Skip to main content

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved in the darkness alone.
· notes the return to measure from the titular pentameter through the mimetic anapaests of “only some were immortal and free” and iambs “a little at a time”.
· sees the opening as in common with “The New Spirit” but the “I” is more representative and not merely involved with aesthetic problems. The latent happiness of waiting, actually for the storm, which the poem describes contains thus keeping a number of things in reserve, fro example the postponed specular moment, the fullness of perception being related of course with frontal happiness. Following this is the storm muted.
· the main intertext is Marvell’s Tom May’s Death”, relating the spurning of the poetaster May by the immortal poets, also a threat thus in Ashbery’s work? The shadow which falls across after the knock? This could be death but the woman instructing him not to hurry up suggests time is on his side, unlike May.
· the last stanza contains a second intertext, de Chirico’s prose poem “On Silence”, which he translated just before writing this. He thus chooses maternal generosity over paternal “summer” demands, choosing ““mortal and bound” life of waiting over blinding moments of illumination.” (162)
· stanza 1: a moment of pause in what seems at first to a be a benevolent summer setting, threatened by the storm of “harsh words”. The waiting for someone typifying the latent happiness, the first line recalling the new spirit and the “a little at a time” the systematic. Seems then a direct continuance from TP.
· stanza 2: the disjunction between this new spring of poetry and the progress of summer is our first clue, and the “full darkness” of summer, the storm, is the other. Remember the sun is always equated with the patriarchal gaze. Again we are waiting...
· stanza 3: simply about the self-reflexivity of the stanza being about his return to poetry.
· stanza 4: finally, the poet is invited in from the suspension of his being within the gaze of the sun which, unlike the sphinx in the desert, (cf. TP), has made him no wiser. Thus, the shadow which falls across him is that of mortality, but also of maternal generosity which says he still has time.
· stanza 5: night then, is the foil to daylight and summer, which Shoptaw sees as the glare of patriarchal poetic tradition, and instead we have the moon, and the “small things on earth”. The conclusion then is to prefer the night over the day. This, like “Some Trees”, suffers from having a summarisable ending.

“Worsening Situation”, 3-4

· Shoptaw notes the severed hand and hysterical attempts to regain one’s name symbolise Ashbery’s increasing sense of the split between his public and private persona.
· paragraph 1: the rain and the colours both are intertextual references to the previous poem. The severed hand recalls that film, also the danger of synecdoche which is mentioned in TP as well, suggesting disjunction between the occupation of the hand and the world as whole, but the hand is not writing but being unable to choose food. One of numerous postponements in the poem. The hysterical breaks the syntax and seems to usher in calls of madness, “white uniforms”.
· paragraph 2: the man who calls in is the voice in the desert of TP, relating also then to the Wasteland reference in the first paragraph. Again he is the patriarchal voice of authority which the poet seems to defy by then becoming involved with needlework and laundry, slightly effeminate occupations perhaps in comparison to the drunkenness of the previous poem. Thus the title seems to suggest a continuation of the first poem’s feminisation. The final sentence could suggest the break up of the family unit along with the misrepresentative Oslo, or it could be a macho posturing of lying to one’s wife.

“Forties Flick”, 5

· stanza 1: an articulated poem like in ST, the first stanza revolves around the narrative controlled by the blind which of course it also the shutter of the film and the shadow the black and white. The movement of the blind, ironic as film is the medium of vision, controls the visionary realm from shadows, through the focusing of the bright stare of the film itself, to the eroticism of the female object who is revealed to the street and at the same time reveals the street, in an instant, then lets the blind back down slowly. This relates to the title and the flick aspect of it.
· stanza 2: shifts from these versions of revelation if you like, to discourses of reading writing which dominate here in a taxonomic fashion now familiar to us. These two images, of the process of revelation and the process of writing which is that of leaving things out (cf. TP), are fused in the final film/page image with the indoors and outdoors fusing in the “you”, with the background details relating then to the issues of mortality already broached. It is a poem of a limited system them which is very similar to ST and suggests the successes of RM have been reneged upon in favour of a return to more conservative poetics.

“As you came from the Holy Land”, 6-7

· stanza 1: this is a continuation of the discourse of belatedness from TP, fused with the motifs of this collection and those preceding TP. Thus we have the Rochester (the holy land) setting, the decrepit patriarchal figure, the sunlight glaring, and the matriarchal worlds of darkness and mortality.
· stanza 2: again we have the motif of reading, but here the discourse is one of rationality: pathways, directions, distributions, enumeration, examination, naming.
· stanza 3: the climate of directionless wandering and belatedness barely changed in descriptions here of an impending storm, birds, trees, and the sun.
· stanza 4: the token which emerges could be the poem or any discourse which seeks to confront the system. The result is the experience of the absence at the heart of the now.

“A Man of Words”, 8

· Shoptaw sees it as about the dramatist and his actor and notes the title is taken from an Auden poem from his collection of light verse. Both poems focus around the difference between word and deed. If a poem is not absolutely autobiographical then a poet’s words can’t be deeds (cf., performatives). Thus Shoptaw sees it a responding to the post-war literary world of the verbal icon, and levels of ironic detachment:
“From the difference between word and deed grow all the others: poet (“Behind the mask”) and persona, intention and (verbal) gesture, stimulus (a sexual weedy “nettle”) and lyric response, past experience and present text, first and second stanza, the poet and audience.” (170).
· the poet is looking with detached irony on his own case which, like the book here, is open and shut, and suggests further that all 1st person narratives are the same becoming first person tomes or tombs whilst personae in the poem enter via epistolary gestures thus the poem is to be read as an allegory of the iterable word.
· thus the repetition of diction is reformulated here into anew thematic content, that of the mask of the self in writing, not only is this useful for my argument as a whole, but also shows the Mallarmean way he is able to reconfigure his stable of images along with the colloquialisms of available speech, to produce a new poetic entity.
· stanza 1: the title could be the man of few words or the man of deeds, anyway his case, referring to psychoanalysis but also detective discourse is the opening and closing tome to the end of the stanza (cf. Mallarmé) and also the end of the second stanza. The theatrical space recalls the end of “The System” and also the false fourth wall of viewing the self through the mask of autobiography (cf. de Man). The concluding images lampoon Whitman and the rose based tradition of the love lyric.
· stanza 2: the weeding out of the tangle of discourse = the artificiality of prosopopoeia, whilst the breeze recalls the breezes of before and also the breath of Whitman. Whilst these diary and epistolary narratives are worn out, the tome = the tomb of the “I”, the process of reading (the iterability), produces another kind of life.
“Scheherazade”, 9-11

