Skip to main content

John Ashbery's Daffy Duck in Hollywood (7)

Wait…How will it end?, Lineation

Once inside the poem we are lost, the title being no use as a detailed guide. In addition to which, the poet seems intent on taking the communicative certainties we have, those of expressive seriality, concatenation, causality, referentiality, syllogism, and difference, and exploding them before our very eyes. Take the following section as typical:

“Up
The Lazy River, how happy we could be?”
How will it end? That geranium glow
Over Anaheim’s had the riot act read to it by the
Etna-size firecracker that exploded last minute into
A carte du Tendre in whose lower right-hand corner
(Hard by the jock-itch sand-trap that skirts
The asparagus patch of algolagnic nuits blanches) Amadis
Is cozening the Princess de Clèves into a midnight micturition spree
On the Tamigi with the Wallets (Walt, Blossom, and little
Skeezix) on a lamé barge “borrowed” from Ollie
Of the Movies’ dread mistress of the robes. Wait!
I have an announcement![i]


One of the central laws of poetry is that semiotic deviation from everyday speech for which prose is, incorrectly, taken as a kind of unproblematic analogue, must pay for the temerity of its interruption of communicative flow by giving extra meaning back. It might seem here that this isn’t even under question as there do not seem to be any major semiotic events, it is not after all Paradise Lost, but in fact the passage is loaded with them and they all centre around the rhythmical banter between a long, discursive sentence and the way the poet interrupts its flow by making material marks. The first and penultimate lines are simple examples. Semantically “Up” is a bad way to end a line especially at the beginning of a sentence. It does not help that it proceeds from “over the mill run”[ii] which is a statement of going down and fluidity. Water cannot flow up, no more can poetry which operates a little like a waterfall, words dropping over edges and you as readers helpless but to follow them. In addition Up is a citation, although we would be advised to keep in mind Perloff’s warning that everything sounds like a citation in the poem. Up then ought to have a very good reason to be semiotically marked out in these three ways: it ends a line, it contradicts a line of thought, and it is marked out as coming from someone else’s mouth. In fact it does not have a good reason, it is just the name of a popular, cloyingly sentimental song whose interruption of the poet’s authoritative voice seems impertinent and rather pointless. Already, then, Ashbery is making semiotic events at the expense of semantic flow without the concomitant gift of additional semantic possibilities.

Ashbery is the master of making self-referential indications as to what he is doing which, at the same time, may establish certain semantic patterns as well and here he does this by immediately referring to the reader’s anxiety as to where this unstable materiality is going to end up. How will it end indeed, how did it begin? This fake narratology comes back at the end of the section with the poet again marking out a single word, in this instance “Wait!”. Wait is a pointless word to place at the end of the line as the line-break’s whole purpose is to semiotically mark out a significant pause. The poet then promises to make a significant utterance, some semantic moment of clarity marked out semiotically by line endings and exclamation marks. Instead, we are back in the water, splashing around, this time a “wide, tepidly meandering, / Civilizing Lethe”.[iii]

In contrast to the rapidity of water over a mill race, a fairly accurate metaphor for the way the poem progresses, we are now in the mature stage of the river Lethe; river of forgetfulness. Poets often use natural phenomenon as analogic structural patternation—begin the poem with a spring, end with the sea and so on—only here we are less than half-way through. Perhaps the poet is suggesting we are already all at sea, or hinting at the difficulty of keeping track of the argument of the poem, itself a bit like a river in structure, and gently chiding us for our forgetfulness. Where did this river come from, what is the source of the geranium glow, who is the Princess de Clèves again? Like a particularly complex opera, a genre he hints at many times, we need to forget about the plot and just enjoy the music.

And what music there is here. The section quoted demonstrates Ashbery’s control of rhythm through the bracketing of the hypertactic sentence beginning “That geranium glow” which extends over ten lines, with the line-breaks of Up and Wait I have already detailed. Within this meta-sentence, the poet pulls out all the semiotic stops: appetite whetting enjambment, “the / Etna-size firecracker”, “into / A carte du Tendre”; italicised French obscurities; non-italicised Italian ones; quotation marks; brackets; compound adjectives and nouns, “jock-itch sand-trap”; and lists. All of these are traditional moments when semiotic events, such as italics, diacritics and so on, are allowed to enable complex meanings to be inserted into a sentence with the minimum amount of disruption to the flow of meaning. Here, Ashbery instead forces us to realise that if you think poetry is semiotically strange, confined as it is to line-based units, then have a look at prose and its crazy concept of the sentence![iv] The intention is to denaturalise the ideology of ‘ordinary speech’, to undermine the idea of prose as normative and prosody as strange, and so to basically undermine the four thousand year old western tradition of language as a simple vessel of truth.

Notes
[i] Ibid 31.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ashbery himself addresses the role of prose within poetry in his own remarkable prose poem Three Poems however this is most fully realised as a project by Ron Silliman. Not only are the majority of his major works in prose but he has established a poetics of the sentence to supercede or provide a counterpoint to the predominant aesthetics of poetic lineation such as Agamben takes for granted. For more on this see Ron Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987).
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”; “...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; 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)


Introduction:

· 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…