Skip to main content

John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook

John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook
(Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975)

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 an interview Ashbery notes that the poem was not written in Vermont but on a bus travelling through New England: “Generally speaking I guess it’s a catalogue of a number of things that could be found in the state of Vermont, as well as almost anywhere else—another “democratic vista””. Notes further that the feeling of writing on abuse was significant as not only was his mind moving but the landscape also, further that Vermont for him is somehow the greenest and most luscious aspect of New England. It was published the same year as SPCM, actually before it, but written after it. It is self-admittedly experimental and clearly influenced by Stein, especially her incremental repetitions.
· Shoptaw also notes the Whitmanic influence, especially “Songs of the Broad Axe”, whilst towards the end he moves back into cut and paste of a newspaper article first, and then one of his own unpublished poems, “American Notes”.

· p.6-7: opens with an excerpt of a larger list which is not really a list as its order is motivated, here by time. This excerpt of time seems to be the time is took to write the piece, and its accompanying image seems to be the poet in mid 70’s grad, alone on a sloping, empty landscape. The two images compliment each other well, the vast expanse of space being very lovely somehow.
· p.8-9: get the feeling of the landscape being built up in stages. The season of late Autumn to early winter is picked up thus by the “climate”, then the details are reducing down from city through the stores to people. Note there is no article modifying people. The image too seems an advancement from the empty landscape with a stylised back drop of bushes being rained on by long lozenges of rain above a banded foreground reminiscent of a highway. The poet has be removed, suggesting people have taken over, also denying the profound solipsism of SPCM.
· p.10-11: this expansive list is ironic in contrast to the small town farmyard opposite, however the landscape of the text is not totally urban, but is that very strange mix of stores, fields, houses and fast food stores which is the American landscape.
· p.12-13: the long list is moving now into articulation here with the double list which contrast local gathering with multinational consortiums. Not sure about the Pegasus, is it a company logo.
· p.14-15: The tapemeasure image is both referential and not, because here tapemeasure is the name of a shop, not the actaul thing. In contrast to this commercial naming which combines the two lists of the previous pages, the second list is back to standard nouns, in this case colours, one of the standard taxonomic techniques from his, Schuyler and Koch’s earlier work. Note that the simplicity of the lexicon belies the mounting exoticism of the list.
· p.16-17: the list of games, especially such as “Author”, refers us back to the automatism of “sortes” etc. The bridge of “Honeymoon bridge” leads humorously to the second list of crimes which are not, as Shoptaw, purely objective for, as the list progresses the crimes become less objectively bad.
· p18-19: five lists, the first four are of varying length thus becoming stanzaic, all places in the states I would have to check with Brian to find if there were any connection. The last is newspapers referring to the later collage and earlier ones. Brainards image is on of the best, a middle distance ranch style house topped by a vast expanse of white sky. It seems to simply say, small town America.
· p.20-23: two large lists of names. The first seemingly painters, the second poets or writers ate least. The accompanying images are fascinating as the first is a ladies in fifties garb, painted in a manner similar to the painted photos of .Gerhard Richter. The second is very much of its time, an eight sided figure made up of beautiful men seeming to float or leap like the Michelangelo figure or a poster for Hair or some such thing. This is geometrically centred and perfect, a collage of representative images made less so by arrangement (thus a kind of list), whilst the previous actaul representation is skewed on the page, of the wrong era and of course undermined by being a painting of a photo.
· 24-25: Shoptaw reads this list from the sonic repetition of “o”, through the early nouns of midway inside outside (cf. use of balconies etc., in SPCM), to the outside and then from the rural to the commercial which again adds a touch of ambiguity as to location as it raises the question are we inside “McDonald’s” or looking at it. Brainards window contributes to this. A stylised window with fluffy “drapes” is itself framed by a box so we are looking at the frame, itself doubly framed, but we see nothing beyond. A kind of a quote of Magritte then.
