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.


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.


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.


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.




What do we learn from the world?  It’s a strange question.  Why?  Learning is arguably bound up in large part with language, and language is not always – and for good reason – considered in light of such a rather huge and unspeakingly unspeaking category or thing as “the world.”  For example, one of my favorite thinkers, Richard Rorty, writes in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,

“To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do no include human mental states.  To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.” (5)

We did not (this sounds portentous and pretentious) create the world; therefore, according to Rorty, it makes no sense to ascribe truth to the world, because truth is the project of human descriptions.  Rorty goes on to write,

“Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there.  The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.  Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.  The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.”

These statements seem right to me.  Rorty is understandably wary of returning to a time in which “the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own.” (Rorty 5)  In other words, concomitant with the belief in God is the belief that the world does speak – it speaks the language of its creator.  In that sense, the world would be a kind of second Bible, in which we may read the writing of that creator.  The world would then be metaphysically legible.  Here’s Guy Rotella, in Reading and Writing Nature: the Poetry of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop:

“In this view, [the view of the Puritans], natural facts are real, and they have meanings that point to the absolute realm beyond them.  Those meanings are not the result of human fancy or creativity.  Humans do not make meaning; they perceive it.  In keeping with the Puritan notion of nature as God’s book, meaning is already present there, inscribed by God.  The task of the regenerate soul is to observe that meaning.  If the regenerate soul is a poet, he or she has the additional task of conveying that meaning to others.” (8)

While Rorty is talking about religion more generally, and Rotella talking about the Puritans specifically, it is not a stretch to connect what they are saying together.  Both are describing a metaphysical mode of interpretation, in which the world is seen as undergirded and/or transcended by a creator God, whose very creation – it meaning, its implications, its truths – can be perceived or discovered.  The world speaks a certain language, which is our responsibility to perceive, observe, write down.  This is why Rotella writes “For the Puritans, the world ” invent” means “to discover.” (3)  But, as Rotella goes on to argue, “By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, faith in the correspondence between knowledge of the here and now and of an absolute beyond it is everywhere challenged and often lost.” (3)  The word “invent,” then, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, starts to mean less “discover” and more to “create…construct…contrive something….fabricate…feign…make up.”  (Rotella 3)  Nature, and by extension the world, becomes less the kind of key for unlocking the mysterious wisdom of the creator, and more a kind of unknowable blank, onto which the poet projects his or her desire.  Thus, for example, for Wallace Stevens, while “nature’s transports are radically exalting…they are radically provisional as well, projections of wish and of will rather than discoveries of truth or ways of knowing that are underwritten by God.” (Rotella 97)  Again, for Robert Frost, in the context of the poem “Most of It,” Rotella writes, “Any terror the manifestation of the buck evokes is presented as itself a projection of human concerns, concerns to which nature is quite indifferent.” (87)  For Frost and Stevens, meaning is something that is created, invented, fabricated.  It’s either a reason to rejoice or to despair, but it is inextricable from a certain interpretation of what the world is and means.


What do we learn from the world?  So far, it seems like the answer is “it depends on how we conceptualize the world.”  This answer is frustrating – it seems slightly wishy-washy and non-committal – so I want to turn to some passages in the sometimes-impossible philosopher Martin Heidegger’s work, in order to get a firmer grasp on how we might define the word “world.”  In Being and Time, in Heidegger’s third chapter called, somewhat provocatively and somewhat mystifyingly, “The Worldhood of the World,” Heidegger writes about four uses of the word “world.”  The first use “signifies the totality of those entities which can be present-at-hand within the world.”  We might think of this definition as the “furniture of the universe.” (Dreyfus )  In other words, the emphasis is on the within in the phrase “within the world.”  In this definition of the word ‘world,’ attention is called to the totality of things within the world, like pictures within a circle, cabins within the snow-globe.  The second use is when “world” becomes “a term for any realm which encompasses a multiplicity of entities,” after which Heidegger adds, “for instance, when one talks of the ‘world’ of a mathematician, ‘world’ signifies the realm of possible objects of mathematics.”  Here, the usage of the word “world” is slightly looser and vaguer than the first definition – notice that the translation uses the word “realm,” so that “world” can be applied to virtually anything – the world of an architect, the world of a person or persons of a certain gender, race, class, ethnicity or age, etc.  The third usage of the world, about which Heidegger writes, “We shall reserve the expression “world” as a term for our third signification,” reads in part,

“not, however, as those entities which Dasien essentially is not and which can be encountered within-the-world [the first definition], but rather as that ‘wherein‘ a factical Dasein as such can be said to ‘live.’  Here again there are different possibilities “world” may stand for the ‘public’ we-world, or one’s ‘own’ closest (domestic) environment.”