· Shoptaw calls it one of his all-purpose fairy tales, divided into three unequal parts standing in for unspecified setting, plot and moral dealing with out own status as narrators of our own fictions. The key crypt word is “good, bad, or indifferent”, making ethical judgements aesthetic.
· stanza 1: the setting: contains the figure of Scheherazade as grammarian, and raises the issue of the thread at the end with reference to the warp.
· stanza 2: the plot is the thread running through all that we encountered in “The System”, but now the thread has become a net or matrix, perhaps relating to the grammar of the previous section, the concluding result is that the narrative of “The System” becomes the sublime of “The New Spirit”.
· stanza 3: the moral is the ethical/aesthetic with the middle way between good and bad being favoured, that of indifference.

“Absolute Clearance”, 12-13

· seems like he has cleared out a lot from this fairly straightforward, elliptical narrative of perception and narration. The epigram notes the importance of the spectacle and of god, two aspects which do occur.
· stanza 1: the pictures on the wall here represent the visual process of representing the truth, the spectacular rather than the specular.
· stanza 2: the hotel room, significant interior, will return at the end, here it hosts an interaction between linearity and the vague.
· stanza 3: the sentence continues, but now the linearity has given way to a cyclical sea, the time of myth and dreaming, reference to discourse keeps up the narrative side of things.
· stanza 4: the colon sets of the seemingly pedestrian progress of the horse, to the sample/juxtaposition model which is probably more suited to poetry.
· stanza 5: typical Ashbery technique here about two thirds of the way through to drop into reported speech. Light drops as his courage raises. The reference to destiny being yet another kind of narrative discourse.
· stanza 6: the eagle then becomes a kind of old testament God figure. He is central, “middle airs” and sees all.
· stanza 7: a Whitman stanza, both loafing and taxonomising, leading to a middle way which is also deep.
· stanza 8: returning to the room, now a proper eroticised Ashbery interior.
· stanza 9: the canal has become a river, presumably feeding into the sea, this leads to an actaul conclusion but ending is also called flowering, suggesting a beginning.
· stanza 10: the light seems suspended in a Cheshire cat-like smile, see stanza 7, suggesting that the light’s apparent benevolence is actually a threat of the eagle dropping.

“Grand Galop”, 14-21

· Shop: named after a French round, emulates the inclusiveness of his prose poetry completed a month earlier, the topos is America hence the galop is that of cowboys, characterised in the spring of 1972 as waiting referring to the spaces in Cage’s music for example, which Ashbery notes is to try to draw attention to every moment: “Waiting democratizes time, unseating its privileged moments.” (163).
· Shoptaw thus notes the “root system” of the weigla through crypt-words: pause-paws-pores, weight-wait, and carry-over (see poem as is marked).
· long concluding stanza does not question whether the root system has dried up, but in the interplay between poetry and pornography, whether the lyric has dried up. The poet left with trash and waste paper left over from the weight of traditions (cf. Bloom), though Ashbery’s strategy of waiting maybe the alternative to the more common poetic response of paralysis. Though is also America waiting, now that the possibility of Westward expansion (Vietnam) had failed, typified by the Western discourse.
· stanza 1: the opening lines then are a kind of coda: the proposition of the first two lines, the self-reflexivity of language, is the encrypted method of the poem, the weight of the weigla is also the “hugely” and the concluding “ample”. The garbage is picked up on in the end and recalls the vans of the removal vans also, modern Greek for metaphor. The reference to Lunch is then recalled further down,” What time of the day is it?”, referring to Lunch Poems of course. Then the second half of the stanza is fairly self-explanatory: moving on, waiting, pauses, what fills up time between pauses, the wait as climate etc. Good as the wait is of course the articulating gap of poetry.
· stanza 2: the water is phonetically similar to wait and pause, and the drops are of course discrete units like pauses are. Again the discourse of time passing, what matters is that reference to ancient time, referring to the tradition he turns to later, and the clean-up committee, Nixon campaigned in 1970 based on a clean-up of pornography laws. The conclusion then is that of there is still lyric poetry, is resides in the carrying over or metaphoric realm.
· stanza 3: the dog is in the midst of establishing a hand-based motif, taken from carrying, through the hand on the leash I guess, to the idiomatic uses of hand in the phrases of this section. The caravan combines carrying and metaphor, thus is poetry, with words passing on beyond what they say, paragrammatically. The landscape is that of suburban America, the new topos if you like, which is permissive as long as one does what one wants in private, the khaki shorts on the line showing how ones private parts or dirty washing can however be laundered in public. The minor ears will refer later to Surrey and Wyatt (silver poets), the custard carries on the lunch. The conclusion clearly shows the poem is about his now publicly perceived role as a poet.
· stanza 4: quite a complex further consideration of issues already raised of course, especially in “The New Spirit”. The caravan, the metaphoric procession “distributes the pause”, that is perhaps can give a systematic meaning to the disparate nature of the now, interestingly the moment of TP has been radically reconfigured in this poem and in this collection to waiting. Note the trope of the mountain for example, a prime figure in TP, and how it has become a cruel, unassailable range of needles (needing?), and the sense of ending as being a lacklustre acceptance, of not complaining. Then, various motifs recur, the discrete passing of time (watch tick), the ethical dimension from “Scheherazade”, the mail-man, the theatre, the rumours of ST and also of previous stanza’s reference to privacy, the mountains, a nucleus, the homotextual/colloquial conclusion.
· stanza 5: the longest, Oregon being a state he still had not visited then. This is an unusual section dealing with an almost tangible anger with both the state of his own poetry and with poetry in general in modern America, it’s equation with pornography having various obvious resonances within his oeuvre generally, but also could refer to representative language (Lyotard calls this pornographic) which is weighty, and misrepresentative language which is lighter. Various motifs again recur, the movie, April, but what is fascinating is the return of the sublime, chiasmatic figure of “The New Spirit”. The predicament of the poet, playing with bits of tradition in the yard, the allegory of forgotten letters and the really angry conclusion are all fairly self-explanatory.
· stanza 6: the setting is settlers American, the Oregon trail, but also it is camp America (literally and metaphorically) fortress America, and the world of the film “Cape Fear”. A tangible sense no nostalgia, again very explicit for Ashbery runs through all of this. The conclusion is one of stasis, fear and obfuscation. The grand galop coming to and end at the real, geographic border of the nation, the ocean.

