John Ashbery, Some Trees
(New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Originally published (New York: 1956)
Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) currently in the process of complete update (2013)
"Two Scenes," 9
This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “...hair/Air”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.
This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; general honesty recalls “truly behave”; “history” relates to “destiny”; “fumes” to the “air” in the “mountains” (cf. “Answering a Question in the Mountains”); “dry” speaks to the “water-pilot”. Finally there is an example of what we should call image logic or associative deduction which is perhaps, in the end, Ashbery’s greatest talent. The “warm and pleasant day”, “fumes” and “dry…poverty” then establish an associative and metonymical context for the sparks of scene 1 to produce a fire that results in fumes. This being the case then a joke is revealed in that in this poem there is smoke without an actual fire! I seem to remember that Shoptaw summarises the theme of the poem as “possible combustion”.
Like many Ashbery lyrics, the poem conforms to the law of structure to be found in my own work on poetics inspired by Husserl, Agamben and linguistics. I usually call this the cataphora/anaphora tabular matrix or the way a poem will hint towards something that will come later and then later also refer back to what came before. Husserl calls this protention-retention, Agamben calls its structure. So, here Ashbery uses “units” because it rhymes in the future with “cadets” and “old man/paint cans” so there is a semiotic, phonic pretension or cataphora. In contrast the conclusion of the “schedule” returns us back to the “destiny of the train”. This destiny is established locally by the train whose sparks illuminate the table. The table is a surface image upon which the water-pilot sits. It is also, however, the time-table or schedule. Thus it has a double cataphora.
Then, the destiny of the water-pilot is able to be anaphorically worked back say using the determined track of a canal which is wet and on whose surface perhaps the insects skate. Thus forward-backward semantic interchange of association is what allows us to ‘deduce’ that destiny relates to the train. It is a fundamentally formal, logical mode of deduction, as powerful as syllogism for example, it is just that it operates due to an associative logic or what some used to called dream logic. If you know your Freud you will see this is actually quite accurate.
Anyway once you have determined the link of train to destiny than this concept of train-like, mechanistic destiny casts us forward again to its sense of schedule only this time with a different semantic register. This may occur several times within the poem, for example if you then look at the complex but stable rules of the poem’s construction then, the two forms of destiny, water-pilot destiny which is free to travel the table (the poem is our table) and canal-train destiny which moves forward along predictable trackways, syntax, lineation, laws of grammar and coherence. Perhaps then this is the real meaning of the poem, a free destiny within a tabular field and a directed destiny within a linear track.
One of the most recurrent of Ashbery’s motifs is units, or small enclosed entities of all sorts. You will often find this image in his work across most of his career. Here, the interaction of the “terrific units” is quite complex:
1. two scenes interact internally
2. two scenes picks up ways of seeing (seens)
-2 levels of the poem
-as we truly behave
-language usage itself
3. internal mirroring and linear introversions already mentioned
4. the argument of the poem:
-as we truly behave/honesty
-machinery, history, order
-interaction of themes with use of language as structural cataphora-anaphora
5. Locally the units that are terrific seem to be units of cadets but they are also paint cans. We already saw a phonic interdependency of units on cadets. We also have a double syntactic potential here. The terrific units could be on an old man or this could be old-fashioned inversion meaning units are terrific on an old man, terrific here perhaps meaning instilling terror. In other words the same thing can be said the same way and mean two different things. Please remember Ashbery went to Paris to write a dissertation on Raymond Roussel; this was his narrative conceptualisation.
6. the “narrative”:
-train (from corner)—table (toy train?)—water pilot—news—outside to the warm day in the mountains//—industrial scene—teleology—fumes—poverty—units—paint—old age—cadets. Onto this we can map two worlds, moods what have you. We could say that scene 1 seems a carefree, childish life, while scene 2 presents an almost 19th century, Dickensian world. Finally onto that we can then map our projective-recursive, involuted, cataphoric-anaphoric tabular structural dynamic.
From this we abstract the theme which is, as stated above, honesty-journey-order-combustion. I would take this as a single ‘word’ in that it is impossible to say which value comes ‘first’, which leads causally to the next and so on. So we take this meaning compound, then we articulate it as it is in two parts, we tell the story of its first reading development, we then pay attention to the tabular forward-backward referentiality of its deeper structure, and finally we always have to accept there is a degree of detail here that should never be entirely recuperated into the ‘meaning’ discourse. Ashbery criticises these early works for lacking in this final element, suggesting they are like puzzles for which you can find a solution, so accept and expect more of the elements which don’t fit the pattern as a pattern as his work matures.
Taken on its own the complexity of this poem must make a case for it being a masterpiece of twentieth century art as well as the perfect guide as to how to read Ashbery. Not the only way but one of the key ways definitely.
“Popular Songs”, 10-11
“The involuted consonance (“car with the cur,” “gone to a longing”) of “Popular Songs” anticipates the wilful music of “Two Scenes”, whilst jarringly disjunctive lines point towards the novel-collages of The Tennis Court Oath.” (Shoptaw 30).
· Shoptaw notes the songs of 30’s embedded, “Blue Blue Ridge Mountain”, “The Garden of the Moon”.
“it was written in an attempt to conjure up the kind of impression you would get from riding in the car, changing the radio stations and at the same time aware of the passing landscape. In other words, a kind of confused, but insistent, impression of the culture going on around us.” (Shoptaw 31, citing Ash.)
· Shoptaw notes the diction changes = different narrative viewpoints:
· also a number of characters: he, her, the host (cf. “Pied Piper” and “Answering Questions in the Mountains”), (we, them, both, us), the cur (pervert?), Alton, his mother, you, the footman (watchman, sentries), the actors
· number of narrative strands:
-narrative of ending and disappointment
-props and syntax
· stanza 1 contains: cut-ups, pronominal shifts, citations, parentheses, dashes, simple repetitions/rhythms and rhymes.
