Sunday, October 26, 2008

further on Ashbery

Recently, a lively discussion was raised in this space by some notes on the poetry of John Ashbery that I published after hearing him read at MIT and reading a James Wood article at The New Yorker. In a rough outline, I was attempting to work out a then-vague idea of the relationship of Ashbery’s work to contemporary American poetry, and to the larger culture – between apparently discontinuous elements therein especially.

As I pointed out in that discussion, when you attempt to make judgments about thirty years of a prolific poet’s work, critical acumen and baseless claims become too similar. In the interest of helping to explain at least my own idea a bit more clearly, I’ve consulted some better and more articulate critics, and re-read Ashbery and some of his commonly cited predecessors, such as Stevens, Pound, and Wordsworth. I’ll still be painting in broad strokes here and will do my best to use terms such as “tendency” and “commonly” – please keep in mind that I mean them in a technical sense: there are few definite statements that ever go un-disproven, and it is always better to discuss poetic elements in terms of their relative power than as absolute truths.

Underpinning my analysis is a strong belief that American culture is not terminally disjointed – as has been often claimed and lately assumed in cultural criticism – and that it is, in fact, continuous and coherent in surprising ways. Perhaps I am expressing a reaction to the thesis of postmodernism that, as a young person, is the orthodox academic tradition I’ve inherited. Regardless, it is a foundational idea for me right now, though not the topic immediately at hand.

There seems to be a surprising parallel tendency between the project of John Ashbery’s poetry and the more extreme anti-intellectual evangelicalism that has gripped a large part of America. At the heart of both we find a deep-seated skepticism of language, and of the meaningful competence of language, which I feel is a product of the postmodern and anti-humanistic inheritance of the 1970s and 80s especially. What is unexpected is that this inheritance seems not to have been segregated to intellectual realms and “liberal” culture.

Since Ashbery, as early as 1984 (and likely earlier), was considered “incontrovertibly a great poet” by the likes of Harold Bloom [1. Modern Critical Views: John Ashbery. Ed. Bloom], it seems not improbable that there be such a link between the great poet’s critical framework and that of his culture.

I referred previously to much of Ashbery’s work as being “just words,” the same attack that conservative pundits once laid against Barak Obama in the current Presidential election. This was not an attack against the worth or quality of Ashbery’s poetry (not necessarily) – rather, it was meant to be descriptive of the common critical theories that are so prevalent in his poetry. This phrase expresses that postmodern skepticism of language so well, and the way it has been simultaneously absorbed and reviled by once-pragmatist American culture. It may be the synthesis of the culture wars: postmodern skepticism has been entirely sublimated.

Many counter-arguments rested on this phrase. Ashbery was accused of being alternately a fraud and a language poet – but he is neither. I was accused of not understanding his project or not reading his work closely enough, which are not true either. In fact, I have some excellent critics who have made similar analyses. Harold Bloom writes, Ashbery’s poetic method “never restores as much representational meaning as it curtails or withdraws … [his] resource has been to make a music of the poignance of that withdrawl.” (1) In her essay “A Commission that Never Rests,” Anita Sokolsky writes of the way Ashbery’s work “disrupts the possibility of aesthetically neutral lucidity” and focuses its attention on “the inevitable double-blind of language.” [1.] The phrase “just words” seems to sum up, in some critical way, the postmodern critical framework of Ashbery’s poetry. He employs these deconstructive ideas to show, again and again, the ways that language is suspect as a vehicle for the conveyance of meaning; that, as Sokolsky writes of “Convex Mirror,” even as a poem is apparently lucid, it is self-consciously and on some level ironically so.

It was the connection to a political view with which, I’d guess, 95% of Ashbery readers would disagree that seemed to cause the greatest backlash. However, the skeptical postmodern premise is not so different from a conservative pundit attacking Obama as “just words.” The implication is that words themselves are objects of suspicion, incapable of conveying real meaning (wherever that lies), and stripping reason of its traditional authority. The goal of these pundits is for the language of sophisticated reason to elicit immediate suspicion in the audience. These attacks exhibit a “narcissism that believes in its own concealed meanings and substantive insights” [1. Sokolsky] while they deconstruct the very possibility of such insight.

