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Poetry is forever on the verge, on the edge of something – a realization, a revelation, something that will transmute what has come before it and redeem it in the end – (even if the revelation doesn’t happen, even if the realization is a mirage).  Not for nothing did Jorge Luis Borges claim that the “imminence of a revelation not yet produced is perhaps the aesthetic reality.”  We are compelled to read poetry – we are urged, pulled, taken through the poem, because we sense in the poem a gathering insight, we feel the coaxing of the poem’s own spark, we sense the care and rigor and attention with which the language has been chosen, and we wish to follow that insight, that spark, that care, in whatever direction it is taking us, towards whatever mode of closure the poem may offer us.  Like a line break about to enjamb, we dangle as we read a poem.  To embark on a poem is to anticipate the experience of meaning, and anticipation is often more pleasurable than its realization.  Perhaps this is why reading and writing poetry is such a pleasurable act: we anticipate what the next line or stanza will provide, while the white space and line breaks heighten this anticipation by calling attention to the movement of language itself.

Yet even while the poem prolongs our anticipation and turns it into something delicious, it also repays our attention and provides us with an experience of meaning.  This meaning can feel bottomless, because poetry as an art form is able to contain more than it says (although at other, presumably more disappointing times, it says more than it contains).  This dynamic – that poetry can gesture towards fullnesses of meaning and value without always articulating exactly that meaning or value – means that even the most restrained poem is forever about to spill over.  And yet the meaning that a poem provides does not have to be thought of as a distillation or a heightening of the meaning we experience in daily life, for there are important overlaps between the everyday and a poem.  For one thing, in both we receive the experience of meaning as a gift, in the same way in which we might experience a child, a parent, a spouse, a partner, a friend as a gift (despite the irritation and even exhaustion that these persons sometimes bring in their wake).  Persons we are close to, persons we feel loved by and who we are able to love, can present us with the opportunity to experience a meaningful attention, an openness to life, an undistracted, caring and spontaneous orientation that allows for, even begets, mutual flourishing.  Perhaps it is because we feel loved that we are given the courage to assume this orientation, because it also, of course, implies a vulnerability.  And yet this is the same orientation that is brought to the white space of a page, whether that page is empty and waiting to be written on, or whether that page contains a poem to be read.  It is a kind of radical openness, a sort of anticipation of what you will, a willingness to explore and experience.

In part, we stay open with a person we love, in a similar way in which we stay open with a poem, because we don’t know exactly what to expect.  We are encountering this person, this poem, for the (at least metaphorically) first time, even if we’ve met them thousands of times before, and openness is probably the best thing we can bring to a potentially (and probably) surprising encounter.  People are unpredictable, and poems are, too.  They should be.  A person who is too predictable is usually considered boring, and the same holds true for poems.  In those situations where we encounter predictability, the range of possibilities is more limited, and therefore we are not called upon to dance as nimbly with the experience that is unfolding.  This leads to a dulling, a dumbing down – something that is also shared by (mostly bad) poetry and (mostly bad) experiences of the everyday.  Yet even the most unpredictable turn in a poem, for it to work and not bounce off us, must have at some point been prepared for by the parts of the poem that preceded it.  Which is to say, that novelty in and of itself, without any preparation, often wears thin.  A poem that manages to be fulfilling and surprising at the same time, however, stays with us.  It is an achievement.

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John Ashbery

These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing

Into something forgetful, although angry with history.

They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,

Though this is only one example.

 

They emerged until a tower

Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back

Into the past for swans and tapering branches,

Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.

 

Then you are left with an idea of yourself

And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon

Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others

Who fly by you like beacons.

 

The night is a sentinel.

Much of your time has been occupied by creative games

Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.

We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,

 

To a violet sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air

To you, pressing you back into a startled dream

As sea-breezes greet a child’s face.

But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.

 

The worst is not over, yet I know

You will be happy here.  Because of the logic

Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.

Tender and insouciant by turns, you see

 

You have built a mountain of something,

Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,

Whose wind is desire starching a petal,

Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.

 

“Lacustrine” means having to do with lakes, so the title, in the way in which “these” points to the cities, suggests that there is going to be a more general statement made about the cities the speaker has in mind – maybe what they are like, or what they mean to the speaker, what the speaker loves about these cities or what he hates about them.  Then in the first line, we plummet immediately into origins – “These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing / Into something forgetful, although angry with history.”  Here the scope of the poem widens, and we are presented not with a sociology or anthropology of the cities exactly, but instead a kind of vast perspective is taken that seems to have to do with the rising and falling of civilizations – why civilization (in this case, these lacustrine cities) rises, how it rises, that sort of thing.  And we learn that, according to the speaker, the cities that are mentioned, these vast things, grew not out of ambition, but actually grew out of loathing, out of hatred.  And from there, the loathing grew into something “forgetful, although angry with history.”  There is something profoundly ambivalent, Ashbery seems to be saying, about the growth of cities.  They are not merely the materialized dreams of some Ayn Rand protagonist, but rather are (at least the cities the speaker is thinking of) born out of festering hatred, receive their energy from this hatred, and flourish from it as well.  This then seems to be a general and heterodox comment about the way in which civilizations themselves grow, though we might interpret the loathing as a symptom of a larger unhappiness, in which case the poem might be saying that culture grows out of dissatisfaction.  And yet this loathing is clouded by forgetfulness, so that the cities (and the people, presumably, that live in these cities) have forgotten their origins, and yet are angry with history, as if there is still an unconscious residue of the original loathing.  These cities, furthermore, are “the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance, / Though this is only one example.”  Ashbery is calling attention to the way in which massive cultural formations can be based on something as ephemeral and idiosyncratic as an idea, in this case, that “man is horrible, for instance,” and I love that “for instance,” for it’s as though we are suddenly sitting in a room in which a serious and formal lecture is given – the “for instance” and “only one example” lend a mock seriousness to the poem’s tone, and seem to tell us simultaneously to pay close attention the poem while also not taking it too seriously.

