Thursday, July 31, 2014

John Ashbery and the Lonely Crowd

When I first started teaching at Brooklyn College, I had to teach a genre course for students who presumably had never read a poem before. I was puzzled about how to go about this. I started with an anthology of rock lyrics, because I thought this would be something they would probably be familiar with and we could get going and later become increasingly more serious. But they weren't really that interested in the rock lyrics…. I started to get very bored with this, as did the students. So I finally said, "Well, You have this other anthology, and next time I want you to read Wallace Stevens' 'Sunday Morning' and come and talk about it." And that went much better.

So said John Ashbery in an interview conducted by Christopher Hennessey for the American Poetry Review a few years ago.  It’s an anecdote I’ve heard from a few of the people I’ve been talking to about Ashbery in the process of research for the Ashbery chapter of a book I’ve been writing.  And I’d like to offer it here as a key to an important part of Ashbery’s sensibility: what we might call, following the sociologist David Riesman, Ashbery’s other-direction.

Riesman is best remembered for The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, a work of humanistic sociology from 1950 that he wrote with the help of Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney.  Riesman sees something new in the social character of the generation coming into adulthood in 1950 (when Ashbery turned 23), and attempts to get at it by contrasting it with earlier types of subjectivity.  The book is subtle and complex and full of all of the qualifying statements and codicils one would expect from a responsible sociologist, but the short version of his analysis is this: there are three dominant types of social character, corresponding to three distinct historical phases.  These are the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed (these ideal types are rarely encountered in isolation in an individual or a society, but they vary in which is dominant in any particular society or historical moment).

The tradition-directed individual internalizes his or her values early on from a relatively homogeneous group: a tribe or clan or village.  The individual is small and counts for little; the group looms large and is everything.  Little or no energy goes to the development of new solutions to problems, because life is precarious, and experimentation with the new constitutes too great a risk.  “If we plant the crops in a new way,” the tradition-directed individual might think, “we could all starve: the old ways are best.”  Individuals tend to be well adjusted to the values of the group, and to develop little autonomy, although tradition-directed societies usually have some way of accommodating, or containing, those who deviate from the norms.  Shamanism and monasticism are two of Riesman’s examples of deviance accommodation in tradition-directed societies.  Riesman doesn’t talk much about poetry, but if we wish to think of a poet coming from a tradition-directed context, we could think of the Beowulf poet: anonymous, and giving voice to the heroic values of a tribe, not to the lyric yearnings of an individual.

For Riesman, tradition-direction has been on the wane in the West since the Renaissance, but it is only in the nineteenth century that it is displaced as the dominant form of character formation.  It is then that we see the triumph of the inner-directed character.  While the term sounds like it might designate an independent, autonomous, or even existentially authentic sort of person, the inner-directed character isn’t quite that.  Instead, it describes the type of character formed by the values inculcated by a small family, and internalized to the point where the person becomes largely immune to the siren-song of other values.  This is a subjectivity for the era of social mobility, and perhaps the best way for a 21st century American to think about inner-direction is to think of the value system of many first-generation immigrants: parents will instill, early on and quite powerfully, a set of values and expectations (“you will be studious and dutiful and not wayward and you will be a medical doctor and marry within the ethnic group and excel!”).  The society at large is not the dictator of values, here: instead, the inner-directed person is outfitted with what Reisman calls a “psychological gyroscope” early on, and this gyroscope (given to, not chosen by, the individual) governs his or her actions and choices and life-trajectory.  The inner directed person is on a kind of mission, and rejects the pressure of the outside world.  The stiff upper lip comes to mind as an emblem of this sort of character.  If you want to think about poets who fit this mode, you’ll find them aplenty among the ranks of the reactionary modernists.  T.S. Eliot was surely outfitted with a “psychological gyroscope” oriented toward his family’s values of spiritual rectitude and community leadership.  He suffered terribly when he felt his own urges at odds with the directions of his inner gyroscope, and, when social changes in American society more-or-less dissolved the old paternalistic elite to which he belonged, he had to dream up a society into which his values would fit (you can find this in his illiberal social writings from the period between the two world wars). 

