Friday, October 10, 2008

On Ashbery, Language, and Meaning

After the MIT John Ashbery reading last night, a number of us went out for conversational libations and began discussing the potential merits of the work we'd just heard. Several of the poems he'd read were 'collages' – of movie titles, of movie premises from a 1920s book, of something else I can't recall now. A few of the poems required biographical details, which he gave us before recitation, to find a useful point of entry. More than some of it seemed to be approaching nonsense.

At one point during the poem of movie premises, the greater part of the audience laughed hard at the sound of a funny name, and it occurred to me how basically juvenile many of his poems were. Or rather, that a juvenile response is perhaps the only worthwhile reaction to much of Ashbery's work. If you want something with depth, it just isn't there. As one friend exclaimed in Asberry's defense, 'It isn't supposed to mean anything!', I couldn't help but think of the old commercials for Apple Jacks – Grownups don't understand: it isn't supposed to taste like apples.

In The New Yorker recently, James Wood wrote about the Republican party's attack on words – and therefore, as Wood sees it, on meaning and insight. He writes, 'The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: “I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.” The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama “just a person of words,” adding, “Words are everything to him.”' The implication that words themselves have no meaning – a renunciation of thousands of years of human thought – is startling.

I feel there is a strong connection between the type of attacks that Wood describes and the poetry of John Ashbery. Of course I'm fully aware of the influences that 'built' Ashbery's poetics – dada, surrealism, postmodernism, pop-culture, romanticism – and that what he is trying to accomplish is certainly interesting to study academically. But what is interesting about his work is also damning. His is a poetry of 'just words', strung together, evocative at times but intentionally un-meaningful. Words actually are the end of the experience, words that purposefully lack their referential meaning, that undermine by extension the idea of all possible meanings.

Oftentimes, an approach to Ashbery's poetry is compared to listening to music or viewing visual arts, as a passive consumptive enterprise – but that's misleading. The restriction of a medium places demands on any artist. Visual and auditory experience is primarily phenomenological: it is an experience that is non-linguistic and sub-cognitive, although it can be 'put into words' to some degree. Language, however, demands that there be an underlying meaning, and demands that the reader actively engage with it. Because language is the way we create meanings and values, the Form of language is its communicative meaning. It is how we have constructed knowledge, love, ethics and insight and god. Language might be all that it means to be a human being, and so whether a poet – or a person? a candidate? – is 'just words' does, in fact, matter. The words have to have meaning, they give meaning to our lives.

Perhaps it is a case of poor timing, but the new Library of America volume of Ashbery only highlights the disjunction within American culture today, and how detrimental it truly is. How is it possible that the leading poet of our day, the banner of avant-intellectualism and darling of postmodern academics, seems to be undertaking the same project as the anti-intellectualism evangelical conservative front? He may not intentionally be pursuing the deterioration of meaning, intellect, and humanism, but his work demands just that by denying so much of it. It is destruction without replacement – it is a gag without any substance, all laughing at the funny sound of names.

If Ashbery is America's foremost poet, as he is claimed to be, then something is fundamentally wrong. There is more eschew here than matters of taste and enjoyment. I admit that I find some of his poems better than others, entertaining occasionally, funny or intriguing – but they are 'just words' in a way that other, even lesser, poetry is not. I often take Meghan O'Rourke's advice on reading Ashbery: 'If you're bored, skip the poem, or skim.'

But skipping and skimming are bad habits that I don't need reinforced; there are too many other poets who at least try to impart something meaningful. To make not just the poem but the human world value-full. I don't find that in Ashbery, after reading and reading, and hearing him read, and hearing his work lauded. I wonder, what word is left in the wake of all Ashbery's hysterical deconstruction? When others have said something best, I defer myself to them. In his collection The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill writes:

"What remains? You may well ask. Construction
or deconstruction? There is some poor
mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy."

*** Thanks to everyone who participated in this discussion in the comments section, especially those who gave reference to critical works. If anyone is interested in explicating the merits of Ashbery's work in detail here (specific poems, lines, etc), shoot me an email. ***


David said...

You're right about Ashbery. He's a fraud and the people who fawn over this stuff deserve to be deceived. One "r" by the way.

Art Durkee said...

