Introduction: Why the Lyric Essay?
I want to start with a problem: an overwhelming, close to paralyzing sense that an essay about John Ashbery’s poetry is like a representational critique of a cubist painting. The two (essay and poetry) just feel ill-fitting, strange bedfellows, as though a parent (the essayist), out of the desire to understand her son (the poet), gave him a lesson in thermodynamics. Ashbery can be theromodynamically complex, yet such a lesson would seem to miss the point, not to mention the fun. New forms of interpretation are needed to come close to an approximation to what Ashbery is doing.
So how do we approach him?
One day I made a list of various things that go into an Ashbery poem. I’d just read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” and, inspired, I decided to use his form, namely the “out of” incantatory rhythm, and apply it to what an Ashbery poem, in my mind, might be made out of. Here is a sampling:
- ideas stretched like mattresses
- feelings too simple and complex at once
- unsystematic thinking
- the bowels of the straining imagination
- the window where the morning does something just grand enough for a verb
- thoughts that ricochet around the laundry room
- sweeping symphony-like waves
- tissue boxes
- cardboard tents
- old political buttons
- aunt’s recipes scrawled in chicken-scratch on yellowing note cards
- domestic arrangements
- pictures of loved ones doing random silly things
- the noise the cat makes when it covers its litter
- cats and their following eyes
- fake plants
- the distant realm of the voice that swoops down out of sheer necessity to splatter the page with its urgings
But this seemed to defeat my purpose. I should begin at the beginning: Why was the lyric essay my answer to the problem of writing an essay about Ashbery?
A heightened attention to form and content seems to echo, among other poems, in some regards Ashbery’s longer work – I’m thinking of Flow Chart, or Three Poems, the sense of an unspooling thought following its own unwindings, but arguing for something, implicit or explicit, perhaps a way of being, perhaps a style, or maybe a space in the world for such a way-of-being/style to exist. A lyric essay does something similar: poetic and rhetorical, it gives the writer a freedom than the more conventional essay does not, a freedom that hopefully comes close to the Ashberian exuberance exhibited in poem like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or, better yet, “The Skaters.” The lyric essay, though argumentative, is more therapeutic, meaning it is more interested in providing helpful frameworks for thought than sending home an immaculate argument. Its intention is to “redescribe,” a la Richard Rorty – to speak differently, believing that “large-scale change of belief is indistinguishable from large-scale change of the meaning of one’s words.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 215) Indeed, this lyric essay has an ambitious goal: it posits that words placed in a lyric essay mean differently, work differently, and that this change in meaning is inextricably linked to changes in belief: the belief, say, that poems are best explicated by more formal essays, as opposed to other poems, or lyric essays; the belief that more conventional essays are mirrors reflecting the reality of the poem, as opposed to Lego-blocks, creating, blue block by red block, word by word, new interpretations, new angles, new ways of looking, which cannot happen separately from the form of the assay. The goal of the lyric essay, then, is to change writer and reader’s self-image, however slightly, “to insure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 304)
Part 1: Ashbery and the Rortian Self-Image
It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux. – Ann Lauterbach, Conjunctions: 49
Lauterbach is making a wonderfully interesting claim: that Ashbery is doing something similar to what philosophers do – and, more specifically, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James do. (What do they do?) Notice that Lauterbach is very careful in her phrasing: Ashbery “has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism”; his reticence, his self-deconstructing poetics, are each “evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the twentieth century.” These are powerfully intriguing statements, and they are intriguing because they are vague. James himself would approve of this vagueness, who wrote in the first chapter of his monumental Principles of Psychology that,
It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject […] we gain much more by a broad than by a narrow conception of our subject […] At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility. (James, 6)
Owing to the fact that our science here is literary criticism, which seems at best highly chimerical and dependent in some regard upon academic fads; and owing to the fact that our subject is John Ashbery’s poetry, an art form so florabundantly fertile as to deliberately court the benefits of suggestiveness, (if not the dangers of nebulousness), it seems best, following James and Lauterbach’s example, to proceed cautiously (but boldly) in our discussion of the affinities between Ashbery as poet and Ashbery as pragmatist philosopher. A pregnant vagueness is what we are after, as opposed to an insipid one.
Pregnant vagueness defined in Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”:
A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life (Ashbery, 143)
So what do pragmatist philosophers do?
Rorty, pragmatist par excellence, defines “philosophizing” as “[raising] questions about questions,” especially questions about “unexpressed assumptions” and “presuppositions.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) Voparil, quoting Rorty, points out that this activity of philosophizing “implies the primacy of ‘imaginative vision’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) So, a-ha (we want to say)! Philosophizing, or the raising of questions about questions – what we normally associate with philosophy – entails the importance of imaginative vision – what we normally associate with the driving force behind poetry! Here we might imagine William James and John Ashbery clasping hands. But what is the relationship, more specifically, between raising questions about questions and imaginative vision?
