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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 this new importance for me. And finally, this continuing urge of mine to put things back together resulted in my supposing there was a book where every page, or almost every page, would be totally covered with words and a very long poem completely filling up these pages that would give me the same pleasure that the one-word exercise did way back then.[i]

This astute appreciation of the role of the phrase as mediator between taxonomy, or the piling up of words, and parataxis, the piling up of phrases, is restated by Silliman in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book:

Word’s a sentence before it’s a word—I write sentences—When words are, meaning soon follows—Where words join, writing is—One’s writing is one writing—Not all letters are equal—2 phrases yield an angle...—Collage is a false democracy—Spelling’s choices—Line defined by its closure: the function is nostalgic—Nothing without necessity—By hand...—Structure is metaphor, content permission, syntax force—Don’t imitate yourself—We learned the language—Aesthetic consistency = voice—How does a work end?[ii]

These two statements given together produce a very definite sense of the process of mathematics in postmodern poetry. The duality of the word which is both a separate unit and yet, within the logic of taxonomy never to be encountered alone, gets combined into phrases which themselves cannot occur in isolation as parataxis also demands a basic duality of one phrase stacked upon or placed next to another. Combination adds up heterogeneous units pushing the limits of the poem into the realm of excess at which point the syntactic discursive level is abandoned in favour of an imposed ideological frame, for example nationhood and sexuality in “America.” However due to the non-coherent nature of the poem unit this meta-discursive level is continually undermined by the very phrases it has exploited and it therefore falls back into the poem unit, perhaps to gather more phrasal evidence of perhaps to seek a new distribution of phrases from which to construct an alternative ideology.

As Ashbery notes the power of the quasi-monadic poem of the single unit tends upwards to a totality of expansion (in this case that of America), yet as Silliman adds, whilst a word is a sentence that is, always expanding out to encompass the larger semantic units of a work, this does not help us to find out where a work ends, in fact it makes this impossible. It is an open and shut case that is however ongoing between the upward aspirations of mathematical combination of units of equal equivalence to a point of collapse into the infinite, followed by a systematic collapse of the infinite back into its particulate constitution.

What is interesting here is the effect of this on the “you,” or phrasal mediator and it is to the “you” in Ashbery and Hejinian that I would now like to turn, by considering two predominant tropes of preferred combination in their work, Ashbery’s sense of a “moving climate,” and Hejinian’s emphasis on “slippage.” In an interview explaining the importance of music to his work Ashbery notes: “The thing about music is that it’s always going on and reaching a conclusion and it helps me to be surrounded by this moving climate that it produces—moving in the sense of going on.”[iii] This is in accord with the kind of process of combination his poetry aims at as he notes in specific reference to The Tennis Court Oath:
my poems are frequently commenting on themselves as they’re getting written and therefore the methodology occasionally coincides with the subject. They are a record of a thought process—the process and the thought reflect back and forth on each other.[iv]

[i]Poitr Sommer, “An Interview in Warsaw” in Codes of Signals: Recent Writing in Poetics ed. Palmer Mitchell (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1983) 302.
[ii]Ron Silliman, “For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984) 16.
[iii]William Packard ed. The Poet’s Craft (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1987) 81-2.
[iv]Packard 88.
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