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John Ashbery

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…?


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

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

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 Recording.com  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 what are some other major facets of Ashbery’s relationship to American pragmatism? How would we characterize pragmatism, and in what ways does Ashbery’s work suggest our characterization? Does Ashbery ever explicitly mention James, Dewey, or Rorty? (I know of only one place currently where Rorty mentions Ashbery; it is in his introduction to Essays on Heidegger and Others, where he writes, “I have given up on the attempt to find something common to Michal Graves’s buildings, Pynchon and Rushdie’s novels, Ashbery’s poems, various sorts of popular music, and the writings of Heidegger and Derrida.” (Rorty, 1)

Ashbery does explicitly mention James, in a poem called, appropriately, “My Philosophy of Life.” The passage in question reads,

But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone. (www.poets.org)

It is difficult to read this passage in the context of pragmatism without wondering if the “Someone” in the second-to-last line in the excerpt is Ashbery. Notice the exquisite intimacy with which this “Someone” shares in the “something William James / wrote”: this “Someone” has felt, innately, what James has said, even before James formulated it. Furthermore, the “you” in the first line of the excerpt remembers something James wrote, even though he or she never read it. We can be forgiven, then, if we go one to suggest a relationship between James and the “Someone” in the passage that borders on telepathic, it is so close and “intuitive.”


In “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationalism,” Rorty offers three characterizations of what he calls the “central doctrine” of pragmatism:

My first characterization of pragmatism is that it is simply anti-essentialism applied to notions like “truth,” “knowledge,” “language,” “morality,” and similar objects of philosophical theorizing.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 112)

So a second characterization of pragmatism might go like this: there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and truth about what is, nor any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological difference between morality and science. (Voparil and Bernstein, 113)

“Let me sum up by offering a third and final characterization of pragmatism: it is the doctrine that there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […] To accept the contingency of starting-points is to accept our inheritance from, and our conversation with, our fellow-humans as our only source of guidance. “ (Voparil and Bernstein, 115)


The first characterization is essentially pointing towards a vigilant awareness regarding the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of holding too tightly onto abstract concepts. “Anti-essentialism” means that there is no central essence to ideas like “truth,” “knowledge,” and “morality” – that these are contingent notions that depend entirely on our position within history, (as opposed to a neutral, extra-historical position). It is a pluralistic notion that echoes Ashbery’s opening question in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” “Is anything central?” And it also is a rallying call for embracing what Keats called “negative capability,” or the ability to embrace ambiguity, the messiness of life, as opposed to running from it and trying to escape through, among other things, empty abstractions like “truth” and “language.”


A short poem by Ashbery, chosen at random, might help illustrate our point. Here is the entire “Rain Moving In,” from A Wave:

The blackboard is erased in the attic
And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
And if somewhere on this great planet
The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
Will be better for it, but things can’t get any worse.
Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
Into disorder this one meant. Don’t you see
It’s all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
And that’s ominous, but all your graciousness in living
Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
A place to be from, and have people ask about. (Ashbery, 733)

For starters, we must call attention to the fantastically innovative images that begin the poem.

A blackboard being erased in an attic might sound silly to some – it is somewhat silly, because so odd – and yet its silliness, its oddness, is subsumed, or somehow augmented sublimely, by its strange connotative power, suggestive of new starts, or past thoughts “erased” to allow the new in. This confluence of the image of a blackboard with the notion of thoughts changing, or being “erased,” is made more vivid by the location of the blackboard in an attic, a space which is itself a pungent, full and rich metaphor, like a basement, for the unconscious, where we keep everything we’d forgotten. The power of these combined suggestions is, I believe, what Rorty means by imaginative vision – he is speaking of an ability to question outworn suppositions we have formed over time about what a poem, say, should be like – what kinds of images it should contain, how it should develop, what it should be about, what it should do. These presuppositions are questioned by the very fact of the Ashberian poem’s existence. In reading it, we find ourselves not only reading this poem, but, in a Bloomian manner, reading every poem and every image we’ve ever encountered, along with the expectations this history of reading has constructed over time – and, because of the radical strangeness of the Ashbery poem, revising that entire history of expectations.


(Perhaps this is why Ashbery is so often described as a difficult, puzzling, or just plain odd poet: like a powerfully successful Dadaist, or a good artist, he is constantly pushing, poking, nudging, or exploding the boundary line we contain in our minds between what separates our expectations for comfortable, possibly complacent normalcy and our desire and hope for grand and original innovation. This is why, once we read Ashbery, we can never read or think about poetry in the same way again. For in questioning our presuppositions about literature,

Ashbery questions our presuppositions about why we read and write in the first place.

He helps us to imagine, through the expansiveness and expressiveness of his thought, outside our worn imaginations; in doing so, he galvanizes or kick-starts our tired imaginations, our complacency, our unwillingness to budge or change. Ashbery’s poems force us to reflect upon the difference between invoking the abstraction “morality,” versus thinking about what this word means, individually and idiosyncratically, for us, within our own behavior, thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s the difference between such an invocation and an encounter with an actual person – which is to say, completely unprecedented, with very few rules or signposts to follow aside from our own idiosyncratic imaginative makeup.)


Second characterization: What does it mean to say that there is no difference between facts and values, should and is, morality and science? How does Ashbery’s poetry allude to or bring this notion into articulation through its own flexible and fluid network of vocabularies?

Perhaps we can take my Corliss Williamson jersey as an example. Was it a fact or a value that the jersey, being red and white, and with the word “Arkansas” written on its front, represented to me the college team on which Williamson played – and therefore ignited within me the desire to buy and wear the jersey, because I was so fond of that player on that team? I suppose you could get away with saying that the letters and colors are chunks of objective “facts” about the jersey, and my desire for those “facts” signifies my subjective valuing of those facts, but this just sounds hopelessly entangled, too complicated, obvious, redundant, maddeningly rigid, and uninteresting, and furthermore suggests a central core of my person on one hand (my values), and reality on the other hand (the red and white of the jersey) that somehow meet and lock and cohere together.

But isn’t this what Lauterbach is saying that Ashbery doesn’t do? And is this actually experientally what happens?


Here’s Rorty again, from Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

On the view of philosophy which I am offering, philosophers should not be asked for arguments against, for example, the correspondence theory of truth or the idea of the “intrinsic nature of reality.” [...] Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things. [...] The latter “method” of philosophy is the same as the “method” of utopian politics or revolutionary science (as opposed to parliamentary politics, or normal science). 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. This sort of philosophy does not work piece by piece, analyzing concept after concept, or testing thesis after thesis. Rather, it works holistically and pragmatically. (Rorty, 8 – 9)

Rorty is saying that to discuss my experience desiring the Williamson jersey through the notion of facts versus values is to use a vocabulary that does not help me explain what I am trying to explain. It is an inadequate tool for what I want to do. As he might say, no one really cares if my values met my facts at the moment I saw that jersey – that somehow some truth about me met some truth in the world. This sounds hopelessly weird and non-useful. What people do care is how my desire for that jersey matches up with who I was as a kid – my self-image then. If I would have bought the jersey and worn it in the mall – and if the jersey would have then incited curiosity in another person, this person would not have thought about my wearing the jersey in terms of facts versus values, chunks of reality versus other chunks. They would have possibly wondered, “who is that white, overweight kid?” They would not have wondered, “what is the relationship between that kid’s values and the facts of him wearing that jersey?”


