Ashbery and the Phenomenology of Waiting

Introduction

In “The Charity of the Hard Moments,” Harold Bloom writes a compelling description of a facet of John Ashbery’s poetry that has not been sufficiently discussed. Bloom writes,

Nothing is more difficult to me, as a reader of poetry, than to describe why I am moved when a poem attains a certain intensity of quietness, when it seems to wait. Keats, very early in his work, described this as power half-slumbering on its own right arm…Recent Ashbery has more of this deep potential, this quietness that is neither quietism nor repression, than any American poet since the last poems of Stevens…For, though the poem is so chastened, it remains an Orphic celebration, as much so as Hart Crane at his most ecstatic (64).

How does a poem achieve “a certain intensity of quietness, when it seems to wait,” a waiting that suggests a “celebration”? What does such a mysterious formulation even mean? Bloom’s description pivots around notions of power not exactly expressed in the poem, but as waiting in the wings; and this waiting, this “half-slumbering on its own right arm” suggests even more power. In this sense, Ashbery’s poetry embodies a powerful aesthetic held in reserve: a shy, tentative, reticent power (as many critics have pointed out) that is all the more powerful for being held in reserve. In this essay, I wish to explore moments in Ashbery’s poetry where I find this feature apparent, where the poem is either about waiting, or when the poem enacts in its very unfolding this quality of mysterious, intense waiting – suggestive of potential and possibility – that Bloom describes. In doing so, I wish to call attention to aspects of Ashbery’s poetics that are often ignored or neglected. My argument is that this sense of quiet, intense waiting, and its implications for sponsoring in the reader a felt sense of possibility and potential, is related to what Charles Altieri describes as Ashbery’s “particular way of coming to terms with contemporaneity.” In other words, these moments of waiting are connected to Ashbery’s way of representing time and the new. For how else does one come to terms with the phenomenon of contemporaneity than by resolutely not defining it, but by opening up a space of potentiality and possibility through which the new – whatever it may be, however it drapes itself – may come rushing or stumbling in? This opened-up space of waiting, and the attendant calling attention to moments of quiet and intense possibility, allows us as readers to entertain imaginative alternatives, to “foster imaginative strategies enabling us to try out different schema enabling individuals to adapt themselves to historical changes.” (Altieri 806) This in turn may lead the poem, and therefore afford the reader, the opportunity to “imagine new aspects of lyrical subjectivity.” (Altieri 807) In this sense, Ashbery is a simultaneous connoisseur and collector of moments of waiting, of time.

Context(s)

To imagine new aspects of lyrical subjectivity is to connect, as Francoise Dastur does in “Phenomenology of the Event: Waiting and Surprise,” “openness to phenomena” to “openness to unpredictability” (178). It is to read Ashbery, with Mary Kay Boyd and Andrew Epstein, as a pragmatist– and phenomenologist-poet obsessed with questions of “time and the contingency of time” (178). For, as Neal Deroo argues in the context of Husserlian phenomenology, “we see that anticipation shows us something significant about all of our experiences and not just those that are specifically anticipatory: All experience, like anticipation, is experienced in the present but with the promise of something more to come in the future” (6). In Ashbery’s poetry, during moments in which waiting reaches a silent climax, a teetering on the edge of revelation (without exactly giving us that revelation), we as readers are transported into a flowing abundant awareness that makes us wonder about how “the future [what is being waited for] affects our understanding of the present” (Deroo 7). In that sense, Ashbery’s poetry of expectancy and anticipation is about Dastur’s definition of “an event”:

At first, we can only define it as what was not expected, what arrives unexpectedly and comes to us by surprise, what descends upon us, the accident in the literal meaning of the Latin verb accido from which the word accident derives. The event in the strong sense of the word is therefore always a surprise, something which takes possession of us in an unforeseen manner, without warning, and which brings us towards an unanticipated future. The eventum, which arises in the becoming, constitutes something which is irremediably excessive in comparison to the usual representation of time as flow. It appears as something that dislocates time and gives a new form to it, something that puts the flow of time out of joint and changes its direction.

