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Like Clocks out of Control:

the aleatory poetics of John Ashbery

by Scott Krane

Table Of Contents

Foreword.................................................................................................................................................... 4
Beginnings: Precluding Sublimity ................................................................................................. 16
Afterword ................................................................................................................................................ 60
Endings: Overcoming Didacticism ................................................................................................ 73
Middles: Aleatory Teleology ............................................................................................................ 98
Index .......................................................................................................................................................138
Table of Figures ..................................................................................................................................144
End Notes ..............................................................................................................................................149

"The halo around the heads of Plato and Socrates is now gone. He sees that they are
consistently doing that which they accuse the Sophists of doing using emotionally
persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the
case for dialectic, appear the stronger. We always condemn most in others, he
thought, that which we most fear in ourselves." ~ Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

When I originally prepared the research for the following work, I was reflecting
on some brief years of academic studies in literature and music and found myself
disenchanted with the former field. Being a young man during the turn of the millennium
and having lived through wars against al Qaeda and the Taliban the 9/11 tragedy having
happened the summer before college, I became wary of totalitarian politics, of
authoritarianism and despotic rulers who always came to power on grant of their
demagoguery or, riding on the wings of some demagogue determined to inspire a trend of
government which I felt to be distasteful and an impingement on my own personal
freedoms. The salient charge of my sensitivity was found in the intellectual world of 19th
and 20th century Germany: namely, the notorious thinking of Richard Wagner. Wagner
was for me a man who, if his prose had never been published, the world would have been
a better place. It would have been a better place on account of his splendid music and
theater and not to invest too much value in even a healthy censorship on account that

his immoral, anti-Semitic writing would never have come to vogue. Aside from his
iconoclastic masterpieces, Wagner wrote the polemical treatise, Das Judenthum in der
Musik, or "Jewishness in Music" in which he casts aspersions at Jewish artists such as
Felix Mendelssohn, as well as Jewish people in general. The essay was published in
1869. I will forever ponder how a man of so much power and cultural high-standing
could use his rightly garnered social position to cast hatred on another religion. Why had
the composer of beautiful works turned to rhetoric to compose such an ugly work? Was I
just being a little nave?
In the wake of these sad thoughts, I developed a personal ideology of aesthetics. I
proposed that there exists a hierarchy of value in the various artistic media. The highest
being the most aesthetic and the least rhetorical, and the lowest being the art that most
sharply communicates and persuades. I placed literary art, especially the polemical essay
at the bottom of my hierarchy, (because it exposes so much of the composer's reckonings)
and music (discounting opera and folk music) at the top. Upon expressing these ideas to
my peers, my mind was changed. First, I learned that in the early 19th century, the
German philosopher, Hegel had also constructed a hierarchy of the various artistic media.
He felt that it was art's sole purpose to beautify. Furthermore, the degree of beauty in
aesthetics was gauged by the spirit of freedom which the art object inspired in the
spectator. Hegel listed the arts by their abilities to do so in the following order (ascending
in order of their affectivity): architecture, sculpture, painting, music and the highest art,
poetry (epic and lyric and finally dramatic). It was also brought to my attention that my
original hypothesis was not provable at all. That indeed creative arts such as painting and
music have, since the beginning of time been used as a means of persuasion by various

institutions such as organized religions, governments and their militaries.

This striving to avoid rhetoric dates back to the most ancient days of the
philosophical tradition, when the accusation was first leveled at philosophers that their
sole purpose was to persuade their students into thinking in a certain way. However, it
was not until Nietzsche came onto the scene that an entire philosophical tradition was
thrown on trial. "For Nietzsche it seemed that this tradition had been firmly set on course
by the style of dialectical argument invented by Socrates and passed on through the texts
of his student Plato." writes Christopher Norris in the book, Deconstruction: Theory and
Practice (1982). Norris explains, The dialectical method of eliciting 'truth' from a
carefully contrived encounter of wisdom and ignorance was according to Nietzsche
no more than a rhetorical ploy. He continues, Its persuasiveness, however, was such as
to monopolize for itself all claims to reason, dignity and truth. As a result, philosophy
renounced all dealing with rhetoric and looked upon the arts of language (especially
writing) as sources of error and delusion.
While for the sake of my own aesthetic ideology, as far as the thesis of this work
is concerned, I would have to say that polemical argument too, whether more or less
persuasive than its counterpart, dialectic, also is far too rhetorical to belong on the
vanguard of contemporary aesthetic ventures. However, as Christopher Norris explains,
"Nietzsche's response is not to deny the potential aberrations of rhetoric but to argue, on
the contrary, that Socrates himself is a wily rhetorician who scores his points by sheer
tactical cunning." Norris writes that, "Behind all the big guns of reason and morality is a
fundamental will to persuade which craftily disguises its workings by imputing them
always to the adversary camp." (Norris 60-61). Therefore, aesthetics and poetics is the

perfect place for he that is looking to avoid rhetorical communication in his expression,
to hide.
Nevertheless, there is something inherently political in the arts. An artist who
seeks to avoid rhetorical persuasion must search long and hard for the appropriate
medium, and if it is aesthetics and poetics through which he communicates, if he wishes
to jettison communication he must make his art abstract. Nevertheless, modern art that is
devoid of form, or any art that emphasizes the aesthetics of how rather than what, or
methodology over meaning is sometimes considered democratic. In the series of
interviews entitled The Politics of Aesthetics, the French post-structural theorist, Jacques
Ranciere writes:

When Madame Bovary was published, or Sentimental Education, these works

were immediately perceived as democracy in literature despite Flauberts
aristocratic situation and political conformism. His very refusal to entrust
literature with any message whatsoever was considered to be evidence of
democratic equality []

This equality of indifference is the result of a poetic bias: the equality of all
subject matter is the negation of any relationship of necessity between a

form and a determined content. Yet what is this indifference after all if not

the very

equality of everything that comes to pass on a written page, available as it

is to

everyones eyes? This equality destroys all of the hierarchies of representation


also establishes a community of readers as a community

without legitimacy, a

community formed only by the random circulation of the written word.

(Ranciere 14)

The notion that poetry is basically rhetoricalthat, like any other kind of
published writing, poetry is intended to persuade a readership of an argumenthas its
origin in Athens no later than the sixth century BCE. At various points in the history of
poetry, individual poets and critics have resisted the conflation of poetry and rhetoric, but
the notion has been difficult to refute and overcome, given how closely the critical
tradition ties not only didacticism but also affect, effect, and teleology to poetry. In order
to be rid of rhetoric, a poet would need to be willing and able to dispense both with
emotional stimulation as an aim and with intelligible structure as a principle of
composition. Few poets have been willing to go so far, and one might argue that until the
latter half of the twentieth century almost none, even of those, have succeeded.

Throughout his long career, Ashbery has succeeded in remaining non-rhetorical in

his poetry. While he does admit that "a poet without an audience, or at least a potential
one, is nothing: that is, poetry is not a stationary object but a kinetic act, in which
something is transferred from somebody to somebody else" (Selected Prose 211), it is
mysterious what exactly Ashbery in his strange, stylized verse wishes to "transfer." And
for our purposes, this mystery proves Ashbery a successful artist. Ashbery make the

claim that his poetry possesses a kind of abstract argument, "What I like about music,"
says Ashbery "is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument through
successfully to the finish, though the terms of his argument remain unknown quantities.
Ashbery states that, "What remains is the structure, the architecture of the argument,
scene or story. I would like to do this in poetry." (Shoptaw 1) Ranciere claims that there
is an inherent connection between aesthetics and politics, especially in prose. The method
of persuasion known as dialectic is naturally democratic, as above stated. Ashberys
poetry, which strives for a sense of dialectic rather than polemic, especially in his prose
poems, however manage to be devoid of rhetoric. Therefore, as far as politics are
considered, we will consider Ashberys poetic polis to be anarchic. However, in John
Ashberys career there were select political issue that he became involved with,
sometimes equating perceived injustices with artistic expression. Touting himself as
Surrealist poet in the tradition of the French Symbolists from the prior generation, on
March 14, 1968, Ashbery signed a petition sent to the editors and published in The New
York Review of Books pertaining to the jailing of four European writers under the Soviet
During his serious stint as art critic in the 1960s, Ashbery once wrote that The
Communist adventure itself is one of Surrealisms unlikeliest non sequiturs. he wrote.

The idea that total liberty could somehow coexist with Stalinism is a truly
Surrealist notion, but if one accepts it from this point of view one must go on to
excuse the inconsequential behavior of munitions barons and concierges as part of

the surreal demiurge. The Communists understood this very well and washed their
hands of the whole disreputable bunch.

(Reported Sightings 6)

On August 13, 1981, Ashbery cosigned a petition-style letter to the editor of the New
York Review of Books, about an injustice caused to an Iranian artist that year. The poet
and playwright, Saeed Sultanpour was executed by firing squad by the then-newlyelected regime of the Ayatollahs. On August 14, 1986 he signed a petition as a letter to
the editors of the same publication for the release of Dr. Zbigniew Lewicki, Head of the
American Literature Department of Warsaw University. Again, he was jailed,
according to Ashbery, unjustly by the Soviet empire. Perhaps a poem or two have
been dedicated to a political cause, albeit usually a liberal one, but that is the extent
of Ashberys pen used as medium of rhetoric. The poetry instead is a dialectic
avenue of distraction and indetermination:

In an unpublished interview with Bill Berkson, Ashbery responded to an inquiry

about the absence of polemic in his art criticism by commenting that perhaps this
is because I feel basically disinterestednot uninterestedin art. (Bergman xix)


The Language poets, or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, called for the magazine for
which the movement is named, were a highly experimental movement of poets that
emerged on the heels of the first series of outputs in Ashbery's canon, in the late 1960s
and early 1970s.1 It is important to identify this artistic school in an attempt to understand
John Ashbery. In the book, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991),
Marjorie Perloff tries to define what the Language poets were by citing other critics,
"Eliot Weinberger dismisses Language poets as 'an endless succession of depthless
images and empty sounds, each cancelling the previous one'" (Perloff 172) Even to us,
aesthetes and literati who have grown disillusioned by, and sick of rhetorical persuasion,
or the embarrassing attempt at it, Weinberger's description of the Language poets does
not sound bad at all. Not even as bad as Perloff's own attack on Ashbery:

There are, so the common wisdom goes, a bunch of mandarin poets around (from
the Objectivists and Concrete poets to the so-called Language school, with the
well-known figure of John Ashbery squarely at the center) who have some sort of
murky relationship to Deconstruction and write meaningless and pretentious trash
that they pass off as literature. (Perloff xi)