How does Ashbery achieve his GREAT THEME, the changing of one’s self-image? Through redescribing “lots and lots of things in new ways.” (A change in clothes, a redescription, leads to a change in self-image.)


Now imagine that, that day, my parents did decide to buy me the jersey. Not only that, but I wore it that day in the mall, and my father took a picture of me wearing it. Now imagine that, after twenty years pass, I find that picture and wish to say something interesting and helpful, philosophically, about it. Would it be more helpful to

  1. read a description in which I attempted to cover the photograph inch by inch and describe every single thing I see across the gridwork of the picture, aiming for a kind of miniature totality?
  2. read a description in which I redescribe the picture, noticing new things about it, and in noticing new things about, recreating (as opposed to attempting to copy) the picture?
  3. look at both descriptions, and view them as alternative descriptions, two out of many, as opposed to searching for one way that is more right, because it corresponds more with reality?


Our third option, the pluralistic and pragmatist notion of alternative ways of looking at a situation, as opposed to one way over another, is as endemic to Ashbery’s poetry as it is to Wallace Stevens’ poetry-philosophy and William James’s philosophy-poetry. It explains why there is no difference between morality and science. Because as soon as we posit a difference, we are splitting reality up into chunks again, and pretending that we are the kinds of beings that can know whether or not our scientific descriptions of the world more correspond with “the way things are” than our poetic descriptions. We can’t know that, which explains the value of pragmatist and pluralistic thought.


For another useful illustration of this pragmatist notion of the precedence of self-image, or temperament, over the rightness or wrongness of theses, here is another entire Ashbery poem, called “Drunken Americans,” from Houseboat Days.

I saw the reflection in the mirror
And it doesn’t count, or not enough
To make a difference, fabricating itself
Out of the old, average light of a college town,

And afterwards, when the bus trip
Has depleted my pocket of its few pennies
He was seen arguing behind steamed glass,
With an invisible proprietor. What if you can’t own

This one either? For it seems that all
Moments are like this: thin, unsatisfactory
As gruel, worn away more each time you return to them.
Until one day you rip the canvas from its frame

And take it home with you. You think the god-given
Assertiveness in you has triumphed
Over the stingy scenario: these objects as real as meat,
As tears. We are all soiled with this desire, at the last moment, the last.

What if we were to read this poem as a chronicling of the way in which the poet tries on various self-images, various jerseys? And during that process, attempts to figure out which jersey is “really him,” only to abandon that project? The poem begins with the poet seeing a reflection in the mirror (there’s that pregnant Ashberian vagueness), but we can assume here that the reflection is his own. Ashbery questions this reflection, for he knows a more accurate record of his various self-images would be a hall of mirrors, as opposed to one mirror. We are then given a second description, perhaps of the poet, perhaps of the poet somehow seen by someone else, perhaps of someone else, and here the image bears a strange resemblance to the earlier image of a face in the mirror, only here we have a man “seen arguing behind steamed glass, / With an invisible proprietor.” The static notion of a mirror reflecting has been replaced with a more suggestively vague image of a man behind a window, arguing “with an invisible proprietor.” This seems to be a re-description of the earlier image, where Ashbery also argued “with an invisible proprietor,” though there the proprietor is a metaphor for Ashbery’s reflection of himself in the mirror. Finally we have a third image of the poet ripping canvas from the frame. In a way, each successive image in our sequence of characterizations of thoughts about self-image has become richer, more pregnant with suggestion – we move from a mirror reflection, to someone arguing behind a window, to a painting, but the argument is always the same – “that’s not me, that couldn’t be me! I contain multitudes! I am voluminous, prodigious, prolific! One image of me could never work as a replacement for the polysemous me!”

And yet, characteristic of Ashbery, he leaves the nature of that desire in the final line utterly ambiguous. Is it the desire for personalities less like Heraclitus’s river, and with more of the stability of objects like “meat” and “tears”? If so, it’s an understandable desire, (it goes with us until “the last moment,” our deaths), but an impossible (“soiled”) one.


We might think of Rorty’s third characterization of American pragmatism – “there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones […]” – as the humanist cloak that covers, or the humanist air that permeates, his two earlier characterizations. For to say that there are no constraints on inquiry is to appeal to a finite humanity whose possibilities are still undreamed of. In a sense, it is also an appeal to and for solidarity, as there is no escaping, according to this maxim, the human community, which is the final arbiter, as opposed to God or any neutral starting-point. All our talk about redescription and self-image are contingent upon this notion, for there is no redescription or self-image without the human community to provide us with walls for bouncing off our redescriptions and self-images. Perhaps this is why Ashbery’s poetics provide us with such a polysemous chorus of voices – such poems indirectly suggest the richness of human attitudes, stances, temperaments, while refusing to gesture towards something outside these attitudes. All of which is to say, that although we seem to often want to apotheosize Ashbery, Ashbery has apotheosized nothing.


I took the first part of the title of this piece from Ashbery’s “Fragment,” and I’d like to end with another excerpt from that poem. The excerpt is yet another intimate reading of how we read the world and ourselves; it is also, in its final lines, an appeal to a kind of idiosyncratic solidarity, in a mode of poetics that is utterly Ashberian.

The part in which you read about yourself
Grew out of this. Your interpretation is
Extremely bitter and can serve no profitable end
Except continual development. Best to break off
All further choice. In
This way new symptoms of interest having a
Common source could produce their own ingenious
Way of watering into the past with its religious
Messages and burials. Out of this cold collapse
A warm and near unpolished entity could begin. (Ashbery, 230 – 231)

That “warm and near unpolished entity” is the “new being” we are aided to become through the “power of imagination.” Through the collapse of old ways of imagining, old vocabularies, old metaphors, old self-images – “the past with its religious / Messages and burials” – we find ourselves continuously facing “the first day / of the new experience,” helped by Ashbery’s astonishing redescriptions.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

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

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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

Introduction: Why the Lyric Essay?


I want to start with a problem: an overwhelming, close to paralyzing sense that an essay about John Ashbery’s poetry is like a representational critique of a cubist painting. The two (essay and poetry) just feel ill-fitting, strange bedfellows, as though a parent (the essayist), out of the desire to understand her son (the poet), gave him a lesson in thermodynamics. Ashbery can be theromodynamically complex, yet such a lesson would seem to miss the point, not to mention the fun. New forms of interpretation are needed to come close to an approximation to what Ashbery is doing.


So how do we approach him?

