Skip to main content

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 sexual freedom the poet enjoys in Europe as opposed to the suppression of sexuality under McCarthyism. The negotiation between the style of “Europe,” and “America” is then also a negotiation between European modernism and American postmodernism, whilst the doubly ideological “you” of the poem is produced by being encapsulated in this moving paradoxical textual climate.

Hejinian’s concerns are less overtly political. However the slippage trope provides a fascinating alternative frame ideology. The assistance writing gives to memory is to make it slip, to fall from a mythic certainty into a realm of subjectivity which one must call the subject of uncertainty. Causing the mask of autobiography to slip produces an intersubjectivity between two key mythic subjects of modernity, the archival and the instantaneous, a kind of mix between Freud and Nietszche.

The opening of Ashbery’s “The Ascetic Sensualists” asks “All... All these numbers easily... Why...,”[i] in both Ashbery and Hejinian the answer is found in the movement up to the discursive level, but the means by which these levels are structured through the radical de-structuring effect of parataxis produces two ways of doing the math of postmodern poetry. The result of the addition of a moving climate to slippage is the production of an articulated and permanently double postmodern poetic subject as mediated through the postmodern poetic unit. The endless going on in the moving climate which produces the tendency of the combination of units to leap from the mathematical to the dynamic sublime, is coupled with the perpetual slippage from this ideological level back down into the syntax of the poem itself and its piling up of phrase upon phrase upon infinitum. The deconstructive motility of this process results in a phrase-subject, held between infinite and mathematical realms of being, or the mine/nine of Hejinian’s conclusion to section 22: “list of mine nervous / more more than nine.” The mine/nine subject is a “you” which does the math of poetry so as to be done by the math into a limited but not closed phrasal subjectivity. This is its why, or as Ashbery states in the implied answer of “The Ticket:” “I was near you where you want to be / down in the little house writing you.”[ii]

[i]Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath 51.
[ii]Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath 43.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

John Ashbery, Some Trees

John Ashbery, Some Trees
(New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Originally published (New York: 1956)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) currently in the process of complete update (2013)

"Two Scenes," 9

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.

This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; g…

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

The Grenfell Tower Murders

The 72 victims of Grenfell Tower Fire were murdered, victims of the violence of neglect.  Here is the proof.
A year ago, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, due to a faulty appliance.  The fire spread quickly up the side of the building because the tower had been refurbished in 2016.  Flammable cladding had been added to the exterior building as part of an £8 million refit which appears to have primarily made the tower more cosmetically pleasing.  The money was not spent on improving fire safety within the building, it would appear, a cause for concern for residents’ groups for years. The initial cladding that was to be used is not illegal in the UK but its use is restricted in other countries.  To save costs a cheaper version was eventually attached to the building, a more flammable version. 
Once the fire caught, residents were advised to stay in their flats.  In 99% of all cases this is the best advice, because flats are designed to be “fire resistant boxes” surr…