In this third definition, world connotes the social and public shared world while at the same time evoking a kind of house or dwelling, in which “Dasein can be said to live.”  Here, the word world takes on a kind of intimate coloring, a closeness or nearness, a lived and breathed familiarity.  It loses some of its abstractness, and becomes something in which we (kind of obviously?) live.  Lastly, Heidegger’s fourth definition “designates the ontologico-existential concept of worldhood.  Worldhood itself may have as its modes whatever structural wholes any special ‘worlds’ may have at the time; but it embraces in itself the a priori character of worldhood in general.”  Worldhood thus means, “that on the basis of which a set of entities forms a world.” (Dreyfus 236)  In other words, here world refers to worldhood, which appears to signify the conditions out of which a world is formed.  In this sense, the world takes on a more active character, for it is not static but a kind of stance or orientation towards something.  I’m honestly kind of fuzzy here on what worldhood means still, but let’s start with this understanding of it as the conditions out of which a world is formed.

What seems most important about these definitions is that Heidegger chooses the third to serve as his way of thinking about the world throughout Being and Time.  For Heidegger, we cannot think about the world in a way that is disconnected from our lived and felt experience.  And yet this very nearness of Heidegger’s definition of the world seems in some interesting ways to subtly subvert some of Rorty’s claims, as well as problematize the understanding of the world as suggested often in the poetry of Frost and Stevens, in which the world is an unknowable blank onto which we project our concerns and desires.  What I”m arguing, then, is that for Heidegger, to put it mildly, we do learn from the world – and we are able to learn from the world because it does speak a kind of language.  Yet this language is not human.  Therefore, for Heidegger, the concept of the inhuman mentor seems to resonate.


But what do I mean by a nonhuman language?  Is that concept in any way, shape or form coherent?  According to Rorty, language is a human creation.  So how is it coherent to talk about a language this is not human?  I want to list some quotes of Heidegger’s in the third chapter of Being and Time that seem to gesture towards this notion of the world somehow speaking:

“The kind of dealing which is closest to us is as we have shown, not a bare perceptual cognition, but rather that kind of concern which manipulates things and puts them to use; and this has its own kind of ‘knowledge.’ (95)

“Nature which ‘stirs and strives’, which assails us and enthralls us as landscape” (100)

“our concern discovers Nature as having some definite direction” (100)

“does not Dasein have an understanding of the world – a pre-ontological understanding, which indeed can and does get along with explicit ontological insights?” (102)

“the world announces itself” (105)

“In this totality of involvements which has been discovered before-hand, there lurks an ontological relationship to the world.” (118)

In all of these quotes, the world is something that involves involvement.  This involvement in some ways demands a kind of grammar of the world, grammar used loosely here in the context of rules that dictate comportment and behavior.  The world speaks to us, as Heidegger might use this word, “primordially,” prior to language but at the same time serving as the condition out of which our language develops.  This is why Krzysztof Ziarek, in Language After Heidegger, writes that “the essential element of language in Heidegger is nonhuman” – in other words, “language does not begin with living beings but is granted, addressed to them…from the event.” (19,8)  Here is Ziarek on thinking about language as a kind of listening to silence:

“The notion that human beings ‘have’ language assumes that language is primarily a tool, an informational instrument, which can be owned, used, and manipulated, and that as such a tool, it can be adequately described and understood through linguistics, philosophy of language, or (bio)informatics, or perhaps by the combination of the three.  The fundamentally Aristotelian understanding of language is based on the conception of logos and reason, whose origin in what Heidegger calls “the attentiveness to beyng capable of holding still” (stillhaltende Achten auf das Seyn), remains uninterrogated and unexperienced.  As a result, instead of approaching language through attentiveness to being, reason (Vernuft) and language become mistakenly conceived as a special capacity attached to animality (Vermogen im animal), which renders inaccessible language in its originative relation to being.” (17)

“Language in its originative relation to being” – what does that mean?  And how is it connected to us learning something “primordial” from the world?  Also, how do we talk about the language of the world without returning to the religious sense of the world itself as the language of the creator?


One way into this is Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Irish Cliffs of Moher” from The Rock.  That book is arguably Stevens at his most bare, most austere, and it is haunted by an argument that seems to place reality, the world, the lived-in world, before the imagination.  In this sense, Stevens is obsessed with and possessed by the desire for representing a primordial world, in language but somehow prior to language.  How does he do this?  Stevens writes,

Who is my father in this world, in this house,

At the spirit’s base?


My father’s father, his father’s father, his –

Shadows like winds


Go back to a parent before thought, before speech,

At the head of the past.


They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,

Above the real,


Rising out of present time and place, above

The wet, green grass.


This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations

Of poetry


And the sea.  This is my father or, maybe,

It is as he was,


A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth

and sea and air.