· stanza 2 begins not in the middle of something but in a complete statement: “he fumed into his soup//You laugh...”, and the collage dissolves into more sinuous flatness of an Ash, argument of disappointment.
· Shoptaw is right, here we have 3 elements of the Ash. constructive principle in ST:
1. the music of “Two Scenes”
2. the collage of TCO
3. the syntactic poetry of later Ash
· even more in the manner of TCO, with two narratives cutting across each other:
1. Cuddie: water based; a secret, a wish, a good imitation; rhyme of -ay; noises; day-days; bred (sticks)—members, change—refresh; good-evil; shivers-dip in raw water
2. Colin: violence of father; bush (sticks, spikes, plant); sides (heart); birth; reflection; tears; cold; books and stones-sticks and mother’s image-father’s violence
· note figure of the father as disciplinarian undercut by the name Cuddie, whilst Colin’s “she” moves from being a lover to being the mother.
· various virgin births occur: the heart, the plant, and the water, as procreative image is retained for the father. Conclusion of the father’s discipline is the rather fey “mauves”, whilst the lover/mother “burns”, a double beast is born and Colin remains inviolate.
· the 2 beasts = again dédoublement which is associative and disassociative, both internally and inter-stanzaically, contra to collage, this is again music which are two useful terms to apply as they are non-poetic and aspirations of both avant-garde and modernism—fragment and rhythm—paragram
· cf. collage vs. music in ST generally
“The Instruction Manual”, 14-18
· re. Roussel, compare to “La Vue” and Comment J’ai Écrit Certain de mes Livres
· note the extreme contrast to music of collage or syntax
· good poem for a comparative reading of “February”
“The Grapevine”, 19
· Shoptaw notes this as a fruits’ network
· it is a network based on the vowel sound “o”—know (knew-grew), though, now, piano (care, are, there air)
· an interaction of: them-us, causes, knowing, death
· both via the network, therefore words don’t mean only by usage but also location and the conflation them/us, knowing not knowing, straight and deviant:
“They often date from us [date us?], causing
These changes we think we are...”
· thus it is impossible, according to Shoptaw to work out who is straight and deviant. This might be a good place to start with a semiotic development of homotextuality, that is the way the “network” of language becomes “The Grapevine”, thus eradicating sexual differences not politically but semiotically and via the supremely Ash. value of reticence.
“A Boy”, 20-21
· Shoptaw notes another example of homotextuality here in the father/son relationship and the reference to the “mincing flag (fag)” in adolescence.
· the title acts as indicator of the basic lexicon being used here thus we have: a son (dad), the poet (and I think),non-relative relationship (my child, the old man), the boy (from shelf to shelf), my boy, he (?)
· the accumulation does not proceed logically, but nor does it do so blindly as the this structural approach to language stresses similarity and difference at all points. Thus we have the narrative of the accumulation of the boy: a boy (0), I boy (1-4), son and father (2), poet’s voice/conflation (4), disjointed, Eliotesque (5-6), man and boy (9-14), the boy (13), my boy (17), he (19-20), leading to the eradication of the boy in (21-24) and a movement into the objectivised world.
· the movement of the word “boy” is the dynamic of the poem and tells its own story of the movement from indefinite (a) to definite (the), relation to non-relation (son and father-man and boy), boy and poet (boy-poet’s voice-my boy) and finally from noun to pronoun (the boy-he), all held within the larger framework of the boy but also in interaction with other linguistic frames: italics, citation, objective, subjective, 1st and 3rd person, image and narrator.
· these linguistic frames mediate the passage between the “boy” and the second lexicon of the outside world: the rain (italics), the mess, the thunder, it (charged over plains), rain on boxcars (particulars), the flood, lightning. This second lexicon starts as being subordinate but comes to dominates, a second dynamic with “An unendurable age” acting as a second title at the end making the poem almost echo the structure of the gyre, two triangles interpenetrating.
· another poem of articulated dédoublement
· stanza 1 again introduces characters: man, polar bear; and motifs: window, shade, here, helping etc.. Thus presents the mot-thèmes that may or may not be picked up in stanza 2, thus we have a narrative expectation created as in Barthes, the precursive word and anaphora, also relates to the Burkean sublime, will it won’t it happen again? (tuché-automaton).
· Stanza 2 the bear, the window, the arctic (hat?-cap?), the shade (evening), the shy (martins?), final line is however involuted producing a narrative cohesion to stanza 2.
· stanza 2 presents a number of answers to the question of stanza 1 in terms of narration i.e. what is here? still here, and what is already there, then, gone.
· dédoublement of this sort plays on the boundary that is the sublime moment of narrative, will something happen next, whilst hedging its bets somewhat by retaining coherence in the sous-texte of motifs and syntactical contingency.
“The Hero”, 23
· Shoptaw notes this is related to “Illustration” and the suicide of Mattheisson therefore could be about death.
· the pantoum form is very much within the scope of a mediated aleatory poetics taken from Roussel especially, though of course it is a troubadour form (11-12th C, southern France?). It uses rhyme like phonic specularity giving the surface order under which text can perform a number of non-sequitors because the line ends provide a structure to fill in gaps, and yet also because this structure promotes the non-grammatical.
· is a more blatant example of what he is doing more subtly elsewhere. Here, the narrative cohesion is based on key words and key relations:
-top, lamps, peace, hair, waiting, sky
· anaphora is retained at a lexical and syntactical level.
· final stanza performs a radical reduction, removing the nodes of the previous lines and thus closing down connotation.
