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This is my favorite Emily Dickinson poem, even though it is not her best. It is the poem for which I have the most affection:


I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though—

I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by—
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me—

I dared not meet the Daffodils—
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own—

I wished the Grass would hurry—
So—when ’twas time to see—
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch—to look at me—

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums—

Besides her wonderful slants and off rhymes, the half smile of enlightenment seems pressed to her lips, as if the poem itself were everything we needed to know of dread and sorrow and of the gentle acceptance, and humor of things beyond consoling.

Spring is relentless in its coming, not a creature fails, and it is, as in many Dickinson poems, the passion and then the tomb–the imperial tomb of the Saturday vigil before the dawn. Emily leaves off before the resurrection. She, like Teresa of Avila, loves so much that she would not dare be wanton for heaven, but place herself in that realm of the sealed tomb–the dark night of the soul, the bridal chamber where the cross and the tomb are joined.

And who could ever predict or be anything less than awed by her wonderful and utterly unprecedented use of verbs: “Not all pianos in the woods / had power to mangle me–”. This is one of my most cherished poems. I always wanted it set to music and for Billy Holiday to sing it. She’s the only singer with the style and beautiful sad knowledge and ruefulness to pull it off.

In 1985, two professors of physics published some research about the extent to which a physics class impacted students’ intuitive understanding of motion. Like most of us, the students had a more Aristotelian model–the one that seems to fit with common sense: e.g., heavy objects fall faster rate than lighter ones. The goal was to see how many students internalized the Newtonian model by the end of the semester: e.g., heavy and light objects fall at the same rate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that many students retained the Aristotelian model after the course. The professors were surprised, however, that even A-students–those who had demonstrated competence on exams that tested ability to use and apply Newtonian concepts of motion–even these students still retained the Aristotelian model. Shockingly, the students would rationalize their belief in such models even when shown evidence to the contrary. It’s a truism that we education is more than transmission of knowledge. In fact, we often say that you don’t get it until you do it. Clearly this is not the case, though. Even skillful application of knowledge doesn’t demonstrate understanding sometimes.

This study shows how difficult it is for students to shift paradigms, but true students grow when those paradigms shift. What most teachers, myself sadly included, often forget is how radically disorienting, how almost-impossible it is for individuals to shift those paradigms. Humans are adaptation machines. Experience shows that human resilience (and the creativity bound therein) is almost boundless. Yet we routinely forget the pain, the embarrassment, the extreme self-doubt that is part of the learning process. We are also extremely fearful beings, afraid to test the limits of our fragility. We rationalize, equivocate, and often simply hide when confronted with new paradigms because we have reached a horizon point beyond which we cannot see our new selves.

I expect that if I understood this concept better, I would not ride the same roller coaster every semester. Every four months, I go through the same series of moods. I have been teaching for a number of years now, so I know to expect them:
1. Hopeful: I begin hopeful, hard-working, planning extensively, providing copious feedback.
2. Chastised: After several rounds of assignments, multiple attempts at correction, coaxing, I realize my expectations are too high and need to be tempered.
3. Failure: When students fail to meet my more reduced expectations, I begin to question the whole enterprise of teaching.
4. Despair: The dark night of my teacher’s soul. I lose sleep, wonder when my fraudulent stint as a teacher will be brought to its ignominious end.
5. Peace: I come to accept the reality of my students, my abilities, somehow accept the failures and successes alike.

Perhaps I’m addicted to the process, to the highs and lows; I need every break I get, but after the break–when I step back into the classroom–I am filled with hope again. At the end of every semester I promise to remember the lessons I have learned, but it’s clear that my own internal paradigms are not fully shifted to the reality of the task yet.

I wanted to feature essays by students–about poetry primarily, but perhaps other literature-related topics too–which surprised me in some way. It’s not that I am pointing to these students as budding literary scholars (we need scientists and historians who can read poetry!) or that I’m some star teacher who wants to show off the quality results of my teaching. Instead, I am featuring students whose writing showed them grappling with those new paradigms, whose work showed a kind of bravery in confronting the new self beyond the horizon point. I see a facility for understanding and writing about poetry in a way that I thought was admirable. There are sentences I wish I had written; ideas I wish I had articulated.

That’s when I feel most satisfied as a teacher: when I see a spark of something in a student that I admire. Not a mirror image of myself (Augustine said–roughly–that no parent is so stupid to send their child to school to learn what the teacher thinks), but that mutual flame of interest in something outside both teacher and student. In that sense, a great classroom environment is created when those flames combine and burn that much brighter.

I hope that other THEthe contributors who teach will also feel compelled to contribute to this series. But for now, this is my own (burnt) offering.

Revealing the presence of order in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

“The Idea of Order at Key West” was written by Wallace Stevens, a ‘transcendentalist’ in the modernism era. Steven’s poetry reflected works similar to those of Whitman and Wordsworth in that he loved writing on concepts of the natural world to help discover and create personal meaning. Stevens often took vacations to Florida where the serenity of peace and beauty inspired him to write and reflect on deeper philosophical issues such as natural order, chaos, and the deep internal desires of the self (Morse 140). “The Idea of Order at Key West” emphasizes the internal longing to create meaning for order within the natural world, and to discover the role of man’s origin and the self’s purpose. However, in order for such meaning to be made obvious over the chaos, the order at Key West can only be clearly revealed when the beauty and chaos of nature is combined with the role of the poem’s female individual. The poem’s argues that order can be found and already exists among the chaos of nature, but that it takes the individual’s artistic craft to create meaning to make the order’s presence known and evident to the rest of the townsfolk and society.

The first stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” introduces two central figures which are used to reveal the poem’s meaning and existence of order: the sea and she. Both of these objects work independently of one another, yet also close together, and require attentiveness to the poem’s themes of imagery and sound so that order can be revealed (Bloom 62). Stanzas one, two, and four, contain descriptive sea imagery which can help one decipher the existence of order within the sea’s chaos. Order within the sea can be seen, but it is primarily masked by Steven’s raw depictions of turmoil, such as “the grinding waters and the gasping wind” (13). Despite this chaotic imagery, the poem goes on to reveal that the sea maintains a powerful consistency of order in that its “waters never formed to mind or voice” but rather remained consistent of that which it was and whose “mimic motion… caused constantly a cry” (2,5). Further support for this existence of order can be read within the opening verse of stanza one, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). Here the language implies that despite the sea’s potential to possess upwellings of turmoil, the sea also possesses ‘genius’, an underlining potential to overcome chaos to regulate life and diversity. Thus the waters of Key West possess both potential for natural chaos as well as order. According to stanza four, these waters can be ‘walled’ with ‘sunken coral,’ and ‘colored by many waves;’ yet due to geographical demarcation along the equator, can also possess a ‘dark voice’ for trouble such as death among species and seasonal abiotic catastrophes. The presence of order can be seen overall within the context of the sea; however, it is and continues to remain unstable because it is constantly undergoing interaction and change. This makes the order difficult to initially discover.

Robert Pack reinforces this idea that the natural world cannot exist without the presence of both order and disorder because “these two things are one” (Pack 130). These two elements must work together to create natural change, and consisted of “Steven’s definition of the world in which we live” (Pack 131). Through “order becoming disorder and disorder becoming order,” the two elements make up a cycle which changes over the course of time (Pack 131). In “The Idea of Order at Key West”, however, Stevens portrayed the townsfolk as failures to recognize that order could be found within natural chaos. Rather than looking for order’s presence in an underlining cyclical concept, the townsfolk’s perception of order’s existence was based dependently upon that which was visibly evident in the experience of the present moment. Thus, this created the need for the role of the female individual.

Throughout the poem, the role of the individual, referred to as ‘She,’ is used to communicate the presence of order among the chaos. This is done through the act of the girl’s song, which breaks the townsfolk’s rational perception of order in that moment, and causes others to stop and ‘listen.’ Without the role of this individual, the townsfolk would continue to lack understanding on the presence of order and its meaning. Steven’s verse “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” implies that the nature of the song itself contained a unique element which transcended any perspective of chaos and/or beauty that the townsfolk had previously known or experienced (Stevens 1). The simple and structuralized beauty of the art of the song altered the townsfolk’s previous perception on order’s existence around them (Bloom 62); it became captivating and mysterious causing all to stop, and listen:

It was She and not the sea we heard
For She was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. (Stevens 14-17)

The art (order) of the girl’s song was internally and naturally created within the individual’s self, which when sung, enchanted, deepened and transcended the meaning of order in that moment and allowed others to discover and interpret its origin in a different light.

The order within the art of the girl’s song contained a unique state of ‘unnatural,’ pure order which gave the song’s meaning and words a form of structure. This structure was beautifully arranged and impacted the townsfolk listeners as well as created an internal desire and passion within the listeners to want to pursue the presence of this order more:

More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. (Stevens 29-30, 37-40)

Unlike the sea, a state of nature that possesses the cyclical relationship between both order and chaos, the art of the song possesses a ‘pure’ state of order which overpowers and sings “beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). The presence of chaos within this order ceases to exist, and therefore makes the order of the song truly pure and unique to the individual, and unnatural among the understanding of the listeners. Because of this, the listeners, for the first time, are able to both see and hear what order consists of in its purest state despite the disorder of the natural chaos of the sea.

Throughout the song and upon the time that the song of the individual comes to an end, the listeners are overtaken with feelings of awe and contemplation regarding the nature of this unnatural order’s origin. This can be seen in stanzas three and six where the townsfolk ask:

Whose spirit is this? (Stevens 18)
…tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. (Stevens 44-51)

The order created by the structure of the song impacted the listeners to a point of meaning that transcended their original perception of order’s existence. Not only did this captivate their attention, but it also activated an internal desire which caused them to look for and seek out the meaning of order around them, “in the town” and in the night, in a new, ‘deepening,’ and ‘enchanting’ way (Stevens 48).

The poet closes with the following verses:

Oh! Blessed rage for order…
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
…And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (Stevens 52-55)

Here, the poet acknowledges that a ‘blessed rage for order’ is required in life for meaning to be created. The only thing that can do this, however, is an unnatural form of order, disconnected from chaos and nature, which is uniquely pure and originates from the human inner self. Such was the influence produced by the song of the girl at Key West, and remains a unique element, which alongside the use of visual interpretation and the incorporation of keener sounds, allows man to make meaning to share with and/or to inspire others.

Meaning for order consists of more than what is made obvious in the present, but in order for it to be clearly revealed, one has to intently pursue it and/or interpret its meaning through another element. This is expressed in the role of the female individual, and is what Steven’s made evident when one listens for the presence of order within the artistic nature of the girl’s song.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers. 2003. Print. p. 59-64.

Morse, Samuel. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasua. 1970. Print. p.140.

Pack, Robert. Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. New York: Gordian Press. 1968. Print. p.130-131 and 175-176.

DSC07673 - CopyKatharine Sell is a 3rd year student majoring in Biology focused in coral reef ecology and marine organisms. She enjoys writing in her spare time. She loved exploring ‘meaning’ in “The Idea of Order at Key West” in correlation to her passions for people and all that the sea possesses.