These cities grew and grew and grew “until a tower / Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back / Into the past for swans and tapering branches”.  I read this as saying that these cities grew into the cities we know today, where a skyscraper holds court in the sky, and that this domination of the sky doesn’t prevent the people in the cities to indulge their nostalgic tendencies for “swans and tapering branches.”  We might read this as a kind of bringing together of business (the tower) and aesthetic, or at least feaux-aesthetic (swans, tapering branches) interests.  These cities, which grew out of loathing, produced a civilization in which massive towers populate the sky, and yet behind these towers are a people who crave for beauty, or at least artifice.  And in keeping with this nod towards a kind of Walter Paterian aesthetic, (Pater wrote about the need “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame”), these cities burn up all their hate, which is then transformed into “useless love.”  Why is love here “useless”?  It’s a funny and surprising statement.  Maybe because the love here mentioned is the antithesis of the “useful” loathing that produced the lacustrine cities.

In the third stanza, we are presented with a characteristic Ashberian move, that is, a total change in the poem’s environment, in this case with the introduction of the pronoun “you.”  Whereas before we had been as if attending a strange lecture in a large room, we are now being directly addressed, as if between two people.  But the transition, though surprising – “Then you are left with an idea of yourself / And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon” – does make logical sense, because the end result of the birth of the lacustrine cities is of course the people dwelling in them, and hence what we are left with is, well, ourselves, or an idea of ourselves, and the banality of an afternoon.  All of this immense and intense, even tortuous, struggle to produce the vast cities has ended with a solitary banal self-consciousness and “the embarrassment of others / Who fly by you like beacons.”

But before we have much of a chance to pause, we read the very mysterious, “The night is a sentinel,” reminiscent of Ashbery’s ending to “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat,” i.e. “But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.”  Both are very enigmatic statements about night that seem to carry behind them an immense weight of meaning, although we are not quite sure why or how exactly.  Meanwhile, the tone of the speaker’s voice has shifted, and we are now being spoken to by someone who sounds half-diabolical, half hotel advertisement, half enigmatic trickster, half choose-your-own adventure narrator.  “Much of your time has been occupied by creative games / Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you. / We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert, // To a violent sea, or of having the closeness of the others be air / To you, pressing you back into a startled dream / As sea-breezes greet a child’s face.  But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.”  I absolutely love this turn in the poem, because it is so unexpected.  I have never read a poem with a voice quite like this.  We are being spoken to as if by some strangely omniscient menacing persona that is in charge of the fate of our lives.  And this persona somehow seems to know us intimately, in a way, for it is aware of our tendency to always be “[nursing] some private project.”  Yet it is a creepy voice indeed, especially when we read, “The worst is not over, yet I know / You will be happy here.”  The poem ends with the private cultures, private civilizations, that we create as individuals, for we “have built a mountain of something, thoughtfully pouring all [our] energy into this single monument”.  There is a cyclical nature to all this, from the origin of the cities to the origin of the things we pour all our energy and passion into.  The ending, like most of Ashbery’s endings, is wonderfully mysterious and beautiful – “Whose wind is desire starching a petal, / Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.”  Ashbery seems to be attempting, almost by indirection, to say something about persons, about the desire that leads us to produce works, and about the life-situations that lead us into grief and disappointment.  Because he begins with such a vast panorama, a vast picture of things, his very general though lovely summing up of the human condition at the end seems to somehow fit.

 

 

 

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1.

I’ve been reading Mark Strand today, and am finding him to be a more disturbing poet than I remembered, with some caveats.  In this blog post, I want to look at some examples of the way in which Strand creates ominous textures, dark passages, through which the speaker occasionally wanders, with only a dim candle (hope, anticipation, desire, imagination) to light the way, though I will end with a poem that emphasizes that candle.  In a sense, then, Strand is writing a form of secular wisdom literature, by giving us rich and compelling insight into the world.  Let’s start with a short and late poem from Strand, from Man and Camel, entitled “Mother and Son.”

The son enters the mother’s room

and stands by the bed where the mother lies.

The son believes that she wants to tell him

what he longs to hear – that he is her boy,

always her boy.  The son leans down to kiss

the mother’s lips, but her lips are cold.

The burial of feelings has begun.  The son

touches the mother’s hands one last time,

then turns and sees the moon’s full face.

An ashen light falls across the floor.

If the moon could speak, what would it say?

If the moon could speak, it would say nothing.

The scene is a kind of penultimate dramatic scene – the son is going to say goodbye to his mother for the last time.  But the poem is so haunting because there is nothing in it to clutter up the importance of that moment, suggesting the severest of ascetic temperaments.  (Strand, like Stevens, is nothing if not a hedonistic ascetic.)  And yet, in a deeply ironic move and mood, the mother isn’t even alive – the son bends down to kiss her lips, only to find them cold.  All the mystery at the heart of the mother-child relationship remains intact, and yet nothing – nothing – is spoken, besides the poem.  Even the moon, a trope Strand returns to again and again, says nothing, even if it could speak.  The point is that, within the poem, which is spoken, heard and read, there resides a kind of alternative silence, a vast quiet that makes each word in the poem necessary, even as it surrounds the poem with an aura of finality and, to a certain extent, futility.  The grief is inexpressible, for the moon would say nothing.  Strand raises the question, How does a poem, through speaking, through language, convey the mystery (and sadness) of living and dying?

I wanted to start with this poem, because I believe it is this silence, suggesting the end of the trail, or death, out of which many of Strand’s poems spring.  There are so many Strand poems that seem to issue in some way out of an awareness of death, which manifests itself sometimes in the poem as a stillness around the words, a necessary quiet.  That is why I believe Strand composes secular wisdom literature – for to be so preternaturally obsessed with the idea of death is to force us, almost against ourselves (though Strand’s slow and siren-like lyricism is near-impossible to resist) to also contemplate the quiet awareness that we hold inside ourselves like a different room or tune, in which we keep alive the memory that we also will die.  What else is Strand singing about, when he writes, in the numbered section XVI of his book Dark Harbor,

It is true, as someone has said, that in

A world without heaven all is farewell.

