Monthly Archives: March 2018

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.

John Ashbery is a much less difficult and much more direct poet than he is generally made out to be. Consider “At North Farm”, the first poem in A Wave, possibly Ashbery’s best book:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

The effect of this poem is nothing if not immediate. It consists of four basic movements: (1) the image of the “furious” traveler approaching “you”; (2) the uncertainty of recognition (will the traveler recognize you); (3) the paradox of the barren land and bursting granaries; and (4) a second uncertainty, this time concerning reciprocity (is your offering sufficient).

Does this add up to anything? The poem’s final two words are the key: “mixed feelings.” The first three lines present us with the mysterious traveler who, we find later, bears some gift. To deliver this he navigates difficult terrain and weather with remarkable persistence. All this conveys a sense of inevitability, of destiny: he is meant to find you. Even without knowing who he is or what he brings, there is something exhilarating in being in this position: it is enough that “Somewhere someone” should be making this voyage to find you.

This exhilaration, however, soon gives way to doubt—the first mixing of feelings. Even forgetting the perilousness of the voyage, which could cut it off at any moment, what if he can’t find you? Or what if he finds you but can’t recognize you? Or what if he decides not to give you “the thing he has for you” after all? The very inevitability of the encounter that was so exhilarating now comes into question, and you do not quite know how to feel.

With the poem’s third movement, we leave the images of travel for those of domesticity, of life “At North Farm” (more on North Farm later). The very landscape, it turns out, personifies these mixed feelings: “Hardly anything grows here, / Yet the granaries are bursting with meal”. And, though nothing grows here, it somehow is flush with life: “fattening fish” and birds that “darken the sky.”

This externalization of feeling is drawn back inward in the poem’s final lines, which reveal your uncertainty concerning your adequacy to receive the gift he brings. A lot happens here. We learn that you leave a modest offering of your own, of milk, and the phrasing suggests you do this each night. Thus we learn that you don’t know when he will arrive, though you know he is coming. The inevitability is tempered with a new sort of doubt, the kind that leads to diffuse waiting whose precise endpoint you can’t predict. Further, there is the anxiety that, if you have mixed feelings about the traveler’s arrival and his gift, perhaps you are therefore unworthy of it.

All of this is right there, on the surface of the poem—one need simply read it and feel it, without any digging. The poem expertly draws the reader through this exhilaration, reservation, uncertainty, and anxiety: each one is felt in turn.

But is this enough? Is the poem a mere device for drawing out these feelings, or is it “about” something more definite? The poem is slippery in a classic Ashberian fashion. It begins, after all, with the deliberately indefinite “Somewhere someone” and ends with the equally vague “mixed feelings”. Who is traveling toward us, and what are our feelings toward him?

The second question I think is answered by what I have written above—the feelings we have as we read the poem (which are made our own by Ashbery’s use of the second person) give “mixed feelings” definite substance—but the first question deserves further scrutiny. Who is this mysterious traveler? Helen Vendler suggests that is the Angel of Death, and it could be, but I think this is reading too much into the poem, in a way that limits its possibilities. Instead, I think we should recognize that Ashbery’s refusal to identify the traveler plays an important role in the poem.

Consider the title of the poem: “At North Farm”. North Farm is a location in the Finnish epic The Kalevala, which I have not read. A little online research, however, reveals some interesting details. Per the link just given, one of the epic’s main story patterns is the gaining of a bride. In one version of this pattern, Väinänmöinen travels to North Farm, where he is offered a bride, who refuses to marry him unless he can carry out three difficult tasks.

What does this do to our reading of the poem? One tempting move would be to deny Vendler’s reading altogether: the traveler is just Väinänmöinen, end of story. But this undersells the poem. Ashbery uses the Finnish epic, but he does not simply recreate it in this way. Instead, considering this background information deepens our reaction to the poem in three ways.

First, it introduces an additional source of mixed feelings. In The Kalevala, the bride is offered to Väinänmöinen by someone else—she has only limited agency over her marriage. He may be furiously traveling with his gift, but she (the poem’s “you”) has little say in this. Insofar as there is something inevitable or destined about their meeting, this is imposed. This, however, leads to the second deepening of our reading: the re-assertion of agency by setting Väinänmöinen tasks he must complete. This is not quite the right of refusal of his gift, but it is close. In reading the poem without considering the reference to the Kalevala, it is easy to overlook this possibility of rejecting the gift—tracing out the reference brings this possibility to the fore.

In the previous paragraph, I more or less treated the poem as describing the perspective of the potential bride. The purpose of this was not to read the poem as elaborating a scene from The Kalevala, however, but rather to expand the range of feelings it evokes. This brings me to the third way in which our reading of the poem is deepened by considering its reference to that epic: we are brought to consider the first two words of the poem more deeply. “Somewhere someone”—the natural questions, then, are: who? and where?