We might read Ashbery’s poetry, then, in at least two ways: as an event itself, and as performing a waiting for an event, which might be interpreted as a waiting for itself (or something else) to flower, happen, become. This explains, to some degree, the continual bafflement that meets Ashbery’s poetry, for the poetry “does not happen in a world – it is, on the contrary, as if a new world opens up through its happening” (Dastur 182). This kind of openness “gives human being a destiny and makes one’s life an adventure and not the anticipated development of a program” (Dastur 182). For this reason Ashbery’s poetry is deeply concerned with what Dastur calls “the phenomenology of expectation” and the “phenomenology of surprise.”

This essay can also be located as an exploration and extension of scholarly work conducted by Mary Kay Boyd and Andrew Epstein, both of whom place Ashbery’s work within the context of philosophy. For Boyd, Ashbery’s work unfolds itself through and within the contexts of pragmatism, phenomenology, and essayism, the latter philosophy “[stemming] from Montaigne’s method for testing ideas without requiring final resolution and [occurring] in a variety of genres to explore possibilities with the skeptical doubt that the whole of anything can be seen; ideas are presented as a succession of experiments” (1). Boyd “[approaches] Ashbery’s poetry from two angles: how essayism’s philosophical inquiry motivates his poetry and what it uncovers” (2). Epstein is similarly interested in the way in which certain philosophical inquiries motivate Ashbery’s poetry. In his book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, Epstein devotes a chapter, “Emerson, Pragmatism, and the New American Poetry,” to what he calls “pragmatist poetics.” Epstein writes,

I am interested here in pragmatism as a philosophical mode that, most broadly, challenges foundationalism and absolutism, emphasizes contingency, pluralism and action, and espouses a version of individualism that is both anti-essentialist and highly attuned to the social dimensions of selfhood (54).

Ashbery, too, in his emphasis on time and waiting, calls into being a picture of the world that is similarly “anti-essentialist and highly attuned to the social dimensions of selfhood.” As we will see, in his un-static pictures of waiting, there is much to be excavated related to anti-essentialism and the social dimensions of selfhood.

While Boyd and Epstein lay the groundwork for a consideration of Ashbery’s poetry within the context of essayist and pragmatist philosophy, the poet, critic and novelist Ben Lerner, in his book review, “The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy” pinpoints what we might focus on within the context of phenomenological philosophy. Lerner writes, “It’s hardly a new observation that much of Ashbery’s work is, in some important sense, ‘about time,’ but I’m not sure we have an account of the specific experience of temporality it enables” (203, my italics). This seems to be a call by Lerner for a phenomenological reading of Ashbery’s poetry – one which Lerner takes up, when he argues that “Part of the bizarre power of Ashbery’s best poetry is that it seems to narrate what it’s like to read Ashbery’s best poetry, and when his work manages to describe the time of its own reading in the time of its own reading, we experience mediacy immediately” (203). This is an intriguing statement; it seems to suggest that reading Ashbery makes us more aware of ourselves in the process of reading Ashbery, and that this process is recognizably Ashberian. Lerner elaborates on this point in his novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, when he writes,

The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence (91).

Lerner echoes, in his phenomenological description of reading Ashbery and feeling “a strange kind of presence,” Richard Poirier’s pragmatist notion of Emerson’s elusiveness. Poirier writes,

Through [Emerson’s] concept of ‘genius’ he manages to hold onto an idea of the self, even though it is a self far more shadowy than his rhetoric of individualism had led people to suppose. The self in Emerson is not an entity, not even a function; it is an intimation of presence, and it comes upon us out of the very act by which the self tries to elude definition (qtd. in Levin 27, my italics).

It is this sense of “presence” that Lerner and Poirier allude to, and its connection to moments of waiting in Ashbery’s poetry, that I wish to draw out and think about further. It is an intimation of a presence that, as Bloom writes, evokes “neither quietism nor repression,” and yet seems to mysteriously usher in the new, the contemporaneous, allowing us to imagine, as Altieri has it, “new aspects of lyric subjectivity.” For an intimation of a presence is different from the presence itself, an intimation suggesting more potential and possibility than actualization and actuality. And, as we will see, these new aspects of lyric subjectivity are related to the way in which Ashbery represents time and the new.

