John Ashbery, Three Poems
(New York: Ecco Press, 1989)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1972)
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)
· Shoptaw notes that in a 1981 interview Ash. had decided that DDS had gotten too tight and TP decided that “the poetic form would be dissolved, in solution”. This solution, prose, has been more influential than SPCM and in its wake numerous poets especially language poets began calling their prose poetry.
· Shoptaw says begins with a history of development of the issues of inclusion and exclusion and the confusion of the argument, putting prose before poetry, not filling in the third option, should be seen as the beginning of a process of a task to be filled in later. Shoptaw calls this “all over “ writing.
· Notes the “all over” writing actually leaves out a great deal still: no more narrative particulars (names, places, dates), or concrete details. Dominant discourses are the love letter or talk, written or oral history, the sermon, the spiritual meditation. But even if it is left out, Ashbery would argue, it is all still there latent. [Basic structuralist poetics).
· aimed not to copy French prose poetry models which he says in an earlier interview as being too self-consciously poetic and rhetorical in tone, Shoptaw notes in a manner similar to the earlier “The Young Son”. Shoptaw however sees many parallels, especially in the generic doubleness of some of Baudelaire’s work which matches Ashbery’s “bifocal perspective”.
· When asked about influences Ashbery cited de Chirico’s Hebdomeros (1929) and Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” (1944). Particularly admires Auden’s mixing of discourse and use of colloquial speech. In keeping with Ashbery’s own professed aim to “democratize” language. Though there are differences in discourse types thus “The New Spirit” is private and romantic discourse, “The System” public discourse and “The Recital” pragmatic and personal writing.
· “But each of the three poems sacrifices its distinct “lyric voice” to the press of idioms, styles and discourses.” (133)
· photocopy pp 133-134 as an example of Ashbery parody plus development.
· the demotic speech means that the various discourses do not cancel each other out but rather they “mount up” [accumulate], presenting a new truth filtered through everybody’s stock phrase.
· whilst structure is elided by the form and style, a dialectic is apparent. Two fifty page poems and a ten page “resumption”. Each poem differs minimally and significantly in format. “The New Spirit” is prose blocks and indented verse, “The System” prose blocks, “The Recital” of regularly indented paragraphs.
· After discussing the problematic choice f a poetic way, “The New Spirit” turns to a particular reader, a lover, on the history of their affair and his reintroduction into the world. Towards the end these reflections become a character called the Ram or he, and this character takes the pulpit in “The System”, delivering a religious history of the sixties, and then a sermon on living one’s knowable destiny. The first phrase of “The Recital”, “All right”, should be read as a contraction of all is right which readmits the synthesising all.
· It becomes impossible in the poem to separate private and public voices but the old is not only old poetry in general but also old Ashbery poetry which practically ignored non-literary discourse.
· the triads which organise the poem include: new, old and renewed; private, public, and privatised discourse; romantic, religious, and humanitarian love; potential, actual (kinetic), and pragmatic action; forgetting (present), memory (past), and absorption.
· Shoptaw favours musical analogy to describe the dynamic of the poem, adopting the phrase “moving climate” from Ashbery himself.
“The New Spirit”, 3-51
· This new spirit is borne out of a process of selection, an ironic use of l’espirit nouveau, a term for a group of surrealists including Apollinaire, the 1913 Armory show also used this as its slogan and Ashbery acknowledged that its use was slightly ironic as there was always some new spirit in the air.
“The new, realistic spirit in Ashbery’s air involves living in the world within your means toward your own ends, even though they cannot be known.” (137).
· This economy is epitomised by the baseball phrase “striking out”, (10), and means cancelling a portion of the text, losing in love and beginning a journey (8-9). Using the self-help manual in this particular discursive block.
· Notes the predominance of the pro- aspect of prose, suggesting the poem is a vector or impulse:
“The dialectic logic of the consolation goes roughly like this: the new spirit, while admitting that it “can’t have everything,” asserts itself by renouncing some (misrepresentative) things...in order to have “chosen” what is left. Rhetorically, this mountaintop point, enlarging the hour-glass sands of Dantesque middle age..., is “Nevertheless” cause for exhilaration. That is, selection becomes election...” (138).
· sees the occasional versification in this section as rather the prosaic life measured out in smaller doses, [morsels], falling short of the power of the prose and therefore emphasising its necessity.
· notes the ethical issue of the pronominal use/abuse in the work, suggesting the use of “I” is always an ethical raising of the problem as to how the “I” can live without the “you” or significant other. The question being ethical/aesthetical...can I be used in the poem without you. He goes into a convoluted analysis of the relationship between “I” and you as being a thing in itself, really he should be talking about desire.
· by the end of the section the third person is personified by the narrative pronoun “he”, born in April, thus he is Aries, the Ram, foretold by Tarot signs à la The Wasteland. As this he surfaces the poem becomes increasingly a bildungsroman as the Ram rises up from his bed and takes the “universal crisis” on his shoulder, thought this saviour is at first unequal to the task but begins penultimate prose block by striking up a mountain. Final image is a modified tower of Babel which recalls the tower in “Lacustrine...” and Ashbery’s decision to turn his back on it is best to be read as a radical detachment from the system which enables him to misrepresent a homosexual counterculture.