It is not too difficult to see what Stevens is doing.  Notice how the question he asks at the beginning of the poem –  “Who is my father in this world, in this house, / At the spirit’s base?” – is both answered and not answered, for the answer itself, an attempt to arrive at origins –  “My father’s father, his father’s father, his -” – is interrupted by “Shadows like winds,” though at the same time these shadows work to revise the speaker’s answer, taking him or her to “a parent before thought, before speech.”  One can feel the direction of the speaker’s mind sort of tugging on the poem, and the answer emerges like a mountain and as a mountain:  “They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist, / Above the real, // Rising out of present time and place, above / The wet, green grass.”  The world emerges here in the image of the cliffs of Moher emerging from the mist.  But what does Stevens mean by “Above the real”?  It can be interpreted as an appeal to imagination, somehow “above the real,” and yet this interpretation seems to place too much emphasis on imagination, especially in a poem so bare, so devoid of the imaginative pyrotechnics of many of the early Stevens poems in Harmonium.  The cliffs of Moher, furthermore, are not imaginary mountains, but actual mountains.  So why does Stevens say “Above the real”?  “Real” here might mean our habitual ways of making sense of the world, so that the “parent before thought” is actually the world itself, more real than our human reality, for it came before us and will outlast us.  In keeping with this argument, Stevens writes, “This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations / Of poetry // And the sea.”  In other words, Stevens is not talking about human creations at all – not landscape, not poetry, not the cliche of the sea.  He is talking about something primordial, some way in which he both humanizes and dehumanizes nature.  Here, “earth / and sea and air” are “one of the race of fathers.”  Yet I think Stevens’ means this in a way that productively confuses the categories of imagination and reality, for although he is personifying earth, sea and air, the sense is less on imagination as projection, and more on imagination as “likeness.”  Here, it is as though the imagination has been so profoundly permeated by the world that its ability to imagine is haunted by that world; for that reason, there is nothing really freewheeling about this poem, and the tone is grave and somber.  If we were to ask, then, what does Stevens learn from the world, (and by implication, what do we learn from the world), we cannot just say that he learns that the world does not speak.  For Stevens in this poem, the world speaks through silence and stillness, and this silence and stillness is eerie.  Why?  Because we somehow understand it – i.e. it is familiar.  All of this seems kind of obvious.  But in a way, it’s as though we’ve come full circle, or done a little Hegelian dance – nature as metaphysically legible, nature as secularly illegible, and finally nature as ontologically – well, not legible or illegible, because we aren’t reading or writing it, but as somehow audible or aural, as something strange that we listen to, though with all of our senses.  Heidegger (and Rorty) is already ahead of us here in his emphasis on aural metaphors replacing ocular metaphors, but that’s a different subject for a different time.            






I’ve been thinking more about inhuman mentors (I’m kind of growing sick of the phrase, but I’ll keep using it for now, because admittedly I like its (for me, felt) weight and connotations) within the context of the work of two poets: Mark Strand, who passed away this year in late November, and who was the author of a profound and disarming and elegant body of work, and William Bronk, also deceased, a critically neglected poet (for interesting and in some ways understandable reasons, as Bronk is in some ways the deepest of skeptics, and this is hard sometimes to take) whose poems are also often profound and disarming and elegant.  What do I mean by inhuman mentors?  Why am I choosing these two poets to illustrate the meaning(s) and implications of the made-up phrase?

I’m still formulating what I mean by the phrase, but for now I mean ways in which the inhuman – taken here to mean less cruelty, and more the literally not human – mentors us, by which I mean that we learn not only from our interpersonal relationships, but also (I am attempting to argue) from various inhuman dimensions, things, qualities, phenomena.  Like what, for example?  Oh, think about how we learn something, even if its nonverbal, from time, or from the natural world, or maybe death, or certain objects, like books.  These things might be inflected with the human – for example, the natural world formed into landscapes, or our phenomenological experience of time, or the way in which death is (duh) a human experience, or the obvious fact that books are written and produced by human beings…and yet they retain a quality of the inhuman, something that is strange, uncanny, unknowable, not human, something that seems to be prior to the human (the natural world, or time, or death) or that is built, like books, out of materials that are not human (say: trees).  What do we learn from time?  Anything?  What do we learn from the natural world?  From the looming fact of our own and loved one’s deaths?

I am aware that these are absurdly large questions.  And I’m concerned that using words to talk about wordless things is rather odd, counter-intuitive, and perhaps futile.  But I”m interested in posing it this way because I like how the questions hint at the edge of language, the way in which what we learn during our lives is not always something easily articulable.  (Then is it worth trying to say?)  In other words, sometimes I think what we learn from life is a kind of worldview, but worldviews are (arguably) not things that are so easily evoked or described, and they are constantly changing.  We hear about worldviews occasionally – someone has a tragic worldview, a romantic worldview, a realistic worldview, a sunny worldview – but we don’t as often talk about how these worldviews are shaped, especially by things like the natural world or time, nor about how they change, and why.

Now I can imagine someone saying that this is a load of horseshit.  We don’t learn from the inhuman!  We learn from the social.  We learn from culture, language, period.  Learning itself is verbal through and through.  To this imaginary but probably somewhere real person, I’d say that we are ourselves constructed out of nature.  Our bodies are made from nature.  Of course, nature doesn’t speak, but it seems deliberately obtuse to say that we don’t take something away from nature, which produced us in the first place.  What we take isn’t verbal, nor maybe conceptual, but at some strange level I do think that these inhuman things do mentor us, although it’s hard to find the right words for this mentorship.  Object-oriented ontology might be one place to look, but for now I’m sticking to poetry.