· the poem resists attempts to read other nodal gathering points, always dragging the eye to the end of the line, see stanza 3, ll1-2, where closure occurs so that one feels an echo which may be other, only to find it is an internal echo of end words.
· there is a sous-texte:
1. the locale of the crystal mountains, cliffs-sea-desert
2. the body: lips/feet (and all that that symbolises), the hand, hair, lungs, pads, silence
· point 2. is of special interest as it plays on the traditional metaphors of creation: the voice, the hand, the feet into which hair is a peculiar/humorous addition, but the poem is wasteful as so much else is getting to the end, the procession.
“Album Leaf”, 26
· cf. “Feuillton”, Verlaine?
· contra to the motif of turning, we have a vertical imperative vs. a horizontal one (rain, falling, aspiring, light, night, scattering, peas, fell) vs. (album leaf, history, bingo (lines of numbers), scattered, squirt)
· again we have the Ash. topography—garden, rain, some contemporary references vs. romantic imagery, also the Ash. conceits of uncertainty = here, history, aspiration, melancholy.
· movement high/low matches the bathetic imagery: moving/crimes, rain/bingo.
· music style poems similar to the formal caprices of Parnassian poets and early Mallarmé.
“The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers”, 27-29
· Shoptaw notes the referentiality of this piece: Marvell, pastoral, Dick and Jane, Punch and Judy, Macbeth, Defoe, Joyce—calls it a narrative collage, a collage of poetic allusiveness.
· further notes it is a study in poetic virtue as in the Marvell where he watches T.C taming the flowers, similarly in Pt.III, Ash considers his surroundings and how he is to survive McCarthyism, thus it conflates:
1. T.C being careful to survive nature
2. Pasternak considering how to survive Bolshevism
3. Ash. on how to survive the late fifties
· Shoptaw sees it typified as stubbornness and reads it as symbolic consideration of this theme making it akin to a modernist poem—relates it to SPCM.
· note contrast this value of stubbornness with its sister value of reticence, there is a certain tension here between publish and be damned, and softly softly.
· the re-iterating form itself serves as demonstration of the re-mark but in controlled and limited time frame, closure coming from the repetition in final stanza of a&c of previous stanza and a&c of 1st stanza, thus every line is repeated twice and the progress of stanzas seems to be in preparation for this conclusion, supported by the use of the colon.
· the poem’s title then is anaphoric, it promises closure, and the conclusion is cataphoric, but in contrast to the two strong stylistic points of cohesion = stanzaic, formalist, visual (spacing), title (all of which militate towards poetic unity; the content moves in the opposite direction).
· Stanza 1: makes sense in that l.4 “And what us in store?” is reminiscent of “They Dream only of America” in that it is a mystery: eyes, footprints, vague snow. Yet already, ironically, mystery is dismissed, “Eyes shining without mystery” and the narrative is cast backwards by footprints, again ironical—trail leads forwards cf. “The Hunter” (O’Hara), yet in fact it is a remnant of the pastanza
· Stanza 2: at this point the extremities of the semantic disjunction begin, always ll.b&d, but are always offset by the refrain of ll.a&c. The effect of the repetition makes ll.a&c seem doubly significant (the wave rises up) but the inability to find semantic closure then makes them doubly obscure (then retreats)—this rhythm is that of the Pantoum and his poetics also.
· the “hamlet” could refer to the vague snow, is held in place by “usual”-“obtuse”—almost a contradiction, obtuse refers to vague, usual to the lack of mystery and the pantoum form (usual as in the repetition, obtuse as in the non-sequitors) also the phonic “use” which recurs in
stanza 3: “yes, sirs, connoisseurs”
stanza 4: “why a watchdog is sky”
“short, brittle; there is only one night”
stanza 6: “blunt pretence to safety”
· picking up on Shoptaw point in this early collection on the reliance on “insular lines of high sonic resonance” (19).
· Stanza 3: “legless” is joke relating to footprints and thus the prosody itself, also the prosody of “regrets” and “amplifications” again another mini-summary of Ash, poetics, “oblivion” could refer to being lost in snow.
· Stanza 4: l.4, the 1st complex line that interrupts the flow via a caesura after “short, brittle;”—also emphasises the winter setting “there us only one night” confounds the cyclical nature of the pantoum itself which must always have 2 nights.
· Stanza 5: the “count” setting fits in with the king and the watchdog (cf. “Christabel”), the “silver storm” = the snow storm. Could also refer to the courtly love origin of the pantoum form and could be an encrypted homotextual ref. to death of romantic love perhaps that is why the watchdog is shy?
· Stanza 6: l.a calls attention to the way repeated lines are reconfigured by punctuation, line a (b) is a second qualification of the “why” relating semantically to the short days, thus is of a secondary amplification, here it is primary by way of an exclamation of discovery, breathing life back into used lines. Other ways of doing this: question marks, commas, full stops, enjambment.
· “blunt pretence to safety”, repetition of the palatal “t’s” adds a kind of weak cynicism; the pretence of phonemic “safety” also refers to the “blanket” and watchdog.
· “For they must have motion” contrasted to “safety”, safety = stasis, frozen, trapped in a snow storm. Very static poem for Ash.
· Stanza 7: thus conclusion is tension, between safety and motion which is the return to stanza 1, movement back 100%, but also closes the process thus = no motion.
“Grand Abacus”, 32-33
· title refers both to counting and an encrypted ABC or alphabet, also the sonic repetition of the “a” and encrypted -and -b(e)cus, leaving gr- ab-. Thus “abacus” is numbers, feet, letters, phonemes, and logical statements e.g. poem.