One day I made a list of various things that go into an Ashbery poem. I’d just read Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” and, inspired, I decided to use his form, namely the “out of” incantatory rhythm, and apply it to what an Ashbery poem, in my mind, might be made out of. Here is a sampling:

  1. ambivalence
  2. wonder
  3. ideas stretched like mattresses
  4. language
  5. feelings too simple and complex at once
  6. narrative
  7. sight
  8. unsystematic thinking
  9. the bowels of the straining imagination
  10. the window where the morning does something just grand enough for a verb
  11. thoughts that ricochet around the laundry room
  12. sweeping symphony-like waves
  13. mud
  14. tissue boxes
  15. cardboard tents
  16. old political buttons
  17. aunt’s recipes scrawled in chicken-scratch on yellowing note cards
  18. domestic arrangements
  19. picture-frames
  20. pictures of loved ones doing random silly things
  21. pillowcases
  22. soap
  23. the noise the cat makes when it covers its litter
  24. cats and their following eyes
  25. fake plants
  26. trees
  27. ocean
  28. sea-rocks
  29. the distant realm of the voice that swoops down out of sheer necessity to splatter the page with its urgings

But this seemed to defeat my purpose. I should begin at the beginning: Why was the lyric essay my answer to the problem of writing an essay about Ashbery?


A heightened attention to form and content seems to echo, among other poems, in some regards Ashbery’s longer work – I’m thinking of Flow Chart, or Three Poems, the sense of an unspooling thought following its own unwindings, but arguing for something, implicit or explicit, perhaps a way of being, perhaps a style, or maybe a space in the world for such a way-of-being/style to exist. A lyric essay does something similar: poetic and rhetorical, it gives the writer a freedom than the more conventional essay does not, a freedom that hopefully comes close to the Ashberian exuberance exhibited in poem like “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or, better yet, “The Skaters.” The lyric essay, though argumentative, is more therapeutic, meaning it is more interested in providing helpful frameworks for thought than sending home an immaculate argument. Its intention is to “redescribe,” a la Richard Rorty – to speak differently, believing that “large-scale change of belief is indistinguishable from large-scale change of the meaning of one’s words.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 215) Indeed, this lyric essay has an ambitious goal: it posits that words placed in a lyric essay mean differently, work differently, and that this change in meaning is inextricably linked to changes in belief: the belief, say, that poems are best explicated by more formal essays, as opposed to other poems, or lyric essays; the belief that more conventional essays are mirrors reflecting the reality of the poem, as opposed to Lego-blocks, creating, blue block by red block, word by word, new interpretations, new angles, new ways of looking, which cannot happen separately from the form of the assay. The goal of the lyric essay, then, is to change writer and reader’s self-image, however slightly, “to insure that the moral consciousness of each generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 304)

Part 1: Ashbery and the Rortian Self-Image


It has long been my contention, or suspicion, or just unverified hunch, that John Ashbery (like Gertrude Stein) has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism. Ashbery’s reluctance to make any statement or declaration that does not appear to arrive and disappear on the heels of his miraculous syntax seems to me evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the early years of the twentieth century. Ashbery’s joyous investment in a present reality as being inimical to what James called “copying” is further evidence: Ashberian poetics insists on the multidimensionality of time-space duration, as opposed to either pictorial mimesis or the cause-and-effect order of conventional, developmental narration: reality, for Ashbery, has neither linearity nor replica. Connections among thinking and feeling, knowing and doing are always in flux. – Ann Lauterbach, Conjunctions: 49

Lauterbach is making a wonderfully interesting claim: that Ashbery is doing something similar to what philosophers do – and, more specifically, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James do. (What do they do?) Notice that Lauterbach is very careful in her phrasing: Ashbery “has had some relation to William James and American pragmatism”; his reticence, his self-deconstructing poetics, are each “evidence of the kind of conceptual relativity that James first enunciated in the twentieth century.” These are powerfully intriguing statements, and they are intriguing because they are vague. James himself would approve of this vagueness, who wrote in the first chapter of his monumental Principles of Psychology that,

It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject […] we gain much more by a broad than by a narrow conception of our subject […] At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility. (James, 6)

Owing to the fact that our science here is literary criticism, which seems at best highly chimerical and dependent in some regard upon academic fads; and owing to the fact that our subject is John Ashbery’s poetry, an art form so florabundantly fertile as to deliberately court the benefits of suggestiveness, (if not the dangers of nebulousness), it seems best, following James and Lauterbach’s example, to proceed cautiously (but boldly) in our discussion of the affinities between Ashbery as poet and Ashbery as pragmatist philosopher. A pregnant vagueness is what we are after, as opposed to an insipid one.


Pregnant vagueness defined in Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”:

A moment that gave not only itself, but
Also the means of keeping it, of not turning to dust
Or gestures somewhere up ahead
But of becoming complicated like the torrent
In new dark passages, tears and laughter which
Are a sign of life (Ashbery, 143)


So what do pragmatist philosophers do?

Rorty, pragmatist par excellence, defines “philosophizing” as “[raising] questions about questions,” especially questions about “unexpressed assumptions” and “presuppositions.” (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) Voparil, quoting Rorty, points out that this activity of philosophizing “implies the primacy of ‘imaginative vision’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 15) So, a-ha (we want to say)! Philosophizing, or the raising of questions about questions – what we normally associate with philosophy – entails the importance of imaginative vision – what we normally associate with the driving force behind poetry! Here we might imagine William James and John Ashbery clasping hands. But what is the relationship, more specifically, between raising questions about questions and imaginative vision?


Suffice it to say here…that imaginative vision might be described as a way of thinking outside the box, and therefore as its own idiosyncratic form of metaphilosophy…? Meaning that to reflect upon the old way of thinking, we have to first move out and away from that old way of thinking. Here’s a metaphilosophy as defined by Ashbery in “Clepsydra”:

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: (Ashbery, 140)


And what is the goal of philosophizing, as defined by Rorty? Voparil goes on to write, again quoting Rorty,

The aims of edifying philosophy involve helping not only readers of philosophy but ‘society as a whole,’ to ‘break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide ‘grounding’ for the intuitions and customs of the present’”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 21-22)

Such a “[breaking] free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes” is valuable, because such edifying discourse will “take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings”. (Voparil and Bernstein, 22) A very compelling sentence; but what does it mean, and how is it related to Ashberian poetics?


Analogy. Do you remember as a teen wanting an article of clothing so badly, that you begged your parents for it – and for whatever reason, they decided not to buy it for you? I remember, as a pre-teen, desiring desperately a Corliss Williamson basketball jersey – red and white, with the word “Arkansas” at its center. The question is, why was I so obsessed with wearing that jersey? What is it that clothes represent that gets our desire-juices flowing? And what does this mundane example have to do with the seemingly extra-mundane notion of “[taking] us out of our old selves by the power of imagination, to aid us in becoming new beings”?

Another way to ask the question: Have you ever, after knowing a person for a good while, seen them in a different context, and the context changed the way you thought about them? Maybe you see your father interacting with an old friend you’d never met. Or you see a girlfriend interacting with her grandparents. Perhaps you see an old friend wearing a shirt you’d never imagine her wearing. And suddenly you’re feeling like you don’t know this person,

and you think to yourself, half-delighted, half-bewildered, “Oh my god, I never realized they had this side to them!”

