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Ashes to Ash: Elegiac Language in the Poetry of John Ash and John Ashbery



A rare image of the elusive poet John Ash


Not much if anything has been written about the work of UK poet John Ash. This is a shame. Along with Lee Harwood, he represents the successful export and development of New York School poetics intoa European environment. Which is not to say that he is also his own man. In fact the much mentioned similarities between Ash and Ashbery, the basis in some sense for this paper, are overstated. That said, here I am stating them.


This was originally presented at the Symbiosis conference in UCL towards the end of last century. Sorry, couldn't resist the grandeur of that phrase. Like so many of my earlier works it was accepted for publication by Symbiosis only to be cut when the editors got chicken over using theory to analyse poetry.


Ashbery's Fragment


The beginning of dizain 3 of John Ashbery’s “Fragment” expresses the paradox of poetic edges: “This page is the end of nothing / To the top of that other” (Ashbery 78). The poem was written in a systematic fashion after the death of his father in 1964: two dizains a day over, theoretically at least, 25 days, each dizain restricted to, I believe, a page. Thus each dizain begins at the top of the page and ends at the bottom. Each page is the “end of nothing:” literally not the end, except for the opening and closing dizains for which anyway critics argue special status, an interim, temporary end afforded by the gap between one dizain/page and the next, and finally the end of the nothing separating this dizain from the previous one. Each dizain further directs attention to the “top of that other,” the dizain which is not this dizain, which allows for this dizain by not being this dizain, a kind of trace-dizain that is allowed within the network of dizains. This dizain does not exist, not as such, is not specifically dizain 2 or 4, for here dizain 3 is acting as a meta-stanzaic commentator, expressing in the situation between it and its local others the general situation between on closed poetic form and its other. The top of that other is the edge between the presence of the ten-line dizain stanzaic form, and the absent space surrounding which marks out the distinctive poem blocks that make up the whole block of the poem.

In the poem “Even Though,” John Ash enters similar territory by enumerating in a number of self-conscious tropes of absent being and writing, a kind of mini-check list of the paradoxes and aporias of the articulating space around, between, above, below, before, after and finally within, every utterance or mark thereof due to the logic of edging. The doorways of the poem, “linking the clauses of rooms and corridors / into a majestic sentence that will not reveal its object” (Ash 11), are in essence the main text continuum of the postmodern poem, especially apparent in Ashbery and Ash, a process of endless linking of clauses for no apparent semantic point, which I have elsewhere formulated as parataxis.


These clauses are made up of a strange process of signification or denomination where “a word / is a hand a throat a strand of hair after an evening’s dancing” (Selected Poems 11). These words operate not in a traditionally representative fashion of naming a thing, rather they set about naming themselves, pointing to themselves, speaking themselves, unravelling only after the event of their enunciation, naming nothing so much as naming as a process itself. Such words are not signs but taxonemes, minimal units of the postmodern alternative to naming which I again have elsewhere formulated as taxonomy.


These are the inner edges of the postmodern poem unit. Another key trope in “Even though” talks of windows that “are open onto the white of the margin” (Ash 17) in a manner that echoes the discourse of edging in “Fragment,” but here in an openly elegiac fashion. The poem is open to absence, willing to let absence into it, to place the marginal value of the absent other at the very heart of the lyrical process. This invitation literally to the margin of the poem to form the centre, is matched in Ash’s work by a traditional postmodern appeal to marginality in general. Whilst the vacated centre of presence which this results in in the poem, is the central trope of subjective uncertainty that critics have identified in Ashbery’s “Fragment.”


This “white of the margin” is literally between the actual dizain in “Fragment,” and its trace dizain. It is the presence of the absence of the other dizain, that not only allows for the presence of the dizain in question, number 3, but which also undercuts the claims for meta-narrative presence this dizain makes, as it is a presence predicated on a radical absence. At the other extreme Ash introduces a trope of ending: “the branching stairs escape syntax / are the extreme point of muscular tension” (Ash 11). At some point the poem must end by leaving syntax, and this introduces a peculiar breach of breaching, for into the central absence at the heart of the elegiac poem the poet must then introduce another radical absence; that the poem is no more. Logically this is a process of ending absence by introducing presence, of ending the poem by beginning it, an aporia central to the outer edges of the postmodern poem investigated further in “Fragment.”


“Fragment” begins by closing, “The last block is closed in April” (Ashbery 78). and closes with a trope of opening up: “words like disjointed beaches / Brown under the advancing signs of air” (Ashbery 94). These signs of air are the dizain blocks, reduced to sign status due to the peculiar logic of stanzaic presence and absence broached at the start of dizain 3. This is the central logic of elegiac poetic language, that language is predicated on an investigation of signification through absence over presence.


In closing the elegiac poem unit one closes its absence into presence, and in opening such a poem one opens the predominant discourse of presence, opens it up to the absence at the margin, placing absence in the centre and thus closing off presence by collapsing it into the predominance of absence. This occurs, I would argue, through three aspects of postmodern elegiac discourse that I have just described. First a central discursive poem body that is structured not by an attempt to render semantic presence, but by a basic semantics of absence. Second the logic of beginning into ending and ending into beginning, which is that of the aporia. And finally, third, the nature of the individual parts or moment of the poem body once the internal and external edges of the elegiac have been set up. I now want to briefly investigate these three moments.
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