This is one of the most accurate assessment I've encountered on Ashbery. I agree with it completely. You are quite correct to point out the similarities between the deep-rooted strain of American anti-intellectualism currently embodied but not originated in the fundamentalist right-wing, and the fluffiness and anti-meaning of Ashbery's poems. Both devalue not only meaning but intelligence as a value. Once they start to devalue mental intelligence, devaluing emotional intelligence is close behind.

Everything you say about Ashbery also applies to most Language poetry, for very similar reasons.

Matt said...


Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Matt thinks that I'm not seeing the 'point' perhaps or strengths of Ashbery's work – care to further explicate?

I'm not here for an ego trip: this is about discussion.

I tend not to think Ashbery is a fraud, as David does; but I do question his merit and status.

Iain said...

Your failure to read Ashbery is indicative of your failure to read what the GOP is actually saying when they attack Obama's use of "just words". You seem to think that the GOP is dense enough to attack "words" by using words themselves. The actual juxtaposition they are trying to make is that Palin speaks "directly" (as she put it), that her words mean only one thing, whereas Obama's language is "fancy" and "frivolous". The GOP's attack on Obama is the same as your attack on Ashbery. Somehow, words are only supposed to be for direct communication, and if words are used outside of strictly denotative acts, somehow, they're not worth anything.

You don't have to like Ashbery, there are certainly reasons not to. However, your reasons basically require throwing out every decent poet from the 20th century. Scoffing at "collages" and non-denotative language is just plain weird unless you also feel the same way about Stein, Joyce, Williams, Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Crane, etc. In which case, the picture becomes clearer.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Hm, perhaps my post wasn't clear – I'd say that the *effect* of the GOP and Ashbery are the same, but quite obviously not their intent; that is, they both make an audience question the value of complications in language and meaning (art said it quite well, I thought).

I have no real problem with collage, although as an approach I've always felt that it has narrow limits. Ashbery's use of the form is generally uninspired, usually not marked as a 'collage' at all, and specifically uninsightful; it springs from a daringness to question meaning in language (admirable) but leaves nothing except that questioning. This is opposed to other 'collage' poets I've encountered, who use the technique to explore limits where I see Ashbery often just ignoring the purpose.

I generally reserve putting any writer into a group as you list without some unequivocal merit. But one must begin someplace. Joyce and, say, Stevens, used the appearance of meaninglessness (and actual difficulty) to create unexpected and at times subversive meanings. Ashbery's work – although one may have a similar reaction to reading it because if its often opaque nature – is doing something altogether different.

Michael Carr said...

Having been at this reading of Ashbery's at MIT, and an admirer of his work, I must say that I find your assessment rather too quick in its assumptions, if you would perhaps allow some other points of consideration to enter.

To reduce this poem (the collage of movie plots) to one moment where the audience enjoyed a puerile laugh is not the sum of the work. It happens all the time at any number of poetry readings. However I can understand Ashbery's construction of the poem from its source material, a book of potential B-movie plots, actually thinking on an imaginative level of a single plot that moved successively from one overly-dramatic or slightly hare-brained formula to the next. I'm reminded of the work of Raymond Roussel, who for instance concocted actual plays along these lines, loaded with plot twists at every moment to the point of excess. The work is not about dearth of substance but an obvious example of being overloaded with substance. Is this "deep", as a method or as a resulting work? I find Roussel very moving on an imaginative level in what he accomplishes, which I would undoubtedly consider artistic depth. I wouldn't necessarily find this poem to be an outstanding work of JA's among all others, but I am very sympathetic to it.

And as a result, I find nothing very sympathetic about your ensuing discourse on lack of meaning, whether side-swiping academics or Republicans in the midst. It seems to have defaulted to negation of value in the midst of your own doubt. (You might consult Keats about this.) Being one who has both thoroughly avoided academia and Republicans and yet easily managed to relate as above to this particular poem, I don't find this negation at all relevant to the work at hand. To me it's not a matter of anti-intellectualism or any other slant (neo-conservativism?) in the least; it's a matter of artistic imagination, something to me that comes at the heart of poetry, and that I'd hope anyone considering themselves a poet would have some identification with, whether or not they found Ashbery a stimulating form of it.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...


Thanks for that response – the most articulate counter so far.

I chose that moment of humor (I laughed too; I implicate myself) not simply because it was humorous, but because of what lay under the meaning. Why did we all laugh?