Whether you wave your hand or not,

 

It is farewell, and if no tears come to your eyes

It is still farewell, and if you pretend not to notice,

Hating what passes, it is still farewell.

 

Farewell no matter what.  And the palms as they lean

Over the green, bright lagoon, and the pelicans

Diving, and the glistening bodies of bathers resting,

 

Are stages in an ultimate stillness, and the movement

Of sand, and of wind, and the secret moves of the body

Are part of the same, a simplicity that turns being

 

Into an occasion for mourning, or into an occasion

Worth celebrating, for what else does one do,

Feeling the weight of the pelicans’ wings,

 

The density of the palms’ shadows, the cells that darken

The backs of bathers?  These are beyond the distortions

Of chance, beyond the evasion of music.  The end

 

Is enacted again and again.  And we feel it

In the temptations of sleep, in the moon’s ripening,

In the wine as it waits in the glass.

Strand might as well have added, at the end of the section, “in the poem that you are reading.”  For the poem’s very music is death-haunted, i.e. the way in which it lulls the reader into its spell seems to almost parallel the lulling song that Strand argues death performs for/on us.  And yet this death-haunted song is not merely made up of gloom and doom.  Instead, the very texture of our experience of living and dying is tinged, colored, inflected, imbued with intense desire, for we can feel desire in the care of the phrases, “and the movement / Of sand, and of wind, and the secret moves of the body / Are part of the same”.  It is as though the motion of the poet’s mind, as it composes the poem, serves as a metaphor for the desire we feel, a desire to escape death through celebration or join death through sleep.  But what permeates the poem, almost like a fragrance, is this sense of the inescapability of death – “Farewell no matter what.”

2.

There is another poem that comes to mind when discussing the themes of disturbing inescapability (and the consequent desire for escape) at the heart of much of Strand’s poetic enterprise, and that poem is “The Story of Our Lives,” from Strand’s same-named collection from 1973.  In that poem, Strand meditates profoundly on the desire to escape the reading of our lives as we write it, or the writing of our lives as we read it.  That is a more complicated way of saying that Strand wishes to step out of his own story, his own life-narrative, even as he recognizes that this is mostly impossible (and that this life-narrative inevitably involves death).  In the poem, the book that he is reading serves as a metaphor for the experience he has of his own self and life.  The first section of the poem reads,

We are reading the story of our lives

which takes place in a room.

The room looks out on a street.

There is no one there,

no sound of anything.

The trees are heavy with leaves,

the parked cars never move.

We keep turning the pages,

hoping for something,

something like mercy or change,

a black line that would bind us

or keep us apart.

The way it is, it would seem

the book of our lives is empty.

The furniture in the room is never shifted,

and the rugs become darker each time

our shadows pass over them.

It is almost as if the room were the world.

We sit beside each other on the couch,

reading about the couch.

We say it is ideal.

It is ideal.

There is something very strange, even ominous and despairing, about Strand’s description of “the story of our lives.”  And it is ominous, I would argue, because Strand seems to be suggesting very disturbingly that, at a fundamental level, there is something almost illusory about the lives we live (I’ll get back to this “almost”), and that this near-illusoriness comes into effect because of death.  Let me back up.  Where in the poem do we even find death, if the word is not mentioned in this excerpt?  I think it is in the combination of images of silence and stasis (“There is no one there, / no sound of anything. / The trees are heavy with leaves, / the parked cars never move”) and the image of a darkening (“the rugs become darker each time / our shadows pass over them”) where we find a poem that is, like the excerpt above from Dark Harbor, death-haunted to an almost unbearable degree.  And this death-hauntedness manifests in images of a world that are unreal, that are seemingly virtual or illusory.  The implication seems to be (I think?) that the inescapability of death makes our lives into something different, something that is frightening and saddening to think about.  And yet: Strand is very clear that this is only a particular reading, for he says, later in the section, “It is almost as if the room were the world.”  By this, I mean Strand to be saying something sensible, along the lines of, “our current despairing interpretation of the world seems like the way the world is – “as if the room were the world” – but it is in fact only one interpretation among many.”

3.

In “The Story of Our Lives” there is a reprieve, however brief, from this inescapability, and it comes in the form of memory and dreams, though even these things are tinged with an ambivalence.  We read at the end of the third section,

This morning after you fell back to sleep

I began to turn pages early in the book:

it was like dreaming of childhood,

so much seemed to vanish,

so much seemed to come to life again.

I did not know what to do.

The book said: In those moments it was his book.

A bleak crown rested uneasily on his head.

He was the brief ruler of inner and outer discord,

anxious in his own kingdom. 

There is so much sadness and hope and desire in the lines, “so much seemed to vanish, / so much seemed to come to life again.”  So much, in fact, that the speaker does not “know what to do.”  Like the grief in “Mother and Son,” Strand’s existential bafflement here is essentially unspeakable, inexpressible.  In the spirit of this inexpressible astonishment, therefore, I want to end on a lighter note, with the first section of Strand’s “Poem After the Seven Last Words.”  It is also a poem obsessed with the “story of our lives” and the poetics of farewell but in a different way.  The first section reads,

The story of the end, of the last word

of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.

We tell it and retell is – one word, then another

until it seems that no last word is possible,

that none would be bearable.  Thus, when the hero

of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”

we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are

the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea

is not answered, we shall be spared.  So the story

continues.  So we continue.  And the end, once more,

becomes the next, and the next after that.