The era of inner-direction, thought Riesman, was just starting to come to an end, at least in the United States, with the social transformations that came after the Second World War.  Some of this had to do with the move from a society of deferred gratification to a society of abundance and consumption; some of it had to do with the ubiquity of mass media, but whatever the cause, the effect was this: character was decreasingly determined by parents and the internal gyroscope they installed in their children, and increasingly determined by shifting signals from peer groups and media outlets.  Instead of unshakable values, we have malleable ones.  Instead of an inner mission, we have both an anxiety about, and an empathy for, those around us.  Father no longer knows best: in fact, if dad has some crusty old views that the media or our fellow sophomores tell us are no longer acceptable, we question and challenge him.  He’s not the Godlike patriarch of old: he’s Archie Bunker, and we’re meant to shunt him aside.  Compared to the inner-directed person, the other-directed person will be less militant, less rigid, more malleable, more open to change, more susceptible to public opinion.  Is Ezra Pound other-directed? Not a chance.  But in certain respects John Ashbery is very much the product of an other-directed generation.

I’m not the first to connect Riesman with Ashbery: Andrew Epstein, for example, mentions Riesman in connection with the 1950s culture of conformism from which the New York School poets sought escape.  While I do see Ashbery sitting a little uneasily with the conformity inherent in other-direction, though, I also see many elements of Ashbery’s sensibility as congruent with other-direction.  In contradistinction from many of the great modernist poets, for example, Ashbery is the least doctrinaire or agenda-driven of poets.  No Celtic Mysteries in the manner of Yeats, no Christian society in the manner of Eliot, no Social Credit in the manner of Pound—none of that for Ashbery.  And some of this comes from the other-directed impulse, the desire to avoid conflict with the world rather than to attack it at the direction of an inner gyroscope.  “John is not a dogmatist,” an old friend of Ashbery’s once told me, “he says he’s bored in advance of all the trouble he’d create if he was.”  This flexibility, this demurral of any strong desire to argue or convert or conquer, probably lies behind another of Ashbery’s qualities, described by the same friend as “his bewildering talent for not threatening people.”  And one can certainly see the character forming influence of a peer-group (especially the poets, like Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, Ashbery encountered while a student at Harvard) as greater than the influence of Ashbery’s family back on the farm in upstate New York.  The influence of the mass media comes into play, too: not just in the pop culture that was to inform so many of the poems, but in the way Ashbery initially encountered experimental art which he discovered through a 1936 issue of Life magazine with a feature on Surrealism.  This was the sort of receipt of values from beyond the family circle unavailable in the childhood of T.S. Eliot.  But it is the lack of a doctrinaire position, and the lack of interest in haranguing or cajoling an audience, that marks a real difference between Ashbery and the poets of the Pound era (it marks him off, too, from some of his contemporaries, like Allen Ginsberg—social character types, as Riesman notes, never cover everyone in a society or generation).

It is this desire not to be bothersome or pushy in one’s views that explains Ashbery’s initial reticence about bringing the poetry he most admired to his students at Brooklyn College.  He wanted, instead, to meet them on what he imagined to be their own terms, and was surprised to find that they were more interested in being guided into his sensibilities—the love of Wallace Stevens, for example—than being left with their own.

Reisman describes the other-directed person as possessing not a gyroscope but a kind of radar that picks up signals from others and tries to accommodate them—and Ashbery was anticipating certain signals from his students.  But what happens when some of those signals being sent don’t seem to be meant for you?  This, for Riesman, is when we find ourselves imperfectly adjusted to the other-directed environment—and this, I think, is what happens with Ashbery.  He is certainly made in the undogmatic, flexible style of the other-directed character, but not all of the peer-and-media signals coming his way in midcentury America were meant for him.  There are a number of reasons for this, including precocious intelligence and aesthetic aptitude, but most prominent among them is his homosexuality, which placed him well outside the penumbra of general social acceptability.

What does one do if one is the conflict-averse product of an other-directed culture, but at odds with some of that culture’s norms?  In Ashbery’s case, it seems that the answer is that one wanders away a little.  One doesn’t pick up a megaphone or take to the streets: instead, one seeks escape.  In many aspects of Ashbery’s life and work, this seems to be what takes place.  There is an often ingenious school of interpretation, whose foremost figure is the poet and critic John Shoptaw, that sees Ashbery’s poetry as a kind of encrypted allegory of gay identity.  At times I find this convincing, but I think if one really wants to see the function of homosexuality in Ashbery’s poetry, one needs to consider Ashbery’s comment, from the interview with Hennessy, that “I think if there is an evasion it comes from having to conceal one's feelings from an early age. Maybe that plays a more important role in my poetry than I'm aware of.”  The evasion here is, I take it, an evasion of statement or narrative completion—and inasmuch as this is a way of neither embracing dominant values nor directly challenging them, it can be said to be the product of a wandering away from doctrine and conflict.  This can be seen as the product of other-directed sensibilities (“I don’t want to give anyone a hard time”) running up against the social prohibition of one’s identity (“but I can’t embrace the values of the society around me”). 

