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Death in New York (4)

Mourning and Melancholia in Koch and Ashbery

What I want to try and do now is reconcile the pleasure of New York School aesthetics, their semantic attachments, with psychoanalytical conceptions of mourning and melancholia and more traditional literary conceptions of elegy. In Freud’s formulation of mourning and melancholia the two processes are indistinguishable up until a certain point. In both instances the subject lacks, or in this case has lack foisted upon it, and a process is instigated which Freud calls “reality testing.” Reality testing is the systematic withdrawal of the subject’s love from that which can no longer be loved and it is carried out, according to Freud, “bit by bit” in a manner which confounds him:

Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged...Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of economics. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. (Freud 253)

These bits in poetry accord with the poetic components that make up the poem’s body; its phrases. The subject is unable to leap from one love object to another in a manner akin to the leaps of associative figures such as metaphor and symbol, rather it must pursue its loss in the same syntactic and contiguous fashion one finds in Ashbery and Koch who both favour metonymy over metaphor. Once it has reached the zero point of interpretation, for that is all “reality testing” is in effect, it reverses the process and begins to reinvest, one would assume also bit by bit. Melancholia occurs at this zero point, in fact the edge of elegy, when all the bits of the subject which had been given out have been gathered in and yet they remain just a collection of bits. What enables the healthy mourning subject to move on at this point is a force akin to the symbolic, that is of being able to argue out from bits—words, marks and phrases—a whole new continuum of significance which we call the economy of desire. This is the associative leap from the place of mourning back into the real world. Meanwhile, melancholia just loiters on the edges.

Edges are not borders nor boundaries but a means of violence, of sharpening a tool, the original meaning of the word, to cut off something. Koch’s comment on the basic definition of New York School aesthetics, therefore, raises serious questions as to the logic behind the metonymic aspirations of his early work: “I used to say, Very important to all of us was the surface of the language. It does seem that whatever our poems had to say, the words got there first” (Koch, The Art of Poetry 214). In “Seasons on Earth” he reaffirms this with a trope of such strong contiguity between his own agency as a poet, and that of language that,
Writing my lines, I felt them close as skin-tight:..

My life was in the poem and just outside it.
Nothing was written as it “really happened”
But all took place as rhyme and chance decided. (Koch, Seasons on Earth 9)

Koch clearly mistakes the surface of the poem with that of real life and his own skin. In a gesture of semi-mystical confluence, he sets up a poetic process that is able to renounce the depth assumptions of traditional associative models of poetry, and yet retains all of its logical impossibilities. The first comment to be made is that the articulated “bit by bit” structure of reality testing does not sit easily with such tropes of all-over surface, but this is solved by the issue of the edge of the poem. While Koch attempts to stretch a linguistic epidermis, tented over subject/object and linguistic differences, the double break of the colon at the end of the first line immediately reminds us of the significance of the line break in disallowing such a marquee philosophy. This is further emphasised by his having to put the “really happened” as a citation, the articulation of the seamless continuum of life which is in the poem and outside it, the necessary articulation of poetry and life masked in the terms “rhyme and chance,” and finally the way this recalls to us the opening of the poem.

Koch’s first idea was of a surface poetics that gave precedence to language as an event rather than a mode of communication, what it means when words “get there first.” However, this is undermined by his reliance on metonymic concepts of closeness, in and just outside, and the causalities of rhyme and chance, metonymy being a causal link rather than an associative one. His first idea of happiness is, then, a classic case of melancholia with the subject being trapped forever in the realm of bit by bit poetic reality testing whose only closure can come from the subject’s death.

While the nonrational surface poem seems inarticulate because it has no semantic telos, this absence being its defining feature, its structure becomes a pile of bits and indeed this paratactic mode of composition is an agreed feature of postmodern, nonrational poetics.[i] Freud seems to suggest that the melancholic is unrealistic in his or her refusal to set up a new libidinal attachment to replace the lack in its life, coming, he suggests, from inappropriate attachments in the first instance.[ii]

In fact, the melancholic is too much of a realist. Melancholia is a realm of endless testing of reality against the radical absence within it that is both its inner and outer edge. Koch’s poem is an open investigation of this and his first season is the dead season that requires him to keep moving through the process of composition, the nonrational equivalent of psychoanalytical conceptions of the pleasure principle. And if Koch stresses the event side of happiness, of always being on the surface of the occurrence and so also the poem because of their proximity, Ashbery stresses the dynamism required to keep this process going.

In an interview where Ashbery describes his habit of composing to music he 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” (Packard 81-2). The contradictory motions of going on and reaching a conclusion is as clear a description of the dynamic of the wave as it is of nonrational poetry. Like the surface trope, the idea of going on seems edgeless, but the local conclusions it reaches impose internal edges to offset against the inevitable end of this process, and of course its beginning.

Again we are in the realm of a happy melancholia where the poetic process revels in its lack of attachments, finding the more it withdraws bit by bit, the more it can go on living in the impossible realm of the dead. Within the poem body itself we find Ashbery openly exploiting the pain of this process, delighting in its suggestive uncertainties in relation to the process of the poem’s composition:

Moving on we approach the top
Of the thing, only it was dark and no one could see,
Only somebody said it was a miracle we had gotten past the
Previous phase, now faced with each other’s conflicting
Wishes and the hope for a certain peace, so this would be
Our box and we would stay in it for as long
As we found it comfortable, for the broken desires
Inside were as nothing to the steeply shelving terrain outside,
And morning would arrange everything. So my first impulse
Came, stayed awhile, and left, leaving behind
Nothing of itself…
Meanwhile I have turned back
Into that dream of rubble that was the city of our starting out. (Ashbery 73-4)

The marking out of this stanza is a central feature of the logic of ending which makes it such a good example of elegiac language. “Moving on” breaches the stanzaic breaks, it is the first line of the stanza, but in a complex fashion which re-enacts this movement in belated fashion. Its suggestion that we are approaching the top is false as we are already at the top at this point, and in fact are approaching the bottom of the stanza. The “thing” whose upper limit Ashbery is leading us towards, is the poem and also the thing as thing. What is peculiar is that within the process of reading one does not move from down to up, and in considering the problems of the articulation of individual units, the upper and lower limits within a serial, alphabetised form of writing have little or no consequence. The top, therefore, becomes one of four edges which make the “box,” or interior zone typical in Ashbery’s work.