Here, the sad finality that darkens the earlier poems has dissolved, to a certain extent, and we are presented with something different, something we might call “continuity” (Strand has a book called The Continuous Life).  The story is not something inescapable, something we futilely struggle to escape, but rather stretches backwards and forwards into time, into a distance we are incapable of comprehending completely, though we can see the distance and appreciation our continuity with it.  Whereas before, the thought of a life ending is unbearable, here what is unbearable is the thought of limiting life by trying to sum it up with a word.  There is therefore a rich and layered sense of possibility and anticipation and hope in this poem, suggestive of another form of secular wisdom literature, here one which involves a sense of connection, continuity, even care.

Recently on Twitter, I asked a difficult question: What is your favorite album or song by Bob Dylan?  I received no answers, but when I thought about the question, it seemed somewhat impossible to really answer.  Dylan’s career has been so astonishingly variegated, and the changes in his styles and traditions so radical, that it is almost impossible to pick one album or one song.  It would be like trawling in one’s own past, one’s own memory, and selecting out of all the selves one has been, one exemplary self to stand for it all.  It’s impossible.  Each self has its own integrity, its own dignity and worth.  Each self is incommensurable.  And yet I use this analogy because, if we embody and perform different selves at different times in our lives, then Dylan in his music takes this truth to its further extreme.  By which I mean that the Bob Dylan singing “Desolation Row” feels like a different person than the Bob Dylan performing, say, “Girl from the North Country.”  It’s not just a difference in voice or age, although that plays a role.  Dylan seems to morph, to mutate, to alter his whole aesthetic in such surprising (and wonderful) ways, that he compels his fans to reach for analogies across the arts – therefore he is the (horrible phrase) Picasso of folk music, say, or some such thing.  But when I try to think of other artists who have not only changed so radically so many times, but who have been able to produce strong work during most of these manifestations, I am humbled into a kind of shocked silence.  For that reason I think Dylan is one of the greatest artists of our time.

But let me return to the question: What is your favorite Dylan song or album?  The question itself was prompted by my listening to “Blood on the Tracks” for the zillionth time, and being absolutely blown away for the zillionth time.  I couldn’t believe it: the utterly satisfying “Meet Me in the Morning,” the heartbreakingly lovely “Buckets of Rain,” the fabulously angry “Idiot Wind” (here is a great live version), all on one album?  It didn’t make any sense to me – it produced the kind of cognitive dissonance that I only really experienced a few times with other artists, where the sheer pleasure I took in the work of the person coincided with an intense wonder, radical amazement, that he or she was able to do that.  How was it possible?  And yet it was, and I was listening to it.  It was a kind of miracle.

So listening to “Blood on the Tracks” caused me to write my impossible tweet, but it also made me reflect on my favorite Dylan song.  Because even if I couldn’t answer the question regarding a favorite Dylan album – this seemed to really change based on time and mood – I did have a favorite Dylan song, and this had remained somewhat of a constant ever since I heard it for the first time in the early 2000’s.  That song is Dylan’s rendition of “Moonshiner,” a folk song that according to Wikipedia has disputed origins.  He didn’t write it.  But I wanted to blog about this song tonight, to somehow articulate why and how this song has the strangest ability to stop me dead in my tracks, to short-circuit my habitual ordinary existence, and to allow me to experience something that only the greatest art allows us to feel.  Language only (I think at least) cheapens this feeling.

One way to approach the appreciation of a song is to analyze it into its component parts.  I think that can be helpful, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s not everything.  Let me start, though, by saying that “Moonshiner” is unique because of the confluence of artistry of instruments (acoustic guitar and harmonica), profound lyrics, a remarkably distinctive voice, a haunting and beautiful melody, and a performance that reaches levels of sublimity.  In this blog post, I’m going to try and focus on all of these parts, although if I neglect one they should still all be borne in mind.

So how does the song begin?  With a blast of harmonica and the finger-picking of an acoustic guitar, which sound simultaneously.  This eruption of sound is of course an introduction, introducing us to the melodic themes that will come up next, and it also sets the tone.  In doing so, it essentially clears the air, like a ritualistic opening of a poem, a clearing of sound space.  And yet it is impossible just yet to describe the tone of this introduction – is it sad, hopeful?  The harmonica seems almost, for a moment, exuberant, although the undercurrent of the strumming gives the exuberance a different inflection, something darker somehow, something drenched with homelessness and exile and longing.  The guitar and harmonica weave in and out of each other, sometimes joining, something parting.  And then we experience another eruption, which is the voice of a young Bob Dylan, introducing the persona of the song, “I’ve been a moonshiner / for seventeen long years.”  Notice the way Dylan rides out the sounds of “a” in “a moonshiner” and “ee” in “sevenTEEEEEN” – he stretches the vowels, makes his own melody out of them, and the length of time that he holds the vowels in the air, in our ears, as the guitar plays behind it, seems to approximate the length of time the moonshiner has spent making his product – “seventeen long years.”  In the next line, he does the same thing, holding the “a” in “all,” the long “i” in “my,” and the “ee” in “whiskey,” so that when we hear the sung line “I spent all my money / on whiskey and beer,” it is impossible to ignore the pungent regret in the line, and yet the beauty of the acoustic guitar and the melody transform this regret into something different, more profound, larger somehow, more representative.

Dylan is going to be stretching vowels throughout the song, and these sung notes hold steady and then change as the guitar weaves in and out of them.  He holds a note while the strumming changes chords, or he changes the note while the guitar strums the same.  I can type the next lines, “I go to some hollow / and sit at my still / and if whiskey don’t kill me / then I don’t know what will,” but the language doesn’t do justice to the sung line, because it sounds something like “I go tooooooooo some hollow / and siiIIIIit at my still! / and if whiskeeeeeeeEEEEE do-o-n’t kill me / then I don’t knoooooooow what will.”  And in the same way in which the music changes the regret into something larger, more profound, here the pride and pathos of the lines “and if whiskey don’t kill me / then I don’t know what will” are transmuted and made even more haunting and even strange.