We can see this wandering away at work in Ashbery’s life: a flight from his family background first to the artistic bohemia of New York in the 50s, and then to Paris, which Ashbery often praises for the opportunity it offers the expatriate for solitude and shelter from fashionable opinion.  We can see it, too, in a number of aspects of the poetry.  There is, for example, the escapism of poems like “The Instruction Manual,” in which dissatisfaction with the ordinary workaday world leads not to any kind of programmatic rebellion, but to a dream of wandering away to the exotic aesthetics of Guadalajara.  There is, at a more profound level, the evasion of completion or coherence in the poems: they digress away from anything like a thesis, sometimes in their large structures and sometimes in the syntactic incompletion or ambiguity of the individual sentences.

The escapism, or wandering away, that accompanies Ashbery’s ill-fitting other-direction, comes at a price: isolation.  Ashbery’s poetry is among the loneliest bodies of work of any major American poet, and the Crusoe-like isolation of the shipwrecked figure in “The Skaters” is as poignant a picture of isolation as I have found in any poem in English.  Indeed, for a longer time than most of us realize, Ashbery was a rather isolated figure in American literature, unsure of his reputation, without critical champions, and convinced that fame would elude him.  But like those students at Brooklyn College, a surprising number of readers have come around to admiring Ashbery’s sensibility.  Maybe this is a sign that we’re as uneasy with our other-direction as he is.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Reading Sawako Nakayasu for the First Time

The good people at Jacket2 have been publishing a series of short essays in which a poets and critics respond to a poems they're seeing for the first time.  They're looking for candor about what happens when we meet a new poem, and want the series to illuminate such questions as:
What do you do when you first read a new or unfamiliar poem? What are the processes and procedures that precede a settled “take” or a considered evaluation or an elaborated critical argument? To be frank, we’re often confounded when faced with a new work, and we doubt we’re alone.
I was happy to be tapped for this, and given a wonderful, odd prose poem called "Couch" by Swawako Nakayasu.  I'd never read her work before, and instead of rooting around for context I simply let the poem itself dance around in my head.

Here are some of my thoughts:
“Couch” reads like a French or Belgian Surrealist prose poem. Nakayasu’s name would have led me (perhaps wrongly or stupidly) to assume she’s got some connection to Japanese poetry, but I don’t speak Japanese and have read only the classic Japanese poets in translation, so I wouldn’t be able to tell if she’s relating to what the poets are doing in Nagoya or Osaka nowadays. But I do know enough about Francophone Surrealism to see that Nakayasu’s likely to have some kind of contact with that tradition: the narrative is sort of wry, sideways-funny, and feels like an incomplete allegory. “Couch” has a lot of ordinary, bourgeois realism in it: a couple getting divorced and trying to find a civil way to divide their possession, a domestic setting, and realist cues like exact times of arrival and departure. But it also has an understated wackiness...
The rest, including Nakayasu's poem, is available here.

The elegant, loopy little book from which the poem comes, Ants is available here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How I Wrote Certain of My Books

When people ask me what I’m doing—especially if they ask in the summer, or when I’m on sabbatical, they run the risk of me telling them about what I’m writing.  And if I’m writing something large scale, like a book, they’re likely to hear about where I am in the process.  I’ve been asked, on a few occasions, to write about the process, usually because the person asking thinks it would have helped him or her back in the dissertation-writing days of grad school.  I’ve always hesitated, though.  I mean, Raymond Roussel could write “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” and make it all sound interesting, but his books are weird and beautiful and idiosyncratic.  But critical or scholarly books?  Who in their right mind would want to read about that?  “Don’t assume,” said a pal to whom I raised my concerns, “that any audience you have is likely to be in its right mind.”  Point taken!  And so here, for those who might care: the method I’ve evolved over the years for putting together a book.

One starts, of course, with the primary materials: for me, this has meant poems, and I’ve generally read them pretty casually and non-systematically before I’ve even decided to write about them.  Before I made a decision to write Laureates and Heretics, for example, I’d already read most of the poems by the main figures in that book—and the same goes for the book I’m writing now, Making Nothing Happen.  Sometimes this is just because I’m a poetry reader, sometimes I’ve taught a course on the work.  Anyway, this is something that I’ve taken care of before I decide to write a book.

When I do decide to write a book, I generally write a chapter every summer (and, if I’m on sabbatical, a chapter per semester of the time I have off).  I find this, combined with smaller projects like reviewing or writing conference papers or maybe a critical article, is a nice pace.