· the archer, and alternative sign to the ram, represents a new journey to be undertaken, a new poem to balance the private world of “The New Spirit”, the use of constellations suggesting a certain pre-destiny perhaps.
· p.3: note the example of leaving out also involves an inversion in that it should be “The flowers were clean washed (by) the sea”, so that whilst there is an omission, (by) and an articulating gap, there is also an addition or rather at least three additions. First the poetic effect of inversion, second that of the articulating gap and third the drop line effect. Thus not only do we have the paradox that if we leave it out then as readers we will just fill in the gaps with ourselves, we also have a second agency which is not subjective but related to the system. And it is the combination of the infinite possibilities of the sublime subject of desire, fully described in previous work, especially RM and DDS, with the limited dictates of the system which define the paragrammatic. The overall structure of the piece could be seen to be indicative of this. The new spirit is the infinite potentiality of being in language, the system the moments of the decollation of this infinity and the recital the reprieve or repetition which is at the heart of the dynamic interchange of each of these units, combining them into signifying practice, grammatology or whatever...tuche-automaton.
· to just add a little frissance to this, the articulation of the last line is placed not in the gap opened up which would serve to divide all, but is to the right allied with the particulate and ephemeral image of the flowers (were) rather than the image of magnitude and permanent flux of the sea. This topography is both confounding and in keeping with the nature of how truth divides, which is by having “passed on” into the future anterior tense that typifies the Ashbery archival moment.
· p.4. the median position of the first paragraph, between dreams and consciousness, predicating the mountain of the final part of this section, becomes equated immediately with the beloved, the “you”. This median position is, of course, not one of resting or fence-sitting, but of the poise of both advancing and occupying the present tense which is the nature of the archival moment. The baseball imagery is indicative as Shoptaw notes of the act of striking out text, of losing love etc., of the process of leaving all in and still not being able to avoid leaving things out which the first page is the opposite to in that it shows that in leaving it all out you always must leave something of poetry in. The interaction between a deconstructed total presence, which Derrida has done, and a deconstructed total absence, which is the elegiac, produces the synthesis which is the ongoing motility of which the poem is the material result if you will: descriptive of, product of and indicative of the process.
· “And nothing be undone”, the possibility of omission here is in accord which the law of equivalence but a syntactic based equivalence...and nothing can, will, should, could...? Yet it could also make logical sense...and nothing...be undone as an imperative. The interaction both options is the process of this new prose poetry which both utilises the power of the absence and also tries to negate it by inclusiveness.
· the introduction of mediation as law is in keeping with the darker figure of authority always present in each collection whether it be the secret fear of homosexuality, the threat of the state in general, the name of the father, some unspecified authority (later to make an appearance here as the tower), or in this case death/oblivion. The importance of the mass cannot be stressed in his work, always in contradistinction to the morsel. The mass is not the people from which the poet is distinct, but the world of the other/others/object/future/past, in other words that of the “climate”, which defines and confounds our subjectivity. Just as here, we break through into the meaning of the mass, death, only to find the act is proposed in some future moment. This is the perfect image of the interaction between the sublime, the magnitude of the mass, and the picturesque, the vertige of the always in the future next act or moment.
· p.5: Shoptaw notes here first the effect of the suspenseful pause and then the specifics of the use of it through which we negotiate of relation in language to objects. He notes how few “things” there are in the poem thus making these objects here somehow exemplary. The interaction between it, both a vague anaphoric reference and a specific address to the “it”, raises the issue here of the sublime subject in relation to the objects of the world. This objective world is that of a gap, the irony being pronounced in that the world of substance is an organic non-substance...the gap of the poem but also the linguistic gap of the universal “it” of referentiality which structurally, as Derrida notes, is not a point of intersection of indices, but is rather a hole. The total absence/presence of all its others. The development of the Whitmanic breath is again ongoing but here is more specified and developed, no longer and intertextual anaphoric motif, it now enters into the realm of discourse. You are your breath both as it is inside of you (intentionally fallacy) and as it goes out to others (iterability), but the wording adds a sophistication to this common-place in that from the outset you is an other which you take into yourself therefore it comes from the presupposition of otherness of the self which Derrida should also have assumed knowing all he does about desire.
· Shoptaw notes the terminology of borders, “taken in”, but could also be one of being fooled, and of making clothes smaller. A brilliant image of conflation that demonstrates the startling connotative power of demotic or here colloquial speech which is also a relatively free speech in that “taken in” as an image is not overburdened with a history of literary/symbolic associations.
· “it needs pronouncing” also raises a further, profoundly obscure point that is more contained within the system of the language than any demonstrated intention, that of an object of enunciation. Just as the subject perceives of itself as a kind of self-regarding “I”, which is not the same in Lacan for example, so here we have in language at least the possibility of the “it” perceiving of itself not as object but as subject. Thus “it” needs to be pronounced in such a way so that just as the “I” conceives of itself as other, so it also perceives of all otherness in terms of itself which is Dalí’s paranoid criticism. The image of breathing here seems to develop this idea as does the rest of the paragraph which requires that we not only see ourselves as the enunciative subject, but also that we see it in terms of the enunciative object: “We [subject-other] see [the gaze] this moment [subjectivised objective existence] from the outside [enunciatively] as within [object of enunciation].” The motif of the objects displayed on the wall suggests their import as specific objects, yet their nature confounds this as they seem to be irrelevant to the poem as a whole. What is significant is that they are a set, and perhaps the stressing of the import of specificity is like and ironic challenge to the readers as if to say, well fill in that gap if you can.