That’s where Strand and Bronk come in.  For poets can be thought of (this is probably going to sound like a hopelessly obtuse critic-sounding assertion) as human beings who are bewildered by the relationship between mind and world, however you want to put that relationship, as “mind and world” sounds probably too philosophical and even technical and arbitrary.  People obsessed with origins, people amazed at the fact that we are here, somehow, someway, and that someday we won’t be.  People captivated by this mystery, this weirdness, this fearful, hopeful situation.  And Strand and Bronk, each in their own way, explore the desire for inhuman mentorship, and what that might mean.  What I’m saying: inhuman mentorship is a dream, at least verbalized.  But as a dream it’s a pretty potent force.  Let me try to put this into words.


Here is Bronk’s “The Marches Upstate,” from his collection The World, the Worldless.

Paint-flaken, it is paint-flaken,

and the barns are tense with sagging.

The broken orchards prop themselves.

Brush-wild, it is brush-wild

and elm-tangled, and the yards

are trashed with litter of many years

as the house fronts and the business blocks

are dowdy with bare pretensions

where pity jumbles shape and show.

Road-gashed, it is road-gashed

and wire-strung.  What green,

what sun, shall flesh and warm the flesh?

Loved land, unlovely, none can fit

you, for you have no shape.

Mirror in March my human face.

The poem is about borderlands – “Marches” in the title.  More specifically, the borderland between the human and the inhuman – in this context, between the natural and cultural worlds.  It begins with a line with seemingly no referent – “Paint-flaken, it is paint-flaken” – that is said twice, as if Bronk’s speaker is attempting to convince himself of the reality of what he is seeing and saying, as if a note of incredulity or bafflement creeps into this oddly hanging description.  What is paint-flaken?  We want to say the barns in the following line, but the conjunction “and” in the second line is ambiguous, as if Bronk were implying that what is paint-flaken, what is worn or worn out, is the world, by which Bronk means our conceptions of the world.  And then, as if to give this formulation a convincing particularity, Bronk gives us the barns and orchards, the former “tense with sagging,” the latter having to “prop themselves.”  These are images of aging, as though the barns and orchards are metaphors for the aging body.  Bronk cannot think outside of the human (who can?), and yet this very limitation will lead to a kind of dream for a language in which the inhuman might speak.

In the second stanza, Bronk continues with his metaphor of the world as constructed, and we hear of “Brush-wild,” a term that might mean the brush of bushes and trees but also suggests a sort of irresponsible paintbrush.  We hear that the yards on these upstate borderlands are clogged with trash, and “the house fronts and the business blocks / are dowdy with bare pretensions”.  What does it mean to describe house fronts and business blocks as “dowdy with bare pretensions”?  It’s as though Bronk wants to simultaneously anthropomorphize these house fronts and business blocks, and at the same time call attention to the weakness of anthropomorphizing more generally, for these are places that are unfashionable, with “bare pretensions,” the bareness suggesting the fadedness of projecting onto things human meanings, pretensions suggesting the human desire to project.  Although this has been written about quite extensively – I’m thinking of Guy Rotella’s Reading and Writing Nature and Bonnie Costello’s Shifting Ground – here, as in much modernist and postmodernist poetry, nature is a blank onto which the poet projects his or her desire.  Bronk is projecting onto these surfaces and distances, and yet, unlike Wordsworth and like, say, Frost or Stevens or Bishop, he is aware that he is projecting, and therefore aware that his metaphors reflect just as much on what he is describing as how he is describing it.  “What green, / what sun, shall flesh and warm the flesh?” Bronk asks.  It’s as if Bronk doubts, to the nth degree, that any green or sun shall ever “flesh” or “warm the flesh.”  In other words, here, before the final stanza, Bronk is arguing against the idea of inhuman mentors, against the idea that we can learn anything whatsoever from the natural world.  I guess I have to reluctantly agree, if we are talking about verbal truth.  And yet look at the final stanza.  It reads:

Loved land, unlovely, none can fit

you, for you have no shape.

Mirror in March my human face.

Bronk argues against the idea of inhuman mentors.  But at the same time, he cannot shake the impossible desire for it.  “Mirror in March my human face” he says, as if hoping against hope that the inhuman might, just once, somehow speak to him, reflect his own face, and not the unknowability and blankness of nature.  Here, while nature remains a blank, the desire for inhuman mentorship remains strong and almost desperate.


The desire for inhuman mentors is one way of thinking about language’s desire to not be itself, to be other than itself.  Look at Strand’s “Winter in North Liberty”:

Snow falls, filling

The moonlit fields.

All night we hear

The wind on the drifts

And think of escaping

This room, this house,

The reaches of ourselves

That winter dulls.

Pale ferns and flowers

Form on the windows

Like grave reminders

Of a summer spent.

The walls close in.

We lie apart all night,

Thinking of where we are.