The song has as many intense changes of tone as Dylan had shifts in his career.  From regret to pride/pathos and then, in the next stanza, “I go to some barroom / and drink with my friends / where the women can’t follow / and see what I spend // God bless them pretty women / I wish they was mine / their breath is as sweet as / the dew on the vine.”  We get more regret with “and see what I spend,” but then Dylan’s voice lifts and contorts and lifts even more (one of the best, most astonishing parts of the performance – “God bless….was mine”), and it’s as though we are drunk with the moonshiner’s sadness, or happiness, or exultation.  The mere thought of these “pretty women” has caused the moonshiner to suddenly wax poetic, and Dylan’s performance embodies this longing, this need to turn to a different kind of language to represent desire.

Another harmonica and guitar interlude, and then we are plunged into the final two (my favorite) stanzas:

Let me eat when I’m hungry

Let me drink when I’m dry

Dollars when I’m hard up

Religion when I die

 

The whole world’s a bottle

And life’s but a dram

When the bottle gets empty

It sure ain’t worth a damn

We’ve been building to this point, and the climax of the song (“The whole world’s a bottle….but a dram”) and the denouement (“When the bottle….ain’t worth a damn”) are uncanny.  Wise.  Profound.  The moonshiner is essentially stating his philosophy of life.  It is as compelling (and even funny, at least the line about religion) as it is (or seems) simple and pragmatic.  The music changes the lyrics; they turn from demands (“Let me”) for a way of life, for satisfying one’s needs, into thinking about death and religion, and onwards into somehow encapsulating a felt sense of life, of what life means to the moonshiner, what death means to him, too.  This means that the song doesn’t stay, exactly, in the world of circumstances, of how the moonshiner spends his time and what he normally thinks about.  It’s as if the moonshiner too can feel the climax of the song, and he begins to turn the trope of his own life into a summing up of what life means to him.  Therefore: “the whole world’s a bottle / and life’s but a dram / When the bottle gets empty / It sure ain’t worth a damn.”  Is it bleak?  I’m not sure.  Dark?  Certainly.  I think you can’t help but read the bottle as the human body, and the emptiness referring to the loss of life – but the concision of the language, the lyrics’ ability to sum up life in a few brief and moving brushstrokes, is startling.  Dylan goes on, of course, to write his own remarkable songs, but for me this song is a touchstone, something I can always return to, and leave it transformed.

So here’s to Bob Dylan and this amazing rendition.  It’s not dark yet – Dylan is still coming out with albums, of course, some of which have been just as remarkable as his work in the 60’s and 70’s.  But I think I will always love “Moonshiner” the best.

 

 

 

 

 

1.

In Dreaming by the Book, Elaine Scarry makes three distinctions that will be important for this blog post.  I will be arguing that Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Twelth Morning; or What You Will” is about what Scarry calls “the felt experience of imagining,” (71) or “the felt experience of image-making,” and that the poem calls attention self-reflexively to this fact (48).  But first, some distinctions are in order, helpfully provided by Scarry, who writes,

“To be clear, it might be useful to distinguish three phenomena.  First, immediate sensory content: the light-filled surface of Matisse’s Interior at Nice, the sweet fleeting notes of “Honey-Suckle Rose” on Fats Waller’s piano recording, or indeed the particular room one, at this moment, inhabits while reading.  Second, delayed sensory content, or what can be called “instructions for the production of actual sensory content.”  A musical score has no immediate acoustical content, only the immediate visual content of lines and dots and the immediate tactile content of the smooth, thin pages, but it does directly specify a sequence of actions that, if followed, produces actually audible content.  The third case, in contra-distinction to the first two, has no actual sensory content, whether immediate or delayed; there is instead only mimetic content, the figural rooms and faces and weather that we mimetically see, touch, and hear, though in no case do we actually do so (6).”

Scarry goes on to point out that, “painting, sculpture, music, film, and theater are weighted towards the first [category, immediate sensory content]….whereas the verbal arts take place almost exclusively in the third [category, mimetic content].”  (7)  And yet this point must be qualified, for “poetry,” according to Scarry, “retains a strong engagement with delayed perception, the second category:

“like the musical score, its sequence of printed signs contains a set of instructions for the production of actual sound; the page does not itself sing but exists forever on the verge of song.  Poetry – again unlike narrative – even has immediate sensory content, since the visual disposition of the lines and stanzas provides an at once apprehensible visual rhythm that is a prelude to, or rehearsal for, or promise of, the beautiful regulation of sound to come (7).”

Poetry, then, more than the other art forms, participates in all three forms of content outlined by Scarry.  It’s immediate sensory content participates through the visual form of the words on the page.  Its delayed sensory content participates through the way in which the notations on the page are intended to produce actual sound.  And its mimetic content participates through the way in which the poem activates our imaginations.

2.

With these categories intact, we can now think about the difference between the perceptual and mimetic worlds.  Scarry writes, “When we speak in everyday conversation about the imagination, we often attribute to it powers that are greater than ordinary sensation.”  She goes on to write,

“But when we are asked to perform the concrete experiment of comparing an imagined object with a perceptual one – that is, of actually stopping, closing our eyes, concentrating on the imagined face or the imagined room, then opening our eyes and comparing its attributes to whatever greets us when we return to the sensory world – we at once reach the opposite conclusion: the imagined object lacks the vitality and vivacity of the perceived one; it is in fact these very attributes of vitality and vivacity that enable us to differentiate the actual world present to our senses from the one that we introduce through the exercise of the imagination (3).”

The actual magic of literature, Scarry points out, is that it manages, through the instructions of the writer, to make us feel as though we are in the presence of the perceptual world, when in reality we are actually producing mimetic content.  As Scarry writes, “Now it is a remarkable fact that this ordinary enfeeblement of images has a striking exception in the verbal arts, where images somehow do acquire the vivacity of perceptual objects” (5).  And yet: How do we think about images in Bishop’s poems that simultaneously “acquire the  vivacity of perceptual objects” while calling attention to their own artifice, their own status not as perceptual but mimetic content?  In other words, most if not all of Scarry’s examples from literature are intended to produce in our minds the “vitality and vivacity” of the perceptual world, so much so that we are convinced (momentarily) that we are in the presence of the perceptual world.  But how do we account for the dynamic in Bishop’s poems, whereby we are made aware of the materiality of the page and the artifice of the images, even as the images are so vivid as to suggest the perceptual world?