· Shoptaw notes that “its funny” relates to the making strange/making familiar interaction of defamiliarization (Shklovsky). It is actually a really nice point but he doesn’t follow it through. That enunciation is both the defamiliarization of objects by the poetic process of language, but also the familiarisation by the taming of potential into the limited system of language. Thus Shoptaw is right, “funny” is a significant word as it is between the familiar and the totally alien, a bit like “weird”. The last sentence of this paragraph seems to directly express the enunciative object which he differentiates from memory which is important.
· final paragraph is a summary of Ashberyian issues: the archival moment, the inside/outside, the image of rising up which is the vertical side to the horizontal of the poem. However, the image of the pilgrimage is a kind of advancement though in “Fragment”, the sublime image of parallel lines which also meet. This recurs later in this section also. The point where the river pours into the sea is self-explanatory and the recurrence of both motifs is worth noting. However, here it is the river which is important and the poet re-approaches it in various states throughout.
· p.6: one of a number of ideal pasts, this is a kind of Greek ideal state where doing precedes harvesting which may be of use to the subject except that memory as a force is exhausted and a parody of itself. The balloon image is effective for it ties in with reduction (striking out, taking in) and also with the image of the mask which returns later.
· the conflation of life and landscape here relates generally to the conceit of the climate generally or that of being in a context which defines you but which you also play a part in defining. The broken open words relates to the versification here of leaving out, and also to the breath image. The interaction of the climate is always thus the deconstructive motility between totalities and specifics.
· p.7: the “it” here though not specified is the metaphysical or the new spirit which identifies the irony here in that it is just beginning and yet working again thus is both new and a repetition (tuche-automaton). The terms of its description indicate clearly its sublime nature. The final sentence uses the image of a filter to convey the means by which is subject is defined by the process of desire.
· p.8-9: here the images of totality and particularity interact to form a thesis re: the self as a mask of an identity itself a mask (cf. de Man and prosopopeia). Thus the light of the moon still leaves gaps unlit, and yet it fits perfectly what it has to light whilst daylight which is much more total, seems to lead to fragmentation and “blobs”. Thus limits = completion whilst complete light seems unsatisfactory and unmanageable. The solid blocks of day is a wonderful, and simple, image for it conveys the block of the prose here equating prose with the process of sunlight, massive and complete, but itself only one unit of which there is an infinite number. Thus as in “Fragment”, however all inclusive the poem is, it will only ever be one unit whilst consciousness partakes of the value of magnitude.
· note here these images of “attenuation”. The taking in seems a perfect Ashbery solution to things, rather than a total rejection in the face of magnitude, the poet tries to reduce it by taking it in, or shaving bits off. This section is a brilliant summation of this mode of the process of composition, that thinning is not to a point and that choosing is a selectivity which is, however, not selective. One must thin down and select as process, but not as final product. It is the ongoing aspect that defines this mode of being and writing and loving. This is perfect in the way thinning metonymically refers to the point and to the thinning of air as you ascend.
· the ascension then again metonymically becomes the allegory of the mountain which subsists throughout. The new environment is that of a new kind of pre-ordained arbitrariness (cf. surrealism), time ceasing to be a smooth continuum but much more how it is experienced, as irregular and anomalous. Again images of surrounding.
· p.10: again the image of striking out.
· goes on to consider what it is that occupies the space between us, whether it is self-sufficient stuff (objects) or whether it partakes of what it partitions (enunciative objects). This hymenic relationship is expressed as like leaning out over a ledge in an image reminiscent of Eliot’s men leaning out of windows in shirt sleeves and also Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin is mentioned later and this image is also used somewhere I think in an earlier poem.
· p.11: considers the moral and ethical dimension of this inter-penetrating existence, how it impinges on future generations and how previous generation infected the current moment. Just then as it seems to be entering into mortification and a total withdrawal, he reminds himself that what he is dealing with is merely the alphabet, the limited, with the rest being a dream. The lover then is the other onto which the self holds, is grafted, to conjure up via limited systems, the possibility of conceiving of the infinite within the hymenic realm of the opaque screen which occupies the gap between subjects. The final two sentences is the predicament of sublime being in desire.
· p.12: fairy tale verse re: ST, also uses the drop line again to indicate the paradox of processional stances.
· thus there is a double story quite simply, the object-filled one of the foreground which is thick, substantial but lacking, and the ethereal tale of the background which is thin, metaphysical but total. Final image then reverses this by making the magnanimous also the simple tale of a cottage. See then how the two values, the local and the transcendent permanently vie for control.
· the final paragraph deals with the day to day operation of this dynamic in relation to the lovers which is the particulate means of interaction which is based on a kind of second level sublime of details and gaps, both of which are needed but which both vie for dominance also.