Suffice it to say here…that imaginative vision might be described as a way of thinking outside the box, and therefore as its own idiosyncratic form of metaphilosophy…? Meaning that to reflect upon the old way of thinking, we have to first move out and away from that old way of thinking. Here’s a metaphilosophy as defined by Ashbery in “Clepsydra”:
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: (Ashbery, 140)
And what is the goal of philosophizing, as defined by Rorty? Voparil goes on to write, again quoting Rorty,
The aims of edifying philosophy involve helping not only readers of philosophy but ‘society as a whole,’ to ‘break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 21-22)
Such a “[breaking] free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” is valuable, because such edifying discourse will “take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 22) A very compelling sentence; but what does it mean, and how is it related to Ashberian poetics?
Analogy. Do you remember as a teen wanting an article of clothing so badly, that you begged your parents for it – and for whatever reason, they decided not to buy it for you? I remember, as a pre-teen, desiring desperately a Corliss Williamson basketball jersey – red and white, with the word “Arkansas” at its center. The question is, why was I so obsessed with wearing that jersey? What is it that clothes represent that gets our desire-juices flowing? And what does this mundane example have to do with the seemingly extra-mundane notion of “[taking] us out of our old selves by the power of imagination, to aid us in becoming new beings”?
Another way to ask the question: Have you ever, after knowing a person for a good while, seen them in a different context, and the context changed the way you thought about them? Maybe you see your father interacting with an old friend you’d never met. Or you see a girlfriend interacting with her grandparents. Perhaps you see an old friend wearing a shirt you’d never imagine her wearing. And suddenly you’re feeling like you don’t know this person,
and you think to yourself, half-delighted, half-bewildered, “Oh my god, I never realized they had this side to them!”
This is what Voparil and Rorty are referring to, in regard to the goal of philosophizing, and what Ashbery enacts in his poeticizing: it’s the process by which we “change our clothes,” literally and metaphorically, to try on something new, for in so doing we are in effect trying on new identities, new self-images, imagining in the process the people we wish to become. We do this every time we start a new job, or try something new at our old job; every time we don a different haircut, or read a different poem, or wear a different style of t-shirt.
This – the changing of one’s self-image – is the GREAT THEME of Ashbery’s poetry.
Rorty describes this theme in terms of Freud and Hegel, although we might as well substitute “Ashbery”:
Freud, in particular, has no contribution to make to social theory. His domain is the portion of morality that cannot be identified with “culture”: it is the private life, the search for a character, the attempt of individuals to be reconciled with themselves (and, in the case of some exceptional individuals, to make their lives works of art).
Such an attempt can take one of two antithetical forms: a search for purity or a search for self-enlargement. The ascetic life commended by Plato and criticized by Nietzsche is the paradigm of the former. The “aesthetic” life criticized by Kierkegaard is the paradigm of the latter. The desire to purify oneself is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being. The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future. It was the goal shared by, for example, de Sade, Byron, and Hegel. On the view I am presenting, Freud is an apostle of this aesthetic life, the life of unending curiosity, the life that seeks to extend its own bounds rather than to find its center.
For those who decline the options offered by de Sade and Byron (sexual experimentation, political engagement), the principle technique of self-enlargement will be Hegel’s: the enrichment of language. One will see the history of both the race and oneself as the development of richer, fuller ways of formulating one’s desires and hopes, and thus making those desires and hopes themselves – and thereby oneself – richer and fuller.
Here’s Ashbery writing at the close of “Clepsydra.” I’m choosing this passage, because 1. it is itself about self-image – (passages about self-image in Ashbery, as I’m suggesting, are legion); and 2. when I read the passage, I myself feel changed, feel as if Ashbery is articulating something I’d always felt but never heard articulated, something so innate as to be almost unconscious and habitual: the workings of the imagination (read: self-image) itself, talking about itself:
What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you
Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening. (Ashbery, 146)
This absolutely remarkable passage is not only about the imaginative process by which we imagine ourselves into the people we wish to become – it seems itself to somehow enact or re-enact that process in its own formulation. It’s as if Ashbery, in discussing his own experience of growth and becoming, helps us to experience it within ourselves as well. It is a powerfully poetic way of telling us to trust our hopes, by calling attention to the way in which those feathered things are inextricable from our desired self-image. We have a “single and twin existence” because we are constantly setting out (“twin existence”) from where we just recently started from (single existence) – (The Mooring of Starting Out is what Ashbery titled the collection of his first five books of poetry). We are constantly twinning ourselves, imagining ourselves into the people we hope to “really be.”
This is why William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him.” (James, 20) “Vision” can be thought of synonymously here with personal imagination. James, like Ashbery and Rorty, is saying, modestly but confidently, that who we presently are is a quiet achievement, that growth is just as much an active process as it is a passive one. And Ashbery is one of our greatest chroniclers of this process by which we alter, gradually or suddenly, our self-image.
Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.
James, William, The Principles of Psychology, Volume One, New York, Dover Publications, 1950.
James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.), The Rorty Reader, Malden, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010.