Over the past few days, I read May Swenson’s first book of poetry, Another Animal. Having just written about Ashbery’s use of an extended “ocean of language” metaphor, I cannot resist also writing about Swenson’s take on a similar theme, in her poem “Stony Beach”. Here is the poem:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stony Beach

. . . . . . . . . . . . . The sea like Demosthenes’ mouth
. . . . . . . . . . . . champs upon these stones
. . . . . . . . . . . whose many stumblings make him suave
. . . . . . . . . . The argument molded monotonously by all his lips
. . . . . . . . . in a parliament of overlappings
. . . . . . . . is vocal but incomprehensible because never finished

. . . . . . . Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea
. . . . . . Listen he is lucid in sound only
. . . . . convinces with broken phrases that wizardly
. . . . the waves round out a rune over riddling stones

. . . Beginning again and again with a great A
. . a garbeled alphabet he lisps and groans
. The insistent eloquence of echoes
has no omega

The sea is likened immediately to Demosthenes, the famous Greek statesmen and orator. Importantly, he is said to have overcome a speech impediment by forcing himself to speak with stones in his mouth. Thus, in the first two lines, we are presented with a sea that is attempting to say something but struggling to say it. Swenson captures the repetitiousness of these exercises with some choice alliteration (on ‘m’) and consonance (on ‘l’)—“The argument molded monotonously by all his lips”—as if the poem itself (or at least this line) were the sea speaking.

Whereas Demosthenes went on to great success, his exercises having worked to great effect, with the sea it is different. His voice is a “parliament of overlappings” (what an image!) that never quite becomes comprehensible because it is never finished. “Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea”, the second stanza tells us, and indeed there is nothing to learn from these exercises, whose content doesn’t matter. They are “lucid in sound only”. The last line of the stanza confirms this by exemplifying it: “the waves round out a rune over riddling stones”. Once again we get the impression that the sea is speaking, that the poem is the sea’s practice.

It is fitting, then, that the third stanza sees both the sea and the poem “Beginning again”—beginning and always beginning, never finishing. “The insistent eloquence of echoes / has no omega”. Meaning, oration, is never reached.

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Third post in a series on John Ashbery’s long poem, “A Wave”, covering stanzas 6-8. Previous posts:

Stanzas 1-3
Stanzas 4-5

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In these three stanzas, Ashbery captures the interplay of freedom and captivity, as here, in the eighth stanza:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . By so many systems
As we are involved in, by just so many
Are we set free on an ocean of language that comes to be
Part of us, as though we would ever get away.

On the one hand there are the “systems… we are involved in” and from which, we learn by the end of the sentence, we can’t really escape; on the other hand it is precisely through these systems that we are “set free on an ocean of language”. With this image, Ashbery picks up on a metaphor he began developing two stanzas earlier. There, in discussing how “a mixed surface is revealed,” Ashbery likens the situation to “rocks at low tide”. We learn:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And the mind
Is the beach on which the rocks pop up, just a neutral
Support for them in their indignity.

The simile of the rocky beach has been literalized, at least in the sense that it is found a continued existence outside of the original context of its invocation. At the same time, it has not quite become real, but merely a different metaphor, now for the mind. The rocks, perhaps, are thoughts—something, at least, for which the mind is the substrate.

In this light, we can better understand the “ocean of language” from stanza eight. We see our minds as touching on only the edge of language. “[T]he waves talk to us, / Preparing dreams we’ll have to live with and use”, but the center, the source of these waves, remains beyond us. Perhaps we are also to imagine ourselves as separate beaches, communicating across this center that remains equally inaccessible to all of us. Who can say what happens to our meanings in the meantime?

So much for the ocean of language. What of the systems that involve us, and that by so involving us set us free on this ocean? I take them to be systems of meaning and purpose—including, therefore, the very mind-as-beach, ocean-as-language metaphor I’ve been discussing. But there is another central metaphor in these stanzas, that of games. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of stanza 7:

I think all games and disciplines are contained here,
Painting, as they go, dots and asterisks that
We force into meanings that don’t concern us
And so leave us behind.