3.

In which poems does Bishop call attention to the poems’ own artifice?  There are poems which call attention to the artifice of painting – I’m thinking of “Large Bad Picture” or “Poem” – and therefore perhaps indirectly call our attention to the artifice of the poem.  But the power, humor and pathos of “Large Bad Picture” and “Poem” both seem to depend on us, to a certain extent, “buying into” the mimetic content, and not doubting it – in fact, “Poem” is so delightful because we believe that Bishop is seeing the painting for the first time, even if in actuality she has revised the poem thousands of times over.  Therefore, when she writes, “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” the euphoria of her epiphany is startling, not least because we have believed in the mimetic content as though it were perceptual content, as though Bishop, almost in our presence, were actually describing a painting, as opposed to using words to build something on a white page that somehow represents, through the instructions of the language, this experience of sudden epiphany.

Yet there are poems that do call attention to themselves as poems.  These strike me as in many ways trickier or more difficult endeavors, because we need to believe enough in the poem to care about it and therefore read it – we need to believe in its mimetic-as-perceptual content – yet we need to be distanced enough by the poem, to even doubt the poem, to have the faint awareness that the poem is made of artifice, and is therefore a construction of language – mimetic and delayed content more so than perceptual content.  And no poem does this more for me than Bishop’s “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will.”  The title itself – “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will” – in its play on the Shakespearean title, and its emphasis on volition, on willing something into being, suggests a playfulness in keeping with the idea that a poem itself is something constructed playfully out of words.  (The form, too, in its elegant repetition of four-line stanzas, with the last line indented, suggests artifice through its very elegance, for it emphasizes that these words are being shaped in a certain way.)  The poem begins,

Like a first coat of whitewash when it’s wet,

the thin grey mist lets everything show through:

the black boy Balthazar, a fence, a horse,

      a foundered house,

 

-cement and rafters sticking from a dune.

(The Company passes off these white but shopworn

dunes as lawns.)  “Shipwreck,” we say; perhaps

      this is a housewreck (110).

 

We begin with the rough materials of “whitewash,” as though Bishop were already indirectly calling our attention to the materials of her own construction – that is, the words on the page, the poem itself.  And like a new poem just beginning, the “first coat of whitewash” is wet, is freshly beginning, freshly starting up.  Bishop is playing with notions of transparency and opacity.  She is thereby indirectly emphasizing, again, the language of the poem itself, the way in which language both obscures and makes tantalizingly lucid, as if abetting our dream of language as a clear window, (even if we know better).  Thus: “the thin grey mist lets everything show through.”  Like a magic act, the poem then does just that: it shows us, like the mist, and through the mist, the objects behind it – a boy, a fence, a horse, a house.  Indeed, the house echoes the whitewash in an inverted way, for as the whitewash is just-coming-into-being, the house is “foundered,” is decaying and eroding into its own earlier state of development, and the “cement” and “rafters” peek through the sand like the earlier objects peeking through the mist.  Sand may symbolize the passage of time, and therefore erosion, and so (and yet?) we are suddenly made aware that what we are presented with is not so much a picture representing the passage of time, so much as the passage of the poem itself, the erosion of its seeming perceptual content back into mimetic content.  The poem is self-aware about the content it exhibits.

By the time we reach the third stanza, this element of belief and skepticism in the content of the poem is quickened by Bishop’s humor about the sea, and her questioning about what we are exactly hearing.  We read,

The sea’s off somewhere, doing nothing.  Listen.

An expelled breath.  And faint, faint, faint

(or are you hearing things), the sandpipers’

      heart-broken cries.

 

The fence, three-strand, barbed-wire, all pure rust,

three dotted lines, comes forward hopefully

across the lots; thinks better of it; turns

      a sort of corner…(110)

 

It’s as though Bishop doesn’t care about telling us about the sea – “the sea’s off somewhere, doing nothing” – because suddenly she is aware that what she is doing is making us aware of the artifice of the poem.  Why make up something grand or “poetical” about the sea, when we are already soberly aware (at times) of the poem’s own tromp l’oeil qualities, its status as language as opposed to actual objects in our perceptual field?  Perhaps this is why the “expelled breath,” though logically mimicking the sound of the sea, might also represent a kind of sigh from the speaker or reader, as if we were being disabused of our conviction that what is playing across our eyes is perceptual, as opposed to mimetic, content.  Are we hearing things, or does the sandpiper’s cries mirror our own internal state, for we are constantly and heartbreakingly being indirectly reminded that our imagination itself is being prompted, that we are resolutely not in the presence of actual sandpipers but instead in the presence of language?  Then Bishop does an even stranger thing.  She describes the fence as “three dotted lines,” and in doing so she makes the artifice more layered.  For now we are back pretending that the poem does represent the vividness and vitality of the perceptual world, so much so that the fence is seen more clearly than normal, in its more abstract properties.  And yet even the fence itself, we might say, like an existential teenager, doubts its own existence!  For it “comes forward hopefully / across the lots” like a loyal canine, then “thinks better of it” and “turns / a sort of corner….”  In the ellipses that follows “corner,” might we construe a kind of perceptual depth, the place where the fence leaves off, even as the ellipses also drops us into the white space, therefore calling attention again to the poem’s artifice, its surface, its mimetic content?

As the poem continues to its end, we are relentlessly presented with images that gleam in two directions – in one way, as perceptual objects, and in another, as mimetic images.  In this way, Bishop continues to play with our readerly absorption, making us alternately faithful believers and doubtful skeptics.  We read,

Don’t ask the big white horse, Are you supposed

to be inside the fence or out?  He’s still

asleep.  Even awake, he probably

      remains in doubt.