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:


Others responded with some published and famous works:


While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!


What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?


Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?


Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.


So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?


See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”


“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”


Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)


Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

All the hipsters are making their aggravating lists made of poets from Brooklyn and Amherst with good haircuts, trust funds and irony. Lists where the majority of poets have one book and slept with the writer of the list. I have nothing against poets sleeping with each other but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good list. In an age of truly remarkable work these lists are full of too many gutless poems made of flippant language that make one big metaphorical turn near the end and we are supposed to go ooooh and ahhhhh. Many of these poems show the shallow influence of a poet like Dorothea Lasky but without her wit and ability to create a voice of endearment. They want to be Lasky, but the young poets don’t have her talent. All they have is a Brooklyn address, connections, and great internet savvy. Oh and an MFA. And ironically their ironic poems are DISEMBODIED and RHETORICAL in the worst way. These lists are aggravating, full of poems of the moment, books that will soon fade into youthful oblivion but in a year when some of the best books I have read in my life, books that can sustain a person for decades and not lose their relevance have been published, collections by some of our grand masters and some young sharp guns from the outer edges, I want to offer some poets I have not seen on any list floating online despite some of them winning big awards or garnering academic notice this year:

Whether first books, second books, and career collections, what these books share is a commitment to make a poem that— even if linguistically playful, still has a commitment to speaking to this world, and the idea and importance of experience and identity (such a dirty word to the hipsters, played out they say, how passé’ they say) and how we negotiate both in this difficult world. They all share some commitment to negotiate the body through lived space, and language. Perhaps pulled in so many directions by the confusion of late Capitalism, by the disconnect of technology, our best poets are reclaiming the body and lived experience and space? In the corrupt spirit of these lists I also tried to choose poets that I actually knew, since it seems that is what you are supposed to do with a list. Though I failed here in not really knowing everyone on my list. And sadly I failed again: I did not sleep with any of them.


These are serious books. I sometimes wonder if the young poets still know how to make “serious” art, but then I read The Backlit Hour by young Jose Antonio Rodriquez and I know they are more than capable. This book is western, political, and deals with the conflicts of gender, class, race, and power through story and lyricism. If only more young poets had such bravery. Another poet with such bravery is Corey Zeller whose book Man Vs. Sky offers us a series of poems in the voice of his friend who committed suicide. In a year of many books of such grievous loss this original voice and point of view stands out. And other young poet is Cody Todd whose book Graffiti Signatures is such a experimental gem. A hip hop DJ and graffiti artist, an old B Boy from Denver, Todd combines his knowledge of experimental poetics with the street and structure of the turn table. I know that after her death the grand tome of Lucille Clifton will help many people to live and understand the terror and joy of our country. Roger Bonair-Agard offers us a book both streetwise and worldly, one that unflinchingly crosses borders. Charles Fort’s Selected Poems brings together one of our most important and under praised African-American poets and prose poets who tackles issues of race, love and form. Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems brings us together one of our master New York School lyricists. Ron Padgett has always been my favorite NYC poet, and one who has that rare ability in poets, to express JOY. I always grieved he was far in the shadow of John Ashbury as I found Padgett’s work far more engaging and …. And well true. Jillian Weise presents a book that reads as a 21st century book, full of slips and slight moves of lyricism while maintaining an interrogation of the body’s role in Being. Yona Harvey first book Hemming Water brings us a long awaited book that pushes sound and music into fragments only the body and history can hold and by doing so sustain us. Another great first book is Mathew Olzmann’s Mezzanine, a book of remarkable range and metaphor whose interrogation of Spaces evokes for me memories of the French theorist Batchelard in the best way. Joe Weil’s auspicious Selected Poems gathers his many poems from the small press into one beautiful tome. It covers the territory of cities, the self suffering, the idea of the other, of labor and loss, in a manner both tragic and comic rarely found in American poetry. Mary Biddinger’s edgy O Holy Insurgency, continues her project of exploring the body, the spirit, and the beautiful wreckage of the things and moments of our lives. Lastly, Jennifer Militello’s second book Body Thesaurus firmly presents herself as a quiet heir to the Lorcan tradition, a poetics of lyricism and emotion and dare I say duende. There are thoroughly fierce books, often political, the kind of books that Milosz wrote “can save nations” if we will only listen. Buy them.


Lucille Clifton The Collected Poems 1965-2010 BOA Editions

Ron Padgett Collected Poems Coffeehouse Press

Charles Fort We Did Not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems Red Hen Press

Joe Weil The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems NYQ Books


Jennifer Militello Body Thesaurus Tupelo Books

Bury my Clothes Roger Bonair-Agard Haymarket Books

Jillian Weise The Book of Goodbyes BOA Editions

Jose Antonio Rodriguez Backlit Hour Stephen F. Austin University Press

Mary Biddinger O Holy Urgency Black Lawrence Press


Yona Harvey Hemming the Water Four Way Books

Corey Zeller Man Vs. Sky Yes Yes Books

Cody Todd Graffiti Signatures Main Street Rag

Mathew Olzmann Mezzanines Alice James Books

The radical poetry of 100 years ago was not radical in terms of style. It was conventional in terms of style and this doomed much of it (though not all of it) to being forgotten and rightfully so, but note that the folk songs and protest songs and blues songs of that period were not forgotten and still matter and register with intelligent and artistic peoples. Why? Because they were not written in the language of one’s betters, and therefore not some cheap and clumsy knock off of the prevailing aesthetic of the most middle brow literary magazines.

In point of fact, it was the urban decadence of cabaret, parlor music, vaudeville, and fast talking medicine show sharpies, but most of all, of the “othered” in terms of Blacks, Jews, and Irish that reinvigorated the pastiche and cut up sensibility of the high modernists, and this wave of influence has not yet abated.

In that sense, the accidental poetry of the people, that which is not striving to sound “good,” but is in love with its own sound productions is still the most pervasive influence on every form of poetry with the possible exception of surrealism, and one could make a very good argument that French surrealism, its particular zeitgeist, was made possible and viable by cabaret and circus performers, and then silent film performers (harlequin to Laurel and Hardy) who performed the surreal in their acts and on film.

Freud and Jung were after thoughts to give the surreal acceptable “forefathers.” A poem is first and foremost an organization and shaping of words that allows consciousness to escape its own worst grooves–both for good or ill (since some grooves are actually beneficial) or which makes those grooves refined to the point where they are strong and supple, and energy enhancing–the organized energy of life itself–what Blake meant when he privileged the imagination over nature and said that exuberance is beauty–the current of how one moves through one’s very being.

For all my ranting, and cynicism, and anger at my age, I have never not wanted to be alive–and to enter this current of being alive is my language. So for me: not perfection, but the force that moves through nature–not the mirroring of nature, but the homage to its storms and vital ugliness/beauty through words–the way mirrors would break if left in the wilderness–but the wind in their breakage, the weather of time and water in their distortions: I still want to write a poem that gives me the pleasures of walking on the shore of the sea in the fall when all the tourists have gone home, and the air is cool but not unbearable, and I am with my Emily and my daughter Clare (I have read poems by Vallejo that did that for me).

I want the word “my” to be as selfish and as unapologetic as an animal–my, my sun, my jacket rifled by the wind, my wife and daughter with me–my tribe, and on the 100th reading, the thousandth reading, salt in my spit and, if I am alone, fiercely alone with a whole congregation of stars.

I want to write a poem that takes on not the semblance of life, but its full and necessary ferocity, and on the last reading, is worn, eroded, impacted by the years, but far from being worn out–anciently sudden, and suddenly ancient: I want that broken music.

This is a political desire–if by political we mean to procure the necessary justice, and peace and compassion for such a life and aesthetic to exist. I want all of human life to be able to rest long enough to swallow its own spit and stare up at the stars, and hear the promise of some covenant–anything other than the drowning out of the soul by this twaddle we call the contemporary world. This is the extension of my own right to be fiercely and troublingly alive to every man, woman, and child.

I don’t want to save anyone: I want them to live. There is a big difference between wanting to save someone and wanting them to live. Those who save, kill all but what they will to be saved. Fuck that: I want everyone to live, and that is truly radical–to want even the mosquito on that beach, and the black fly, and the stranger’s dog who comes up and sticks its nasty wet snout in my equally nasty crotch and slobbers on me to be alive, and for me to be alive as I get royally pissed off–but in the full brio of being this animal who prays. I don’t want perfect conditions. I don’t want constructs. My poems will provide the leash on which the fierce love and sprawl of my life is lead. I want to be walked well by the tongue of speech–until I am dead.

I admit I didn’t like Denise Levertov’s work when I was a kid. I preferred the hilarity of Ted Berrigan, the obvious authority and beauty of Stevens, the light but dazzling cool of Frank O’Hara, and Ginsberg’s Kaddish as well as Reality Sandwiches. I was even more a fan of Spanish and Latin American poets–Hernandez and Vallejo in particular. I came to admire Levertov only after I was approaching forty and she had recently died. I was old enough then to appreciate her seriousness of purpose. I came to admire her the way I had Muriel Rukeyser.

According to my friend Joel Lewis, Levertov fell out of favor when she embraced the catholic faith and started writing poems about her religion. Recently, her letters with Robert Duncan have put her on the radar again. She was also heavily involved in the protest movements of the 60’s–the anti-war movement in particular.That made her popular then when the baby boomers pretended to be Che. When they “converted” to conspicuous consumption sans conscience, she lost that following.

Her poems have the rigor of Objectivism, though she is no Objectivist. They are not flashy. Their technique might be likened to the aesthetics of one naturally adverse to the cult of personality. Her poetry is incremental rather than linear, and I read much of her work as sprung from her brilliant adaptation of Williams’ variable foot (she wrote one of the most sane defenses of it). I’ve chosen a little poem because my computer has crashed and I am borrowing Emily’s until she wakes up. But this poem shows what I mean in terms of how she breaks, and shapes her poetic line:


I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board–

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design. Or a fruit, mamey,

cased in rough brown peel, the flesh
rose-amber, and the seed:
the seed a stone of wood, carved and

polished, walnut-colored, formed
like a brazilnut, but large,
large enough to fill
the hungry palm of a hand.

I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow

in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

Denise Levertov

There are many reasons why Karl Shapiro is no longer taught or on the lips of MFA students.

First, he was part of the post-war formalist/structuralism/urban boom in poetry, but he had enjoyed great success (Pulitzers and whatnot), and he was a Jew. A Jew with a Pulitzer in the 1940s/1950s who was neither humble nor particularly unwashed and earnest (Shapiro…was dapper) was treated with some envy and contempt.

Second, the Beats had visited him and not thought themselves properly treated (they expected a hipster jazz sort of poet because it was Shapiro–not Ginsberg–who first start writing in long rhapsodic free verse lines in emulation of Whitman). Shapiro became for them the symbol of stuffed shirt bougie poetics (as you will see from this poem, Shapiro was anything but. He was sexually open and using the long free verse line a good ten years before Allen Ginsberg came anywhere near it).