Games (and disciplines) are here portrayed as generators of meanings, meanings that we do not control and that “leave us behind”—like a retreating wave, perhaps. Later, Ashbery suggests that the game’s purpose is revealed only “at the moment / Another player broke one of the rules”, though, cagily, Ashbery only allows that “You thought you perceived a purpose in the game”, and not that a purpose was in fact found.

In the above paragraphs, we’ve seen two metaphors interlink and take on lives of their own, lives that extend beyond any fixed, initial meaning. In this way, even as he describes how language escapes us, is not fully our possession, Ashbery exemplifies it.

A bit of a slow month, but here’s what I read this March:

John Ashbery. I spent several days near the start of this month in a retirement home in Iowa City—not, as you might imagine, the most enthralling place. But I was able to use the opportunity to read, in fairly concentrated doses, both Shadow Train and A Wave, Ashbery’s 11th and 12th books. The former consists entirely of four-by-fours: sixteen line poems split into four stanzas of four lines apiece. Ashbery often shines in long poems, which are naturally suited to his kitchen sink approach, but here the enforced brevity suits him well. The best pieces here are finely honed daggers—“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” and “Farm Film” especially—and overall it is among his most consistently rewarding volumes. A Wave is even better. It’s Ashbery’s best book so far, from the mixed feelings of “At North Farm” to the self-querying of the title poem. Though it’s been some time since the last installment, I do intend to finish what I started with my series of posts exploring “A Wave” in depth.

Denis Diderot. I found the Penguin Classics edition of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream in my local used bookstore and snatched it up. When a discussion group to which I belong decided to discuss the meaning of the Enlightenment today, I took the opportunity to read this volume. I was amply rewarded. In contrast to the stultifying, dogmatic optimism being peddled under the name of the Enlightenment by the likes of Steven Pinker, Diderot reminds us of the movement’s skeptical core and of the intellectual excitement of thinking through new ideas for oneself. Rameau’s Nephew is hilarious, a dialogue in which it is relentlessly unclear which character, if either, speaks for the author, as a genial moralist comes face to face with a thoroughgoing comic nihilist. For my money, though, it’s D’Alembert’s Dream that’s the real gem here. In it, Diderot—through the figure of the dreaming D’Alembert—works out the consequences of a fully secular, materialistic understanding of the world. As a reader, I could feel the intellectual ferment, the froth of thought. It is a useful solace in an age where the public face of atheism—for all it calls itself “skepticism”—is rank dogmatism that recommends offloading all the business of one’s thinking to approved experts. Diderot shows us a better way.

Stanisław Lem. My wife very kindly bought me Lem’s Solaris. I’m rather a fan of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (it’s between him and Yasujiro Ozu for my favorite), and while Solaris is one of his lesser films, that speaks more to his other films than to Solaris itself. Lem’s book is the basis of the film, so I knew roughly what I was in for, but Tarkovsky took enough liberties with it that it was a new experience. It’s an enjoyable book, but a deeply flawed one. It reminded me why I tend not read sci-fi: the writing is simply not very good for much of the book, especially at the beginning. What’s more, I found that the book consistently raised issues that it left frustratingly unresolved—not so much in terms of plot (though there was some of that) than in terms of the philosophical issues the plot raises. My issue is not with ambiguity itself, but with the fact that Lem did not probe the issues deeply enough to at least clarify the contours of this ambiguity. For instance, the appearance of the “visitors” raises deep issues of realism and idealism: what would it be to encounter not the external world but a world limited by our ideas—ideas that, of course, always fall short of reality. But Lem never satisfactorily addresses this. Most aggravating for me, though, was the mythology of science that ran through the book. I’m currently a graduate student studying philosophy of science, and I simply did not recognize anything of the human activity I study in Lem’s descriptions of the science surrounding Solaris. I hope to write a more extended post on this, so I’ll save the details for later.

