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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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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.

Here are some remarks on some of my January reading.

Anne Carson. I received, as a holiday gift, Anne Carson’s Nox. I’ve previous read Plainwater (which I don’t remember well) and Autobiography of Red (which I loved). Nox is a different beast than either, a replica of a memorial volume Carson made for her brother upon his death. Two storylines are interwoven here: first, the story of Carson’s enigmatic brother, who disappeared to Europe at a fairly young age and, second, the “story” of Carson’s attempt to translate Catullus’ poem for his dead brother. Strange and moving resonances emerge from this. For the translation, Carson presented the Latin, then a series (spread throughout the book) of guides to translating each individual word, then, at last, her translation. The translator’s task was thus presented as one of selection, of taming the myriad possibilities the words offered into a single coherent English poem. In contrast, Carson attempted to portray a full portrait of her brother using only sporadic and oddly distributed information—nearly the opposite task. It is a wonderful, beautiful book.

Peter Reading. I read the first (of three) volumes of Peter Reading’s collected poems, published by Bloodaxe. As I explained in a recent post, I did not care for the book. Happily, however, I read it as part of a local poetry reading group, and I came away from our discussion with a bit more sympathy for Reading’s project. Not that I like it, but I was able to see more compassion in his work than I had previously, and less jadedness. To be sure, jaded inhumanity dominates the book, but I did come to see efforts of a struggle against it, on Reading’s part, and an element of admiration for those who don’t succumb to it.

Kurtis Hagen. Hagen is a philosopher, not a poet, and I had the pleasure of reading his excellent study of Xunzi’s philosophy, straightforwardly titled The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction. Hagen argues for a constructionist reading of Xunzi, according to which Xunzi does not see the Way as a fixed inheritance from the ancient sage kings, but inheritance it is our job to actively re-fashion to fit the world as we find it. On this reading, Xunzi fully digested Zhuangzi’s skeptical and relativistic insights about the nature of language and value, but saw how they could be used to promote Confucian ends. Hagen not only makes a compelling case for his interpretation of Xunzi, he makes Xunzi’s philosophy itself compelling. (A friend and I wrote about Xunzi and the logical empiricists here, largely basing our interpretation of Xunzi on Hagen’s work.)

C.L.R. James. On the recommendation of a friend, I read James’ The Black Jacobins, a magnificent history of the slave revolt in Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beyond being a riveting (if often horrific) story, James is concerned to support a few general points. First, he offers a reading of history according to which structural (especially economic) forces dominate, but in which there is limited room for individual agents to shape the course of history at key points. Second, he suggests that racial prejudice is fairly superficial. What really matters are economic interests: if the interests of two races align, racial prejudices can be forgotten rather quickly. It is an interesting thesis, of obvious importance today in thinking about the proper role for identity politics. James makes a compelling case in this instance; whether the more general thesis is right, I do not know.

In addition to the above, all of which I’ve completed, I’m also in the middle of a few other books, about which I hope to have more to say later. After Peter Reading, the local reading group is doing Jack Gilbert’s collected poems. So far, I love his work. I’ve also picked up John Ashbery again, picking up where I left off with As We Know. Lastly, I’ve begun Tsong Khapa’s massive Ocean of Reasoning, a thorough commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakārikā. It is scholastic as hell, expanding Nāgārjuna’s taut verses into extended, labored arguments. None of this is a criticism—the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is a fascinating (and I would say eminently plausible) metaphysical view, and it deserves this sort of thorough treatment.

In Book 12 of the Iliad, as the Asius and his troops storm a Greek wall, soldiers on the wall throw stones to repel them. Homer describes it as follows:

……………………The stones fell like snow

Down to the ground, falling, falling, like flakes
A cold wind from the shadowy clouds
Drives thick and fast upon the bountiful earth.
(12.162-65; tr. Lombardo)

This is an astonishing simile, and provides insight into the general manner in which Homer’s similes operate. Though they begin from a conspicuous, generally visual similarity, they gain their power and poignancy from their operation on other levels. In this instance, there are at least four salient movements in the comparison.

The first movement is the obvious similarity that sparks the simile: the stones fall thickly from the wall, like snow. By a natural extension of the simile, we arrive at an implied hyperbole: the stones cover the ground to the point where the earth is invisible. We may likewise imagine the stones thick enough to seriously obscure the Trojan soldiers’ vision.