· 26-27: Similar to the colours list, moving from the banal to the exotic and back again, but also bringing in the Haberdashers and boutiques of earlier. Brainard’s images seems an abstraction of arm, lapel, buttons, sleeve. Each button is drawn with care but the cuffs are jagged like he just gave up painting, revealing an arm beneath that might otherwise have been concealed. Button is the last word of the list.
· p28-29: the final list it is not a list in the way other are, but rather an extreme elliptical poem based purely on thought links:
· darkness, eventide, shadows: basic descriptive list
· roost, perch, leaf: associatively being the time of roosting
· light: alliterative link to leaf, also opposite to dark
· evasion, sentinel: a very weak link, their contiguity however does related evasion to the role of the sentinel to watch
· plug: the first real nonsequitor, ethically it is not out of pace but is the necessary intrusion of the random
· dream, mope: relating obviously to the time of day, moping is both to be dreamy but also relates to perching, hanging around
· urchin, distress: seemingly non-sequitors also, the urchin is redolent of moping but only due to the tendency towards motivation
· ways, many, few, found: a phrasal nonsequitor, ii however internally motivated by colloquialism, opposites, the alliteration of the “f” and the fact that as a sentence it makes sense
· dreaming, unclad, season, solstice: another possible sentence, dreaming is involuted but also changes the tense, unclad suggestive of sex at night but really is adjectival modifier of season, solstice
· many, before, few, undid: repetition of above sentence, but following the basic metaphoric quadrangle, adding in two new terms
· seam, artery: relates to undid of course, it also motivates plug
· motor: non-sequitor
· before, sleep, come, mouth, asshole, behaving: before involutes, sleep relates to dreaming, come (before) becomes sexual (unclad), behaving becomes behaving like an asshole (urchin?)
· foundered, sleep, reef, perfect, almost: foundered is a peculiar link as it is a non-associative link! reef is involuted to sleep (“ee”), as is perfect, which is also colloquially perfect...almost.
· vital centre of the way taxonomy works, this piece is central to the radical side of Ashbery’s work, still persisting here. The image does relate in subject, it seems to be a perch or nest, but also in the interaction of textures which are the crosshatching and pentimenti of traditional etching which also render the texture of the differing materials. The feather is remarkable as it is absence, pure whiteness cutting the heart out of the textured surface and rendering it back into page. Very Mallarmean.
· p.30-31: a very nice complement to the motivation of the previous section, here we have Steinian repetition and involution. The first half is motivated in a Koch fashion around the heights, the middle section introduces new motifs: beeches, horses, cypress roots, lost love, weeds. Suggesting it is moving from repetition to developmental narrative. Then, it returns back to the dumps, dumping on the dump, poem as dump, contrast to heights via the encrypted “down in the...”, but also an echo as the dump is also a height. The beaver now makes sense as does the image accompanying it of a beaver’s face, or is it a seal.
· p.32-33: this collage, a return to TCO, is hinted at by the accompanying image of newspapers but also these are the newspapers in the little boxes. The narrative mixes the observable detail of trashy suburban existence with the potential for wonder contained within the blandest of language, a victory for syntax which the previous two sections have confirmed, and his predominant interest in time. This is not the TCO however as it is not collage of text at all but of things within sentences.
· 34-35: the first basic narrative, the theme of the traveller is apt of course and the images elevation of coffee to a massive motif thus motivates this as central to the passage. Again the use of white as substance/absence, the contrast between the scribbles to the left and the square to the right recalls the previous half finished image of the newspapers.
· 36-37: again articulation of these sections producing a stanzaic effect, here the list of complex Latinate processes, echoing the first list in its tripartite nature, is then overtaken by a basic representative narrative, and example of bland colloquial speech, and a continuation of the narrative of the “eye” interacting with time which is the process of being on the bus and writing of course. The image is of hors doeves, six of them, picking up on previous images of dice and the games which seem to have a kind of cracker in the middle of them. Here they hover between identifiable food and simply abstract shapes. One even looks like a map.