The first part of the summer involves me, slumped in a big red chair, reading the secondary literature.  A ton of it.  And not just the recent stuff or the classic stuff: indeed, I find that the oldest, the weirdest, the most out-of-the way material you can get your hands on is the stuff more likely to spark ideas that lie outside of whatever the current consensus or debate is.  And reading the reviews that came out at the time the figure was writing is hugely helpful.  Also biographies, journals, interviews, collections of letters, books by people associated with the main figure (so, for Auden, a lot of Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward and Stephen Spender; for Yeats, Madame Blavatsky, John Butler Yeats, novelists who wrote about the neighborhoods where Yeats lived, historians of Byzantine art, etc.).  Just as importantly, I read a bunch of things having to do with the milieu or context of the poet in question – history, sociology, books on topics adjacent to the main subject, and, crucially, things from outside of my own field.  I mean, I’m an English professor, and we tend to think that we’re fairly historicist nowadays, but compared to historians we’re ninnies when it comes to context.  We think we’re attentive to, say, the pressure of context on reception, but people in communications theory do it better than we do.  We think we know theory, but we know an excruciatingly narrow range of theory.  And it’s very good to have a look at where your subject’s work appeared in print.  I mean, I’d never have understood how W.H. Auden was taken to be much more of a red than he really was had I not noticed that poems we take as campy or ironic look quite different when published in left-wing journals full of earnest writing for the liberation of the workers.

But how to synthesize all of this material? How to stop it from slipping away or becoming a kind of general haze in the mind?  For me, this involves a particular kind of note taking.  I generally do this in the margins of the books, which I more or less destroy—but sometimes, when I’ve borrowed the book from a friend or (as a last resort) a library, in notebooks where I specify the page for each note.  Essentially, what I do is make a note of what kind of category I think the passage in question would fall into in my proto-outline (which I develop as I read).  So, when I was writing on Tennyson, I had a lot of passages marked “PUBMOR” (for those times when Tennyson was seen as, or acted as, a public moralist) or “AESTH” (when he was seen as, or acted as, an aesthete).  In most cases, I come up with about 20 different categories as I read, sometimes discarding them or fusing them together.  I’ve been reading up on John Ashbery in recent weeks, and categories include ARTWORLD, NONTOTALIZATION, LINES OF FLIGHT, ACADEMY, AESTHETE, ALIENATION, COTERIE, and about a dozen more.  Each note is accompanied by between one and (rarely) five stars, indicating how important I think the passage will be to the writing of my chapter—important as a matter of fact, as a critic’s insight, or whatever.  Quite often I'm not picking up on the main subject or argument of the thing I'm reading, but picking up something mentioned in passing.  And most of the time I don’t treat what a critic has to say as the truth so much as take it as a symptom of the method of reception for the poet.  So what Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler says about Ashbery becomes less a truth about Ashbery than it becomes a window on how Ashbery was received by a particular branch of the academy. 

After I’ve been reading for six or eight weeks, I start to see the shape of things—how all of these categories might be made into a narrative or an argument.  This is incredibly exciting, and I will actually heave myself up from my big red chair and pace around my secret backyard writing dojo, talking to myself and gesturing wildly, sometimes spilling coffee.  With this outline in mind, I do some more reading and marginal note taking, often of shorter things like scholarly articles, getting a clearer sense of how it all might come together.  I begin to treat the materials I read less and less as guides to where I might go, and more and more as sources of evidence for the case I want to make.

Then I have a few dull days, where I go back to everything I’ve read and make a kind of index for each piece of writing.  So, for example, I’ll go back to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden, look through it page by page, and then make note (generally in the back of the book) of everything I’ve marked.  “Pg. 12--★★★—PERFDOGMA,” for example, would indicate a semi-important passage on page 12 about how Auden learned, from an early age, to enjoy performing dogma, acting as if he believed in a grand systemic understanding of things and explaining it solemnly, even if he did not fully believe in what he was saying.  Some books will have pages and pages of indexed notes, some just a few.  In this stage I sit with a slowly shrinking pile of unindexed printouts and books on one side of me, a slowly growing pile of indexed books and printouts on the other side of me, and a constantly refilled cup of coffee in the middle, next to whatever I’m indexing.  I tend to listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin at this point of the process.

And then, when I rise in glory above the indexed materials, I make the Grand Outline (beta version).  A thesis, and a plan for where information on all of my sub-topics may go.  By now I’ve refamiliarized myself with everything I’ve read, and have a good sense of how it all fits together.  The back of my mind has been thinking about it while the front part was doing the grunt work and listening to Zeppelin.