· p.13: this emphasises the articulation he sees at the heart of every development, whilst the phrase “reading without comprehension” emphasises the process element. What follows in images of winding (note the pun on real), and progressing but not progression is the actual experience of sublime being, then confirmed by the continuation of motifs of fragments. The image of the self as a single fragment encapsulates it perfectly. One is granted a picturesque existence, to exists but only as a sense of being in full a part. The self-reflexivity of puzzle to itself presages SPCM, but also refers to Freud’s rebus.
· the colons then set up parallels between the life of the subject through others which is by now well documented if not understood, and the absence of being that is the rendering of being by the special you, the beloved. Shoptaw also notes Ashbery’s highlighting of the performative/enunciative capacity of pronouns.
· he then exploits the symmetrical, topographic potential of the colon in the last paragraph which suggests the “I” : “you” dichotomy could balance out so that we know each other equally and that so there might be no remainder, but the force and mastery that would be required to separate out our bits and make them tally up would require a way of living that was “intermittent”, that is living only one aspect of the process of living so as to gain mastery over that process. But that would be a life only partially lived, thus the sublime excess is not something to be tallied up in life, but is that part of life which is vital which is the living of what cannot be mastered.
· p.14: the predominance of colons here stresses the processional nature of the life being described. Note also the predominance of financial motifs and language. The interaction between the way on which the subject tires to aggregate the other whilst the other is instantaneously equal to everything due to its role as magnitude within desire is telling. Again the image of the river, this time as the paradox of being in flux, in time, of both being and moving on from being.
· the final image is tantalising. An image not designed to be seen, one which is together but does not hang together(again the ledge), a smoke that exists in the bright levels of happening but which is a vertical linearity. Both dying from being breathed and alive form having divested itself of life; a kind of sense of what happens to all that breath of talking and being after the next word comes? The final image of the roll (reel, river) is that of what is left over, which is actually what leaves breath over, which is endlessly productive for the more it fills in, possibly because space is part of the totality, the more space it produces to be filled in. A chiasmatic image of a scroll, endlessly undulating and revolving sending the moment upwards and bringing in a new moment to take its place. Wow!
· p.15: from this metaphysical and sublime image, the poets comes down to earth suggesting it is a conceptual “I”, “I the subject” he is dealing with, and that all that matters really is that a gap can be opened up between us so as to allow us to be defining ourselves all the time by filling it in. This modesty is reflected in the reduction from territory to a flower in territory, this flower later blooms in the desert. The fate of chiasmatic roll is a recoiling and a collapse and fall to earth, whatever the being of the thin in the gap between us, this apparition, the main question is really “does it work”, i.e., is it giving.
· p.16: it is remarkable how subtly he keeps his images going her so the scroll in air becomes a beatific scrap of a declaration, ironically of independence and of love or loss if independence. The second half of the paragraph sets up the sublime of the imaginary and then of the real. Neither need us nor do they fully satisfy us.
· p.17: an alternative to striking out is misfiring, now referring to the striking of a match, but then also to be caught off-base, to be baseless like the baseless fabric of dreams I guess. The rhetorical question about the possibility of being satisfied that things don’t work out is of course that of desire also.
· the debate of the ways (cf. Frost) is a more flabby post-modern relativism.
· p.18: not the to you: becomes the negation of this address as the you withdraws into privacy.
· the use of colons progresses here. The privacy of the you now is shown by the use of a full-stop rather than the futurity of the colon, and now this futurity is given over to objects instead. Predominant images of climate, territory, Baudrillard’s map, the chiasmatic parallels which can join but not touch. Then, the you is addressed for the first time in quasi-traditional terms as a real person with features and aspirations.
· the third person, later “he” and the Ram, begins here. Now that the hand in hand relationship of the colon is fully established, the desire for a third person becomes apparent for a number of reasons: to administrate proceedings, as a third person to whom the now unified double subject, the us if you like, can define itself against, as someone to take over the tasks of living for us as we live out the lazy flux of our love, as someone to confide in, to bring in the other to our love so as to have them with us rather than against us.
· p.19-29: the largest single section comes right after the introduction of the third person which also ties in with its qualifying...”However”, note here that the use of the drop line which up to this point has typified the paradoxical interruption of progress, here actually does follow on but the prose block which follows only serves to emphasise and isolate the single word and verse vs. prose.
· p.20: begins with a remarkable proposition, that this sublime, ethereal self, the “concave” or self-enfolding being, when pulled apart turns out not only to be material but to be made up neatly of components which in particulate nature are far easier to control.
· the state of being here described as erect passivity encapsulates the perfect image in the poem of decollated melancholic energy, details allowed limited freedom of movement, “a sort of house-arrest of the free agent intentionally cut off from the forces of renewal...”.
· p.21: again decollation in the “truncated halves”. These halves are the essence of the picturesque, fragments which could cohere except for the “odd angularity” of their sublime nature/aspiration. The descent of these halves in imagery on this page is breathtaking, from confetti to stars they recall the ongoing import of constellations, the vertical, the Mallarmean distribution, the metaphysical, thus calling up the angel as emissary of the eternal third person or outside agent. Yet life can also be lived easily without this element but eventually it “slops over”, marvellous bathetic description of the vertiginous collapse of the picturesque.