· 38-39: these narratives are recordings of the traveller poet, bored and trying to entertain himself in writing. Some of it is involuted, for example the come of the sexual encounter has become literally just coming, reference to previous polite narrative. The image is that of the sound in the other room, the TV, here saved from banality by the messiness of the interference lines, and the Esher-like perspective and dimensional lines.
· 40-41: the first specific date, explicating the opening list, the issue of defecation becomes the dump, relates to the toilet and thus to the banality of travelling generally. Here the colloquial seems marked with bitterness, shit becoming the garbage of such greetings as “have a nice day”. The image of the toilet is a reference to Duchamp, and a complex interaction of shape, textures, chiaroscuro, and planes.
· p.42-43: Even more specified here by adding a location to the date, however the narrative progress of the passage shows it is narrative time/place, not actual. The middle narrative begins in New York School silliness, however moves on into Ashbery territory. The final section returns to the discourse of “Popular Songs”, dealing with problems of language reception and the loss of the past. The image is of two napkins bearing separate motifs.
· p.44-45: the sign which he reads is echoed in the absence of the sign in the middle of undergrowth in the image. The lack of interaction between hills and towns disappoints the poet who seems, perhaps because he is an American poet, some aspect of co-operation here.
· 46-47: paragraph one is noted for the irony of “(Another list here)”, the following paragraph status thus becoming problematised as it is not really a list but a sign, yet the words are in the same structure as the lists of course, except not articulated out. The third paragraph contains a second sign, dealing with the esoteric possibility of commercial advertising. The final paragraph begins significantly with “things”, a summation of lists. Here the diagram of the tectonic plates is explicated and perhaps relates to lack of co-operation within the landscape he notes earlier.
· p.48-49: the first paragraph reiterates the more elliptical and abstract style of DDS, the whole section seems to be dealing with the minutiae of being alive, or rather the import of banality. Like many sections it finishes with semi-abstract suggestion of vision arrested, speech halted etc. Brainard’s image of the shirt hanging continues the accoutrements of road travel I guess, as well as issue of appearance. It is also involuted to the previous more curious image of the sleeves of buttons.
· p.50-51: an excerpt of some other narrative, the raw chicken which she eats contrasting nicely with the traditional breakfast images. Note how the streaks of bacon become bars across the white plane of the egg, but how the egg is not the white space absence of the sign and the feather.
· p.52-53: of interest is the shift from normal subject to the slightly esoteric yet possible appearance of red and blue cloth, this will later be picked up by “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”. Brainard’s second painted picture is this time properly hung, but again reveals his interest in framing and in squares.
· p.54-55: the Liechtenstein pop image of romantic love contrasts to the more sordid narrative. Desire interacts with banal activity and the dull landscape of suburban America.
· p.56-57: The narrative becoming more abstract by use of punctuation to break up the natural flow of the syntax, and by ellipse. The shirt narrative is now becoming a conceit of this slightly vain but generally dissatisfied man, sometimes the poet and sometimes not. Again another picture of a shirt, the fourth now, and just as one shirt peeps out from another in the text, so the shadow if the T-shirt, itself a strange concept, forms a second, larger and slightly distorted shirt. This passage is a good example of brain and bus moving simultaneously. The personification of the waves reminiscent of many previous collections but especially ST.
· p.58-61: the part used in selected poems, a good section to quote but obvious really, the image of the old-fashioned stove in keeping with this cosy but crass image of the US, the switch onto the next page however not only gives us Brainard’s most “realistic” and impressive image of he semi-faceless nude, but also switches the narrative, via love, to what is good. The final “examples” are simple misrepresentations as they are both not and in a way are examples of the possibilities beneath the crass and banal. The final image is significant in that it is a black echo if the narcissism of SPCM.
· p.62-63: returns to the pop songs, the colloquialism of the phrasing matched by the strange final line. The image is the movement away from the realism of the previous image to an abstraction based on the silly images off of napkins.