Firstly, while a healthy understanding of deconstruction, as per Jacques Derrida

will help us understand one angle of Ashbery's writing, we must note that the poet began


publishing his verse in the 1950s, at least a decade before the birth of this philosophy that
changed the way literati interpret texts. Secondly, what Perloff deems "meaningless" is
exactly what we are looking to gratify. Thirdly, let us note, Ashbery is more sui generis
than Perloff suggests in her criticism. Ashbery once said at a National Book Awards
Symposium in 1968, "That's the trouble with all these labels like Beat, San Francisco
School, Deep Image, Objectivist, Concrete and so on. Their implication seems to be that
poetry ought to be just one thing and stick to it." (Selected Prose 113)

I have divided the following work into three separate chapters: "Beginnings,"
"Middles" and "Ends". These chapter headers are within themselves an allusion to the
purposely- jumbled teleology of Ashbery's poetry:

Like clocks out of control


(Double Dream Of Spring 30)

The chapter entitled "Beginnings" deals with classical studies of sublime language
in poetry which either is used to disguise the sense of rhetoric ("a spoonful of sugar
makes the medicine go down") or even to kill rhetoric itself. In Ashbery's poetry, as we
will find out, any attempt at sublime language, or for the sublime to come to life through
Ashbery's pen is craftily undercut and negated by the poet's careful use of language. The
second chapter entitled, "Middles" deals with the disorientating of teleology in Ashbery's
poems. That is to say, his poems have no beginnings, middles and ends, and any lines that
resemble or are characteristic of a beginning, a middle or an end, are serving the
teleological purpose of, as Susan Schultz writes, "rapidly shifting gears" 2

In Ashbery's poetry, the ethics of the ancient aesthetes and thinkers such as
Longinus are consistently insulted which is true with so much modern and postmodern
poetry. Furthermore, this sensibility in his poetic texts finds parallels in modern and
postmodern art. It is as Robert von Hallberg writes in his book, American Poetry and
Culture 1945-1980, "Ashbery rather determinately undoes systematic arrangements. The
chance elements of his poems are intended to unsettle expectations, even at the expense
of the form of his own poems." (Hallberg 54) So that Ashbery is not just recklessly
breaking all of the rules of poetics, but doing it according to some mysterious pattern.


To step free at last, miniscule on the gigantic plateau/This was our

ambition: to be small and clear and free.

(Double Dream Of Spring 30)



Beginnings: Precluding Sublimity

Achieving sublimity is the key objective of the poet, according to

Longinus. The poet accomplishes this through the use of elevated language. We might
think, therefore, that sublime art is art free of rhetorical aims and strategies. However,
Longinus makes the argument that sublimity can be concocted using certain kinds of
tropes and diction (while excluding others). Among the sublime tropes recognized by
Longinus are natural disasters, impenetrable darkness, overpowering eloquence, and
impassably huge objects. The consequence of exposure to these, when the poet deploys
them artfully, will be an audience intensely involved with the artwork and unable to be
distracted from it. Sublime language may be used to communicate as much as to bypass
rhetorical communication: when the audience is paralyzed with sublimity, messages from
the poet may be transmitted. Therefore, Ashbery has made the explicit choice to (in some
cases) evade or (in other cases) defeat sublimity as a part of his decision to evade or
defeat rhetoric. For instance, observe a portion taken from the prose poem, "Flow Chart":

I thought I knew all about you and everything

everybody could do to me but this hiatus is sui generis and I know not how to
read it/like Braille and must forever remain behind in my solicitations, derelict


in my duties,/ until a child explains it all to me. And then I'll weep
at mountainscapes, if it isnt too late
(Flow Chart 176)

The "hiatus" which the speaker refers to is his break from the tradition. Until the visceral
appeal of sublimity is explained to the poet (apparently he has heard that a child could
explain it all), we will put Longinus's rulebook aside.
Perhaps Ashberys turning toward some other tradition helps explain why his
poems are so often compared to paintings, musical compositions and even architecture.
But to say that sublime recovery could result from effects of dislocation, decentering, and slippage badly misconstrues Longinuss argument. Vertigo is not among
the sublime affects catalogued in Peri hupsous. 3
Sublimity in the world of Ashbery's poetry occurs as "A perverse light whose/
Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its/ Conceit to light up", as he puts in SelfPortrait In a Convex Mirror. Sublimity is always on the horizon, but always "The
balloon pops, the attention/ Turns dully away." Or as he puts it in "Flow Chart":

If poetry were something else entirely, not this purple weather

With the eye of a god attached, that sees


Inward and outward? What if it were only a small, other way of living,
Like being in the wind? Or letting the various settling sounds
we hear now/rest and record the effort any creature has to put forth
to summon its spirits
for a moment and then
fall silent, hoping that enough has happened?
(Flow Chart 145)

Here it seems to be the lyrical tradition itself making the effortless motion to "summon its
spirits" to achieve the sublime but only "for a moment and then/ fall silent, hoping that
enough has happened to constitute a poem. We are gently warned that in this milieu
there will be sublime teases but no real transport to the sublime and the holy. Typology
too, is kept under lock and key: "You have to improve your portrait of God/ To make it
plain." (Shadow Train 126) instructs the poet in his poem "We Hesitate." Whilst the
elements and language considered sublime, such as religious imagery "the inane
fumes of incense spiritual masturbation" (Flow Chart 175) and the aforementioned
list per Longinus, are alluded to in Ashbery's work, they are only to be glimpsed upon,
used as a bridge to escape rhetoric. For instance, in the following stanza, language itself
is the subject, as if the author is comparing himself to Horace and trying to stray as far
away from sublime language as is possible. Recall the above quoted portion of "Litany":


In the beginning of speech the question

Of frontiers is taken up again.
And the trees and buildings are porous
And the dome of heaven.
The talk leads nowhere but is/ Inside its space. (As We Know 30)

Empty spaces are a motif throughout Ashbery's repertoire, for in an empty space, all
elements of poetic tradition may be avoided. In a lecture given at Shiryauri Women's
University in Tokyo1 on May 19, 1989, Ashbery compared empty spaces 2in poetry to
empty spaces in painting3. He told his audience:

What strikes us all immediately in painting is space, or rather the illusion of

space, or rather how the artist has tried to convey that illusion. This has been a
primal concern from very early on, and the desire to communicate a sense of
space must have been for primitive artists one of those all-consuming but
seemingly impossible-to-satisfy urges, like man's attempt to fly.

(Selected Prose 212)



Of course the fancy of flight traditionally brings a sense of the sublime to the thinker.
Notice how the following line is non-rhetorical while parodying the imagistic
poetics of William Carlos Williams: "No ideas but in things,"4 and Wallace Stevens: "No
idea about the thing but the thing itself."5 Ashbery writes in the poem, "What is Poetry":
"Trying to avoid/ Ideas, as in this poemWhat was left was like a field." (Houseboat
Days 45) A field can be sublime, but if large enough, the view becomes fragmented. The
viewer suffers from a kind of myopia. In an interview with Daniel Kane, Kane asked
Ashbery: In What Is Poetry you write, Trying to avoid/ Ideas, as in this poem. Is it
possible to avoid ideas in poetry?" and Ashbery responded: "When one goes at ideas
directly, with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think
they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a
cat that will rub against your leg."6 Apropos to this, when one views a field in a valley
from the perspective of a ridge miles away they do not view a clear representation like
looking through a telescope. Instead they get the "idea" of trees, and woods. They see the
shapes and the colors. The effect is akin to looking down at a suburban area from the
window of a plane that is taking off or landing: one can only get a sense, an "idea" of
what they are viewing. Think of the transcendental imagism of the poetry of Wallace
Stevens, for example. Viewing natural scenery of immense size can also give one this
impression. Ashbery once told Peter Stitt during an interview for The Paris Review, in a
conversation about the poem "Litany," "I think I consider the poem as a sort of
environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one's environment
one can't, in fact. That is why it came out the way it did."


Ashbery, like a musician, usually evokes in his poetry an abstract feeling or a

mood, rather than an image: "Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around."
(Houseboat Days 45). "Litany" is a long poem that contains two separate columns. "The
poem is of an immense length, and there is a lack of coherence between the parts" the
poet told the interviewer from The Paris Review. The interviewer asked, "Did you see the
controversy that erupted in The New York Review about how "Litany" should be read?
Whether one should read all of voice A, then all of voice B, or intermingle them in some
way . . .[?]" Ashbery responded that, "I don't think there is any particular way." However,
the publisher of the volume requested that Ashbery put in an instruction disclaimer. The
disclaimer reads: "The two columns of Litany are meant to be read as simultaneous but
independent monologues." (As We Know 2) The content of the two columns are related in
no way and the meter and the line measure does not match, so that when a silence is
taken by voice A, voice B is still finishing their stanza. "I want to write/Poems that are as
inexact as mathematics." (As We Know 46) says Ashbery. Listening to two readers read
two poems at the same time makes it almost impossible for the listener to concentrate on
the words of either poem, or either column:

and so
I say unto you: beware the right margin
which is unjustified; the left
is justified and can take care of itself
but what is in between expands and flaps


the end sometimes past the point/of conscious inquiry, noodling in the near
infinite, off-limits. (As We Know 42)

Ergo, the artistic sensibility is not the content of the language but is instead felt or heard
in the sound of the words being spoken: the dynamics between voice A and Voice B. The
sound of both columns being read at once, is one dynamic; and the sound of one reader
pausing while the other recites, is another dynamic. The result is totally abstract, like
music. The poet and critic, Meghan O'Rourke, interpreted Ashbery's work well in an
article she wrote for Slate Magazine in January of 2005, "At the center of an Ashbery
poem isn't usually a subject ( la Philip Larkin) but a feeling ( la Jackson Pollock)
The best thing to do, then," she writes, "is not to try to understand the poems but to try to
take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most
readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.7 Given, music can induce a sublime
experience in the listener, but in "Litany," there are only particular allusions to the
medium, and universal similarities, the auditory effects of which if read by two readers
is by no means sublime. Cacophonous dissonance, yes; and this dissolves any shot at
sublimity. Music that is not sublime is referred to in "Flow Chart": "for it is like a kind
of music that comes in sideways and afterwards you aren't sure/if you heard it or not"
The poem continues, "At no time did the music seem remotely interesting. You must
always keep/ listening, though,/ otherwise, you might miss out on something." This
elusive music reminds one of the poetry itself. According to Ashbery, the structure of
anything, a building, a poem, as long as it is devoid of rhetorical intentions is, "music." In


the poem "Life as a Book That Has Been Put Down," Ashbery writes, "We have talked to
each other,/ Taken each thing only just so far,/ But in the right order, so it is music"
(April Galleons 43) In "Litany," the left column reads:

Other, a blatantly cacophonous if stirring

Symphony, with all its most
Staggeringly beautiful aspects jammed against
the lowest motives and inspirations that eve
Infected the human spirit (As We Know 38)

The words "staggeringly beautiful" are conveniently "jammed against the lowest motives
and inspirations that eve infected the human spirit," so as to avoid any concept of
sublimity. A bit further down the page, the right column reads:

In the charmed air one

Imagines one hears waltzes, landler and ecossaises
And concludes that it is literature
That is doing it, and that therefore/it must do it all the time


And back up the page, "A diversionary tactic" reads the speaker of the left column, "is
something like/ Grace, in the long run, which is what poetry is." Of course, "the
diversionary tactic" that makes it impossible to understand the poem, undercuts any
sublimity that would do justice to "Gracewhich is what poetry is." This is why the
poem is abstract in order to imitate music.
But visual arts are equally important as music in Ashberys poetic world. Now,
apropos to ORourkes reference to visual art, take for instance "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is
Her Name." The poem begins as if addressing a rhetorician who thinks in terms of
sublimity and beauty:

You cant say it that way any more.

Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing,
And rest. Certainly whatever funny happens to you
Is OK. To demand more than this would be strange
Of you....

Here there is the empty space that avoids imagistic sublimity. "into the open, into a
clearing." It is as though the classical tradition had asked Ashberys advice about a
sermon it was about to deliver and the poet tells the tradition it is by now anachronistic,
hermetic, solemn, and too demanding. Just relax, the speaker commands Longinus (or


Lessing or Burke for that matter). In the later poem, "Dreams of Adulthood," from the
volume April Galleons, Ashbery uses a similar line: "Why does he do it like that you
might ask/ Dream it like that over landscapes spotted with cream and vehement/ Holes in
the ground" (April Galleons 6) The former poem, "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her
Name," then becomes a pastiche:

About what to put in your poem-painting:
Flowers are always nice, particularly delphinium.
Names of boys you once knew and their sleds,
Skyrockets are gooddo they still exist?
There are a lot of other things of the same quality
As those Ive mentioned. Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones.

The classical trope of ut pictura poesis is lampooned by having the tradition give advice
to the poet-painter about what they should include. In his essay, Laocoon (1766), G.E.
Lessing writes that poets have long striven to create with language, what painters are able
to do on the canvas, doing justice to both effect and affect, and likewise, visual artists
have long striven to create windows into the human condition, and the psyche as poets


are able to do so effortlessly in their medium. However, in a 1967 article for Artnews
Ashbery writes: This hereditary province of poetry has been conquered by painting and
sculpture only recently (the growing involvement of poets in the plastic arts, from Valry
and Appollinaire down to todays New York, Paris and San Francisco poets, is a sign of
the times): matter had first to be pulverized before being rebuilt according to the whims
of the artist. (Reported Sightings 11) But it is not such a miracle that in Ashberys poetry
there is such a fascination with visual art. Regarding his journalism, see what David
Bergman writes in the introduction to the collection of art reviews and essays written by
Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987:


Ashberys writing on art, especially the articles for ArtNews and in Art in
America, attempted to bridge the painterly and the poetic communitiesor,
indeed, to reverse the flow of inspirationCross-pollination might produce
monsters, but it could also produce beautiful hybrids that defy conventional
(Bergman xii)

Figure 1 "Laoocon and his Son" 25 B.C. White marble. Vatican museum, Vatican
city. (


Pictured below, 19th century English poet, William Blakes version of the image is a
protest against neoclassicism. Words are scratched on to the surface in various languages
as if it were graffiti. This is the kind of beautiful hybrid Bergman is referring to in
Ashberys work.

Figure 2 Blake's Laoocon print. England. c. 1820. Blake's Laocon print, c. 1820.

In the Ashbery poem at hand, the tradition has apparently been hibernating for
some years and ponders whether the old means of achieving sublime effects are still
available (Skyrockets are gooddo they still exist?). Something more threedimensional must be breathed/ into action. (your name here 98) As for the few
important ones, and a lot of low-keyed, / Dull-sounding ones, this advice was a trope of
classical rhetoric and poetics from Aristotle to Horace to T. S. Eliot. It may be Eliots
humdrum testament that Ashbery reaches to deride:


The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic. . . . (Eliot 198)

It is not that Ashbery wants to preclude communication but that he wants it understood
from the beginning that there shall be nothing sublime about it. Communicating is a
matter of His head / Locked into mine so that these users of language become at best a
seesaw. Still, others only

...desire to understand you and desert you

For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone.
(Houseboat Days 44)

The poet wants his reader to know he has no illusions about communication. If anything
by chance is communicated in the sublime mind meld between poet and reader, the poet
knows that the reader is fickle and will move on to the next poet for another moment of


sublimity. Read in this context, the poem is ironic and even comic for its subtle allusion
to Horace's "Ars Poetica":

If a painter had chosen to set a human head on a horses neck, covered a melding
of limbs, everywhere, with multi-coloured plumage, so That what was a lovely
woman, at the top, Ended repulsively in the tail of a black fish: Asked to a
viewing, could you stifle laughter, my friends?
(Horace 106)

Likewise, could the reader of Ashbery's "poem-painting" stifle laughter when "Suddenly
the street was/ Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments."? Horace writes,
Believe me, a book would be like such a picture, Dear Pisos, if its idle fancies were so
conceived That neither its head nor foot could be related To a unified form. But painters
and poets Have always shared the right to dare anything. His poem perhaps anticipates
the plastic Surrealism and self-conscious allusion to the cognitive process of poetic
composition that is also a theme of Ashbery's poem. Is Ashbery's poem as much an echo
of Horace as an exaggeration of Lessing's ethos?

For Ashbery the art critic turned poet-painter, the work begins as translation and
exegesis, two self-abnegating, disinterested acts that attempt to establish the
world of objects as they move and are perceived. Then the coolly objective


gives way to the passionate subjective. His poem And Ut Pictura Poesis Is
Her Name can serve as a paradigm of this process.
(Bergman xix)

The Vermont Notebook (1975) is a volume that Ashbery did with Joe Brainard.
For every page, Brainard illustrates, in black and white, an object that is mentioned in
Ashberys text. For all of the text per page Ashbery will mention any number of objects
and thoughts Brainard focuses on word and draws a simple picture opposite the text.
The effect is, once again, a jest at the ancient intersection of ut pictura poesis. Neither the
sketching nor the poetry seeks to honor any form of determination.

Just how I feel/ I feel today. (your name here 74) Another example of the stray
from elevated language is found in the poem "Paradoxes and Oxymorons." The statement
that "This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level." opens the beginning
stanza. It evokes Eliot's "Little Gidding V." Also, in the last poem, the speaker made this
reference, "Humdrum testaments were scattered around." In "Paradoxes and
Oxymorons," the author makes no attempt to 'transport' (to borrow a term from Longinus)
his reader to any place, mental or otherwise. The language is by no means elevated: the
poem is "concerned" strictly with "language on a very plain level." Then how can the


poem capture the attention of the reader, embedding its inferences in him forever, as
sublime poetry must, according to Longinus?

Look at it talking to you. You look out a window

Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you dont have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The reader does not faint, or weep, does not become transfixed. The reader, here
addressed in the second person looks "out a window" or pretends "to fidget."

it was traditional to feel this way.

(Girls on the Run 11)

What is being emphasized is that such distracted behavior is not the reaction of the reader
of sublime poetry. Indeed "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" does not evoke a sensibility of
terror or awe. All of the emotional content is strictly minimalist, "The poem is sad
because it wants to be yours, and cannot." It does not make a lasting impression on the
reader, imagistic or otherwise, but instead leaves the reader with a dismal sense. The
message, similar to "And Ut Pictura Poesis is Her Name" addresses and negates the
classical tradition of sublime language in poetry:


Whats a plain level? It is that and other things,

Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,

As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only

To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you arent there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.
(Shadow Train 31)

When Ashbery discusses Abstract Expressionism, he frequently characterizes it as an

outgrowth of Surrealism. (Bergman xiv) Ashbery cites modern painters to be among the


salient inspirations for his lyric. He once wrote that, Surrealism isthe connecting link
among any number of current styles thought to be mutually exclusive, such as Abstract
Expressionism, Minimalism and color-field painting. (Reported Sightings 7)
The poem, "The Painter" from Ashbery's early volume, Some Trees (1956) is an
allegorical narrative. In the first stanza of "The Painter," the protagonist, a painter sits
with his back to the cultural establishment, facing sublime nature, and planning to paint
its portrait.

Sitting between the sea and the buildings

He enjoyed painting the sea's portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.

The painter is not able to capture the majesty of the subject he wishes to paint. The sea
creates a feeling that is so sublime, it is like a prayer, and the painter would be foolish to
think he can do it justice:

So there was never any paint on his canvas


Until the people who lived in the buildings

Put him to work: "Trying using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter's moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer."

How could he explain to them his prayer

That nature, nor art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

Now, not satisfied with the portrait of his wife, even painting her "vast, like ruined
buildings" the painter again attempts a portrait. However, he cannot succeed at capturing
what is as sublime as a prayer, in the name of art:

Imagine a painter crucified by his subjects!

Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: "We haven't a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,


Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!" (Some Trees 54)

The painter learns his lesson, not to paint what is sublime. Remember, he succeeded at
painting a portrait of his wife "Making her vast, like ruined buildings," but not the
incomparable sea. "And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush/As though his subject
had decided to remain a prayer." (Some Trees 55)

The zenith of John Ashbery's shunning of sublime tropes and language is perhaps
The Tennis Court Oath, (1957) the follow-up to Some Trees (1956) in which not only is
rhetorical communication jettisoned but so are such rules of the English language as
syntax and grammar. At first, the highly abstract volume was not received well. Harold
Bloom wrote of it in his essay, "John Ashbery: The Charity of the Hard Moments"8:
"How could Ashbery collapse into such a bogjust six years after Some Trees, and how
did he climb out of it again to write Rivers and Mountains?"9 However, the poet and
novelist Peter Straub writes in the Fall 2007 issue of "Conjunctions":

Once I was able to respond to Ashbery's second book as a collection of

particularly adventurous, not to mention tremendously stylish, avant-garde poems


and not some kind of natural phenomenon like an earthquake, I realized that
nothing I had been taught about literature need necessarily apply, that the concept
of 'rules' could be seen as irrelevant to the actual process, that no matter what
anybody said, a certain randomness was built into works of literature, and that the
border between what appears to be sense and what is experienced as nonsense is
so porous as to be liminal.10

It was exactly the stray from sublimity that Straub identified with. Perhaps the title of one
of the poems, "Europe," is facetiously meant to evoke the centuries-old tradition of
poetics that began on the Continent, in which sublimity played a central role. Apparently,
the entire volume is meant to pay homage to the Abstract Expressionist painters of the
day, and this is where the title of the volume comes from. The critic John Shoptaw

The title of the volume comes from Jacques-Louise David's famous painting of
the Fathers of the French Revolution, The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791). One
study for the painting depicts a few painted heads of revolutionaries atop nude
bodies. In the artistic ambiance of the late 1950s, David's unfinished painting
resembled the erased and purposely unfinished canvases of de Kooning and
Rivers. Juxtaposed with "unfinished" paintings such as these, the revolutionary
undress of Ashbery's title shows through. (Shoptaw 45)


Therefore, we can conclude that the message of the volume is an assault on classicism.
The original painting by Jacques-Louise David (1792) depicts the fathers of the French
Revolution, fearing an attack by King Louis XVI, they according to historical records
gathered a makeshift conference on a tennis court, near the palace of Versailles and took
an oath not to separate and not to give in to the authority of the monarchy. The famous
painting was completed three years after the historical event took place.

