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Showing posts from June, 2007

Death in New York (2)

Ashbery's A Wave and elegy

“A Wave,” like “Seasons on Earth,” utilises a non-elegiac central trope to deal self-consciously with the presence of the elegiac at the heart of writing poetry. Just as Koch’s choice of the cycles of the seasons disallows any breaks per se, so the endless oscillations of wave motions don’t automatically guarantee Ashbery access to either the opening or closing edges that serve physically to delimit, and so define, a poem’s textual body. However, unlike perhaps the majority of his poems, “A Wave” does have clearly definable opening and closing semantic edges, as well as a rational relationship between the title and the poem proper.

The title, as has been noted, not only conveys the central trope of the poem, which also occurs usefully in its middle, it also describes the structure of the poem which, John Shoptaw shows, consists of a tripartite process: the wait or anticipation of the wave, the maximum rise of the wave typified by the crest, and the wak…

Death in New York: The Edges of Elegy in New York School Poetry

This article stems from an unused chapter in my first book, In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell 2001). It was made into an article but it was too long for submission and I got distracted by life. The work then fed into my second book, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature (Edinburgh 2004). Yet in fact none of the article was used in either book so that it remains both central and supplemental to everything I have done thus far. So hey here it is for the first time. A bit naive now but in the end even back then I was not so stupid. Oh, when I use the term nonrational I am using a Kristevan term that I now longer care for. I don't mean irrational or made but work which exceeds the generic dictates of thetic, so-called rational thought. The avant-garde in other words.

Death in New York: The Edges of Elegy in New York School Poetry

Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual t…

You do the Math (end)


In the process of adding up the diverse phrases of these two very different poetic units, The Tennis Court Oath and Writing is an Aid to Memory, one gets then a sense of how a certain structural similarity, the predominance of parataxis as mode of combination, can produce different text-ideology. Ashbery’s chosen title emphasises a self-conscious exploitation of erasure, leaving all out, and the myth of national politics. Written during a self-imposed exile the poem conveys in its two extremes, “America,” and the much analysed “Europe,” not only two very different modes of combination, parataxis and collage, producing two very different text units, but also two myths of nationhood predicated on the revolutionary fervour of the late eighteenth century that David’s painting depicts. And the to and fro of the game of tennis matches the to and fro of the poetic consciousness between a myth of America as free and Europe as horrific, which is cut across by the paradox of the se…

You do the Math (6)

Hejinian's Slippage

This musical “back and forth” movement is a myth of intersubjectivity which is directly opposed to the more disjunct sense that Hejinian describes in the preface to Writing is an Aid to Memory:
I am always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me. Memory cannot, through the future return, and proffer raw conclusions...Abridgement is foolish, like lopping off among miracles; yet times is not enough. Necessity is the limit with forgetfulness, but it remains undefined. Memory is the girth, or again.[i]

The main difference between Ashbery and Hejinian is that Hejinian does not presuppose the interaction between subjectivity and writing to be an easy passage, a musical to and fro productive of the poem unit with the aim of “going on.” For what happens when one cannot go on any more? Paratactic syntax is not endless, it is proscribed by number and thus by size, and whilst we all now know abridgement …

You Do the Math (5)

John Ashbery's Moving Climate

The more you do the math of “America,” the more you find you are held within the optimal zone of Ashbery’s use of phrase-measure placed between the words in the poem and the poem proper. This is ambitious in that it tries to reduce the line to the size of the phrase, then reduce the phrase itself until in parts of the poem it becomes the size of the word, then subordinate the sentence to the phrase as basic semantic unit, without however dispensing of the sentence altogether. This contraction of phrases into the phrase “America,” is matched by the explosion out of this phrase in the opposite direction towards a vast ideological construction. Later in conversation he noted what he was trying to achieve during this period:

And my idea of isolating a word was: perhaps, after I have done this for a while I will get a whole line that gives me the same instantaneous pleasure that the single word now does; maybe then, I will get a whole poem that will have…

You do the Math (4)

Ashbery's America and the Taxonomy-Parataxis Copula

The duality of word-phrase is the origin of the copula of poetic syntax: taxonomy-parataxis. Ashbery seems almost painfully aware of this in the work of The Tennis Court Oath which tends to reduce the phrase towards the level of the word in a work such as “America”:

Piling upward
In fact the stars
In America the office hid
archives in his
Enormous stars on them
The cold anarchist standing
in his hat.
Arm along the rail
We were parked
Millions of us
The accident was terrible.
The way the door swept out
The stones piled up—
The ribbon—books. miracle. with moon and the stars.[i]

What we have in this opening stanza and in the poem as a whole is a particular type of motivated parataxis which, in actual fact, is more akin to an intertextual taxonomy of limited motifs. Each phrase is combined in exactly the same fashion as the example of “leave all out” poetry Ashbery talks about in the opening of his Three Poems.[ii] What is omitted, nar…

You do the Math (3)

Hejinian's Writing is an Aid to Memory

Section 34 of Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory contains a self-conscious and self-referential catalogue of combinations which I have listed here in full in respect of the structure of taxonomy which does not respond well to paraphrasing or selection (Figure 1: Paratactic Combination of Combinatory Schemas--Note: can't find this figure at present will add when I do).

Within this taxonomy of combinations, internal cohesion in the section is based on the potentiality of the interaction of any number of these so that each moment of framing the phrase-strings into form is simply the onset of other binding hermeneutic potentialities which again open up the frame so as to then close it based along other lines. And what is true for the section is also true for the poem as a whole This movement is conveyed by the first and last phrases of my list: the anaphora implied by “making the body binding,” which suggests a closure of the anaph…

You do the Math: Parataxis in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath and Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory (1 & 2)

This paper was originally presented at a conference on postmodern poetry in Plymouth in 1998. I was still rather young and had not yet finished my PhD. Hejinian was in the audience along with other people I really admired. Having given the paper the chair, a well-known experimental British poet, passed a comment suggesting the paper was simply deranged. Luckily the audience didn't think so and the paper become a mini cause-celebre during the conference on the back of which met Hejinian, John Kinsella and later Rachel BlauduPlessis. So thanks curmudgeonly British poet. Written in the technical, rather high-blown style I used back then, the terminology in parts is a bit off now but the observations are still valuable I think. The paper was never published.

You Do the Math
One might argue that the phrase is the optimum unit of poetic language. Whilst its limits are fairly flexible, it can be as small as a word or even a mark, and it can extend along beyond the semi-mythic pause of a li…


Hi everyone

apologies if you are regular reader of this blog, have not been able to post due to work and other commitments and am away now at a conference until June 10th. Normal service will resume soon after that.