· p.64-71: a series of little narratives based on a beach scene, image matches up nicely and allows further exploitation of white, a debate on a debased spring, the images of plants similar to those of feathers, through a more variegated section which really seems like the consciousness in motion, the split-level stuff does call to mind the planal gaming of the images of which this provocative toilet door is another contribution of course matched by the phallic rising of the skyscrapers. The last image returns us back to the idyllic farm scene of earlier with the accuracy of the middle distance barn then reaching out to us in a kind of fence becoming abstract marks like the hand in SPCM. The speculators of the skyscrapers here are losing interest in these other phalluses. Then another list returns or a particularly rural nature, but ugly.
· p.72-75: the first entitled section is a little narrative of the type of landscape he is dealing with here, a kind of friendly cheapness contrasted to the European terror of Louis XVI. Brainard’s images are sketches of rather banal motifs.
· p.76-87: the Marco collage, does deal with the interaction of commerce with the landscape which is essentially the theme of the whole book, Brainard accompanies with a kind of slide show of styles: an obvious fishing picture but this time not framed, white overtaking the whole thing; a comedy fin which bites into the horizon ruining the perspective; flotsam and jetsam in the etching style; semi-realistic fish which seems almost to be flying in space rather than swimming; a cartoon desert island; and rather mysterious flies.
· p.88-89: the following postcard, the image is of a letter however, is ironic contrast to the commercial/academic landscape and language of the previous sections.
· p.90-91: pretty much written in the standard Ashbery style here, a discourse on hell which seems to coincide with the fakeness of much of the American landscape as the final image of the concrete igloos confirms. The image of a dice is recurrent and suggests the aleatory nature of the piece as a whole.
· p.92-95: “The Fairies’ Song”, the narrative is double of course, actual and homotextual, the fairies of the spoiled landscape still persist in their “work”, as they move between the ugly and the sublime. The spacing of the second page suggests a huge stanzaic break. The final stanza is symbolic of a cracked Eden which is America of course. Brainard’s field is then suddenly magnified here into one large clock from which thee “fairies” detach and move into space.
· p.96-97: the image is seemingly a conglomerate of various household appliances, the banal voice returns using the lack of antiques as a way into the problem of memory in America.
· p.98-101: the epistolary form returns, now we finally get the truth of the whole piece, the bus journey, but also falsehood with “Oscar’s” assumed name and his desire for a cigarettes which the smoking picture of the cigarette almost seems to mock. The, final page continues the letter which references Paterson but establishes a banal, middle-aged, middle American middle-class consciousness in the asexual name of Beverly. The salad which accompanies, whilst being the most complex interaction of shapes and textures, also suggest this is a word salad (dada?).
· use the early list parts, the later narratives are not so interesting, the book however does summarise his double composition technique: the experimental TCO collagiste mentality and the consciousness in time of SPCM.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

John Ashbery, Some Trees

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”; “”; “-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; g…

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

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 this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

The Grenfell Tower Murders

The 72 victims of Grenfell Tower Fire were murdered, victims of the violence of neglect.  Here is the proof.
A year ago, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, due to a faulty appliance.  The fire spread quickly up the side of the building because the tower had been refurbished in 2016.  Flammable cladding had been added to the exterior building as part of an £8 million refit which appears to have primarily made the tower more cosmetically pleasing.  The money was not spent on improving fire safety within the building, it would appear, a cause for concern for residents’ groups for years. The initial cladding that was to be used is not illegal in the UK but its use is restricted in other countries.  To save costs a cheaper version was eventually attached to the building, a more flammable version. 
Once the fire caught, residents were advised to stay in their flats.  In 99% of all cases this is the best advice, because flats are designed to be “fire resistant boxes” surr…