John Ashbery and Elegiac Edges
Ashbery clearly articulates the relation between elegy, language, the wave, and his poetic practice in the crucial central section of “A Wave”:
And as the luckless describe love in glowing terms to strangers
In taverns, and the seemingly blessed may be unaware of having lost it,
So always there is a small remnant
Whose lives are congruent with their souls
And who ever afterward know no mystery in it,
The cimmerian moment in which all lives, all destinies
And incompleted destinies were swamped
As though by a giant wave that picks itself up
Out of a calm sea and retreats again into nowhere
Once its damage is done.
And what to say about those series
Of infrequent pellucid moments in which
One reads inscribed as though upon an empty page
The strangeness of all those contacts from the time they erupt
Soundlessly on the horizon and in a moment are upon you
Like a stranger on a snowmobile
But of which nothing can be known or written, only
That they passed this way? That to be bound over
To love in the dark, like Psyche, will somehow
Fill the sheaves of pages with a spidery, Spencerian hand
When all that will be necessary will be to go away
For a few minutes in order to return and find the work completed? (Ashbery 81)
The passage forms the poem’s inner edge and works through a wavic semantics of sense coming in and going out. Each phrase emulates the rising up of the crest to a possible meaning, or the strike of a wave on the beach of possible understanding, and yet at the same time moving on to the next phrase, and the next, before a full sense of meaning can be settled on. In this passage the wave is posited as the central controlling symbol of the poem, and I have already noted how this can be seen to be the case at the local semantic level. At this inner edge the outer edges are folded into the text paradoxically forming the two steep sides of the poem’s centrally rising crest, the crest being the conclusion of the poem; what it is about.
It begins in classic elegiac territory, with lost love, but because this is an elegy constructed of elegiac language, the presence of loss is immediately undermined with the “seemingly blessed” apparently “unaware of having lost it.” Note the wavic rhythms of uncertainty here, “luckless,” “strangers,” “seemingly,” “blessed,” “may be unaware,” “lost it,” which can be broken down into a formula of the presence of full semantic absence, itself subjected to absence as an alternative aspect of semantic presence. Within the elegiac, nothing is totally held, nothing absolutely lost, and yet in the texture of semantic uncertainty a small group of people appear who seem never to have been subjected to this logic. Their lives match their souls and they know “no mystery in it.” They live without lack in the realm of the Kristevan Thing. One might presume them to be lucky, never to have known loss or to have faced the edge of death, but the motion of the poem’s logic matches the motion of the “cimmerian moment,” the wet logic of the wavic strike. The wave is meaning, and it has the power to overwhelm and swamp us all. What distinguishes this remnant, and note the noun is already isolating them, is that they do not understand the role of absence in their lackless sense of presence. While they know no mystery, as Ashbery shows us in this meta-wave or tidal wave of waves, the damage is still done, full stop.
On the other side of the wavic conclusion, Ashbery’s logic moves away from this Derridean edge and its highlighting of the inter-reliance of presence and absence, to an almost uncanny reworking of Kristeva’s sense of dejecta. The “series” in Ashbery’s work must, since The Tennis Court Oath, be read in terms of a reference to poetry. If the foot was the staple self-referential pun for syllabically measured poetry, the series and its constituent units are the equivalent for nonrational poetry that is measured in phrases. Individually in the poem I agree, these moments are “pellucid,” transparent and clear, but they are also infrequent if we take frequency to mean happening in close succession. Each phrase sparkles with wit and intelligence, it is only when we try to read them serially that Ashbery’s apparently wilful obfuscation sets in.
These moments are “as though on an empty page” because they do not follow from or proceed onto their neighbouring phrases, and it is only by reading in a four-directional fashion that one can begin to piece together the parts. The damage done by semantic certainty is tantamount to these pellucid moments, and significantly Ashbery extends this allegorical link with writing in the following lines. The snowmobile not only freezes the water of the wave, a process he has already used in “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” to emphasise the dangers of reifying the wavic moment; it establishes the snowy landscape as a blank page, and it also leaves tracks.
