Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John Ashbery's "Snowball in Hell": A Note on the Renovation of Poetic Language

I've been tapping away on the laptop at a ferocious pace lately, drafting the John Ashbery chapter of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself that I've been researching and outlining for months.  Here's a bit about "A Snowball in Hell," from April Galleons, and how it begins with anecdote but soon makes us think about form, and about the figures of speech common in traditional poetic language.

Consider the poem's opening stanza:

In the beginning there are those who don't quite fit in
But are somehow okay. And then some morning 
There are places that suddenly seem wonderful: 
Weather and the water seem wonderful, 
And the peaceful night sky that arrives 
In time to protect us, like a sword 
Cutting the blue cloak of a prince.

There is a recognizable narrative here: indeed, it seems almost like a group biography for Ashbery and his circle of poet-friends. Misfits whose lives are difficult but not tragic find a kind of haven where they can flourish. But what are we to make of the simile for the arrival of night? We're given both parts of what could have been a perfectly functional traditional simile—the night sky and a blue cloak. It's an apt enough comparison visually, and since the night sky is meant to protect the protagonists (perhaps they are lovers, meeting in secret), the protective connotation of "cloak" is apt enough. But we are not told that the peaceful, protective night sky is like a blue cloak: we are told that it is like a sword cutting a prince's blue cloak. This is startling, and original, and quite hard to reconcile with the sentiment it seems intended to express. The sword neither looks like a night sky, nor does it function defensively: it is a bright object of aggression. Ashbery has drawn attention to a very traditional kind of poetic simile, putting the night-as-cloak figure into our minds even as he subverts it. In the end, the destruction of the cloak is the destruction of traditional simile itself. And perhaps, given the presence of that prince, it is the destruction of the aristocratic world from which traditional poetry comes down to us. The real action of the stanza lies less in the presentation of the alienated group finding a haven than in a formal matter, the unmasking of old poetic figures as hackneyed expressions.