Shapiro was buried under the reps of Lowell, and Jarrell, and Berryman. Of those three, Berryman appeals most to post-structural poets (he’s the darling of every grad students MFA program). Lowell has enjoyed a rise in fortune after a ten or fifteen year eclipse. Jarrell’s name is starting to come up again, albeit more for his essays than poems.

But here’s the rub: Shapiro was doing everything they got the credit for innovating a good ten years before they were doing it: including confessional poetry. Those who run poetry are shrewd. They know the best way to disappear a poet is to refuse to talk about him–neither to praise nor ridicule, simply relegate him to a non-entity status. Ginsberg (and I think this makes Ginsberg a total self serving piece of shit) would not admit that it was Shapiro’s sexually explicit, long lined free verse poems, and not Whiman’s, that influenced him most immediately. (Whitman made for a more exciting father). Shapiro was a Jew with a Pulitzer. It was Shapiro to an extent who represented the most legitimate use of Whitman in terms of modern poetry–not Ginsberg. So what were Shapiro’s sins? He was eloquent, and proud. He probably pissed off the Columbia school (Trilling may have sniped at him, and Ginsberg and the Beats were Trilling’s pet primitives).

It doesn’t matter. He is a superb poet who does not deserve to be in obscurity but will remain so. Below is his “Aubade,” written in the 1940s when Ginsberg was a student. It’s elaborate, courtly, sexually explicit, but purposefully artful, and it uses the long Whitmanesque line and the sense of humor–the American suburban wise ass that Ginsberg would employ in Supermarket in California. We must return to Shapiro. We won’t. So it goes:


What dawn is it?

The morning star stands at the end of your street as you watch me turn to laugh a kind of goodbye, with
love-crazed head like a white satyr moving through wet bushes.
The morning star bursts in my eye like a hemorrhage as I enter my car in a dream surrounded by your
heavenly-earthly smell.
The steering wheel is sticky with dew,
The golf course is empty, husbands stir in their sleep desiring, and though no cocks crow in suburbia, the
birds are making a hell of a racket.
Into the newspaper dawn as sweet as your arms that hold the old new world, dawn of green lights that
smear the empty streets with come and go.
It is always dawn when I say goodnight to you,
Dawn of wrecked hair and devastated beds,
Dawn when protective blackness turns to blue and lovers drive sunward with peripheral vision.
To improvise a little on Villon
Dawn is the end for which we are together.

My house of loaded ashtrays and unwashed glasses, tulip petals and columbine that spill on the table
and splash on the floor,
My house full of your dawns,
My house where your absence is presence,
My slum that loves you, my bedroom of dustmice and cobwebs, of local paintings and eclectic posters,
my bedroom of rust neckties and divorced mattresses, and of two of your postcards, Pierrot
with Flowers and Young Girl with Cat,
My bed where you have thrown your body down like a king’s ransom or a boa constrictor.

But I forgot to say: May passed away last night,
May died in her sleep,
That May that blessed and kept our love in fields and motels.
I erect a priapic statue to that May for lovers to kiss as long as I’m in print, and polish as smooth as the
Pope’s toe.
This morning came June of spirea and platitudes,
This morning came June discreetly dressed in gray,
June of terrific promises and lawsuits.

And where are the poems that got lost in the shuffle of spring?
Where is the poem about the eleventh of March, when we raised the battleflag of dawn?
Where is the poem about the coral necklace that whipped your naked breasts in leaps of love?
The poem concerning the ancient lover we followed through your beautiful sleeping head?
The fire-fountain of your earthquake thighs and your electric mouth?
Where is the poem about the little one who says my name and watches us almost kissing in the sun?
The vellum stretchmarks of your learned belly,
Your rosy-fingered nightgown of nylon and popcorn,
Your razor that caresses your calves like my hands?
Where are the poems that are already obsolete, leaves of last month, a very historical month?
Maybe I’ll write them, maybe I won’t, no matter,
And this is the end for which we are together.
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensembles.

If you read the Bible with no authority other than your love of story and your lack of “judgment” (meaning without the lust to prove yourself justified by an authority), it opens up to you like the long love between you and an old family member–like the way my heart opened up to my grandmother. In real peace, there is room for ferocity. In real feeling, there is room for contradiction. God instructs the heart not by certainties but by pains and contradictions. The Bible is full of pains and contradictions.

Because I read the Bible and knew the story of Ruth, I knew how wonderful and brilliant Keats had been to yoke himself to that long ago figure standing and hearing the nightingale “amid the alien corn.” I didn’t have to look the story up, and it had the force for me it had had for Keats: the nightingale’s song was the continuity between myself and an ancient woman who had been the direct ancestor of my lord, Jesus Christ. It was this ability to connect the vast to the intimate that made Keats such a great poet–and he made the connection in one brief, so brief stroke.

Because I knew how Abraham had traveled under a night sky so vast, so glutted with stars and had heard God’s promise, I wept when I first read Mark Twain’s description of Huck and Jim looking up at the night sky and wondering about the origin of the stars, and I was awed by Cervantes when he had Quixote and Sancha under the same sky. My dream was always to retrace the journey of Abraham/Yahweh, Huck/Jim and Quixote/Panza under those same night skies. How would the night speak to me in each journey, over the Spanish plains, in the desert, on the river? I remembered night fishing with my own father, the slow burn of his Chesterfield King and how he warned me about the sharp fin of the catfish. All of this was what Keats moved toward: the collapsing of brevity and eternity.

This afternoon I hung out with Clare as her mom went on some errands. It’s one thing to do constructive activities with your child and another just to hang. She has two teeth now and is very proud of them. We put on the television and hung out on a pillow and I stood her up from time to time to give her practice, and she grabbed my beard and/or chest hair to give it a yank. When her mom came home Clare was asleep with the bottle still in her mouth. What would it be like if we could just hang out someday in Spain and Israel and on the Mississippi and retrace the books–the Bible, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn? The river, the plains, the desert are one–they are where you encounter God and yourself. But the living room is also one, and the porch stoop is also one, and the hoods of parked cars late at night when you are 15 and hanging with friends is one: all of them the place that is sacred, ground set apart.

I want my students to know that this is the ultimate place of learning–this communion of “hang.” The kingdom of hang is like this: you are old or young, or somewhere in the middle and always claiming you are busy and then, some night, without planning, you sit down at the table where brevity and eternity are the same thing–and you hear the nightingale singing inside your own soul–in joy and grief at once, and you know that death hath no dominion– not over this Eucharist, this Eucharist of there–wherever there is, you’ll know, and if you don’t, a thousand years of life will not be enough to teach you.

Wallace Stevens
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
W.H. Auden
James Merril
Robert Lowell


Lowell: Why are we here? Can someone tell me this, please?

Auden: A little testy, aren’t we?

Lowell: Testy? Of course. I was not planning on being summoned from the grave today, and in fact had plans this afternoon with my dead first wife.

Bishop: Do you mean Jean?

Lowell: Yes, I mean Jean. We were going to visit Boston, MA, so that I might once again visit the stomping grounds on which I bullied my classmates and earned the nickname “Cal.”

Bishop: Short for “Caligula.” And you’re proud of this?

Auden: Proud? He’s positively beaming, the old bully.

Stevens: Bully indeed. I agree with Mr. Lowell, this is a most wretched occasion for being summoned. The malady of the quotidian? I meant to say the malady of the long dead.

Merrill: An elegant turn of phrase, Mr. Stevens – just superb. But less we stray too far from the reason why we have been called from the dead, I suppose I must ask aloud, Who called, and what are we doing here? Where are we, anyways?

Moore: I called. This is my summoning.

Lowell: A-ha! So this is your doing, eh Ms. Moore? Getting lonely with only your mother in the afterlife to tend to your exacting observational powers?

Auden: “To tend to your exacting observational powers”? What happened to the antithesis of long-windedness you developed in Life Studies, by dear Robbie?

Moore: Enough. I called us together for a conversation.

Merrill: A good enough reason.

Auden: Agreed.

Bishop: Hear hear.

Lowell: Yes, and all that.

Stevens: Indeed. But pray tell, Ms. Moore: a conversation regarding what?

Moore: Regarding John Ashbery, my dear poets.

Lowell: Oh god, here we go.

Bishop: Cynical, Robert?

Lowell: Cynical? More like “risible.” I have a deep distaste for that silly man’s work.

Merrill: Ha! “Silly man”? Do explain yourself, dear Caligula.

Lowell: But where to begin? I coined, many years ago – that is, I stole, many years ago – the phrase “raw and the cooked” to describe the difference between my early work and the work of, say, Ginsberg. And yes, with Life Studies I did leave the cooked for the raw. But my poetry always maintained some aspects of the cooked – a certain formality, even in my autobiographical writings. Ashbery, on the other hand, is the rawest poet I have ever encountered, by which I do not mean to praise, but rather simply observe with some disdain.

Bishop: But do explain yourself, Robert. What you mean by “raw,” I mean.

Lowell: We might as well recite something. Here, look at this poem from the poet’s first well-received book, Some Trees. I do not wish to look at the more canonical works – “Instructional Manual,” “Some Trees,” “Illustration,” or “The Painter.” Let us look at something more “minor.” Ah! Here: “Sonnet.” Good and short. (Clearing throat)

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

His pain is the servant’s alive.
It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.

Fellow poets, how are we supposed to read something so surreal, so nonsensical? I’m baffled.

Moore: Great question, Mr. Lowell! How do we read this poem?

(Long pause in the conversation as the poets begin thinking.)

Musicality and Narrative

Auden: I feel I owe some explanation for the poem, as I did choose John over his friend Frank O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Back then, I explained that John’s poetry was interesting but dangerous; that it was an interesting experiment, but that too much nonsense could deprive his poetry of too much meaning. And that would be bad.

But let me try to say more, now, about what I liked about John’s poetry, and therefore what I also admire about “Sonnet.” To begin with, a reader must always interrogate his or her own assumptions about what it is he or she likes about poetry. By self-interrogation, I do mean something analogous to the intention of psychoanalysis – that is, the better a reader understands his or her own predilections, the easier it will be for said reader to find the literature that moves this reader the most. Now, the reason I like “Sonnet” – and I know we cannot stay merely on reasons for “liking” the poetry, but I find it a fine place to begin – the reason I like “Sonnet” is because, like my own early work, Ashbery is developing a different way of talking.

Bishop: How do you mean, “a different way of talking”?

Auden: Well, if you can suffer through it, let me recite from memory one of my earliest works, entitled “Taller Today.” Afterwards I”ll explain why. (Clears his throat.)

Taller today, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in a windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing but here, sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

Merrill: Beautiful. But do explain.

Auden: I believe this poem works for two reasons – one because of its music, and secondly, because of its approximation to narrative.

Lowell: And by “music” you mean…?