Figure 3 "The Tennis Court Oath, 20th June 1789" by Jacques Louis David.
Paris. 1791. oil on canvas. (


Perhaps, what Ashbery intended with his variation of the title of the painting for the title
of his volume, was a stand against classical standards of aesthetics and poetics; a
testament to the days of late Abstract Expressionism and Dada. He once wrote,
Surrealism is very much alive, but it remains so in spite of the politics and court
etiquette which he has sought to impose on it. (Reported Sightings 4) Certainly, The
Oath of the Tennis Court symbolized the theme of the French Revolution, an assault on
nobility and a triumph for the bourgeoisie, as John Ashbery's poetry is an assault on
noble diction and sublime language.
Observe the poem, "Europe," for instance:

To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
Of the mouth
cannot understand
feels deeply)
A wave of nausea


a few berries

The poem distances itself from its reader in terms of making any kind of rhetorical sense,
more so perhaps, than any Ashbery has ever written. It is as if the poem is written in a
"special language/ Kept secret from the others." (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 3)
Perhaps the mode of composition itself, as is true with much post-Formalist art, is the
subject. However, Ashbery leaves his readers out of the compositional loop: "I can't let
them see me writing./ Come tomorrow, I'll show you how I write" (As Umbrellas
Follow Rain 15) In a lecture Ashbery once gave he referred to this habit of leaving the
audience isolated at times and certainly out of the compositional loop: "Unfortunately,"
he said, "I'm not very good at explaining my work. I once tried to do this in a questionand-answer period with some students of my friend Richard Howard, after which he told
me," explained Ashbery, "They wanted the key to your poetry, but you presented them
with a new set of locks." (Other Traditions 4)



a notice:

In "Europe," as in most poems from this particular volume, neither the language nor the
imagism evokes any sublime sense. Instead, words themselves, nouns such as "water"
and verbs such as "thinking" are treated as objects, such as in readymade art. The Tennis
Court Oath has also been considered to fall under the genre called the New Realism. In
a 1965 essay, Ashbery wrote:

The New Realism is the European term for the art of today which in one way or
another makes use of the qualities of manufactured objects. As the name
indicates, it is (like Surrealism) another kind of Realism that movement which
began in the nineteenth century at the same time that machines and machine-made
objects began to play such an important part in daily life.

In her 1965 work, Against Interpretation, an Ashbery contemporary, the unruly critic
Susan Sontag wrote:


Interpretation does not, of course, always prevail. In fact, a great deal of today's
art may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation. To avoid
interpretation, art may become parody. Or it may become abstract. Or it may
become ("merely") decorative. Or it may become non-art.

What Sontag calls non-art evokes the school of Dada, born in post-World War I Zurich,
and the volume The Tennis Court Oath, reminds us of this, especially the poem,
"Europe." Sontag writes:

The flight from interpretation seems particularly a feature of modern painting.

Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since
there is no content, there can be no interpretation. Pop Art work by the opposite
means to the same result; using a content so blatant, so "what it is," it, too, ends
by being uninterpretable.

Clearly, Ashbery's "Europe" is beyond interpretation. Sontag continues:

A great deal of modern poetry as well, starting from the great experiments of
French poetry (including the movement that is misleadingly called Symbolism) to


put silence into poems and to reinstate magic of the word, has escaped from the
rough grip of interpretation.
(Sontag 10)

In "Europe," we clearly see what Sontag implies in "put silence into poems and reinstate
magic of the word." As Dada is anti-art, and deconstruction: anti-philosophy an insult
to tradition so is this work to poetry. "Other dreams came and left while the bank/ Of
colored verbs and adjectives was shrinking from the light/" (Self Portrait in a Convex
Mirror 9) Language itself, plain language, as the subject of the work, is strangely placed
on a numbered list. If the words on the list were moved around and put in different
numerical spaces on the list, it would make no rhetorical difference. Such aleatory
composition introduces a theme of movable parts that Ashbery will return to in different
ways time again in his career, and certainly serves to prevent any sense of sublimity from
being painted. This poem in particular resembles a text that has been disassembled,
emptying itself of any possible rhetorical meaning. Syntax is tossed out the window, and
the reader of the poem may extract any meaning from the mysterious list that the words
chosen by the poet, may possibly imply. Neoclassicists would not have scoffed; they
would have cast their eyes over the poem, and not even recognized it as being intended as
lyric. Ashbery once wrote, New Realism is not new. Even before Duchamp produced
the first ready-made, Appollinaire had written that the true poetry of our age is to be
found in the window of a barbershop. (Reported Sightings 82) Perhaps the only remotely
comparable literary undertaking came from the modernists of the prior generation. For


instance, Gertrude Stein's dramatic poem, "A List," may have inspired the aleatory verse
of The Tennis Court Oath:

Martha: not interesting.

Maryas: Precluded.
Martha: Not interesting.
Marius: challenged.
Martha and Maryas: Included.
Maryas: If we take Marius.
Mabel: And an old window and still.
Mabel, Martha and Maryas: Various re-agents make me see victoriously.
Maryas: In as we thrust them trust them trust them thrust them in. In as we brush
them, we do not brush them in. In as we trust them in.
Mabel, Martha and Mabel and Martha: Susan Mabel Martha and Susan, Mabel
and Martha and a father. There was no sinking there, there was no placid carrier.
Martha: not interesting.
Maryas: Not included.
Mabel: And an old window and still.
Marius: Exchange challenge.
(Stein 243-255)


The first line of the play, "not interesting" may attest to Stein's protest against
cathartic drama, such as tragedy, though, the text is a prime example of aleatory
writing that evades sublime language. After all, what could be less sublime than a
list? The syntax is still connected, unlike as in "Europe" and other poems from The
Tennis Court Oath, but there still is the spirit of isolating the audience. If the work
was entertainingly rhetorical, it would miss the point, such as the case with so much
preceding poetry where "The problemis its high readability." (April Galleons 31)
Ashbery considers Gertrude Stein a "major poet" who is among his list of influences. He
said once during a lecture, "W.H. Auden, chronologically the first and therefore the most
important influence, as well as Gertrude Stein." (Other Traditions 4) In 1971, Ashbery
wrote an essay about Stein in ArtNews magazine, it may be read in the book John
Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987. Samuel Beckett, too, engaged in
such writing such as in the dramatic production entitled, "Play" (1963). But the influence
of Stein on Ashbery is the salient factor here, amplifying the echo of the Modernist
legend into the canon of a poet who would stretch the Dadaist vision into a new
millennium. The critic John Shoptaw writes in his book, On the Outside Looking Out:
The Poetry of John Ashbery:

Probably the most urgent of the incitements to The Tennis Court Oath was the
poetry of Gertrude Stein. In a 1957 review of Stein's Stanzas in Meditation
Ashbery singled out the syntagmatic, relational character of the 1932 title poem,


Made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as "where,"

"which," "these," "of,"though now and then Miss Stein throws in an
orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our
world, that she has been talking about. The result is like certain
monochrome de Kooning paintings in which isolated strokes of color take
on a deliciousness they never could have had out of context, or a piece of
music by Webern in which a single note on the celesta suddenly irrigates a
whole desert of dry, scratchy sounds in the strings.
Ashbery will later describe his own poem "Europe" in similar termsThree
Steinian narrative poems in this collection"Idaho," "Europe," and "'They Dream
only of America"extend the experiments of Some Trees by incorporating actual
written and oral documents.
(Shoptaw 52)

However random it may be to lift a copy of The Tennis Court Oath today from the
bookshelf and try and make sense of the bizarre poetry, the original release of the volume
did however leave his readers with a clue to the rhyme and reason behind the mysterious
compositions. According to John Shoptaw:

In the "statement of intent" which appeared on the dust jacket of The Tennis
Court Oath without his content (and was later suppressed), Ashbery announced: "I
attempt to use words abstractly, as an abstract painter would use paint. (I have


perhaps been more influenced by modern painting and music than by

poetry.)As with the abstract painters, my abstraction is an attempt to get a
greater, more complete kind of realism." (Shoptaw 45)

But if there ever was a movement known as the New Realism it belonged to Ashberys
art criticism as well as this volume of poems:

The explosion of Dada cleared the air by bringing these new materials
violently to the attention of the public. Todays New Realists are not neoDadaists in the sense that they copy the Dadaists; they are using a
language which existed before Dada and has always existed. The way
back to this language is what Dada forcibly laid bare.
(Reported Sightings 82)

The New Realists that Ashbery refers to in the third-person he so well represents in his
personal aesthetics. But why the object? he asks in an old article:

Why are objects any more or less important than anything else? The answer is that
they are not, and that, I think, is the secret of their popularity with these artists.
They are a common ground, a neutral language understood by everybody, and
therefore the ideal material with which to create experiences which transcend the
objects (and which transcend them all the more effectively when they seem least


to, as in the work of several artists in this group whose policy is simply to leave
the objects alone).
(Reported Sightings 82)

W. H. Auden, who awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize to Ashbery in 1956,
wrote (in the aftermath of World War II) that sublimity was inartistic and much more
likely to be brought about by monster rallies at which ten thousand girl guides form
themselves into the national flag than by a poem.11 In the poem "Grand Gallop,"
Ashbery writes: "But I was trying to tell you about a strange thing/ That happened to me,
but this is no way to tell about it. Whatever the speaker of the poem can make truly
happen must shortly be forced to drift away in fragments." Ashbery is in retreat, in
"Grand Gallop" and other poems, from The whole mad organizing force (whether the
force be rhetorical and aesthetic, or rhetorical and political) that hides or nestles under
the billows of correct delight." The phrase correct delight may be an allusion to any of
countless essays in rhetorically based poetics, since the time of Horace, which insist that
poetry must delight the reader, however, this delight must be of an approved variety. (Self
Portrait in a Convex Mirror 14) Observe the poem, "A Mood of Quiet Beauty" from the
volume, April Galleons (1987):


The evening was light was like honey in the trees

When you left me and walked to the end of the street
Where the sunset abruptly ended.

