Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Snowflake or the Storm? Reading Ashbery's "The Skaters"

You're probably yearning for a 2400 word reading of John Ashbery's "The Skaters," aren't you? Well, you're in luck! I've just edited this out of the manuscript of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself.  Sadly, the one footnote in the passage is a bit uncooperative as to format, so I've just included it in parentheses in the main text.  Have at it!

The Snowflake or the Storm?

            John Ashbery's long poem “The Skaters,” like his earlier poem “Europe,” has its origins in an old book purchased from a Parisian book stall—in this case Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do, in which Ashbery found the passage “some sounds, of course, it is almost impossible to reduce to writing, as for example, the hollow scam and murmur produced by a multitude of skaters…” This, along with the book’s similarity to the “Things to Make and Do” sections of his childhood Book of Knowledge, overwhelmed Ashbery with nostalgia for his childhood in upstate New York (Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 122). The poem’s sense of loss and loneliness reflects not only this moment of nostalgia, but Ashbery’s circumstances. Begun in 1963, it reflects a period when Ashbery, still reeling from the reception of The Tennis Court Oath, felt particularly “bewildered, defeated, and alone” (Shapiro “Interview”). Out of this solitude and nostalgia came one of the earlier sustained achievements in what would become the dominant mode of the longer poems Ashbery’s mature period—what we might call, not the long narrative poem, but the long anti-narrative poem.
            The anti-narrative poem has many qualities of the narrative poem: scale, a variety of incidents, and, unlike most of “Europe,” a discursive, talky, reflective narrator. What it lacks, though, is a sense of orderly progression, a sense that the parts can all be linked into a coherent totality. It is not only anti-totalization: it is anti-teleological, in that the parts serve no single end. The critic Brian McHale describes the anti-narrative nature of “The Skaters,” and the ways in which it is commonly read, with admirable concision:
Unlike the more obviously disjunctive poems of Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath period, “The Skaters” often appears to make sense locally, inviting the reader to expect to make global sense of the poem. Instead, one encounters an intractable flux of verbal “found objects,” shifting styles and registers, teasing literary allusions and echoes, fragmentary narrative episodes and descriptive scenes. How is one to negotiate or manage such flux? Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretative centers or “nodes” around which to organize the heterogeneous materials of the poem. Other materials come to be subordinated in various ways (explicitly or, more often, implicitly) to these “key” passages or are simply passed over in silence, so that the poem is reduced to a skeletal structure of points that yield most readily to a particular interpretative orientation. (591)

“The Skaters” embodies this “intractable flux” at the level of form, with its digressiveness and its non-sequiturs. It also thematizes its own non-totalizability and anti-teleology, and links them to both Ashbery’s isolation from utilitarian society and his homosexuality.
            The first of the four sections of “The Skaters” opens with an image of a group of skaters on a frozen pond:
These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition. (Collected Poems 147)
The movements of the skaters stump “the absolute” because they don’t seem merely novel, but somehow predestined—and so we are introduced already to questions of telos, or end, and of pattern and non-pattern. After further considerations of novelty and order, the poem offers us images that elaborate upon these themes:
A child’s devotion
To this normal, shapeless entity....

Forgotten as the words fly briskly across, each time
Bringing down meaning as snow from a low sky, or rabbits flushed from a     wood.
How strange that the narrow perspective lines
Always seem to meet, although parallel, and that an insane ghost could do     this,
Could make the house seem so much farther in the distance, as
It seemed to the horse, dragging the sledge of a perspective line. (Collected Poems 149)

