An introduction and guide to reading John Ashbery Daffy Duck in Hollywood
Postmodern Elusive Allusion
“Daffy Duck” shares with The Waste Land an allusiveness which serves to better differentiate the issues of reference and contextual legitimation within modernism and postmodernism. The many sources of the poem have been tied down by John Shoptaw, in particular in a long footnote to his main analysis. He reveals, for example, that La Celestina was a sixteenth century play by Fernando de Rojas, “I thought about you” a Billie Holiday song, Amadigi di Gaula a Handel opera, Hellen Topping Miller a lesser known novelist; that greige is a combination of grey and beige high quality paper, and the Gadsen Purchase land in Mexico bought by the US in 1853.[i]
Perloff has also followed these allusive pathways in search of some kind of context only to conclude, correctly, that they do not help much: “For example, even when we know that the source for ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood’ is Chuck’s Jones’ cartoon Duck Amuck of 1953…the poet’s attitude to that cartoon world is by no means clear or consistent. Indeed, in Ashbery, almost everything sounds like a citation…”[ii] Returning to Shoptaw’s exhaustive taxonomy of sources, notice that he relegates this information to a footnote. In contrast, work on the allusiveness of The Waste Land has constituted not only monographs but whole careers. There is a clearly a qualitative difference here. Shoptaw having, for the record, followed up all of the poem’s many allusions, says that “The poem…is something of a cautionary tale against reading signs and wonders into everything.”[iii]
Staying with The Waste Land one can observe that its modernistic allusion is a search for a lasting sense of cultural value in the face of the threat of its annihilation, real or perceived. The sign links up to the context or background against which one is able to actually see and read it as a sign. When Eliot mentions a hyacinth or a river he presupposes a convention of reference as a universal value. Ashbery cannot be so confident. In its small way, then, the pointless search for La Celestina is the essence of the crisis in representation now seen as typical of the postmodern, seen, of course, from within the context of literary modernism. In addition, non-significant allusiveness directly attacks some of the worst aspects of modernism. For a start there is no tale of the tribe. Universal human values ‘discovered’ through structuralist anthropological studies of cultural artefacts revealing immemorial and all pervading mythological structures such as the fisher king are western, logocentric, imperialist, ideological, and occasionally racist impositions. Also, there is no hierarchy of learning or cultural ascendancy predicated on the knowledge of certain texts only available to an educated elite. Yes humanism guaranteed value through allusion to a shared cultural heritage, but just as the term ‘choice’ is an ideological construct in postmodernism, so the term ‘shared’ is similarly constructed. These values were not shared; they were not held in common. Instead, they were devised by an elite and imposed upon the rest of us. In this way, therefore, in as much as we are all consumers, the consumerist backdrop to the poem at the very least guarantees that it relates to everyone’s everyday existence.
To emphasise the populist and democratic nature of postmodern poetry we can return to Shoptaw’s list of allusions where we find a parallel narrative that many of us need no gloss for as they are popular cultural references that we are fluent in. We know that Speedy Gonzales is another famous cartoon character, that the mean old cartoonist is both a reference to Tweety’s “that mean old puddy cat” and to Duck Amuck which has Daffy tortured by a capricious, God-like cartoonist. “Me mug” is not only a colloquialism to offset against the tone of a self-conscious, narcissistic aesthete, “so jaundiced so déconfit,” but is also the mock-ney of Popeye. Popeye, by the way, features as an absent and capricious god-like figure of his own in the earlier, precursive poem “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”.[iv] Fudd’s garage my be the real name of a garage but it is also refers to Elma Fudd, erstwhile victim of Daffy and Buggs’s shenanigans.
The tireless Shoptaw also glosses these allusions but needlessly, I believe, as these are references we all can get; are they any less meaningless because of that, or any more meaningful? Certainly, they generate more semantic charge than the obscure high cultural references, deliberately obscure by the way as a kind of in-joke against modernism’s high-mindedness. Daffy’s reflection in the hub-cap is distorted and yellow, yes perhaps like a duck’s beak, and is déconfit, meaning crestfallen, both a reference to the feathers on Daffy’s head and the famous dish confit of duck? Perhaps. What is certain is that the quack phrenologist, who seems to come out of nowhere with his familiar yet seemingly irrelevant waiting room, is a quack because Daffy is a duck, and his waiting room is clogged with ferns the same way our consciousness is becoming choked by rampant referentiality. Through these two different processes of referentiality we are learning how to read postmodern poetry and also discovering that one of its main challenges is to the presuppositions of reference peculiar to poetry. In contrast to Gregson’s definition of postmodern poetry as anti-realism, poetic referentiality was never based on an assumption of a real world out there, such as one finds in prose or the visual arts, but of a hidden network of associative depth which fans out from the tiny poem into a vast narrative of cultural truths.
Postmodern referentiality comes from a different sense of the nature and role of context, indeed argues against context as a shared cultural continuum, and undermines poetic ideas of reference leading to lasting depth. The referent of the postmodern allusive sign is non-essential. It appeals to a reader who is interested in comics and opera, in other words a reader like Ashbery and his friends, and perhaps his readers. It also re-educates us as readers to look for meaning in inauspicious places. The seemingly cultural significant references, for example to Handel, often lead nowhere, while the downright silly puns on quacking set up a constellation of associative thought patterns within which the essence of the poem actually resides. Finally, in Ashbery’s work there is no differentiation between high and low culture, sometimes the joke is on Handel, at other times on Rumford’s Baking Powder (can mass produced goods be mint condition?). However, the author, himself educated within the modern poetic tradition, realises this is not entirely true in life and for his audience.
This then is the critical side of the poem’s relationship to a work such as The Waste Land. Eliot seeks to educate the audience and so re-found a cultural communality legitimised by Enlightenment views as to what constitutes value. Ashbery chooses to speak in at least two voices, that of the person who knows too much and must unlearn his contextual assumptions, and that of the person who knows a great deal but not about subjects traditionally viewed as valuable aspects of our cultural traditions. Placed against a different context, that of consumerism, and operating in a different fashion, both referential and critical of referential assumptions, so as to deconstruct assumed commonalties of meaning while discovering new, temporary ones; this is the essence of the postmodern poem’s relationship to the outside world. Finally, one must also accept that the assumption that everything in the world is mediated through processes of representation, means that in any case differentiation between artefact and the real world, poet and people, subject and object, is radically under question at all times.
[i] See John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard U.P., 1994) 367.
[ii] Marjorie Perloff, “Normalizing Ashbery”
[iii] Shoptaw 203.