Thursday, January 19, 2012

Soonest Mended

—for Mark Kerstetter, who introduced me to this poem

Ashbery, in his poem Soonest Mended, seems to have had in mind the old proverb “least said, soonest mended,” when he wrote of Ingres’ damsel in distress:
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though
       wondering whether forgetting
The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
My workaday world requires me to read fine print in enormous quantities, my mind focused on subject matter dry as dust.  When I am “off duty,” I rebel.  In those hours, when I come to a poem, book, or piece of art or music, I want to dwell first in the world of sense impressions and see where they might lead. Later, perhaps, I’ll look for information or, heaven forfend, analysis, that might put me further inside the piece.  But if I start there, I quickly feel I’m not at play, but still at work.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so taken with the poetry of John Ashbery.  With Ashbery, I find it essential to let go of any preconceived notion of meaning. While hard to do sometimes, surrendering to his use of language is for me the surest path to the poem’s sense.

Soonest Mended starts off recognizably enough:
Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we were always having to be
The plight of the artist and dreamer, then, and that of others, too.

Ashbery sets that plight on specific coordinates of space and time.  So we are introduced to (or reminded of, depending on our age and geographic location) Happy Hooligan, who “Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything/was O.K.”

Ashbery’s artist and dreamer, enmeshed in the burdens of daily life, wishes for something else:
To step free at least, minuscule on the gigantic plateau—
This was our ambition:  to be small and clear and free.
But he is caught—and can’t most of us who’ve lived a while on the planet relate to this:
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
They were the players . . .
Ashbery’s speaker recognizes he’s become a “good citizen,” “Brushing the teeth and all that  . . .”.  Yet he knows there’s no purpose served by dwelling on such a paltry fact.

Though its tone is often wistful, the poem holds on to hope.  Ashbery ends the poem “Making ready to forget, and always coming back/To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.”

Ashbery has taken the old proverb and made it new:

Make ready to forget.  Begin again.


To hear John Ashbery read Soonest Mended, click here.

Click here for a bit of music written by Woody Guthrie, one of the finest artists and dreamers who ever lived.  The centennial of his birth will be celebrated in 2012.


Excerpt from interview with John Ashbery about "new music"

Sarah Rothenberg: . . . You're unusually involved in new music. Has that always been so? . . .

John Ashbery: Yes, though when I was a child there really wasn't much to listen to on records. I started collecting records when I first got a phonograph, at the age of about fifteen, and rapidly went through the classical repertory. Then I started listening to whatever new music there was then.

Rothenberg: What kind of music did you find?

Ashbery: There was Les Six, the first new music I heard . . .

The complete interview can be found here.

Listening List (Les Six)

For a Spotify Playlist of Les Six, click on Soonest Mended.

Germaine Tailleferre, Sonata for Solo Harp

Francis Poulenc, Stabat Mater (Vidit Suum)

Darius Milhaud, Le Carnaval d'Aix

Arthur Honegger, Cello Concerto

Louis Durey, Six Pièces de l'Automne (1-4)

Georges Auric, Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon


Credits:  The quotations are from John Ashbery's poem Soonest Mended, which can be found in its entirety here.  
The images are from Wikimedia Commons and may be found here and here.


Andrew said...

A wonderful post..
Many thanks for sharing it xxx

Friko said...

Oh, my dear Susan, if you say Ashbery's work is poetry, then I must take your word for it. I know Mark's posts have been trying to convince me; I know how very highly Mark rates Ashbery as a poet, but try as I might, reading him out loud, I can get no rhythm into the lines.

I must try and try again. Ashbery is not someone I'd heard of before Mark wrote about him, I don't think he is well known here, although I sometimes find him in anthologies, now that I know of him.

I WILL try my best, but I must have music in poetry. Without music, without rhythm, the most beautiful lines are prose, lyrical, deeply moving, heart-breaking even, but prose.

If you can and want, please point me in the right direction, send me off to find particular poems you think might convince me to take Ashbery into my personal poetry Mount Olympus.

Rubye Jack said...

Finally, music I know. What can I say, except that I'm an Okie I guess.

I keep seeing threads of writing about time today. I always wonder if it is merely me picking out certain themes in the blog world or if there are indeed certain themes that float around as others pick up on the same things at the same time.