“Poem in Three Parts”, 22-24

· obviously significant this additional tri-partite structure also shows that whilst to some degree this collection is returning to the articulation of ST, things have advanced to such a degree he can never go back to that.
· 1. Love: the removal of reticence is the primary difference between this collection and the earlier ones, as this opening stanza signifies. However, the diction and line-measured phrasing does return us back to the simplicity of the earlier work. Love is reduced discreteness and non-discreteness, the reference to jobs.
· 2. Courage: Language is failing here as the “blah day” shows. This is in keeping with the previous stanza’s assertion that one need not know what a thing is, and also the disillusionment with the role of the poet as namer in modern America. Hence the interior here, always the scene of the homotextual, is one-bedroomed, and owned by someone else. Concluding reference to a tree is an intertextual reminder of “Some Trees” of course.
· 3. I Love the Sea: the “lots” of intimacy is ironic as it suggests that first intimacy is reducible down to numbers, the numbered figures of “Galop”, and that also they can be sold like lots, and the landscape of intimacy oscillated between a bland diction of urban, ugly America, and the desire to get back into dreams. The quadratic taxonomic line here is comparable to the same in part one: “Shadows, ripples, underbrush, old cars”—””These trains, people, beaches, rides”. the first set is relatively independence of the surrounding climate, bracketed by conscience and knowing, the second with the use of “These” and the way in which “rides” runs on suggests a more inhered sections. Between them is the second section but also there is a kind of associative link: shadow—train, ripples—the people of intimacy, ripples—beaches, old-cars—rides, the underbrush being enigmatic in this sense, but fitting in well with the overall scenery. The final stanza makes the poem clearly about a lost lover, the traditional topos of the sea separating, and also the ripples now becoming crashing waves which is now addressed note in tripartite form.

“Voyage in the Blue”, 25-27

· a very symbolist title of course.
· stanza 1-4: the first four stanzas are remarkable in their motifs of the festal basis of poetry, of its oracular qualities, of the power of the insubstantial world and how a return to this world of the blue, the azure of symbolism of course is imminent.
· stanza 5-7: into this, to ruin this ideal, is the reality of modern existence, especially of details and the day to day.
· stanza 7-12: we have then an interaction between the orphic poet of the first section and the society in general, broken down here into two groupings: the three figures of the first and last lines of this section “you and I and, the dog, and the people who are generally separate. The mediator between the two worlds is that of the “fool” shouting in the forest, the poet perhaps.

“Farm”, “Farm II”, “Farm III”, 28-31

· part one of a triptych, of course recalling not only “Farm Implements...”, but also the generalised Rochester farm basis of Ashbery’s childhood. Part I and part II are both ST articulations, whilst the central poem is more fragmented in its versification. This is pretty much the first time he has used this simple series in the lyric form, something he has inherited from TP, yet does recall the formalism of “Fragment”, and is then used throughout “Shadow Train”, and in the Haibun poems of “A Wave”.
· the three poems are kind of a return to the involution of earlier collections: they are intertextual at the level of each discrete unit, within this collection as a whole, and within his oeuvre also. Elegantly done with a return to the bland diction of earlier collections, there is little new here which perhaps is the idea conveyed by the end of “Farm II”, that the ferry boat does not take us out to sea, but just leaves us in the middle of things.

“Hop o’ My Thumb”, 32-33

· obviously refers to the trail of crumbs from TP, and the return to fairy tale discourse that Shoptaw notes.
· tripartite stanzaic structure with a reference to the “third wish” in the first stanza, the diction is denotative, simple, bland, involuted and repetitious, very different to what I would call the perfect Ashbery style of RM.
· stanza 1: note the proliferation of denotation here and that the sexual other is a woman which is vary rare of course in his work. Note also the synthaesthesia of the women/flowers in the central part. Otherwise, a familiar landscape of dreaming, the storm and urban America.
· stanza 2: the memory of a perfect sexual moment is only effected slightly by the fact that the “you” could have been any girl and that this perfect memory leads to storm and “no worse time”.
· stanza 3: the reified moment of stanza 2, fades back into the floppiness of stanza 1, and the dreamscape of fairytales: fairies, Ariane, the trail of title, blue beard, Rapunzel, made up countries. Actually, they are all fairy tales or myths relating to the feminine. Women don't seem to be especially respected here.