 

He’s bigger than the house.  The force of

personality, or is perspective dozing?

A pewter-colored horse, an ancient mixture,

      tin, lead, and silver,

 

he gleams a bit.  But the four-gallon can

approaching on the head of Balthazar

keeps flashing that the world’s a pearl, and I,

      I am

 

its highlight!  You can hear the water now,

inside, slap-slapping.  Balthazar is singing.

“Today’s my Anniversary,” he sings,

      “the Day of Kings” (110-111).

 

Everything here seems to be in a state of doubt, a kind of shrill though muted irony – the horse is bigger than the house, is probably “in doubt,” and seems at times to be made of materials that suggest a toy horse; the horse is also “inside….or out” suggesting our own navigation between perceptual content outside and mimetic content inside.  It’s as if Bishop is constantly asking, “How do we see things?”, and her own focused gaze of attention does not preclude the investigation of the artifice of the poem she herself is writing.  The poem ends on a very strange note – of both faith and skepticism, sentimentality and irony – for Balthazar is singing “Today’s my Anniversary…the Day of Kings,” all of which echoes Biblical allusions, and yet how are we supposed to understand this?  It seems likely that a note of irony creeps in here, for the whole picture of the poem has been so “two-faced,” so ingenious at evoking the perceptual and mimetic worlds.  By the time we greet Balthazar and his voice, we are helplessly torn between believing in and doubting the poem (although we never really doubt Bishop’s powers as a poet, something rather interesting in and of itself).  For these reasons, “Twelfth Morning; or What You Will” is a deeply mysterious and beguiling poem, in which objects are themselves and images, people themselves and characters, and the speaker herself (or himself) a kind of perplexing oracle.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth.  The Complete Poems, 1927 – 1979.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.  Print.

Scarry, Elaine.  Dreaming by the Book.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.  Print.

“The effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything.”  – Wallace Stevens, “The Green Plant”

It’s been awhile since I thought about the idea of inhuman mentors, and because I’ve left my graduate program in English to pursue a master’s in Library and Information Science, and because I’ve been busy volunteering, I haven’t had the chance to really pursue the idea or explore its contours further.  But I miss that feeling of being on the trail of something.  And because of a few things I’ve been reading recently, I was reminded of the idea and wished to blog further about it.

This was the idea, in a roundabout way: I was growing more interested in representations of nature and landscape in poetry, and the way that these representations radically changed over time.  This, I should add, has been written about extensively, and I didn’t feel that I had much to add to it.  The basic story goes that, for example, Wordsworth saw a different mountain than Stevens.  For Wordsworth, nature was not a blank that we project upon.  For Wordsworth, as James Heffernan writes in Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetry: The Transforming Imagination, “nature provides a model for the creative transformations wrought by man” (95).  In other words, there is some kind of affinity between the power of the human imagination and the power of nature.  I think this sounds simpler than it actually is, and that Wordsworth’s idea was stranger than we think.  Heffernan writes, “because of this dynamic correspondence of forces, Wordsworth held that the creation of poetry imitates the action of creative power in the visible world” (97).  When Wordsworth wrote a poem, there was a similarity between the power that produced the poem, and the power that rolls rivers and produces mountains.  Nowadays I think this belief would seem hyperbolic, if not psychotic, and Stevens strikes me (and alot of others, too) as the great leveler of this belief.  Because for Stevens, as soon as we banished the idea of God, as soon as the world became an empty stage, nature became more matter that we projected upon.  (“The effete vocabulary of summer / No longer says anything.”)  Nature did not bear affinities with the active imagination; it was passive and inert, it had no language, truth did not reside in it, for, as Stevens wrote in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “it was she [the singer] and not the sea we heard.”

While I agreed with other scholars that Stevens had changed the role of nature in poetry, calling attention to its state of meaninglessness and the ways we as human beings imbue nature with meaning, I also sometimes felt that this argument overstated its claim.  What do I mean?  There were times in Stevens’s poetry where nature served as an inhuman mentor to the speaker.  It didn’t speak, and it certainly did not correspond with the human imagination in terms of power; and yet, in our living with nature, alongside it, a certain residue built up inside the mind, for lack of a better way to say it – and we learned from nature, we learned from its very meaninglessness.  It was like an unspeaking shadow through which we could glean lessons.  But at the risk of sounding hopelessly gnomic and obscure, let me share a excerpt of a poem by Stevens, called “Two Illustrations that the World is What you Make of It,” the section called “The Constant Disquisition of the Wind”:

The sky seemed so small that winter day,

A dirty light on a lifeless world,

Contracted like a withered stick.

 

It was not the shadow of cloud and cold,

But a sense of the distance of the sun –

The shadow of a sense of his own,

 

A knowledge that the actual day

Was so much less.  Only the wind

Seemed large and loud and high and strong.

 

And as he thought within the thought

Of the wind, not knowing that that thought

Was not his thought, nor anyone’s,

 

The appropriate image of himself,

So formed, became himself and he breathed

The breath of another nature as his own,

 

But only its momentary breath,

Outside of and beyond the dirty light,

That never could be animal,

 

A nature still without a shape,

Except his own – perhaps, his own

In a Sunday’s violent idleness.

In this excerpt, we are given a glimpse into a drama of the mind, in which nature plays an enormous role, despite being inert and lifeless.  In this drama, the natural world in itself allows the poet to learn certain things.  Here, the poet is meditating on the distance of the sun from himself, and this distance serves as a “shadow of a sense of his own // A knowledge that the actual day / Was so much less.”  The word “sense” here refers to knowledge, and hence is a broadened usage of sense, referring less to eyesight, say, and more to what we mean when we talk about “making sense.”  But what happens in this meditation is wonderful and very strange.  The very distance of the sun, the speaker reflects, makes him feel like the day itself is small.  Although Stevens leaves out some steps here, it seems as if what happens is:

  1. Stevens looks at the sun.
  2. He reflects on how the sun is so far away.
  3. He think about the distance between himself and the sun.
  4. He starts to think about the day itself.
  5. The distance between himself and the sun is transposed upon the relationship between himself and the day.
  6. The day is distant from him.
  7. The day is small.
  8. The day seems insignificant.
  9. Only the wind seems significant.
  10. Stevens meditates on the wind because it is significant.
  11. This meditation makes Stevens feel more human – “the appropriate image of himself” – despite the inhumanness of the wind.