· p.22: again images of thinning and the ledge, the ledge especially a wonderfully obscure and yet understandable image somehow of metaphysical almostness. This is followed by an ironic presentation of traditional narrative, novelistic presentations of character: character, the tale, subconscious desires, pat endings etc.
· p.23: again we turn from the realm of the 3rd person agent, to the lovers. A kind of summary of imagery takes place here whilst the novelistic discourse of sequential events is referred to via the diary, arch prose form of the self. The you now has become like the star.
· p.24: the lovers set off on a total journey: in every direction, in every way, in every rhythm. Interrupted by the brief sentence of the storm, ironically a point of rest. Amazing really, the sense of living together under the gaze of the “triad”, and how this pans out as living in the whole complexity of the archival moment.
· p.25: speech now interrupts, and the narrator turns to the images of the sublime in this case the spiral upwards and a chariot subsequently crashing down, which cosmic narration can be undermined by always at that point returning to the grounded narrative of progression: “the dimension of the exploratory dialogue”. Note the reference to the “art of love”, nice point of conflation with Koch though Ashbery denies it as a possibility.
· p.26: useful reference to the sermon discourse here in rejection of action, the lovers then set about a project of constructing a beauty based on all these precepts. Lovely the way this decollation is described as a prison disguised as a school, it could in its disappointing results suggest a certain generic aspect to much of Ashbery’s poetry.
· p.27: becomes at this very point, attracted to a more visionary and free mode of discourse and so, one presumes, the process begins all over again.
· p.28: here, the discourse of parts organised in significant ways, also the discourse of poetry, is shown not to be essential and if removed, the space left over will be motivated to fill up itself from its spark to a glow. Ironically, this landscape of the post-landscape, a territory of the essential background details, typifies the “new spirit”. Obviously, it is significant that the new spirit is an emptied out space after the details of being in creativity have been removed, that in this sense it is the old stuff which was always “there”, and that this should be appreciated by the suburban parts of the brain which then talks about them in a droning fashion à la Ashbery himself of course.
· the end is elegiac, seeing in what has rushed in to fill the vacuum, hidden remnants of what and who, the lover, was once there even though unlike the rebus and mystic writing pads of Freud referred to before, there is no actual trace. Even the mask of being is masked, and this nostalgia for what once was now explains in full the belatedness and the imminence of the Ashbery tense and topos, as it comes mid-way between loss and a later, impossible commemoration, but is also pot-loss and thus commemorating some other you lost to the moment, and has already acceded to that fate itself.
· p.29: the following paragraph to this ongoing journeying is not necessarily anything which could not be included in the pervious section except that we are now at rest and an increased sense of definition is proposed. But, based on what we now know, these are merely points of rest before the journey sets off again.
· the warpless and woofless subtleties are also those of the poem itself, direction with now vertices, and note the import of the vortice or grid in interaction with the infinite which is the definition of the paragrammatic. The archer now becomes the figure of direction which is also that of love and the Tarot figures which are to crop up later.
· p.30: suggests the in its emergence of a subterranean race, a point of contrast to the ascension metaphors, recalling the occasional grave references, previous paragraph and p.5. These occluded spirits, whose potential is to be included in the “caravan” journey, of forward movement and side to side (cf. Warp/weft and the earlier ship image which would be ketch and yawl), but the possibly solutions they present cannot be approached out of the living through. Here the strike is an attack which further demonstrates the connotative power of colloquialisms.
· this sudden movement then is reconfigured as the leap of an animal but such sudden solutions as striking, button pressing, signs and leaps are built out of a sickness as they contravene the process.
· p.31: apart from the return of the upwards/downwards dynamic, the river returns now as an uncertain movement which branches out to include vortexes, matching the image of rain/steam, and cyclical forces, the rain cycle. Note the synthesis here then of vortex and cycle. Peculiarly modernist actually. End image of mask sets it up as a permanent ongoing motif.
· p.32: at last a recognition of Kant in the philosopher that people set their watches to. This is my way in! The poem is almost an exercise in what happens when Kant and Mallarmé meet up which is pretty radical actually as Mallarmé is always associated more with dialectics than critical philosophy.
· final paragraph offsets the soul, Kant, against the other, Freud, picking up on earlier comments that perhaps the other is just gestures and speech patterns placing style above a prioris which would locate Freud above Kant, and yet the a priori condition of the other also allows Kant back in.
· to add to this he actually now refers to Saussure’s grid of language and suggests a pre-Lacanian sense of memory as a realm where this grid can be escaped from. Memory seems to be the freedom aspect, though in other areas I think it is seen as a point of restriction.
· p.33: the drop into verse is dealt with in the verse subject matter which suggests the heavy articulation of verse is actually a basic simplification of life because it leaves out all the stuff which might distract, and that it is almost enough.
· p.34: a versified version of the issues so far, posited in one of those “and so it came to pass” kind of narratives he is so fond of.
· p.34-36: here he really goes into all the sublime specifics of journeying, the beginning, going just a little distance etc. The sheer variety of motifs of movement must make this poem remarkable, I cannot believe there has been a more detailed analysis of dynamics anywhere! This is an ideal passage to demonstrate the process bias, that this is not merely a description of journeys, but is a journey through journey and it is this, as he has often told us, which is the truth of our existence, not the definition but the living through the process of definition. As if to emphasise the difference, he contrasts this kind of synthetic taxonomy with a basic taxonomy at the end of getting things done and planting things. This is a good old-fashioned list as will return in VN.