What are we to make of the images of meaning here? Snowflakes in a storm, and rabbits in rout, are decidedly not oriented toward a specific end: they are chaotic, plural entities, unpredictable in movement. Meaning, then, is plural and chaotic. All of this seems to be in contradistinction to the orderly world of the painting with its single-point visual perspective, where everything is assigned a clear position in an ordered space. But even the orderly world of perspective can be subverted here by the perverse eyes, as it is when the perspective line of a road’s edge leading to a vanishing point becomes, instead of something static, something pulled along by the horse in the picture. The apparently ordered is as prone to disorder as the onrushing crowd of rabbits. Later, when we read of a “great wind” lifting a number of panels, including the painting of the horse, into the air, we see “the perspective with the horse” disappear “in a bigarrure of squiggly lines.” The orderly world of perspective shifts into something like a cubist arrangements of lines and misaligned planes (150).
            These images for the shifting nature of meaning and order prepare us for what amounts to a farce of interpretation, a passage of the poem purporting to be an interpretation of the poem itself (Helga, here, is a character introduced into “The Skaters” only briefly, and for unclear reasons):
It is time now for a general understanding of
The meaning of all this. The meaning of Helga, importance of the setting, etc.
A description of the blues. Labels on bottles
And all kinds of discarded objects that ought to be described.
But can one ever be sure of which ones?
Isn’t this a death-trap, wanting to put too much in
So the floor sags, as under the weight of a piano, or a piano-legged girl
And the whole house of cards comes dinning down around one’s ears!
But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, am not at all ready to,
This leaving-out business. On it hinges the very importance of what’s novel
Or autocratic, or dense or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn’t the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not,
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say that the carnivorous
Way of these lines is to devour their own nature… (Collected Poems 152)

We need, it seems, explanation: the labeling and describing of the poem’s elements, the mapping out of how the parts compose a whole. But what details signify? Ashbery has put “too much in” for the structure to remain stable, he has failed to leave enough out for the poem to be reduce to a comprehensible whole. Of course the questions of what to put in and what to leave out only matters if one wants the poem to add up, as Ashbery clearly does not want it to. It is the poem’s own excessiveness that leads it to devour anything that might present itself as the poem’s essence.
            Near the end of the first section of “The Skaters” we return to the image of snowflakes in a flurry, reworked, now, as a meditation on the relation of part tow whole:
This, thus, is a portion of the subject of this poem
Which is in the form of falling snow:
That is, the individual flakes are not essential to the importance of the whole’s becoming so much of a truism
That their importance is again called in question, to be denied further out, and again and again like this.
Hence, neither the importance of the individual flake,
Nor the importance of the whole impression of the storm, if it has any, is        what it is… (Collected Poems 152-153)
The parts are not the parts, the final sentence tells us, nor the whole the whole: neither can be put in a consistent relationship to the other. Even the seemingly most significant sentence in the passage bends and warps to avoid being reduced to paraphrasable meaning: “That is, the individual flakes are not essential to the importance of the whole’s becoming so much of a truism that their importance is again called in question, to be denied further out, and again and again like this.” The possessive attached to “whole,” and the parts that follow it (including the nonstandard relation of “so” and “that”) bend the syntax into a kind of pseudo-meaning. Even as we sense we are being told something about the irreducibility of the poem to a single meaning, we witness a sentence enter into suggestive irreducibility.

The second section of “The Skaters” links the idea of the non-teleological to social alienation and the cultural position of the homosexual in the middle decades of the twentieth century—a position with no pre-fabricated narrative along the lines of the heterosexual man’s prescribed path from singleness to married family man climbing the career ladder. The section depicts a tourist’s voyage, a cruise with no apparent end. The joyful narrator revels in this, except when the specter of utilitarian work raises its ugly head:
Now we are both setting sail into the purplish evening.
I love it! This cruise can never last long enough for me.

But once more, office desks, radiators—No! That is behind me.
No more dullness, only movies and love and laughter, sex and fun. (Collected Poems 158)