Regardless, I like Ashbery. This is the first I've read of his poetry. I love "making ready to forget and always coming back". Such is life.

Mark Kerstetter said...

A couple of things to thank you for: a) placing the poem together with the Ingres and Happy Hooligan and b) the joy of coming here and listening to a bit of Woody Guthrie and now Poulenc - I feel right at home. It's quite Ashberian. Woody is an American artist, and so is Ashbery. His use of the English language is a uniquely American instrument, almost any given poem covering a wide spectrum of diction, from cliches and colloquialisms to journalistic or academic types of speech, and more. But we know from some of his references that he is aware of the history of art and music (he's a big fan of classical music, including some lesser known French composers).

What I find beautiful about this post is the reason you give for responding to Ashbery's work. (listening to Milot play the harp now - wow!) I can totally understand that. And one of the beauties of Ashbery's work is that there are many little kernels of mundane meaning (as you point out) but also a recurring sense of being on the cusp of some (perhaps broader) understanding, but like watching the reflections of light playing on the surface of a lake we don't necessarily get to the depth and, most importantly, we don't care. We're happy to be wiling away a few pleasant moments of simply being. For me reading Ashbery is like being given the antidote (or at least medicine) for any number of the intolerable abuses to language that I (anyone) is subjected to on any given day. I've probably said this too many times now, but only 5 literary works have ever brought tears to my eyes. 'Soonest Mended' is one of them.

I feel like responding to Friko's comment. I agree with you that Ashbery is not a musical poet. He admits it, he doesn't even like to read poetry out loud or hear others read theirs out loud. And references to music or even music as a metaphor (one could argue for a metaphor of the 'music of life' in 'Soonest Mended') do not make poetry musical. In fact, I think he is at his best when he goes on at length and indeed some of his best works are prose poems - some might argue that all of his work is prose poetry, but I have no interest in that argument. Another stumbling block for you might be the American orientation of his work that I mentioned. I have often thought that Ashbery would not translate well or even be appreciated as deeply by people who have not lived for a long time in the United States. In one sense that is certainly a limitation of his work, yet I don't know of another writer who is more deeply embedded in the American use of the language.

shoreacres said...

For my part, there is no way to approach Ashbery except through analysis. His work seems particularly soul-less, and his language strangely ungrounded.

I've read his work for years in The New Yorker, and tried - oh, how I've tried! - to appreciate his work. But it's not happening for me. As a matter of fact (and who am I to be saying such things?) - Mark's comment that he doesn't know another writer more deeply embedded in the American use of the language" is interesting precisely because I have no sense of Ashbery being a particularly American poet. My lack, no doubt.

In any event, there are plenty of poets to enjoy - and I do continue to read Ashbery, even though I don't find him particularly congenial. What does intrigue me about his work are the phrases that evoke Eliot, such as "always coming back/To the mooring of starting out..."

Now, LeadBelly and Woody Guthrie - icons from my youth. I learned to play 12-string from a LeadBelly LP, and pondered the Lomax catalogues as though they were holy writ. I even made pilgrimage, once, to Huddie Ledbetter's Pines. Thanks for the reminder of the centennial, too.

Herringbone said...

I liked some of your comments on Solitary Walkers,so that's why I'm here. I think I can relate to "sense impressions". For me it's a feel. Like a song or a painting. Maybe not too intellectual, but possibly insightful. Ashbery has a nice, clear voice. Kind of strikes me as honest,whether I know what he's talking about or not. Sonny Terry on harp! Entertaining and thoughtful post. Thanks!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
Well, we feel that we are entering something of a brave new world here as we have never seen or read any of John Ashbery's poetry. Indeed, shame to say, that we had not heard of him until today. And so, we shall take small steps for Man and giant leaps for Mankind into a new frontier...!!

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for making me acquainted with John Ashberry! Even if I hadn't known before what is your profession after your descrition of your work I would now - no need to be a career adviser :-)
I will have guests today, so I don't have time enough to write long, but the first that sprung to my mind when I read your article was, surprisingly?, a song of the Rolling Stones: "I'm just sitting on a fence!" they sing in 'Dandelion'. And when I read Ashberry's poem completely, I (almost) found it: "But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal." (Sounds a bit different).
What I like about the poem is a line like that: "For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate."
I had no time to look Ashberry's vita up (I will on monday) - but it seems to me it is a poem on old age - closing the circle, a bit resigned, but not without hope.

wanderer said...