“De Imagine Mundi”, 34-35

· a four part narrative relating first the one to the many and then the few to the one, this time the one being a king of small-case god. Of interest is the colloquialisms, especially in citations marks, and the ambiguous role of god here as old poker face.
· stanza 1: the confusion of the subject within the realm of others is reconfigured so that the one is he is not god, takes up the place of god on the steeple, also associates the birds of earlier collections with this figure of authority.
· stanza 2: the odd (gay) couple.
· stanza 3: they are living out an unremarkable life but the sense of threat is especially apparent in the poker faced god, and in the reference to the “mugwump” of Burroughs.
· stanza 4: a getting lost, a staying on after others have left, the world of the imagination seems here at its lowest ebb.

“Foreboding”, 36

· again, sense of threat here is much more tangible than in earlier collections when he may actually been under threat. The feeling is pretty much on of foreboding, the elliptical, much less sinuous lines and simplified diction giving a much less poetic feel. The narrative is simple, a moon like landscape of colloquial threat from which the poet and lover are absent, a landscape caught between being empty and being packed. The conclusion is really a leap of faith into the chiasmatic figure of the sublime. Seems it could refer actually, at least by implications, the violence of stonewall, though the lake is of course Rochester.

“The Tomb of Stuart Merrill”, 37-39

· who is he? isn’t he a contemporary of Roethke, Lowell et. al., the title is very portentous and reminiscent of “For the Union Dead” and the like.
· the discourse however is quite the opposite, combining camp or rather pretentious Frenchisms with the moving of the plants, flowers which used to be homotextual but seem less so in these later poems, a debate on a new conservatism (Nixon?), and a love lost lyric which is surprisingly straight forward for Ashbery and so, to a degree, a conservatism, and the interjection of a Paterson-like prose assessment of the poet’s work.
· the conclusion is significant, showing-up the role of the monument, reference to “Hop”, but also the tomb, as being insufficient to convey the moment which is of course already pastanza The final return of father and son in the Aegean of course really emphasises this as a post ST homotextual poem after all. Now the poet can be explicit, but poetically this is conservative and also a number of lovers are now lost to us and will not benefit from this. Very interesting interaction then between the intertextual, the textual and the contextual references to Mott the Hoople etc. The last line being of course the interior of the homotextual world.

“Tarpaulin”, 40

· Shoptaw notes that this brief poem of one sentence covers a big event like tarpaulin or a journalist might, that unlike miniature by Ammons and Creely, the pros is versified by capitalising each line, the only segmentation in the poem, the lack of subordinating punctuation means the phrases don’t know their place in the sentence:
““Tarpaulin” generates power from syntactical polyjunction. Framed by “Easing” and “fading” (rhyming with “thing”), the poem turns at the copula “Is,” which recasts the subordinated participle “Easing” as a complex gerundial subject, displaces the expected lyric subject (for example, “Easing the car into the parking space, I turned off the radio”), and shifts the sentence from narration (finishing X, I did Y) into assertion (doing X is Y).” (158)
· this mid sentence “overhaul”:
“In this way Ashbery automates the traditional elegiac subject of the “fading” sunset. Removing the solar reflecting subject democratically multiplies it by “a thousand tenement windows” and diversifies its power...” (158), (mechanical, phallic, mental, solar, electric).

“River”, 41

· a good companion piece to “The New Spirit” in that here the river is central and personified. The poem is very simple, the actions relating to the topography and dynamics of the rive, including the metonymic figures of the couple picnicking there. The transparent fourth wall and the cry of “too early” both fit into the TP schema.

“Mixed Feelings”, 42-43

· very strange this is not an Ashbery poem at all and confirms my belief that this collection is very inferior. Basic narrative on these imagines/photographed women. Nothing of interest here except again it is women who seem to be the object of desire and again they don’t come out of it at all well.
· perhaps the title is a clue, both in his attitudes towards women and also towards this kind of poetry.

“The One Thing that can Save America”, 44-45

· Shoptaw compares this America to the canvases of Fairfield Porter, a nice place to look at but you can’t live there.
· again this is much more grammatical poem, really a step down from TCO and RM.
· stanza 1: asks a very simple question about centrality then maps out an America of natural, urban and suburban features.
· stanza 2: moves directly into the local, bisecting the poet with glances, light, material, lumber, the girders of downtown New York.
· stanza 3: this cross-hatching becomes braiding, becomes poetry, picking up the numbers and measures of the previous stanza, and now the quasi-realistic landscape of stanza 1, becomes idealised into towers and more redolent orchards.
· stanza 4: finally ends with a staffage letter narrative. The final three lines make the structure cyclical and rests on an America that is not actually all that unpleasant. The letter is the one thing that can save America, the letter being desire of course.

“Tenth Symphony”, 46-47

· again very grammatical and, whilst charming and chatty in an O’Hara fashion, not much too it really, except the interesting digression from connection in the third stanza, suggesting that there is a connection but by its nature it must connect through the digression, and in such as way as still to leave things open.

“On Autumn Lake”, 48

· this is then a new style, chatty, discourse mixed, straight forward. The poem is a comic debate on aesthetics in line with Koch perhaps?
· stanza 1: rather crass mock Chinese accented piece then becomes colloquial and peevish, and then more stately and Ashbery. The idea of the Chinese poet picks up on RM of course
· stanza 2: mixes the haiku-like details of the lake, with an O’Hara like discussion on whether one needs training to be an artistanza
· stanza 3: Autumn Lake is both actual, and seemingly symbolic of the practitioners of the craft. Good section to link Ashbery with the more occult processes of poetry, especially the last line which likens creativity to crossed wires.

“Fear of Death”, 49

· again really weak! So direct that I guess some critics were finally relieved when he mentioned himself by name and admitted he was afraid of dying, only 48 at the time! Generally, these would be refreshing and light lyrics from other poets, but they stand out in the progression of his oeuvre as being a real concession. I am beginning to understand why Koch mocked the success if this collection.