We have no place to go.

We have no place to go in large part because the inhuman doesn’t speak.  This gives a new (somewhat unnerving) dimension to the truism that we are all fundamentally alone.  We are alone in the sense that when we die, our deaths are absolutely particular, and even if we are surrounded by family and friends, only one of us in that moment is going somewhere much different.  But we are also alone with the world.  The desire for inhuman mentors is in large part the desire for communion with the impossible.  Poetry that imagines that desire, then, is poetry that validates a rather disturbing and sobering truth at the heart of our lives.



Still thinking about the “Inhuman Mentors” idea, although it’s taken a recent turn.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

The world is a blank.  It doesn’t speak.  That means that Matthew Arnold, at times, and Swinburne were right in talking and thinking about Wordsworth’s poetry as this sort of great impossible quixotic fallacy-romp, in which Wordsworth not only invested nature with human qualities, but believed that nature contained these human qualities – as though Wordsworth believed, to put it another way, that truth resided in the world, and not in the ways we talk about the world.  Which is, I should add, plainly wrong (I believe), if at times wonderful and beautiful and satisfying.

Speed forward lots of years, and let’s think about the poetry of John Ashbery.  I think I can say that Ashbery’s poetry operates from a different principle than Wordsworth’s – namely, that nature is a blank, and forever unknowable, although this does not prevent us from dreaming it in certain moods, shapes, forms, etc. – or to put it another way, this does not prevent it from dreaming us into different moods, shapes, forms, etc.  But rather than talking about this too much, let’s look at a poem.  Since I’ve been reading “April Galleons” recently, here’s the second poem from that collection, called “Riddle Me” (and notice how the title gestures itself towards some fundamental conundrum that is also somehow deeply personal):


Rainy days are best,

There is some permanence in the angle

That things make with the ground;

In not taking off after apologies.

The speedometer’s at sundown.


Even as they spoke the sun was beginning to disappear behind a cloud.

All right so it’s better to have vague outlines

But wrapped, tightly, around one’s mood

Of something like vengeful joy.  And in the wood

It’s all the same too.


I think I liked you better when I seldom knew you.

But lovers are like hermits or cats: they

Don’t know when to come in, to stop

Breaking off twigs for dinner.

In the little station I waited for you


And shall, what with all the interest

I bear towards plans of yours and the future

Of stars it makes me thirsty

Just to go down on my knees looking

In the sawdust for joy.


June and the nippers will scarcely look our way.

And be bold then it’s then

This cloud imagines us and all that our story

Was ever going to be, and we catch up

To ourselves, but they are the selves of others.


And with it all the city starts to live

As a place where one can believe in moving

To a particular name and be there, and then

It’s more action falling back refreshed into death.

We can survive the storms, wearing us


Like rainbow hats, afraid to retrace steps

To the past that was only recently ours,

Afraid of finding a party there.

O in all your life were you ever teased

Like this, and it became your mind?


Where still some saunter on the bank in mixed

Plum shade and weary sun, resigned

To the installations on the opposite bank, we mix

Breathless greetings and tears and lately taste

The precious supplies.


The poem begins with a mood of appreciative restfulness.  We hear about a rainy day, how the rain itself and its hitting the ground suggests a kind of “permanence,”  The rain is inhuman – it does not take off after apologies, the way we humans do; and even the speedometer itself – a part of a cultural creation, an automobile – is “at sundown.”  The cultural world owes its existence to the natural world, and currently, in the movement of the poem, it’s as though the natural world has usurped the cultural – “The speedometer’s at sundown.”  One feels as if Ashbery, like anyone else, is somehow almost jealous of the natural world, jealous of its permanence, its endless fluctuations of change and “creativity.”  And one wonders if this is something that can be argued, something that possesses most poets – i.e. the impossible desire to somehow be the world, and not human.

Yet this mood of restfulness suddenly changes in the next stanza, for “Even as they spoke the sun was beginning to disappear behind a cloud.”  The movement of the sun seems to mildly trivialize what was being spoken about – the natural world again taking a precedence over the human, as if its very unknowability made it fundamentally prior to the human (this makes some sense).  And yet this very movement, of the sun disappearing behind a cloud, seems to influence the next line or the next thought, which reads, “All right so it’s better to have vague outlines” – as though contemplating the shape of the sun vanishing behind a cloud – in all its brightness and haze – begins to suggest a lesson in human terms, i.e. sometimes a certain indeterminateness can be beneficial, especially if it is “wrapped…around one’s mood”.  This all sounds somewhat hopelessly abstract – what I am saying is that here, Ashbery seems to draw a kind of lesson from the natural world, he seems to be using the natural world as an inhuman mentor, even while he is aware that the natural world does not conventionally speak.