And then the sublime imagery takes a pratfall:

The wedding-cake drawbridge lowered itself

To the fragile forget-me-not flower.
You climbed aboard.

The speaker is referring to the effect of elevated language and sublime imagery on the
reader. In the following stanza, the sublime tensions builds and builds, but becomes

Burnt horizons suddenly paved with golden stones,

Dreams I had, including suicide,
Puff out the hot-air balloon now.
It is bursting, it is about to burst


With something invisible

Just during the days.
We hear, and sometimes learn,
Pressing so close
(April Galleons 8)

A similar aesthetic, perhaps, underwrites the following characteristically Ashberian line:

It had meant to be sublime, but hell was / what it more specifically resembled
(Planisphere 75). Even the word sublime is undercut by its association with hell.
Ashbery sometimes makes no effort to avoid the noble diction which Longinus
prescribes as a step towards the poetic sublime: "Excuse me while I fart." (Flow Chart
201) Instead, Ashbery forces noble diction to take a pratfall, and much of the time, this
pratfall comes first. Nobility is undercut before its arrival, as in this passage: "Like
having wine and cheese./ The parents of the town/ Pissing elegantly escape knowledge"
(As We Know 1). Or the element of romance not so much precluded, but scoffed at or
ignored. Sometimes, "noble diction" is simply attacked, and no effort is made to remain
conciliatory: "The rudeness that poetry often brings after decades of silence will help,"
(Hotel Lautramont 14) and introduces the use of cold and perverse homoeroticism to
reject the standards of the tradition. For example the line, Once I let a guy blow me./ I
kind of back away from the experience./ Now years later, I think of it/ Without
emotion." (Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror 22) from "Poem in Three Parts," the
crassness of which is perhaps preceded only by the Beat poets; this precluding of


Romantic language is also evidenced in the opening line of the poem, "Her Cardboard
Lover," which reads, "The way you look tonight/is perishable, unphotographable,
laughable." (Chinese Whispers 72) Apropos, the poet and critic, Triston Tzara once said,
"The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust." (Rubin 12) So
Ashbery's poetry being couched with the greater school of Dada does not remain such a
mystery. In an article entitled The Heritage of Dada and Surrealism published in The
New Republic on June 1, 1968, Ashbery wrote:

Mir, the other great Surrealist painter, resembles de Chirico; both men in their
very different ways solved the question of dealing in plastic terms with materials
from the unconscious which in lesser hands remained literature often moving,
it is true, but always a little disappointing since it seems cast adrift in an alien
(Bergman 8)

In another poem, "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," from the

volume, The Double Dream of Spring (1976) (named after the painting by the 20th
century Greek-Italian Surrealist painter, Giorgio de Chirico), dramatic imagery and a
romantic plot is spliced by an episode of Popeye. De Chirico was one of Ashberys major
influences stylistically. In a 1967 article for ArtNews he wrote, In fact de Chiricos later


metaphysical pictures, as Goldwater reminds us, seal the perspectives of with twodimensional objects recalling Cubist planes.

In Carpaccio, for instance, a detail in the foreground will often seem

inextricably welded to something in the background, as in St. Ursula and the
Prince Taking Leave, where a stranded ship in the middle distance seems
part and parcel of the distant mountain behind it; there is something
strangely satisfying in this intimate joining of objects that would normally
not cross each others paths. The device has been used in our time, notably by
Dali, in his double-image paintings

Adding that, De Chiricos earlier metaphysical paintings are not a phenomenon

isolated from the mainstream of modern art, but an attempt like Cubism to enlarge
the artists sphere of action by changing the rules of space.
(Reported Sightings 11)

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant

Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and


She grabbed Swee'pea. "I'm taking the brat to the country."
"But you can't do that--he hasn't even finished his spinach,"
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

Figure 4 Giorgio de Chirico. "The Double Dream of Spring". MoMA, New York.
Oil on canvas, 1915.
The marriage of the natural sublime and the romantic to Popeye is an example of the
precluding of elevated language and spiritual transport. It also suggests a bourgeoisie


coup on elitist art: "But enough of/this self-congratulation in Aegean sunrises. Who are
we, after all? And who needs profundity?" (Flow Chart 201) "Farm Implements and
Rutabagas in a Landscape" continues:

Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,

The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.12

As can be observed, this poem places the ugly mask of comedy over the sublime face of
proper poetry. The theme of this poem from way earlier in Ashberys career is visited
again and again in his later work as a collage artist:


Figure 5 The 'Little' Tower of Babel

collage, digitized print
6 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches


Figure 6 Hotel Negresco/2010/collage/6 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches


Certainly, Ashbery and the New York School of poets of which he was part as
well as the artistic school of Dada of which he was an extension marked, as did
modernism, the end of an artistic era and the shattering of an aesthetic law. It was, for all

intents and purposes, anti-art, as The Tennis Court Oath may be considered anti-poetry,
Stein's "A List," anti-theatre. As the artist Jean Arp once wrote, "Dada wished to destroy
the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order (ordre deraisonnable)
(Rubin12). As for the meaning of using classical mythology, Ashbery writes in the prose
poem, "The Ice Storm":

How natural then to retreat

into what we have been doing, trying to capture the old songs, the idiot/games
whose rules have been forgotten. "Here we go Looby, looby." (April Galleons 91)

(Ashbery published this poem again in 1987 with Hanuman Books, singularly as a pocket
sized edition. and Here we go Looby is also the title of a poem from Ashberys 2000
volume, your name here). In the volume known as Houseboat Days (1977), Ashbery
writes in the poem, "Breezy Stories," yet another allusion to shattering the table of
aesthetic laws:

And on top of all this one must still learn to judge the quality
Of those moments when it becomes necessary to break the rule,
To relax standards, bring light and chaos
Into the order of the house


(House Boat Days 100)

The sentiment is also expressed here in the later work, Flow Chart, in which the
sentiments expressed in The Tennis Court Oath, for instance are now anachronistic in a
post-Cage artistic frontier:

And as for me, sad to say,

I could never bring myself to offer my experiments the gift of objective,
scientific/evaluation. Anything rather than that! So I feel I have
Wandered too long in the halls of the nineteenth century: its exhibits,
Talismas, prejudices, erroneous procedures and doomed expeditions are but too/
To me; I must shade my eyes from the light with my hands, the light of the
explosion of the upcoming twentieth century.
(151 Flow Chart)



The work that I am now concluding did not deal with aleatory aesthetics as they
pertain to all artistic media, but rather the aleatory means of John Ashbery. In order to
provide a background to the aesthetics and poetics that inspire John Ashbery and the
philosophy his work inspires in us, some background must be given. Ashbery claims such
artistic trends as Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and experimental music as
his influences, (Ashbery has a bent also for the creation of plastic art, evidenced by his
wonderful collages), and this has been recognized by his critics. Harold Bloom once
wrote that "Ashbery's various styles have suggested affinities to various composertheorists like Cage and Cowell, to painters of the school of Kline and Pollock." (Bloom
18) An interviewer from The Paris Review (Peter Stitt) once asked Ashbery:

I suppose there are many things we might expect from a poet who has so strong
an interest in painting as you do. Various critics have suggested that you are a
Mannerist in words, or an Abstract Expressionist. Are you conscious of anything
like thator perhaps of performing a Cubist experiment with words?

To which the poet replied:


I suppose the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is a Mannerist work in what I

hope is the good sense of the word. Later on, Mannerism became mannered, but
at first it was a pure noveltyParmigianino was an early Mannerist, coming right
on the heels of Michelangelo.

Figure 7 "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror". by Parmigiano. c. 1524. Oil on

canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
ortrait.jpg )
This largely describes what Ashbery has consistently strived to do with his poetry. While
it is clear, as Bloom earlier stated, Ashbery's verse is tempered by the music and visual


art of his contemporaries, this specific cadre The New York School and beyond held
similar aesthetic objectives as the "Mannerist painting of the late 16th and early 17th
centuries" As Susan Sontag mentions in her collection of essays, Against
Interpretation, " Artists such as Parmigianino, Pontormo, Rosso, Bronzino, such as
Gaud, Guimard, Beardsley, and Tiffany, in some obvious way cultivate style." She
discusses what she calls "the autonomy of aesthetics." Sontag writes of the Mannerists,
"They seem to be preoccupied with stylistic questions and indeed to place the accent less
on what they are saying than on the manner of saying it." Of Parmigianino, Ashbery once
wrote it is hard to remain unmoved by his craftsmanship at the service of a sense of
the mystery behind physical appearances, which makes him a precursor of de Chirico
Beyond the "Mannerist painting of the late 16th and early 17th centuries," Ashbery,
as Harold Bloom correctly identifies, is perhaps even in his sui generis style of poetry,
easily classified as Language poetry inspired more by Cubism and Abstract
Expressionism, if not as well by art nouveau. Ashbery told Peter Stitt during an interview
for The Paris Review:

I have probably been influenced, more or less unconsciously I suppose, by the

modern art that I have looked at. Certainly the simultaneity of Cubism is
something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the Abstract Expressionist idea
that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an anti-


referential sensuousness, but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the

page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that.

This work has sought to identify exactly what Mr. Ashbery intends by his verse being
"more indirect" than the Pollockian comparison of "flinging a bucket of words on the
page," which under first impressions, sums up Ashbery's work well better in certain
temporal corridors of his long and prolific career than others. As for evoking the early
Mannerists, read what Vasari writes about Parmigianinos Self Portrait in a Convex
Mirror a painting for which once of Ashberys best known books is titled:

One day he began to paint himself with the help of a convex barbers mirror.
Noticing the curious distortions of the buildings and doors caused by the mirror,
he conceived of the idea of reproducing it all. Accordingly he had a ball of wood
made, and cutting it out to make it the same size and shape as the mirror, he set to
work to copy everything that he saw there, including his own likeness, in the most
natural manner imaginable.

As things near the mirror appear large, while they diminish as they recede, he
made a hand with wonderful realism, somewhat large as the mirror showed it.
Being a handsome man, with the face of an angel rather than a man, his reflection
in the ball appeared divine. He was most successful with the luster of his glass:
the reflections, shadows and lights: in fact human ingenuity could go no further.


