Thursday, April 18, 2013

John Ashbery, "Two Scenes" from Some Trees (1956)

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.

This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; general honesty recalls “truly behave”; “history” relates to “destiny”; “fumes” to the “air” in the “mountains” (cf. “Answering a Question in the Mountains”); “dry” speaks to the “water-pilot”. Finally there is an example of what we should call image logic or associative deduction which is perhaps, in the end, Ashbery’s greatest talent. The “warm and pleasant day”, “fumes” and “dry…poverty” then establish an associative and metonymical context for the sparks of scene 1 to produce a fire that results in fumes. This being the case then a joke is revealed in that in this poem there is smoke without an actual fire! I seem to remember that Shoptaw summarises the theme of the poem as “possible combustion”.

Like many Ashbery lyrics, the poem conforms to the law of structure to be found in my own work on poetics inspired by Husserl, Agamben and linguistics. I usually call this the cataphora/anaphora tabular matrix or the way a poem will hint towards something that will come later and then later also refer back to what came before. Husserl calls this protention-retention, Agamben calls its structure. So, here Ashbery uses “units” because it rhymes in the future with “cadets” and “old man/paint cans” so there is a semiotic, phonic pretension or cataphora. In contrast the conclusion of the “schedule” returns us back to the “destiny of the train”. This destiny is established locally by the train whose sparks illuminate the table. The table is a surface image upon which the water-pilot's boat sits. It is also, however, the time-table or schedule. Thus it has a double cataphora.

Then, the destiny of the water-pilot is able to be anaphorically worked back say using the determined track of a canal which is wet and on whose surface perhaps the boat skims. The significance of death and of course transition from one scene to another it perhaps the most predictable element of the poem.  Thus forward-backward semantic interchange of association is what allows us to ‘deduce’ that destiny relates to the train. It is a fundamentally formal, logical mode of deduction, as powerful as syllogism for example, it is just that it operates due to an associative logic or what some used to called dream logic. If you know your Freud you will see this is actually quite accurate.

Anyway once you have determined the link of train to destiny than this concept of train-like, mechanistic destiny casts us forward again to its sense of schedule only this time with a different semantic register. This may occur several times within the poem, for example if you then look at the complex but stable rules of the poem’s construction then, the two forms of destiny, water-pilot destiny which is free to travel the table (the poem is our table) and canal-train destiny which moves forward along predictable trackways, syntax, lineation, laws of grammar and coherence. Perhaps then this is the real meaning of the poem, a free destiny within a tabular field and a directed destiny within a linear track.

One of the most recurrent of Ashbery’s motifs is units, or small enclosed entities of all sorts. You will often find this image in his work across most of his career. Here, the interaction of the “terrific units” is quite complex:

1. two scenes interact internally

2. two scenes picks up ways of seeing (seens)

-2 levels of the poem
-as we truly behave
-language usage itself

3. internal mirroring and linear introversions already mentioned

4. the argument of the poem:
-as we truly behave/honesty
-machinery, history, order
-interaction of themes with use of language as structural cataphora-anaphora

5. Locally the units that are terrific seem to be units of cadets but they are also paint cans. We already saw a phonic interdependency of units on cadets. We also have a double syntactic potential here. The terrific units could be on an old man or this could be old-fashioned inversion meaning units are terrific on an old man, terrific here perhaps meaning instilling terror. In other words the same thing can be said the same way and mean two different things. Please remember Ashbery went to Paris to write a dissertation on Raymond Roussel; this was his narrative conceptualisation.

6. the “narrative”:
-train (from corner)—table (toy train?)—water pilot—news—outside to the warm day in the mountains//—industrial scene—teleology—fumes—poverty—units—paint—old age—cadets. Onto this we can map two worlds, moods what have you. We could say that scene 1 seems a carefree, childish life, while scene 2 presents an almost 19th century, Dickensian world. Finally onto that we can then map our projective-recursive, involuted, cataphoric-anaphoric tabular structural dynamic.

From this we abstract the theme which is, as stated above, honesty-journey-order-combustion. I would take this as a single ‘word’ in that it is impossible to say which value comes ‘first’, which leads causally to the next and so on. So we take this meaning compound, then we articulate it as it is in two parts, we tell the story of its first reading development, we then pay attention to the tabular forward-backward referentiality of its deeper structure, and finally we always have to accept there is a degree of detail here that should never be entirely recuperated into the ‘meaning’ discourse. Ashbery criticises these early works for lacking in this final element, suggesting they are like puzzles for which you can find a solution, so accept and expect more of the elements which don’t fit the pattern as a pattern as his work matures.

Taken on its own the complexity of this poem must make a case for it being a masterpiece of twentieth century art as well as the perfect guide as to how to read Ashbery. Not the only way but one of the key ways definitely.

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