Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alice in Ashberyland

His basic attitude toward language is joy.  It amazes me how many people have a problem with that.
—Mark Kerstetter

The poet John Ashbery is considered impenetrable by many.  Yet if the first poem a reader encounters is The Instruction Manual, that’s hard to understand.  The poem begins
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses
  of a new metal.
Who among us has not had a wish like this?

And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk
  and leaning out of the window a little,
Of dim Guadalajara!  City of rose-colored flowers!
In The Instruction Manual, Ashbery offers us a means of escape when trapped in a boring task:
There is the rich quarter, with its houses of pink and white, and its
  crumbling, leafy terraces.
There is the poorer quarter, its homes a deep blue.
There is the market, where men are selling hats and swatting flies
And there is the public library, painted several shades of pale green and
Not a moment in this poem is inaccessible; the whole of it speaks to us all.

I’d known Ashbery’s name for many years, but hadn’t paid any attention to his work.  Recently, Mark Kerstetter, at The Bricoleur, changed all that.  His passionate engagement and eloquence in writing about Ashbery had me racing to a bookstore (where, sad to say, the pickings were slim).   Ultimately, I ordered a copy of the Selected Poems, where I fell upon The Instruction Manual and was, I thought, off to a promising start.

I quickly got stuck.  To unstick myself, I resorted, as I often do, to reading about Ashbery’s poems, rather than reading the poems themselves.  I accumulated an extensive list of articles, but I wasn't getting any closer to the poems.  I knew I had to buckle down, but I kept evading it.

Instead, I kept returning to Ashbery's preface to his translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, where he wrote, on the subject of modernity:
In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflicting views of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many of this fertile destabilization.
I kept fretting about Ashbery’s inclusion of serial music in his choice of examples.  You see, I’m inclined to agree with Richard Taruskin that promoting the twelve-tone method “into a primary musical value . . . led modern music into [a] cul-de-sac.”  I thought of Ashbery’s artistic colleague, the composer Ned Rorem, who wrote gorgeously lyrical art songs and “seeth[ed] with resentment against an academic establishment, then dominated by twelve-tone composers, that despised him.”  Ashbery certainly didn’t take the same path as Rorem, and I worried that he'd entered what, for me, was a poetic cul-de-sac.

What saved me was a review in the New York Times about two exhibits related to Gertrude Stein.  In the review, Holland Cotter wrote that Stein’s The Making of Americans “has a reputation for being unreadable, which it isn’t, though its difficulties have to be experienced to be believed, and its greatness has to be believed in for reading to continue.”  This reminded me of something Kerstetter had written about Ashbery:  “If these lines appear completely random and worthless to you I suggest you put a lid on it and let it simmer awhile, your reading’s not done yet.”

But did I believe in Ashbery’s greatness enough “for reading to continue”?  I wasn’t sure, but I believed in Kerstetter’s passion, and I wanted very much to see at least a glimmer of what he saw.  And, aside from his command that I “put a lid on it and let it simmer awhile,” Kerstetter wrote something else that particularly got to me:
For Ashbery, the pleasure of the music is his guide.  For some this is all too abstract; they insist that all their words be attached to meanings that make perfect sense to them.  But can’t language be beautiful the way music is beautiful?
This I absolutely understood.  The music of poetry has often reached me well before its meaning.  How else did I love Wallace Stevens all these years, sometimes without the slightest idea what he was on about?
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
I’d never needed to know what Stevens meant by this.  The language sang to me, and that was enough.  Or this, from T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton:
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die.  Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.  Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
I don’t need to know what any of it means to love the language.  I can, truly, be content to listen.