· The conclusion is a turning point equating the world of mythical unknowability, the hydra, with the unknown third person and indeed in the final paragraph the “He” occurs. The image of a stranger for you, rather than to you, in your own home is perfect. It utilises all sorts of metaphors: the gothic equation of interiors with interior spaces, Ashbery’s own sense of the interior and home, how this may equate to the homotextual, remember “He” exists, the uncanny (unheimlich), the suburban unease which is typified by this simple colloquial saying. The for is the misrepresentative aspect is you like, the stranger to you is more separate, whilst for you suggests his strangeness serves you. His strangeness is topographical and once one turns to see him and gets perhaps to know him he becomes Rumpelstiltskin. What the subject must understand is that his status as stranger is to serve and help the subject, and attempts to know the unknown diffuse its potency, though it is in our nature to do this.
· p.37: this surrealist ideology of being lost in a strange city therefore able to set up objective chance, is what saves us from knowledge and plunges us into a beautiful and strange world, typified by the constellation. The light imagery culminates in the paradox of the fixed flame which is the sublime occupation of the moment, the reification of flux..
· p.38: the period of incandescence seems the foil to the narratives of belatedness which dominate and is perhaps something inherited from Rimbaud amongst others.
· goes on then to actually contrast it to the “weather of indifference” which is this other time.
· p.38-41: the continuation of this versified story of the “weather of indifference”. Note how stilted this verse seems in comparison to the ease of the prose. This use of poetry suggests that just as these two ages are necessary, so are these two genres. Remember Shoptaw has noted the dialectical aspect of the poem.
· p.41-3: here the ages of man are specifically referred to for the first time, marking a direct shift from a kind of conceptual time, through a narrative time and an ideal/indifferent dichotomy to actaul age which is in keeping I feel with the direct introduction of the third person. These ages shift then into a very Eliotesque section on the Tarot, one of the few direct “interleaving” of texts as this originated from a popular book on Tarot of the early seventies. This occult side is not perhaps the same as the Kantian spirit world but does it suggest as Eliot does, a synthesis of all cultures or is it of greater significance?
· p.43-45: the narrative style here changes drastically. Is more direct and easier to read, had abandoned the dynamic motifs in favour of carnivalesque ones. Suggests a greater semantic charge in terms of allusiveness, but is of less interest to me at least. The Ram is the he of course who becomes the hero of these final sections.
· 45-47: narrative of his ascension and the occult, this ties into the occult aspects of DDS, as the he here ends by looking into fire for some portent. Has gone from a new spirit then to a specific old spirit and the parallels between total motivation of the realm of magic and astronomy and the complexities of his system seems to be what this is all about.
· 47-48: the final verse section is much more definite and itself portentous and relates more to the prose than previous sections suggesting an increased synthesis which is of course the defining feature of the occult.
· 48-51: he preaches to the masses and becomes the poet of apotheosis, but then in the final paragraph the dream fades and the sense of completion, typified by the tower of babel, is seen as vulgar. Shoptaw notes Ashbery’s reaction to turn ones back on it is not a process of the denial of political rationality of whatever, but is a decision to follow the avant-garde politics of form and experimentation which he praises O’Hara for over Vietnam. The conclusion suggests that one must look to a more mediated form a thought, suggesting the system is about to be, yet ironically it is the process of getting to the system that one suspects will also be the system as the phrasing suggests in reference to how to phrase a question in terms of the answer.
“The System”, 53-106
· Shoptaw relative lack of attention to this second part indicates it is much more an example of demotic speech than of the sublime complexities if the first section, and also that the issues are passed on and thus much would be repetition anyway. He notes in the first paragraph the sheer number of discourses Ashbery is using: cybernetic, governmental (“breaking down”); traffic, sewer (“backing up”); circulatory, reproductive (“primal vein”, “extremities”); respiratory (“hiccup”); weapons (“explode”); and city planning (“center”, “suburbs”).
“The successive referential frames are organized by the figures of the circle of which “one”, the representative “he” of “The New Spirit,” forms the disintegrating center” (147).
· thus the Ram passes through the turbulent recent past of the late 60’s and one way of reading this is that the urban hiccup is about to reach the suburbs. Stonewall for example exploded four months before he began this poem therefore Ashbery sifts through all this fission and constructs his own system of choice.
· the dominant discourse is the historical lecture, but beginning with a history of the “other” culture of the counter culture and then of homotextual culture. (Note the Norton Lectures of 1990-1991, where are they?) Notes also parallels with “The Invisible Avant-Garde”. Both deal with the idea of establishing a parallel culture. Summarising much the poem as being part of the debate how the artist can be vanguard without being absorbed into it and thus losing the “new spirit” of his individuality. He then goes on to satirise, gently, the aspirations of the “love” generation, the difference being that Ashbery’s own truer is endless and aimless, but justified in any case.
