Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reading Ashbery: Part Two

During the last eight months or so I've been reading John Ashbery's book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. I've written about this book in other posts to this blog. One of those posts is here and the other is here. It's been several months since I began reading and thinking about these poems and I'm ready to move on. One thing I've learned is that Ashbery expects his readers to know a great deal about art, music and poetry before reading his poems. In my writing about the Self-Portrait poems here, I go in order directly through the first few poems of the book, make a few comments on a poem that appears later in the book and then bring it back to the first poem. This is sort of me thinking out loud about where I've been recently, sort of like making a scrapbook. If you find it amusing or helpful somehow, great. If not, no loss.

About a month ago I happened to find a book by John Shoptaw titled On the Outside Looking Out. I think I must have read a comment about it somewhere online. Maybe it turned up in a search when I was looking for something related. Usually I remember better where I hear of books. Anyway, in his book, Shoptaw writes about each book of Ashbery's poetry. The book was published in 1994; the most recent book Shoptaw writes about is Flow Chart. Naturally I wanted to read what Shoptaw wrote about Self-Portrait, so that's what I read first.

I was surprised and excited to learn that the first poem in Ashbery's book, "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat", takes its title from the first line of a poem by Andrew Marvell. Here is Ashbery's poem (from accessed 17 June 2009):

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
by John Ashbery

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…

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.

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 limpid, dense twilight comes.
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.
The prevalence of those gray flakes failing?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn’t.

The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.

Here is Marvell's poem (from accessed 17 June 2009):

Tom May's Death
by Andrew Marvell

As one put drunk into the Packet-boat,
Tom May was hurry'd hence and did not know't.
But was amaz'd on the Elysian side,
And with an Eye uncertain, gazing wide,
Could not determine in what place he was,
For whence in Stevens ally Trees or Grass.
Nor where the Popes head, nor the Mitre lay,
Signs by which still he found and lost his way.
At last while doubtfully he all compares,
He saw near hand, as he imagin'd Ares.
Such did he seem for corpulence and port,
But 'twas a man much of another sort;
'Twas Ben that in the dusky Laurel shade
Amongst the Chorus of old Poets laid,
Sounding of ancient Heroes, such as were
The Subjects Safety, and the Rebel's Fear.
But how a double headed Vulture Eats,
Brutus and Cassius the Peoples cheats.
But seeing May he varied streight his song,
Gently to signifie that he was wrong.
Cups more then civil of Emilthian wine,
I sing (said he) and the Pharsalian Sign,
Where the Historian of the Common-wealth
In his own Bowels sheath'd the conquering health.
By this May to himself and them was come,
He found he was tranflated, and by whom.
Yet then with foot as stumbling as his tongue
Prest for his place among the Learned throng.
But Ben, who knew not neither foe nor friend,
Sworn Enemy to all that do pretend,
Rose more then ever he was seen severe,
Shook his gray locks, and his own Bayes did tear
At this intrusion. Then with Laurel wand,
The awful Sign of his supream command.
At whose dread Whisk Virgil himself does quake,
And Horace patiently its stroke does take,
As he crowds in he whipt him ore the pate
Like Pembroke at the Masque, and then did rate.

Far from these blessed shades tread back agen
Most servil' wit, and Mercenary Pen.
Polydore, Lucan, Allan, Vandale, Goth,
Malignant Poet and Historian both.
Go seek the novice Statesmen, and obtrude
On them some Romane cast similitude,
Tell them of Liberty, the Stories fine,
Until you all grow Consuls in your wine.
Or thou Dictator of the glass bestow
On him the Cato, this the Cicero.
Transferring old Rome hither in your talk,
As Bethlem's House did to Loretto walk.
Foul Architect that hadst not Eye to see
How ill the measures of these States agree.
And who by Romes example England lay,
Those but to Lucan do continue May.
But the nor Ignorance nor seeming good
Misled, but malice fixt and understood.
Because some one than thee more worthy weares
The sacred Laurel, hence are all these teares?
Must therefore all the World be set on flame,
Because a Gazet writer mist his aim?
And for a Tankard-bearing Muse must we
As for the Basket Guelphs and Gibellines be?
When the Sword glitters ore the Judges head,
And fear has Coward Churchmen silenced,
Then is the Poets time, 'tis then he drawes,
And single fights forsaken Vertues cause.
He, when the wheel of Empire, whirleth back,
And though the World disjointed Axel crack,
Sings still of ancient Rights and better Times,
Seeks wretched good, arraigns successful Crimes.
But thou base man first prostituted hast
Our spotless knowledge and the studies chast.
Apostatizing from our Arts and us,
To turn the Chronicler to Spartacus.
Yet wast thou taken hence with equal fate,
Before thou couldst great Charles his death relate.
But what will deeper wound thy little mind,
Hast left surviving Davenant still behind
Who laughs to see in this thy death renew'd,
Right Romane poverty and gratitude.
Poor Poet thou, and grateful Senate they,
Who thy last Reckoning did so largely pay.
And with the publick gravity would come,
When thou hadst drunk thy last to lead thee home.
If that can be thy home where Spencer lyes
And reverend Chaucer, but their dust does rise
Against thee, and expels thee from their side,
As th' Eagles Plumes from other birds divide.
Nor here thy shade must dwell, Return, Return,
Where Sulphrey Phlegeton does ever burn.
The Cerberus with all his Jawes shall gnash,
Megera thee with all her Serpents lash.
Thou rivited unto Ixion's wheel
Shalt break, and the perpetual Vulture feel.
'Tis just what Torments Poets ere did feign,
Thou first Historically shouldst sustain.