I expect that those who perceive a marked dissociation of life/meaning and art will not have much time for my analysis. You are content to enjoy Ashbery's work on an imaginative level and on that account I agree; much of his work is that if nothing else. And I relate, as you say. But I am not content to leave it at that.

"negation of value in the midst of your own doubt" – does this not also describe Ashbery's poetry?

Michael Carr said...

From your follow-up comment mentioning the "dissociation of life/meaning and art" you seem to be dealing with the dissociative issues you ascribe to others, if you can make the assertion that such work as Ashbery's or other's can work on an "imaginative level...if nothing else."


Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Quikc typo sorry: life/meaning from art, is what was meant.

Am I? I suppose that I am. As artists, are we not all dealing with this issue? I recall Plato wishing artists could meld the Good with the Beautiful, banishing them for not caring enough, or not being able, to do so.

Steven Fama said...

Dear Daniel,

You'll probably have to do some leg work to get your hands on it, but if you're interested in discussion you should read the essay on Ashbery by the poet John Olson published about five years back in The World in Time and Space-Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry, 1970-2000. It's an exceedingly lucid and enthusiastic explication and musing on a particular poem by Ashbery, and of his poetry more generally.

the unreliable narrator said...

At first I happily failed to read your post, and actually believed it to be arguing for "a strong connection between the type of attacks that Wood describes and attacks on the poetry of John Ashbery"—I was dismayed upon arriving at the end, and then rereading, to find this was emphatically not, in fact, what you are saying. At all.

"Words that purposefully lack their referential meaning...undermine by extension the idea of all possible meanings"? First of all, it's implausible that words could be capable of ever "lacking meaning" in the mind of any literate reader (or for that matter, hearer). They all come pre-loaded with value; it is merely left to the poet to collide them against one another and create new connotations; or to exploit the old ones in unexpected ways; or (in the case of propaganda) to reside in the received meanings. Then too, is it really in the power of a writer to drain words of their nature (whatever that is), simply by refusing to align them precisely, map them one-on-one, with their denotations?

"More than some of it seemed to be approaching nonsense." Here I think of Stein and Stevens and, for that matter, John Milton; and begin clutching my head and staggering around in disbelieving circles. This strikes me as an alarming statement of aesthetic authoritarianism. As if it were possible to read "Stanzas Against Meditation" (for example) or "America: A Prophecy" and come away thinking, "Well, just words." As if one would listen to John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, or Ornette Coleman and think: "Just notes." Or stand in front of de Kooning or Rothko and shrug, "Yeah, just colors."

Though, to be sure, many people do—perhaps even most people. Most Americans watch four and a half hours of television a day, too. As Annie Dillard observes, some people eat cars. But then there's me alone with a text of some kind, and I ask myself to come to terms somehow what what I apprehend of it. A philosophy instructor once passed on to me, some 20 years ago, the most valuable heuristic I've been given in such matters: "Plato must be at least as smart as I am."

Before dismissal, willingness and curiosity—and unadulterated, impassioned love of "just words." And if we eventually do find our small emperors to be unclothed (though fortunately it's not up to us in this lifetime to assess one another), then please let's not rely on the fearful, snarling rhetoric of anti-intellectualism to do so.

I say all this, by the way, having been trained by Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Geoffrey Hill, among others; and not myself particularly drawn to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. And, I will defend with mother-fierceness their right to write it; and mine to have to work—to be asked to work hard—to understand and love it.

PS: I cannot too highly recommend Don Share's writings on this matter; a tireless servant in the fields of reconciling the so-called "experimental" with the so-called "quietist"—thanks to his scholarly wisdom, he offers an invaluable perspective on seeing that today's canonical meaning-makers were in fact yesterday's freaks and outcasts, those whose "meaningless squiggles" of paint and twelve-tone have resolved, with time, into profound commentaries on their particular historical allotments.

PPS: Also relevant is Jerome McGann's essay on the oppositional and the accommodating.

CivilizeMe said...

I see the potential value of using non-denotative language; I don't often see how such language is used valuably in Ashbery's writing. What a broad stroke I'm painting; what I mean is, I've been trained to appreciated wrought writing (writing with work done to it and in it), and I don't find in his writing the signals of labor that I usually use to find meaning. My other criterion, less an ethical and more an aesthetical one, is whether I'd like to read the poem aloud, and want to read so aloud in twenty years or so. Seldom is this the case with Ashbery. I hope that in this discussion, someone will venture forth with a defense-by-explication of some of Ashbery's verse; I'm disappointed that some commentators are content to assess Daniel's ostensible cluelessness, without offering some of their time to the project of educating him.

coldfrontmag said...

