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John Ashbery's Daffy Duck in Hollywood (6)

Arise Sir Daffy Duck, Titles

The establishment of authority in the poem echoes the same process in all aspects of life and is political in this regard. This also includes the author as some form of authoritative presence. The title is usually where this imposition of power begins. The semantic domination of the title over the poem is represented semiotically by its placement above the poem, spatially and, usually, typographically differentiated. In the penguin edition I am using, the title DAFFY DUCK IN HOLLYWOOD is capitalised, a good four or five lines above the rest of the poem, and in a larger font. Why does this matter? As Johanna Drucker and Jerome McGann have argued in relation to textual and hypertextual materiality, the conditions of the production of the work are always the result of certain material conditions inherent to a culture and a technology.[i] The title suggests, in a meta-narratological fashion, first that the poem has a single theme, and second that the poet wants to tell you this from the offset. No matter how lost you may become in Eliot’s The Waste Land, the title is there to remind you what you are essentially looking for. This authoritative stance is on behalf of the poem, the poet, language, poetry, the culture and, if you are a good reader, you too by the end. All of this is marked out semiotically in the poem body by the placement of a title and to prove this it is enough to note how titles are under attack by most postmodern poets.[ii]

Ashbery is famous for choosing his titles at random and, on the whole, the majority of his titles do not help the reader ascertain the subject of the poem. More often than not the titles do not even refer to anything going on in the poem. In “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” the title is helpful to a degree. The poem is about the subject as cartoon rather than rounded human being, it also considers the material effects of popular American culture on art and life as Herd and Cohen, amongst others, indicate, and does have references to cartoons, ducks and Hollywood disseminated across its 121 lines, although much fewer than the reader might expect and feel they need. However, it is not really about Daffy Duck in Hollywood at all.

Shoptaw quotes Ashbery’s narrative of how the poem came to be written and the origin of its title. The poet was reading Milton’s Paradise Lost while attending a screening of cartoons at a New York Gallery where he saw, not the 1938 Daffy Duck in Hollywood but the later work Duck Amuck. In this cartoon the cartoonist’s hand is shown self-consciously drawing and simultaneously tormenting poor Daffy, and, Ashbery says, “I somehow unconsciously associated this with the idea of God in the first book of Paradise Lost, who has always seemed to me very comical by his absence…So I seemed to have somehow associated Satan with Daffy Duck…They are somehow alike”[iii] What a shaggy dog story, however true it might be. Certainly there is a reference to a god-like cartoonist, and yes at one point Daffy speaks, if it is indeed him speaking, in Miltonic cadences.[iv] In addition, there is an apocalyptic feel to parts of the poem in that there is a storm brewing,[v] but these occupy between five and ten lines in total. Anyway, if the poem is about Duck Amuck why is it called Daffy Duck in Hollywood, and for that matter who goes to museums to watch cartoons, why is God comically absent in Paradise Lost when the absence of god in the poem is the great cause for lamentation in western culture, and how does Daffy resemble Satan?

One can ascertain from this that the semiotic privileging of the title as authoritative is undermined here by the author using his authority to provide the source of his intentionality only to undermine it. This intervention raises many more questions than it answers, subsequently questioning the author’s god-like status, the idea of a coherent theme, the over-rated concept of poetic influence, the value of a title and, because the title is marked out materially as being semantically powerful, any other semiotic strategies in the poetic text used for heightened semantic gain.

[i] Ref.
[ii] Postmodern titles are a good, simple way into the means by which they undermine presuppositions in poetry that have wider ramifications in cultural discourses of all sorts that use rhetoric to achieve or perpetuate positions of power. But they are also just evidence of postmodern playfulness. Give examples Hejinian, Howe, O’Hara, Silliman.
[iii] Cited in Shoptaw 203.
[iv] “While I / Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all” Ashbery, Three Books 31.
[v] “Just now a magnetic storm hung in the swatch of sky”, which ends bathetically three quarters of the way through with the line “The storm finished brewing” ibid. 30 & 32.
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