· the poem illustrates this in a manner not dissimilar to the pantoum that is repetition of key phrases whilst new phrases are brought in thus we have a basic narrative:
-valley (horizontals-topography): vs. meadows (river, day, comet)
-head: decapitation of reason slowly humiliated attaining unity in tears
-meadow: breadth, neutral space, rural settings
-people (we, one): typical Ash. we, mocking and ditsy
-the stick (dog): stick hides in noise (phonetic) hidden in (pattering?)
-wet/dry: summer, dusty, the sea, raindrops, the river
-children/the birds: the same thing?
· the poem does not add up in a 1=1=2 sense of Kantian unity and beauty, but in a 1+1+1....=¥ sense of the sublime. The elements of the story interact, formal association achieving unity mainly in the eyes = eyes = the head, the rain (wet) which causes a flood in the meadow (horizontals + meadow), in the pattering—stick is hidden as they patter, like the dog (chases a stick), the children then, their story, brackets the unity of water here and “Who knew at the beginning of the day?” could be the poem’s end point.
· conclusion: comet picks up symbols of doom and eschatology. The one word which does not fit, add up = “bridle” = restraint, this could be a joke that is in the ultimate addition one should also add in that which does not add up re. “the others” who are encrypted.
· the birds are new but = birds on a wire and the flight of the comet, and they become the children via “they say” (who is this they?) thus when children vanish they are as birds and the others, unseen confounding earlier unity of the gaze-eyes.
· movement from the restraint of pantoum, (bridle?) to the freedom of association of TCO. The refrain is still there, still the limited lexicon later used in restricted units in much larger poems such as “The Wave”.
· trope of abacus of poetic language vital here.
“The Mythological Poet”, 34-36
· Shoptaw notes how the poem is slowly relegated and then omitted from the canon (Turandot 1st poem, ST (p.34), SP omitted):
“But its enjambed, prosaic, measured music (“The music brought us what it seemed/We had long desired”) lasted in Ashbery’s poetry after the sonic and linear introversion of “Two Scenes”—written more that two years later—had been largely abandoned.” (25).
· notes it is orphic (cf. “Syringa”)—aesthetic and homosexual, in that it divides attention between music and musician—the Coleridgean original title “The Shadow of the Dome of Pleasure”, stresses the aesthetic and ref. to Korean war.
· sees it thus as an allegory of aestheticism and homoeroticism joined in the figure of the virgin-child + experienced-pervert!, however the sexual predation is reduced to mere gesture.
· Stanza 1: the virgin attacks the experienced, stanza 2, the experienced becomes the pervert and the child abused, conclusion is a pleasure dome, but of subtlety, a “world-weary aestheticised union” (26).
· similar to “Grand Abacus”, narrative of accumulations of non-sequitors joined by repetition of certain key phrases e.g.: servant, reading (library), patience, height, wall, tree.
· telling some narrative of words—women—tree—birds
· ironic title as the poem is lyrical, elegant and simple, a return to the meadow of “Grand Abacus” but with the phrasal end-stops of “Pantoum” and “Sonnet”.
· stanza 1: l.1, is ironic as it is a return to “Grand Abacus”, perhaps messier aesthetic redolent of a kind of chaos. l.4, suggests ll.1-3 are spoken by the sleeping river to the awake land—land vs. water being a key opposition here.
· stanza 2: the wires of “Abacus” now become wires of communication. Note the rhythm of the lines here, not enjambed prose but the articulation of PL.
· “blue mirror” = pools referring to the sky, colours here are white, blue, black (air, water, land) all very elemental. The pools symbolise reflexivity = cause for anxiety to which the air might be “armour enough”, at this point “light emerges” and the pool is swum in, symbol of interpenetration?
· light penetrates blue air, swimmer the pool?
· Stanza 3: as light emerges it is “at last” (in fact suddenly “twilight”, bringing chaos via darkness, loss of armour, silent death and black beaches (where the river runs into oblivion).
· “that” X2 suggests a final causality—”black postcard”, land “urging the well”, not upheld of course except as a gesture then in passage of synaesthesia similar to that of rain passage in “Abacus”—white becomes ordered, river the flow beneath our dreams and the land flows thus all succumbs to an order of flux-sleep-dream-flow-grooves.
· irony then that the poem is not chaotic but follows an order of limited lexicon ending in a synthesis of 2 motions: flow-directed.
“The Orioles”, 40-41
· return of the birds of “Abacus”, flying back.
· very simple poem—basically symbolic in 1950’s academic sense. Birds represent song, music and summer and their rhythm is contrasted to “you’s” stasis in the house thus poet/you/us must wait for the birds/music, light, poetry, summer) to happen to us:
· Shop: “Short poems mime the brevity not only of life but of writing: “How long will the poem last?” and “How long will it be remembered?” are related questions.” (16). cf. “As One put Drunk into a Packet Boat” and new spring = new life in poetry.
“The Young Son”, 42
· sect.1: early prose preparation for TP, 1st section a series of playful sentences on transcendental vs. good fortune (the absolute vs. the arbitrary) via negations, reversals and repetitions.
· tension between purpose, conclusion, the road; and inconclusiveness, purposelessness and the event.
· sect.2: “yet”, qualification of the above issues merely extends and complicates the issues:
-sudden events: “a wonder would shoot up”
-self-reference: 2 mirrors, corners, menacing own shape, shadows, subject intent on own heart
-flux: jostling, bustling forest
-rationality: minutes arranged, lettermen, administration, compulsory
-process: literally one by one, vs. meaninglessness (“in the hushed, fast darkening room”)
· would be good to read this as opposed to “The Mythological Poet” as 2 contrasting allegories of writing.
