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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

1.

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.”

2.

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)

3.

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.”

4.

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.

5.

(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.)

6.

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?

7.

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?”

8.

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.)

9.

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?

10.

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.

11.

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.

12.

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.

13.

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?

1.


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.

2.

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?

3.

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

1.

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.

2.

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)

3.

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?

4.

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)

5.

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?

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

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.