An introduction and guide to reading John Ashbery Daffy Duck in Hollywood
From Fragment to Figment
“Daffy Duck in Hollywood” was written in 1975 and published two years later as part of the highly regarded collection Houseboat Days. It is a long, apparently disjointed poem dominated by a wide variety of different discursive voices all competing for the reader’s attention. It has no clear theme or structure, and purposefully defies summary, but basically it begins with Daffy reflecting on his plight, moves through considerations of high and low culture, before ending with an imposed lyricism which may or may not resolve the issues to hand. The often quoted and exhaustively analysed opening of the poem has a daffy Ashbery launching into a cacophonous symphony of rampant signifying that one might compare to a form of verbal dioarehha or haemorrhaging, or to switching channels on the radio or TV:
Something strange is creeping across me.
La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars
Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from
Amadigi di Gaula for everything—a mint-condition can
Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile
Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged
Stock—to come clattering through the rainbow trellis
Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland Fling Terrace.
He promised he’d get me out of this one,
That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s
Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug’s attenuated
Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit
Are its lineaments—fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist’s
Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call
Companionable. But everything is getting choked to the point of
Silence. Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky
Over the Fudds’ garage, reducing it—drastically—
To the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin on
A Gadsden Purchase commemorative cover.[i]
Exhilarating isn’t it? This is Ashbery uncut and unplugged, resulting in postmodern poetic practice at its finest and most confrontational. It is hard here to see any direct relationship with modernism or Romanticism and that’s a good, simple definition of its postmodernity; it comes after everything modern that came before. It most certainly is something strange. It is also Ashbery at his most ‘difficult’. What exactly are you supposed to make of this disjointed, obscure, apparently meaningless, and often ugly poem? You cannot get your bearings here, there is no coherence, no clear meaning, no syllogistic argumentation, no sustained imagery, no narrative, no nothing. This is what most critics hone in on as either the great power or failure of postmodern poetics.
Often, with postmodern poetry, one is met with a rush of very basic questions the answers to which seem a long way off. Who is me? What is creeping over this me? Who is La Celestina and what does she have to do with this imminent threat? When the poet chooses to define everything, why does he not choose the important, universally recognised things of life rather than detritus, ephemera and filth? Why is all of this taking place at Pistachio and Highland Fling? Where is this address, in Hollywood? Is it anywhere at all? And so on, probably as many questions as there are lines. This is another important aspect of postmodern poetry; it is, as McCorkle states, an investigative process, interested in the basic ontological questions of art. Instead of asking what is poetry, however, which is perhaps the central question of modernism, it might be said to ask what can be poetry or, more humbly, is this poetry?
In a postmodern work of poetry the parts do not cohere following conventionally accepted patterns of communication such as linearity, narrative, a single speaking voice, certain shared assumptions about context, historicity, referential concatenation, syntactic concatenation, grammar in general, generic conventions, subject matter, tone, and the like. This alone is not totally shocking as poetic language often does not follow these patterns especially carefully. It seems a general truth, as regards poetry and communication, that for each rule of ‘ordinary speech’ that poetry disregards or warps, it offers up its own rule, say rhyme, and also explains, if you will, that the reason for this other rule is access to good meaning through formal means that somehow enhance or back that meaning up. In addition, there is a now well-respected tradition of poetry that breaks all the rules and does not replace coherent context with iambic pentameter. This modernist poetry is fragmented and incoherent but fragmentation and incoherence are new rules to replace those of traditional prosody that they have usurped. If one could once find real significance in the patterned distribution of rhyme and stressed syllables, in modernist poetry one finds similar degrees of significance in the breaking of these patterns whose fragments are then usually re-ordered in new patterns. The point is often made of modernism that it was formally fragmented because modern experience was fragmented, and incoherent because there could be no coherent response to the horrors of the age. Our question might be, is postmodern poetry’s formal ‘difficulty’, with its high degree of disjointedness and disorientation, just a whole new set of rules designed to reflect a new age?
In contrast to Daffy Ashbery’s discursive mish-mash, the foregrounded fragmentation of an archetypal modernist poem such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land seems tame. While the poem is a traumatised and splintered body, a number of remedies and structural compresses have been applied in order to heal it. The form of the poem is equivalent to the theme, for example, fulfilling a basic law of poeticity in which form and theme are totally equivalent. We sometimes call this organic form. The fragmented voices belong to discernible and named personae, on the whole. The tone of the piece is generally a sustained, apocalyptic miserablism. While the parts do not cohere terribly well, within each ‘part’, each voice, the rules of best poetic practice are usually observed scrupulously. Anyway, to be honest, the parts do cohere, The Waste Land being a rather simple poem, consisting of a series of images, symbols, dialogues and citations, all taken from an unusual, for the time, but ultimately understandable set of locations, all pertaining to waste of some order, and placed upon a foundation of universal mythmaking: the fisher king.
The simplest differentiation between modernist and postmodernist disjunctive poetics is to say that The Waste Land is fragmented, while Ashbery’s poem is best described as particulate and discrete. Fragments presuppose a past thing which was complete, and have built into them a Bejaminian, Jamesonian, profoundly modernist, sense of history as the redemption of lost objects.[ii] From a fragment a whole manuscript can be surmised; as Eliot says famously “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.”[iii] Almost in response to this Ashbery wonders “since all / By definition is completeness (so / In utter darkness they reasoned), why not / Accept it as it pleases to reveal itself?” concluding “Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s / Alike, the same…/ All life is but a figment”.[iv] From fragment to figment; that is the history of the transition from modern to postmodern form.
[i] John Ashbery, Three Books (New York: Penguin, 1993) 30.
[ii] I am thinking expressly of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Thesis on the Angel of History” where he proposes a historicism of redemption.
[iii] The Waste Land final section
[iv] Ashbery, Three Books 32-3.