T.S. Eliot/Ashbery = Expressionism/Surrealism

A few different strands or streams of thought coincided for me today to produce the title of this blog post.  Let me explain.  

For a while I have been beguiled by Kenneth Goldsmith’s assertion that literature is behind the times.  Goldsmith makes this claim, because he believes (rightly, I think) that literature hasn’t yet learned the lessons that visual art learned years ago – namely, lessons concerning notions of originality, authenticity, appropriation, etc.  I love this idea, not only because I find it to be compellingly accurate, but also because 1.) it allows for, makes explicit, or creates the important bond-alliance between the verbal and visual arts, making plain how radically intertwined these arts are, and 2.) it draws attention to the fact that ideas are not limited to their specific discipline-domains, but, in a fascinatingly rich and complex cultural transmigration, emerge in various media, in various forms, in various cultural “expressions.”  (I put “expressions” in quotes because – this is another blog post – like plenty of others, I”m suspicious of the notion of “self-expression” as some easily expressed expression emanating from some easily coherent self.)  So I love that Goldsmith is making these connections plainer to us.

Concomitant with this appreciation of some of Goldsmith’s harped-on ideas, is an idea-awareness-hypothesis that Ashbery has done for surrealism what Goldsmith did for conceptual art – namely, massively assimilated and incorporated the ideas of this art-phenomenon into the verbal arts, thereby sort of updating the verbal arts to learn the lessons that surrealism learned in the process of its emergence.  For when you read Ashbery, you cannot help but be bowled over by (and here we should think of surrealism as well), his sense of humor, his absolutely fascinatingly strange juxtapositions, his incorporation of chance-elements into the poem-picture, and his associative dream-logic-style of writing.  

Now I’m not trying to claim that Ashbery is the only poet who assimilated surrealism into his style, manner, way-of-being.  But I do think he is one of the best practitioners of this kind of poetry.  Why?  Because of the jarring disjunctive metaphorical leaps in his poems, because of his wildly associative imagination, because of his genius for combining the most disparate elements into a work of abstract collage-like coherence, he is, again, a solid representative of this kind of rather wonderful poetic work.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting – because today, reading Isaiah Berlin on Vico, I was impressed by the fact that typically my writings on Ashbery are sort of “horizontal,” in the sense that they use a theoretical framework to contextualize the poet.  But I don’t normally incorporate historical thinking into the picture, I don’t give a “vertical” presentation, mostly because I’m intimidated by this work and seem to think it requires thinking styles and skills that aren’t my cup of tea.  But reading Berlin, I kind of said, “fuck it.  Why not try?”  Because I’ve always been super-impressed by the fact of difference between Ashbery and, say, Robert Lowelll; a difference that I sort of intuitively thought of in my head as the difference between representational and non-representational art.  

So you can see where I’m going here.  If the difference between Ashbery and Lowell is the difference between non-representational and representational art, immediately the art-poetry floodgates are open, and immediately lots of connections start popping and forming and doing a little dance.  And I start to wonder, If there is a link horizontally between Ashbery and surrealism, as well as a link horizontally between Eliot and expressionism (emphasis on the psychic emotional experience), how are these horizons linked vertically?  In other words, my inquiry takes the shape of two related questions: 1.) What is the relationship between expressionism and surrealism? And then, 2.) Based on this relationship, What is the relationship between Eliot and Ashbery?




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