· Shoptaw relates it to TP, via a “generically self-conscious tone” (27) and sees the paragraph indented playfulness re. Max Jacob but:
“the sardonic, putrid reversal of “smiling Fortune”, the encrypted sexual repression (“wakened desires”), the versifying comma breaks, and world-weary fleurs all reveal Baudelaire’s and Rimbaud’s prior footsteps on these paths...” (128).
“The Thinnest Shadow”, 43
· Shoptaw sees the influence of Laura Riding’s nursery rhyme poetry, also homotextual in ref. “The Grapevine”.
· sees this as typifying fear of sexual repression and how this affects his subjectivity—subtlety becomes a means of survival, but also self-negation and repression.
· during this period, Dec. 1950-Dec. 1951, Ash. had writer’s block.
· good poem to use with O’Hara and the subject, the homotextual and multiple “I”.
· Shop: “Almost all endwords, the surreal dead-pan “Canzone” leaves hardly any room for deviation into sense...We make out only some fractured story of children (“chill”) exiled for brazen acts” (19)
· canzone = abaacaaddaee but note how that pans out in diagram form:
· the relation between the end-words and the precursive words must be regulated in three ways:
1. semantic coherence
3. possible or open-ended coherence
· yet at no point is there such a thing as a non-sequitor because the canzone form coupled with the semantic/associative action of the poetic machine means that whilst semantic fullness is resisted, so too is nonsense. Nor do we have exactly suspension between the two, but rather a busy process of interaction between the three levels noted above, generally moving always upwards to total coherence, but never arriving there.
· there must also be some residual dropping away from level one down for, the more one tries to cohere the end words into semantic fullness, the more the overall fullness is strained by the over-significant end words:
chill: children, coldness, illness, relax, sonic (lot of semantic possibilities)
clay: dripping clay, human clay, land, sinking, (always the same noun, but very malleable)
can: verb, watering can, tin can, ability (song of can) (semantic duality, verb-noun)
grows: grass, shadow, sadness (most semantically stable)
grass: grass, (most non-sequitorial of all)
· re: “Poem” and note that here the process of precursive words is truncated to an even greater degree so that the interaction between keywords and end words is almost removed and keywords seem really as precursors or mere excuses for the rhyme form.
· other nodal points are not merely resisted, but here they are almost completely negated so that if one tries to read against the endwords one ends up truly almost with nonsense.
· yet there is narrative: Billy moves from a cold rural setting into summer, then, through shadow and sadness, into a kind of edge of town dockland setting, here “can” becomes more a noun than a verb. This dock setting inevitably becomes clay as “clay” comes to be the dominant end word and then there is some tension between clay and the grass struggling through it. There is also a lexical gathering around time and travel.
· obviously, the dominant endword of each stanza will affect the nature of that stanza so that the final stanza produces a kind of lyrical, imagist poem: the chill (of time and shadow) flows (imp. word in this collection) over burning grass (symbol of destruction, rebirth). Not time, time of no time, is growing so that the odd lights, again similar to the “lit truths” of “The Young Son”, can fall on the collapsing base of clay (loss of foundation, the flowing land of “Chaos”. This not time is the between of Ashbery belatedness that we will later encounter.
Shop’s point that sense is resisted, plus his interpretation of crypt words (unless he has information here he does not provide, shows him to be wrong in both senses. Chill is literally what it is and it seems not an exile but a journey through fairly typical rural-suburban Ashbery territory, and sense is not resisted but strengthened in the way in which the system of the structure of versification, can provide sense out of anything, yet at the same time it is the formal strictures of the canzone form that push the endwords into empty signification, via over significance, and negates the otherwise vital role of precursive words.
· Shoptaw sees errors as a Proustian narrative, relating to jealous lovers. Calls it epistolary and notes how this heightens narrative whilst defusing the drama of narration as there is no narrative “accountability”. However, sees this world as more “true” than that of say “Some Trees”.
· the poem is basically a sexual narrative of infidelity set in neutral urban setting. It’s versification relying on short, elliptical statements but cohesion in general is not hard to glean, that is the atmosphere of the piece.
· we can guess the rest, but based on experiential rather than linguistic models.
· of interest perhaps it pronominal shifting, particularly carefree yet refined here.
· Shoptaw places this with “Le livre est sur le table” as example of two part poems in the collection.
“The two sections or chapters of “Illustration” are related as stimulus and response, scene and aftermath, and, most importantly, illustrative narrative and moral.” (33). Tells the story of a novice’s suicide and notes Stevens’ influence in the wit and poise of the atmosphere.
· Shoptaw goes on to see the novice as symbolic of the poem which outlives its interpretations therefore it is another allegory of writing/reading. Sees it merely as illustrative of Wimsatt’s intentional fallacy when could go much further into Derrida and the re-mark.
· Shoptaw notes contemporary. suicide of one of Ash’s teachers, links the name “Matthiessen” with “moth”., who was gay.
““Illustration” concerns the way poems survive by outdistancing the subjects (and authors) they commemorate.” (36).
· of interest to me only in as much as it tells of the importance of the memorial, but whilst it tells of this, it does not demonstrate it. Shoptaw favours all these rather obvious allegorical narratives of homotextuality, over actual textuality, just as his crypt words are really just associative puns.
“Some Trees”, 51
· as Ashbery dismisses this as having a paraphrasal meaning relating to love and reticence and the importance of lack of full explanation for sexual/personal relations, again Shoptaw reads its meaning in full.
· useful only in its blatant description of the importance, textually and homotextually of reticence which is of course not a standard poetic value.
