Monday, April 22, 2013

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:
-gothic
-plot summary
-contemporary

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
-landscape
-props and syntax
-characters
-involuted consonance
-association

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!

 

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”; “...hair/Air”; “-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.

Units:
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
-we/you
-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
-journeying/destiny
-machinery, history, order
-combustion
-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.