Words Words Words
I have already provided a detailed analysis of the disruptive strategies of referentiality and allusion used in the poem, but words are also utilised here in more positive ways. Postmodern poetry does not just question the materiality of the signifier, it also innovates that materiality in semi-utopian gestures of how signification might operate away from the hegemony of communication, exchange and transparency typical of contemporary rhetorical stances.
Ashbery loves words. Let’s go back to the last quotation and note the number of strange words and phrases he uses here, words that you may never have encountered before, at least not in a poem, at least not all together: Anaheim, riot act, Etna-size, firecracker, jock-itch sand-trap, asparagus, algolagnic, nuits blanches, cozening, micturition, Tamigi, Skeezix. Why was it that you never met these words in close proximity like this before? Well, the more cynical might suggest because they make no sense placed together and, in addition, they are ugly and stupid. Yet, if one can relish the strange lineation and, for us, weird diction of Keats or Whitman, often irrespective of a meaning which is in many instances obscure, then why not here? This is a good question never satisfactorily answered by champions of more traditional poetry.
Ashbery is interested in the excess of words in the language and also of their potential for inconsquentiality, the two meanings of excess being far too many and unnecessary. Try “Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts”; dactyll, spondee, spondee, iamb. It feels great in the mouth, that arresting “hard”, the skip of the “by the”, the strangely satisfying feel of a double spondee, and the traditional lilt of the final iamb which almost makes the pentametre here—you want “skirts”, already a long syllable, to get you to the magic ten, only it just doesn’t. Who cares if it’s meaningless, so is Keats’ final couplet to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and like that Ashbery’s prosody is also gorgeous with its assonance and alliteration, a’s and k’s and ts/ch’s. It is also funny, sounding so lyrical and yet, in terms of diction, so daft.
Then again there is meaning here as well. The jock-itch almost becomes a scratch with the letters on offer like a suggested half-anagram. One can feel the jock strap itching there with the sand that is trapped in it. Perhaps the speaker should have worn trousers instead of skirt. Having said that, the hard jock-itch also sounds rather pleasant in a sexual kind of a way. Remember that ugly word algolagnic? It means sado-masochism and places us back with the suggestive pix of the opening lines. Certainly, there are gaps here as everyone says about Ashbery’s work, but I feel he fills in these gaps with humour, invention, talent, intelligence and aplomb. That should be enough for anyone don’t you think? More than this, his work expresses the full disruptive and pleasurable power of linguistic excess. I am reminded here of the French concept of jouissance, an excessive burst of pleasure, quasi-sexual, beyond the control of ideology and symbolic orders. Postmodern poetry’s use of words, therefore, is radical in two ways: it teaches us to distrust language that is not honest about its rhetorical excessiveness to truth, but it also provides us with a medium through which to break free from western metaphysical ideas of truth and value.