As usual, I am in the middle of many books. In addition to continuing to wade through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, I’ve been reading Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m working my way through John KeatsSelected Poetry (Oxford World Classics) and Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems (Borzoi). I’ve also been working my way through Hackett’s collection of Karl Marx’s Selected Writings.

Second post in a series on John Ashbery’s long poem, “A Wave”, covering stanzas 4-5. Previous posts:

Stanzas 1-3

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In Ashbery’s poetry, the boundary between reality and writing is blurred, to the point where one cannot tell whether the poem is about the search for meaning in this dusty world or only about its own inscrutability. This is what makes Ashbery thrilling, for those of us whom he thrills, and it is equally what makes him insufferable, for those who find him so. It is on display in spades in these four stanzas of Ashbery’s poem.

The search for meaning haunts these stanzas, as in these lines from stanza four:

Remains, something like a kiss, but fainter. Were we
Making sense? Well, that thirst will account for some
But not all of the marvelous graffiti; meanwhile
The oxygen of the days sketches the rest,
The balance.

Ashbery calls our desire for meaning a “thirst”, indicating it as a basic need—remember that dehydration kills much more quickly than starvation. Interestingly, though, this accounts for only a portion of the “marvelous graffiti”. This image requires some unpacking. Graffiti suggests defacement, something outside the accepted order, though it may be beautiful, “marvelous”. It is also often difficult to read (at least to me) even in the best circumstances, and often we encounter it far removed from these: faded by the elements, partially covered by further graffiti, and so forth. Beyond this there is the clash of voices: multiple people contribute to the graffiti in any one area. We are left with a mess, something that, even if it was produced out of a thirst for meaning, is as likely to exacerbate as quench that thirst in others.

Moreover, only some of the graffiti is produced in this way; the rest is the product of “the oxygen of the days”. Where thirst requires action to quench, breathing, though not wholly involuntary, largely happens without our paying it much mind. The suggestion, then, is that much of the graffiti is produced quasi-automatically—there may be no original meaning to reconstruct, not that that will stop us doing so.

But what is this graffiti? It is the world, and it is the poem. Ashbery has here captured the way in which the world disorients us as we attempt to make sense of it. What we have here is not the existentialists’ notion of absurdity, where we ask of the world what it cannot give. Rather, the world gives us meaning, but fragmented, polyvocal, and often indistinguishable from the meaningless. At the same time, however, the poem is characterizing itself, and the experience of attempting to make some sense of its radical and rapid perspective shifts, its jumble of imagery: the poem is among the bits of graffiti.

In stanza five, the issue of polyvocality is addressed from another angle. “One idea is enough to organize a life”, it begins, but many ideas “Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions”—and who has only one idea? (Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps.) Ashbery goes on, a bit later in the stanza:

The suspicions of their possessors. It’s fun to scratch around
And maybe come up with something. But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily,
A certain crispness be avoided in favor of a density
Of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion: not too linear
Nor yet too puffed and remote.

Here we are imagined scratching around in gestures, gestures that, like writing as Plato understood it, have “no life of their own”. They indicate only “the suspicions of their possessors”, and these we attempt to recover through our rooting. Pleasant enough, Ashbery says, but for this to mean anything we may need to let it go out of focus, until it becomes a “tender blur”, a “density / Of strutted opinion”. Taken individually, each opinion expressed is, no doubt, believed by its utterer, but each wilts. The value lies, not in the individual particle, but in the collective motion, which blurs them together. (Think about the poem’s title: a wave travels across the ocean’s surface, even though each water molecule ends where it began.)

This skeptical attitude is reaffirmed beautifully at the end of the stanza:

Blazing with the sunset? So that if it pleases all my constructions
To collapse, I shall at least have had the satisfaction, and known
That it need not be permanent in order to stay alive,
Beaming, confounding with the spell of its good manners.

Our meanings stay alive only in their impermanence, in their openness to co-option. The original construction in which we housed them collapses, and they are taken over elsewhere. This occurs both over the course of the individual’s life (“Then the advantage of / Sinking in oneself, crashing through the skylight of one’s own / Received opinion redirects the maze…”) and across generations.

