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John Ashbery, Daffy Duck in Hollywood (9)

Subjectivity and Hollywood

Ashbery’s highly developed rhetorical strategies are designed less to prove his craftsmanship than to confront the naturalised rhetorical mediation of all forms of experience. This is Perloff’s point, that postmodern prosody is a type of avant-garde insurrection in the halls of the poetic institution. The other side of the critical fence in relation to postmodern poetry concentrates less on its materiality and more on its interventions on subjectivity and everyday discursive practices. A lot of work has been done in consideration of Ashbery’s take on the postmodern problem of subjective uncertainty, both because his poetry often openly addresses this issue and because his poetry causes us to question his and our own subjectivity. John Koethe grapples with this idea in relation to the presence of the poet’s voice in the poem, so recognisable and yet so hard to pin down:

But even though Ashbery’s work embodies the presence of a particular psychological ego, it is almost unique in the degree to which it is informed by a nonpsychological conception of the self or subject: a unitary consciousness from which his voice originates, positioned outside the temporal flux of thought and experience his poetry manages to monitor and record”.[i]

Koethe concedes that Ashbery as a unified subject is very strongly felt in this and all his works, but that as a personality he is almost non-existent, noting things like the poet’s seemingly haphazard use of pronouns. Sometimes the poet speaks of himself, sometimes of herself, sometimes of us, sometimes of them, often all within the same poem and, supposedly, via a single lyrical ego. This exploded, decentered subjectivity is not only evidenced in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” it is also all about that. From the moment the duck regards his distorted reflection in the hub-cap, reminding us of Ashbery’s earlier poem about distorted self-regard “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, we realise that this is a soul-searching kind of a poem, if ducks have souls.

Ashbery is not a poet of personae, rather he occupies many subject positions within his work, within a single work, all of which can be seen as constructions and, therefore, personae of a sort. As the title suggests, the poem is divided into two areas of interest, Daffy Duck who is nominally, although in the end not convincingly, the speaker of the poem, and Hollywood the context from which he speaks. In relation to this and within the context of the poem, Hollywood becomes a rather problematic location as the duck-disguised poet suggests in his descriptions of it:

Suddenly all is
Loathing. I don’t want to go back inside any more. You meet
Enough vague people in this emerald traffic-island—no,
Not people, comings and going, more: mutterings and splatterings[ii]

It is something of a cliché now to think of Los Angeleans as a bit flaky, but the description of LA as an emerald traffic island is inspired. The duck that turned could be the subtext of this section as Daffy rebels against the torments of Duck Amuck. Like so many popular actors he is looking for the art; for lasting credibility. The people of this locale are reduced to their mobility and the noises they make, splatterings, surely a reference to Daffy’s soggy lisp, to intersubjective spacing and to the social act of talking irrespective of the content of the conversation. Hollywood has a lot to answer for in the postmodern age; surely it is the origin of postmodern hyper-reality? In addition it seems also to be hell if Daffy is like Satan, an opinion at odds with ideas of Hollywood when Daffy was in his black-plumed pomp, but which a contemporary audience used to endless exposés of Hollywood such as The Player or Get Shorty wouldn’t find to hard to swallow.

Most critics seem in agreement that Ashbery is concerned with the effects of mass, postmodern, popular culture on lasting values, and most critics of postmodernism also take this line, but along with Keith Cohen I am not so sure. While Cohen notes that Ashbery “aims consistently at the glibness, deceitfulness, and vapidity of bourgeois discourse”[iii] and that cartoons are central to Ashbery’s attack on what we might call the industrialisation of the imagination because they “reflect in a quite transparent manner the leading social myths of the day”,[iv] it would be wrong to ascribe to the poem a form of culturalist critique. Ashbery is both a critic of the system and a happy consumer of its products. Like Daffy he occupies an ambivalent position in relation to the cultural homogenisation that is the result of Hollywood’s hegemony. As Cohen notes, “the poem seems to be a celebration of the way Hollywood manages to incorporate everything—from classical opera to pop music”, aware of “Hollywood’s celluloid power of reducing everything it can record to the same level of mediocrity”, still the poet makes it clear “the greatness of Hollywood is that, even at the moment you realize you are being conned, you succumb to the artificial glory, romp amid the discordant array of cultural objects, feel uplifted by the phony appeal of the archaic or exotic effects”.[v]

[i] John Koethe “The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry” in Lehman 89.
[ii] Ashbery, Three Books 30.
[iii] Cohen 128.
[iv] Ibid. 129.
[v] Ibid. 130, 131 & 132 respectively.
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