

            Propositions hitherto omitted in the heat

            Of smoke. 

 There is no specific confession here – we don’t hear which day, nothing about a specific season, no word about whose laughter or whose tears.  Instead we are given a very general situation or circumstance, which is then juxtaposed to a different circumstance that is itself a kind of newness or unfamiliarity replacing a familiarity or oldness – “Propositions hitherto omitted in the heat / Of smoke” are now “heard.” 





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