Wednesday, February 05, 2003

The influence of Ashbery on my work has mostly been indirect, as I encountered the legion of poets who were influenced by him long before I ever sat down and read the man himself. I had this initial reaction to his latest book, Chinese Whispers, which I had put in my regular pre-class e-mail to Jonathan Monroe:
This is the first Ashbery book I've sat down and read all the way through since The Tennis Court Oath. One's mind tends to wander along with and then away from the poems, and I rarely have been able to summon the fortitude to read many Ashbery poems in succession. It's hard to know where to begin. His work is so instantly recognizable in its oddly magisterial whimsy. It's strange to read such funny poems (or at least funny lines), and such a stew of colloquial languages and dialects (lots of television advertising, middle-management speak, splashes of Renaissance drama, etc.) in the severe and rigorous format of an FSG book, whose cover and typeface and blurbs (the usual Bloom, Miss Marianne Moore, and two people I never expected to see on the same back cover--J.D. McClatchy and Forrest Gander) all signify Poetry at its most dignified.

There were two poems that I found revealing and coated with less teflon than the others. The title poem's couplets made Ashbery's principle of association more visible: the individual couplets, with a few exceptions, stand in paratactic self-sufficiency from one another, largely deprived of the deceptively casual transitions which more than any other single device serve to defeat one's immediate comprehension of an
Ashbery poem. And "The Haves" made manifest Ashbery's debt to Stein. Not incidentally, this poem characterized by Steinian repetition and the unexpected foregrounding of a coordinate conjunction ("that") is also the most explicitly (homo)erotic of the poems in the book.

What I like the most about Ashbery is what he has made possible; like Rich, his days of greatest innovation are behind him, though his self-interrogations are less obvious than hers. I wish I could recover what it must have been like to read him before he became the embalmed, Lenin-like icon of high Poetry (claimed as seminal by diverse constituencies who regularly accuse one another of heresy) that he is today.
Probably the most useful thing I learned in class yesterday was to discover that Ashbery does interrogate himself and his exalted position in po-biz, though in a deliberately casual way that refuses the ascetic manner of Rich's self-criticism. The oddest thing that's happened is that reading Ashbery this week has empowered me to make my own work more explicitly political. Ashbery's politics are subtle, more in the way of a negative dialectic than any kind of positivist program (such as Rich's Marxism/feminism/queer liberation politics, though to her credit doctrine and the nostalgia for doctrine worry her a great deal). In the middle stanza of "The Big Idea" he explains pretty clearly why he's chosen the most oblique paths of reference through his tumultuous times:
               The Big Idea
flourished for a while, then flagged
shot of the summit.
The people's republics
went under like failing bakeries.
Always, in the shadows at the edge,
there was time to say this. And something.
It isn't Ashbery's stealth but rather his casualness which has opened my most recent poems more fully to our current and awful events. His receptiveness to all kinds of language, to the language of his particular now, has helped me understand how I might make manifest the things that are keeping me up nights in poems which, I believe, retain their quasi-pastoral feel.

It's risky to offer examples—no doubt I will be told I'm being insufficiently political and overly Ashberyian—but here's the latest edition to the series I've been writing, Severance Songs:


A tax on what’s true: echt libris.
It’s getting harder to ignore these propositions:
the contradictions photographed from space
and assembled lovingly yet haphazardly
in the family albums of the horsemen.
Fleeced, fleered, fuddled with drink,
folded in a newspaper boat bound for Yemen.
What’s that to do with our valley, its ripenings,
its coffee beans bequeathed by indigenous cultures?
Fingers of sand wave at an oilslick. Heaven invites us
to fill our pipes, while earthly combustion
raises pleasurable plumes. Oh that lawgiver of mine,
what’s he done? Ssh, a king’s coin has landed on edge
and its blood mills shall fund our sovereignty.

You will recognize perhaps all too readily that flip tone—somewhat weighted down, I hope, both by my particular angle of attack and by being surrounded by the other poems in the series (this makes 34 so far).

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