Poems

Where in the poetry does Ashbery evince this phenomenon of waiting? In what poems does he make this quiet, intense experience of waiting apparent? One place to begin is the first poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat.” That poem begins,

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree…. (427)

The stanza opening the poem is soaked with a longing, evidenced by the implicit subtext of “only some were immortal and free” implying the desire for immortality and freedom. And yet we are then riveted from our position in the poem, into an “elsewhere” where “we are as sitting in a place where sunlight/ Filters down, a little at a time, / Waiting for someone to come.” The use of “as” in the second line suggests a metaphorical tincture to the situation, as though there were something metaphorical and more broadly representative of the circumstances Ashbery is describing. By invoking the notion of “Waiting for someone to come,” Ashbery introduces a resigned impatience into the tonal picture of the stanza, made more intense by the sunlight filtering down only “a little at a time.” But why is the speaker of this poem resigned and impatient?

Some clues are given to answer this question in the second stanza. For we learn that the speaker is impatient because he or she is waiting for regeneration. And in this poem this regeneration is connected intimately, though obscurely, with the process of writing (and waiting) itself. Ashbery writes,

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen (427).

The speaker feels “the stirring of new breath in the pages / Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.” There is humor here – the notion of comparing one being stuck in a rut with the smell of an old catalogue – but also a wistfulness, even a form of regret. “New sentences” are starting up, almost like plants or flowers. Yet “the summer / was well along, not yet past the mid-point / But full and dark with the promise of that fullness”. There is an open-ended and breathing quality to all this, a way in which Ashbery leaves “the thing that is prepared to happen” ambiguous and open so as not to encroach too much upon the reader’s felt sense of possibility engendered by these lines. For any literal or too concrete imagining of what this possibility means or does would contradict the very circumstances of possibility out of which this felt sense arises. Through the felt sense of possibility that Ashbery is creating through the texture, tonalities, diction, rhythm, and syntax of his language, we can almost as readers sense other alternatives stirring, other possibilities opening up or “starting up” like the “new sentences” Ashbery describes. Our sense of potential and possibility is echoed by the seasonal circumstances: the summer is “full and dark with the promise of that fullness,” so full and dark, indeed, that “even the least attentive fall silent.”

Then – suddenly – we are interrupted from this feeling of boundlessness and even hope:

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limped, dense twilight comes (427).

In this poem’s phenomenological awareness, we move from resigned impatience to a feeling of utter possibility, and then are suddenly braced by a vision of extreme self-consciousness: “A look of glass stops you / And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived? / Did they notice me, this time, as I am, / Or is it postponed again?” Time has effectively slowed down, even dwindled to a sudden and abrupt moment, a kind of worried nub. A dialectic is introduced between waiting with expectation for moments of possibility, and waiting with trepidation for moments when the self is unsettlingly “perceived,” is forced into an extreme state of self-consciousness that does not seem to permit for “new sentences” to start up. Time seems to contract. The speaker wonders: Is this game, between extreme self-consciousness and a sense of possibility, postponed again? And yet it’s as if this startling uprising of boxed-in self-awareness hasn’t even happened, contradicted by the “children / Still at their games,” and the clouds – the weather again echoing the speaker’s interior state – suggest a kind of “impatience in the afternoon sky.”

Yet then we are pulled into circumstances suggesting what the hopeful moments of waiting might intend: senses of potential, perhaps embodied and foreshadowed by the arrival of “limpid, dense twilight,” twilight suggesting, in the evocative murk of its mysterious demeanor, a kind of promissory note. Ashbery writes,

Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact (427).

Notice the rich synesthesia of the passage, the convergence of color and music, and a sense of luminous, imminent happening (“The great, formal affair was beginning”), and yet Ashbery does not exactly define what exactly is happening, although there is a great sense of importance about this occasion, for it “takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, / Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.” There is a good reason that Ashbery holds back from defining the event. We can find some answers and evidences in The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism by Jonathan Levin. Levin writes, in the context of Emerson’s refusal to define the sacred, and his consequent emphasis on “patience,” that

Anything that would put a definitive shape on…aspirations and ideals, that would define them, would also constrain the imaginative process whereby we envision and project those aspirations and ideals. By making our access to the sources of moral authority too assured, it would effectively limit the vital, ongoing cultivation of the sacred (19).

