Monday, December 05, 2005
What’s Ashbery to You?
Over at his blog, Scott posted a quotation from Robert Mazzocco that seems both very right and very wrong. At the least it’s an opportunity to spout opinions. Mazzocco:
[Ashbery’s] ability to go on and on has always struck me as the signal characteristic of the work of John Ashbery. Many of Ashbery’s poems are really improvisations on the theme of flux.
Going on is an essential feature of Ashbery’s work. His charm lies in his eloquence, an apparently limitless loquaciousness, turning phrase after phrase. There is a definite oral quality to it, reminding me of coworkers at menial jobs I’ve had who could go on & on w/out saying much & endlessly entertain. It’s an evanescent quality, one almost always lost in any thematic reading. Not even he can explain it to you. His poems have themes, but they are the weakest part of his work. Inasmuch as they go on, they’re wonderful. Inasmuch as they talk about going on, they’re tedious.
In yet another futile attempt to get beyond the thematic, I would say he’s doing something rather than saying something. (Ach, the dreading show vs. say! A sure sign that I’m as lost as anyone here.)
There has to be a better way of understanding what he’s doing. This is true of all writers (otherwise no scholarship, eh?), but even moreso of Ashbery. Take when Adam Roberts in Scott’s comment thread dismisses Ashbery & offers a stanza picked “at random” as evidence. This should be patently unfair, but given the state of Ashbery’s body of work (a dirty big mass of poesy), it’s to be expected. An exquisite selection the size of Eliot’s collected (the standard meter bar for measuring all life works) would help a good deal. At least it would help me.
This is a good Ron Silliman post about reading Asbery. It is looking like “three poems” is the current consensus pick for Ashbery’s best book. You can get it in this collection of his first five books or from ABEBOOKS if you really need to minimize your exposure to Ashbery.
On a drive from the Bay Area to Tacoma (14+ hours) I read aloud to my father (aerospace engineer, reads novels & Harper’s) from Three Books. He was quite surprised: he didn’t know what it meant, but he could tell it was poetry.
That Adam Roberts, eh? What is he like?
OK, the salient chunk from Scott’s comment-thread is:
Scott; I keep reading Ashbery waiting for the lightning to strike, but as yet I just don’t get him. I don’t hear the music in his wibble-wobble of verbiage. I see how I’m supposed to get him, I think, but he doesn’t do it for me. To pick a stanza at random:
To be someone else’s. Because there’s too much to
Be done that doesn’t fit, and the parts that get lost
Are the reasonable ones, just because they got lost
And were forced to suffer transmigration by finding their way home.
It all reads, to me, that way: which is to say, flabby, unevocative, prosodically clumsy (that second line? The flailing shift from the end of that first line to that second line? That way the choppy monosyllables awkwardly lurch into polysyllabic eyesores like ‘transmigration’?). I suppose I find Ashbery curiously unable to capture the heft and inadvertent eloquence and sparkle of actual jammed-together human speechifying that DeLillo (say) is rather good at capturing, or even, I don’t know, the vernacular bits in The Waste Land.
Does this really count as a ‘dismissal’ of Ashbery? Reads to me rather as a merely personal reaction, and one that quotes from the man himself only by way of trying to raise itself a little above criticism of the ‘Ashbery? poetry? But it doesn’t even rhyme!’ sort.
To be more specific, the objections raised are essentially prosodic. <objection on those grounds by being, oh what-d’ye-call-it, there’s a technical term that critics use, think, think, what is it, oh yes: <i>prose</i>. But a more direct rebuttal would be to say (in a Mr T voice): we don’t go to Ashbery for the prosody, fool.
And the garbled last paragraph there should have read:
To be more specific, the objections raised are essentially prosodic. _Three Poems_ shortcircuits objection on those grounds by being, oh what-d’ye-call-it, there’s a technical term that critics use, think, think, what is it, oh yes: _prose_. But a more direct rebuttal would be to say (in a Mr T voice): we don’t go to Ashbery for the prosody, fool.