As Kerstetter commanded me to do, I let it simmer awhile, then went back to reading Ashbery’s poems.  I found music—not everywhere, but often.  I was surprised to find I often preferred Ashbery’s longer poems, like The Skaters, which allowed me to ride waves of language on odd, discursive voyages:
It is the beginning of March, a few
Russet and yellow wallflowers are blooming in the border
Protected by moss-grown, fragmentary masonry.
One morning you appear at breakfast
Dressed, as for a journey, in your worst suit of clothes.
And over a pot of coffee, or, more accurately, rusted water
Announce your intention of leaving me alone in this cistern-like house.
In your own best interests I shall decide not to believe you.
I didn’t know where Ashbery was headed, but I was ready to follow him, to where
Trout are circling under water—
Masters of eloquence
Glisten on the pages of your book
Like mountains veiled by water or the sky.
In the end, Ashbery, in And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name, gives us all the guidance we need to know how to read him.  To my mind, he articulates the poet’s dilemma as well as anyone ever has.
 . . . She approached me
About buying her desk.  Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.
Humdrum testaments were scattered around.  His head
Locked into mine.  We were a seesaw.  Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.

Credits not identified in the text:  Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, The Poietic Fallacy, p. 311, and The Musical Mystique, p. 334.  Holland Cotter, Modern Is Modern Is . . ., New York Times, June 2, 2011.  Mark Kerstetter, The Bee’s Knees, Hybrid Locations, February 8, 2010, and The Bricoleur, This is Not a Review of John Ashbery’s Planisphere, December 15, 2009.  Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West.  The collage at the head of the post is by the author of the post.


Friko said...

Damn, now I simply HAVE to go and discover Ashbery.
I already spend far too many hours reading and drowning in poetry.

I need to get a life that doesn't include music, poetry, literature, even blogs such as yours.

Mark Kerstetter said...

First off, what a nice collage. I like it more than Ashbery's collages, since his are grids, and yours causes my eye to go around in a waving loop.

I love that you quoted 'And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name' - that's a really great one.

Did you discover in your reading that Ashbery has very conservative taste in music? He likes Bach and Mozart of course but also goes for lesser known French composers. I don't think he cares for very much modern music. He seems to be very knowledgeable about classical music; his poetry is swimming with references to it. I find this interesting because if I were to compare his work to music, the more difficult stuff can only be compared to very outside music, like the "free" music of Derek Bailey, something I'm certain he'd dislike (the visual artist I most compare him to is Rauschenberg).

I wholly concur with your feeling about the longer poems. His long poems are his best (with the notable exception of 'Girls on the Run' - that one is very hard to appreciate). He needs a lot of words to build up a froth and really get going.

Another fun fact: Ashbery loves Stevens, who may be his biggest influence.

I won't lie, it's a kick to be quoted and linked to. But what really moves me is that you care enough about my opinion (or perhaps taste) to make an effort to learn about a poet. I share my passions as a blogger, of course, but seldom make specific recommendations to individuals (the last time I recommended Ashbery to someone it didn't go well).

Now, will we be seeing more collages?

Lou Freshwater said...

You had me at that collage.

I'll be back, but for now I just want to say I'm glad you and Mark are on the planet with me.

Suze said...

'Not a moment in this poem is inaccessible; the whole of it speaks to us all.'

Perhaps this is what happens for all of us to varying degrees. When we let it simmer for a while.

Elaine Sexton said...

Sue, this is just great. You do what you do BEST and that's delve into a thing deeply and follow as many threads as you can to "get" what seems hard to get.
Brava! And is this YOUR collage.... wow wow. -E

David said...

Second Mark on the 'effort to learn'. Hope that I, too, can get excited when a fellow blogger enthuses - can't say I want to do that with Ashbery, but you write so flavoursomely about what HE writes.

And I'm with you and the maddeningly wayward-brilliant Taruskin: the 'democracy of tonal atoms', as I think Charles Rosen calls it, failed when it became so oversystematized, but at its best - in Berg and, yes, even in parts of Britten, Shostakovich and Stravinsky - it can haunt and enthral.

PS - sorry for that first deletion; wrote 'Kerstetter' when I meant 'Ashbery'

Lou Freshwater said...