The opposition between an aesthete’s delight in the exotic and the dullness of the workaday world, with its emphasis on actions as means to definite ends, comes straight out of “The Instruction Manual.” Fortunately, the specter of work has been confined to the past here, and we are liberated from its strictures. The voyage continues, and our protagonist settles into a spectator’s relationship with the world. “This is just right for me,” he tells us, “I am cozily ensconced in the balcony of my face” (158): he stands back from his own existence, looking on at the world from on high as a kind of aesthetic spectacle.
            This continues until the voyage is stopped by inclement weather, and we hear that “The whole voyage will have to be cancelled” (159). It is significant that, when the aimless voyage is cut off, we find ourselves stranded at on an island where we hear “The Wedding March,” and see a “couple descend/The steps of the little old church” (159). The wedding march is a journey very much at odds with the wanderings of the aesthete-tourist: it is teleological in the extreme, leading to the social and religious sanctioning of a union that, at the time of the poem’s composition, could only be specifically heterosexual. When the voyage does resume, it is with the accompaniment of some of the poem’s most homoerotic imagery —”man nightly/Sparingly descends/… all of him/Pruned, erect for vital contact” (161).
            To understand the importance of this passage, we might turn to D.A. Miller’s classic of queer theory, Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Here, Miller tells writes of a heterosexual couple, telling us “the couple is in full and open possession of a story, a story, moreover that one hardly exaggerates in our culture to call the story. Outside the heterosexual themes of marriage and oedipalized family,” he continues, “…the plots of bourgeois life… would all be pretty much unthinkable” (44). Judith Roof, glossing the passage, adds “our very understanding of narrative as a primary means to sense and satisfaction depends upon a metaphorically heterosexual dynamic” (Come as You Are: Sexuality and Narrative xxii). Most narrative forms in western culture have revolved around plots that, in the era before gay marriage and the raising of children by gay couples, have been overwhelmingly oriented toward heterosexual norms, and have marginalized homosexuality. {{FOOTNOTE: An example may be in order here by way of clarifying what is meant by the heterosexual bias of narrative form, and gay alienation from traditional narrative. In demonstrating the heterosexual bias of conventional narratives, Judith Roof asks us to consider the role of the “female comic second” in Hollywood film. This character, generally a wisecracking yet not traditionally feminine friend of the female lead, serves a supporting role in the marriage plot, but has little or no real narrative herself. When we watch, for example, the scenes in which Ida Corwin appears as the female comic second in Mildred Pierce, and take them in isolation from the rest of the film, we find only fragments and narrative stasis: she has no arc to follow. Roof has argued, in All About Thelma and Eve: Sidekicks and Third Wheels, that lesbians received no narrative role in midcentury American popular culture, and were offered only characters without narrative with which to identify.}} Ashbery’s presentation of the wedding march as the antithesis to the aesthete’s voyage without destination invites us to see the wandering of his voyager—and the narrative wandering of “The Skaters,” as tied to his homosexuality. This is not, of course, to say that no gay works involve traditional narrative, nor that all anti-narrative works are linked to homosexuality. Rather, it marks Ashbery’s own eschewal of conventional narrative as connected to his sexuality as well as to his eschewal of the values of a utilitarian society and its office desks.
            The concluding sections of “The Skaters” continue to underline the connection between Ashbery’s alienation from mainstream (heterosexual and utilitarian) society and his refusal to let his narrative reduce to a totalizable meaning or a teleological end. In section three, for example, he contemplates his status as a “professional exile” (171), and presents himself as a Crusoe figure, marooned at a far remove from the ordinary world where people work and marry. And near the end of section four he speaks of the need “To refuse the square hive”—a term redolent of both labor and breeding (178). Then, in the final lines of the poem, he presents us with a kind of cosmic order, in which “The constellations are rising/In perfect order: Taurus, Leo, Gemini” (178). But this perfect order is not the order of the constellations as it is traditionally seen: Ashbery has inserted his own birth sign, Leo, outside of its conventional place. We can take it as the subversion of traditional order through the assertion of his own idiosyncratic identity. If we do, we find we are once again in the world of Dwight Macdonald, defending the individual against the forces of homogeneity.
            “The Skaters,” then, is very much a poem of aesthetic autonomy, escaping co-optation to any totalizing interpretation. It is also marked by Ashbery’s origins: his sexuality, his alienation from utilitarian work, and his generation’s emphasis on the individual rather than on any collective political program.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Calculated Oddities: Notes on Ashbery and Form

So I've been editing down the manuscript of my book-in-progress Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself, and have decided to remove this passage—not because I have a problem with it on its own terms, but because it is redundant in the context of the chapter.  Consider it the litcrit equivalent of one of those music tracks that shows up on a bootleg album of the sort completists used to hunt down in grimy subterranean record shops...