Though critics such as Helen Vendler emphasize that Ashbery’s poems are, even at their most elusive and allusive, “about” something, the skepticism and self-consciousness continues to complicate that lucid reading in some important way. And it is that complication that makes Ashbery a great poet of the twentieth century, in spite of his “table talk” [1. “Understanding Ashbery.” Vendler] and sentimentality.

The parallel development that I see between intellectual “liberal” postmodernism (as expressed in Ashbery’s poetics) and anti-intellectual extreme evangelicalism (given voice by preachers and pundits) is surprising: in both is found an inherent skepticism of humanistic, rationalist-enlightenment endeavors. Over the last forty years, it seems to me that America has inclined towards this postmodernism / evangelicalism, depending on which side of the internal political debate one fell.


CivilizeMe said...

I'm glad to see Ted Burke continuing to take up this topic, over at his blog. After reading your re-assessment in this post, Dan, I'd have to say I am still largely in agreement with your first post -- although this may have as much to do with our discussions on the topic elsewhere, and my appreciation of all the caveats you didn't share in writing, than with my objective evaluation of your argument. As I wrote over at Ted's, I'm of the opinion that Ashbery's subtle position -- that meaning is an access point to whatever usually-fleeting experience of human psychology it is which poetry contains, rather than the totality of that experience -- is risky, risky, risky. If one is not careful, one steps off the edge of seeming-meaningless into meaninglessness. JA, when he's doing it right, is great at the former task. How I would paraphrase what you were getting at (correct me if I'm straying far), was that often Ashbery lapses into the latter habit; so it goes when you work a method into all its possible corners. When he does lapse, there is much to see in common between the non-denotative, means-what-you-want-it-to-mean mode on display, and the infantile (read: languageless) character of certain popular kinds of political speech in our coddled post-modernity. Such verse (but not all of his) is a reflection of the zeitgeist -- if not a product of it, or partner to it.

Matt said...

"a product of the postmodern and anti-humanistic inheritance of the 1970s and 80s especially"

What a joke. He started writing in the 40's. He'd already published several books by 1970. Do some research.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Z: Ashbery is great at walking that line when he does it well, I agree. When not, his work is alternately opaque or mundane, depending on his mode. Like any poet, he's human, not every poem is great; you can look at the ones that fail to see most obviously the risks a poet is taking.

JA is employing a critical framework of postmodernism in all his work, which is self-conscious and skeptical of language, meaning, rational-enlightenment formulations (he is soundly romantic, as is widely noted); it is most bare where his poems are least successful. How different is this postmodernism from evangelicalism's rejection of the enlightenment and language (as Wood puts forth)? Not very, I'd argue. The intent of the rejection is dissimilar, but not the result.

Maybe, I'm working it out myself.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Matt: Welcome back. As we all are, Ashbery was deeply influenced by the culture at hand, in which the avant-garde was a burgeoning postmodernism. I'd say he was right in line with that – not surprisingly, given his interest in Romanticism (and its rejection of the enlightenment) and European literature (which was well advance of the English-speaking world in its postmodern development).

Jonathan said...

All you're really saying is that there is now a rightist postmodernism, that certain attitudes toward language have become convenient to propagandists on the right. That's not really a parallelism between Ashbery and rightist uses of postmodernism. It's just that in a postmodern age everyone is postmodern. When you put it like that the argument becomes a little trivial.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Jonathan: I mostly agree, although I'd say it is more that evangelicalism and postmodernism are parallel rejections of the humanist tradition that have become nearly indecipherable.

If you re-read my first post, that's what I found surprising. I don't think it is really trivial though – it might seem kind of obvious to say, but if it is true then it needs to be said and to be dealt with as such.

Joan Houlihan said...

