This post was prompted by a line—more properly, part of a line, from John Ashbery’s “Unctuous Platitudes” (Houseboat Days), which you can hear Ashbery read here (mp3 link). Here is the line:

The weather has grown gray with age.

It’s an effective metaphor, immediately giving the reader a feeling not just for the state of the weather, but for the feeling associated with it. This feeling is complex and difficult to summarize, but involves the sense that the weather is well-worn, that it is not something new. It oppresses as familiar things oppress.

But my interest is less in what this particular metaphor does in “Unctuous Platitudes” than in what it suggests about metaphor more generally. How, exactly, does this metaphor work? I suggest that it works by a form of overfitting.

Overfitting is generally discussed in scientific contexts, where it is an example of bad practice. In a well-controlled experiment, data is generated whose patterns predominantly reflect the operation of the cause of interest, while the effects of others causes are (a) minimized and (b) appropriately distributed. Appropriately distributed in the sense that, while each individual data point reflects the operation of many causes and so deviates from the expectation were only the cause of interest operating, these deviations are not systematic, and wash out as many data points accumulate.

In fitting a curve to such data, the goal is thus not to account for each individual data point exactly, but to capture the general trend they reveal, which, if all goes well, is the product of the cause of interest. It is, however, always mathematically possible to find a complex curve that fits the data exactly. This is known as overfitting. The image below provides an example of proper curve-fitting (black line) and overfitting (blue line).

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The temptation of overfitting is that it allows one to capture the data at hand arbitrarily well, as the image shows. The cost is that predictive power is lost. Overfit curves tend to be completely wrong about where the next data points will be. What proper curve-fitting loses with respect to the particular data set, it thus gains by being much better suited to predicting future data. As prediction is one of the essential functions of scientific hypotheses, overfitting is indeed bad science.

Poetry, by contrast, does not aim at prediction (usually; never say never and all that). It generally aims much more at capturing precisely a particular scene (whether real or invented) in all of its specificity. In poetry, the data at hand are all there is to capture. In scientific contexts, the temptation to overfit is countered by the need to predict. There is no such need in poetry; therefore, there is no penalty for overfitting.

All of this suggests that metaphor may be a form of overfitting, at least in many cases. The Ashbery metaphor with which I began is just such a case. In comparing the gray of the weather with the gray of age, Ashbery certainly does not capture any causal regularity. Weather does not proceed from a starting point to an end point, but is broadly cyclical. Extend the metaphor, then, and it is woefully wrong about what the weather will be like the day after this poem takes place. But that day never occurs, has never been written, and there is no need to account for it. By ignoring it, Ashbery is able to condense a number of features of the day’s weather, the products of innumerable causes, into a single description that captures it, if not with perfect precision, at least with more than a scientifically respectable curve would enjoy.

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Let’s keep churning them out, shall we? Next up in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry is Samuel Woodworth’s poem “The Bucket.” It’s a pleasant enough bit of nostalgia written in anapestic tetrameter, but hardly a memorable poem. It is all content, with the form as nothing more than the shape of the vessel.

The poem announces itself in the first line:

How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood […]

There is to be no surprise in this poem: an adult is remembering his childhood, and we know that straight away. The nostalgia is specifically for the moss-covered bucket in the well on his father’s plantation. As far as I can tell from the poem, it was a nice enough bucket and I can well imagine the childhood joy of drinking from it. But the poem tends toward the twee, especially in the refrain that ends each stanza (the last quarter of it varies by stanza; the first three quarters do not):

The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.

It also occurs to me, hearing it so many times in quick succession, that “bucket” is in fact a rather strange sounding word, which doesn’t help Woodworth out here.

Okay, I’ll stop—I really don’t have much interesting to say about this poem.

Ah, yes, I remember why I got bogged down in my reading of the Library of America’s collection of 19th century American poetry: heroic couplets. Every man and his dog tried his hand at an epic in this worst of all forms, or so it seems. First was John Barlow’s wretched Columbiad; then came James Kirk Paulding’s more anodyne The Backwoodsman. And now I return to the volume to find John Pierpont’s Airs of Palestine. I don’t doubt dread of it kept me away these last 9+ months.