· the sermon is of course delivered on a Sunday, last day of January, and erects its argument on a series of contraries and alternatives: career notion vs. life as ritual; frontal vs. latent happiness. Shoptaw equates the first with Christ, reading “dreams” as souls and suggesting Christ, like the moment here, enters time to show eternity. The romantic paradigm for the frontal is the past lover who determines one’s sexual path. Shoptaw sees the relationship between text and crypt word as typifying the self-reflexive formulation for the relation between love and its latent filiations.
· also equates the frontal position with the “epiphany” or moments, whilst latent happiness if the experience of time:
“...Ashbery has subtly exchanged characteristics of his two kinds of happiness. Frontal happiness is really latent in that it is all potential, and latent happiness is “actually,” currently frontal in that it is fully developed and fitted to our lives.” (154)
· the latent then is the hidden discourse of avant-garde and homotextuality: “Latent happiness is worldly and textual rather than visionary and hyper-linguistic.” (154).
· p.53: Shoptaw notes in this first paragraph the mixing of discourse which is also indicative of the break down of the system, contravening the synthetic model of the previous system, here the one is placed as a fragmented consciousness at the heart of a fragmenting society. The country is both the country vs. the city, but of course also America.
· being then is involved in listening to the spirit of the time, suggesting the political sense of change in the air when he is writing this in the late sixties. The trees and streets seems to fulfil a partition role which is suggested is for it’s own good but might be rather to stop mass movements taking over. However Ashbery’s role is different, rather than to sound out these differing voices, perhaps to synthesise a meta-narrative, he opts as usual to occupy the moment and deal merely with the today issues. The building he proposes then is a kind of institution, but an institution of the radical now of the avant-garde, however that building might be constructing.
· p.54: the role of the past is certainly problematic within this building of the present. It cannot be denied nor can it be assimilated into the now. The past both threatens to destroy the equilibrium of the present (hence the emphasis on irregularities, jaggedness, staccato, later images of conflict), yet also to convert that equilibrium into an all over philosophy (calm, lucid, drifting above everyone). So that when the past settles it must be offset, to the side but neither in front of or behind. (cf. Koch’s theory of the 1st idea).
· p.55-56: the dominant discourse which he describes here, the representations in cultural discourse of the sublime relation between life and truth, which is the discourse of “The New Spirit”, is discarded in favour of the “other “tradition”. This is the “love” generation, the avant-garde (invisible), homotextual, and simply the necessary culture of otherness...the paragrammatic. The terms of its address are interesting in that it is the illegitimate offspring of a king, allying it with Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”.
· p.56-58: a critique of the love generation for it’s inability to understand the tree of universal love which has many branches. Also a critique of desire which he obviously associates with carnal love, as not conveying the whole aspect of being, but rather takes over or distracts us from the many other branches of investigation. Thus he is adding a differential structure here all the time, rejecting the synthesis of “The New Spirit” for a more articulated and open system: “gorgeous, motley organism”. The word motley is important in this seconds sections, as is the jagged, the erratic, in other words anything which stresses difference, non-synthesis, which interrupts the apparent seamless narrative of sublime desire.
· p.59-62: note here, he is dismissing the discourse of “The New Spirit” as chaos, vividly described here, and equating it with the synthetic symbols of the river and the ascent which predominated “The New Spirit”. Now he seems to suggest, it is the motley darkness of the quotidian, the idiomatic, the demotic which holds the key to life being the necessary other to the sublime “spiral leading from the motley darkened and lightened landscape here below...” He is thus criticising his own generation here for becoming bored with the being in the now, and had falsely ushered in an ending, not realising that flux is not teleological in the sense that it will reach an end point. They halt the sublime, the pendulum of joy and grief at some point. They are this attacked for trying to see the wind, that is to present the sublime. Whilst they accept flux and continual re-invention, it is only under the auspices of some vague nirvana principle, again like the imagined shape of the wind, not realising the motility is the truth. Thus he divides society into the “motley group” (of hedonists and self-mortifiers to the mad and the melancholic) and the “wise maxims of regular power” which decollate theses groups but are also destabilised by them. This second group take the moment and reify into a “permanent now” which is basically a waiting it out ‘til judgement day.
· p.62-64: here he summarises the result of being in the perpetual now or the result of the obsession with the end, which is the familiar climate of Ashbery’s world.
· p.65-67: note how the sections are much longer in this second part, and much less image bound, being far more discursive. Here he begins his sermon. Note the temporal significance, the end of a new month thus just after the beginning end of the astrological cycle, a Sunday, on the verge of February to contrast with the false spring of the previous pages which is of course the time of the Ram and the Archer. Also, the extended metaphor of the day, which would contrast nicely with other sustained conceits such as SPCM and the wave.
· p.67-69: fascinating consideration of the picturesque, its danger in terms of fetishism, yet at the same time the inability to construct a theory that does without them. He summarises Kant’s position and then rejects the “knowing” combination of details and absolutes, which is surprising. He favours an illusory intellectual understanding or what he calls the erratic approach which is the impinging of details at random into the falsified consciousness, Don Quixote over Sancho Panza. This is an interesting way at looking at it, and in keeping with his faith which rejects idolatry, the worship of fetishes, and self-idolatry, of self as fetish.