Dan, great post on Ashbery and one that I agree with. I'm not surprised by the vehemence of reaction to it, something that nearly always occurs when one attempts to speak directly about poems and poets that have arisen in the wake of post-modernism. My thoughts on the ascendance of incoherence are well known (for those unaware and/or interested, the salient essays are: I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=T and Post-Post Dementia.) Interestingly, many of the same respondents to your post responded here also, as far back as 2004: Letters. I was surprised not only by the vehemence and anger of many letters (I suppose one's own observations seem self-evident), but also by the need for respondents to see some kind of political leaning on my part (and that it was to the right!). Frankly, the attackers most concerned about some political linkage, while of my "stripe" (liberal), began to seem themselves like right-wing evangelists and fanatics, protecting and defensive of their beliefs in their rightness, but also unable to look at the matter at hand with any kind of objectivity (i.e. read the poem! read what I wrote about it!). But--here's the rub, and the problem many of my critics had--how to champion meaninglessness in a meaningful, articulate way? If you're indifferent to word meanings in poems, why not also in prose? While I am now mainly engaged in other matters (teaching, writing poetry and reviews and running the poetry center and manuscript conferences I founded), I am still interested in this subject but in a different way: I've come to realize that there is no way to effectively evaluate much of the post-modern poetry out there (inc. Ashbery, and in spite of Vendler and others' attempts). For example (since we're talking about him) how does one gauge whether or not one or another poem of Ashbery's is better or worse than another? Extend that problem to the entire school of untethered poetics, and you have the problem laid out: there is no way to use existing evaluative criteria to read (and I use that term very loosely), appreciate or articulate many, many contemporary poets. I believe it's that lack of critical guidance that is turning people away from poetry ("It must be me"), but most critics and teachers (like me) are tied to methods of reading and evaluating poems that include assumptions about the integration of word and meaning that no longer apply. And no one has so far developed a way to critique poems that don't include that assumption (I mean a poetic criticism that is not also untethered to meaning and clarity of thought.). My method of reading, interpreting and editing poetry serves its purpose very well--except when it comes to poems that are based on not-meaning. (But even that statement is inaccurate since some poems are indifferent to meaning, not actively not-meaning). Since I write and enjoy all manner of elliptical, symbol-based and heavily imagistic poems, it's an important goal for me to be able to distinguish why some seemingly purposeless poems do have integrity and purpose at the core, and do use words with awareness of their individual and collective meaning, and some do not. Thanks for raising this problem for poetry again--I do think it's the central concern for anyone truly engaged with the art--poets, teachers, students, editors, and critics.

CivilizeMe said...

Well-put, Joan, and thoughtful. I find myself with a point of disagreemtn -- we'd ask not whether a poem is better or worse, but rather more or less successful, given what it sets out to accomplish. But the result is often the same, when the question is asked of JA's verse, since it isn't clear what each poem sets out to do. I hope the various personalities who've piped in on this conversation will indulge my curiosity (if not my ignorance) and let me know how it is they understand the self-determined goals of one of Ashbery's non-denotative poems.

Art Durkee said...

Jean Houlihan's points are well said, and get at the horns of the dilemma: how does one talk meaningfully about something that decries meaning? It's a possibly irreconcilable paradox. It has also led to a great deal of wasted ink. It would be interesting to set a pile of boxes about Ashbery on the scale across from his own actual books; one might readily predict that the analyses outweigh, mass for mass, their sources. Not that this is anything new in either (academic) poetry criticism or academia in general.

Thus, what was most interesting to me about the (occasionally defensive) responses you received on your previous post was a basic truth about poetry itself that no one seemed to actually want to either admit or point out:

A poetry that requires so much explanation to be understood, even if the explanation is mostly pointing out the poetry's inherent inexplicability, fails as poetry. If a poetry needs so many footnotes that the footnotes outweigh the poems, then obviously the poetry isn't connecting with any audience other than the critics. (The priestly caste of those whose expertise are needed for the rest to be told what's really going on.)

This is not to say that a poem MUST mean something, or have an audience, much less a popular or general audience. But it is consistent with postmodernist poetries of several types that the theoretical explication (and sometimes the manifestos) outnumber the actual poems, which begs the question: who ARE you writing for, anyway? At what point does the entire project become (mutual?) masturbation? At what point does it cross the line into becoming a con-job, the crossing of the line, mentioned above, between seeming-meaninglessness into actual meaninglessness?