Calculated Oddities 

In his famously lukewarm foreword to Ashbery’s Some Trees, W.H. Auden tells the reader that poets like Ashbery have succumbed to the temptation “to manufacture calculated oddities.” One way in which the diagnosis holds true is in Ashbery’s drawing attention away from denotative meaning and toward form—a foregrounding of the art of the poem over its statement every bit as indicative of Ashbery’s aestheticism as his prioritizing of imagination over the utilitarian world of work. Ashbery’s inventiveness is such that this foregrounding occurs in a staggering variety of ways, some involving the intensification of old poetic devices, and others involving a subversion of those devices.

One example of the foregrounding of form through the intensification of traditional poetic form comes in “Canzone.” The traditional Provençal canzone was a poem of 5-7 stanzas of some 7-20 hendecasyllabic lines each, with the same rhyme scheme occurring in each stanza—a challenging enough form in its own right. In “Canzone,” though, which consists of five 12 line stanzas plus a five line envoi, Ashbery has given himself a more challenging task. Instead of rhyming, he concludes lines with repeated words, in the manner of a sestina. He then uses the same words, in different places, in succeeding stanzas. The first stanza gives the general idea:

Until the first chill
No door sat on the clay.
When Billy brought on the chill
He began to chill. No hand can
Point to the chill
It brought. Where a chill
Was, the grass grows.
See how it grows.
Acts punish the chill
Showing summers in the grass.
The acts are grass.

The lines of the second stanza ends in the same set of words, and follows the same pattern of rhyme, but with the line-ending words repositioned so that they come in this order: grass/chill/grass/grass/clay/grass/can/can/grass/grows/grows. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas similarly re-use the words in shifting positions, still following the pattern ABAACAADDAEE, with the shorter envoi also using the five repeated words. The brevity of the lines as compared to the traditional hendecasyllabics, combined with the substitution for the traditional rhyme, of repleted of words within and between stanzas, combine to highlight the formal qualities of the poem. What is more, the abstract and elliptical nature of the narrative downplays any sense of statement or extra-musical meaning. Traditional form is ramped up, even as content is pushed to the margin. When John Yau wrote that “Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music,’“ he could well have had this poem in mind.

“A Snowball in Hell” takes a different approach in emphasizing form over content. Consider the 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, to be sure: 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.

One is reminded, by passages like these, of a remark made by Pierre Bourdieu in his examination of the rise of autonomous art. In the absence of pressures to conform to religious, political, or market forces, or to otherwise conform to the norms of a public, artists find themselves “in a position to rebuff every external constraint or demand, are able to affirm their mastery over that which defines them and which properly belongs to them, that is, the form…” Forged in the bohemian New York art world of the 1950s, John Ashbery’s imagination embraces formal concerns, sometimes almost exclusively.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

New in the Journal of Poetics Research: Notes on Marc Vincenz's Becoming the Sound of Bees

Rejoice! The latest issue of the Journal of Poetics Research, John Tranter's latest creation (you may remember him for running the original version of Jacket, now run out of the University of Pennsylvania as Jacket2).  This time out the JPR includes "Three Mistakes," a little something I wrote about Becoming the Sound of Bees, the latest book of poems by the enigmatic Anglo-Swiss poet and onetime businessman Marc Mincenz, who has arrived on our shores via China, Iceland, and other exotic locales.  It begins like this:
Around the time I sat down to read Becoming the Sound of Bees, Marc Vincenz’s strange, intense book of poems from Ampersand Books, I ran across a news article about the discovery of a tiny, well-camouflaged hut concealed in a vast tract of forest in northern California. It was deep in the wilds of a large state park, and so well concealed that a skilled forest ranger almost had to collide with the thing to discover it. Inside were the necessities for a Spartan life: jars of seeds and dried beans, a rough bed and table, a small wood stove. On a shelf were a few books: an old dictionary, a guide to plants and herbs — and a well-thumbed copy of Public Secrets, a collection of the radical thinker and counter-culture veteran Ken Knabb’s essays and memoirs.