This is what Voparil and Rorty are referring to, in regard to the goal of philosophizing, and what Ashbery enacts in his poeticizing: it’s the process by which we “change our clothes,” literally and metaphorically, to try on something new, for in so doing we are in effect trying on new identities, new self-images, imagining in the process the people we wish to become. We do this every time we start a new job, or try something new at our old job; every time we don a different haircut, or read a different poem, or wear a different style of t-shirt.

This – the changing of one’s self-image – is the GREAT THEME of Ashbery’s poetry.


Rorty describes this theme in terms of Freud and Hegel, although we might as well substitute “Ashbery”:

Freud, in particular, has no contribution to make to social theory. His domain is the portion of morality that cannot be identified with “culture”: it is the private life, the search for a character, the attempt of individuals to be reconciled with themselves (and, in the case of some exceptional individuals, to make their lives works of art).

Such an attempt can take one of two antithetical forms: a search for purity or a search for self-enlargement. The ascetic life commended by Plato and criticized by Nietzsche is the paradigm of the former. The “aesthetic” life criticized by Kierkegaard is the paradigm of the latter. The desire to purify oneself is the desire to slim down, to peel away everything that is accidental, to will one thing, to intensify, to become a simpler and more transparent being. The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself over entirely to curiosity, to end by having envisaged all the possibilities of the past and of the future. It was the goal shared by, for example, de Sade, Byron, and Hegel. On the view I am presenting, Freud is an apostle of this aesthetic life, the life of unending curiosity, the life that seeks to extend its own bounds rather than to find its center.

For those who decline the options offered by de Sade and Byron (sexual experimentation, political engagement), the principle technique of self-enlargement will be Hegel’s: the enrichment of language. One will see the history of both the race and oneself as the development of richer, fuller ways of formulating one’s desires and hopes, and thus making those desires and hopes themselves – and thereby oneself – richer and fuller.


Here’s Ashbery writing at the close of “Clepsydra.” I’m choosing this passage, because 1. it is itself about self-image – (passages about self-image in Ashbery, as I’m suggesting, are legion); and 2. when I read the passage, I myself feel changed, feel as if Ashbery is articulating something I’d always felt but never heard articulated, something so innate as to be almost unconscious and habitual: the workings of the imagination (read: self-image) itself, talking about itself:

What is meant is that this distant
Image of you, the way you really are, is the test
Of how you see yourself, and regardless of whether or not
You hesitate, it may be assumed that you have won, that this
Wooden and external representation
Returns the full echo of what you meant
With nothing left over, from that circumference now alight
With ex-possibilities become present fact, and you
Must wear them like clothing, moving in the shadow of
Your single and twin existence, waking in intact
Appreciation of it, while morning is still and before the body
Is changed by the faces of evening. (Ashbery, 146)

This absolutely remarkable passage is not only about the imaginative process by which we imagine ourselves into the people we wish to become – it seems itself to somehow enact or re-enact that process in its own formulation. It’s as if Ashbery, in discussing his own experience of growth and becoming, helps us to experience it within ourselves as well. It is a powerfully poetic way of telling us to trust our hopes, by calling attention to the way in which those feathered things are inextricable from our desired self-image. We have a “single and twin existence” because we are constantly setting out (“twin existence”) from where we just recently started from (single existence) – (The Mooring of Starting Out is what Ashbery titled the collection of his first five books of poetry). We are constantly twinning ourselves, imagining ourselves into the people we hope to “really be.”

This is why William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe that “a man’s vision is the great fact about him.” (James, 20) “Vision” can be thought of synonymously here with personal imagination. James, like Ashbery and Rorty, is saying, modestly but confidently, that who we presently are is a quiet achievement, that growth is just as much an active process as it is a passive one. And Ashbery is one of our greatest chroniclers of this process by which we alter, gradually or suddenly, our self-image.

Books Used for this Essay
Ashbery, John, Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987, New York, Library of America, 2008.

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

James, William, A Pluralistic Universe, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume 2, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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

River 2

They thought themselves too much
Acquainted with their seasonal
Removal from the wet industry,
Or rather placed beside it,
Two picnickers blessed by them
And losing the thought carefully
Like a scientist in the river sent
To be their blind guest
As the center keeps forming
Only to the situation
That knows it and to no other
Abstraction suggesting, “Things have gotten
Too soon.” All things should be
Sent back—except the hawks—
Without us to the city.

Paul Legault is the author of The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010), The Other Poems (Fence, 2011) and The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s, forthcoming). He is co-editor of the translation journal, Telephone, and he works at the Academy of American Poets.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lawrence Schwartzwald

Add Clark Coolidge to the list of great American poets that nobody is talking about. He has been writing quietly for over four decades and gained prominence among the Language school poets. This Time We Are Both is another masterful accomplishment that further explores his unique form.

Since the 1980s, he has been composing copious amounts of syntactically-innovative poetry. It might appear, at first, that nothing has changed since his acclaimed works of the 80s, like At Egypt and The Crystal Text, and his current work. The Coolidge poem is easily recognized: at least several pages long, written in medium-length lines, lacking a subject, narrative cohesion and distinct imagistic content, and, most of all, containing a disjointed, fluid syntax that ignores grammatical norms.

Like any Language poet, most readers will, at least at first, find Coolidge’s work to be a garbled mess and devoid of lyricism. Most Language poets, like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews, deliberately abandon traditional grammatical norms and generic convention for political or scientific purposes. Like most (high) Modernist poems were in the early 20th century, contemporary Language poetry is very important and very inaccessible.

Coolidge fits in this paradigm, but with a huge exception—he is, in my opinion, immensely rewarding to read. If John Ashbery functions on the level of the sentence, Coolidge makes his living with the phrase. Like an Ashbery poem, the Coolidge poem has no discernable subject, symbolic clarity or transparent meaning. Unlike an Ashbery poem, the reader does not feel manipulated by elaborate rhetorical constructions and shifts in narrative or discursive content. Rather, a Coolidge poem is all texture. Here is a stanza chosen almost at random:

But the neighborhood where the people, smoke
where the pole wires, a fist of needles and says
we extend farther than you do and will get you
no doubt of those poles wires in a fist
and I have the urge to shake you
flats of sun fill blind vitamins simply
share the urge to seize stars violet like soup from
that rail, pretend flat out those vistas are alarming
trolley pack, and spring, flat bait, wait and we wave
broken gum, a flat frock of sugar

The most prominent feature of this language is the syntax, and several remarkable things seem to be happening. First, the connections between phrases seem to be basically arbitrary. Why does “smoke / where the pole wires” follow “[b]ut the neighborhood where the people…”? Second, Coolidge is bending the bounds of the phrase—the syntactic units themselves are ungrammatical and innovative. Finally, in spite of these conditions, the language has “fluidity,” though it is hard to specify exactly how. Phrases fuse into each other with the points of juncture disguised, and at times double or triple syntactic breaks are compressed into fragmented, almost stream-of-conscious word strings. In sum, every five to ten words or so, the reader finds herself in a very different kind of syntactic structure but can’t explain how she got there. Unrelenting anacoluthon yields continuous metamorphosis. It would be like channel surfing, except there are no clean distinctions or noise between channels. There’s just a river with partially-dissolved pieces.