Thus by irrevocable Sentence cast,
May only Master of these Revels past.
And streight he vanisht in a Cloud of Pitch,
Such as unto the Sabboth bears the Witch.

Who was Tom May? If we accept the opinion of Marvell's poem, then May was, as Shoptaw says, "a poetaster". Be that as it may, we also know that May was an actual person. We can learn a bit about him at this Wikipedia entry.

Before I go on with what Shoptaw has to say about Ashbery's poem, I'd like to add here a comment of my own regarding the very nice article at the Poetry Foundation about Andrew Marvell. According to that article, Marvell lived during the transition from medieval to modern times, and his poetry reflects that. One example of this can be seen, I think, when Tom May emerges "amaz'd on the Elysian side" after having been transported not by Charon across the River Styx but in a perfunctory manner as when a package gets delivered - which, by the way, is exactly what a packet-boat is used for. Again and again in the Self-Portrait poems we encounter the notions of change, transition, uncertainty and waiting. Certainly such notions were familiar to Marvell, and I think it likely that Ashbery enjoyed the ambiguities rife in Marvell's poetry - ambiguities pointed out clearly in the Poetry Foundation article.

Ashbery's "Packet-Boat" is appropriately first in his book not only because, as Shoptaw says, it was at one point the title poem of the book but because Ashbery's ambition is announced in the first line: "I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free." The "as" in the title denotes a recurring concern in the poems: as one thing is happening, another thing, seemingly insignificant by comparison, is happening as well. Apparently Ashbery and his friend Frank O'Hara picked up on this notion from Boris Pasternak's autobiographical story Safe Conduct. Rather than have his writing serve the nation-state, Pasternak deliberately tried to write such that his writing would serve history and not a political entity. It is much more this type of "as" than the type of "as" in a simile that is prevalent in the Self-Portrait poems. We see it again in "As You Came from the Holy Land" and then again in the first line of the title poem: "As Parmigianino did it . . . ".

Often the thing that seems insignificant during the main event is a period of waiting, and the ones who wait are like a fallow field. The implication seems to be that it is reasonable to expect a sort of passive revolution or an inevitable conflict that may or may not be announced: something else will grow in what seems to be a fallow field and, as that growth happens, that which had dominated the scene will come to be supplanted. Even as we speak, change is happening. In such circumstances, what narrative strategies will we prefer?

One strategy Ashbery uses in a few of the Self-Portrait poems, as Shoptaw points out, is that of the folk or fairy tale. In such narratives, "any number of improbable adventures can happen along the way toward their fulfillment." Moreover, "By pouring their hopes and fears into a tale's simple, empty characters, readers (or bedtime listeners) learn the self-fashioning process of identification." We see this approach in, for instance, "Sheherezade", "Marchenbilder", "Oleum Misericordiae" and "Hop o' My Thumb".