Auden: This is hard to say. Yet I think I mean something akin to the music that Mr. Stevens creates in his poetry. Do tell us, Mr. Stevens, how you understand what I mean when I refer to the haunting musicality of poetry, and then I shall be happy to continue.

Stevens: I’m not very comfortable discussing my own work, Mr. Auden.

Auden: Humility, expressed grandly! I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Stevens. Well, let us return to you in a second. What I mean by musicality is something I believe Mr. Stevens refers to in his “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:” I mean “the beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” For poetry doesn’t necessarily sound like human speech. I know this sounds shamelessly obvious, but occasionally what is obvious needs to be emphasized, in case it is forgotten, shamelessly. Poetry is not simply embellished speech given a meter. It is a deeply strange and other way of speaking, with roots I would imagine in divination. It is magical. And yet what makes a phrase magical? It’s sound. Therefore, notice the sound of “windless orchard,” “lonely roads,” “Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl”. These are haunted, haunting phrases, and they are haunting and haunted because they are other. No one would say, in a conversation, “nights come bringing the snow,” just as no one, doodling in their notebook, would draw an enormous abstract painting the size of ten men. Such experimentation in language, like experimentation in form and color in the visual arts, heightens and augments our consciousness of language, the way that painting does the same for form, shape, color, and line. It is a seemingly deeper way of talking. And this depth, this haunting quality, is what I mean by “musicality.”

Merrill: Interesting, Wystan.

Auden: Thank you. But now, Ashbery’s work. I believe it carries this same sort of musicality. But moreover, it is a musicality that is Ashbery’s alone – he sounds like himself, and no one else.

Bishop: But what about “Some Trees”? I’ve always thought he sounded in that poem like you, Wystan.

Auden: Well, I mean as he develops as a poet. But notice some of the turns of phrases in “Sonnet,” (named, I noticed, Elizabeth, similar to your great poem, “Sestina”). “After many years he has been brought nothing.” “The light walls collapse next day.” These are assertions which are completely nonsensical. They combine the confidence of assertion with the artifice of imaginative freedom. It is for that reason they are so strange, yet lovely and, in a way, hauntingly enigmatic.

Moore: So, Mr. Auden, are you saying you like John’s poetry because he writes creative phrases?

Auden: No, but I think that is a part of it. What I’m saying is that what John is doing is harder than it looks. Here: everyone come up with a nonsensical phrase. I’ll give us ten seconds. 10….9….8…..7…..

Moore: The pelican’s head was a grouchy artichoke.

Bishop: The sandpiper’s library is a crumb of an almanac.

Stevens: Far from the languorous sea, a dog’s asbestos legs rang vividly.

Merrill: Dear, please send me those pool balls shocking the nerves of a kimono.

Lowell: Damn garret in the house sets my cigarettes to flame!

Auden: “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.”

Lowell: But that’s a line from the poem.

Auden: Yes. I wanted to juxtapose our “nonsensical” statements, in order to show that John’s line is not very nonsensical. In fact, of all the phrases we came up with, I would say that the line “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face” is a very interesting kind of metaphor, which – in a shockingly disturbing way – seems to serve as a mirror for the reader’s own experience reading the Ashbery poem. For aren’t we all, facing “Sonnet,” as confused as a pattern of honking gridlock?

Bishop: So “Sonnet” is a mirror for the reader’s face? And what happened to the “story” you mentioned, along with the musicality?

Auden: I’m getting there. But notice the phrases in “Sonnet.” “Each servant stamps the reader with a look./ After many years he has been brought nothing. / The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience. / The servant goes to bed. / The patience rambles on / Musing on the library’s lofty holes.” Notice how each line is a separate sentence, until the final enjambed line, which is sensible, for musing is a longer process that would carry itself over, past a shorter sentence. Now, is it dangerous to say that it is as if Ashbery were voicing some of our own experiences reading the poem? For what if we were to replace “servant” with “writer”?

Each writer stamps the reader with a look.
After many years [the reader] has been brought nothing.
The writer’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The writer goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Ashbery, equating the writer with a servant – perhaps who who serves creativity, imagination, new ways of thinking and talking, poetic knowledge and experience – describes one experience reading a poem. The writer makes the reader pause; the reader feels frustrated; the writer, echoing the reader’s frustration, makes the reader feel less frustrated and more patient; the writer leaves the reader, or the reader puts down the book; the feeling engendered by the skillful writer hangs in the air of the reader’s mind like a powerful lingering scent; and this lingering somehow muses on “lofty holes” in the library – perhaps a metaphor for the strangeness of the familiar.

Stevens: Bravo, Wystan! A very nice interpretation.

Auden: But I’m not finished. First, we can sense the uncanniness of the passage now, a little closer. And yet we can also see how John’s work gestures towards narrative, without becoming a narrative itself. It is suggestive – something Marjorie Perloff has also written about. And here it is suggestive, because it seems, in some very bizarre and weird way, to be ahead of the reader, to out-anticipate us, and know our expectations before we ourselves know them.

Moore: So Ashbery knows us better than we know ourselves. A discomfiting position, to say the least. But what does it actually mean?

Installation Art and Complex Moods

Merrill: I think it means something like this. Take Proust for example, that remarkable exemplar of the winding sentence brooking no obstruction, who wove tapestries of sentences that, in their unwinding joi de vivre, wove us different faces, different ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves. Proust set out to write a book, and the book turned out to be a book with a style innovative enough to spawn myriads of imitators. Why would people try to imitate the master? I believe because it was as though Proust had placed a new face us for within our own hall of mirrors. He had imagined himself and others within a new kind of vocabulary, a vocabulary that stretched our self-image, made it more elastic, more expansive, less fixed or dull. Is this what you believe Ashbery is doing, Wystan?

Auden: Precisely.

Moore: But then what is the difference between sense and nonsense? Wallace, you are famous for saying a poem, pardon the paraphrase, “resists the intelligence half-successfully.” Do not Ashbery’s poems err too much on the side of the resistance?

Stevens: I have wondered about that, especially in the poet’s second book, “The Tennis Court Oath.” For what do we do with passages like, (and this is from “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”, a more-praised poem from the book):

Painted the garage roof crimson and black
He is not a man
Who can read these signs… his bones were stays…
And even refused to live
In a world and refunded the hiss
Of all that exists terribly near us
Lilke you, my love, and light.

I mean, this at least makes some sense, and comes from a poem that itself makes some sense. It is as if Ashbery were giving us some raw blocks of experience, some raw linguistic (and poetic) data, and were asking us to assemble this data in a way in which it makes sense to us. Like a piece of installation art. We walk into this installation, grabbing at particulars that appeal to us, and with these particulars we form our own experience of the artwork. Perhaps Ashbery is simply calling overt attention to the way in which we actively construct meaning.

Bishop: Yes, but then what of the very obscure Ashbery, such as his “Europe”?

Moore: Elizabeth, give us an excerpt.

Bishop: Alright. Here is the opening four sections of “Europe.”

To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
cannot understand
feels deeply)

a wave of nausea –

a few berries

the unseen claw
Babe asked today
The background of poles roped over
into star jolted them

Now I find these passages suggestively rich, but too lean on the meaning to satisfy.

Lowell: I agree.

Moore: But isn’t that exactly the point? Isn’t the poet simply experimenting, like any poet, with how much he can give us, and how much he can hold apart?

Merrill: John Shoptaw’s book, On the Outside Looking Out, illuminates what “Europe” is ostensibly about. But imagine if we had not read this book; what would we make of this poem?

Stevens: I confess I have never been able to finish it.

Bishop: Ditto.

Auden: Harold Bloom claimed it was an abomination, to put it mildly.

Stevens: Yet other poets, like Charles Bernstein, have claimed it as an important poem, one that figures as a precursor to the Language poets’ experiments.

Moore: So what is it? An abomination? A prescient experiment? What?

Bishop: I think this depends on the reader’s taste, to be honest. If the reader enjoys a poet who does not make overt meaning, but gives us the building block of sense, of intelligence, of imagination, of memory, and asks us to do with it as we please, then perhaps The Tennis Court Oath would be their favorite book. For my taste, I enjoy the Ashbery who does more with meaning then simply barely alludes to it. I like the Ashbery that is funny, that writes long sentences with their own idiosyncratic elasticity, that is brimming over with original ideas, that is wacky, that is fun.

Moore: Is there a specific poem you are thinking of?

Bishop: Yes, actually, Marianne. I’m thinking of “The Skaters.”

Moore: Let’s hear some of it, keeping in mind that it is a much longer poem.

Bishop: Indeed, let’s do that. “The Skaters” begins with these two stanzas:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Proud out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpetedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

Bishop: Many critics have pointed out that Ashbery is hearing the sound of people ice-skating, that these sounds are the “decibels” that are “a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart.”

Imagine the poet typing beside a window, and he hears the sound of the ice-skaters. The sound allows him to in some ways “enter” the scene, participate in it, but at the same time the poet is distant, apart from the scene, both in the game and out of it. The sound of this activity does not make the poet want to ice-skate, but rather makes “for masses of inertia” that paradoxically make a demand on the poet. What is the demand that “stumps the absolute”? It seems as though Ashbery is commenting on a preternatural quality of the ice-skating – that the sounds and colors seems somehow to have already existed, that they are a kind of given, a kind of fore-grounded immanence, as opposed to a receding transcendent that constantly eludes the poet; but that this preternaturalness, this givenness of the skaters, contrasts funnily with the way in which their sounds are “unexpected.”

One might therefore create an analogy between the experience of the sounds and colors of the skaters, and the experience of the tradition of poetry within which Ashbery writes. Both the skaters and the tradition are simultaneously given and surprising, old and new, expected and unexpected, traditional and innovative. Ashbery himself, steeped in French poetry, in the works of poets as varied as Pasternak, Rimbaud, Stevens, Auden, the Metaphysical poets, Whitman, etc., still finds a way to make it new. Thus Ashbery is commenting on a dynamic that is rife throughout his own work – the play between the old and the new, between originality and continuity. Indeed, as we read further, Ashbery writes,

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o’er the ice,
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden “dump” or lament.

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

As you can see, Ashbery now is sort of expanding on this dynamic between innovation or “novelty” and older ways of being. It’s as if we are watching a symphony of colors, light and dark, and the light stands for novelty, which can be exhausting, and the dark stands for habitual ways of living, which can also be exhausting. So that Ashbery is navigating himself and us through this symphony of colors, through desire for change and desire for certainty. We hear that these “Colors slip away from and chide us”, perhaps suggesting that they bring to the poet a kind of regretful nostalgia. And indeed, “The human mind / Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme / Of some sodden “dump” or lament,” meaning that the human mind is incapable of nothing except a kind of familiar, weary lament, an existential complaint. “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes” – and yet, and yet, and yet. As you can see with the two stanzas that are sentences –

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.