(Reported Sightings 32)

Comparisons are made between modern and postmodern art and Ashbery's poetry
because of its fragmented and ambiguous nature, and the parallel is easily learned. In
fact, Ashbery once said, "I originally intended to be a painter, and when I was young
thought of myself as a painterwell, as a potential or future painter." (Selected Prose
211) However, there is a difference between Ashbery's poetry and Surrealist and Abstract
Expressionist painting, such as Pollock, as Ashbery tells us. First of all, according to
Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism, this art (Surrealist) is based on Automatism, that
is, the subconscious. The oval portrait/ of a dog was me at an early age. (your name
here 3) This school of art emerged from the scientific work of Sigmund Freud whose
studies of dream interpretation and unconscious behavioral patterns opened the doors to
the modernist era. When John Ashbery was interviewed by Peter A. Stitt for The Paris
Review, in the winter of 1983, in a piece entitled, "The Art of Poetry No. 33," the poet
was asked if he agrees with the sentiment that "Many poets have spoken of poetry
coming from the subconscious mind rather than the conscious mind." To which the poet


I think that is where it probably starts out, but I think that in my case it passes
through the conscious mind on its way out and is monitored by it. I don't believe
in automatic writing as the Surrealists were supposed to have practiced it, simply
because it is not a reflection of the whole mind, which is partly logical and
reasonable, and that part should have its say too.13

Aside from what Ashbery says of his poetry being to words "less direct" than what
Pollock was to painting, while Ashbery's work reminds one of aleatory art, there is in fact
nothing aleatory about it.

After a third mishap we decided/ to throw in meaning. No dice.

(your name here 17)

That is to say, it is not based on chance, or as heretofore mentioned, on a stream-ofconsciousness, but rather, it is planned abstraction.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the world 'aleatory' means:
"depending on an uncertain event or contingency as to both profit and loss," and "relating
to luck and especially bad luck." The origin of the word is from the Latin, "aleatorius of
a gambler, from aleator gambler, from alea a dice game." However, such Western
thinking, based on an ancient Roman dice game has much in common with Chinese


philosophy, namely the I Ching or the Chinese Book of Changes, which some artists such
as John Cage, used as a guide for composing. What Cage has in common with John
Ashbery is that both artists seek to extricate their personalities from their art, and they are
both quite successful in doing so. This style of composition was based on an aesthetic
that Cage shared with the father of Dada, Marcel Duchamp. In fact, in 1968, Duchamp
and Cage performed a concert they called "Reunion", in which they played a game of
chess and composed aleatory music by "triggering a series of photoelectric cells
underneath the chessboard." Yet another example of the phenomenon that John Cage
refers to as art in which "the composer resembles the maker of a camera who allows
someone else to take the picture," is the novel Hopscotch by the Argentinean writer, Julio
Cortzar. The novel opens with the following disclaimer:

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.
The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close
of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End.
Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.
The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the
sequence indicated at the end of each chapter. In case of confusion or
forgetfulness, one need only consult the following list:



64-155-123-145-122-112-154-85-150-95-146-29-107-113-30-57-70-147-31-32132-61-33-67-83-142-34-87-105-96-94-91-82-99-35-121-36-37-98-38-39-86-7840-59-41-148-42-75-43-125-44-102-45-80-46-47-110-48-111-49-118-50-119-5169-52-89-53-66-149-54-129-139-133-140-138-127-56-135-63-88-72-77-131-58131Each chapter has its number at the top of every right-hand page to facilitate the

No matter the order in which the reader approaches the novel, it remains fairly non-linear
and involves dialogue concerned mostly with modern art and improvisational jazz music,
so that the work is aleatory on a macrocosmic level and deals with aleatory art on a
microcosmic level:

There was something like a circle of chalk around Etienne and Oliveira and she
wanted to get inside, to understand why the principle of indetermination was so
important in literature, why Morelli, of whom they spoke so much, whom they
admired so much, wanted his book to be a crystal ball in which the micro- and the
macrocosm would come together in an annihilating vision. (Cortazar 25)

This is only one example of indeterminacy in art where "the composer resembles the
maker of a camera who allows someone else to take the picture," however, aleatory art in


its purest form is art left entirely up to chance. John Cage's "Imaginary Landscape (for 12
radios)" and "Music of Changes" are solo piano pieces, the latter of which was composed
in 1951. The composition process for both involves the I Ching, which is used to
determine the selection of sounds, tempi, densities, durations and dynamics. The
composition score for Music of Changes involves a chart that is 8 x 8 cells in order to
work in concert with the I Ching that consists of 64 hexagrams. The sound of the music is
bizarre, dissonant and aleatory.

Figure 8 John Cage Music of Changes 1951.

In his book After the Wake, the late Oxford professor, Christopher Butler, writes,
"So far as music is concerned, chance operations and performer choice were originally
seen in Europe as offering a path divergent from the strict controls of the serialist mode,
and the result was Stockhausen's Klavierstuck XI, of 1956" Butler ties the parallel of
the aleatory aesthetic in music to that of visual art. He writes, "In all these cases, one may


feel that there was a strong influence from the visual artsmusic becomes in some
instances a kind of audible mobile, of fixed elements but no constant outline. This is, I
think, particularly true of Klavierstuck XI, in which we have 'controlled chance.'"
As it turns out, Stockhausen was deeply influenced by Cage. He once said, "Cage
is the craziest spirit of combination I have ever come across;he has that indifference
towards everything known and experienced that is necessary for an explorer." (Maconie
140) Stockhausen was also influenced by the American avant-garde and especially by
Stockhausen and Cage designed their music by controlled chance. Not so,
Ashbery. With Ashbery, the outcome is also very abstract as in the aforementioned
music, yet it is done deliberately, the poet choosing language from his palette as he
pleases, not determined by a throw of the dice or a consultation with the I Ching. The
critic Robert von Hallberg writes, "to reduce the daily variety of life to a manageable
variant is to submit rather thoroughly to a system; once submission is comprehensive,
freedom can only come by means of transcendence, a breaking away." (Hallberg 55). In
the compositions of Stockhausen and Cage, the composer wears the blindfold while
chance plays the instrument. In the writing of Julio Cortzar, the reader directs the opus,
but in Ashbery, the poet is totally in control, and the only one left baffled and out of
control is the reader. Robert von Hallberg writes, "Ashbery's point is that those
moments when the disarray of apparently random movements slips into a rational,
intelligible order are indeed marvels, and these are the words that have kept faith with the
ordinary perception of that order." (Hallberg 60) It would be like claiming that the clouds
in the sky are in fact material forms, or saying that one finds a systematic pattern in a


Jackson Pollock drip piece. Pollock, however, had nothing to hide about his highly
abstract "drip paintings." In fact, he even made a film showing himself in the process of
creation, something the mysterious John Ashbery would never be caught in the act of
(leave the exception, the front book cover of the work entitled, The Tribe of John
Ashbery: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Susan M. Schultz and published
in 1995, that features a collection of essays on Ashbery written by the leading
contemporary critics. The cover of the volume features a photograph collage that depicts
the middle-aged poet sitting down on a low seat before an electric typewriter, probably
composing poetry. It is not, perhaps, as romantic as seeing Jackson Pollock at work).
Jackson Pollock once said, "There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that
my pictures didn't have any beginning, middle or end. He didn't mean it as a compliment
but it was." (Butler 20) This lack of teleology in painting may be said to resemble the
lack of teleological magnitude in Ashbery's poetry that was addressed in the concluding
work; or the lack of determinate structure in Julio Cortzar's Hopscotch. Christopher
Butler writes, "Many of the conventions for 'harmony' and relation were thus overthrown.
Pollock's is an art, like that of Stockhausenwhich disorientates, and leaves far more for
the spectator to do." (Butler 21) The reader of John Ashbery, presented with a mysterious
web of fragmented ideas, images and thoughts, too, is faced with such bafflement. Like
Pollock, Ashbery's poetry stresses the individual. That is to say, the aleatory means of
John Ashbery hosts a turning inward, as opposed to Cage, Duchamp, Stockhausen and
Cortzar whose art shows a turning outward to attain an aleatory feel. Robert von
Hallberg writes:


Ashbery's style always claims that the most banal and chancy of urban
experiences can in fact support the intense scrutiny associated with meditative
poetry. Baudelaire said that "Chance has no more place in art than in mechanics,"
and Mallarm believed that "No successful poem can be written by Chance."
Ashbery, perhaps humbler than these French poets, or less in need of writing only
successful poems, has set himself against this line of thought, in order to speak for
those areas of daily experience that are least susceptible to the shapeliness of art.
(Hallberg 60-61)

Talismas, prejudices, erroneous procedures and doomed expeditions are but too/
To me; I must shade my eyes from the light with my hands, the light of the
explosion of the upcoming twentieth century.
(151 Flow Chart)



Endings: Overcoming Didacticism

Peter Stitt, writing for The Paris Review once asked John Ashbery during an
interview, "Is the issue of meaning or message something that is uppermost in your mind
when you write?" To which the poet responded:

Meaning yes, but message no. I think my poems mean what they say, and
whatever might be implicit within a particular passage, but there is no message,
nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am
writing. Many critics tend to want to see an allegorical meaning in every concrete
statement, and if we just choose a line at random, I think we will find this isn't the

way it works: As I sit looking out a window of the building/ I wish I did not have
to write the instruction manual on/ the uses of a new metal (Some Trees 14)

Striving away from allegorical writing, for example, is a slap in the face of classical
poetics. Ashbery's art is from another world:

None of it helped much,

Not even my beloved Philosophy,

Sitting dejected, hands in her lap,

Moving her head slowly from side to side.

"You naughty, wicked boy

(Chinese Whispers 59)

The female subject of the poem just quoted feels unhappy about having to sit politely,
like a proper woman should. She is painted here as "sitting dejected, hands in her lap"
In the poem "Reminiscences of Norma, Ashbery writes:


Knowledgeably, she is knowledgeable about many things

the stars in their errant orbits, a bud

sliding over a hibiscus, a cloud like a frown

on the face of a teddy bear. And then, more stuff.

The inquisitors were endlessly patient, amused

you had to be, in that business.

And if they liked your answer, you were free.