Impermanence plays a further role. Over this search for meaning hangs the fear of death:

Nor yet too puffed and remote. Then the advantage of
Sinking in oneself, crashing through the skylight of one’s own
Received opinions redirects the maze, setting up significant
Erections of its own at chosen corners, like gibbets,
And through this the mesmerizing plan of the landscape becomes,
At last, apparent.

The crucial word here is ‘gibbets’, meaning gallows, or at least a projecting arm used to hang the bodies of criminals post-execution. It is through these symbols of gruesome death that “the mesmerizing plan of the landscape becomes, / At last, apparent.” (We soon find that it is not a landscape at all, but at this point we’ll welcome even the temporary appearance of clarity.) This returns us to the very beginning of the fourth stanza:

In the haunted house no quarter is given: in that respect
It’s very much business as usual.

Ashbery is punning here. The obvious meaning is that in the haunted house no lodgings are given. One does not, after all, sleep there. But ‘quarter’ can also refer to a reprieve from death—this same death that makes everything seem, if only spuriously, so clear. And Ashbery is quite right to call that “business as usual.”

This is intended as the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on Ashbery’s long poem “A Wave” (from his collection of the same name). This is an experiment of sorts. I have read the poem in full in one sitting. This gave me a feel for the movement of the poem, and for some of its local delights, but most of the poem was lost. So now I’m undertaking a very different kind of reading, painstakingly moving through it, stanza by stanza, over a span of days (possibly weeks). I’ll write about it as I go, and see what I find. This post concerns the first three stanzas.

The very first line of the poem raises a problem of self-knowledge: “To pass through pain and not know it”. Ashbery immediately externalizes this pain as “A car door slamming in the night.” It’s something distant, something heard but (I suspect) not seen, identified but not known. I take the following lines from the second stanza to pick up on this issue of self-knowledge:

And our landscape came to be as it is today:
Partially out of focus, some of it too near, the middle distance
A haven of serenity and unreachable…

The landscape here encompasses both self and other. What is near (the self) is “partially out of focus”, difficult to know clearly. The middle distance (others) is seen more clearly, and is enticing, but is “unreachable”. Why? What constitutes the middle distance is relative to one’s own location. What is now the middle distance can be brought closer, but at the cost of moving out of focus.

Why do I read Ashbery’s term “landscape” in this interiorizing way? Ashbery in these stanzas (and throughout his work) blurs the line between reality and representation. In the third stanza, “wet streets / That seem so permanent” suddenly change and become “another idea, a new conception”. Exterior events and interior perceptions thereof are not clearly distinguished. We inhabit a material world, but we move through it by constructing representations, and we can never quite disentangle the two. Ashbery is a poet of this entanglement.

As a result, there is a double movement in these stanzas: first, of time through us and, second, of us through time. The first movement can be seen in these lines:

Yet each day of the week, once it had arrived, seemed the threshold
Of love and desperation again. At night it sang
In the black trees: My mindless, oh my mindless, oh.

It is the days that arrive, that come to us even as we are largely stationary. We need not do anything, make any exertion, for the next day to come. But this does not mean that we are totally passive, as these lines capture (“it” here is the “new conception” mentioned above):

The chroniqueurs who bad-mouthed it, the honest
Citizens whose going down into the day it was,
Are part of it, though none
Stand with you as you mope and thrash your way through time,
Imagining it as it is, a kind of tragic euphoria
In which your spirit is sprouted. And which is justified in you.

Our ideas, our conceptions, are the means by which we go “down into the day” that has arrived. Interestingly, the citizens who go down into the day through the idea are themselves part of it, such that is unclear whether we control our ideas or they control us. Also noteworthy in these rich lines is the isolation they present: “none / Stand (sic) with you”. Even as others enter our conceptions and interact with us materially, there is a gap: they exist only at the middle distance.

Those resplendent final lines of the stanza are Ashbery at his best, and speak for themselves. I only note that they raise a new issue, the problem of the justification of time (and life and existence more generally). Where that shall go in the remainder of the poem is for later posts to discuss.