Coolidge impresses me with the way he reworks imagery and description. Most of the phrases do not last long enough to sustain complete images and metaphors. Instead, there are imagistic gestures or “half-images,” or some such thing, like

when all the world does its thinking, mysterious
crayon stream in which world prong, the eating club put out
by word metallic raised the point, if that was an author (21)

A distinct image begins to form, “mysterious / crayon stream,” but deteriorates at “world prong” which has no or minimal meaningful content. Coolidge’s phrases tease—giving us the beginning of images, actions, and declarations that never fully form or find a correlative. This technique might seem to render the semantic content irrelevant—as with other Language poetry, which, crudely put, is just a study in linguistics. But good Language poetry, of which this is a fine example, does not surrender semantics. This partially-dissolved imagistic language in part creates the texture, counter-pointing the syntactic disruption. The disjunction between these two levels of operation in the text—the syntax and the content—harmonize by pulling against each other. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other.

It is both a musical score and a lyric landscape: It is musical because the sounds of phrases burst forth, denuded from their grammatical hideouts; it is lyric because there is a discursive, image-generating mind at the root of these word strings. This hint of lyricism comes out sometimes in fragmented glimpses of a lyric “I,”

I go by as ever on pencils
underneath of every leaving sun reveals
twigs in bottles in threes, elsewhere an etching erasing
grease for the eyes, that they take away nothing (19)

and is eluded to in the pronoun of the poem’s title. Coolidge’s poems are filled with human voice and personal feeling. To me, this voice is very clear and almost overwhelming. It is a paradox of language—perhaps the paradox that Coolidge’s career dares to explore—that something personal and compelling can persist in language deprived of normal syntax, rhetorical markers, subject matter, narrative and imagery. Like the rest of his oeuvre, This Time We Are Both shows that, while Language poetry doesn’t care about lyricism and aesthetics, it can sometimes still give pleasure. It a strange, wonderful achievement, even if too few are paying attention. Though, perhaps Coolidge is reconciled with this outcome, knowing that he is digging in a lonesome mine for disregarded stones, as he writes:

nobody waits
at the flat rock of syntax
huge factory knock lines all stub night long
and trouble to smear all the oils that swells, abatement
crosshatch in memory with sums of all railings by jewels
but only have I come to the marble gates
everyone stop at these walls

We live in the paradox that life is change, but that change taken to the ultimate is death.  Early signs of the great alteration shape our expanding or contracting limbs and are inscribed expressly on the face.  When the young woman of twenty-five notices faint lines around the mouth or tiny crowsfeet at the corner of her eyes, something even more intimate than vanity makes her stop to reflect.  The script for her very own mortality play, written on the finest parchment, has begun to develop, nor does she need any special clairvoyance to divine the final act from the first.

La Rochefoucauld says that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.  That’s the reason we avoid long or frequent exposure to the black rays of the mirror—unless we have the temperament of those medieval monks who kept brightly polished skulls in their cells as a handy memento mori, large enough not to escape notice but smaller than the coffins that still more ascetic contemplatives used to sleep in each night.  Some of the first group, striking a hopeful note, planted a candle on top of death’s head, meaningless to his blind sockets but not to the eyes of the living.

Looking at early photographs of yourself is not exactly a lark.  The person represented is recognizable, and you may even discover, among several patronizing attitudes and self-deflating commentaries, something like parental affection for that inexperienced youth being examined.  Considering all the roads to take and ways of cutting one’s hair current in that era, perhaps his weren’t the worst, just as maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash aren’t so bad, really.  To revive an earlier phase isn’t possible, though, or, more to the point, finally desirable.  For, in a sense, the photographed subject is our elder, and the present moment—fresh, breathing, more up to date—“younger” than any from the dim decades of yore.

We’ve changed; and we don’t care to be so passé as the ridiculously dressed person in the picture.  Does that also mean we must accept change even when raised to the highest power?  Apparently.  Preferring the present visual or verbal record implies that I will also prefer to it the next and the next and the next, until, finally, icon and identity plunge beyond the reach of pictures, in fact, beyond time and change altogether.  A photograph is, granted, a kind of death-mask, with the difference that it has been molded on a living face. The apple owes part of its sweetness to our knowledge that it gives the pleasure of its taste only when we consume it. In fact, we cannot enjoy anything unless, in the process, time consumes us as well. Mortality, expressed in the first-person, present-perfect tense, is summarized in a mere three words: I have lived.

A poem is also by analogy a photograph of the author. Rereading our first published apprentice work, we will feel many of the same emotions described above re looking at old photographs of ourselves. The self-portrait genre in poetry isn’t as common as in painting, though John Ashbery and Charles Wright have produced admired examples. The point is, even poems not designated as such are self-portraits, of mind rather than of body, and to just that degree, more intimate. We were hardly conscious in those days of all that could be thought or said about us. We know more now than we did then, and what we were is part of what we know.  If we can allow ourselves to approach objectivity (if only as a limit, in the mathematical sense), we may also allow that, despite the clumsiness and inexperience, despite the glaring failures of skill and hollow bravado, those early self-portraits have a vitality and authenticity that deserves some sort of acknowledgment.  They belong in the Department of Records that each life builds up in its life-span.

You’ve guessed it.  I’m preparing a new selected poems.

Seen above, for the first time, is a newly-discovered photograph of Arthur Rimbaud from the 1880s. I quote from the Associated Foreign Press:

Unseen photo of French poet Rimbaud unveiled

PARIS — A previously unseen photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud was unveiled in Paris on Thursday, bringing the total number of known images of the writer to eight.

The photograph, which shows Rimbaud on the porch of a hotel in Yemen around 1880, was showcased at the International Antiquarian Book Fair at Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue.

The black and white image is only the fourth to portray the poet as an adult and is “the only one in which Rimbaud’s adult facial characterisics are distinguishable”, according to the poet’s biographer, Jean-Jacques Lefrere.

Rimbaud, who was once described by Victor Hugo as “an infant Shakespeare”, produced his best-known works in his late teens. At 20 he gave up poetry and left France to travel. He died from cancer in 1891 aged 37.

Below, Rimbaud’s most famous poem, in the best translation the poetry has yet received into English, by Martin Sorrell (Oxford World’s Classics, 2001). He is the poet most important to understanding the crucial line of 20th century American-English symbolism: the inaugurator of Hart Crane, as well as of John Ashbery. He liberated words to music, and embodied the sovereignty of the imagination as an aesthetic principle foremost. For his sensualism, his precocity, and his recondite combinations of unexpected words, phrases—he is simply unrivaled. Rimbaud’s use of color in poetry anticipates Munch, as well as Georg Trakl. Far from being a reckless raving beatnik, Rimbaud was systematic—advancing the discoveries Baudelaire had made in revolutionizing and modernizing poetic form and style. He could parrot any style; yet he remains inimitable, unique, and resembles no one else. His prose poems are arguably still the best of their kind, in any language. The complexities of his life, which only dealt with poetry very briefly, between the age of 17 to 20, is inexplicable. There are other mysterious poets in history, but there is no other mystery like Rimbaud’s. Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings, featured an epigraph of the French poet’s. (When he was drunk, he was taken to yelling, “I am Rimbaud come again!”) His letters are incredible. His insights have been adopted by no less an orthodox spirit than T.S. Eliot—whose own innovations, accredited to Jules LaForgue, owed much to Rimbaud’s. When W.H. Auden selected John Ashbery’s Some Trees he was quite reticent about the overall strategy and tendency in style of JA’s work, and saw Rimbaud as the precedent for such a subjective, surrealistic manner (one that might lead poets astray). Yet no style has meant more to poetry since.