But this perception of similarity soon gives way, and we are struck by the stark differences between the two scenes. There is something calm and peaceful about the snow-covered earth, however thickly the snow falls. We imagine the earth devoid of action, tranquil—completely unlike the conflict between Trojans and Greeks.

This second movement gives way in turn, however, to the third. We realize that Homer has called attention to the fact that the earth is bountiful. Yet we see it in a snowstorm, in winter, when its productive function is at its lowest point, and we still await the rebirth of spring. Winter, though the most beautiful season, is also the harshest, and its association with death suits it for comparison with war.

But this, too, moves in the opposite direction. Winter is only a temporary cessation of the earth’s productive function. In directing our attention toward that function, Homer invites a contrast with its other function: as the permanent resting place of the dead. The Greek stones render the earth—the bountiful earth—a graveyard.

In the end, the simile does not resolve itself one way or another. The stonestorm is and is not like a snowstorm. The visual similarity provides the opportunity to be struck successively by both sides of the comparison. I might note that, of the four motions described above, I felt only the first two during the regular flow of reading. Only when I stepped back and began to dwell on the tension between those two did the third and fourth reveal themselves. This is one reason why I like Lombardo’s choice to set off Homer’s similes in italics: it encourages one to spend with them the time they require to bloom.

Poem: As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
Poet: John Ashbery

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the Sun yellows the green of the maple tree. . . .

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn’t.

The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.


For some time now, the Library of America volume of Ashbery’s poetry (1956-1987) has lan­guished on my shelf. Now that he is dead, I suppose it is time at last to crack it open. I am beginning in the obvious place, with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and with the first poem within it, which you can read above. With the exception of two forgettable poems in a recent-ish issue of the Denver Quarterly, this is my first encounter with Ashbery.

It is an appropriate poem for the occasion: the entire final stanza might be read as a commentary on his death, not least that fourth line: “And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth…” But, rich as that reading is, I will lay it aside, and try to enter the poem as it was written—by one still alive. We may yet circle back to death.

The poem’s characters have no names, only pronouns: “I,” “you,” “we,” “they,” “her.” I often find this frustrating, little more than perverse obscurantism, but here it enriches the poem. This poem plays, deliberately, with the opaque nature of the relationship between the “I” and the “you” that together form the poem’s “we.” At several points, they appear to be blended together. Consider these lines:

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again?

The shift from “you” to “I” here makes sense in context. The narrator (“I”) tells us that a look of glass stops “you.” At this point, the narrator imagines what is in “your” head—thus the shift to the first person. But it is still “you” he is talking about, not himself. Later in the stanza, however, the “I” is carried through:

Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated…

 Though we have left “your” thoughts by this point, this feels—at least to me—like the same “I” as before. And so I start to get the sense that the “you” and the “I” of this poem are the same person, seen from different vantage points, which we might call the self-identifying (“I”) and the self-estranged (“you”). This fits with the theme of perception and objectivity that the opening lines of the third stanza raise.

The sense is only heightened in the next stanza. “You have slept in the sun / Longer than the sphinx,” we learn. But, almost immediately after this, we encounter the “her,” who has “come to ask once more / If I was coming in.” This is just the question one might put to someone who has slept for too long in the sun—but it is “you,” not “I,” who has done that. Once again, “you” and “I” seem to merge into a single person.

One possibility is that “you” is just “I” addressed from “her” perspective, as suggested by these lines:

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the Sun
Longer than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in.

The final “Come in” suggests this is in “her” voice, since a few lines later we find that it is “her” who asks “If I was coming in.” This move doesn’t seem to work for the lines quoted above from the third stanza, however: there it does seem to be a self-estranged perspective, not the perspective of some other.

In the poem’s final stanza, all of these personalities drop out, and we are left only with night, and with things. The lushness of summer makes demands, creates the uneasiness that characterizes so much of this poem, but at least the summer night, when this lushness is shrouded and quieted, and the “small things” are able at last to speak out, “gives more than it takes.” And here the brief respite of night forebodes the longer respite of winter. At this point we may, once again, think of death, which, does, after all, eliminate the selves behind all pronouns, in the end.