· the story is thus: these, (Baudelaire’s trees/symbols of “Correspondences”) are joined suggesting “speech” to be pre-organised, (a still performance). The element of chance that the lovers are involved in, is in fact organised by the preordained structures of trees, a structure so inculcated in life, that their mere presence is enough to guarantee meaning. The lovers then are invented by the trees, not the other way around. This being the case, it is better to be reticent for the trees will fill in the rest and the accents, poetry, will defend itself. It is an apologia of his method of composition equated also with the homotextual issue of love.
“Hotel Dauphin”, 52-53
· Shoptaw notes this is one of the few urban settings, this being a seedy West Side Hotel in New York as far as Ashbery remembers.
· it relates directly to “Illustration” and “Some Trees”, and in a way combines the themes of the two, in this way it is indicative of these earlier lyrics which seem obtuse but do quite easily render up meaning in a standard elliptical fashion which is not at all surreal.
· thus, the poem, set in an actual Hotel, tells the story of the subject’s fears for itself, when they are carried away by the other (the re-mark of the novice’s death in “Illustration”), and yet also concedes the need for the other to be (cf. “Some Trees”).
· Stanza 1: the subject/poet looks not for his total self-coincidence but a small, picturesque part. The answer to why a hair or a sneeze is answered associatively and phonetically later on as the hair becomes the white hair of the old (opening up colours, the snow, ageing) and the sneeze becomes the “snows”, the noise, blows out candles and finally the breathing of the poem.
· Stanza 2: the dreams which are situated between the subject are always the wrongs dreams, later they becomes alien “other’s dreams”, then banal, “These dreams of tennis”, finally they are fully equated with sleep and death. Fortune here picks up the issue of chance running into a number of pieces, yet immediately it is recast as riches in contrast to “We dare credit?”, credit representing what we owe others. The winter boats are a rare external referent.
· Stanza 3: Noise relies on listening, in other words language relies on others to carry it away from us, so too the poet’s subjectivity, thus we do get lost in other people’s dreams. These two sentences combine the two previous poetic themes: self surviving/existing in others, the objective system of language based subjectivity.
· Stanza 4: vacation recalls carnation (Stanza 1), white hair looks both backwards to hair and snow, and forwards to “old”. The snows resistance to us, its limited self-sufficiency, indicates the external’s resistance to being totally known by subjects who, in any case cannot know themselves, (cf. “Some Trees”, “That there merely being there/means something...”).
· Stanza 5: picks up a number of motifs, colour, age, season, money.
· Stanza 6: “name-calling and blood-letting” could be childhood, or merely the act of naming the other and thus creating/killing them, this is the exasperation of death after all, the “I” is always alone with the other and the passing of the “you” kills us, (candles blown out).
· Stanza 7: thus the poem is about the mortality of being, but not traditionally in terms of death, but the way getting to be yourself through contact with the other (lover) also pre-empts your death in the re-mark. This is the panic under the grave, that we might be renewed in such banal settings, our fortune (repetition), or that on the other hand we might never leave at all into the realm of the other. Either way we die.
“The Painter”, 54-55
· Shoptaw sees it as another “elliptical self-portrait, “The Painter takes up the poetics of formal perfection.” (28). Earliest poem in the collection. As in “Some Trees”, consists of enjambed Tetrameters, keeping up effortless syntax and a colourless vocabulary. Does not capitalises so much on the surrealist potential of the form as later examples (“A Pastoral” ST, and “Faust” TCO). Sees source in Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto”, also a model for SPCM, which contrasts formal perfection (sestina) with the sublime (in this case the ocean). Sees it as a mock-heroic examination of the artist’s absorption in his work, possibly relating to AbEx.
· Fairly straight forward narrative relating double subject of creation: the subject and the poet’s subject, but also a mock poem on how paintings get done which might be a nice contrast to O’Hara “Why I am not a Painter”, and Koch “The Artist”.
things to note: the way he wants the sea to put itself on the canvas (automatism), the prayer, need for nature over art, painting processes (the brush), sestina form here in direct contrast to other usage, here is actually aids the narrative and keeps it semantically cohesive, end words may be banal, but they contain all the themes.
“And You Know”, 56-59
· Shoptaw notes that of the three kinds of basic narrative in the poem:
1. narrative collage (cf. “A Long Novel”)
2. hybrid of narrative and commentary (“Le Livre est sur le Table”)
3. focus on narrator rather than narrative, generic narration (“Instruction Manual”)
· the third kind (this kind), tend to deal with a pure narration without commentary or symbolic heightening.
· the poem is just a fanciful, so-called surreal narrative of the kind found in abundance in Koch, and never in Schuyler nor O’Hara, and in this way “The Instruction Manual” is a better example.
· what is of interest is the use of names, first in naming what hangs above the school at night, moving from the realistic to the fanciful and artificial, but secondly, and more interestingly, the flattening taxonomy of places. This refers to later poems like “Into the Dusk Charged Air” (RM), and aspects of VN, where a flat taxonomy is introduced.
· Here, the poet notes, “It is too late to go to the places with names (what were they, anyway? just names)”. This attitude is changed later on when just names becomes more than enough.
· repetition of the same word both relates to Gertrude Stein’s poetics, as well as a simple surrealistic means by which to make strange language see “Free Union” (Breton, Earthlight 83-5). It is also a favoured technique of Koch’s and shows another point of influence.
· also has much in common with other experiments with endwords, here however it is the precursive word which is repeated, thus moving the musical emphasis from the end to the beginning.
· whilst the definition of “He”, somehow implying the poet, seems to be based on nonsense and non-sequitors, it is worth comparing this way of defining someone with, say, Lowell’s “Father’s Room”. In the latter poem every irrelevant detail is included, made relevant by the topos of the room, showing the poet desperately looking for his father in the remnants he has left behind. Here, we know so much that is also irrelevant, seemingly, but it is all “He”, so this alone makes it important.