The bigger context of the (postmodern) times in which Ashbery is writing strike me as often explicitly valuing and desiring crossing that line into actual-meaninglessness. With some LangPo rhetoric, this is even cited as a positive value. In the context of presenting a mirror for which the reader to see themselves rather than the poet's expressive self (artistic ego), this project can fall in line with John Cage's lifelong project of removing his personal taste from the musical composition—paradoxically, making a Cage composition sound like nothing more strongly than a Cage composition. Just to be clear, egolessness is a project I agree with. What I am not finding in Ashbery (or many parallel developments in poetry), however, is Cage-style egolessness (Marjorie Perloff gets at this issue in some essays comparing Cage to, say, Jackson MacLow), but rather a supreme form of (game-playing) egotism that seems to explicitly value obscurity for the sake of being obscure. Not poetic difficulty, as with Stevens or Joyce or Stein, wherein difficulty serves some purpose essential to the art, but obscurity for its own sake. Ashbery poems have very shiny surfaces—razzle-dazzle sleight of hand gestures abound—but the depths are virtually always hidden; the surface is not being used to deflect or subvert, or to be the appropriate container for the art (in which form follows function; cf. Olson's projective verse, field forms, etc.), and one gets little sense of any underlying theme or ideal, as one does even when reading Stein or Stevens at their densest. It's hard to tell when an Ashbery poem crosses the line into being a con-job—and that it IS so hard to tell when it crosses the line is precisely the problem. The priestly caste will not doubt respond that that's the point—it's a commentary on the difficulties of sorting out meaning from absurdity if life itself. But that's a defense of why the poetry should matter, not about whether it's readable.

So, it is no wonder contemporary (postmodernist) poetry is so much trouble. A poetry that NEEDS a priestly caste is most definitely in trouble. It always amuses me to hear some the same poets make these sorts of arguments about the worth and value of postmodernist poetry, then turn around and complain that contemporary lacks any kind of popular audience. (Duh!) Perhaps this is merely another symptom of the hijacking of criticism by the academy, in which the general style of academic analysis and discourse in general has infected literary criticism in general, and especially poetry criticism. (It also accounts for the weightiness of the rhetoric.) Bottom line: The defenses I've read or overheard of the value of postmodernist "innovative" poetry come from the ivory tower, almost exclusively. Where is the general (non-academic) reader in all this? Ashbery seems almost Warholian at times: famous for being famous, rather than for the inherent merits of his art. The priestly caste does like to defend his work, since after all if it's that obscure and difficult, then it MUST be good, right? When obscurity is used as a mask in such a way, to present a mask of brilliance, it is most definitely a con-job, a la the Wizard of Oz. That we remain uncertain of Ashbery's intentions along these lines, and that the poetry itself doesn't help us with the question, is again precisely the problem.

When Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate, during his project to have people read their favorite poems into kiosks around the country, many of which were broadcast on public radio and TV later, what was most fascinating was that the vast majority of the poetry read into the kiosks was smart, intelligent, occasionally "difficult" poetry that people loved—not the lowest-common-denominator doggerel the priestly caste seems to assume the general (non-academic) poetry reader would prefer. I vividly recall a truck driver reading, with a pronounced Brooklyn accent, something rather complex and free-verse; I'm sorry, I don't recall if it was Whitman or Stevens or WCW. Obviously the general audience is capable of choosing to read and enjoying complex poetry—Stevens, Whitman, Pound, Dickinson, among others—so it struck me then, and still does, how often the poetry critics have underestimated the intelligence of the general reader. The charge has been raised before that poetry criticism has become so insular and self-regarding that it ignores the general reader; I realize that I am repeating some of that charge here, but I think it is relevant. Pinsky's various projects to cheerlead for poetry in general during his tenure seemed to really underline the disconnect. (Not, I think, intentionally. I do not believe Pinsky had any such agenda.)

All of this discussion in defense of Ashbery (or similar projects) also tends to ignore that poetry DOES have other modes: most of which implicitly do defend the value of having a poem mean something, or say something, or observe something. (When does the line get crossed between parataxis and collage, for that matter?) One of the recurring themes of criticism that supports postmodernist poetry is that we're supposed to like it, even if we don't understand it, and here's why. The tone of this is often of the priestly caste telling us what to think. That's why I still agree with your original comparison, that set off this discussion: both sets of priestly castes, the other one being the conservative right-wing evangelical-driven priestly caste, are telling us what to think. The points you've raised questioning what we're being told what to think about all this are important, because, at least in Ashbery's case, it's not at all clear about the cut of the emperor's new clothes. The underlying point, which I have been trying to get at here, is that I question this need to be told what to think at all. if I have to be told what to think, to understand a poet's work, there's a real and serious disconnect going on, and it's not at all certain that the poetry itself means a damn, existentially, whether or not it means anything at all, literarily, or means to not-mean, artistically.