But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

The changes in the activity of the skaters, which seem to precipitate changes in the poet’s mood and mind, consequently precipitate changes in the mood of the poem, and pragmatically effect transitions in the poem from one mood or sentiment to another. We are all going to hell, the first stanza suggests, but “Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heart.” All we can do is listen to the sad horn in our mind, “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.” It is akin to a sad mood interacting with a gloriously aesthetically pleasing landscape – in that bittersweet confluence of longing and temporary satisfaction, we have a tonally rich experience that demands a poem (as Ashbery recognizes, and delivers) to do justice to the pungent, fragrant, potent contours of that experience.

Moore: Bravo, Elizabeth! But you said earlier that Ashbery is a funny poet…?

We could say we long for someone, or we could better say that someone has triggered our longing. Certain mechanisms exist in the human brain that when brushed by a combination of memory and bodily functions, demand interpretation. Feeling is situational interpretation. The same chemicals and hormones, and even, to an extent the same physical manifestations that define being “in love” also accompany the fight, freeze, and flee complex of fear: increased heart rate, dilation of the eyes, blood flow to the hands, feet, lips, and genitalia, a rise in blood pressure, an increased sharpness yet reduction of our focus to the matter at hand. We must interpret these sensations as either love or fear depending on the situation and all our past experiences, and very often, we waver between our interpretations: this is the basic fodder of romantic comedies. Boy meets girl: fight, freeze, or flee (usually some combination of all three). When working with students in poetry, many of whom are preoccupied with romantic love, usually its pain and infamy. I find certain tools useful for punching holes in the cliches, and helping them find a way in to what matters to them. It is stupid to rid them of the mechanisms that has lead to “piercing blue eyes” and “melting brown eyes” and all that crap. They are right: blue eyes have certain atavistic advantages insofar as they display to better visibility the dilation of the pupils that indicate interest, including romantic interest. Melting brown eyes are hardly ever used to indicate evil or coldness because, well, because they are “melting” which means warmth and a sense of depth. Madame Bovary’s large brown eyes fooled Charles into thinking her noble and full of womanly virtue. Blue eyes show interest, but brown eyes appear bigger and trigger an atavistic mammalian tendency to protect. The larger the eyes, provided they are symmetrical, the more we are likely to ooze oxytocin, the chemical of well being, maternal care, and post-orgasmic bonding. Joan Baez, in her thinly veiled tribute to Dylan, wrote:

You gave to me oh so many things,
it makes me wonder, how they could belong to me.
And I gave you only my brown eyes
which melted your soul down
to the place it longed to be.

This is what I would do if confronted with a student wallowing in cold piercing blue eyes, or melting brown eyes, or (and this is rare) emerald green eyes. I’d say: remove the eyes, and distill their qualities throughout the poem. For example piercing blue eyes:

Something sharp, something being pierced (not a heart), but perhaps a shirt or stitch that is being woven into a fabric of different color. All things blue: sky, a robin’s egg, some semi-precious stone. Then, if your eyes are brown, remove those too, and play with the “warmth” of brown: old rivers, dead leaves, chocolate, whatever. It might go something like this:

You who have stitched your bright blue thread
through the flow of my dark river,’
who have pierced the sparrow of my eyes,
who have pulled the needle out and in,
until pain has its own rhythm, and moves
through the brown thistle of my day: blue thing that looked at me:
a robin’s egg falls from the highest branch,
a shrike impales its prey:
the small brown wren, the thrush
whose song rose from the secret wood,
they have lost both thrift and song.
On a blue thorn the sky god descends,
earth moves through its umber rounds,
knows all winds pierce and sting
yet blesses them. Blesses what tears and rends,
what breaks: this brown word that is on the tongue
of blue, this mud deeper than all time.

The point is to take the essence of piercing, and blue, and longing, of sharpness, and pain, and mingle it with the warmth of brown—its humility, its less dazzling, yet deeper beauty. The point of “piercing blue eyes” has not been lost. The student has not conceded his or her interest, but has rather distilled to give it both more original detail and a greater ontology. In the next post I will take some cliches and show how they can be the raw material for this process of distillation. It is important to respect cliches as well as vanquish them, and we do that by treating them seriously, and using whatever force they once had–using their vestige power.

I live in a nation that has three year olds becoming life time members of the NRA, and anti-bullying seminars that force a draconian language of the politically correct so technical and nit-picky as to be a form of bullying in its own right. Guns to the right of me! Jargon to the left of me! All volley and hold the thunder (after all, thunder may be perceived as a semiotic indicator of male patriarchy). I look at my daughter and say: “I’m so sorry, but I wanted you to exist.

Into this vale of tears, I have introduced a magician giant who lifts the vale and give me moments of clarity and peace–he’s the friendly giant of old poems I can return to, the Giant who goes “presto!” and behind the vale of NRA nut jobs, and academic jargon spouters, there appears my mother’s favorite Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite poems by Theodore Roethke, a couple of poets whose names will never be on the lips of microbrew swilling grad students: Walter De Lamare, Robert Francis, May Swenson, JV Cunningham, Kenneth Patchen, Carolyn Kizer. Sometimes I return to them by picking up the books, and sometimes by the faulty yet passionate vehicle of memory: I remember lines or whole poems, or the time of day and the quality of light when I first read the poems. A jet plane scratches its autograph across a blue Saturday afternoon spent down by the railroad tracks, reading where no one would bother me. I forget current poets then (I don’t always like poets. They sometimes wear capes and sweep into rooms and piss me off). I forget that I became a poet and remember that I am a reader of poems–not a poet. To be a reader of poems is still a lovely thing–a better thing. There is little ego involved in it compared to being a poet. It makes me forget the borderline sociopathy of English department brag fests–kudos to Henry, hype for Margie, and blah, blah, blah. Some working class anger in me denies the idea of “major poet.” I don’t believe in them. I believe in major poems.

Long before Centos became a fad, long before I knew what a Cento was, I was dicing and splicing in my mind as I walked to school or rode my bike, or drove my first car. I used to play like this:

Winter uses all the blues there are,
yet the wet sides of stones can not console her
She runs out of the sea, shaking her long green hair,
runs from the bleached valleys under the rose
this maimed darling,this skitterry pigeon.

It would be a paratactic (one short line after the other) recall of lines or mish-mash from poets I had been reading. In this case, A poem “Winter uses all the Blues there are” by Francis, a paraphrase, of Elegy for Jane, a splicing of Joyce’s I hear An Army with Olson’s The Lonely and Isolate Satyrs.” It’s what I did for pleasure or distraction, or the pleasures of distraction.

I never wanted to express myself in a poem; Fuck the self. Of all the things I know, the self is most fraudulent. I wanted to express the light on bricks at dusk, a certain ghost presence on a wintry day, the eyes of someone peering at me over a broken down fence, characters I made up, most of all–the haunting veracity of presence: what it is that is there in the world, but you do not know exactly–that haunted and haunting energy we might call the felt-life.

I’ve failed miserably to accomplish any of these goals. Whatever MFA programs teach poets to be, I pretty much don’t get. I blame myself–not the MFA programs. I am pretty stupid. All I ever had to go on was the faulty ardor of someone who liked the soundings and whisperings of things. Poetry now seems military to me. “Careers” are plotted out. Magazines march out their contests and fees and winners. Awards are given to the usual suspects. Most poets aren’t poets–they’re A students, a whole different species of excellence. They achieve. Whenever I hear the ghastly shriekings of “Achievement,” I recall Auden’s concept of “Achieving your corpse.” That puts it in perspective.

Today, when I woke up, I wanted to see a construction site. I wanted to pick up a clod of turned over dirt and throw it at the ghost of my own childhood–whack my ten year old self in the back of the head with a dirt bomb–the way my big brother used to do. I wanted to look at the crane and bulldozers sleeping in the early morning frost, glistening with their bright reds and yellows. I didn’t wanted to be young again. I never wanted to be young. I desired the power of a shape shifter. I wanted to be the milkweed pods on the verge of the site, and the point of merging where the crane’s neck met the sky–but all of it as consciousness, dizzy and reeling with consciousness. I wanted neither return nor recompence, but the presence of a thing made out of words.” It’s a strange courage/you give me ancient star/ shine alone in the sunrise/ toward which you lend no part.” I wanted that. Three year olds are being taught to shoot guns and confuse them with manhood. On the other side of the absurdity, words like globalization and transdisciplinary studies, are wrenching the arms off poetry. The poets have meetings and win awards, and sail passed their lesser brothers and sisters like Williams’ yachts. Who will sit with me at the table of our sins and breathe his word? What poetry will be found in the ears when I die? Who will make me forget how much I fear for my child who is asleep in the kitchen as I write. On flows the river/ A hundred miles or more/ other little children/ shall bring my boat ashore. I sure as hell hope so.


How can we define the philosophy of pragmatism?  What is the relationship between the philosophy of pragmatism and the poetics of John Ashbery?  Is there one?  Ken McClelland cites Cornel West’s citation of C.I. Lewis as “being one of the best characterizations of pragmatism ever formulated” (Opening Truth 12).  Lewis writes,

Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action. (qtd. in McClelland 12)

McClelland goes on to comment that, “with the words, ‘the justifiable ends of action’ in mind, we clearly see that pragmatism’s philosophical impulse is inextricably tied to temporal consequences, with the idea that the future is of ethical significance” (12).  McClelland then cites Dewey’s essay, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in a long block quote, an excerpt of which reads, “The doctrine of the value of consequences leads us to take the future into consideration.  And this taking into consideration of the future takes us to the conception of a universe whose evolution is not finished, of a universe which is still, in James’ term “in the making,” “in the process of becoming,” of a universe up to a certain point still plastic” (qtd. in McClelland12-13).