Anybody who reads this misinterpretation of Ashbery wasting a good bit of their time. Ashbery once commented that a good piece of music has a way of convincing people of something-- but that by the piece's end, the "convinced" listener may not be able to articulate what they are convinced of. Music carries an argument in this way. Ashbery said that he would like to do this in poetry.

Ashbery makes perfect sense. His best poems are symphonies. They're the mapping of a mind in motion--the I-do-this/I-do-that of the subconscious, of abstract perception and association. If you read "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," you'll find logical formulations that make sense, then collapse on themselves, indicative of about the only philosophical truth anyone's been able to muster up for certain: we come damn close, but don't know a damn thing. To watch Ashbery's at work is to watch the fundamental human struggle: reasoning our way through our snapped-off perceptions (Ashbery's term), struggling, trying, arriving at epiphanies and truth to find they've left us moments later.

Likening Ashbery to "language poetry" is madness. No, I take that back--it's "cute." Someone trying use them big poetry expressions and all. To reduce Ashbery to a collage poet (whether the poet used this term or not) based on a few recent poems (he's been around a while and written a lot, if you didn't know that) is equally cute. Ashbery, in his career, has encountered and disposed of (sometimes quite your homework) every major philosphical truth mankind has arrived at. "Fluffiness"? "Anti-meaning"? To watch Ashbery at his best is to watch a mind bend as close as one can towards the light. I hope the author of this post has lacked the patience, and not the intellect, to determine these things for himself.

Finally, I agree wholly with iain; to attack Ashbery in this way is to exhibit the same misunderstanding the GOP imposed on Obama. Maybe read Ashbery's musings on religious right-types in his poem "The System." To stare at one fixed point rather than affirming that life is in constant motion is careless; as Ashbery jests in the poem, we can't even say for certain that we are ignorant, because that's to imply that something is known somewhere. It makes sense that he eludes certain minds. Ashbery, it seems, is still wildly ahead of his time.

Don Share said...

Since I got mentioned, let me add a link to a piece I wrote on Flow Chart in the PN Review.

CivilizeMe said...

With respect to TUN's sensible response, I have to point out that it looks like Daniel is mostly referring to the works read at this particular reading.

Would love to see a close account of a poem or two here; lots of impressions are being bandied about, but comparision of impressions is usually (as here) interminable.

morescotch said...

My advice to people who don't like Ashbery is read Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (the poem), or read it again.

That's usually enough to get it done.

-Sam Amadon

the unreliable narrator said...

Impressions cannot be usefully compared, perhaps; but the way we come by our impressions might.

"I don't find in his writing the signals of labor that I usually use to find meaning. My other criterion, less an ethical and more an aesthetical one, is whether I'd like to read the poem aloud, and want to read so aloud in twenty years or so."

I'm not sure this is a demonstrably useful technique with which to approach made objects. My own viewpoints are of necessity so limited that signals for which I habitually search, or my own aesthetic taste, isn't going to get me very far in terms of broadening my appreciation. The Miles Davis Quintet is just jangled noise, because it doesn't sound like hard work to me? How much pleasure I've just denied myself!

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Stephen: Thanks, I'll follow up on that work. Appreciate the lead.

Unreliable: My willingness to engage with this issue is not a reliable gauge of my appreciaion of some of Ashbery's work – 'Convex Mirror' being one of the books I've really enjoyed. My willingness to engage is, to my mind, a sign that I am in fact NOT dismissing Ashbery. My question of resultant effect is a serious one, although I may be coming from an approach less enamored with various Theories. I've read Don Share on Ashbery before, but thank you for the link.

Cold: Thanks for the explication of what Ashbery is doing in some of his work, it will be helpful for the more unfamiliar probably; the 'mind in motion' – what is that from? I feel like it was in the Conjunctions issue on Ashbery?

On the music analogy, we are maybe at an impassable disagreement – though pretty, I don't find it meaningful in terms of describing the effect or purpose of literature.

PS: Thanks to all for keeping this above-board.

