Ashbery, John

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.

Every so often, an Ashbery poem lands like a revelation. “Sleeping in the Corners of Our Lives,” from As We Know, is one such poem. Here it is:

So the days went by and the nickname caught on.

It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious.
Afternoon leaves blew against the stale brick
Surface. Just an old castle. Enjoy it
While you’re here. And in looking for a more convenient way
To save one’s soul, one is led up to it like a season,
And in looking all around, and about, its tome
Becomes legible in the interstices. A great biography
That is also a good autobiography, at the station;
A honeycomb of pages with listings
Of the tried and true, that radiates
Out into what is there, that averages up as wind,
And settles back into a tepid, modest
Chamber with its mouse-gray furniture, its redundant pictures.

This is tall sleeping
To prepare you for the soup and the ruins
In giving the very special songs of the first meaning,
The ones incorporating the changes.

It is a poem about biography and autobiography, the sense we make of our lives. It is dominated by a contradiction and a pun. The contradiction is that the unnamed “you” of the poem is simultaneously sleeping (“This is tall sleeping”) and quite actively visiting a castle and reading. The pun is that the leaves blowing against the “stale brick / Surface” become the “leaves” of a “tome”—the tome that is one’s (auto)biography.

In the first line, I read “nickname” as referring to the addressee’s name—the suggestion is that it is not their true name, that there is no essential connection between the name and the person. “It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious”—after all, it’s just a name. We all have one. And yet it matters to us. Ashbery’s trademark grammatical shiftiness plays a key role here: the name becomes the old castle, and the old castle becomes the addressee’s soul, to be both enjoyed and saved. The name is somehow extrinsic, a mere “nickname”, yet also the addressee’s deepest reality. There is truth there.

There is something defeated about the end of the second stanza, where the biography becomes wind that “settles back into a tepid, modest / Chamber” with drab furniture and “redundant” decoration. But the poem undergoes a crucial shift in tone in the last stanza. It is the last two lines that make the revelation: “the very special songs of the first meaning, / The ones incorporating the changes.” It is that last word, “changes”, that gets me. Go back and re-read the rest of the poem in light of it. It is a sequence of dazzling changes, name–>castle–>soul–>leaves–>pages–>wind–>residence. But where the biography may be drab, there is life in the songs that incorporate the changes—Ashbery’s poem being one of those songs.

This post was prompted by a line—more properly, part of a line, from John Ashbery’s “Unctuous Platitudes” (Houseboat Days), which you can hear Ashbery read here (mp3 link). Here is the line:

The weather has grown gray with age.

It’s an effective metaphor, immediately giving the reader a feeling not just for the state of the weather, but for the feeling associated with it. This feeling is complex and difficult to summarize, but involves the sense that the weather is well-worn, that it is not something new. It oppresses as familiar things oppress.

But my interest is less in what this particular metaphor does in “Unctuous Platitudes” than in what it suggests about metaphor more generally. How, exactly, does this metaphor work? I suggest that it works by a form of overfitting.

Overfitting is generally discussed in scientific contexts, where it is an example of bad practice. In a well-controlled experiment, data is generated whose patterns predominantly reflect the operation of the cause of interest, while the effects of others causes are (a) minimized and (b) appropriately distributed. Appropriately distributed in the sense that, while each individual data point reflects the operation of many causes and so deviates from the expectation were only the cause of interest operating, these deviations are not systematic, and wash out as many data points accumulate.

In fitting a curve to such data, the goal is thus not to account for each individual data point exactly, but to capture the general trend they reveal, which, if all goes well, is the product of the cause of interest. It is, however, always mathematically possible to find a complex curve that fits the data exactly. This is known as overfitting. The image below provides an example of proper curve-fitting (black line) and overfitting (blue line).


The temptation of overfitting is that it allows one to capture the data at hand arbitrarily well, as the image shows. The cost is that predictive power is lost. Overfit curves tend to be completely wrong about where the next data points will be. What proper curve-fitting loses with respect to the particular data set, it thus gains by being much better suited to predicting future data. As prediction is one of the essential functions of scientific hypotheses, overfitting is indeed bad science.

Poetry, by contrast, does not aim at prediction (usually; never say never and all that). It generally aims much more at capturing precisely a particular scene (whether real or invented) in all of its specificity. In poetry, the data at hand are all there is to capture. In scientific contexts, the temptation to overfit is countered by the need to predict. There is no such need in poetry; therefore, there is no penalty for overfitting.

All of this suggests that metaphor may be a form of overfitting, at least in many cases. The Ashbery metaphor with which I began is just such a case. In comparing the gray of the weather with the gray of age, Ashbery certainly does not capture any causal regularity. Weather does not proceed from a starting point to an end point, but is broadly cyclical. Extend the metaphor, then, and it is woefully wrong about what the weather will be like the day after this poem takes place. But that day never occurs, has never been written, and there is no need to account for it. By ignoring it, Ashbery is able to condense a number of features of the day’s weather, the products of innumerable causes, into a single description that captures it, if not with perfect precision, at least with more than a scientifically respectable curve would enjoy.

Since reading John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror just a short while back, I have begun again, at the beginning this time. Thus I have swung through Some Trees, have sworn at the incomprehensibilities of The Tennis Court Oath, and have climbed up and sailed down, respectively, Rivers and Mountains. I have also dipped into the secondary literature on Ashbery, which has mostly disappointed. Today, however, I did read an interesting paper by Brian McHale, with the unfortunate title, “How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’.”

The central goal of McHale’s article is to discourage a particular method of reading postmodernist long poems, which goal he achieves by showing how this method fails in the case of Ashbery’s “The Skaters,” the long poem that concludes Rivers and Mountains. Here, three questions arise: (1) what is the problematic method of reading? (2) what is so problematic about it? and (3) why do I care? In turn, then.