Why does html hate me?
Does Mr. T, or anyone else, really say you don’t go to Ashbery for prosody? If you don’t go to him for sense and you don’t go to him for song, what would be left to go to him for?
Adam: I didn’t mean to dismiss your discernment. I agree w/what you say about that passage. I find it interesting that one could pick a passage at random & consider it representative. Says something about Ashbery.
&, as I have <a href=http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/what_is_poetry_take_1>posted </a>before, some prose can be poetry, given certain senses of poetry. & can be opposed to mere verse.
The Silliman post & related links seem to back up my judgment of the Mazzocco statements. They, esp. Silliman, do a much better job of describing what Asbery does than I do.
Let me take another whack at it: if there is something characteristic that his poetry does, than some poems must do it better than others. Three Poems does get held up in these posts, & MacFarquhar (& thus Ashbery too? To my ear his hand guides much of the New Yorker piece), as an exemplar. & Ashbery notably denigrates Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which had been his flagship poem back in the day. What principle guides these judgments? The New Yorker piece mentions many emendations he’s made in the poesm. What difference do these (rare) edits make?
You can too go to JA for the prosody. Check out “The Skaters,” perhaps his greatest poem (from Rivers and Mountains). How about the title poem from his first collection, “Some Trees”? That’s a prosodic masterpiece. Even his prose is better prosodically than a lot of poets’ verse.
How about all of his pantoums and sestinas? I could go on and on and probably will.
If you don’t go to him for sense and you don’t go to him for song, what would be left to go to him for?
Precisely. You go to Ashbery to find out exactly what is left.
Ashbery’s “Selected” used to be common in used bookstores. If you can’t find a copy, I could send you mine.
I’m surprised but gratified by the increasing notice of “Three Poems”—it’s my favorite as well, though I haven’t encountered much Ashbery that wasn’t at least mildly enjoyable. Probably just a factor of the increasing institutional influence of ‘70s avant-garde types, since “The Tennis-Court Oath” (his wildest-assed book) also gets mentioned a lot more nowadays than it used to.
To me Ashbery seems to have sufficient quantities of both sense and song, but it may be a while (like, until never) before I try to explain why in universally convincing language. (There are other poets who mean more to me and are less well known, and I’d prefer to tackle them first.)
I would direct any interested readers to his poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” which seems to contain both types of “going on”. Both the enviable type: “...fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist’s/ Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call/ Companionable...” and the tiresome type: “...and last perhaps/ The pattern that may carry the sense, but/Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.” The poem seems to lose momentum and even ultimately succumb to a sort of Hollywood ending (or is that the point?). Nevertheless I find the beginning to be kind of a rush, and I admire Ashbery’s ability to use words-I-have-to-look-up in a playful rather than accusatory way.
Adam: I didn’t mean to dismiss your discernment. Lawrence, dismiss away, if you fancy it. I wasn’t narked; and was in fact rather sheepish about casting clods at so esteemed a figure (like I could do ‘the prosody’ any better ...)
Andrew: I’m still pondering your statement, “[Neither for the sense nor for the song]. You go to Ashbery to find out exactly what is left.” It’s elegantly put, and I really truly can’t decide whether it’s deep and right, or just clever. Does it mean we could go to Ashbery, discover that the resisue when sense and song have been extracted is (say) ‘chatter’ and leave it at that? Presumably not.
Andrew: I’m still pondering your statement, “[Neither for the sense nor for the song]. You go to Ashbery to find out exactly what is left.” It’s elegantly put, and I really truly can’t decide whether it’s deep and right, or just clever.
“What is left” can take various forms. The previous post I linked to considered Wittgenstein’s identification of poetry and philosophy. So Ashbery would be only one way to get at it. I would say Andrew’s aphorism, while being (I beleive) true, says less than it seems to say. That is, it leaves us no closer to solving the whole problem of what exactly is the left-over thing.