The "self-fashioning process of identification" was a concern W.H. Auden had when he composed the poems of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Anxiety, and it is a concern that emerges in several of the Self- Portrait poems as well. Ashbery addresses this concern specifically in "Worsening Situation". According to Shoptaw, Ashbery's personal concern here is "the splitting of his published from his private personality", as indicated by "This severed hand" which "Stands for life, and wander as it will,/East or west, north or south, it is ever/A stranger who walks beside me." Shoptaw goes on to say that Ashbery begins to "sound hysterical" when he tries to "reintegrate" himself: "The name you drop and never say is mine, mine!" Of course, Ashbery's broader concern is: with so much information inundating us on a daily basis and so much that we are expected to do, how are we to know ourselves, and how are we to know each other? There is cause here for great anxiety. Ashbery acknowledges the problem and says he "can't seem to keep it from affecting me,/Every day, all day. I've tried recreation,/Reading until late at night, train rides/And romance." The poem, potentially discouraging, takes a turn toward lightheartedness when Ashbery injects a sense of humor into the poem:

One day a man called while I was out
And left this message: "You got the whole thing wrong
From start to finish. Luckily, there's still time
To correct the situation, but you must act fast.
See me at your earliest convenience. And please
Tell no one of this. Much besides your life depends on it."
I thought nothing of it at the time. Lately
I've been looking at old-fashioned plaids, fingering
Starched white collars, wondering whether there's a way
To get them really white again. My wife
Thinks I'm in Oslo - Oslo, France, that is.

Such humor, while amusing, fails to address the situation fully. Throughout the Self-Portrait poems, Ashbery uses humor as a strategy to enable the registering of conflicting viewpoints. For example, in "Suite", we begin in a workplace: "The inert lifeless mass calls out into space:/Seven long years and the wall hasn't been built yet". Presumably this refers to the Biblical story of the man who worked for seven years in another man's vineyard with the promise of marriage to the owner's daughter at the end of those years only to be told at that time that he'd have to work for another seven years in order to reach his goal. The poem proposes no humor in this, but at the end of the second stanza we have a bit of humor thrown in sort of like a spice added to a sauce. Here is the second stanza:

This was to be forgotten, eliminated
From history. But time is a garden wherein
Memories thrive monstrously until
They become the vagrant flowering of something else
Like stopping near the fence with your raincoat.

The "stopping near the fence with your raincoat" pokes fun at the poetry of Robert Frost ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening") and also at the poetry of William Carlos Williams ("The Red Wheelbarrow"). These poets privilege the image (see imagism). By poking fun in this way, Ashbery uses humor to allow, without ridicule, the recognition of a difference between his poetry and the poetry of Frost and Williams. The humor is like a spice in that it adds to the poem but does not contribute protein, carbohydrates or fat to the metaphorical meal that the poem is. We have this sort of strategy with humor in several poems throughout the Self-Portrait book.

Ashbery considers, in "Forties Flick" how we know ourselves by another type of media: film. The audience does not appear but is included as part or parcel of the film genre:

Silence of the library, of the telephone with its pad,
But we didn't have to reinvent these either:
They had gone away into the plot of a story,
The "art" part - knowing what important details to leave out
And the way character is developed. Things too real
To be of much concern, hence artificial, yet now all over the page,
The indoors with the outside becoming part of you
As you find you had never left off laughing at death,
The background, dark vine at the edge of the porch.

This is a sobering reversal of the humor that concludes "Worsening Situation". More than "the willing suspension of disbelief" happens when we enjoy movies. Because there are so many movies, we have to make choices as to which ones we will allow to entertain us. And what was the impact on people in, for instance, Mexico of the 1950s when they saw Hollywood movies of the 1940s that showed an American middle-class standard of living? Still, if we consider fully the impact of movies on our lives, will we have considered fully the questions related to the "self-fashioning process of identification"?

Ashbery goes deeper into thinking about the impact of tradition on our lives in "As You Came from the Holy Land". Fittingly, Ashbery's "Holy Land" title is taken from a traditional ballad. In "A Man of Words", Ashbery addresses the situation of the playwright and, according to Shoptaw, his actor. It seems to me Ashbery also considers how the relation of the playwright and actor relates to poets and, in doing so, mentions poets who admire Walt Whitman's poetry:

Ah, but this would have been another, quite other
Entertainment, not the metallic taste
In my mouth as I look away, density black as gunpowder
In the angles where the grass writing goes on,
Rose-red in unexpected places like the pressure
Of fingers on a book suddenly snapped shut.

The "grass writing" is writing done by poets who admire and admit to being influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman. And, still in "A Man of Words", we have again the notion of how we know ourselves:

All diaries are alike, clear and cold, with
The outlook for continued cold. They are placed
Horizontal, parallel to the earth,
Like the unencumbering dead. Just time to reread this
And the past slips through your fingers, wishing you were there.