But here I am—let’s give it a go. Mostly, it’s bland in the way Paulding’s poem was bland, and would be inoffensive but for the sheer volume of it. (This collection includes 122 lines of at least 777, and it’s already too many.) They wash over me in a mostly undifferentiated mass. Pierpont even indulges in a pointless alexandrine at the end of the first selection:

In Carmel’s holy grots, I’ll court repose,
And deck my mossy couch, with Sharon’s deathless rose. (95-96)

About this, Alexander Pope has said all there is to say:

A needless alexandrine ends the song
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

Beyond that, Pierpont has a tendency to the breathless:

Here let us pause:—the opening prospect view:—
How fresh this mountain air!—how soft the blue… (55-56)

How the wide landscape laughs upon the sky!
How rich the light, that gives it to the eye! (63-64)

How fondly then, from all but Hope exil’d,
To Zion’s woe recurs Religion’s child! (525-26)

How mild the empire of that virgin queen!
How dark the mountain’s shade! how still the scene! (581-82)

And how! But let me be fair. In the selections given here, Pierpont does manage one passage of true beauty:

He sees the tear of Judah’s captive daughters
Mingle, in silent flow, with Babel’s waters;
While Salem’s harp, by patriot pride unstrung,
Wrapp’d in the mist, that o’er the river hung,
Felt but the breeze, that wanton’d o’er the billow,
And the long, sweeping fingers of the willow. (527-32)

The volume also includes two other selections of Pierpont’s work: a couple forgettable stanzas from “A Word from a Petitioner,” as well as the full text of “The Fugitive Slave’s Apostrophe to the North Star.” This last is his best showing. Pierpont was a minister, and apparently had to resign after his anti-slavery views (expressed in his poetry) led to conflict with his congregation. This particular anti-slavery poem is a moving tribute to the north star, written from the perspective of a fugitive slave. It’s remarkable more for its content than the quality of its writing (though it’s perfectly competent in the latter regard), especially its sharp critique of the American symbol of the eagle:

Star of the North! in bright array
The constellations round thee sweep,
Each holding on its nightly way,
Rising, or sinking in the deep,
And, as it hangs in mid heaven flaming,
The homage of some nation claiming.

This nation to the Eagle cowers;
Fit ensign! she’s a bird of spoil;—
Like worships like! for each devours
The earnings of another’s toil.
I’ve felt her talons and her beak,
And now the gentler Lion seek.

[…]

Star of the North! upon that shield
Thou shinest!—O, for ever shine!
The negro, from the cotton-field,
Shall then beneath its orb recline,
And feed the Lion couched before it,
Nor heed the Eagle screaming o’er it!

Since reading John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror just a short while back, I have begun again, at the beginning this time. Thus I have swung through Some Trees, have sworn at the incomprehensibilities of The Tennis Court Oath, and have climbed up and sailed down, respectively, Rivers and Mountains. I have also dipped into the secondary literature on Ashbery, which has mostly disappointed. Today, however, I did read an interesting paper by Brian McHale, with the unfortunate title, “How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’.”

The central goal of McHale’s article is to discourage a particular method of reading postmodernist long poems, which goal he achieves by showing how this method fails in the case of Ashbery’s “The Skaters,” the long poem that concludes Rivers and Mountains. Here, three questions arise: (1) what is the problematic method of reading? (2) what is so problematic about it? and (3) why do I care? In turn, then.

McHale describes the problematic method of reading as follows:

Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretive 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 interpretive orientation.

As for why this method of reading is problematic, in McHale’s view, the above quotation already largely hints at why. It is a highly selective manner of reading, in which certain passages are selected as focal points, and the rest of the poem is read in the light of those passages. It reads the poem as possessing a sort of organization that is as likely to be imposed by the reader as in the poem itself. Or, more properly, it reads part of the poem as having that organization; the rest is “simply passed over in silence.”

As a result, McHale argues, this method of reading “fosters the illusion that interpretation grounded in key nodes can master or exhaust the text, when really it only samples the latter.” This is a general reason for worrying about this sort of reading. Indeed, it seems more general than McHale makes it out to be, as it applies to interpretations of any long poem (and maybe any short poem), whether or not it is postmodernist. McHale further argues that this method of reading is particularly inappropriate in “The Skaters,” since, in that poem, Ashbery methodically undermines it. More on the details of this below.