“Ode to Bill”, 50-51

· obvious reference to “Biotherm”, especially as “Biotherm” name-checks Ashbery, and could also relate to the subject matter through the line “pretty rose preserved in Biotherm”, which could be symbol of poetry as this poem is about poetry. The casual style and subject matter also make it very much akin to “Why I am not...”, see also “And Ut Pictura Poesis is her Name”, and “What is Poetry” both in HBD.
· stanza 1: the filed recurs in “What is Poetry”. The interaction between the poet and Nature and the solitude of the poet all make this consideration of poetry very Romantic.
· stanza 2: very much the cadence of “Why I am not...”, note the difference between thoughts, which seem lofty, and ideas which seem secondary.
· stanza 3: the conceit of the vest, very funny it is however also very apt for the kind of poet he is admitting to be here, which is on of enthusiasm.
· stanza 4: the horse is very much the American style of poetry, clean and simple, Ashbery questions not only his right to possess such a vision, but also the visions right to existence if it could be sacrificed to gain some sense of progress. This is the central question of this collection, stylistically, can one really do away with this kind of Haiku poetry?

“Lithuanian Dance Band”, 52-53

· Shoptaw notes this was and action poem written with O’Hara in mind, it is divided into hasty septets, one of which is a sestet, and the non-stop lines seem to race across the page as if he were trying to catch up with O’Hara. Sees the last image as a rebus for the typewritten page, a turned field with black dots on it, and that “harrow” is O’Hara.
· these long lines are much more satisfying, though still this is a surprisingly straightforward love lyric.
· stanza 1: this opening stanza is very reminiscent of the so-called push and pull of O’Hara, the absence of punctuation allowing for this of course, along with the capitalised beginnings to the lines and the fact that the lines have also to end. This stanza turns out to be so challenging because it is a kind of unmediated stream of consciousness
· stanza 2: this introduces the epistolary nature of the poem, which, like many others, seems to be simplifying things for another observer. The love here, in a kind of ambivalent Prufrock urban setting, drives around, one of a number of mobile motifs.
· stanza 3: surprisingly bleak and clear autobiographical statement here along with the admission that now he is living both a cordial and formal double existence.
· stanza 4: the city then seems very much influencing him here, and of course because the two city poets of New York are Whitman and O’Hara, their presence can clearly be felt.
· stanza 5: self-consciousness of his importance as a poet now.
· stanza 6: the final image of loneliness is inexpressively beautiful, contrasting the scarecrow to the field, the field becoming a replacement for the climate of earlier poems I think.

“Sand Pail”, 54

· kind of a parody of WCW, “The Great Figure”, the sand pail being for the putting out of fires I guess. The opening line obviously means a lot to me, and is “much whiplash”, Much Wenlock? It is as simple as that of the fire truck rushing through the city, again this is all very much O’Hara territory, as is the reference to the plaza. Seems a poem of puzzles: “environmental sweepstakes”, the chance of the climates, the process of the strip through whiplash a halting forward and backward movement, the slabs becoming the pavings of development, meaning the crocus is a symbol of nature overwhelmed by urbanisation (cf. “Lacustrine”). The final three lines seems to try to convey this idea of fetters which however are not solid like the pavings, which allow for moments, lost crocuses, the be brought under the sand, buried and put out at the same time. Very clever but perhaps too clever.

“No Way of Knowing”, 55-57

· Shoptaw notes that this is in a double sonnet sequence of three double sonnets which mime the tri-partite structures of the fairy tale poems. Like “Clepsydra”, is begins in the wake of an event, an affair, waking up in a host of questions. The questions fluctuate between double and triple and rising and falling rhythms, miming experiential flux, then cast into doubt by the reductive “oom-pah refrain”. The “And then” is a truncation of “And then what happened” to which the title answers of course “There is no Way of Knowing”. The event is an ongoing bicycle race with the outcome unknown though the origin could be in media res which comes form a punning version of Horace’s “in media’s race”, becoming “in the meantime”, a formula for dealing with two things happening at the same time, as in representation only happens in the meantime, away from the actual event, just like the book on Sweden doesn’t contain Sweden.
· the poem then is sceptical then about narratives of epistemology which rise up to points of conclusion or failure, omitting the “dank no-places and insubstantial pinnacles”. The discourse on endings coming into the embedded endings with words like definition and determination: “Definitive histories leave out the representative meantimes, where the bulk of no-name living occurs.” (172), with the very process of lyric and narrative selection being based on the mutilation of time.
· the middle stanza stifle objections and bases his scepticism around two epistemological concepts: binary and parallelism. Note binary refers to the development of computers, and parallelism the old Cartesian debate about mind and body which inaugurates a number of binary parallels: middle and end, thing and name, body and mind, poetry and experience, self and other, Aristotelian substance and accident (touché—automaton) “insubstantial” “accidents”, tenor and vehicle “vehicular madness”.
· sees the final stanza as a camp narrative of misrepresentation akin to TCO, concluding that poetry is important as it captures not only the moments, but their overall essence, scepticism opening up the way for poetry then.
· stanza 1: Shoptaw’s reading is very good, as this is certainly a poem about epistemology, modern epistemology that is both parallelism and binary opposition: the word/the object and the word vs. the object. The mode in which is begins in the middle picks up on the other side of epistemology here, the idea one could actually know, which obviously Ashbery contests. Of extra interest is the “pavement” again, and of course the accident—substance (tuché—automaton) of Aristotle and Lacan.
· stanza 2: the defeating of novelistic discourse is replaced by the sentence beginning “This stubble-field...”, itself a symbol of left-overs, the syntax becoming very O’Hara dues to the removal of the articulating punctuation, again a feature of this collection as a whole. Cleverly, the vehicle crashing fuses the bicycle race of stanza 1 to the hospital of stanza 3.
· stanza 3: the song returns and the TCO of “The cut (cab) driver...” again marks an alternative to beauty and grammar in verse. The conclusion is simply that details do not add up in total, but that any such taxonomy motivates towards discourse, this give us therefore, via binary (articulation) and parallel (representation), a paragrammatic alternative to basic knowing.