I am on board the Ashbery train. I have never gone in very deep, but ya'll have convinced me.

"To my mind, he articulates the poet’s dilemma as well as anyone ever has."

I've read it many times now, and I think I am ready to agree with you.

Britta said...

Just have to start again - comment away - that's ok because I can only tell you that I searched for a special form of metaphor, one you cannot enter - as used by Georg Trakl (but he is much nearer to Rimbaud). Couldn't find the correct term - so I'll let it simmer :-)
Thank you for that interesting post, Susan - it reminds me very much of your posts about those composers who are very difficult to hear/understand (Metcalf etc). I think that you like to go very deep inside the meaning of something - I follow you, understand - and then I go back to that approach of listening&feeling (after all the other ways have been done - it is not a substitute but a synthesis)

Susan Scheid said...

Friko: Well, I will certainly be interested to know what you make of Ashbery. As you know, I love your poetry and pictures site, as well as your Friko’s World blog, so, as for me, if that’s drowning, then I’m all for it. (Though I do know what you mean—after all, one does have to get out and walk the dog or watch a bird once in a while!)

Mark: Well, I am astounded that Ashbery has conservative taste in music—makes it all the more curious what he wrote in his intro to Illuminations. I did learn that Stevens is a great influence, and I think that can be seen, particularly in some of the earlier works. I have, by the way, now bought the Collected Poems, 1956-1987, because I wanted to get the whole of The Skaters. Speaking of drowning, pretty extravagant way to get the one poem, but I wanted it NOW. While there are some standouts for me, too, and others I don’t think I’ll likely warm to, I do enjoy exploring what is for me wholly new and rich terrain, so thank you again for that.

Now, as for the collage—I am amazed that you, Lou, and Elaine all thought this worthy of mention. When I learned (through Mark’s posts), that Ashbery made collages, and I believe from art magazines/reproductions, which this one is too (Art in America, for which I have Elaine to thank), I really couldn’t resist. And, too, it has bananas in it, and there was the bit from Ut Pictura, “Suddenly the street was/Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments” beckoning too. Come to think of it, Ashbery’s poetry can be quite like a collage (think Clepsydra, for example). This may, however, be the pinnacle of my collage achievement, you know—though it is fun to make them & I have now been induced by the comments to re-up my subscription to Art in America.

Lou: Likewise me to you, and all who have come here and enriched my little post with such marvelous comments. I’ll be eager to learn what you make of Ashbery. Quite a train to get on, I must say. PS: Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which many think his masterpiece, is to me quite magical.

Suze: Yes, wasn’t that a good line from Mark?

Elaine: I do indeed love following the trail of something new, though the greatest pleasure of all is to have others enjoy coming along to follow to. Such high praise from you—and to think also about my little collage, as you are such a connoisseur, wow, wow, back to you!

David: I love your description of Taruskin as “maddeningly wayward-brilliant.” Isn’t he just? And, yes, yes, to your point on oversystemization as the problem—I was careful to say “led to” for just that reason. Just this season, I heard Berg’s Wozzeck for the first time (conducted by James Levine at the Met) and, while it wasn’t easy listening, to be sure (nor a sunny story), I found it enthralling. PS: I must here give thanks to Friko, who told a story of her husband’s first encounter with it as a musician that was wonderful to think of as I listened and watched the piece.
Britta: I love what you have written here, and I so agree: “then I go back to that approach of listening&feeling (after all the other ways have been done - it is not a substitute but a synthesis).” If the listening and feeling don’t result in resonances as well, then all you have is brittle stuff on the page. And now I must go look up George Trakl, whose name I think I first learned from you, but whom I haven’t explored. But perhaps first a little break with a nature post, what say?

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I too love the collage and now having glanced through the comments ..I've learnt a little - and I need to come and spend more time on your post -

Cheers for now .. Hilary

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