Perhaps this is why the ambiguity of the final line of the second stanza is so utterly puzzling: “And in the wood / It’s all the same too.”  What does this sentence mean?  It’s as if, by calling attention to the sameness in the woods, Ashbery is calling attention to the sort of monotonous  unknowability of the world, the way it is perpetually and perenially and even boringly other to ourselves, and yet somehow, in a very strange way, instructive.  The sentence simultaneously gestures towards the way in which the world may mentor us – it is the same in the wood as it is with the sun and clouds instructing us strangely – and yet also gestures towards a kind of incredulity about the world ever teaching us anything we could somehow place in familiar language.

The third stanza reiterates this unknowability: the first line reads, “I think I liked you better when I seldom knew you.”  It’s as if Ashbery has once again drawn a kind of directly indirect “moral” from the world, and then applied this to a human relationship.  The world is unknowable, and it makes the poet realize that he liked a person better when the person was also less knowable.

Yet as we continue to read the poem, the world changes from being firstly unknowable to being firstly prior to us.  We first read of the poem’s persona “looking / In the sawdust for joy” – an improbable but understandable move, considering the earlier indications of the speaker of the poem somehow being mentored by the inhuman world.  What Ashbery is doing, really, is absolutely radically decentering us (this has been said a lot about his work), so that, in the fifth stanza, we come to realize that we are not only humbled by the fact that the world was there before us, and will be there after, but that our very selves  “are the selves of others.”  In a way, Ashbery seems to have transferred the unknowability of the world to or onto or into an idea of the human.  For, in that fifth stanza, it is the world – specifically, the clouds – that imagines us.  This is a wonderfully fascinating inversion of the Romantic idea that we imagine, and in imagining create the world.  Here, the world creates us.

And it is as if this very idea – that the world creates us, and not exactly the other way – that “the city starts to live / As a place where on can believe”.  As though this very notion allows the speaker to breathe more, to accept things, including the reality of death.  And yet all of it is so puzzling – like an enormous riddle.  Ashbery writes, “O in all your life were you ever teased / Like this, and it became your mind?”  We can read this psychologically – teasing as a form of mild bullying or joshing – but we can also read this as the tease being the world itself, the way it functions as a kind of oblique guidance system that never ever speaks.  And that this very guidance “became your mind.”  The radical otherness of ourselves.

The poem, understandably, therefore ends on a note of resignation – “Where still some…resigned / To the installations on the opposite bank”.  And yet – and this is a constant strength or even a kind of virtue of Ashbery – the awareness of death and the otherness of ourselves does not prevent him from invoking the fact that we still “taste / The precious supplies.”  There is of course a kind of irony that attends this taste, but in other way the taste seems, in the poem, to be still meaningful, still worth doing.  And so it seems the relationship between the inhuman and human, while in one way sobering our meanings, at the same time also allows for alternative meanings and even an awareness of “the precious supplies.”

I’ve been wondering about this question for a few weeks now.  It seems in keeping with this idea of “Inhuman Mentors,” i.e. the theory that the world outside us, whether it be the natural or cultural world – a river, the wind, a meadow, an advertisement, an alley, an elevator – guides us somehow, not explicitly – the world does not speak – but still somehow serves as a picture that we draw from, learn somehow from, take as an example.  Yet I’m not sure exactly how to talk about this, and am wary of attributing qualities to the world that I don’t believe it contains.  For example, Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity that

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there.  To say that the world is out there, and it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states.  To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.”

I’ve never really doubted this passage, and I don’t doubt it now; and yet I wonder how to make sense of passages in poetry that involve intense moments of observation of the world – I’m thinking of Wordsworth, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Wallace Stevens – without reducing these observations to the pathetic fallacy, without simply saying, “You see this because you are human, and are investing what you are seeing with human qualities.”  In other words, anthropomorphism only goes to far; how does it make sense of the thing, the object, seen, witnessed, observed, taken into perspective?  I’m not interested in recreating the old materialist vs. idealist arguments, but I am interested in trying to puzzle out, through poetry, some questions and answers about the relationship between mentorship and the inhuman.  And yet I’m worried that, because of the terms I’m using (“mentorship,” “inhuman”), I’m just recreating the debate.

How is it possible to talk about significant moments in poetry that involve real or imagined observations, without falling into talk about idealism and materialism?  In other words, for the intense moment to happen in the poem, there is often a confluence between something that happens outside the poet and something that happens inside the poet.  A mountain is glimpsed, or illustrations in a book are imagined into words; pears or peaches are observed, or a particular bird is described.  In those moments, it seems stupid to say that what is experienced is all mind, just as it seems stupid to say that it is all world.  Of course it is a combination of these things….but how to get at the way in which the representation of the world carries significance, as if hoping against hope that the world itself would, too?  Is this basically a scenario of poets hoping for the impossible?

Let me give an example.  Here are the opening and closing stanzas from Wallace Stevens’ “Six Significant Landscapes.”  Stevens is notorious for his love for, even obsession with, the weather – another beguiling example of a poet who seems to have believed to a certain extent that one learns things, is guided by, psychagogically led by, the world, or a world.  Here are the stanzas:


An old man sits

In the shadow of a pine tree

In China.

He sees larkspur,

Blue and white,

At the edge of the shadow,

Move in the wind.