Doodle said...

All I can say is that if Ashbery's poems, of all things, flummox so many people then it's just as well that American poets can no longer be bothered to read such poets as (say) Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. If they did, they'd comprehend that they're arguing about techniques and experiments that are a hundred years old already. It's quaint that such things have an apparently enduring capability to scandalize folks. I have no dog in this Ashbery fight, but to complain about his poems on the grounds that they're "meaningless" and interchangable kinda misses the ole drunken boat... and shows how humorless we are these days.

CivilizeMe said...

Who's flummoxed by them? Let's look at a few lines, Doodle, and you'll find a ready audience (I expect) for whatever account of the value therein you'd like to share.

Art Durkee said...

It's quite proper to place Ashbery in the surrealist-symbolist tradition, of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, et al. However, comparing Ashbery to them, as his supporters implicitly do, as though he had fulfilled the mission of his masters, is absurd. Having read Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Artaud, Mallarmé in French as well as in various translations, they're still the better poets.

i doubt anyone in this discussion is particularly flummoxed by either Ashbery, or these comparisons to his teachers.

Curtis Faville said...

My better nature is to avoid this debate, because the terms that have been offered don't address any useful questions--either about poetry in general, Ashbery's work, or about the sphere of political speech.

It is important to remember that--historically--poetry has been distinct from the political realm. In cases where it has had a direct involvement with political issues, its effect has been aesthetic, rather than (for want of a better term) actual. It is true that "everything is political" in some sense, and that all literature is to some degree, an expression of some kind of underlying political presumption or agenda, albeit subtly or indirectly.

But a poem is not a legal document, or a text with specific practical use (other than entertainment and education). The uses to which words may be put in a poem are not expected to meet the same tests of accuracy and relevance and contextual pertinence which we ask of words in practical documents. A poems is a "thing," not a declaration, or a contract, or deposition, or a legal argument.

We don't ask of a painting, for instance, that it look like a recognizable photograph. Collaterally, we don't demand of poems that they report facts and events with a reliable veracity and convincing certainty. That is not the function of art or literature.

Literature is a use of language intended to divert. That diversion may amuse, instruct or influence us. Poems or plays or novels which do not interest or instruct us we will avoid.

The success or failure of a work of art or literature is not dependent upon the evident simplicity of its purpose, or of the degree of apprehension of its ultimate meaning. Indeed, greater works of art may be said to intrigue and fascinate us to the degree that they resist simple interpretation(s). Meanings and implications not only may be unspecific, but may change dramatically over time. In other words, what we think of and how we react to a work of art or literature, is a fluid, and largely unpredictable and unclassifiable process. It is not fixed in time, but undergoes transformation according to the alterations of society, language, culture, origin, and so forth.

If we are going to "compare" the work of a poet like Ashbery, to the work, say, of some 19th Century poet like Blake, or Tennyson, we have to be willing to acknowledge the developments and changes wrought over the intervening decades, in the fields of science, psychology, cybernetics, as well as in the spheres of political theory, philosophy of mind, ethnology, archeology, higher physics, etc., upon later figures. Much discovery and innovation over the last 150 years has had the effect of undermining most of the presumptions upon which literature since Homer has been based. One of the casualties of this convulsive era of change has been a breakdown of commonly held concepts of meaning, truth, etc., IN literature and the arts.

Speech in the political realm serves a different purpose. Theories of propaganda--in mass media--and in other areas of communication--are designed to understand and utilize ways that people can be influenced to form opinion, make choices, and take action.

Suffice it to say that John Ashbery has never been a "political" poet. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a writer who seems less interested in exploiting political conditions or expressing political positions through his own poetry.