Enlist me in the new-to-Ashbury group and I appreciate the comment that he may have more resonance with the American psyche. Nonetheless, I will explore him Susan, thank you, and will listen to your and Mr Kerstetter's advice and linger on the water's reflections.

There is a strange conundrum in analysis - that often if not always the more one looks the less one sees, until Incongruously, when some threshold is crossed, what was thought beauty is now revealed as something less because the perfection of nothingness is beheld. Like the deepest of meditations only more.

Slightly tangentially, but to make a point, the physicists can't find anything 'there' you know - because of course there isn't. And how beautiful is that.

wanderer said...

Oh dear, sincere apologies, the typo of the novice - it is John Ashbery I know.

Nance said...

I have a handful of blogging friends who have taken on the task of finding remarkable poetry and art for me, providing my refreshment and leaving me free to bitch and moan about more pedestrian things between visits to their oases. It's a huge service they do me; without them, I can begin to think the world is no better than the nightly news.

I add you to my cache of cultural rescuers and thank you for it.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
What I really appreciate and admire about you is your wealth of knowledge of culture that I would of otherwise not be aware of.
The poetry of Ashbery is a revelation to me and I'm grateful to be aware now of such thoughtful poetry.
The only part that slightly disappointed me was the reading of Soonest Mended, by John Ahsbery. I thought his tonal inflections could of been better.
Thanks Susan.
With respect and admiration, Gary

Jayne said...

Ah Guthrie--where it all began. Wonderful musical selection. It's plain-talk lyrics are a great accompaniment for Ashbery's poems.

When I think of modern poets who've tried to bring poetry to the masses, to take the academic mystery (and stigma to some degree) out of it, and make poetry more accessible to all, I immediately think of Billy Collins (who makes me laugh like crazy). But prolific Ashbery is also one of those poets.

There are so many different forms of poetry, they need not all by lyrical. Glad you posted an Ashbery selection here. Thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

The fact checker in me wonders about the lines:

"And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
The colorful but small monster near her toe...."

In looking at the painting, I see Angelica gazing upward, seemingly unaware of the monster. Poetic license?

In reading Friko's comment, I found myself in accord with her sentiments. I often wonder what constitutes a poem; it seems to me that many people call anything they write a poem—as if all they have to do is break up their sentences irregularly and voilà, a poem. To be fair, when I listened to Ashbery reciting his work, parts of it did strike me as being more than run-of-the-mill prose, but isn't that what a prose poem is?

Suze said...

'When I am “off duty,” I rebel.'

But what of rolled trousers, my dear Sue?

I have resolved to click every music link embedded in your posts from now on. Listening to the Guthrie and can practically feel my neural pathways being altered.

Suze said...

Ah! Just searched for the Greenstein one the sidebar as the Guthrie drew to a close and it is no longer there! Suppose I must click something altogether different, then. :)

Susan Scheid said...

To all: Well, the conversation that has developed here is fascinating indeed. Thank you all so much! And now to each:

Andrew: Short, but sincere: thanks, as always!

Friko: So, it seems Mark has come to the rescue on this, better than I ever could, as I’ve only become acquainted with a few Ashbery poems so far. You challenge me (in the best way), to think about what makes a poem for me. Music and rhythm are certainly high on my list, too (and your personal poetry Mount Olympus never misses, that’s for sure). Maybe, with Ashbery, it’s more the poem’s way of making meaning, so different from traditional, linear narrative prose. Many poems I’ve tried of his don’t work for me. Sometimes, though, he captures my imagination entirely, and then I’m pleased to go along for the whole wild ride. I suspect he won’t make it to your Mount Olympus, but I wonder what you’d make of Summer or The Instruction Manual?

Rubye Jack: Well, just so you know, aside from Woody Guthrie and Poulenc, the other music I learned for the very first time in putting together this post, so you should feel free to call me an ol’ Hudson River Rat! Interesting the way you were seeing a thread of “time” running through what you read, including this. I wonder if the New Year had something to do with it? That phrase you pick out is particularly beautiful, I thought so, too. Enjoy Ashbery!

