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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:

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.

[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).
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