This notion of the universe “in the making” and “in the process of becoming” might resonate with readers of John Ashbery’s poetry, a practice of art that, in the able and nimble hands and mind of Ashbery, is constantly in flux, in process, suggesting a seemingly irrational “lack of coherence” that in Ashbery, as William Watkin writes, “does not deny a lack of cohesion” (187).  As Watkin points out,

it is almost always the case that within his poetic units the semantic short-circuiting at the level of coherence is made up for by the two key factors of cohesion which often serve to undermine thematic semantics: lexical groupings and syntactic process. (187 my italics)

This “processual aesthetic” of Ashbery’s poetry is later described by Watkin as “a process of putting down and moving on” (214).  And it is this process of becoming, noted by Dewey in terms of a characteristic of the future, and therefore in terms of the primary orientation of the philosophy of pragmatism, that Ashbery embodies in his poetic praxis.  Ashbery’s work is a radically open-ended language game (language games in the plural seems more appropriate), that seems to give one the experience, through language, of the future in the immediate process of becoming, of things beyond our awareness coalescing, forces turning and tuning up, like a great orchestra just about to begin, as we sit at the edge of our seats and experience

The great, formal affair[…]beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact. (Ashbery 427)

Better yet, as Ashbery himself has said, first quoting an essay by Borges entitled, “The Wall and the Books,” then commenting on it,

‘Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights in certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed or about to tell us something. The imminence of the revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.’ The imminence of a revelation not yet produced is very important and hard to define in poetry and probably is the source of some of the difficulty with my own poems. But I don’t think it would serve any useful purpose to spare myself or the reader the difficulty of that imminence, of always being on the edge of things.  (qtd. in Hubbard my italics)

“The imminence of a revelation not yet produced” is a remarkable formulation for describing the process of the future unfolding, and it is what I hope to signify by the term the “pragmatist sublime.”  Such a phrase (“the imminence…”) conjures images of openings, or landscapes glimpsed, waterfalls or canyons, suddenly or slowly, possibilities rising up with inexhaustible and astonishing energy, potentials parting like curtains to reveal further potentials, more dazzling drawing rooms, a hall of mirrors of what-may-come-next.  This is the world of Ashbery; and it is also the world of William James, one of the founders of pragmatism, who wrote in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (a book that David Herd has called “a guidebook to American poetics before and since” (13))

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing your quest.  You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience.  It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.  (28 his italics)

“Pragmatism,” James writes a paragraph later, “unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work” (28).  The same can be said, of course, for Ashbery’s poetry, and also for our experience, when we are more sensitized to it.  Indeed, it is one of Ashbery’s greatest virtues as a writer that, in the way which Gunter Leypoldt describes Martha Nussbaum’s take on Henry James –  “moral intelligence….understood as a heightened perception of complexity…[an] ethical progress [becoming] a question of improving our aesthetic powers of discrimination” –  Ashbery augments our powers of feeling, perception and imagination, placing us more immediately within the variety of contexts which constitute our world (Leypoldt 146).  Ashbery, like both James brothers, makes our experience more powerful, more intense, more interesting, more enriching.

This is what David Herd means when discussing Ashbery’s “poems of occasion” – the notion of the “defining Ashberyan ambition” being “to write the poem fit for its occasion,” or “to achieve a poem appropriate to the occasion of its own writing” (7, 10).  It is the idea that currently, as I type, there are more than ten books situated in various alignments on my desk: books about the New York School of poets, books about Richard Rorty, books about Ashbery, and three books in Spanish, one of which I have to translate for a Spanish exam in order to graduate from my master’s in English program at the University of Toledo; there is an orange washrag near the books, a knife coated with stale hummus, a phone peeping out from behind a stack of articles; there are trees outside the window, their leaves, to paraphrase Ashbery in “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat” “yellowed by the sun”; the sounds of cars driving on the road in front of my apartment, the refrigerator in the kitchen humming, a guitar leaning against a bookcase, etc.  All this is part of the “occasion” of which I write right now (not to mention the culture(s) of everything in my apartment, lurking behind or afore everything, making everything somehow a part of a disjointed but connected picture) – and it is this richness and plurality of detail that Ashbery, more than any American poet (with the exception of Whitman, Ashbery’s primary Bloomian precursor), drenches his poems in and with.

This notion of the occasion, written about wonderfully and helpfully by Herd, is what William James also intuits with astonishing insight, returning our thought back to us with Emersonian “alienated majesty,” when he writes in his deservedly famous chapter in Principles of Psychology, “The Stream of Thought,”

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water.  Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow.  It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists [Ashbery might say poets as well] overlook.  Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water [the occasion] that flows round it.  With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead.  The significance, the value, of the image is all this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it,- or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. (255)

Therefore, as James writes earlier in the same chapter, “The truth is that large tracts of human speech are nothing but signs of direction in thought” (252-253).  James, like Ashbery, redescribes the climate of our mental environments; in so doing, he gives us, as Ashbery does, a more nuanced, more complex, richer sense of who we are and how we are.  James, like Ashbery, enlarges us.


So how do James and Ashbery achieve such a powerful effect?  How do we understand the consequences of this effect?  The answer to the former question is, of course, their language; for, as McClelland has written, “Experience is linguistic top to bottom (and side to side).”  (Opening Truth 20)  The answer to the latter question demands that we now introduce the figure of Richard Rorty, a neopragmatist whose work sheds incredible light on Ashbery’s poetic praxis, just as Ashbery’s poetic praxis embodies those pragmatist doctrines as mentioned above, just as James’s work sheds incredible light on Ashbery.  But what is it, more specifically, about Rorty’s philosophy, or even his vision as a thinker, that elucidates so well what Ashbery is doing, or Ashbery’s vision as a poet?  More concisely, How does Rorty’s revolutionary philosophy help us understand Ashbery’s revolutionary poetry?  What does it mean to write revolutionary poetry or philosophy?

Let’s begin with what many have deemed an important aspect of Rorty’s thought: his notion of metaphoric redescription as inquiry.  What is “metaphoric redescription as inquiry”?   Christopher J. Voparil writes,

Under different names this work of redescribing was a part of Rorty’s thinking since his earliest published work, where he calls attention to the fact that “any metaphysical, epistemological, or axiological arguments can be defeated by redefinition” – the pihlosopher’s ability to “change the rules” of the game largely by altering the relevant criteria. (33-34)

This approach, Voparil continues, “looks to the imagination, rather than to inference” in order to recontextualize, a process that is “not unlike what takes place in Kuhnian periods of revolutionary science” (34).  And seismic shifts in culture, Kuhn and Rorty might say, happen not through logical argument, but through a different style of imagining and imagination, that reweaves contexts into new, revolutionary tapestries.  This has much to do with James’s notion of temperament, as well as Harold Bloom’s notion of the agon of influence.  James writes in Pragmatism,

The history of philosophy [and poetry] is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments[…]Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament.  Temperament is not conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusion.  Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. (8-9)

And Bloom, whose lifework might be said to be involved with developing a thickly pataphysical and Freudian account of the process of metaphoric redescription, writes (calling redescription “revisionism”),

Poetic Influence – when it involves two strong, authentic poets, – always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction [redescribing] that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretationThe history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. (30)

The notion of redescription thus allows us to somehow hold in our minds the paradox that there is no precedent for a Shakespeare, a Whitman, or an Ashbery, just as there is no Shakespeare, Whitman or Ashbery without the tradition they inherited.  The same can be said of other world-changers, figures like Einstein or a Darwin; or as Rorty writes,

Hobbes did not have theological arguments against Dante’s world-picture; Kant had only a very bad scientific argument for the phenomenal character of science; Nietzsche and James did not have epistemological arguments for pragmatism.  Each of these thinkers presented us with a new form of intellectual life, and asked us to compare its advantages with the old. (qtd. in Voparil 35)

But redescription, as Voparil points out, is not just a “method of inquiry”: citing Rorty, he writes, “’speaking differently, rather than arguing well,’ on [Rorty’s] view is ‘the chief instrument of cultural change.’ In a word, redescription is political; redescriptions have the power to change our minds” (35).   Here is Rorty, writing about redescription in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. (9)

An awareness of this method is an awareness, Rorty might say, of the contingency of language –  that language has no intrinsic nature – and therefore of “a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (Contingency 9).


            We find this sentiment – that intellectual and moral progress happens as a result of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies – articulated over and over in Ashbery’s poetry.  In fact, I would hazard the argument that, in the terms of William James, metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s “voluntary thinking” a “topic or subject about which all the members of the thought involve” (259).  James goes on to write in his Principles that

Half the time this topic is a problem, a gap we cannot yet will with a definite picture, word, or phrase, but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensively active and determinate psychic way.  Whatever may be the images and phrases that pass before us, we feel their relation to this aching gap.  To fill it up is our thought’s destiny.  Some bring us nearer to that consummation.  Some the gap negates as quite irrelevant.  Each swims in a felt fringe of relations of which the aforesaid gap is the term.  Or instead of a definite gap we may merely carry a mood of interest about with us.  Then, however vague the mood, it will still act in the same way, throwing a mantle of felt affinity over such representations, entering the mind, as suits it, and tingeing with the feeling of tediousness or discord all those with which it has no concern.  (259)

Again, notice how James, through his own metaphoric redescription, enlarges our understanding about what our individual interests mean, how they feel, how they operate within the idiosyncratic consciousness that forms the matrix of our deeply private selves.  This is exactly what Ashbery achieves in his greatest works, for his poems make redescription their content, even as their form and process enact redescription as their primary way of unfolding.

Metaphoric redescription is in Ashbery’s earliest “self-portrait” in Some Trees, in “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” where he writes,

Still, as the loveliest feelings

Must soon find words, and these, yes,
Displace them, so I am not wrong
In calling this comic version of myself
The true one. (14)

It’s in “Illustration,” also in Some Trees:

Much that is beautiful must be discarded
So that we may resemble a taller

Impression of ourselves.  (25)

The sense of the new replacing the old can be found in The Tennis Court Oath, in “White Roses”:

So put away the book,
The flowers you were keeping to give someone:
Only the white, tremendous foam of the street has any importance,
The new white flowers that are beginning to shoot up about now.  (66)

And the sense of the contingency of language can be found at the opening of “A Last World”:

These wonderful things
Were planted on the surface of a round mind that was to become our present time.
The mark of things belongs to someone
But if that somebody was wise
Then the whole of things might be different
From what it was thought to be in the beginning, before an angel bandaged the field glasses.  (83)

We find the sentiment that there are no neutral starting points for thought in “The Eccliast” in Rivers and Mountains: “There was no life you could live out to it end / And no attitude which, in the end, would save you” (135).  And perhaps one of the most famous of Ashbery’s “utterances” in terms of new vocabularies replacing old vocabularies can be found in “Clepsydra,” in a passage which reads,

Each moment
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:  (140)

But these are only fragments; and what we find, when reading through Ashbery’s ouvre, is that these are not isolated incidents, but part of a larger pragmatic temperament that shapes the poems in such a way as to suggest, in the unfolding of the poem’s inner logic, the redescription of what it means to be alive through a new vocabulary replacing an old vocabulary.

Quickly, What was the old vocabulary?  That depends on the critic.  Bloom would say Stevens and Whitman; Ben Hickman would say the English tradition; David Herd cites Randall Jarrell’s description of Robert Lowell’s poetry as

the coiling violence of its rhetoric, the harsh and stubborn intensity that accompanies all its verbs and verbals, the clustering stresses learned from accentual verse, come from a man contracting every muscle, grinding his teeth together till his shut eyes ache.  (qtd. in Herd 33)

Herd goes on to write that,

The way Ashbery, along with O’Hara and Koch, solved the problem of not being Lowell was by reading widely in pursuit of alternatives, revitalizing American poetry as they did so – and in the time-honoured fashion of Whitman, Eliot, Pound and Stevens – by absorbing influences from elsewhere, France and Russia in particular.  (35)

It does not concern my study here to delve too deeply into the impact of the French and Russian influences on Ashbery, as this has been chronicled elsewhere, especially in the work of Herd in regards to Pasternak’s influence on Ashbery.  But I do want to stress that Ashbery is almost abnormally preoccupied with change, with what progress might mean, with the way in which change and progress and difference happen through metaphorically redescribing the world.  To look at this issue more closely will require closer readings of the poems throughout his oeuvre.   For the sake of this essay, I will be focusing on Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees.