I think it’s important that the poem doesn’t answer these questions. Above, I considered your doubts that the traveler will recognize you. In thinking about the poem’s opening, however, we realize that the inverse is also true: there is also the possibility that you will fail to recognize the traveler. He is, after all, merely “someone”, and the world is full of someones. If we try to pin down this someone, whether as Väinänmöinen or as The Angel of Death or as anything else you please, we miss this, and impoverish the poem. I am not saying that we shouldn’t identify the someone as we read, shouldn’t give this vagueness definite content. We should, however, recognize that the traveler about whom we have such richly mixed feelings can have many identities, and that therefore any definite identification must be tentative and temporary: this, too, is shifting.

Fitz-Greene Halleck is next in my tour through nineteenth century American poetry, courtesy of the Library of America.

The selection begins with “On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake” (Drake was a friend of Halleck’s, and, per Wikipedia, possibly an unrequited love interest). The poem itself is of mild interest. It gives no sense of Drake the man, filled as it is with imprecise praise. “None knew thee but to love thee,” we are told, but we are given no insight into why. The best we are told is that his is one of those “hearts, whose truth was proven.” The first two stanzas are devoted to this, and forebode a dull poem. In the third stanza, however, things begin to change. A man like Drake, when he dies, ought to have his worth publicized (stanza three), and I ( = Halleck), as his close friend, should be the publicist (stanza four). But, Halleck finds, he can’t:

While memory bids me weep thee,
Nor thoughts nor words are free,
The grief is fixed too deeply
That mourns a man like thee.

In this stanza, the poem comes to grips with its own incapacity, its inability to provide Drake with the remembrance he deserves. The very love that made Halleck fit to honor Drake makes him unable to do so—and will until the feeling of love fades. This catch-22 is the heart of the poem, and somewhat rescues it from its opening clichés (which, of course, are by the end seen to be deliberately so).

But only somewhat. It is a delicate, difficult poem to write, the one that both uses and addresses its use of clichés. I don’t think Halleck quite manages it here. A cliché holds the reader at a distance: by its very familiarity it is not conducive to deep feeling and close engagement. The poem, in using clichés, must encourage such engagement in other ways. And that’s where this poem fails. It gets across the idea of the conflict, but never quite makes me feel it. It is a touching tribute, but not a great poem.

The second poem included here, “Alnwick Castle”, appears to be a lament that trade is eliminating the unity of Christiandom. “The age of bargaining, said Burke, / Has come”, with the result that “The Moslem tramples on the Greek, / And on the Cross and alter stone, / And Christendom looks tamely on”. An early bit of hand-wringing about globalization, I suppose. But two formal features of the poem stand out. First, though it pops up only once in the poem, there is a very nice use of enjambment:

Gaze on the Abbey’s ruined pile:
Does not the succouring Ivy, keeping
Her watch around it, seem to smile,
As o’er a loved one sleeping?

I highlight this because most of the poetry in this volume has been meticulously end-stopped, and that has been part of why it has often felt so stilted. Read these lines aloud, though, and the single enjambment immediately gives them a fluidity and naturalness that would otherwise be lacking.

The second formal feature of note comes midway through the poem, when it transitions from memorializing the castle’s beauty and history to lamenting current states of affairs:

I wandered through the lofty halls
Trod by the Percys of old fame,
And traced upon the chapel walls
Each high, heroic name,
From him who once his standard set
Where now, o’er mosque and minaret,
Glitter the Sultan’s crescent moons;
To him who, when a younger son,
Fought for King George at Lexington,
A Major of Dragoons.
*   *   *   *
That last half stanza—it has dashed
From my warm lip the sparkling cup;
The light that o’er my eye-beam flashed,
The power that bore my spirit up
Above this bank-note world—is gone;
And Alnwick’s but a market town…

As in the poem for Drake, the poem acknowledges itself with a comment on what it is trying (and failing) to do. Here, as before, this meta-commentary is a window into the speaker’s mind. The poem becomes, not just a description of the experience, but the experience itself. It isn’t, after all, the crescent moons that “dash” the poet’s pleasant mood, but “That last half stanza”. It is an intriguingly contemporary touch in otherwise very 19th century poem, and a welcome one. As with the previous poem, it isn’t enough to make the poem one I much care to read again, but it does make Halleck more memorable than most of the rest of what I’ve read from this volume.

About the other three poems by Halleck in this collection—“Marco Bozzaris”; “Red Jacket”; and a selection from “Connecticut”—I have less to say, though “Red Jacket” deserves mention for romanticizing the Native American chieftain only to acknowledge the inaccuracy of this (the replacement picture then introduced is another romanticization, but I suppose you take what you can in C19). It also, if I’m reading the end aright, at least partially acknowledges the tragedy of the treatment of Native Americans.

I’ll end with an appreciation: Halleck is the best writer thus far in this volume. His poems read smoothly. He isn’t breathless, or stilted. While none of the poems quite capture me as poems, each moves fluidly and engagingly—they’re never a chore to read.