Yet these tracks seem not to link phrase to phrase, rather their mark emphasises the emptiness of the page. The semantic contacts of poetry are therefore undermined, with the snowmobile linking one strange thing to another while simultaneously being driven by a “stranger.” The tracks tells us little. How could they given these circumstances, except that something has passed this way? They are profoundly elegiac in this respect, the dejecta or process of mourning the loss of presence through setting up a myth of presence, the Thing never existed, and then marking out the passage of its absence. This passage of course never occurred, and so it also accords with the Derridean idea of the aporia or nonpassage.
Ashbery links this process to love, and this is apt because the elegiac is all about love. However to love in the dark is not elegiac, as the realm of elegy is not black but white. Love in the dark, within the discourse of desire, is normal love. Instead, this love without ever knowing is the healthy side of mourning and is the point where elegy and the elegiac part company. Elegy fills pages with a “Spencerian hand,” here symbolic of the poetry of presence,[i] and it is eminently resolvable, so much so you only have to go away for a short time and when you come back the work is “complete.” This echoes the Freudian conception of healthy mourning. The elegiac tendency of Ashbery’s poem, however, is much more the result of the irresolvability of melancholia.
The wave of the meaning of the wave rises up at this point and it should not only explain what the wave means as a central motif, it should also prove that it is the central motif. Further, the aufhebung of this inner edge should reconcile the radical absence bordering the poem at its two extreme edges. By this I mean the idea of the wave justifies the overall structure of the poem. However, because the theme of the poem is its form, and because this form is a mode of undermining theme and form, the metaphysical claims of wavic thinking undermine themselves.
While it makes sense to think of the wave as an edge between absence and the damage done, between the lack of mark and the way the mark is unable to remove presence but in a sense strengthens it, it doesn’t make sense to set this up within the wave. Even if the wave were representative of the paradox between the presence of absence before the poem, and the absence of presence after the poem, how can it say this of itself? How can the wave tell the truth about its failures to ever tell us the truth? How can we possibly trust it?
The processual aesthetic of the wave mixes the four parts of thinking at the limits of thinking. It deals with local presence, the individual phrase units of the poem, and local absence, the articulating gaps between which serve to undermine semantic coherence and so make the poem nonrational. Yet is also deals with omnipresence, taking a part of the poem, in this case the wave, to stand in for the whole of the poem’s meaning.
And at the same time it establishes what can only be called “omniabsence,” namely how as soon as one inscribes a single motif in such a complex and rich poem as being above all others, it undermines the truth claims of this motif which in many ways tells us little about the detailed meaning of the poem. This is heightened by the nature of the wave which brings sense in and carries it away. But if Ashbery is, then, able to reconcile the aporetic contradiction at the heart of New York School processual aesthetics, it is not clear that Koch is able to do the same for the surface trope.
[i] I am presuming this is Spenser of The Faerie Queene. Both Koch and Ashbery read Spenser avidly when they were undergraduates. Koch says: “I remember John Ashbery and I were reading The Faerie Queene at the same time (1949 or 1950). When I asked him how he liked it, he said it was wonderful, like reading an endless comic strip” (Koch, The Art of Poetry 194). Perhaps more interstingly, it would seem the The Faerie Queene was an early inspiration for Ko: “I guess I learned to tell three or four stories at the same time from reading The Faerie Queene and Orlando Furioso, and how to digress from reading Byron. Though Byron was the original inspiration for my writing Ko I didn’t read him while I was writing it. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by his sophistication” (Koch, The Art of Poetry 193-4). This being the case, it would be fair to assume Spenser was one of the main influences on his early experiments in postmodern narratology. While Ashbery’s comment is very telling both in terms of the processual aesthetic he has made his own, and also the pervading influence of comics on his work, and Koch for that matter. Comic strips are very “musical” and very “wavic.” They are ongoing, yet they are always coming to a conclusion each day or week, much in the same manner as modern soap operas or the serialised novel of the nineteenth century.