The box is a polysemous symbol referring to stanza boxes—even more literally in the later elegy “Fragment”—the poem, the individual words/phrases, and the thing itself which has a “tabular” existence of up/down-left/right. Yet, as soon as he establishes the cosiness of this structure, “as we found it comfortable,” he fractures it, “for the broken desires.” The wave motion is echoed by the tripartite phrasing, “So my first impulse / Came, stayed awhile, and left, leaving behind / Nothing of itself” (my emphases). One assumes the wavic motion to be dual, in/out, but in fact it is in at least three parts, coming in/ being in / going out, to which one might add a fourth term: being out. The “comings” are processual, but the “beings” are edges in that they are the extreme points of differing processual dynamics, between in and out.

The stanza obviously plays with a complex, perhaps ultimately untraceable, interaction between the two sets of wavic movement. The in/out synthesises with the linearity of the phase by phrase paratactic mode of composition, and perhaps also echoes the interaction between the two forces of parataxis and hypertaxis that typify the poem’s line-measures.[iii] It also seems a metaphor for the teasing local semantic process which comes into our realm of understanding only to leave it again, always, however, with a promise of returning.

While the up/down accords with verticality of the poem, lines stacked on lines, stanzas on stanzas, and the chiasmatic intertwining of anaphoric and cataphoric motifs. For example the “dream of rubble” recalls a number of earlier and later broken landscapes, causing us always to think in vertical terms as we move horizontally across the poem phrases. And the end of the stanza completes the never complete four-directionality of arrested and arresting semantic ketch and yawl: “…so pleasing in the / Immense solitude are the tracks of those who wander and continue / On their route, certain that day will end soon and that night will the fall” (Ashbery 74). As definite an ending as one might wish, more definitive than the actual ending of the poem,[iv] it is doubly undermined by its upper and lower edges.

The wandering people are alone, without direction, and only certain of the end which does not come. Further, these lonely individuals, the paradox of singular and plural already destabilising meaning, are known only through their tracks, the ghostly traces of their passage towards the nonpassage of the end. An end that does not come, even for the stanza, as the following stanza carries on the long “sentence,” a good example of the hypertactical extension of the phrase-built poem.[v]

The surface trope is an attempt to blanket out the basic articulating gaps in language, of which poetry is most intensively an exemplar. But the logic of phrase contiguity, which is at the heart of metonymy, undermines this revealing the bit by bit advance of the supposed unbroken surface. Ashbery’s “going on” seems to be openly in accord with this, but his trope of the wave clearly isn’t. It carries its own edge along with it, but the crest is a meta-edge, literally an edge above all others.

Further, it is bordered on both sides by absence so it is, in effect, between two limits of conceptual thinking. If the surface tries to overarch and negate the edge, the moving on dynamic of the wave seems to try to ruck up, or put a crease into textual surface creating a permanent, mobile, edge. The wave is exactly this. It is always going on and, because it is an edge, it is always also a conclusion; both horizontal and vertical.

What is the point of elegy? There is no point. One cannot contract the edge between presence and absence into a single instance. Nor can one ethically reduce the double dimensions of the poetry of absence to a single dimension, or reconcile all-over poetics with a single idea or motif, anymore than one can privilege one moment over and above any other in processual poetic practice. The season is never only one day, the wave never only one strike at the beach.

[i] See Bob Perelman’s essay “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” for the first full investigation of this.
[ii] See Freud 256-259.
[iii] I am indebted to Professor Geoff Ward for alerting me to the accompanying presence of hypertaxis within Ashbery’s otherwise profoundly paratactic mode of composition.
[iv] The poem ends: “And so each of us has to remain alone, conscious of each other / Until the day when war absolves us of our differences. We’ll / Stay in touch. So they have it, all the time. But all was strange” (Ashbery 89). If this ending feels like the end it is only because it comes at the end and because the whole poem feels like the end of something, but here the “damage done” forces us back into the water of the poem just when we would like to dry ourselves off. By the end we remain alone and yet together, waiting for a war. There are promises of contiguity, perhaps between reader and author, but this is only true if we refuse to leave off reading the poem. If we stop now and get over the poem, we lose the poem forever. And yet this poem will be followed by another and, due to the logic of edges, these poems will in a sense be in touch. Meanwhile, those few people gifted with a lack of lack that we encounter in the central edge of the poem (see pp. 19-22 of this article) return here but resolve nothing. By the end of the poem the “all” remains unknown, and if we have passed through the pain of the elegiac, we do not, as yet, know it and the damage is still being done.
[v] This next stanza begins “But behind what looks like heaps of slag the peril / Consists in explaining everything too easily” (Ashbery 74). As we can see, the broken landscape from the previous stanza returns, except it should be behind the narrator as he had turned his back on it, which, if taken literally, could mean we are now going back towards the opening edge of the poem. While the warning of easy explanations, truly ironic considering the tottering heap of sense the poem is constructing, undermines the ghostly certainties of the day’s imminent end.


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