I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolour posts.

I didn’t give a damn about the crews,
Or the Flemish wheat and English corn.
Once the shindig with my haulers finished
I had the current take me where I wished.

In the furious riptides last winter,
With ears as tightly shut as any child’s,
I ran, and unanchored Peninsulas
Have never known such carnivals of triumph.

The storm blessed my maritime wakefulness.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which some call eternal victim-breakers-
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares.

Sweeter than sour apple-flesh to children
Green water slid inside my pine-clad hull
And washed me clean of vomit and cheap wine,
Sweeping away rudder-post and grapnel.

From that time on, I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, lactescent and steeped in stars,
Devouring green azures; where a drowned man
Like bleached flotsam sometimes sinks in a trance;

When suddenly tinting the bluities,
Slow deliriums in shimmering light,
Fiercer than alcohol, vaster than lyres,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment.

I know skies splintered by lightening, breakers,
Waterspouts, undertows; I know the dusk,
And dawn, exalted like a host of doves -
And then I’ve seen what men believe they’ve seen.

I’ve seen low suns smeared with mystic horrors
Set fire to monster fires of violet;
Like actors in the very oldest plays
Slatted light shimmered, away on the waves.

Green nights I dreamed bedazzlements of snow,
A kiss rising to sea’s eyes slowly,
Circulation of undiscovered saps,
Blue-yellow wakefulness of phosphorsongs.

For whole months on end I followed the swell
Charging the reefs like hysterical beasts,
Not thinking that luminous Maryfeet
Could force a muzzle onto breathy seas.

I struck, you know, amazing Floridas
Where flowers twine with panther eyes inside
Men’s skins! Rainbows flung like bridles under
Sea horizons harnessed the glaucous herds.

I saw great swamps seethe like nets laid in reeds
Where a whole Leviathan lay rotting,
Collapse of water in the midst of calm
And distances tumbling into nothing.

Glaciers, silver suns, pearl seas, firecoal skies!
Hideous wreckages down in brown depths
Where enormous insect-tormented snakes
Crash from twisted trees, reeking with blackness.

I’d have liked to show children blue-water
Dorados, golden fish and fish that sing.
Foam-sprays of flowers cradled my drifting;
At times I flew on ineffable winds.

Sometimes, martyr tired of poles and wastelands,
My pitching was stilled by the sobbing sea
Which raised to me its yellow-sucker
Shadow-flowers – and I, like a woman, knelt.

Floating islands where the brawls and the guano
Of fierce albino birds bounced off my sides,
I sailed, while down among my fraying ropes
Drowned men descended backwards into sleep.

Now, I, boat tangled in the hair of bights,
Hurled high by hurricanes through birdless space,
Whom no protection-vessel in the world
Would fish up from the drink, half-drowned, half-crazed;

Free, smoking, got up in violet spume,
I, who holed the sky like a wall in flames
Which bears, good poet’s exquisite preserve,
Lichen of sun and cerulean snot;

Mad plank streaked with electric crescents, flanked
By dark formations of speeding sea-horse,
When Julys bludgeoned ultramarine skies
And pulverized them into scorching winds;

Trembling as I heard the faraway groans
Of rutting Behemoths and swirling storms;
Eternal spinner of blue stillnesses,
I long for Europe’s ancient parapets.

I’ve seen star-sown islands cluster; others
Whose delirious skies summon sailors.
Do you sleep banished in the pit of night,
You myriad golden birds, the Strength to come?

I’ve wept too much, it’s true. Dawn breaks my heart.
All moons are atrocious, all suns bitter.
Acrid love has pumped me with drugged torpor.
Let my keel burst, let me go to sea!

If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond
Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches
One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches
A boat, frail as a butterfly in May.

Steeped in your slow wine, waves, no more can I
Cadge rides in the cotton-freighters’ slipstream,
Nor brave proud lines of ensigns and streamers,
Nor face the prison-ship’s terrible eyes.

Arthur Rimbaud, from Poems 1869 – 1871, translated by Martin Sorrell


Feeling like “a very village of sorrow,”
Just like Franz Schubert, with each sad bourgeois
Dolorously doleful, I only said
When you asked me for my life-story,
“Well, the world is a funny place, un
Pleasant things can happen.”

I chewed
The silence, cryptic and stupidly.
I felt diminished by myself, much like
The passport photographs that make you look
Like an escaped convict or
The victim of circumstances.

Am the oyster shell, after the
Succulent seaworm’s been devoured,
With only the pretense of sea in your cupped

The next day you wore a
Corsage of pansies.
Exultantly alive, serious scholars
Of melancholy, brave and lionhearted
With thoughtful thoughts.

In this well of eyes before me, icy eyes,
Now in the Broadway 7th Avenue Van Cortlandt
Subway, feeling quite walled in, Henry
David Thoreau breaks the ice, says
“Time is the stream I go a
Fishing in—what about

I, Henry, will study
These pansies, profoundest
Professors of the world’s woes.


I reached a point where there was no
Use going on: my companion said, “Do not waken
The watchman, do not shout, he will die
Of shock if you make the slightest
Sound.” I stood in the utter darkness,
Cold. Without evidence of myself.

The technique of diversion con-
Founds the rival by simulating friendship or
As the Victorians might say, worming
Affections. Then, at the point of trust,
As on this dark stage where on man sleeps
Slumped by the flashlight, to change the
Mode of address, from friend-
Ship to a complete stranger, to shriek-
Ing subtlety, to innuendo, and back to
Friendship. The executive wishes to
Demoralize his employee, perhaps he is slightly

I do not know. At the same time I could not enjoy
The enchanting silly coffee waves, sometimes
Sapphire, which is the fluid stream of our life.
Since then, like William James, I have learned
Ice-skating in my August, after—

At that point I returned;
Since there was no point going on I went back,
I spoke again to the marvelous friends of
My youth: for a short while it was a life.

That you were not willing I am sorry.


I dislike going with a woman
Into a restaurant. There is
A plot of mirrors
All designed to make me self-conscious.

“—Will you
Please top looking at yourself
In your exquisite Cloisonné compact.
Your lips, your hair is
Very nice. Everybody’s eyes say

O voyeurs! intruding
On my domestic date, do you see
Any glory in this ancient

Hunters of
The unshuttered nudes of accidental windows.


I would like to ask that dumb ox, Thomas
Aquinas, why it is, that when you have said
Something — you said it — then they ask you
A month later if it is true? Of course it is!
It is something about them I think. They think
It is something about me. It adds up
To my thinking I must be what I don’t
Know . . .