· thus we do have a picture of this “He”. Educated, urban, upper middle class, gay (Vaseline), past his best, vain, thick lipped, kind to his mother, has a press agent. But we also have a second picture of “He”: he cuts down lakes, he is the White Cliffs of Dover, snorts in the vale of dim wolves, waltzes tragically, is obscure, reared savages, etc.
· add into this the two other “He’s”, of his letter, He on an island, He on He, as well as He on his card. Both these He’s could be him or another He, but for the citation the narrative of both He’s matches that of the central He, suggesting the difference is merely that of punctuation, a textual differentiation.
· thus, He is different speech acts, some are basic and descriptive, some are his opinions, some are clichés or examples of ordinary speech, some are surreal, some are of a high register. He is defined by the poet, by himself, by his relation to others.
· in each case He is the meeting of a linguistic predicament and the precursive word of “He” or subject, all contained in the duality of the word “He”, which both comes as a pronominal definition of being, and is then confounded by the infinite means by which is can be used, just as a word.
“Meditations on a Parrot”, 63
· ref. to Flaubert, almost a sonnet but the sudden enjambment of line fourteen prevents this, perhaps it is a crypt sonnet.
· possibly one of the more extreme collage pieces, it must be read in several ways all at the same time and will be also because of the way we exist in the language, Ash is assuming:
1. read straight through it is nonsense with some cohesion from association, linguistic structures, poetic-semantic expectations etc.
2. read only for its linguistic performatives e.g. Stanza 1.: is about rhetorical exclamations + conjoined simple nouns, Stanza 2-3: are about pronominal usage in conjunction with citations and Stanza 5, is about the conflict between use of punctuation, citations, parenthesis, dashes and exclamation marks, and the failure to produce sense.
3. read poetically-associatively, only works to a degree, again in Stanza 1 the simple nouns, some of them can interrelate: rocks-oasis (topographical), rocks-roses (phonetically), thimble-jacket (sewing), oasis-roses (edenic garden) etc.
4. read surrealistically-associatively, just for the joy of the strangeness of combinations.
· because it cannot succumb to any one level, it first draws attention to the process of reading, then to the way language is always doubly determined by the strictness of its rules, even stricter in poetry, and by the infinity of associations. Good example of the 0-2 process of poetic language vs. the 0-1 process of standard grammatical practice, producing a 0-2 reader vs. a standard hermeneutical reader.
“A Long Novel”, 64-65
· Shoptaw relates it to narrative form #1, collage, and talks about it as a precursor to TCO, but still discursively legible like “Popular Songs”.
· yet this is not a collage in that it is not built up of random units but is actually constructed of a limited number of units (2), reconfigured:
· these elements are what might be called crypt words except they are not really hidden:
-becoming: imperative Become, been, who he is and who she is
-crimes: possibly relating to love (myrtle), also air and breath, his heavy words
-hands: her hands, metonym for touch, she is reduced to touch
-air-breath: relating back to previous poems, air and breath become synonymous with poetry, and also the space between the subject and the beloved, here it is laughter, inhalation, spittle, foul air, words
-winter: standard settings here (ST) are winter and summer
-doublings: various linguistic doublings, him/her, paradox (ended before it began), repetitions (sorrow/snow; dropping/dropping; Milady/Mimosa; Waking and Waking)
· thus, if it is a collage, it is a collage made up of two sections really, those relating to him (crimes-air) and those relating to her (hands-touch), and the metonymic relations that pan out over metaphoric articulation via the sentence based versification in contrast to the endstopping.
· again, the poem as a whole is in couplet form, in contradistinction to its generic status, suggesting much is missed out in between each stanza.
· finally, it is in itself two parts, though not equal, a feature of ST in any case as Shoptaw notes. Here we have the winter of crimes, and then the humorous landscape of gold hair, as well as movement from air/breath to hair/music. The clue here is landscape “written by music” i.e. poetic language, this is a basic definition of these poems as a whole, in the eyes of love.
“The Way They Took”, 66-67
· Shoptaw notes it as “epistolary”, not sure why, re. “Errors”.
· possibly there are other, better, examples of this, the way the narrative is built up of the tension between cohesive and non-cohesive elements mainly relying on:
· these stand out then as the three modes of creating poetic language which Ash., in abusing also reveals, that is the way the poem makes cohesion and the way the sentence does, the power of association-disassociation relating always to the structural and connotative network, and finally how poetry is essential the tension between anaphora and what follows (repetition and event).
· what is specifically of interest here is that it moves into the demotic Ash. world of suburban pleasures of leisure, lunching, lyricism, homosexuality, “tinkling sadness”, pronominal-spatial-temporal shifters etc.
· octet and sextet (what kind of sonnet is that?), does have a rhyme scheme:
· up to last three lines it is a fairly sustained narrative of having a shave in the city, then the final three lines, which also break the rhyme scheme, are taken from completely different lexicons, suggesting a symbolic reading to make them cohere such as the canoe and the impending storm relating to the threat of the razor. The addressing the prince however remains permanently obtuse unless it relates to “the wrong way” and thus backing up from the waterfall.
· further, the storm picks up the waistcoat and, I guess inevitably, the sky so perhaps the poem is about the reconciliation of the final three lines which do not rhyme in, with other types of associative equivalencies, poetry being the search for equivalencies. This would add significance to the backing up as one must back up and re-read the poem as one moves towards closure, the waterfall, so as to guess “the reason for the storm”.
· this would make it another allegory of reading.
“The Pied Piper”, 69
· Shoptaw notes the return of the pervert in “The Mythological Poet” here in “his love was strongest/Who never loved them at all”.