The “sacred” for Ashbery seems to be the event itself, the surprise engendered by the what-comes-next or the what-may-come. It is the experience of lived time as something paradoxically infinite. It is as if the world itself, in Ashbery’s words, “gives more than it takes.” There is an abundance that feels endless at the heart of Ashbery’s work that echoes this feeling of the indefinable “sacred,” this felt sense of possibility, and the attendant need to somehow actively wait. It is for this reason that Levin writes, again in the context of Emerson, (although he might as well be describing Ashbery, or Dickinson for that matter), that “the self must live in tendency” (35).

By focusing in his poems on waiting, Ashbery raises to the level of linguistic awareness an aspect of lived experience that is not often talked about – namely, the experience of lived time, or felt time, as opposed to clock time or “thought time.” And waiting is connected to this notion of felt time and clock time by its ability to engender an awareness of either or both. Who does not remember times in school, waiting for class to end, when the clock seemed to move almost lugubriously, viscously, mirroring our sense of time itself? And who has not, in waiting for someone or something, felt a sense of excited anticipation, as if time were swelling like a symphony? Indeed, Ashbery’s poetry might even be thought of as an attempt to allow the reader to wait with expectation (as opposed to waiting in boredom), to experience the experience of felt time (2). Ashbery’s poems, I am arguing, effectively slow down and speed up time. And by drawing our attention to the qualitative difference between clock time and lived time, Ashbery expands our awareness regarding the value of lived time.

This distinction – between felt time and thought time or clock time – is evoked and discussed in Harold Schweizer’s On Waiting. Schweizer writes, speaking of Henri Bergson’s work,

Contrary to Newton, Bergson argues that science “cannot deal with time and motion except on condition of first eliminating the essential and qualitative element – of time, duration.” “The mathematician,” he writes elsewhere, “will not have to occupy himself with [time], since he is concerned with the measurement of things, not their nature.” In his first book, Time and Free Will, Bergson thus proposes the existence of two temporalities: one thought and one lived, time and duration. In doing so, Bergson turns the question of proof upside down: the clock, he says, gives us not a sense of time but only a sense of spatial abstraction. To know what duration is requires deeper knowledge, experience rather than spatial measurements (15, my italics).

Waiting, if placed within the context of lived time, “is not simply a passage of time to be traversed” (Schweizer 2). Instead,

although time is supposed to function like a door or a hall through which we pass unawares, in waiting, the door jams and the hall is endless. The hour does not pass. The line does not move. Time must suddenly be endured rather than traversed, felt rather than thought. In waiting, time is slow and thick (2).

Ashbery’s poetry might be thought of as a qualitative and aesthetic registering of the phenomenological experience of time, as something that is experienced as both speeded up and slowed down. And one of the best places to look at this actually happening is in his longer poem, “Grand Galop,” from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (for the purposes of this paper, we will be focusing on the poem’s first stanza). “Grand Galop” begins,

All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely, spring exists again. The wigela does it dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jellow, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk (436).

The poem begins grandly, philosophically, self-reflexively – “All things seem mention of themselves / And the name which stem from them branch out to other referents.” It is a commentary on conceptuality and object-ness, the way in which objects both stand out as being indivisibly themselves, and yet their names – the words we have given them – branch out endlessly in and to other names, other concepts. Ashbery, in an interesting way, does not tell us here what objects or names he is thinking of – it is therefore a very abstract and philosophical way of beginning a poem. And yet suddenly we are immersed in a different picture: “Hugely, spring exists again.” It’s as though we have gone down a ladder, moved away from the abstract conceptual theorizing of the first two lines and vividly towards the feeling of actual (though virtual) experience and existence. And in this momentous chronicling of momentum, during which we are essentially unseated from the pedestal of speculation that initiates the poem, we are suddenly presented with a new experience, a new feeling, of time – time not as static, un-moving, the way the first two lines represent it, but rather as sudden, abrupt, immersive, consuming – “Hugely, spring exists again.” It is as though we have plunged again into the currents of lived time, and the experience is not long in coming but surprises us with and in its freshness. And in this moment of awareness, “The weigela does its dusty thing / In fire-hammered air.” “Fire-hammered” is a fascinating compound adjective which connotes a kind of manic, industrious, frenzied quality to the air – thus suggesting things happening, almost exploding with suddenness, occurring with an intensity and speed that evokes in the reader a sense of the feeling of time speeding up. And this feeling continues into the next line, where we read, “And garbage cans are heaved against / The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.” It is as though we have watched a speeded-up version of the actual happenings of tulips, as they, over time, open and close and “fall apart.”