If we are going to assert that a poet shares a methodology or an agenda that is common to a political movement or a propagandistic technique, we would need to show how that poet's own work is political, or how its methodology is LIKE that propaganda. Finally, assuming that such a thing were possible, we'd have to show that this similarity is not merely gratuitous or accidental, but is the result of a common cause, or a deliberate imitation, or the direct expression of a single phenomenon.

This would seem, in other words, on its face, to be a nearly impossible thing to do, except in the case of a writer whose whole program has an explicitly political charged basis, such as Upton Sinclair, or Christopher Caudwell, or Jack London. Indeed, given the historical record of political art, per se, the likelihood of finding a politically motivated artist who was also technically or formally innovative, would seem to be nil. The hallmark of effective political art AS propaganda is its directness, its lack of formal ambiguity.

Here I find myself largely in agreement with Jonathan's statement that "there is now a rightist postmodernism, that certain attitudes toward language have become convenient to propagandists on the right. That's not really a parallelism between Ashbery and rightist uses of postmodernism. It's just that in a postmodern age everyone is postmodern. When you put it like that the argument becomes a little trivial." Not only is it trivial, it's a bogus assertion on its face.

You would have to believe that Ashbery was motivated to undermine the whole superstructure of signification in language, as part of a program to destroy language itself. Or you would have to believe that he's unconsciously carrying out the will of a malevolent zeitgeist.

Poor Joan Houlihan despairs of explicating an Ashbery poem using good old-fashioned common sense, and finding a true purpose that would be as reliable as a scrub-brush, and just as useful. Meaning which you can deposit in the Bank of Verifiable Reality and depend upon getting a solid 2 1/2 % return on!

Art Durkee worries of slipping over the line into meaninglessness, a mishap which might occur on The Twilight Zone. I found myself wondering what this alternate universe actually looks like: Would it be like stepping into mud? Into another dimension? Would I become invisible, trapped in the envelope of unmeaning? Could I be pulled back through the fluid mirror like Jean Marais in Cocteau's Orphee?

Could Ashbery distinguish between accidental unmeaning, and deliberate un-meaning. Or did he set out deliberately to create unmeaning through the use of deceptive meaning? Was deceptive unmeaning by a skilled technician a potent weapeon which Goebbels had never even imagined?

All these thoughts swirled in my brain. I awoke with a start in my garret, realizing that a whole week had passed. Famished, I threw on my hat and ventured into the thoroughfare for sustenance. Alas, the entire populace was in a state of chaotic disarray. Strange sounds, in tongues unfamiliar and exotic, permeated the air. Transport! I had awoken on the Planet of Meaninglessness!

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Curtis, per your agreement with jonathan, it seems that, all along, we were in agreement as well. For the most part, and barring some of your more formalist / aesthetic leanings.

The point where I waver is that "we" are not necessarily all postmodern. Although it is the prevailing paradigm, postmodernism will eventually be overturned like any other. Complete sublimation by the culture may indicate its impending demise. The question that is more important then might be, what comes after?

CivilizeMe said...

Curtis, I'm still hopeful that you'll set aside your vociferous (and generalized) disagreement, and work out some of the value in a scrap of Ashbery's verse. Since I am convinced that I see Dan's point, I'm not looking to him for substantiation; but rather am looking forward to seeing what new perspective you can give me on this poet whom I think I understand well.

Art Durkee said...

There are numerous kinds of kool-aid offered, all with urges to drink. One of them is that meaninglessness in art is laudable; another is that it is not. Neither of these really address the point that the question itself, that one or the other needs to be chosen, is intriguing. Some of this discussion is indeed about aesthetics. Some of the discussion indeed is personal bias cloaked as (postmodern) critical rhetoric. The failure to universally convince is somewhat telling. sarcasm aside, stridency isn't convincing.

I still note that the discussion continues to (actively? or passively?) ignore that other modes of poetry are equally valid to the post-avant, post-modern, whatever post- label one wishes to use. One of the problems of the Us vs. Them mode of lit crit discourse that paints the person disagreeing as an idiot (sarcasm aside) is that it doesn't really allow for dialogue. Camps tend to form around ideologies rather actual discussion; hence Silliman's dismissal of any of the ideas questioning Ashbery's poetry here. I'm far less interested in ideology in poetry crit than is Silliman, although I certainly share opinions with him on some topics otherwise.