· Shoptaw reading makes the text seem more overtly homotextual and generally sexually based.
· Stanza 1: the “half-eaten” child which is also the crust (surface? Hansel and Gretel?), is contrasted with the sinister elders touching in the dark. Then we have the host, with one bed and whose hand is like an axe on her curls (Goldilocks and also Little Red Riding Hood?), inviting her? to sleep with him?.
· Stanza 2: again two part poem, “we two”? Moves fully into the pied piper story with the children revelling under the hill, coupling as the earth’s (crust?) crumbles (bread crumbs). As is the case say in “A Long Novel”, darkness is succeeded by light, and love is seen as an aspect of reticence again in relation to accents “Some Trees”, this time “notes”.
· the conclusion conflates his unloving notes, laughing, with the loss of the children in Pied Piper, laughing picking up revels, the sense of loss = acerb. Possibly we have in stanza 1, the before or perhaps the village devoid of children except the half-eaten one, for in stanza 2, we definitely have the after. Does actually retell the Pied Piper story, relating to Laura Riding’s nursery rhyme influence, and also themes of childhood, hidden sexuality, the complex relation of this to the issue of the beloved.
· all ties up with a reassessment of genre seen in “Popular Songs”, “The Picture of Little J.A. in a prospect of flowers”, “A Long Novel”.
“Answering a Question in the Mountains”, 70-71
· sustaining the internal tensions to the end this poem picks up a number of themes from previous poems in ST: the birds, height, sentries, hands, snow, laughter, light.
· also echoes the epigrammatic or aphoristic style which is perhaps what Shoptaw means by “epistolary”? I haven’t said much about this yet but it may warrant some further attention. It is a means of narrative whereby the sentence, the phrase and the stanza are vying for control with the phrase always intelligible, but often not within the confines of the sentence, and the sentence able to be held intelligible, using post-hermeneutic reading techniques, but not all of the sentences together. It suggests a narrative style based on ellipses and surreal juxtaposition.
· thematically, the poem moves much more into the realm of his later poems: a desire to know everything, the vagaries of his belated time zone, yet still caught up in a basically elegiac tone of a specific loss of innocence, cf. Section III, which he loses later.
· particularly fine is section II, where repetition, duality and accumulation all mix thus in ll. 1-3, “ascend”, “hearts”, “trees” and “heads” are all repeated in a number of combinations suggesting an inherent potential for significance in every equation of word+word (combination+repetition), this is very indicative of ST, and is later usurped by word repetitions being superseded by extension of word into lexicon, much more akin to his demotic speech.
· this works best in the simple, oral tradition repetitions of the final part of section II. The conflation of knowledge, vision and all time zones in one, summarises the poem as a whole whilst retaining a specificity of creeping time and many light years, the two extremes. This is a surprising moment of grammatical verse, and perhaps because of this, its beauty is heightened.
· section III seems to suggest such poetic clarity of vision belongs to his past, to Auden, Stevens, Keats, Riding, Bishop et.al., and is no longer justified in current climate lets say, McCarthyism and the 50’s. The host refers us back to the fairy tale world of “Pied Piper” and the loss of childish innocence. Seems a precursor to the fragmented poetry of exile to follow.
“A Pastoral”, 72-73
· Shoptaw notes critics have traced the blandness of diction in these sestinas to Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South.
· see previous stuff on “The Painter” etc. for effect of endwords. Suggest a return to Formalism and take up Brian’s “debunking”, to deal in this collection with the issue of endwords.
· increasingly I get the sense almost of the alliterative tradition of say “The Seafarer”, where each line is divided and linked sonically, which also relates to the antithetical couplet. In the tension between the precursive and the endword, this is basically what you get.
· perhaps bring in Mathews here, as well as Koch.
· not that surreal, is a narrative of the showboat akin to Koch’s “The Circus” V1, a green luscious setting like “The Young Son”. Contains at least one important aphorism: “Truly the lesson of the deep south/Is how to avoid lingering beyond melodies”, which seems to justify the more melocentric bias of this early verse, and of the sestina form. Basic thematic tension is between melody and handsome, sound and vision?
“Le Livre est sur le Table”, 74-75
· Shoptaw notes, “neatly divided into two numbered lessons of four Stevensian tercets each, from which all indications of narrative subject seem to have faded.” (32). Style more akin to the “Harvard” poems (“Some Trees”, “The Painter”) than later “New York” poems. Ash, concedes he was half imitative of Stevens here.
· Shoptaw in earlier version the woman of Section II is Electra, giving meaning to the “dismal scene”.
· concludes on a basic articulation which will be my theme of the whole of ST, the shift from 0-1 of representative and grammatical language, to the 0-2 of paragrammatic language.
· Section I, Stanza 1 then is basically a summary of the poetic position of the poet, that all beauty comes from “deprivation or logic/Of strange position”. This is the juxtaposition of his dualist poetics here and thus prevents us from knowing, allowing us to know. Very Steven’s and “The Blue Guitar”.
· Section II. Thus here we have, in the birdhouse-sea juxtaposition, a small example of how this works: “collisions, communications”.
· the two questions at the end relate to the woman of knowing and the bird-sea of poetic “knowing”, neither of which are conclusive nor can they work alone.
· another generic usage, here the French Primer, picking up the Dick and Dora section of TCO.
· between this and “Two Scenes”, we have the articulated space of how the poet is feeling, through traditional generic forms, how an avant-garde poetics can work, as a poetics and not merely as a design for life. His confrontation of ancient rhyme schemes with modern avant-garde techniques is a brave attempt to reconcile the 0-2 proposition of retaining text not at the expense of the mark, but through its process. This is inherited from Mallarmé of course.