            If the majority of Ashbery’s work is concerned with the way in which the future, like a horizon, spreads out before us, (though we do not know which direction it will take us in), then we might say that each of his books presents various strategies for conveying this feeling to us aesthetically.  In Some Trees, as Catherine Imbriglio has pointed out – though in the context of “closeted spaces” as opposed to the “revelation not yet produced” – this feeling is often transmitted via the notion of reticence, silence, and secretiveness – or, as David Shoptaw writes, “Some Trees is as remarkable for it excludes or slights as for what it represents” (19).  Since we don’t know what the future will bring, it follows that we must be, to some extent, reticent, silent or secretive – reticent, because we don’t know what will happen, and therefore do not want to overstep our boundaries, not necessarily in a fearful or quietist way, but certainly in a vigilant way; silent, because perhaps in our silence we may become more attentive to what is about to happen; and secretive, the etymology of which suggests a hiddenness, and therefore an awareness that the future itself is secret, is hidden, is somehow magically undisclosed.  This hiddenness has less to do with the cryptic way in which Some Trees “encodes a gay network of friends circulating among enemies and possible informants” (Shoptaw 20), and more with the cryptic nature of the future itself.  Thus we read, in “Two Scenes,” (a title that itself betrays a reticence about being too specific, about naming; as Shoptaw points out, “nearly half [of the poems in Some Trees] indicate the form or mode of their poem” (19)):


We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The way was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”  (3)

For a long time I have wondered about the first line of the first poem in Ashbery’s first published collection: “We see us as we truly behave”.  It troubles me, because Ashbery strikes me as such an anti-essentialist, an anti-foundationalist, a la Rorty, who would therefore be uncomfortable with notions such as Truth or a monolithically true perception.  Therefore, I do not read the line as Imbriglio does, as “one totalizing visionary moment,” such a phrase being, as I deem it, an unhelpful oxymoron, as a visionary moment, according to Ashbery, would not and cannot be totalizing (279).  I’d like to suggest that we posit that “to see us as we truly behave” is a way of saying, “when we are oriented towards the future, wondering what will happen to us, then we can “see us as we truly behave”, as most people are acting in such ways that suggest they are aware of their future and are making decisions in the present to realize what they hope for in the future.  Going along with this interpretation – which implies that, even if we are oriented towards the future, we do not and cannot know what it will bring – is a sense of child-like wonder and magic in the poem, an almost forced naiveté, an enormous Joseph Cornell-like innocence.  “From every corner comes a distinctive offering” we hear, and “The train comes bearing joy; / The sparks it strikes illuminate the table”.  Furthermore, “Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny”, and “For long we hadn’t heard so much new, such noise.”  Each line works with the lines before and after to create a tapestry of novelty, of exciting things occurring which are hard to place.  The notion is repeated in the second stanza, in which we read,

This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.  (3)

Ashbery is calling our attention to the unprecedentedness of the future, and he is conveying this notion to us through language that redescribes this feeling in a new way.  The poem ends, “As laughing cadets say, “In the evening / Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”  I do not read this line as suspiciously as Imbriglio does, as signifying a secrecy necessary because of Ashbery’s homosexuality, although I do find such a reading compelling.  Nor do I read the poem, as Marjorie Perloff does, as a kind of fantastical polyphony of dream-logic – i.e. “Not what one dreams but how – this is Ashbery’s subject” (252).  Again, Ashbery’s poems do suggest, as Perloff has written, the logic of a dream; but here it is a matter of emphasis; and I wish to emphasize that his poems also suggest, with a florabundance rarely exhibited, the multifariousness of conscious lived experience reflecting on the future.  (Of course, this reflecting on the future is also a kind of dreaming; and in that sense my argument dovetails with Perloff’s.)  The evening can be interpreted, then, not as a metonym for dreams, nor as a metaphor for a pernicious shadowy presence of homophobia, but rather as a trope for the future, when the darkness suggests a wide-openness, commensurate with the sublime expansiveness of contemplating a future that is already somehow happening, all the time, though in some ways unbeknownst to us.

We find this same reticence, secretiveness and silence evident in “Popular Songs,” which ends,

There is no way to prevent this
Or the expectation of disappointment.
All are aware, some carry a secret
Better, of hands emulating deeds
Of days untrustworthy.  But these may decide.
The face extended its sorrowing light
Far out over them.  And now silent as a group
The actors prepare their first decline.  (4)

Here, we might say that “the face” is a trope for evening, for the horizon of the future, for it is a metaphor with, again, a certain wide-openness, a vastness that suggests the power of memory, feeling, imagination.  (“Perhaps we ought to feel with more imagination” Ashbery writes later, in “The Recent Past” (136)).   There is no way to prevent “this” – perhaps a pronoun referring, in its ambiguousness, to the ambiguity of the future – just as there is no way to live a life without disappointment.  Everyone is aware of the powerful dangerous imminence of the future, but some, as Ashbery writes, “carry a secret / Better,” perhaps implying that for some, this awareness leads to powerful creations.  But why the metaphor of the theater and acting in the last line?  What does this calling our attention to artifice have to do with an awareness of the imminence of the future?  Perhaps our very secretiveness makes us actors and actresses, acting a certain way on the surface, though all the time we are “nursing some private project” (Ashbery 125).

Ashbery’s reticence does not only manifest itself in lines that directly refer to the word “reticent,” such as the end of “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” where we read the oft-cited, “But night, the reserved, the reticent, always gives more than it takes” (428).  Reticence is part of his overall strategy, as Imbriglio points out, and can be found in his willingness to supply us with details of a narrative, combined with his unwillingness to fill out these details into some kind of totalized story.  We see this reticence about narrative in “Popular Songs,” a reticence about filling in the gaps, or the way in which gaps are filled; and we also find it in “A Boy,” a poem whose suggestiveness is far more powerful than its completeness.  We also find it in “Album Leaf,” where Ashbery asks three questions –

What can we achieve, aspiring?
And what, aspiring, can we achieve?

What can the rain that fell
All day on the grounds
And the bingo tables?  (12)

without directly answering them.  Even in a poem like “The Instruction Manual,” where the narrative we are given, the picture of the world, feels somewhat complete, the poem is written in a tone of such ferocious irony that it is very difficult to read the overall picture of the poem as in a way a serious attempt at capturing totality.  We might even say that Ashbery’s reticence plays into the astonishment of his images, for what makes Ashbery’s images so dazzling is their imaginative unexpectedness, their visionary unprecedented-ness, which seem to be the reward for being reticent, for waiting, and therefore exhibit the other side of reticence, which is boldness, courage, the willingness to adventure, to manifest in the greatest possible way the beauty of one’s own idiosyncratic character.

This reticence, which translates at times into the shocking novelty of Ashbery’s images, can be found in a wonderfully memorable way through Ashbery’s “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” a poem that begins with an epigraph from Pasternak that reads, “He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered early and apparently without great difficulty” (13).  “Picture” is divided into three sections, and the first one begins,

Darkness falls like a wet sponge
And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas.  “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

“He clap’d me first during the eclipse.
Afterwards I noted his manner
Much altered.  But he sending
At that time certain handsome jewels
I durst not seem to take offence.”

In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.  (13)

The first stanza oscillates between images of reticence, wonder, and silence, combined with a cartoonish form of violence.  Genevieve, who appears like a cartoon character, is punched “in the pajamas,” yet she is so taken by some “previous ecstasy” that she “releases thoughts” (assumed to be either words or cartoonish thought boxes) “like little hats.”  Then Genevieve speaks, and mentions another trope for the future, an eclipse (perhaps the “darkness [falling] like a wet sponge”); a change in behavior on the part of Dick; and then a silence on Genevieve’s part about being punched.  After we hear that Genevieve exhibits her own style of reticence, perhaps out of wonder at the “handsome jewels” given to her, we hear that “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer.”  The images are juxtaposed so strangely and suddenly, there is a hilarious absurdity of the poem that seems to muffle the fact that the poem is also exorbitantly silent and almost abnormally reticent.  For what better way of expressing unexpected silence than the implacable image of monks “in a far recess of summer” playing soccer?

The second stanza then takes these themes of reticence, wonder, and silence, along with the tonality and modality of cartoon violence, and changes into a meditation on re-description (“So far is goodness a mere memory / Or naming of recent scenes of badness”) which varies with a tonality and modality of fantasy (“as dirty handmaidens / To some transparent witch, will dream / of a white hero’s subtle wooing, / and time shall force a gift on each”).  This makes sense philosophically, for a radical orientation towards the future will carry with it an emphasis on the imagination, since the future itself (“moral and intellectual progress”) is largely a product, Rorty might say, of what we imagine in the present.  Yet a radical awareness of the future also has its costs, which we find out in the third stanza, where Ashbery’s philosophy of “acceping // Everything, taking nothing” seems to lead to an almost morbid trauma, where silence and revelation, like Elizabeth Bishop’s experience in “In the Waiting Room,” take on traumatic hues.  In this situation, Ashbery imagines his past self as a “pale and gigantic fungus,” perhaps a metaphor for a certain kind of sickliness owing to a constant vigilance pertaining to what may come next.  Yet the poem ends on a note of re-description again, where “only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  This suggests that only as new vocabularies replace old vocabularies (“lost words”), can we begin to imagine our aspirations and what these aspirations might lead to.

Shoptaw reads this ending differently.  He writes,

Virtue, so the saying goes, is its own reward.  For Ashbery, however, virtue is rewarded only retroactively, in the fame of published poems in which the past is irrevocably lost and recaptured: “And only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards.”  As Proust says, in what becomes another encrypted moral for “Picture,” “the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.”  (28)

Yet I cannot help but feel that the locus of meaning for the last phrase in the poem pivots around the meaning of “lost,” which Shoptaw seems to interpret as something missing or absent that consequently produces nostalgia in the speaker, a nostalgia that allows the speaker to create or imagine a poem out of its longing.  It’s really a matter of emphasis.  Shoptaw does, importantly, draw our attention to the fact that Ashbery is not only a poet concerned with the future, but also one fascinated by nostalgia, by the past.  Yet for all Ashbery’s interest in these matters, the ending of “J.A” has less do with nostalgia (“the light of lost words”) and more to do with dead metaphors (“the light of lost words”), which is to say, more to do with an emphasis on imagination than memory.  I also wish to add to David Herd’s potent interpretation of “J.A.,” when he writes of the poem as “the self-conscious product of the various influences that constitute its aesthetic background” (45).  Yes, the poem is that, but it is more as well: a meditation on the influences that helped to create it, as well as a meditation on the contingency of language itself, whereby virtue can be re-described as “stubbornness,” and a “comic version” of oneself can be designated (with irony) the “true one.”  Perhaps our best interpretation of this ending comes from James Longenbach, who writes, “’Truth’ is not undermined by these realizations; it is reconceived [or re-described] by the adult Ashbery as a contingent quality even as his former self, frozen in the photograph, continues to think of it as permanent and unchanging” (92, my italics).