His beard moves in the wind.

The pine tree moves in the wind.

Thus water flows

Over weeds.


Rationalists, wearing square hats,

Think, in square rooms,

Looking at the floor,

Looking at the ceiling.

They confine themselves

To right-angled triangles.

If they tried rhomboids,

Cones, waving lines, ellipses –

As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon –

Rationalists would wear sombreros.

The poem is called “Six Significant Landscapes,” although it is unclear if Stevens means the title ironically.  I tend to think that there is a subtle self-deprecating irony in the title, but for the most part read it as conveying an immensity of weight, even if that weight contains some cracks of irony within it.  At any rate, in the first stanza we are nearly accosted by the repetition of the image and phrase of things that “move in the wind.”  The larkspur moves in the wind, the old man’s beard moves in the wind, and the pine tree moves in the wind.  This much is clear.  What isn’t clear is why Stevens has decided to open “Six Significant Landscapes” with this image.  What are to take from the phrase and imagery?  What is connoted or evokes by various natural and human objects moving in the wind?

Is it fair to say that, in dwelling or brooding upon something that is moved, Stevens is attempting to articulate a kind of law of poetry, which is its attempt to move the reader?  Are we to take this first stanza as an ars poetica?  Or is this some sort of bare, sad commentary on the bare sadness of the world – a world that is endlessly and thoroughly empty, chaotic, and without purpose?  But aren’t these two readings basically incommensurable?  If we read the first stanza as articulating the way in which a reader is moved by poetry, we are taking up meaning, we are talking about signification, intentionality, subjectivity.  If we read the first stanza as articulating the (comic? tragic?) meaninglessness or nothingness at the heart of the world, then we are taking up something beyond signification, something without intentionality or subjectivity.

Whatever the case, though, it is clear that we are intended to be guided somehow, to learn something in a non-didactic way about this representation of the human and natural world.  But the frustrating and interesting thing about the passage is that it is never clear just what we are supposed to take from the representation.  Thus we are looking at a “Significant Landscape” whose significance is not apparent.  This is, to put it mildly, absolutely infuriating and (also) compelling.

Does the last stanza of the poem help us to come to any conclusion about whether or not the world itself teaches us anything?  In other words, does anything psychagogic happen outside intersubjectivity?  (A part of me feels this question is obvious – I mean, of course we can be moved by nature.  Not everything that is beautiful is confined to solidarity, to the human community.  But can we then say that nature mentors us?  Is there any sense in that formulation?)  The last stanza is, in some ways, an extension of the minute peeping hints of humor that color the first stanza.  Here we see a satire of the poor “Rationalist” who is only able to think rationally, and therefore cannot conceptualize anything beyond their rational scheme.  (Now I’m worred that I’m a Rationalist!)  But what is interesting to me is that the ultimate image, in the poem, for the thing that bewitches the rational intelligence of the Rationalist, is an image of the “half-moon” – an image of the natural world, as if Stevens were arguing that the perceived and observed natural world is a kind of inhuman mentor, that disrupts reason and gives us different ways of being, thinking, feeling, imagining, etc.  Of course, anyone who appreciates the natural world would not be surprised by this conclusion, but doesn’t it in some ways – I mean the idea that the natural world does guide us in some ways, does serves as a mentor – flatly contradict our Rorty quote above?

Perhaps we just need to drop out of the conversation the word “truth.”  Because Rorty (I think at least) is right – the world itself is not true.  Truth is a human creation.  But if we are to theorize about the world guiding us, doesn’t guidance itself involve truth?

Sheesh!  More on this later…..

I’ve been thinking more about what I might write about for my slowly approaching dissertation, and I confess I have fallen in love with a phrase, which I wonder might lead me to a larger project.  And the phrase, I should also say, developed weirdly enough out of a dream I had two nights ago.  (The phrase is “Inhuman Mentors.”)

In the dream, I was talking to a former teacher of mine, a mentor and writer, and at a certain point in that dream he pointed to a passage in a book, which kind of shone (the passage).  I felt like he was telling me to write about mentorship.  In the dream, when I realized this, the passage itself took on a kind of new physical contour, as if its shining suggested that mentorship, the theme and its implications, might help me reach some interesting interpretations of certain textual passages.  (I realize that I am oscillating between describing the dream itself and my later interpretation of it, but it is hard to sort of extricate the one from the other, especially since some time has passed since the dream itself.)

Anyways, after I woke up around 7am with the memory of the dream trailing a kind of comet tail in my mind, I started looking up articles and monographs having to do with mentorship.  And I also started thinking about mentorship in relationship to poetry.

At first, of course, I thought of Mentor himself, the character in the Odyssey who Athena transforms into, who guides Telemachus.  And that I think could be an interesting starting point for the dissertation.  What role does Mentor (and Athena) play in the transformation of Telemachus?  And how do we understand the role of this mentorship in the light of other scenes of instruction in poetry, (I started thinking), such as the instruction that the river Derwent affords for Wordsworth, or the weather itself affords for Wallace Stevens, or (I kept thinking) the painter Parmigianino for Ashbery?