“Suite”, 58

· lovely but seems of little relevance except for the cosmological implications and the revision of the endless gardens of Ashbery’s world, the involutions that I can just spot: carillons—trillions, raincoat—unbuttoned corner, are cute.

“Marchenbilder”, 59-60

· Shoptaw notes the use of the fairy-tale as non-teleological structures where latent happiness can come to the fore: “These predictable narratives...set in motion a pleasurable dynamics of waiting for and warding off the satisfying conclusion...” (166). In this poem, Ashbery seems to find the twin poles of expectation and identification irresistible. Here using ellipses to suggest narrative “shelves” to be filled up later.

“City Afternoon”, 61

· a very O’Hara title, this is definitely not an O’Hara poem, the afternoon in the city being actually a period of reminiscence and commemoration through the haze of photography. America then reduced to a still life with garlands in some lost afternoon, placed upside down and reflected, that is both retained by the monument and ruined by it. Very simple elegiac poem actually.

“Robin Hood’s Barn”, 62-63

· part of his staffage or Mallarmean process of retelling the same narrative with the same motifs and yet making it somehow different. Robin Hood’s barn should be full of riches which he, like some wise Old Testament king, is saving for when they are needed. The poem is simply full of Ashbery motifs from the past, setting up a complex interaction for the reader between textual, intertextual, and associative.
· this must be added into the wonderful love lyrics of this collection which confound the love of desire in TP, returning us to a much more explicit and touching realm, for the reader, but not taking us much further.

“All and Some”, 64-65

· very Ashbery terms of course, totality in contrast with this substantive which is basically what a poem like “No Way of Knowing” is all about. Written in septets.
· stanza 1: immediately raises the issue of knowing/understanding, and the difference between that old humanistic episteme and the postmodern attitude of describing merely for the sake of describing.
· stanza 2-4: dealing here with the climate issue, how it can signify and not, and also to summarise modern America and suggest that one cannot however generalise about these things. Again the issue of what taxonomy actually is.
· stanza 5-7: nostalgic reminiscences, again a main part of the collection.
· stanza 8: the postmodern climate of the now, of the temporary. Useful for adding a sense that the idea of climate he was dealing with in earnest previously, now seems to him to be outmoded, a mere construction.

“Oleum Misericordiae”, 66-67

· Shoptaw notes that quest for the father is the subject matter of the poem, a fable based on Esther Quinn’s The Quest for Seth and for the Oil of Life, similar to Eliot’s use of Christian myth in The Wasteland. Is a precedent of the son’s quest in “A wave” ??, and also the use of Finnish epic in “At North Farm”.