Mark: Where to begin! I so appreciate how you write about Ashbery. In the few forays I’ve made to read analysis (still trying to get hold of the Bloom book, BTW), I’ve felt the poems go brittle and fall apart in my hands. Not so with your writing, and your generous insights offered here are a wonderful example of that. Your comment here speaks exactly to my experience of Ashbery:

“And one of the beauties of Ashbery's work is that there are many little kernels of mundane meaning (as you point out) but also a recurring sense of being on the cusp of some (perhaps broader) understanding, but like watching the reflections of light playing on the surface of a lake we don't necessarily get to the depth and, most importantly, we don't care.”

I’m almost sure I would never have tried reading Ashbery had you not written about him as you do. I would have been the poorer, so thank you again.

PS: You must have been listening to the Tailleferre harp piece (the Spotify version). Though I discovered it only in putting together this post, I like it a lot. I found a lot of beautiful music I didn’t know from just that little “Les Six” prompt. Am listening to Honegger right now.

shoreacres: Wow! Soulless, so interesting you would write that; for me, Soonest Mended is overflowing with soul (in a soulless world). But there you have it, it’s what makes the world go round, eh? I had a good chuckle at your comment about reading Ashbery in the New Yorker, BTW. I’ve pretty much given up on the New Yorker’s poetry. So often I can’t figure out, why this one, of all that’s out there? They should listen to Friko!!! As for Ashbery, following on Mark’s comment, Ashbery’s longer poems have tended to yield more pleasures for me (though, again, bear in mind that my personal Ashbery “canon” is as yet very small). I like Clepsydra very much, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and, while I still get plenty lost in it, The Skaters. I do see what Mark means, too, by the “Americanness” of Ashbery. On one level, he seems immersed in things French, having lived there so many years; on the other hand, there he is with Happy Hooligan, leading me, anyway, right to Woody Guthrie.

herringbone: Welcome to PD! With “Maybe not too intellectual, but possibly insightful,” you’ve spotted exactly what I’d hoped to convey. So glad to learn of you and your blog, too. Some lovely photographs your way—currently, I’ll note the way your eye picks out those patterns in the snow.

Jane and Lance: Welcome to Ashberyland! As you can see from the comments, it may be tricky going, but good for you to be game!

Susan Scheid said...

Britta: Wow, such great insights you bring to the poem. (And, of course, I had a good chuckle at your comment on my occupational hazards.) Love the way you connecting the “fence” line with that in the Rolling Stones. If I’ve read the dates correctly, looks like the poem was published, at least, when Ashbery was about 40. Not old age, but plenty enough time to look back and think, how did I get here? How did all the barnacles of daily existence attach to me, when there I was, writing poetry and dreaming, thinking I could stay free?

wanderer: Your insights on the “conundrum of analysis” are beautifully stated and certainly resonate with me. I hope you’ll find something to enjoy in Ashbery. I do think Mark’s comment on the “reflections of light playing on the surface of a lake” is a wonderful way to make one’s way in. As to your last observation, “the physicists can't find anything 'there' you know - because of course there isn't. And how beautiful is that.” How beautiful, indeed. By this I am reminded of these lines from Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West:

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.

Nance: SO glad to be of service in this (can it possibly get yet darker?) hour! And most of all glad to make your acquaintance, too. As you travel around with that bumper stick, I’ve got your (virtual) back, as they say.

Gary: Ah, you are too kind. No wealth of knowledge have I, but rather, so often in these posts, I’m exploring something new to me, too. That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? As for Ashbery’s reading, you know, I debated putting up that link, for just the reason you name. But then I thought I’d like the post to be a sort of repository for links I’d found about the poem. As Mark has noted, Ashbery doesn’t like to read his poems out loud. What I’m hoping for is that at some point Mark, who is a wonderful reader, will grace us, over at MarkReads, with a reading of one of Ashbery’s poems.

Jayne: Oh, yes, Billy Collins, how right you are! For those who may not know him, here’s but one that I think speaks directly to Jayne’s comment:

American Sonnet

We do not speak like Petrarch or wear a hat like Spenser
and it is not fourteen lines
like furrows in a small, carefully plowed field

but the picture postcard, a poem on vacation,
that forces us to sing our songs in little rooms
or pour our sentiments into measuring cups.