What is clear from all this is that pragmatism, as a philosophy oriented towards the future, and therefore towards an undisclosed, disclosing open-endedness, can be used in helpful ways to interpret the challenging but rewarding poetry of Ashbery.  Thinkers like William James and Richard Rorty, as well as John Dewey, must be used to help us understand Ashbery’s important, influential, amazing poetics.  For as Ashbery’s ouvre develops, we find new strategies, new genres, new ways of discussing the aesthetic power of the “revelations not yet produced.”  And the more we can understand how Ashbery helps us to reach this remarkable pragmatist sublime, the more we can begin to understand what Borges called the “perhaps, the aesthetic reality,” (though one cannot help but feel that Ashbery would change this to “perhaps, an aesthetic reality”).

Works Cited

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Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.  London: Oxford UP, 1975.  Print.

Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry.  New York: Palgrave, 2000.  Print.

Hubbard, Will.  “In Which We Enter the Double Dream of Spring.”  This  27 April 2008.  Web.  10 May. 2013.

Imbriglio, Catherine.  “’Our Days Put on Such Reticence’: The Rhetoric of the Closet in John Ashbery’s Some Trees.”  Contemporary Literature 26. 2 (1995): 249 – 288.  Print.

James, William.  The Principles of Psychology, Volume One.  New York: Dover Publications, 1950.  Print.

James, William.  Pragmatism and Other Writings.  New York: Penguin Books, 2000.  Print.

Leypoldt, Gunter.  “Uses of Metaphor: Richard Rorty’s Literary Criticism and the Poetics of World-Making.”  New Literary History 39.1 (2008): 145 – 163.  Print.

Longenbach, James.  Modern Poetry After Modernism.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  Print.

McClelland, Ken.  “John Dewey and Richard Rorty: Qualitative Starting Points.”  Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society 44.3 (2008): 412 – 445.  Print.

McClelland, Kenneth A.  “Opening Truth to Imagination: The Pragmatism of John Dewey and Richard Rorty.”  Diss.  Brock University, 2006.  Print.

Perloff, Marjorie.  The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981. Print.

Rorty, Richard.  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2009.  Print.

Shoptaw, John.  On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.  Print.

Chrisotpher Voparil and Richard Bernstein (ed.).  The Rorty Reader.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  2010.

Watkin, William.  In the Process of Poetry The New York School and the Avant-Garde.  London: Associated University Presses, 2001.  Print.

So this morning I wake up, give my daughter a long bottle of formula (she is now able to wield the bottle on her own) and await my wife’s return from Dunkin Donuts. Yes. My wife has gone out to hunt. I am reading Across The Land And Water (Selected Poems, 1964-2001) of W.G.Sebald, Author of Austerlitz (that’s what’s on the cover). Austerlitz is a very trendy book among graduate students for I hear them dropping Austerlitz the way they dropped George Saunders or Anne Carson: long sentences I hear, like Henry James (only not)–German dude.

So I am reading poems by the author of Austerlitz. That way, I can say to someone: “but have you read his poetry?” They will say “no… no I haven’t,” and then I can raise an eyebrow, give them a significant stare, and respond, “You must” and walk away, having avoided mentioning that I have not read Austerlitz of the long sentences.

I open the book to page 74 because I am sick of hearing all about the arc of the book. Next to the pretentious rock albums of the early 70’s many of which I loved and which were all “operas” there is nothing more loathsome to me than the arc of the book. If you can’t enjoy a book of poetry in a non-linear fashion, then the hell with it. Poems exist in dynamic relation to each other–but not the relation the author chooses. They exist in the reader’s mind–a dynamic relation that is from the book but not of the book. A poem is an isolated particular until some blue spark shoots forth from the poem Z to the Poem q and you start to see how the poet’s poems are wired–but forget his arc. That is not organic. If he or she really has an arc, it will begin to show itself as you proceed skipping about. This is an age when people read from page one until the end because we are a fascist country in love with order. As we fall apart, we keep sending roses to order, and inviting it to dine. Then we prattle on about how there is no real order. Of course, there is no real order. Order is imposed. Order of this sort is date rape. The author is not a prussian general. He does not know the true order of his troops.He probably never even asked their permission. If I am wrong (and I probably am) then poetry books are unified works of art and each individual poem adss to the overall artistic effect, and reading the book out of order is a mistake at best, and evil at worst–or both, an evil mistake. It is 6:30 am, give or take a few minutes, and my wife shall soon return, and my baby daughter has thrown the long bottle to the floor, and I am making an “Evil mistake.” Evil error is even better. I am making an evil error. Somehow that fills me wth mute mirth. So page 74 of the selected which because they were culled from other works, from other “arcs” should not have to have an arc. Page 74:

Poetry For An Album
Feeling my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
until it shatters on the rocks

Because I often read stupidly, and because there are no italics, no quotation marks, etc, I see this as “feelings wrote Schumann.” Schumann is the composer I judge the merits of all pianists by. You can not merely show off with Schumann. He isn’t a show offy type. You have to play the middle voices, and your true talent as a pianist rather than a show off comes forth. You can’t hide in the fast notes. Anyway, I like the idea that feelings wrote Schumann. Was he not a man written by feeling? Can we not be authored by our feelings? But it makes no sense syntactically and so I realize this is being attributed to Schumann the writer–and, furthermore, it is “reason” that leads us to shipwreck–not feeling, the mind whose compass of reason is both infallible and infallibly leading us North to our doom. Very nice moody idea. Might even be true. Schumann goes on to allude to his crippled hand that ended his career as a pianist (the real Schumann, or, rather, the historical Schumann, made a crazy device he thought would extend his reach, but which maimed him). Suppose he had not been maimed, and the hand’s reach had been extended, and Schumann was able to play 12ths, and do all sorts of crazy fancy tricks? (his wife Clara could bend Florins with her bare hands) Would he have become just another show off? Would he have developed the inner voices that make him the criteria for all my favorite Pianists? Beats me, but one could make the case that injury lead to the sort of choral piano Schumann wrote–deceptively simple. I remember a story where Schoneberg defended Traumerei against the charge that it was simple. He showed all its inner voices. It was a favorite encore of Horowitz. I am sailing away from the poem–sometimes a good thing. I already want to put the poem next to Transtromer’s Schuberttieden which begins: “So much we have to trust just to stay alive.” So let’s read the rest:

It was when my palsied
finger stopped me playing
the piano that calamity
came upon me

These are very drab sentences, but as I tell my students poetry draws attention to itself as language first and last. Uber flatness–a prose denuded of character or flourish certainly draws attention to its manner of utterance first: the dead pan makes everyone look at the face. The rest of the poem reads like a show and trell of some student who is dressed up as Schumann for the purpose of a fourth grade history project, except that the North–the compass, the mathematical basis of a mind gone to ruin is the main theme. In this poem Schumann longs for the North:

I know I shall steer
for the North I have yearned for
though it be colder there
even than the ice on
gemo metry’s intersecting lines

My mind begins racing. I think of Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, that last scene of the seducer left to circle for ever on a frozen lake–his hell being the cold reasoning of seduction, the ultimate inability to feel anything except desire to achieve the target. Music is mathematics. I think of that. Schumann, the arch romantic, the one who had characters for all his piano pieces, the composer of Manfred , the one who envisioned his music as unified with the feelings that arose in him from literature,,, was he taken North by reason? The very flat, deadpan informative quality of the poem makes me bounce all over the place–but I know schumann’s music and I know the tricks of post modern deadpan, and I think of Oppen’s bright light of shipwreck, and of Gatsby’s green light across the bay–longing as a trope of doom, and all of them, in a way, calculating rather than passionate: “a rigorous test of sincerity.” I think of reasoning–some sort of inability to feel except in fine weather. I am staring into a camp fire and imposing images so I must wonder: perhaps I have read too much to truly read this poem except as part of a tradition–the arc of post-modernity, the inability to say anything except in pieces, in Empson like fragments of ambiguity. A lay person would say: “So what?” Must one be trained to Sebald’s art? Must one know he is the author of Austerlitz?

So I think of what I told my students: all poetry, all of it is on a spectrum between the poetic and the prosaic–neither of which is better or worse than the other. The more toward the poetic, the more the language is drawing attention to itself as language, either by sounding poetic or by being intentionally flatter than most prose. The more it exists to convey information, or meaning, or an agreed upon concept, the more it leans towards the prosaic. Non-cognition is always an attempt at pure poetry–and it most often fails. Narrative is often an attempt at coherent, linear reality and it, too, often fails. The best poems use both poetic and prosaic elements. But what about Sebald? This is certainly flat. It draws attention to some details and a couple of ideas but abandons them. It draws attention to its own flatness but does not heighten that by any particular ritual. So I go to the intro to see if anything is said about poesis or prose. and sure enough the intro begins speaking on that subject:

’My medium is prose,’ W.G. Sebald once declared in an interview, a statement that is easily misconstrued if a subtle distinction the German author added is overlooked… ‘not the novel.’

Sebald does not write the novel. He writes prose–and he writes prose even when he writes lyrical poetry–flat, speculative prose bereft of character, plot, all the usual suspects. This is not an artistic failing; it is, rather, an artistic intention. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes… MArianne Moore who, decades before the author of Austerlitz, called her poems “lucid prose.” The intro goes on to bring forth the name of Said and the idea of the exile inhabiting the “median state”–that place that is neither here nor there, but somehow between–liminal spaces that can not be defined yet call forth an almost obsessive trope of attempted definitions–all failing in the end.

Ok. So I have a bead on Sebald, but what do I think of his poems. I have read Trakl and I prefer Trakl. I have read Celan and I prefer Celan. But Sebald has his merits–the merits of shipwreck. So I skip around a language washed up on the shores where the water is neither salt nor fresh. So I skip around again, and land on page 1 (where the junkies of order think I should have landed to begin with):

So hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish

So now I want Transtromer, and Schumann’s Carnaval, a couple of paintings from the German expressionists, the last scene of Casanova, and I want to know how reason and feeling, prose and poesis cohere or fail to cohere. I want someone to talk to me–someone so smart I will nod my head and say, “you must be right,” but even then… not believing the rightness. My wife thinks Sebald is pretentious, but that he can’t help but be pretentious because he is Sebald. His name writes him, determines him. He is a brand of rock dropped into the pool so that ripples will ensue. He is pretentious in his poetry (she liked Austerlitz). I don’t know…Does feeling write us? Does the landscape watch us vanish without trying to understand us? Are certain modes of stupidity genius? And If it is hard for us to understand the landscape, then how much time does the landscape spend on understanding us? Is watching a form of understanding or, is it a form of vanishing? I will have to read more poems to find out, and I may never know. It’s 7:49 now, and I have gone from breakfast to a speculative essay. My coffee is cold–the way I like it when I am writing. So much can be built upon a poem once you abandon the question of whether or not you think it is good, or whether or not you like it. I think I’ll go listen to Schumann. I will sit in the living room, listen to Schumann and read more of these poems by the author of Austerlitz. Should I listen to Traumerei? Sure.