— The park is certainly
Tranquil tonight: lovers, like ants
Are scurrying into any old darkness,
Covert for kisses. It makes me feel
Old and lonely. I wish that I were
All of them, not with any one,
Would I exchange my lot, but the entire
Scene has a certain Breughel quality
I would participate in. —

Do I have to repeat
Myself. I really mean it.
I am not saying it again to convince myself
But to convince the repressed conviction
Of yourself. I think. I think. I think it.

Below are some candid photos I’ve taken of Poetryland’s Personalities.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United Sates, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumes… Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic (as some have declared it, upon the advent of the Photograph), but because, when generalized, it completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.”

“Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumes as such, publicly.”

“The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence… The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”

If I am anything at all, I am a vaudevillian. Considering that vaudville has been stone dead the last 80 years, that’s a hard thing to be, but wouldn’t you want to attend a reading where, first, someone read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” beautifully, followed by a white poodle jumping through a fiery hula hoop, then a great tap dancer, and then a good torch singer doing “Strange Fruit,” topped off by a rousing version of Etheridge Knight’s “All Fucked Up”? Hell, I would, and this either means I have no aesthetic boundaries whatsoever, or that I prefer, during the course of performance, to do what Ashbery does in a poem: let the flow take me where it will, live in the process and variety of consciousness rather than in some fully set and determined structure. Now it would be even more fun if the poodle held the fiery hula hoop between its paws while the human jumped through, but why quibble?

I am making a point here. At least, I think I am. If the poodle act was done superbly, as most vaudeville acts were, if it was the end result of months and years on the road, honing the act, then I don’t see why it would be any less valuable than a good poem (especially if the human jumped through the hoop). Poems are made out of words, but poesis is made out of a chemical compound of ecstasy and precision. It need not be ecstatic, nor precise, but a synthesis of those qualities is important. By ecstacy I mean the entire spectrum between being good at and enjoying the writing and presenting of poems, and the sort of possessed by the gods kind of inspiration Plato feared. By precision, I mean something that must be done “just so.” If the poodle wavers in her resolve and does not hold the fiery hula hoop at the right angle, the human might go up in flames. This is the secret and mystery of presence: a good tenor goes dangerously to the top of his range. We are waiting for him to fail. He does not fail: wallah! ecstacy with precision!

Most poetry readings are boring these days because we do something absurd: the poet pretends not to be performing. They read in a lack luster voice, often intentionally so. The audience is there to be “present,”—but at what rite? Certainly not the rite of ecstacy merging with precision to become poesis. The rite is called identification: I am a well-credentialed and leading poet, reading to you. You are students in an M.F.A. program performing a snob’s version of cannibalism. By being in my presence (or non-presence) you are hoping to become what I am: a leading poet reading before a group of grad students. We do not clap. We do not do what the vulgar people do. We are all intelligent. We are all “serious.” Look at us! In our midst, a cough becomes significant. At the end, we may clap “warmly.” This is sad.

I hate it. I look for attractive faces and bodies in the audience. I moan and ooh when the audience moans and ooh’s because I don’t want to be left out. I notice the beautiful girl who is dangling one shoe from her well arched foot. I want her. She will never be mine. She will get naked and procreate with a boy who translates Wordsworth’s The Prelude into Bengali. I lament. Where is the fiery hula hoop of the blood?

Don’t think I am advocating that everyone become a spoken word poet. God forbid! That’s just as bad because it is often fake ecstacy, and total imprecision. Spare me your false epiphanies! Spare me your skeltonic rhymes if you don’t know who Skelton is. Spare me!

Let us go back to what I was saying by taking a concrete poet and putting her in an environment I would think showed her to best advantage: Louise Gluck. (Don’t know how to put the dots on her “u”. Sorry.)

I saw Louise Gluck perform at a high school festival about ten years ago. They trotted her out because she was a pulitzer prize winner. They trotted her out because she was a name. They didn’t care about her poetry which, at least in her earlier work, is fantastic. They didn’t care that she was a sort of reserved, introverted, Alfred Hithcock blond. Hitchcock would have known how to present her: Tweed skirt, nice legs (Louise has kiiller legs), a sort of tense primness that calls forth monsters by dint of its introverted splendor. I was on the bill. High school kids like me. I knew my audience. I read , “So Kiss Me Asshole,” a poem of mine. Strangely, Louise liked me, too. She said: “You’re a good performer, and your poems have some merit.” I have been in love with Louise Gluck since I read “Fear of Birth” and re-read it two hundred times in a day when I was 15, and saw her photo on the back of an old anthology. Call it the love of Caliban for that which is fully in opposition to him, yet equally monstrous: she was as introverted, and audience unfriendly as you could get, I am practicly a poodle act, but we talked for a full hour: about Schumann (I told her some of the shorter lyrics she wrote seemed perfect for Schumann, and she agreed). We talked about Oppen (we share this love as well, and she studied with him). She claimed there were too many voices in her poems, and she could never utter them. She hated to read aloud, but the money was good. I said: “Louise, I hate when you read aloud, too. They don’t use you right. They should have you read one short poem, and then someone could play a small Schumann bagatelle, and then you could say something about Oppen, and the importance of mentors, and recite a poem by him from memory. You should always wear tasteful skirts because, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you have killer legs.” She smiled and said, “Thank you.”

It is a mistake to think poems written for the page can not be effective in performance. They need the right setting, the precision that brings out the ecstacy. A good poetry reading has the same aspects as a good poem. Lately, I want to strangle audiences. They don’t clap (they are all too intelligent to clap, and they are Mark Doty clones .About fifteen years ago, Doty said don’t clap, and they listened to him. Wretches! Theives of joy! They make me sick). I believe in clapping after any poem longer than a page—just to relieve the stress. Of course, short poems are different. I believe poets ought to work hard at finding the right voice and cadence, and way of presenting what they do. And they ought to be honest: it is a performance, a rite, the second you get in front of a room full of people. The ceremony should be performed with the same artistry as the poems—the right ceremony depending on the voice or voices of the poet. Louise Gluck is like Chopin, intimate: she loses something when placed in a room with five hundred high school students. You don’t get her best effects. You lose all the little trills, and false cadences, and intricate passage work. You lose the deceptively simple lines. She is writing splendid cabaret poems. These ought to be presented like good Kurt Weill songs, soft blue light included. To do that to Gluck and those students is detrimental to poetry. It’s far more vulgar and wrong than a poodle act. I heard kids saying: “She’s so boring.” I was angry. A woman with those tremendous poems and great gams should not be misunderstood. I said: “You liked my poems?” They said: “You’re great.” I said: “Louise Gluck is better than me, way better. They screwed you over. You need to hear her the way you would hear soft rain on a roof at night when you’re lonely, and fearful, and your childhood is dead. It can’t all be ‘So Kiss Me Asshole.’ That’s boring, too. Grow up!”

I fell a little in love with Louise that day because she was kind to me, and she didn’t have to be. She opened in the way a Louise Gluck should open: carefully, with a wonderful reticence and accuracy, with an inward passion. I got the performance out of her I was seeking. When she recited Oppen’s Bergen street by heart, she did so with feeling, and perfection. I was lucky.