And then I hit upon the phrase, “Inhuman Mentors.”  And I kind of fell in love with the idea.  Normally we think of mentorship as a very human thing, an intersubjective transaction; but what would it mean if we studied inhuman mentors, like the Derwent river or the wind for Wordsworth, or the weather for Stevens, or a dead painter for Ashbery?  (The last part, about Ashbery, needs work, because Parmagianino is still human, despite not being alive.)

So that’s where I am currently.  I think I want to study the role that inhuman factors play in the formation of the poet’s mind, or in the cultivation of ideas, thoughts, feelings which contribute to the work.  It seems like a broad and far-reaching topic, but also idiosyncratic enough to carry some weight.  We shall see!


Jay Wright is a master poet.  In this blog post I want to interrogate some reasons why I feel Wright is a master.  Most of my argument is going to pivot around notions of voice, cadence, rhythm, tonality, and mood, although in a later post (or maybe for my dissertation) I want to talk about Wright’s “development” or evolution, the way in which his poems unfold from each other in a kind of languorous steady haunting style, how much and how intensely they hold the reader in a kind of enormously caring and careful embrace, a very powerful progression.  For the purposes of this blog post, however, I want to look at Wright’s sequences of poems called “Sources,” which contains six sections.  I might not have time to delve into all of the sections here today, but perhaps in a later blog post I will.  The “Sources” poems, to my mind, are about a form of initiation, and the questions that attend this initiation.  As Wright’s vocation is as (among other things) a poet, I read this initiation as poetic in nature, a form of beginning where he is, of speaking, and of wondering about the meaning of beginning and speaking poetry.  “Sources (1)” reads,

And what if the god

should send me as a messenger

adorned with quetzal feathers?

In the light,

I have seen that pink and white

flower, at the top of the thorns,

float up, a feathered arrow,

or move, an embellished body,

to drink the rhythm of drums.

But this is the House of the Eagle,

the House of the Night of the Tigers.

This is the place where the spring

itself lies garlanded by kings.

When the rain falls,

when only these quetzal feathers

light the house,

I kneel in the only light it gives,

needing no light

to catch the dark, sweet smell

of this intoxicating god.

This poem seems to have four symphonic movements within it, beginning with a question, continuing with a vision, extending into a qualification and extension of the vision, and ending with a summary entailing an action that the vision brings to fruition.  The poem begins with a Rilkean question: “And what if the god / should send me as a messenger, / adorned with quetzal feathers?”  Quetzal feathers are resplendent colors, iridescent and varying from green-gold to blue-violet.  The sense is therefore that Wright is asking his audience, “And what if the god should choose me as his messenger, his gleaming glowing voice, his medium?”  The question seems to entail a certain sense of terror, along with a sense of the importance of the vocation and initiation.  

In the next movement, which begins, “In the light,” Wright describes in a wonderfully unhurried way (notice how much space “In the light” takes up in that line, how loudly it speaks, how solidly it stands) a vision of a flower seen from various metaphorical angles: floating vertically up, a “feathered arrow,” or moving perhaps more horizontally, “an embellished body.”  It is an organic vision that doubles as a metaphysical sort of miracle, a flower “at the top of the thorns” that rises up like an arrow, or moves like a body dancing.  One feels that Wright is here describing his own flourishing voice, floating up to the heavens like a flower, or moving abundantly to the rhythm of a dance.  What is the appropriate image, he seems to be asking; What is the appropriate metaphor to contain the image of the poet creating or finding his voice?  He finds then an image that draws from nature and culture, a flower that moves like “an embellished body.”  When Wright writes, “But this is the House of the Eagle, / the House of the Night of the Tigers,” the qualification seems to be in a form in and by which Wright doubts his choice of image, doubts where the image is appropriate for the place in which Wright speaks.  It is as though Wright wished to make his flower-image more snarling, more vicious, more aggressive?  But then he hits upon a different image, and writes, “This is the place where the spring / itself lies garlanded by kings.”  Whether we read “spring” as the season itself or a spring of water, what is clear is that something benevolent is happening, a kind of blessing that Wright as a poet is receiving, and the blessing is represented through the trope of the land and the bestowal of a gift.  The poem ends marvelously, with the lines,

When the rain falls,

when only these quetzal feathers

light the house,

I kneel in the only light it gives,

needing no light

to catch the dark, sweet smell

of this intoxicating god.

When light is snuffed out and rain falls, Wright as poet sees by the dusky murmuring light of the quetzal feathers’ iridescence.  This light is a metaphor for the poem itself, its language, which is also pared back to the minimum amount of words needed, just as the quetzal feathers give off the minimum amount of light needed.  Yet Wright doesn’t even need light in order “to catch the dark, sweet smell / of this intoxicating god.”  The poem ends with image of smell and taste, as though in the blindness and darkness lit only by the iridescence of feathers, Wright might find the words sufficient for the grueling but ennobling task of his vocation.