McHale describes the problematic method of reading as follows:

Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretive centers or “nodes” around which to organize the heterogeneous materials of the poem. Other materials come to be subordinated in various ways (explicitly or, more often, implicitly) to these “key” passages or are simply passed over in silence, so that the poem is reduced to a skeletal structure of points that yield most readily to a particular interpretive orientation.

As for why this method of reading is problematic, in McHale’s view, the above quotation already largely hints at why. It is a highly selective manner of reading, in which certain passages are selected as focal points, and the rest of the poem is read in the light of those passages. It reads the poem as possessing a sort of organization that is as likely to be imposed by the reader as in the poem itself. Or, more properly, it reads part of the poem as having that organization; the rest is “simply passed over in silence.”

As a result, McHale argues, this method of reading “fosters the illusion that interpretation grounded in key nodes can master or exhaust the text, when really it only samples the latter.” This is a general reason for worrying about this sort of reading. Indeed, it seems more general than McHale makes it out to be, as it applies to interpretations of any long poem (and maybe any short poem), whether or not it is postmodernist. McHale further argues that this method of reading is particularly inappropriate in “The Skaters,” since, in that poem, Ashbery methodically undermines it. More on the details of this below.

Before that, however, let me address the last of my three questions: why do I care? I care because this is more or less how I read poems. In my two previous posts on Ashbery (linked at the start of this post), I applied such a method first to “As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat” and then, even more boldly, to the entirety of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. And I think I was right to do so. I think, that is, that something goes wrong in McHale’s critique. It’s not that he reads “The Skaters” badly, or that he’s wrong about the limitations of this method. He’s right about those limitations, and he reads “The Skaters” very well, at least so far as I am able to judge.

The problem, rather, is that McHale draws the wrong conclusion from his critique. It doesn’t speak against this form of nodal analysis altogether. It simply shows us how to do it better, by detailing ways that it can go awry. To see that, let’s delve a bit into the details of his critique.

The bulk of McHale’s article is devoted to showing how three distinct approaches to identifying key nodes in “The Skaters” all fail. The first approach organizes the poem around its descriptions, taking these to be direct representations of the world. These then accumulate further poetic material, yielding the entire poem. But, McHale argues, these descriptions prove over and over again to be ontologically “leaky,” to be secondhand or referential in some unexpected way. Consider just one example:

This, after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola da gambas, Aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que sais-je encore!

This seems, at first glance, like a list of musical instruments, or, if we are suitably unimpressed by the electric drills, sources of sound more generally. But in the middle of this list are limpets (a type of aquatic snail) and clavicles (not clavichords). What appeared to be a coherent description crumbles on analysis.

A second approach to the poem seeks to read it autobiographically, with the poem’s four parts corresponding, respectively, to Ashbery’s childhood, his time at Harvard and in New York, his expatriation in Paris, and his projected old age. But any attempt to get more fine-grained than this breaks down. In autobiography, the crucial organizing principle is going to be the “I,” but, as so often in Ashbery, the “I” of “The Skaters” does not speak with a single voice. Instead, it shuffles through a multitude of incompatible voices, the vast majority of which cannot plausibly be associated with Ashbery.

Finally, many critics have approached Ashbery’s poem by organizing it around the many passages in which the narrator appears to comment on the poem itself. Especially prominent here is the famous passage in the poem’s first part, which begins, “It is time now for a general understand of / The meaning of all this.” As McHale shows, however, this passage, so far from illuminating the poem as a whole (or even the poem up to that point) instead undermines itself: it turns out to be a poetic instantiation of the liar paradox. Once again, the reader looking for organizational foci is bound to be frustrated.

The case McHale makes on all of these points is compelling. But what his arguments show is not that it is wrong to read Ashbery in this way. They show exactly the opposite. Insofar as McHale’s reading illuminates the poem, it does so precisely by showing that the poem has its effects precisely by disorienting the reader who approaches it looking for such organizational foci. The reader who does not take that approach is simply going to miss out on that disorienting effect. The poem is lost on such a reader.

As I see it, then, McHale’s reading of “The Skaters” has two upshots, one local and one general. The local upshot is that prior critics of the poem have been too willing to take the existence of key nodes for granted, and so have missed out on how the poem deliberately disrupts them. In this way, McHale’s reading of the poem is a better instantiation of the method he is ostensibly criticizing: better because it does not falsely assume that such nodes must ultimately be found.

The more general upshot is that this nodal method of reading must be done with the right attitude. Insofar as it is done with the expectation that these nodes will provide mastery over the full text, McHale is entirely correct that it is misguided—and not just in the case of Ashbery. But this is asking too much of the method. What the method can do is to provide a reading that heightens some strands of a poem at the expense of others. So long as those strands are truly present, there can’t be any objection to this. Even in more tightly knit poetry than Ashbery’s, more goes on than the human mind can at one time hold before it. Selection is necessary, and not a problem so long as it is recognized. In Ashbery especially, the reader is overwhelmed with details that cannot readily be unified. To make any kind of sense of it, certain parts have to be elevated over others. The key is to do so provisionally.

The real criminal that McHale has identified is not, therefore, the search for nodes. The real criminal is dogmatism, the desire to take a certain reading as final or exhaustive. Dogmatism, as skeptics of all ages have insisted, is inimical to inquiry. In this case, a dogmatic attitude toward a particular reading of a poem leaves that poem largely unread. The skeptic, on the contrary, by accepting that that same reading is partial and provisional, makes use of it without attachment and, when the time is right, moves on.