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.


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.

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.