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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.


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