A Wave [3] (Ashbery)

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

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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.

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