I think, if an enlightened Buddhist read this poem, he (or she) would say something like, "Of course! I identify with all things! I am the playwright, the actor, the poet and the writers of diaries." And of course Whitman would feel the same way. Far from feeling overwhelmed by all the information and possibilities, Whitman would sound his barbaric yawp and it would sound a lot like, "I am excited to be alive! I myself am sublime!" But no one can feel this way all the time, yes? We have cookies to bake, diapers to change, stories to tell, etc, etc. Ashbery I think is skeptical in exactly this way. He may be excited to be alive at times but getting him to admit it is another matter. Ashbery would I think more likely admit that he pretends to be excited to be alive and actually feels something more like a quiet and reflective wonder and/or awe at all the information and possibilities life has to offer. To honor the many "small things on earth", Ashbery prefers an anti-sublime strategy.

In the Self-Portrait poems, we see the anti-sublime strategy most clearly in "The One Thing That Can Save America" which appears later in the book. First, though, I have a few more words regarding the sublime strategy. Any narrative that features a hero is employing the sublime strategy. An example of a poem that is in accord with the sublime strategy is "America the Beautiful" by Katharine Lee Bates.

America the Beautiful
by Katharine Lee Bates

O beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.
O beautiful, for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev'ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!
O beautiful, for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness, and ev'ry gain divine!
O beautiful, for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!

One way of thinking about the sublime strategy is that it seeks to unify by inspiring all to a central ideal. The notions of America as "melting pot" and "E Pluribus Unum", the motto stamped on American coins, are likewise in accord with the sublime strategy. This type of thinking has led to, for example, E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s book Cultural Literacy which argues that schools should teach a specific curriculum in order to facilitate greater shared understanding.

In "The One Thing That Can Save America", the first 3 stanzas are made up mostly of questions, and the central one is in the first line: "Is anything central?" This question, following the title which suggests drama and the sublime strategy, challenges the received opinion that there is something on which cultural literacy can be built. We then have a sort of intellectual searching: "Are place names central?" The first stanza features things which are neither immortal nor free. "These are connected to my version of America/But the juice is elsewhere." ... "Was it our doing, and was it/The material, the lumber of life, or of lives/We were measuring, counting?" The second stanza features the love of a couple (potentially immortal and free) and acknowledges a disadvantage of the anti-sublime strategy: glances as opposed to visions. "I know that I braid too much my own/Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me./They are private and always will be./Where then are the private turns of event/Destined to boom later like golden chimes/Released over a city from a highest tower?" The third stanza identifies the problem the anti-sublime strategy has with the notion of privacy. The problem can be overcome when one joins a community, something larger than oneself - but not something erotic ("A mood soon to be forgotten") or idealistic ("Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.") "What remote orchard reached by winding roads/Hides them?" He is not interested in finding the "city upon the hill" - that is for the people interested in the sublime strategy. When he asks, "Where are these roots?" we have to take care: if Ashbery is one of the roots then we begin leaning toward mythologizing Ashbery. If a person wants to mythologize himself (or herself), that's one thing. It worked for Walt Whitman, and it can work for you too. But if other people mythologize you that's something else. "It is the lumps and trials/That tell us whether we shall be known/And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star." Throughout the Self-Portrait poems, the pronouns are interesting, but the "we" and "our" here are at least as interesting as the notion of fate. Robert Bly recommends the term "communal self" for the "speaker" of Ashbery's Self-Portrait poems. The fourth stanza proposes a general response to all the questions posed. Ashbery is genuinely interested in finding an alternative to the prevailing sublime strategy, and he'd like his readers to engage in this pursuit as well. "All the rest is waiting/For a letter that never arrives,/Day after day, the exasperation/Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,/The two envelope halves lying on a plate./The message was wise, and seemingly/Dictated a long time ago./Its truth is timeless, but its time has still/Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited/Steps that can be taken against danger/Now and in the future, in cool yards,/In quiet small houses in the country,/Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets." The "two envelope halves" refer to the haves and the have-nots, and the timeless truth of the message refers to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. In an anti-sublime poem, it is generous to mention so respectfully the sublime strategy. Understanding how far we are to keep ourselves from the heroic/sublime seems to be the work of this poem.