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, 68-83

· Shoptaw sees this as the movement into art criticism in poetry due to his losing his job at Art News, and Ashbery says it was written three months of “not very inspired writing”. Poem is divided into six verse paragraphs or globes, the first three consider the self in the present, past and future, the second three deal with the otherness of painting, of one’s environment and history, of one’s own actions. The critical discourse disappears after the first globe and the painting often seems forgotten, but both return periodically. The text is much more apparently written than spoken, with its use of quotations, ellipses, parentheses, italics etc.
· in this poem the flattening of space and the perspective lines have thus outmanoeuvred those of “The Skaters”. A clear influence is the surrealist Mannerist Cornell, who dies in 1973, whose self-sufficient boxes resemble the interior of this painting:
“The sphere is a geometrically perfect but rhetorically imperfect figure, granting central, synecdochal power but prohibiting linear movement. Parmigianino’s spherical poetics thus rules out change coming from outside.” (177).
· to add a temporal historical aspect to this figure, Ashbery warps the sphere into and hourglass or vase and temporalizes it by changing our vantage point. Yet still it remains a mannerist poem, the decorous restraint of the painting matched by the poet’s critical reserve, and the meticulous finish matched by Ashbery’s subtle elaboration, and just as the space of the painting is elongated, so in the poem the final globe is nearly as long as the other five whilst the poem as a whole is blown out of all proportion. (cf. “La Vue”). Notes that manner comes from manus (hand) or the privileging of the hand (style) over the head (substance) which is literally true here as the hand of the portrait is bigger than the head. This mannerism is immediately apparent in the elliptical first sentence. The painting is based around the central paradox of the head moving the hand that draws the head, and unstable relation between head and hand are present in the poem, and with the head at the centre and the hand at the periphery, the emphasis is on the interplay between expressive and decorative modes [cf. the picturesque], and this concentric manner runs through the whole of the poem also.
· the globe is not just a bubble but also a prison, the soul held captive by mannerism, and the self imprisoned in self-image (cf. Emerson’s “Circles”), though here the portraitist imprisons himself in his closet out of self-defence (homotextual). Though the specularity effect places Ashbery with us, watching the other in his closet.
· globe#1: begins with a basic mistake, that the hand thrust at us is not the painter’s right but his left, relating to many sleights of hand in the poem as a whole. Sees the hand as phallic and disorientating the way in which it is thrust at us, whilst suggesting that, with the confusion of left and right the painter has rather become his own reflection. Sees this as a triangulation: Painter—mirror—ball; Ashbery (“As[hbery] P. did it...)—painting—page; reader—poem—identification with author.
· stanza#1: the opening as is a crypt-word of Ashbery, evidence of what Shoptaw calls adverbial displacements, is an ellipse of “I want to do it...”, but most significantly perhaps for me it is the ut of ut pictora poesis which will allows me access into the picturesque of his work. For example, the next sentence which then describes his studio and its relation to the hand, is described as “sequestered”, set apart, to one side, like happiness and like in his earlier work here.
· the reflection of a reflection is a nice desire orientated revision of Platonism, whilst the interaction between glass and Par. seems to place the painter in a position of authority. Note the cataphoria here, the subject is how the soul establishes itself, which then argues back to the image of the wave, further destabilising the idea of establishment, then the face, which is not the face but the adherence of light on the face, which is at the wrong angle, then is glazed and embalmed, thus dead, which is not only a reflection but a reflection “once removed”. Thus the soul as established, stands midway between two image of destabilisation, the other being anaphorically its captivity. The distortion here: swim—nest, are matched by a surprising literalism of metonymical sense that the convex mirror means the soul has further to go to get out. The final parallel is that of the soul and our gaze almost meeting in the middle, and thus reflecting each other, which is perfectly what the gaze is all about!
· the commission which never materialises is a clear symbol, but the restless soul, whilst very beautiful, also unites the portrait with the gaze, for that is what a self-portrait actually is...a portrait of the gaze. The result is that the means by which the gaze can encompass the soul means the secret of portraiture in general is that the soul is not sublime, but can be sequestered, is just a picturesque morsel. Yet the “englobing” of the morsel is the sublime element, that one would like to escape is proof already of the sublime side to this.
· what makes the hand loom, fill our sight, also then makes it retreat by diminishing it from magnitude to just large. Yet also conveys the circularity of the morsel, its internal self-sufficiency which already pushes it to sublimity, this is conveyed here by the somatic peculiarities which for me is the crux of the matter, the metonymic aspect of the morsel’s relation to a unified body.
· this body—circular morsel is then conveyed in the images of circularity and enmeshing which follow, even down to the parenthesis which together form a globe.
· the conclusion of the surface as visible core, is the summation of this if you like. The morsel is only part of the story, and in the same way as we synecdochically assume the body from the hand, so here we assume the depth from the surface, except the mannerism (the way the hand does not lead to the head but is valorised above is), means that the hand/surface is all, that the morsel is no longer part of the whole, but the whole of the part!
· globe#2: the other influences the self through the alchemy of memory, the 1st person making its first appearance here, and like the painting/poem on view here, the self is influenced by the gaze of others, the self being addressed as you, the convex mirror of all the others it reflects, via the deposits of memory. The image of the carousel is like a kind of alchemy, a hobby of Par., the self being formed by all that whirls around it, becoming circumference rather than centre. This self is a flattened out, pastless present tense, once the source of depression in TP. now Ashbery seems to have accepted this.
· stanza#2: the opening conceit of the self as defined by others is remarkable and fairly self-explanatory. What is of interest is the tension between discrete elements: sawtoothed, filtered, deposits, irregular clumps of crystal,, peel off, leaves, desk paper books, strewn evidence, accidents, chores, eyebeams muslin coral; and the predominant symbols of merging: clouds, puddle, light, fog, voices, memory, seasons, the round mirror which organizes, polestar, carousel, boil down, magma of interiors, silver blur (photo?), shadow, field. The particulars of being are now negated into the sense of the now which seems to make everything the same in that it is all without history and so definition. This relates directly to what might be called the picaresque predicament of the discrete particle, taking the part always as a whole in the predominance of synecdoche over metaphor.
· globe#3: indifference for the past becomes desire for the circumferential future. The future is easy as it can still be shaped by desire, whilst the moment is lack without desire. This introduces a set of narcissistic twins: present—future, actual—possible, waking—dreaming, fulfilment—promise, real—surreal. These poles are always involuted turning into their other. The point being that in the gesture of the artist, he presents a facsimile of his lifelong process, and in this codifying one’s dream the globe is rounded.
· stanza#3: the opening page is as Shoptaw says, dealing with the potential of the future and how it becomes programmed eventually by the surface only of the present moment, but the phrase; “more keeps getting included / Without adding to the sum” goes further than the Cartesian pun, for it is again the picturesque predicament. The conclusion deals with the deficiencies of the dream, which is of course the lack which fuels the dream, a kind of empty chiasmus he rightly compares to the mis-en-abyme of the mirror. We anyway come ins as artists on these dreams only after they have ebbed, note again the wavic motion, giving off something of their previous shape only, but just enough. The last sentence is very clear, the movement from the potential of desire into the present is the codification of the potential which is the convex skin of the chamber. In other words decollation!
· globe#4: the painter surprises the poet as it, “as I start to forget it / It presents its stereotype again.”
· stanza#4: the image of the face at sea, in motion, is ignored by Shoptaw and yet here it is again, so beautiful an image, the face being of course the very centre of the portrait and this restriction of motion being akin to the hand reaching out so far then...This whole poem is remarkable for it being held within this allegorical/metonymic realm. The angel is made up of the detritus of the decollating now, a wonderful perception of how text is formed and how this formation makes the subject. The final conceit is simply perfect, we mistake the painter for ourselves, then in seeing it is the painter we lose our self in favour of being the other painter as just as we look at the painting, so he is looking at us looking at it, watching him watching his own reflection and its reflection in the painting. This surprise, the encounter of the tuché, is of course both instantaneous, “We have surprised him”, based on desire, “but no he has surprised us” and ongoing “The surprise is almost over” which is of course the process of desire through the gaze. The occult snow both refers to the crystals of memory, the detritus, the latent “It happened while you were inside... / And there is no reason why you should have / Been awake for it...”.
· globe#5: the topos of the city, centre of historical and cultural change, displacing selves to the circumference.
· stanza#5: the opening in the city state could definitely be related to the significance of interiors for the time, and also in sections of TP. The wind which comes is obviously the wind of time, of the new spirit which threatens to overtake the renaissance mannerism and leave them as an almost dead exercise, however, there is also a chance of the painting remaining pertinent in some way by finding new aspects hidden in the recesses of the studio. Thus the desire to “siphon off” the space of the studio, is replaced by a different sense of this interior space, looking at it not as seamless surface, but as something somehow with some sense of depth.
· The studio space here then is a complex figure with many “filiations” and “shuttlings”:
-it is the renaissance space and its distortion
-it is inner space
-it is the studio as space of the activity of subjectivity
-it is the convex space of the bubble, a synecdochic space of centrality
-it is a specular space
-is is the gap of being and desire
-it is a metaphoric space in that it includes us in its gaze
-it is interiority in general, which of course has great significance in Ashbery
· globe#6: returns with a convoluted syntax. These almost regular pentameters were originally part of a love sonnet sequence whose thesis was “All action is like dying” in that it puts to death all potentiality. Par. here then is addressed as a rival of lover, yet he is also relegated to the corridors of the museum, and this final section then deals with the institutionalisation of art in general. His radicalness comes not from the attack on the institution itself, which would be a direct avant-garde position, but to stress the value of otherness and the way in which is can pervert or distort quotidian existence. This otherness then is the extraneous matter Par. wished to rule out, but is now what makes the painting valid by saving it from perfection. Shoptaw notes how otherness or strangers is an erotically charged word here with Ashbery’s life full of strangers, estranged lovers etc. The only part of the painting which remains then is the hand, the head now omitted.
· stanza#5: p.76: the breeze which begins this is of course now heavily codified, as the wind of change which is the avant-garde new spirit, as well as the breath of Whitmanic tradition, is also the final image, then reduced to a whisper. Further, the manner in which this breeze turns a page is vital for it is the shift from canvas to page, from phallic gaze to the phallic word, and the page again becomes this stratified and differential space of page, face, canvas, mirror, leave, moment, blank space etc. The stuff on the moment as death is pretty self-explanatory.
· p.77: the mirror then is the face—painting—page of homosexual narcissism. The changing of the globe into the vase is just one of numerous brilliant associative links in this section involving distortions which are not metaphoric but metonymic, having to do with the actaul distortion of the hand in the painting. This vase of fullness is the replete picturesque particle, the gesture becoming everything, a brilliant conflation of the actual hand and the aesthetic issues at large. Note also how the “veering” motion equates the hand with the head, possibly by the face/eye which is, through the distortions of the canvas, arrested in a kind of motion. Here then we have an alternative to the original metonymy of centre/circumference, for the centre is distorted, coming out at us, in motion, whilst the circumference is around rather than surrounds, to one side, over there etc.
· p.78-9: the space of the canvas is further elaborated on here, the space becoming that of the metropolis in which Par. worked and from which he escapes, is the modern nether space of suburbia, is the canvas, but the canvas as that which is supported by the easel, the easel being a kind of precursor to the museum in this sense, in actual fact, as the place where we are displayed in a formalised and codified setting. Otherness, the theme of this final globe, is clearly situated between historic past and desire inscribed future, but is not the present moment, which is death, but the shadow of all that on the moment. The avant-garde in other words. The rest deals with the museum and is important for the Burger aspect of the avant-garde, relating to the avant-garde issues of “The New Spirit” and “The Invisible avant-garde”. The conclusion then specifies between the static moment, and the processive moment of “cresting into one’s present”.
· p.80: the image of the scapegoat here refers back to the “assholes” or to gay men. This then is followed by an explicit critique of agency.
· p.81: again otherness as mannerism, see Shoptaw comments. Again the sea-motion and the ball distortion motifs. The lingering in the painter’s face and the import of all that is outside of him which defines him is basic desire.
· p.82-83: really need to work in detail with all the metaphors of this painting, in this case it is the gesture which seems mimetic of agency and motivation, but is revealed as is the renaissance in the museum, as sterile therefore he asks for this “hand” of the traditional in representation to be withdrawn. The distortion of death, death = the face here also in that it is turning away to the wall, is that of the opposite motion to the extended hand, that of looking down the wrong end of a telescope. This is all pretty dense: the it was all a dream syndrome which his critique of Par. sees to put forward, is deconstructed via the word “all”, that is if it is all a dream than even saying this is dreaming it. Besides of which the formalist “diagram” which is of course the lines of perspective, is also there to back up the whole thing. The final image then is of the metropolis: interior/exterior space symbolised by the liminal “balcony “ which is also the ledge from TP.
· the hand holding the chalk is the metonymic heart of the whole poem then, which is about the tension between the face (gaze) and the hand (inscription). The conclusion in parts to whole backs up the picturesque aspect which would easily make this the picturesque alternative to the sublime of RM, or the poetic revival of the dialectic of TP.