The forest ranger, interviewed about this find, seemed reluctant to have had to post an eviction notice: the area surrounding the shelter was pristine, without so much as a footpath or broken branch to indicate human habitation. The hermit living there clearly cared for the planet, and wanted nothing more than to live in peace and think through the fate of the civilization from which he’d fled. When the ranger returned days later, the cabin and its contents were gone without a trace, except for a cryptic symbol on the ground, spelled out in the ashes from the now-missing hut’s wood stove.

Coming across news of the radical hermit’s cabin felt like a particularly fortuitous coincidence. The hermit, after all, seemed like a fit analogue for the protagonist of Vincenz’s poems. Vincenz is the sort of poet who likes to work at scale while remaining within the lyric format: in Becoming the Sound of Bees he writes individual poems, but keeps them spinning around a few common settings and themes, and returns again and again to a recurring character, Ivan. The series has been compared to Ted Hughes’ Crow, and I can see why: we’re at least as much in a mythic or visionary world as we are in a quotidian one, and we’re living in the after-effects of terrible devastation. Unlike Hughes, though, Vincenz isn’t dealing with the devastation of personal life. His apocalypse isn’t psychological so much as it is environmental, and possibly social or political: we catch enigmatic glimpses, throughout the poems of Becoming the Sound of Bees, of despoiled seas, birdless skies, and landscapes composed of nothing but desert and despoilation.

The rest can be found at the Journal of Poetics Research site. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Poem is Never Finished, Only Abandoned: W.H. Auden at Work

W.H. Auden—what's not to love? And I don't just love Auden's writing, I love the enormous body of writing about him—memoirs, critical analyses, scholarly exegesis, scandalous gossip, the lot.  That's why I was very happy to write something about Auden at Work—a book of essays edited by Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin—for Essays in Criticism.  It's called "Never Finished, Only Abandoned." Here's how it starts:

A browser among library shelves, glimpsing the title Auden at Work pressed between the spines of other volumes, might well pull it down with the hope of discovering anecdotes about Auden’s writing process written by those who knew him well. These, after all, can be quite enlightening. What reader of Auden wouldn’t be grateful to come across something like Christopher Isherwood’s observation about the young Auden at work?
When Auden was younger, he was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he could keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way, whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of favorite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.
Even glimpses of the poet’s immediate writing environment can be revealing, if perhaps more of the man than of the works. Auden’s one-time American student Charles H. Miller puts us squarely in the scene of creation when he describes Auden’s New York apartment as ‘a cave’ filled with clutter, with manuscripts jumbled among books and bits of clothing, all topped by an ashtray with ‘a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano’. The whole ‘Auden-scape’, Miller continues, reeked of ‘stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe-jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit’.

Intimate reminiscences were not, however, what Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin were after when they sat down to edit Auden at Work. Their introduction places heavy emphasis on the idea of genetic literary criticism, a form of analysis that treats the text as an ongoing compositional process, rather than as the fixed result of the author’s intention. Following Paul Valéry, Costello and Galvin envision composition ‘as a dance, as fencing, as the construction of acts and expectations’, and the published text as ‘the footprints on the ground after the dance is over’. Auden, whose revisions to such poems as ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ are among the most famous, or infamous, in the history of English poetry, is certainly a prime candidate for genetic criticism.

The rest is available in print, or online (starting at the bottom of page 356 in the pdf version).

Friday, July 08, 2016

Sheena and the Sugar Book

Sheena, the Ramones inform us, is a punk rocker.  She wasn't always, though—I once tried to combine the history and prehistory of the various Sheenas and proto-Sheenas of pop culture, and the poem, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," appears in my book The Kafka Sutra.  It's also been reproduced online here, by E-Verse Radio.

In other news: Johannes Goransson! Or, more specifically: Johannes Goransson's The Sugar Book! Or, more specifically still: my short review of The Sugar Book in The Boston Review is now online as part of their "Summer Poetry Reading" feature. (It's also in the print magazine, if that's more your thing).

Finally, I'm now the Associate Editor of The Battersea Review, which has been going strong and staying eclectic since 2012, with contributors like Charles Bernstein, William Logan, A.E. Stallings, Adam Kirsch, Marjorie Perloff, Stephen Burt, and many more.  The fall issue will focus on Spain, and the issue after that on British Modernism.  You know you love the stuff!