We write on the back of a waterfall or lake,
adding to the view a caption as conventional
as an Elizabethan woman’s heliocentric eyes.

We locate an adjective for the weather.
We announce that we are having a wonderful time.
We express the wish that you were here

and hide the wish that we were where you are,
walking back from the mailbox, your head lowered
as you read and turn the thin message in your hands.

A slice of this place, a length of white beach,
a piazza or carved spires of a cathedral
will pierce the familiar place where you remain,

and you will toss on the table this reversible display:
a few square inches of where we have strayed
and a compression of what we feel.

Susan Scheid said...

portraits: You mean you don’t see the thought bubble there, as she wonders whether to forget the whole thing? Well, you know how those poets are, always taking their poetic license and all. As for poetry and prose, these days, I become confused. In responding to Friko, I’ve given a stab at the issue, but, for the most part, I find it’s best for me not to worry about it. If the piece speaks to me, it works. Soonest Mended spoke to me “direct.”

Suze: To all others, see Suze’s post at Analog Breakfast, “Take Me to Your Permutation (A Review of Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble)” for a wonderful disquisition on the subject of neural pathways. To you, Suze, if Woody’s the one (not to mention Leadbelly and Sonny Terry) to alter your neural pathways, I say you’re in the very best of hands! Now, as for clicking every link, I LOVE that you are willing to write that—but I will not hold you to it, as I know, with some of these posts, you’ll not get through the rest of your day if you attempt it. But, having said that, watch this space for Somei Sitoh—he certainly carved some new pathways for me! Oh, and last not least, trousers rolled, you see, is my own little form of rebellion. (I know this is probably a stretch from Prufrock’s version, but hey, what’s a little poetic license among friends?)

Suze again, and to all who may have been mystified: when I pull things from the sidebar, I try to make sure they are included within the body of the post to which they relate. I’m not perfect about this, but that’s the idea. So Suze, at “My City,” you’ll find Greenstein still there. So glad to be able to share enjoyment of that with you. So much better to travel with others (to quote Peaches Ledwidge, whose blog gave me that line).

Peaches Ledwidge said...

Susie, I'm reading all the comments and I can't help but to congratulate you for having such a wonderful following of people who give so much of their thoughts into what you've written, even as you analyze other people's writing.

I like the way you analyze the poem - with clarity and depth.

I think I will need someone like you to edit my book before I release it to the public.

Anil P said...

Wonderful post.

to be small and clear and free.

So that it's easier managing the bits and pieces that get the attention they demand, no, deserve.

Before the sum of parts manifests, each of the parts is a whole in itself.

Friko said...

Golly, Susan, haven't I had my eyes opened both by the post and the comments?

Thanks for your advice, I shall definitely persevere with Ashberry. He certainly appears to provoke discourse. Isn't that what it's all about?

I shall visit some of your commenters too, a right bright bunch, although a few of them are already sitting pretty on my blogging Mount Olympus.

Susan Scheid said...

Peaches: Nice to see you, and thanks for the kind words.

Anil: Welcome to PD, and thanks for commenting. I think you've captured something quite interesting about that line.

Friko: Quite the rollicking discourse, no question. I feel very lucky to have such thoughtful and perceptive blog companions!

Suze said...

Looking for the Sitoh and the 'harps' piece you recommended ...

Suze said...

So sorry for all the rambling comments, this morning -- shall try to restrain myself.

All right, I am listening to the Tailleferre, just now. So far, my favorite piece has been, hands down, the Greenstein. In all ignorance, I wonder if you might point me in the direction of more sounds such as this:

I need to be quick to amend that the mediocrity I referred to in 'August Rush' was limited to narrative construction and, particularly, all dialogue involving the parents. I hate to speak ill of any artistic endeavours and so regret having used that word.

I may pock some of your other posts with comments at random as I continue to explore. Forgive.

Elaine Sexton said...

thank you, again, for another savory and serious look at art/music/poetry... You've teased me into a revisiting Ashbery. And who can resists your posts and these links and comments that move us from Ashbery to Wallace Stevens to Billy Collins! brava!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I really need to come and spend a day here - or perhaps fly across the pond and spend that day with you!

You offer me so much to learn - wish there were 36 hours in a day!

Cheers - Hilary

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