(Chinese Whispers 61)

It is evident that Ashbery resents providing a moral in his art, or even fulfilling an ethical
standard of modernist aesthetics. This would not be conducive to non-rhetorical writing:
art that dos not seek to persuade. Observe the strange objects the third-person subject of
the poem must be "knowledgeable about" in order to be set free by the "inquisitors": "the
stars in their errant orbits, a bud sliding over a hibiscus, a cloud like a frown on the face
of a teddy bear.") We shall not therefore, as critics, or patrons of poesy, look for meaning
in Ashbery's verse: "What can we achieve, aspiring?/ And what, aspiring, can we
achieve?" (Some Trees 26) Susan Sontag writes, "in those arts which are abstract or


have largely gone abstract, like music and painting and the dance the critics have not
solved the problem; it has been taken from them." (Sontag 21): "Surely the trees are
hinged to no definite purpose or surface." (Some Trees 42)

In this world of postmodern art and poetry, Plato's ancient quarrel between history
(realism or logical fact) and poetry (art) is pass and so is Aristotle's response that it is
simply a question of universals and particulars, art being from the former, and that the
artist, ergo, assumes the responsibility of both priest and teacher. "For the problem of art
versus morality is a pseudo-problem." writes Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation,
"The distinction itself is a trap; its continued plausibility rests on not putting the ethical
into question, but only the aesthetic." Sontag explains:

To argue on these grounds at all, seeking to defend the autonomy of the aesthetic
(and I have, rather uneasily, done so myself), is already to grant something that
should not be granted namely, that there exist two independent sorts of
response, the aesthetic and the ethical, which vie for our loyalty when we
experience one really had to choose between responsible and humane conduct, on
the one hand, and the pleasurable stimulation of consciousness, on the other!
(Sontag 23)


As was discussed in the chapter about sublimity, Ashbery hosts a veritable coup de grce
on standards of ethics; at least, linguistically speaking. And so too as will be discussed
in this chapter allegorical ethics as well. For instance, Ashbery told Peter Stitt during an
interview for The Paris Review referring to one of his poems from the 1975 collection
Houseboat Days:
the beginning of Daffy Duck in Hollywood,4 for instance, where all these
strange objects avalanche into the poem. I meant them to be there for themselves,
and not for some hidden meaning. Rumford's Baking Powder (by the way, it's
actually Rumford and not Rumford's Baking Powder. I knew that, but preferred
the sound of my versionI don't usually do that), a celluloid earring, Speedy
Gonzales they are just the things that I selected to be exhibited in the poem at
that point. In fact, there is a line here, The allegory comes unsnarled too soon,
that might be my observation of poetry and my poetry in particular.
I said, its funny the way things work out. (your name here 55) In Ashbery's
aleatory lyric there is no message which he seeks to teach the world: "We decode them
backwards,/Their meaning is for our meaning, and where/Is the meaning in that? (April
Galleons 34) The poetry, in an escape from Aristotelian defense-poetry, seeks to
overcome didacticism, which would be considered by a Postmodern, Derrida-informed
criticism to be weak. In reference to Aristotle's dead ethos that poetry is pedagogical and
therapeutic, an ethos passed down through the ages, the poet sardonically told Mary
Bloom for the Herald Tribune in 1989 (a daily newspaper for which he was once a Parisbased arts correspondent since 1960), "There is the view that poetry should improve your


life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army." If indeed this is Ashbery's stance
on didactic poetry, than too, the poet may be harboring a resentment towards knowledge
itself, if not wisdom: "Some people literally think they know a lot,/gets 'em in trouble, we
must rake out/cafes looking for rats and exploded babies." (Chinese Whispers 55)

While Ashbery insists he works with an aesthetic that is not derivative of the
father of Surrealism, Andre Breton's theory of Automatism, his lines are often "above our
heads, as far up as clouds. Who can say/ what it means, or whether it protects?" (Shadow
Train 134) That is to say, the poetry is not from the subconscious, but surgically designed
for ambiguity. His lyric has no purpose, perhaps, except to distance his reader from
himself and alienate critics: "I no longer/ aim a poem at you" (As We Know 92) Due
to their highly abstract and fragmented nature, it would be impossible to find didacticism
within the lines, that is to say, Ashbery did not, at conception, intend a lesson: "Those
tangled versions of the truth are/ Combed out" (Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror 8)

I can hear a clarinet

Sounding clear notes of heaven

And am taller to enjoy, to disburden myself

Of all that got lost in the telling:

Prismatic shapes of day


As it came in and shook us, its average grace

Rounded off by nice easy stories

And the procession of effulgent numerals

Happily buried in earth

That won't teach us anything.

(April Galleons 71)

Like staring at clouds, one may think they see the likeness of a shape from the material
world such as the "Prismatic shapes of day" or the "procession of effulgent numerals"
before the clouds disperse. And looking for meaning, didactic or other, in an Ashbery
poem is usually the same way; as Ashbery writes in the poem "Love's Old Sweet Song,":
"We never know what we could walk back to except when we do go back, and then it's as
if not knowing and knowing were the same thing." (Hotel Lautreamont 71) In the poem,
"Song Without Words" Ashbery writes:

Like notes arranged on a staff.

What you made of them
Depended on your ability to read music and to hear more/in the night behind
(Shadow Train 129)


This sentiment that poetry and art should seek subjectivity at all costs evokes John
Keats. A talent for self-realization/ will get you only as far as the vacant lot (your
name here 59) Not only is it an ethos on which modernism is built, it provides a great

Just as a good pianist will adjust the piano stool

before his recital, by turning the knobs on either side of it
until he feels he is at a proper distance from the keyboard,
so did our friends plan their day.
(Girls on the Run 11)

"Yet this space/ between me and what I had to say/ is inspiring." (Hotel
Lautreamont 103)

Ashbery also may be referring to ideas of separation between idea and text, as
explored in post-formalism. In a now-famous letter concerning Wordsworth's poetry,
John Keats wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds:

But for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be
bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an EgoistEvery


man has his speculations, but every man does not brook and peacock over them
till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself.
(Keats 864)

Susan Sontag concurs with this sentiment. She writes:

A work of art, so far as it is a work of art, cannotwhatever the artist's personal

intentionsadvocate anything at all. The greatest artists attain a sublime
neutrality. Think of Homer and Shakespeare, from whom generations of scholars
and critics have vainly labored to extract particulars views about human nature,
morality and society." (Sontag 26)

Harold Bloom also opens these modernist windows to contemporary poetry. Bloom
recalls that "For Nietzsche, a man is an artist only to the extent that he is free of
individual will 'and has become a medium through which the True Subject's own
redemption in illusion" (Bloom 66) Therefore it is impossible to completely isolate the
artists soul from his work.
In the Ashbery poem "Sonnet," the "servant" stands in, we may assume, for the
poet and that the poem focuses on the relationship between poet and reader: "Each
servant stamps the reader with a look./ After many years he has been brought nothing."


Should the reader (the master or employer of servants) want more than a looka
frownthe servant can only recommend the reader cultivate a version of the servants
own negative capability: "The servant's frown is the reader's patience./ The servant goes
to bed/ The patience rambles on/ Musing on the library's lofty holes." (Some Trees 37)
When the servant goes off to bed, the patience are left alone with the servants muse, in a
library where there is absolutely nothing more lofty to ponder than the holes so far
unfulfilled on the master's shelves.
A stalemate could pollute new beginnings. (your name here 21)Another way
that John Ashbery's poetry manages to avoid didacticism is by presenting sides to an
issue or interlocutors, who are either indifferent to any agenda, or are each so nonrhetorical, that it makes no difference, managing to block any didactic message, unless it
manages to leak in "porous like sleep/adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides" (as
he writes in his poem Alcove). Always careful to avoid argumentation in his verse,
"lest an agendahorrors!be imputed to it" (Planisphere 1). In the poem, Double
Whoopee, we read: So when gazes cancel/ each other and rabbits go hopping away
its the birds/ are seen to withdraw after that, the nest symbol/ mysteriously
unavailable. There is no lesson, no standing ethic that would evoke a certain gaze in a
certain mood. Instead, gazes cancel each other The speaker continues, You who
puked/ at the sight of a hairnet, wheres your gimcrack lesson now? (Quick Question 29)
The poem, Fantasia on The Nut-Brown Maid, features a dialogue between
two engendered pronouns: HE and SHE. An intertextual exercise, it is also highly
inspired by the Jungian theory of the anima and animus, although, according to a June 9,
2005 article in The New York Review of Books by Mark Ford, the poem is based on a


sixteenth-century anonymous ballad David Herd writes in John Ashbery and

American Poetry, To dramatize the topic the speakers perform the story of The Nut
Brown Maid the poem thus alluding to a story of which it is confident its audience has
knowledge SHE playing the Maid, HE her suitor (Herd 173) However, despite
the poem being a dialogue between two engendered speakers, the words are so
ambiguous that should the HE part and the SHE part be switched around, it really
would make no rhetorical difference. The first few chunks of dialogue are presented
below in their order as written by Ashbery:

Be it right or wrong, these men among
Others in the park, all those years in the cold,
Are a plain kind of thing: bands
Of acanthus and figpeckers. At
The afternoon closing you walk out
Of the dream crowding the walls and out
Of life or whatever filled up
Those days and seemed to be life.
You borrowed its colors, the drab ones
That are so popular now, though only
For a minute, and extracted a fashion
That wasnt really there. You are


Going, I from your thought rapidly

To the green wood go, alone, a banished man.

But now always from your plaint I
Relive, revive, springing up careless,
Dust geyser in city absentmindedness,
And all day it is writ and said:
We round women like corners. They are the friends
We are always saying goodbye to and then
Bumping into the next day. School has closed
Its doors on a few. Saddened, she rose up
And untwined the gears of that blank, blossoming day.
So much for Paris, and living in this world.
But I was going to say
It differently, about the way
Time is sorting us all out, keeping you and her
Together yet apart, in a give-and-take, push-pull
Kind of environment. And then, packed like sardines,
Our wit arises, survives automatically. We imbibe it.

What was all the manner


Between them, let us discuss, the sponge

Of night pick us up with much else, carry
Some distance, so all the pain and fear
Will never be heard by anybody. Gasping
On your porch, but I look to new season
Which is exactly lost. I am the knight,
I come by night. We will say all these
To the other, in turn. And now impatient for
Sleep will have strayed over the
Frontier to pass the time, and it might
As well, dried babys breath stuck in an old
Bottle, and no man puts out to sea from these
Coves, secure or not, dwelling in persuasion.

Its as I thought: there there is
Nothing solid, nothing one can build on. The
Force may have ebbed in the green wood.
Here is nothing, not even
Lazy slipping away, feeling of being abandoned, a
Distant curl of smoke above a car
Graveyard. Instead, the shadows stand
Straight out. Uninvited, light grabs its due;


What is eaten away becomes etched impression

Of mutability, but nothing backs it up.
We may as well begin the litany here:
How all that forgotten past seasons us, prepares
Us for each other, now that the mathematics
Of winter is starting to point it out.
(Houseboat Days 68-70)

Here are the same portions of dialogue, but with the order switched around:

Be it right or wrong, these men among
Others in the park, all those years in the cold,
Are a plain kind of thing: bands
Of acanthus and figpeckers. At
The afternoon closing you walk out
Of the dream crowding the walls and out
Of life or whatever filled up
Those days and seemed to be life.
You borrowed its colors, the drab ones
That are so popular now, though only
For a minute, and extracted a fashion


That wasnt really there. You are

Going, I from your thought rapidly
To the green wood go, alone, a banished man.