So, it's still interesting to me the very tone of these discussions. As though the questions raised here regarding Ashbery are somehow heretical and bad for the children. (i've written recently about why that isn't very convincing.) I'm still wondering, therefore, in parallel, when meaning in the arts became such an evil and heretical prospect. (Spare me the historical outline; I'm familiar with it.) Or perhaps, better stated, why post-modernism continues to vilify attempts towards meaning, even nebulous ones, if not nostalgic ones. What's interesting to me is that postmodernist rhetoric claims to be all-inclusive, all-relative, yet it's obvious that the rhetoric is not supported by the facts. The facts being, there are still camps even among those who otherwise subscribe to "things fall apart, the center cannot hold." Stated simply, why it's okay to believe in meaninglessness as a positive value but not in meaning as a positive value.

And those other modes in poetry, still being sidestepped in this discussion, such as the epic, the vatic—the other modes than the lyric—one notes that these seem to be viewed as inherently suspect.

Fascinating to look at the underlying assumptions, that's all.

Curtis Faville said...


It was never my purpose to "defend" Ashbery by demonstrating any of his values or shortcomings. My disagreement is specific, not generalized. If you're convinced of Pritchard's position, it wouldn't serve any purpose for me to explicate an Ashbery poem for your pleasure, especially since you claim already to understand his work sufficiently (at least, presumably, enough to share Pritchard's damning indictment).

Daniel Pritchard's post struck me, as it still does, as a crudely conceived broadside. It's an outrageous claim--that Ashbery is undermining language through deliberate dissimulation, and that his work has a political dimension, in common with neo-conservative evangelical propaganda!

The refutation of Pritchard's so-called "argument" would never involve a "defense" of Ashbery's methodology. It would involve confronting him on the terms of his assertion, built upon a junkheap of misconceptions and misapprehensions about what language is, what poetry and propaganda are. This is neither the place nor the time to conduct a course in remedial thinking.

Ashbery needs no defense from me, in any case. I have no new perspectives to offer you. But I would point out that if you accept Pritchard's argument, your lack of receptivity would probably present a sufficient barrier to comprehension.

Last but not least, you might consider coming out from behind your anonymous identity.

Teddy said...

Whew. The warring, however civil or vicious, finally subsided.

Henry Gould said...

I would hesitate to hang a lot of heavy historical responsibility on a poet as representative of an ideological zeitgeist or cultural moment. I suppose it can be done but I don't think blog entries can handle it - more study and context is needed. Politics is not aesthetics.

When I was starting out as a poet back in the 60s, Ashbery was my hero and stylistic model. He was the best. Why? I simply adored the FREEDOM from denotative meaning, combined with a certain haunting/lyrical/light & funny manner. It was the COMBINATION of these two that I admired. Ashbery's poetry was a release from, and a satirical attack on, all the cliches in the universe.

As I grew older, though, I simply (& gradually) lost interest. "Doodle" in his comment on one of these entries was right to point back to Rimbaud, Mallarme. Ashbery stems from the Symbolist-Modernist period in art (so well described in Edmund Wilson's book, Axel's Castle).

The symbolist-decadent urge in art will always be with us - as long as people need to withdraw from life sometimes, return to the womb, dream and daydream. There is something permanent about these psychological impulses.

But I think poetry, in the end, is not just words. It is closer to Aristotle's formulation of the representation of an action. Poetry is the sound of gesture, action : physical action, moral action, intellectional action. The poem has a telos (a plot), which is its bone structure.

Now Ashbery's poetry of deflection may have a deep underlying plot : but the very process of verbal deflection and ambiguity makes this plot impossible of access. So it ends up pleasing us as a pleasing surface, the ripple or moire of the sea. There's something immobile & unchanging about his style. Hence, for me, anyway, its limitations.

Henry Gould said...

p.s. sorry, that should be "intellectual" action (!!!).

& I just want to underline - about the impulse to revery & daydream - I believe it is not only permanent, but absolutely valuable, necessary. I still LIKE this (Bachelardian, Proustian) aspect of Ashbery