CivilizeMe said...

The Miles Davis Quintet sounds like jangled noise to you?

By "labor" I mean "deliberate effort," not "effortful deliberation." I'm personally not much interested in accidents being labeled as art (the rimshot here sounds like, da-DA). But rather, what is done deliberately with the accidents invariably occuring in the creative process. But now, we're getting into the coded speech I use to understand my own preferences; more impressionistic murk. Thanks for broaching the topic with me, TUN.

Can we see some lines of verse talked about?

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

From Don Share's review of Flow Chart: "Language as oblivion, a 'dream/with no place to go', is the peril Ashbery encounters. . ."

My concern, then, with Ashbery's work is widely acknowledged?

Don Share said...

Geez, Dan, you took that quote way out of context!

Anyway, by no means is anything I said in that essay (not a review, by the way) to be mistaken for anything "widely acknowledged." It's just my own thoughts about that one book.

On that note, I'll exit this and leave wide pronouncements to others!

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Don: Are you saying that you read his work as specifically confronting an oblivion of meaning in language? I read you saying that the loss of meaning was a danger of his work.

Murk Plectrum said...

This sentence will come as a shock to any practicing linguist: "Because language is the way we create meanings and values, the Form of language is its communicative meaning" (although you gotta love the nod to Platonism there!). Meanwhile the notion that Ashbery's poems are "just words" strung together with no heed to their semantic value will come as a shock to any reader of Ashbery. And anyone who wonders what "just words" are (or whether it's possible to string them together without semantics coming along for the ride) is not likely to be rewarded by reading this lazy, intellectually imprecise blog entry. Blogging condensed to its essence: some dude scribbling thoughts that can't possibly be of interest even to himself & asking the world to care. Can't be bothered to learn how to spell the poet's name, so is it surprising he doesn't want to actually have to think about his poems?

--Michael Robbins

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Michael: I guess that all depends on the linguist – who practice what exactly? perhaps you meant studying linguists? I don't think clinical speech therapists would care much – and whether they know their Plato from their Aristotle.

But this was an academically lazy entry, it's true. No denial there – I have no time for good research (a failing, I'm aware) and I count on readers to make corrections if they like, especially spelling. I always hope for discussion, today I got it (gladly).

This is a set of notes on a surprising connection I saw between some of the work of America's leading poet and the larger cultural climate. By the reaction I'd say I hit a nerve though?

Obviously 'Ashbery's work' is a collection of poems too various to be entirely constructive as a term in discussion. 'Some Trees' and 'Tennis Court Oath' are so, so different from, say, 'Convex Mirror' or 'And the Stars Were Shining'. The deconstruction of the authority of language as a medium for meaning is something I saw as being common among them.

I'd be willing to be wrong. A willingness to be wrong is the prerequisite to learning. Don Share's long explication was quite good, I thought. I'll be looking into the other suggested further reading.

CivilizeMe said...

Murk, can you explain what our dubitative practicing linguist will find so objectionably erroneous in the assertion that the form of language is its communicative meaning? I took this to be a restatement that grammar (form) is the vehicle for intended meaning.

TED BURKE said...

A poem should not mean, but be. -Archibald MacLeish

That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of "meaning"; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing it's worst instincts.

What Ashbery would opposed, if he were a polemicist (which he is isn't) is the idea that the "meaning" that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route.

Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man made things in a natural world , and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets , are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and "conquer" a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualist approach to dealing with the world. The contradiction between our ready made distinctions and a Nature who's essence is constant change unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world,solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them comingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of "meaning" , often times spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confoundingly so.

CivilizeMe said...

Ted (seen you on The Fray!)... you write so compellingly about the nature of Ashbery's writing, can you show us how it works out in a sample poem?

TED BURKE said...

“For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music’s not a static, contemplatable thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture.” –John Ashbery

Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead to inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable.

What Poetry Is
John Ashbery

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?
This poem talks about representations of things captured at particular moments of aesthetic ideation and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where many despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable . There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek out, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school /
All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative stratagies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterwards, is to know something more about experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery at his gets that dissolution perfectly, beautifully.

Murk Plectrum said...

