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John Ashbery, "Popular Songs", Some Trees (1965)

“Popular Songs”, 10-11

“The involuted consonance (“car with the cur,” “gone to a longing”) of “Popular Songs” anticipates the wilful music of “Two Scenes”, whilst jarringly disjunctive lines point towards the novel-collages of The Tennis Court Oath.” (Shoptaw 30).

 I will hand over to the authority of Shoptaw in fact for most of the analysis here.  So, Shoptaw notes the songs of the 1930’s that embedded throughout the piece: “Blue Blue Ridge Mountain”, “The Garden of the Moon” and so on.  He quotes Ashbery as saying: “it was written in an attempt to conjure up the kind of impression you would get from riding in the car, changing the radio stations and at the same time aware of the passing landscape. In other words, a kind of confused, but insistent, impression of the culture going on around us.” (Shoptaw 31, citing Ashbery).  This is actually a good general summation of Ashbery’s own sense of composition as a combination of an actual circumstance in ‘reality’ and the imposition of discourse, text, memory, culture and so on.  Many of his poems tread the line between these two something actually happening and there being nothing outside of discourse so nothing new actually happens.  Think of “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” for example.

 Shoptaw also notes that the diction changes = different narrative viewpoints:
-plot summary

As well as a number of characters: he, her, the host (cf. “Pied Piper” and “Answering Questions in the Mountains”), (we, them, both, us), the cur (pervert?), Alton, his mother, you, the footman (watchman, sentries), the actors

This results in a number of implied and of course incomplete narrative strands:
-popular songs
-narrative of ending and disappointment
-props and syntax
-involuted consonance

Again this is a powerful insight into the Ashbery method.  The cohesion of the poem is organised around a limited number of discursive patterns which are no just say the language use but also syntax, limited choice of imagery, and readerly presuppositions which will be capitalised on but rarely satisfied. 

Your first role is to spot these, categorise them and name the sets included in this work.  However the work does not stop there.  One must pay attention to the significance of the choice of sets.  Thus here popular songs is clearly a postmodern self-referentiality to poetry, popular culture and the origin of  the lyric in popular songs.  These generate the meaning potentials of the work, although you can never say they are meanings in the traditional sense.  Then you need to consider the ‘prosody’ and structure of their inter-twining and interaction.  For example here songs on the radio cutting across observations of passing landscape.  Perhaps these meet in the narrative of endings and disappointment, so often the themes of popular songs, but also here perhaps the motivation for the narrator ‘going on the run.’

What I am suggesting is that in the past commentators, myself included, concentrated in the disruptive effects of Ashbery’s poems on poetic presuppositions such as consistent narrative voice, syllogistic structures, lyrical ego, confessionalism and so on.  All this is true but this is not the totality of the significance of the work.  The poems are as constructive as thy are destructive, and it is time to now concentrate as much on what they say and do, as what they make it no longer possible to say and do.

 That said the work is rich in Ashberyian attacks on readerly presuppositions.  In stanza 1 alone you can find cut-ups, pronominal shifters, citations, parentheses, dashes, simple repetitions/rhythms and rhymes.  In contrast stanza 2 begins not in the middle of something but with a complete statement:  You laugh...”, and the collage technique of the first stanza dissolves into more the more sinuous flatness of an Ashberyian argument of disappointment: “There is no way to prevent this / Or the expectation of disappointment.” In my own work I defined the two techniques as paratactic and hypertactic and Shoptaw’s final word is right. Here we have 3 elements of the Ashbery constructive principle typical throughout Some Trees:
1. the involuted ‘musical’ duality of “Two Scenes”
2. the collage of The Tennis Court Oath
3. the hypertactic poetry of later Ashbery especially Three Poems

There are, as ever, imagistic modes of associative cohesion.  The host is clearly the host of the restaurant: “The Gardens of the Moon” which is organised, one imagines, around the fountain with the backdrop of the mountain.  Here the actors, people, characters of the first stanza, moving across America, perhaps the mythical travelling band of players, seem to have come to a rest after a trying day.  The sustained note of laughter, replaces the intermittency of “tears came and stopped, came and stopped…” Although these tears are recalled in the fall of water from the fountain.  One is left with a problem.  When on the move, the actors, we are the actors, cannot make sense of the diverse material thrown at them.  Yet when they are at rest, they are too painfully aware of the underlying disappointment of their lives against the fragmented untrustworthiness of the movement through landscape.  In a sense then this is the postmodern, cultural paradox of popular songs.  The songs’ popularity means they are a stable source of reference but a banal one, whilst their ubiquity and indeed the ubiquity of diverse cultural product in our age means that they also contribute to a increased fragmentation of common experience.  Ironically it is the accessibility of these popular songs to all of us in common that has, effectively, robbed us of a common, significant experience of culture. 

 “…And now as silent as a group/ The actors prepare for their first decline.”
The poem ends on the word decline which means of course to go down.  This is a common way to tie together the semiotics of the end of the poem with the semantic charge of the final word which often relates to death, breath, ends, returning to the beginning and so on.  The decline here however holds an impossible number of meanings, impossible in the sense that it is not possible to decide which of the available meanings is the correct one.  It could refer to sunset, it certainly refers to the end of the poem, perhaps the decline in standards implied by popular songs. It also means to deviate or turn away from something, falling off in general in all its possible connotations, to turn down an invitation.  Finally it recalls the grammatical declination or the variation of form and inflection of words constituting different cases and so on.  Declension also suggests a diagonal inclination from the vertical to the horizontal.  Finally, following Shoptaw’s thesis, surely there is an occluded “first line” here, which all actors prepare for.  Of these the movement downwards (due to the mountains), the sense of corruption of values, and finally the variety of cases for words seem to combine forming a powerful semantic complex for the poem of change and corruption, songs as novelty and songs as corrosive of our wider sense of aesthetic value which forms a kind of diagonal between culture as vertical, old style culture, and horizontal, surface, flat popular culture.  Yet another masterpiece!

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