· p.69-71: first of his two paradigmatic ways of living. Life as career or life as ritual, the first being progressive, the second cyclical, both being limited of course. Note the career matches the trope of “narrowing”, the ritual the trope of velocity or vertige. Both advance actually, but in different ways thus both are means of reconciling the perpetual now with the progression of moments.
· p.71-73: then we have these two types of happiness. Frontal and latent. This is the perfect place to bring in Koch of course. Frontal is easy to understand and sounds like pellucid moments, the kind of happiness one associates with the New York School, that of immediacy and Jouissance. The second, which occupies the next 13 pages, is the kind Ashbery is trying to convey here, happiness as the process of being happy. This would be a great place of conflation, especially as the theme is happiness which is typically New York School. Thus we have the immediate pleasures of O’Hara and Schuyler, the idea of happiness in Koch and then this. We also have laughter and the somersault idea, Jouissance and so on.
· p.73-86: this second kind of happiness then is the happiness of lived experience as such, hence the length. The first kind of happiness is a part of it as the second kind of happiness is a kind of living through the sublime moments, as succession, but without the imposed anxieties of making the past meaningful and the future teleological, nor cancelling them out altogether. Thus it is the happiness of living in the “vicissitudes of time”. That his kind of happiness is latent is then picked up later in the image of the read thread in the carpet which comes to dominate. Other interesting images include the use of the opposing armies, continuing the old testament feel of the sermon, the various uses of the path (cf. Frost), the non blankness of the tabula rasa and the following image of blankness erased which ties in directly to the mystic writing pad stuff in Derrida, the idea of the second kind of happiness as a fleshed out version of the first, versions of the picturesque, the real and the dream. The final image of the Prince in the forest conveys the whole sense of it, of magical, dreamlike progression, without understanding why exactly, and you want to ponder it but the “velocity” of it stops you. This ties into vertige of course.
· p.87-88: here the day-to-day living, which is our challenge, not the ideal, is reformulated from the “bunches and clusters” we are used to dealing with (not the jagged nature of these combinations), to two images of chiasmus if you like: the labyrinth and the gordian knot. This is a complicated or troublesome shift from the combinatory scheme of the picturesque, to these more integrated but confusing forms.
· p.88-89: nice flurry of similar imagery: the restricted space (of the labyrinth?) which yet we can move about freely in, the still point which is however racing forward, the summit which shows us a maze of “vacancy”, the labyrinth becoming a honeycombed here, the room on the crest and yet the infinite worlds upon worlds.
· p.90-91: picking up again on Frost, with also intertextual references to the parallels which meet, and the red queen, the puzzle tropes continue.
· p.91-96: two images of this state, the hang-dog expression, and the play. The play then becomes the expectation of the spoken word to the beloved on a kind of stage, the stage fright however hides the fact that the poet has been speaking all long. Thus we have a destabilisation of the Word, in favour of just words, and the final list of simple things, picking up on the list in the previous part, confirms this aspect of it. There is also a reference to strings and webs, in contradistinction to the grids of “The New Spirit” and also in reference to the labyrinth which takes us back to the failure of the crumb trail in hop-o-my-thumb. Simply brilliant associative links.
· p.96-100: the dying and reviving is confusing, but the repetition of motifs is not. note God speaks and thus vouchsafes the erratic existence of living in the now, his promise converting the moment from one of waiting for the end, to one of an ongoing process.
· p.100-102: here the anxiety of variety and oneness ties in directly to O’Hara’s multiple self in “In Memory...”
· p.102-106: the two motifs, of a self-enfolding film and a novel made up of all the discarded chapters both relate of course to the other tradition and its relation to the process of the archival moment. Perhaps these are as good a place as any to start when one is referring to the avant-garde status he is arguing for. The final paragraph then moves us on from the allegory of film and the many ways in which living in the archival moment has been conveyed, and returns us back to the double aspect of what it means to really live like that: the loss of the past and the promise of the future. The system then is simply this, living the experience of living in time, and all that that suggests.
“The Recital”, 107-118
· Shoptaw sees it as written in the “no nonsense language of the aftermath” (155), with the initial “All right” seeming to clear the slate leaving him with the basic problem that the previous two poems have now left him with nothing latent to do. “The new spirit has entered the system.” (155). Notes that one practical difficulty of living life in a latent fashion (through destiny, realisation of potential) is that everything becomes similar.. He suggests then a dialectical synthesis, before making the poem enter a platonic cavernous theatre.
· p.107-118: of all the three poems, this s the most self explanatory:
· 107-109 deals with the problem of there being no new problem.
· 109-110 deals with issues of naming and taxonomy, of poetry as process.
· 110-113 about the discrepancies of art in dealing with this point of sameness and exhaustion.
· 113-116 extrapolates on the circumstances and tragedy of this existence before
· 117-118 ends up with a wonderful synthetic model of existence. Ending with the theatre, remember the significance of space, emptying out.
there is much in this by way of direct statement relating to a post avant-garde situation, the difference being the performative categories of the previous two poems is missing. “The New Spirit” is dominated by the sublime dynamic of desire in time, “The System” is a fairly systematic analysis of details of being in time, this the recital merely returns us to this, synthesising the sublime with the picturesque to produce no solution but a point of suspension, which is the final image of the poem.