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”:
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, narrative and semantic coherence, is more than amply made up for by what is subsequently ushered in by the limited system of paratactic poetic language: the connotative impetus of gaps, the motivation to cohere motifs internally, the motivation to cohere motifs externally, the associative power of the word, the motility between word and phrase, between phrase and line, between phrase and sentence, and between phrase and phrase; and the overall desire both for narrative cohesion and coherence which is predicated on a method of phrasal combination, parataxis, which continually undermines this as a closed-off possibility.
Read allegorically, the “piling upward” of line one is equal to the paratactic method of composition used here, mimetically confirmed by the design of the poem which resembles increasingly piles of words. It also conveys the sense of vertige that the sublime mathematical mode of composition often results in without the dynamic causal relationships of normal narrative syntactic units. Yet whilst on a local level the phrases seem random, they are increasingly motivated towards the ideological level of the collection. The second line is part of an internal, ongoing association of “America” with the kind of rational discourse not used here, which is also in the collection, as a whole, the discourse of so-called normal sexuality. This rational authority-figuration recurs obsessively throughout the majority of the poems in the collection and here the juxtaposition of the fact with the stars is politically redolent. The stars symbolise the aspirational vertige of the paratactic textual body, always in the process of making that leap from the mathematical sublime to the dynamic sublime, from the syntactic discursive level of these words on this page to the ideological level of the meta-motifs I am imposing on the text here. However, they are also symbols of American authority, and stars, stripes and flags recur throughout.
The next two figures, the encrypted “office (r)” and the cold anarchist seem symbolic of two forces of threat in the collection, bureaucracy (American) and pure violence (the European influence of Artaud’s sense of horror which Ashbery concedes did influence this collection).[iii] Between them is interposed a magnified flag, but the open-ended nature of the pronominal “them”, leaves the stars as symbolic in the Mallarméan sense of a fixed system which is however unlimited in terms of connotative force. The arm along the rail is one of numerous linear images, again echoing the stripes of the flag suggesting the basic tension in the structure between narrative and parataxis. The next image of being parked in our millions is a direct reference to one of the sister poems in the collection, “They Dream Only of America”, a retelling of the American dream from the external, European, homosexual dream of the lovers being able to come out of the “barn” (a rural version of the closet in that work) and finally grow up openly and sexually in America. The final tropes of accidents, doorways, piles, ribbons, moons and so on all fall into place in relation to the larger discursive frame of the collection which deals with threats, sexual occlusion, and paratactic aspiration in contradistinction to the ribbon-like linearity of oppressive American post-war rationality.
[i]John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath (Middletown Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962) 15.
[ii]”I though that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” John Ashbery, Three Poems (New York: Ecco Press, 1972) 3.
[iii]Both for the idea of “encryption” and these specific details I am indebted to John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).