It's far more accurate to say that Ashbery, fairly consistently, is interested in the ways poetry evades an ultimately settled account of its own meanings as of meaning tout court. Far from denying meaning, he seeks a style that will not put an end to understanding ("So that understanding may begin"). This is one function of his constantly shifting registers - sublime, demotic, analytical. He is, more than any other contemporary I can think of, invested in the thinking of the tradition of poetry ("You can't say it that way any more"; "Morning's at seven"; "I tried each thing, only some were immortal & free"; "what Wyatt & Surrey left around"). The end of "What Is Poetry - "It might give us - what? - some flowers soon?" proposes a dwelling within questions, as the symbolic ("some flowers," like "some trees") remains unspecifiable but threatens always to subsume meaning under its canopy. Ashbery wants to stay outside symbolic identifications, in an ongoing questioning of symbols & what they veil. But this is far from denying an absolutely straightforward semantic content to much of his poetry - indeed, it is itself such a content: "getting to know each just for a fleeting second / Must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole, / Like some pocket history of the world, so general / As to constitute a sob or wail unrelated / To any attempt at definition."

TED BURKE said...

From my first post:

What Ashbery would oppose ... is the idea that the "meaning" that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route.

I believe we agree.

CivilizeMe said...


[Ashbery] wants to instead to inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable.

I suppose my response to larger portion of his work I've read, is that I don't think these inspections are robust or interesting. I wonder what set of experiences during our differing periods of aesthetic developed, conditioned some readers to be receptive to this technique, and me to be unimpressed? Or do I just need to shake off some irrident theoretical chill toward 'loose' verse?

Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TED BURKE said...

Responses to poetry are the most subjective things imaginable to come up with, and most of the fun in discussing why you like or don't care for a poet's work is coming up with an that at least persuades your reader that you're own response is genuine. That said, it is the case that Ashbery isn't for every one interested in poetry--he's always been a tough sell for customers of mine who wanted a poetry book recommendation, as they prefer the likes of Billy Collins, which is okay, given that Collins is good at that public poetry stance. But Ashery? Poet Tom Marshall mentioned to me in the seventies, after I'd spent some time deriding Ashbery as an abstruse fraud, that whatever one thought of obscurity as an aesthetic precept, Ashbery's writing is "honest poetry". Tom was always a poet I listened to and so I reeled in my judgement somewhat; after reading and writing about Wallace Stevens and Openn for a few years did Ashbery's method come to make sense. Strangely, I found myself in his conflated dimensions; I might not have been able to directly relate to Ashbery's circumstances, but I could relate to the habit of letting the mind wander, unmoored and rudderless. JA was the rudder I was looking for.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Curtis F: If you'd like to send me an email, I'm happy to address your concerns. Thanks.

Also, in case it wasn't patently clear, I am moderating the discussion here to allow only appropriate responses to the debate at hand – trolls, vulgarity, personal attacks, etc., are duly filtered out.

Curtis Faville said...

My "concerns" were about your tortured and distorted and uninformed version(s) of John Ashbery. They weren't personal, trollish, vulgar etc. That you would imply that they were is cowardly and dissembling.

I posted the text on Silliman's blog. If you're not the pipsqueak you appear to be, you might consider responding there.

Not that I expect you to.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Curtis does not feel that this, or his more underhanded insult to my intelligence posted at Silliman, are worthy of moderation in the context of this otherwise good discussion. Interesting.

I've edited quite a bit of this type of response out of the discussion.

In regards to his comments on my perceiving a connection between a culture's leading poet and a marked change in that culture over the course of said poet's career – I'm putting together a post that will address that briefly.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

CF: Again, your reply is mostly personal and off-topic. I understand you disagree with my notes here, but as I also disagree with your assessment, we are at an impasse as far as feelings of 'authority' and 'critical acumen'. If you have no desire to email me, and have not been open enough to list contact information for yourself, I'm afraid that further posting on Silliman, as long as he will allow it, is the best answer.

Rohit said...

Self-Portrait was the greatest poem I read last year. Some absolute diamonds in there.

Jim Breslin said...

In order to criticize Ashbery why do you need to attack the right? In order to establish your credentials to avoid being vilified? Ashbery is an enemy of meaning,it seems. I like poetry grounded in something connected to the real world-images and human experience. Poetry it seems and the poem itself must have a meaning to anchor it. Poetry as distinguished fro the other arts like music must mean and not just be. MacLeish never practiced what he preached.