Before that, however, let me address the last of my three questions: why do I care? I care because this is more or less how I read poems. In my two previous posts on Ashbery (linked at the start of this post), I applied such a method first to “As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat” and then, even more boldly, to the entirety of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. And I think I was right to do so. I think, that is, that something goes wrong in McHale’s critique. It’s not that he reads “The Skaters” badly, or that he’s wrong about the limitations of this method. He’s right about those limitations, and he reads “The Skaters” very well, at least so far as I am able to judge.

The problem, rather, is that McHale draws the wrong conclusion from his critique. It doesn’t speak against this form of nodal analysis altogether. It simply shows us how to do it better, by detailing ways that it can go awry. To see that, let’s delve a bit into the details of his critique.

The bulk of McHale’s article is devoted to showing how three distinct approaches to identifying key nodes in “The Skaters” all fail. The first approach organizes the poem around its descriptions, taking these to be direct representations of the world. These then accumulate further poetic material, yielding the entire poem. But, McHale argues, these descriptions prove over and over again to be ontologically “leaky,” to be secondhand or referential in some unexpected way. Consider just one example:

This, after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola da gambas, Aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que sais-je encore!

This seems, at first glance, like a list of musical instruments, or, if we are suitably unimpressed by the electric drills, sources of sound more generally. But in the middle of this list are limpets (a type of aquatic snail) and clavicles (not clavichords). What appeared to be a coherent description crumbles on analysis.

A second approach to the poem seeks to read it autobiographically, with the poem’s four parts corresponding, respectively, to Ashbery’s childhood, his time at Harvard and in New York, his expatriation in Paris, and his projected old age. But any attempt to get more fine-grained than this breaks down. In autobiography, the crucial organizing principle is going to be the “I,” but, as so often in Ashbery, the “I” of “The Skaters” does not speak with a single voice. Instead, it shuffles through a multitude of incompatible voices, the vast majority of which cannot plausibly be associated with Ashbery.

Finally, many critics have approached Ashbery’s poem by organizing it around the many passages in which the narrator appears to comment on the poem itself. Especially prominent here is the famous passage in the poem’s first part, which begins, “It is time now for a general understand of / The meaning of all this.” As McHale shows, however, this passage, so far from illuminating the poem as a whole (or even the poem up to that point) instead undermines itself: it turns out to be a poetic instantiation of the liar paradox. Once again, the reader looking for organizational foci is bound to be frustrated.

The case McHale makes on all of these points is compelling. But what his arguments show is not that it is wrong to read Ashbery in this way. They show exactly the opposite. Insofar as McHale’s reading illuminates the poem, it does so precisely by showing that the poem has its effects precisely by disorienting the reader who approaches it looking for such organizational foci. The reader who does not take that approach is simply going to miss out on that disorienting effect. The poem is lost on such a reader.

As I see it, then, McHale’s reading of “The Skaters” has two upshots, one local and one general. The local upshot is that prior critics of the poem have been too willing to take the existence of key nodes for granted, and so have missed out on how the poem deliberately disrupts them. In this way, McHale’s reading of the poem is a better instantiation of the method he is ostensibly criticizing: better because it does not falsely assume that such nodes must ultimately be found.

The more general upshot is that this nodal method of reading must be done with the right attitude. Insofar as it is done with the expectation that these nodes will provide mastery over the full text, McHale is entirely correct that it is misguided—and not just in the case of Ashbery. But this is asking too much of the method. What the method can do is to provide a reading that heightens some strands of a poem at the expense of others. So long as those strands are truly present, there can’t be any objection to this. Even in more tightly knit poetry than Ashbery’s, more goes on than the human mind can at one time hold before it. Selection is necessary, and not a problem so long as it is recognized. In Ashbery especially, the reader is overwhelmed with details that cannot readily be unified. To make any kind of sense of it, certain parts have to be elevated over others. The key is to do so provisionally.

The real criminal that McHale has identified is not, therefore, the search for nodes. The real criminal is dogmatism, the desire to take a certain reading as final or exhaustive. Dogmatism, as skeptics of all ages have insisted, is inimical to inquiry. In this case, a dogmatic attitude toward a particular reading of a poem leaves that poem largely unread. The skeptic, on the contrary, by accepting that that same reading is partial and provisional, makes use of it without attachment and, when the time is right, moves on.