All of this movement is somewhat dizzying, which is perhaps why Ashbery abruptly but sensibly introduces the day’s lunch: “Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad, / Jello, milk and cookies.” It is as though time, lived time, has speeded up so fast that Ashbery wishes to now slow it down with a list of exquisite banality. One can almost feel the poem slowing down, though with traces of the earlier manic energy. And then, again abruptly, we switch into the mode of the first two lines – philosophical, abstract, slightly mysterious. The tone of the poem has effectively changed our perception of how to read it, and as our perception has shifted, our sense of time also changes, back into a more static sense of time. We read,

The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.
Only the waiting, the waiting: what fills up the time between?
It is another kind of wait, waiting for the wait to be ended.
Nothing takes up its fair share of time,
The wait is built into the things just coming into their own.
Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait
Invests everything like a climate.
What time of day is it?
Does anything matter?
Yes, for you must wait to see what it is really like,
This event rounding the corner
Which will be unlike anything else and really
Cause no surprise: it’s too ample (436).

The passage reads like a litany of notions surrounding or revolving around the idea of waiting. Waiting is represented as exhausting, infuriating, bewildering, overwhelming (“Only the waiting, the waiting: what fills up the time between?), dripping with potent connotations of mortality, (“It is another kind of wait, waiting for the wait to be ended”), associated with generative power, (“The wait is built into the things just coming into their own”), and expanded to be considered as a kind of overarching, infusing atmosphere (“the wait / Invests everything like a climate”). In that sense, waiting is represented in both its more negative and positive connotations: as the cause and effect of clock or thought time, but also as the cause and effect of experiencing the more hopeful aspects of lived or felt time. The stanza then ends on a note of a kind of unanticipated, anticipated ripeness: “Yes, for you must wait to see what it is really like, / This event rounding the corner / Which will be unlike anything else and really / Cause no surprise: it’s too ample.” The event, paradoxically, will not cause surprise because it’s too “ample,” too full and promising. Ashbery is suggesting, then, that the experience of hope in lived time is not something foreign or alien to our experience, but rather integral to experience as such.

Conclusion

This paper has focused on aspects of Ashbery’s poetry that involves waiting, and has connected this feature of the poetry with an attendant emphasis on the value of lived time. By focusing on the phenomenological experience of lived time – in its tendency to, among other things, both speed up and slow down time – Ashbery calls attention to the experiential “event-ual” quality of time, “event-ual” intended to connote both succession, but more importantly, the “event-ness” of time as defined by Francois Dastur above. Because time in the poetry of Ashbery is so connected to the flowing and flowering of the event, it is important to call attention to moments in the poetry in which we are poised, waiting, on the edge of the contemporaneous moment or instance. Often in Ashbery’s poetry, waiting is connected, not to feelings of ennui, but to a resounding, growing, gathering sense of hopefulness and regeneration, a kind of budding and swelling excitement. It is as though we have just left somewhere, and are on our way to somewhere else, somewhere we have been waiting for with an alarming sense of expectation and anticipation. Ashbery’s poetry creates this sense in the reader. For these (and many other reasons), it is important to explore in the poetry how it waits, how it seems to build in power secretly, reticently, obscurely, without calling undue attention to this power. Ashbery’s reticence is deservedly famous; but we need more studies that explore the ramifications of this aesthetic and formal reticence.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “John Ashbery and the Challenge of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1988): 805-830. Print.
Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Print.
Boyd, Mary Kay. (2008). John Ashbery’s Essayism (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from University of Georgia Theses and Dissertations.
Dastur, Francoise. “Phenomenology of the Event: Waiting and Surprise.” Hypatia, Vol. 15, No. 4 (2000): 178-189. Print.
DeRoo, Neal. Futurity in Phenemenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas, and Derrida. New York: Fordham UP, 2013. Print.
Epstein, Andrew. Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
Lerner, Ben. “The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy.” Boundary 2, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2010): 201-213. Print.
Lerner, Ben. Leaving the Atocha Station. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2011. Print.
Levin, Jonathan. Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. Print.

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