A Wave [2] (Ashbery)

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.”



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