Here, Stevens’ meditation is contingent upon nature as a kind of imaginative resource.  Nature is not represented as something that parallels the imagination, but it is something that the imagination can take up and think about, and this thinking about nature transforms the speaker into “the appropriate image of himself.”

I think, though, that there are gradations and variations to this transformation.  In some poetry, nature is taken up only to emphasize its meaninglessness.  Some poems leave the speaker feeling not more human but less.  In other poems, this meditation on nature leads to an attempt to behave similarly, in the vein of nature.  For example, here is an excerpt from “Adah,” by Larry Levis, from his book The Dollmaker’s Ghost:

I can remember the almost private outburst

Of rain on the tin sheds:

A sound as precise as a small fire taking hold

Of its kindling;

Or, when the rain stopped, the drone of flies

And their shining –

And how the horses outside

Would lift and drop a hoof in the pasture

As they grazed, heads down,

Or flicked their ears back…

And the skin inside their ears resembling a human’s,

But softer, really, than anyone’s

I have ever met, or will meet now.

Not even

The balding widow mesmerized by fans

And by Sundays,

Who waits all night now for sleep

Can do without counting horses and flies

Until she is alone,

Before sleep, and lying in the stiffened,

Almost righteous position that pain allows her.

And as if prayer could collapse

The tool shed and split the shining anvil

Inside it,

She will not do anything as precise and blasphemous

As pray anymore.

She will only listen, and think,

Maybe, of horses,

And do as little as horses do,

Which is her privilege, as it is the river’s,

Or the heavy woods, which do nothing.

In Levis’s poem, his meditation on the rain, the flies, and the horses shifts into his thinking about a widow who is trying to go to sleep, and counting horses and sheep to do so.  Both Levis and the widow, like Stevens, use nature as an occasion for meditating upon something, though nature still retains its state of “do[ing] nothing.”  Like the sun and the wind for Stevens, the widow of Levis’s poem meditates upon horses, and this leads to a change in her self, for she decides to do “as little as horses do,” which is to “do nothing.”  In both cases, nature itself, though inert, is used as material for meditation.  It’s a far cry from Wordworth’s version, but it is still somehow more active as a contemplative resource.

I want to end this blog post with one last example from literature, this one taken from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which is a kunstlerroman (a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity) about a young girl who grows into becoming a great singer.  I’m using this example as just one more facet of this strange dynamic between human beings and nature, as represented in the verbal arts, in which nature plays a rather idiosyncratic role as something necessary to cogitate on.  In this example, Thea Kronborg, the main protagonist, has just left a very intense music lesson with her teacher, Professor Wunsch, on her thirteenth birthday, during which Wunsch launches into a kind of disquisition about a form of knowledge, a kind of “sense” as Stevens puts it in “Two Illustrations that the World is What you Make of It,” a sense that a singer needs in order to be successful in the best way.  This sense of things that a singer needs in order to be authentically successful is, as Wunsch puts it in his German dialect, “the secret – what make the rose to red, the sky to blue, the man to love” (363, Willa Cather, the Early Novels and Stories, Library of America).  Wunsch is, like Wordsworth, finding an analogy between nature and human beings – the nature of the rose in its redness and the sky in its blueness is analogous to what makes a person love someone else.  But it is interesting what Thea learns from this Wordsworthian analogy.  Here is Cather, ending the chapter:

“Thea got her music-book and stole quietly out of the garden.  She did not go home, but wandered off into the sand dunes, where the prickly pear was in blossom and the green lizards were racing each other in the glittering light.  She was shaken by a passionate excitement.  She did not altogether understand what Wunsch was talking about; and yet, in a way she knew.  She knew, of course, that there was something about her that was different.  But it was more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself.  She brought everything to it, and it answered her; happiness consisted of that backward and forward movement of herself.  The something came and went, she never knew how.  Sometimes she hunted for it and could not find it; again, she lifted her eyes from a book, or stepped out of doors, or wakened in the morning, and it was there, – under her cheek, it usually seemed to be, or over her breast, – a kind of warm sureness.  And when it was there, everything was more interesting and beautiful, even people.  When this companion was with her, she could get the most wonderful things out of Spanish Johnny, or Wunsch, or Dr. Archie.

On her thirteenth birthday she wandered for a long while about the sand ridges, picking up crystals and looking into the yellow prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens.  She looked at the sand hills until she wished she were a sand hill.  And yet she knew that she was going to leave them all behind some day.  They would be changing all day long, yellow and purple and lavender, and she would not be there.  From that day on, she felt there was a secret between her and Wunsch.  Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something.  They hid it away and never spoke of what they had seen; but neither of them forgot it.”

What has Thea learned from Wunsch?  Whatever she has taken away from her lesson – and Cather purposely keeps it vague, though it seems to have something to do with Thea’s abilities as a singer – it seems as though Thea requires the natural world around her to make sense of this something.  After leaving Wunsch, on her birthday, she doesn’t return home, but wanders along the sand ridges, “picking up crystals and looking into the yellow prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens.”  It’s as if nature, as something mysterious, allows Thea to meditate and even brood further on the mystery of Wunsch’s lesson, as well as on the “friendly spirit” part of herself that she feels makes her unique as a human being.  Wunsch’s lesson seems to inspire Thea to seeks out its implications in nature, through a language-less encounter with it.  Like Stevens and Levis’s poems, nature serves as an occasion for meditation because of its strangeness.  It is an inhuman mentor par excellence.

Stevens

Levis

 

 

Cather

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.