Because it depicts a pastoral scene, Ashbery's "Packet-Boat" poem draws on romanticism, according to Shoptaw: "The poem employs a pastoral crisis narrative: a summer storm gathers but passes, leaving the relieved, mortal poet in the dark. This romanticism may be taken as a sign . . . ". The external crisis is rivaled by an internal anxiety: "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?" "But," continues Shoptaw, "the immortal, frontal moment of being seen face to face never comes to pass." Shoptaw speculates that the "Harsh words" that are mentioned in Ashbery's poem reflect the scolding of Tom May by Ben Jonson in Marvell's poem.

Ashbery, according to Shoptaw, may have had some anxiety that he himself could be similarly scorned. Around the time Ashbery was working on the poems that would appear in Self-Portrait, Harold Bloom's book The Anxiety of Influence was published. Because it got attention, Ashbery was sure to have had some familiarity with it. Clearly, by calling on the resources of romanticism for his "Packet-Boat" poem, Ashbery removes his poem from the critical conversation that includes Marvell and Jonson, both of whom preceded the Romantics.

Back in Ashbery's "Packet-Boat", calm returns when ". . . I thought a shadow fell across the door/But it was only her come to ask once more/If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn't." This kindhearted maternal character of Ashbery's poem contrasts with "the fulminating Jonsonian" presence of Marvell's, and the "not to hurry" of Ashbery's poem contrasts with the "hurry'd hence" of Marvell's. In this way, Ashbery further distinguishes his poetry from the poetry represented by Marvell and Jonson.

Shoptaw sees another poem that relates to Ashbery's "Packet-Boat". Ashbery translated a prose poem by Giorgio de Chirico titled "On Silence". In Ashbery's translation of de Chirico's poem, "a moon of boreal pallor is rising in the great silence"; in Ashbery's poem, "A moon of cistercian pallor/Has climbed to the center of heaven . . ." In de Chirico's poem, a storm gathers. A few people have protected themselves in their rooms, but eventually their security is disrupted when "wind blows open a window: 'they forget everything and start chasing the white sheets and catch them in flight. . . . Beware, friends, of the silence that precedes such events.'" In Ashbery's poem, the storm that gathers doesn't actually happen, and "a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,/The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons/Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere . . .". The silence that seems to be a menace in de Chirico's poem seems, in Ashbery's poem, to be much nearer "to the center of heaven". And the wind that blows open the windows in de Chirico's poem becomes, in Ashbery's, a sigh of relief. By setting up his poem to contrast against de Chirico's, Ashbery manages to counteract the anxiety of influence described by Bloom.

Shoptaw is convinced that, by the end of "Packet-Boat", Ashbery's poem has overturned itself. Rather than try each thing to see which is "immortal and free", Ashbery "chooses . . . a life of waiting over blinding moments of illumination." He "looks in the nostalgic trunks for an answer".

Take me to your honey.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of this:

Anonymous said...

Here's a better link - Click here.

Andrew Christ said...

Thanks so much for that link!

Curtis Faville said...

Mr. Christ:

I would be very cautious in imputing direct biographical inferences from Ashbery's poems.

Ashbery tells us very little, really, about the facts of his existence in his work. He's a brilliant mimic, not only of the habitual ways in which a wide variety of feelings and thoughts are expressed, but of the expedient frivolity with which such constructions are posed. Much of it is camp humor, and should be taken as such.

That's one of Ashbery's most frustrating post-Modern aspects: The sense that nothing really matters, that all subject-matter is just material. Harold Bloom rightly associates this tendency with Yeats, and in that sense Ashbery is like Yeats. The Irish poet fiddles with Irish history and myth, often with very little sense of more than a generalized, bland nationalism, while Ashbery talks about all the things you might casually think while riding the subway across town. Both are just using subject-matter as a convenience, and studiously avoid specific autobiographical detail.

You could read Ashbery's whole oeuvre--end to end--and not know anything at all about the man or the times during which he lived.

Andrew Christ said...

Interesting to find a common tendency in Ashbery's and in Yeats' poetry.

I agree, about "imputing direct biographical inferences from Ashbery's poetry." If you're referring to my speculation about Frank O'Hara and Ashbery getting an idea from Pasternak, I didn't make that up myself. I got that from David Herd's book "John Ashbery and American Poetry" and yes, I should reference that better. I tried to keep it clear as to what Shoptaw says in his book and what my own ideas are, but I may have overstepped my bounds somewhere. Care to clarify?