So what am I getting at? First, poems that are subtle, or small, or call for pianissimo, should not be thrown into a Dylan Thomas frame work. Seeing a good cabret singer singing in a stadium is just wrong. Second, no poet should read before an audience more than fifteen minutes. All good acts are teasers. They should leave you wanting more. Now to the practical, pedagogical purpose of this:

In a class of ten poetry students, only five should be given the poem on paper at any time. Five should be listening, and listening hard. They should jot down a line that seems off, or one that they like. They should consider why exactly they like a line, or why it seems off. They should be honest about the poem’s effect on them. The other five should be giving the poem a close reading, and not just to find its “flaws,” but to first discover its intentions. “ur” poems, your idea of what a poem “should be” ought to be temporarily suspended, and you should enter the poem as it is—it’s intentions, it’s own private triumphs and failures. A good class trains listeners as well as readers. Poems should be memorized so that the language of poems becomes muscle memory. After a few poems, someone ought to tell a joke, or mention something that happened to them during the week. Digression, if it is good, is more to the point than being overly focused. Before a poet appears at the school, their work ought to be handed out. No poet should read for more than fifteen minutes unless it is an audience well versed in poetry. Over reading hurts poetry. It rams poetry down the throats of those who are not yet ready to recieve it. It’s bad fr the business.

There should be snacks, and, if possible, some music. A good piano player or guitarist (no tuning up please) ought to do something—no words, just music. Maybe some Ellington, a little Maple Leaf Rag. And then the poodle, holding the fiery hula hoop between its paws, and the six Hngarian acrobats leaping through the fire, and the girl dangling her she beside a by who is translating Wordsworth’s Prelude… but I digress.

Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.

‘Crusoe in England’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, then later collected in ‘Geography III,’ perhaps Bishop’s finest single volume of poems. (Only recently I discovered the title of which was suggested to her by John Ashbery. He had found a little geography textbook of the eponymous name, and sent it to her, thinking she’d rather enjoy it. Turns out, she did.)

I can’t help thinking ‘Crusoe in England’ is Bishop’s greatest poem, though Bishop is the type of figure who inspires worshippers, and therefore, nearly all of her poems are considered The Greatest, The Most Favorite, The Defining Classic: ‘The Fish,’ ‘At the Fishhouses,’ ‘One Art’ (which wears on me), ‘The Man-Moth,’ etc. Ashbery’s favorite is characteristically ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.’ After reading it, he wrote Bishop his first and only fan letter and attached the poem he wrote in tribute ‘Soonest Mended.’ Ashbery also adores ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ for the charm of a strict form like the sestina depicting a daily meal (one thinks of a Fairfield Porter interior in the Bonnard style, teacups and silverware placed around a family dinner table next to a copy of Wallace Stevens’ poems). Helen Vendler’s favorite is ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’—or maybe it’s simply the poem of Bishop’s she has written most beautifully about. Harold Bloom’s favorite is a small gem from her first book, ‘The Unbeliever,’ which he finds to be a pure Romantic lyric in the Shelleyian vein. Christopher Ricks once told me how much he cherished ‘The Filling Station,’ though he has reservations about EB, and prefers her prose. Scott Cairns—like Mark Strand—thinks ‘The Monument’ a perfect poem because it is enacts what it describes, full of those tromp l’oeil effects where poems step off the page: “Look!” (Similar grand examples of this: Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ Ashbery’s ‘The Instruction Manual.’) And while I know Merrill considered her the greatest poet of his time (like many others: Randal Jarrell, Robert Lowell), I’m not sure which was his favorite poem. ‘Pink Dog’ is surely the most Merrillesque—for its astute powers of observation mixed with the reticence of its sophistication. It’s a mellow poem that reminds me how much both poets really learned from Auden.

Clearly, she was and is a well-loved poet. I’ve been using ‘the greatest’ and ‘favorite’ almost interchangeably, which is not quite right. ‘Crusoe in England’ might be both for me, though I admit to always having had a soft spot for ‘North Haven.’ Was a more intimate and moving elegy ever written by one poet for another? As Bishop said to Lowell in a letter: “I want to be heartbreaking.” ‘North Haven’ is compactest proof.

So what’s so amazing and appealing about ‘Crusoe in England’? For starters, it’s one of Bishop’s longest poems, if not the longest; it was written towards the end of her life, and in it, one finds an entire life—Crusoe’s (i.e. Bishop’s)—compressed soberly, hauntingly. Bishop was a wordsmith but in her poetry she is no less a painter: the array of detail is uncannily fresh, mostly for its accuracy, but no less for its originality. Steam rises in the distance from the volcanoed island like flies; the volcanoes themselves stand like mountains with their heads blown off. Every sense has been answered to, from the smell of guano to the touch and texture of the hissing lava, the rolling gulls and quaking turtles, the horrifying baby goats.

Still, previous poems of hers have shown the same brilliance and grace of description. In ‘Crusoe,’ that painterly hand is matched with a cadence of melancholy and surrender that comes from staring back at the unexpected—or was it expected?—course of a single life. “None of the books has ever got it right.” “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” “I often gave way to self-pity.” These asides, seemingly dropped down in the poem carelessly, are the signs of her mastery. The voice of this poem, like its tone, betrays her inimitable dramatic understatement. It reminds me of the quietness of Auden’s love lyrics, or the intimacy of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems. And speaking of Coleridge, of whom Bishop was a lifelong devotee, ‘Crusoe’ is also a poem suffused with allusions to Romanticism—there’s the title character, of course, written in the vein of 19th century adventure travelogues; there’s also the Wordsworth quote from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ I also hear in her hallucinated sunsets that mysterious ballad ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then in her play of Mont d’Espoir for Mount Despair—a telling trickery, that is so reserved, and sad—you also see a wink at Shelley and Wordsworth who found in the Alps something like a confrontation with existential reality—a sublime affirmation for one, a sublime negation for the other.

Bishop spent most of her adult life in Brazil, away from academia and the limelight she had received ever since Marianne Moore brought her to the attention of the general reading public. An orphan, an exile, a lesbian—all of these personal histories are entwined in ‘Crusoe in England’ that underscores how her life ended. Bishop would return to America, die in Cambridge, having survived the love of her life’s suicide. Her last days were as a professor at Harvard. As the title belies, the adventures have ended. Crusoe is back in England, Bishop in the States. Just as Crusoe’s imaginative paraphernalia have been incased in museum glass, so have Bishop’s manuscripts and poems been handed over to other people. What ultimately remains of any artist’s life but an attempt to make some lasting object? That’s the Ovidian monument against time, yes, but it’s also another momentum mori. Art may go on, we certainly don’t. Like Don Quixote waking from his reveries to find himself the published character in his mad odyssey, we—like Crusoe, like even the great poet Elizabeth Bishop—are defeated by reality.

You can read and hear her reciting “Crusoe in England” at Poetryarchive.org. Below, a recording of Bishop reading “In the Waiting Room.”

Elizabeth Bishop – In the Waiting Room .mp3

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.


…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?