Popular posts from this blog

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

For a long time I have felt that poetics has not taken into consideration a great deal written about issues pertaining to difference and repetition to be found in contemporary philosophy. As poetry's whole energy and dynamic is based on a fundamental relation to differential versus repeated units of sense (sense both in terms of meaning and the sensible), any work on difference and repetition would be welcome. That some of the greatest thinkers of the age, notably Deleuze and Derrida, have made both issues core to their whole philosophical systems is so remarkable that poetics is impoverished if it does not fully acknowledge this. Not that I am one to talk. Although I am aware of the centrality of Deleuze's work to postmodern poetry, I have as yet not been able to really address this but in Poetry Machines I began that work at least. In preparation for the few hundred words I wrote there, here are the 10,000 words I annotated in preparation. Deleuze, Gilles. Differe

Frank O'Hara, Collected Poems pp.201-300 Annotated

Frank O’Hara, Collected Poems (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1995) Pages 201-300 Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) Frank O’Hara “In the Movies”, 206-209 · interesting that this poem has not been picked up by the critics for it is an easy point to indicate the importance of films in O'Hara’s aesthetic indicating the dissolves, cuts and montage effects he has been credited with and whilst I do not like to appropriate analogous terms in this fashion the montage of O'Hara is easily distinguishable form the collage of Ashbery in that here it is the movement from image to image in an attempt at seamlessness, a basic synaesthesia of subject in the now of consciousness. · in addition to the basic aesthetic implications of this use of films there are also certain other issues that he raises here but does