At this point I cross-reference all of those indexed books and articles with the grand outline.  So, for example, when I’d outlined my chapter on Coleridge, which has a section on the clerisy, I’d find all references to the clerisy in all sources and note them in the outline. When this is done, I go back to the primary sources—the books of poems—and read them systematically, making exactly the kind of marginal notes, based on categories or topics and ranked in terms of stars, that I’d made on the secondary materials.  This makes for a few weeks of feverishly excited reading, and some heavily marked up books.  Then I index these, reference the indexes on my grand outline, make a revised grand outline, and I’m good to write.

And then there’s the drafting, my absolute favorite part of the process.  At first I write a paltry few hundred words a day, but with the outline in place, the materials at the ready, and everything referenced exactly, I soon hit a stride and can write thousands of words a day.  I get up in the morning excited to write, I go to bed wishing the night would pass faster so I could get back to it.  When I sit down to write I put music on, and I never notice when it stops.  I get deliriously lost in what I’m doing as it all comes together and I end up feeling like the vessel of forces larger than myself, like I’m taking dictation from the gods.  All I can talk about is my book and people either dig it or roll their eyes.

Of course everything needs revision, but that can wait until just before I start reading for the next chapter, when I re-read what I’d written weeks or months ago and it doesn’t wound me to slash and burn the thing.  I’ve learned from some good editors (especially Christopher Ricks) that cutting something down to half its prior size tends to make it stronger.

And then I start again, with a new chapter (or maybe a new book) and try to do the whole thing better than before.  This makes me happy, and I learn stuff.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Eden for Auden and Others

W.H. Auden once wrote out a description of Eden as he would wish it to be.  I've long wanted to go through his various categories of Edenic climate and culture and ask how I would like to see these things ordered.  Now, in an act undertaken to forestall the filling out of tax information forms, I've done it.  Auden's writing appears in Roman script, my own in italic beneath.


Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.

Rolling hills, partially forested, with ravines carved by rivulets feeding into a large freshwater sea, across which are visible mountains.  In the uplands beyond the hills are great granite outcroppings, deciduous forests, and many smaller lakes suitable for canoeing and the landing of small pontoon aircraft.


Northern Californian.

Ethnic origin of inhabitants
Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight nordic predominance.

I suspect this question is a bit more politicized than it was in Auden's day.  Anyway: highly mixed, more or less in the manner of San Francisco.

Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected.

English, but everyone will speak several, so that there will be newsstands with papers in all manner of languages, dialects, and scripts fluttering in the breeze.

Weights & Measures
Irregular and complicated. No decimal system.

Metric, damn it.  I don't care what you say.  Metric for everything except for pints of beer.

Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.

Syncretic, with public processions and statuary encouraged.  Enclaves of peaceful mystics and anchorites in the hills.

Size of Capital
Plato's ideal figure, 5040, about right.

123,900—the population of Cambridge, England.

Form of Government
Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.

New England style town hall meetings, which I do not have to attend but which nevertheless deliver results I find congenial.

Sources of Natural Power
Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.

One agrees with Auden, with the codicil that solar power will substitute for coal.

Economic activities
Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture.

Various sorts of non-industrialized farming, including vineyards. Fisheries, publishing, musical recording, brewing, and a disproportionate number of colleges and small universities at which are studied the liberal arts as well as engineering in the genius-boffin manner of Tesla and Buckminster Fuller.

Means of transport
Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railways, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes.

Karmann Ghia, vintage motor-scooter, Dutch bicycle, light rail and—why not—balloon. Travel on the capital's many canals to be accomplished by punt and gondola. Travel to the world beyond to be accomplished by luxurious ocean liners of the style predominant c. 1900.

State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth-Century British or American Colonial.

State: Romanesque.  Ecclesiastical: Syncretic, with inspiration drawn from the Bahá'í tradition.  Domestic: What William Morris did.

Domestic Furniture and Equipment
Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible.

Arts & Crafts; Mission; shabby genteel; 1920s bohemian.

Formal Dress
The fashions of Paris in the 1830's and '40's.

Think Wes Anderson movies.  The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom in particular.

Sources of Public Information
Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.

Newspapers of many sizes on different colored paper (predominantly salmon, pale green, and oyster).  Thick quarterly journals containing long non-fiction essays.  Witty graffiti and Diego Rivera style public murals.

Public Statues
Confined to famous defunct chefs.

Many small ones, often tucked into wall niches or adorning fountains at the intersection of narrow cobblestone streets: the gods, the poets, the barroom raconteurs; the really good Facebook posters.

Public Entertainments
Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television.

Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet, also movies, radio and television.  Movies projected outdoors, on the walls of buildings on the cathedral square will be popular.  The serial radio drama will be most popular of all, and the Foley artists of such dramas will attain celebrity status.