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John Ashbery's Daffy Duck in Hollywood (1)

An introduction and guide to reading John Ashbery Daffy Duck in Hollywood

This is the most complete guide to reading John Ashbery's "Daffy Duck in Hollywood." It relies on all the available scholarship to date. At the same time it is a first attempt at establishing this work as the archetypal postmodern poem. As such it is a detailed introduction to postmodern poetry. It alos compares an archetypal postmodern poem with and archetypal modernist poem, Eliot's The Waste Land to show differences between modernism and postmodernism.

Some of the finest Donald Duck t-shirt in our time has been written in poetry.[i]

Is it possible to choose a favourite or, Enlightenment style, define the very best based on assumed, communally held conceptions of value? People around me are always asking what I am working on and when I tell them postmodern poetry they say oh, what’s that then, and I pause to reflect, often for a very long time indeed. I think, wouldn’t it be great if I could carry postmodern poetry around in my wallet so that in answer to the question what is postmodern poetry, I could simply open that wallet, point to an artefact inside and say look, there it is! Of course one cannot do that. Postmodernism in general is against exemplarity and canonicity, and so am I, it responds to ontological questions of being by refusing the foundations upon which such questions are based,[ii] it also emphasises process over product so that halting the stream and pointing to one rivulet or rock within it simply does not make sense. One cannot choose an exemplary postmodern artefact in good conscience, therefore, but if one could, in bad conscience, do that, feeling terrible about it but doing it anyway, then the artefact in question for me would be the poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” by American poet John Ashbery.[iii]

I have taken a sentence from Ron Silliman’s long prose poem Tjanting to back me up on this, a statement that can be taken in at least one of two ways. One might read it literally as the syntax suggests and say that the commodification represented by Donald Duck t-shirts has spread to such a degree in our culture that contemporary poetry as product cannot be said to be any different. That is the negative reading. The more positive reading is to try to reconstitute the grammatical order of the words, which seemed to have suffered a good old-fashioned poetic inversion, and read the sentence as meaning some of the best poetry of our age has been written in (on) things like Donald Duck t-shirts, bumper stickers and the like. This is not only in the spirit of Tjanting, which often celebrates the everyday detail of postmodern culture and uses such grammatical inversions, but also suggests that the postmodern poem can be both critical and admiring of postmodern consumer capitalism. I am sure Silliman didn’t quite have this in mind, but this is what Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” is primarily about.

[i] Ron Silliman, Tjanting (Cambridge: Salt, 2002) 104.
[ii] In particular I am thinking of Derrida’s reponse to the question “What is poetry” at the beginning of his long essay on the work of Mallarm√©…
[iii] John Ashbery Bio
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