But now always from your plaint I
Relive, revive, springing up careless,
Dust geyser in city absentmindedness,
And all day it is writ and said:
We round women like corners. They are the friends
We are always saying goodbye to and then
Bumping into the next day. School has closed
Its doors on a few. Saddened, she rose up
And untwined the gears of that blank, blossoming day.
So much for Paris, and living in this world.
But I was going to say
It differently, about the way
Time is sorting us all out, keeping you and her
Together yet apart, in a give-and-take, push-pull
Kind of environment. And then, packed like sardines,
Our wit arises, survives automatically. We imbibe it.


What was all the manner
Between them, let us discuss, the sponge
Of night pick us up with much else, carry
Some distance, so all the pain and fear
Will never be heard by anybody. Gasping
On your porch, but I look to new season
Which is exactly lost. I am the knight,
I come by night. We will say all these
To the other, in turn. And now impatient for
Sleep will have strayed over the
Frontier to pass the time, and it might
As well, dried babys breath stuck in an old
Bottle, and no man puts out to sea from these
Coves, secure or not, dwelling in persuasion.

Its as I thought: there there is
Nothing solid, nothing one can build on. The
Force may have ebbed in the green wood.
Here is nothing, not even
Lazy slipping away, feeling of being abandoned, a
Distant curl of smoke above a car


Graveyard. Instead, the shadows stand

Straight out. Uninvited, light grabs its due;
What is eaten away becomes etched impression
Of mutability, but nothing backs it up.
We may as well begin the litany here:
How all that forgotten past seasons us, prepares
Us for each other, now that the mathematics
Of winter is starting to point it out.

Because oftentimes in Ashberys poetry, the speaker(s) cannot make up their

minds, there is no allegory, and the poetry thus paints a world where there is no truth.
Take for example the poem, How I Met You, from the volume, Quick Question, Or/ I
was racing along the moon, the waters edge/ seemed about right, but how was I to know/
which edge? The lapping or the water? In/ time it came down to these things, maybe
trifles./ And sure, you can have it, or what its worth,/ only by that time/ well have
backed in again; (Quick Question 37) In the world of the poem, the speaker is after
something, some truth, and chasing the moon he finds himself in between the water and
the edge, not being able to discern which will bring him redemption or elation, or
whatever it is that the wandering speaker is seeking.


Another successful method that John Ashbery uses in avoiding any kind of
rhetorical didacticism is borrowed from an ages old children's game. In 2002, Ashbery
published the volume, Chinese Whispers, in which poems unfold from stanza to stanza as
messages whispered between participants in the game of "telephone." A blurb on the
back cover of the volume, written by Ashbery's long-time editor, Elisabeth Sifton

According to a certain "Professor Hoffmann," author of Drawing-Room

Amusements (1879), in the game of Chinese Whispers, "Participants are arranged
in a circle, and so on round the circle. The original story is then compared with
the final version, which has often changed beyond recognition." In John Ashbery's
latest collection, the verbal nucleus that is the incitement toward a poem
undergoes twists and modulations before arriving at its final form. The changes
are caused not by careless listening but by the endlessly proliferating train of
ideas that a word phrase sets in motion(Chinese Whispers)


Therefore, the poems in this particular volume (which are not overwhelmingly unique to
Ashberys body of work) question not just whether there is a didactic message to be
learned but also if there is any meaning to the language, at all. One poem from the
volume especially demonstrates the battering that a given message takes as it falls
through the lines of the poem, stanza by stanza:


Don't hit the bull's-eye.
The long winter festers,
day after unguarded day.
People are "Shoveling out,"
night a monotony of stars and
other instances.

In these lines, "The Big Idea" is not expressed succinctly, is not accomplished
immediately, it "don't hit the bull's-eye." The "long winter" which "festers" may be seen
as the stanzas to come, the lines and language that will affect this "big idea" which is
never actually stated. The poem continues:

The Big Idea


flourished for a while, then flagged

short of the summit.
The people's republics
went under like failing bakeries.
Always, in the shadows at the edge,
there was time to say this. And something.

The sketching of some kind of a rhetorical message is almost decoded, "The Big
Idea/flourished for a while, then flagged/" but alas, it never makes itself known, it is
"Always, in the shadows at the edge,"

Half past ten and the village

Is out of order, shot through
with delirium tremens.
Tomorrow we shall arrive here
wondering what all the fuss was about.
Gawkers perpetuate the misquoted line.
One is all fingertips, one feels something
like at the border, a nowhere shine.
(Chinese Whispers 14)


The "gawkers" who "perpetuate the misquoted line" may be likened to readers looking
for clues into what exactly "The Big Idea" is. They almost have it: "one feels something
like at the border," but it is to no avail, it is "a nowhere shine" and the "Big Idea"
whatever it may be becomes more and more diluted as the poem crawls along through
three stanzas. In doing so, there is no didactic message that gets communicated: "Because
life is short/We must remember to keep asking it the same question/Until the repeated
question and the same silence become/answer (Three Poems 6) In the poem, A Held
Thing from the volume, And The Stars Were Shining (1994) the speaker is confounded
not only by didacticism, but by language itself. Forget allegory and poetry, rhetorical
meaning is put before an existential court in this poem. Then he sort of lobbed it/ over
the fence if you know what I mean. The speaker continues: I do not know what you
mean/ but I shall not tell anyone/ about it until all your meaning / is clear to me, that is
until it becomes clarity/ that sucks us out of the void and across the orchard./ The object
being lobbed could either be a ball or a rhetorical message, and the verb lobbed is
therefore figurative: When I was a little teenager/ I heard the far-off voices and
imagined/ them to be cries painted on a canvas. There could be any infinite number of
meanings to any given word or gesture. And so the voices that appear to the speaker as
cries painted on a canvas, are described: Each had its own color, or a more vivid/
approximation of that color, waiting/ to be invited in for tea, or anything,/ patted on the
head. (And The Stars Were Shining 25)
Recall, dramatic poetry in the West is perhaps the oldest form of the medium, and
when successful, the tragic form of which as Aristotle maintains the poet teaches


something while the audience is still reeling in a state of catharsis. Take for instance the
poem, "Faust," from The Tennis Court Oath. Ironically written as a sestina, the poem is a
narrative about an operatic performance of the "Tragedy of Faust," however, the tragedy
seems to be in the performance itself, and the disappointment felt by the spectators:

If only the phantom would stop reappearing!

The iconoclasm of the poem is evident from the first line. "The phantom" could be a
symbol of the metaphysical implications of the mechanism of tragic drama, if not the
iconoclastic protagonist of the novel, The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. As
far as catharsis and the tragic form, the speaker says, "Business, if you wanted to know,
was punk at the opera." Also, this line alludes to the formal attire worn to an opera,
"business" dress, was "punk." The next line continues to explain how the performance of
the opera had been unsuccessful: "The heroine" says the speaker, referring to the tragic
heroine, Gretchen, "no longer appeared" and as a result, "The crowds strolled away
sadly" The opera was finished. Finally, in the last line of the sestina, the tragedy ends
in nihilism, devoid of allegory, "On the bare, sunlit stage the hungers could begin."
"Hungers," a stage devoid of scenery: the writing evokes ambient music or a super-form
painting by Mark Rothko: one dismal mystery. Recall how much of The Tennis Court
Oath is meant to evoke Dada in Ashberys new poetics. In the Ashbery essay called In


the Surrealist Tradition (New York Herald Tribune International Edition, April 21,
Forty-five years after the 1957 publication of "Faust" in the volume, The Tennis
Court Oath, the poem "Local Legend" in the volume, Chinese Whispers, revisits the
theme of the original, strange Ashbery poem, "Faust":

Arriving late at the opera one night

I ran into Dr. Gradus ad parnassum hastening down the marble stair,
swan-like. I wouldn't bother if I was you," he confided.
"It's a Verdi work written before he was born.
True, his version of the Faust legend is unique:
Faust tempts Mephistopheles to come up with something
besides the same old shit. (Chinese Whispers 17)

"Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum" is of course the first piece from Claude Debussy's "Children's
Corner Suite," the term, "Gradus ad Parnassum" means "Steps to Parnassus," hence, as
Ashbery writes, "hastening down the marble steps." The conversation is in reference to
the Verdi opera, Faust/Otello. As for the tenor of the poem, as in the poem entitled,
"Faust," it deals with the deflating of the tragic form and the ennui of an over-tried rubric:
"Faust tempts Mephistopheles to come up with something/besides the same old shit."
Obviously there is something in Faust that keeps John Ashbery coming back for more


and more lampooning of the classic opera and we will resolve to say that it has to do with
Ashberys ethos of anti-didactic and climactic art.

Heightened with a sense of mysterious confusion, or completion,

the books in the library give off an odor of display, are about allegorical
whale catching,
(Girls on the Run 34)

In the poem, Double Whoopee, originally published in the Summer 2012 issue
of The Paris Review, Ashbery opens the first stanza: As I was saying its a never-ending
getting/ closer if you will, a class-unconsciousness searing/ these ears for a lifetime, and
by then its time/ to wonder again why you undertook a reckoning/ so near the end.
(Quick Question 29) The never-ending getting closer refers to the end of a poem where
a didactic message should become clear to the spectator. Now, Ashbery begins to
wonder again why you undertook a reckoning so near the end of any artistic
production. We think of the line businesswas punk at the opera from The Tennis
Court Oath when we read the line from Double Whoopee, a class-unconsciousness
searing these ears for a lifetime In classic tragedy, the hero must come from the
higher class and from there, fall down, crushing the bourgeoisie and releasing a sense of
catharsis. Therefore, in classical poetry, the writing must be class-conscious. Not so,
Where it seems in Ashberys poems that there might be some kind of an allegory
or didactic message, it is most likely intended to seem that way, as per the poet himself.


Uneaten, inside out in a word.

(The Vermont Notebook 33)

Nor in all the whitewashed domain of the preset past tense was anyone privy to
the secrets/ that now make us strong, or tall, and vulnerable/
as a bride left waiting at the church, inching backward/ to the cliffs edge as the
photographer gets ready to smile.
(And The Stars Were Shining 16)


Middles: Aleatory Teleology

Hell no, the creators werent anguished/ just determined to keep you
dangling (your name here 70) When Peter Stitt, interviewing John Ashbery for The
Paris Review, asked the poet how the poem "Litany" should be read, whether indeed the
left and right columns are supposed to be read simultaneously by two readers, Ashbery
could not give definite instructions. He did however say, "I don't think there is any
particular way. I seem to have opened up a can of worms with my instruction, which the
publisher asked me to put in, that the parts should be read simultaneously. I don't think
people ever read things the way they are supposed to." Given Ashbery's highly abstract,
slapdash style, poetic rules would spoil the game.

Surely no one is going to remember to climb where it insists, poking about in an

abstract of everyday phrases?" (Hotel Lautramont 19)

Regarding "Litany," Ashbery told the interviewer from The Paris Review (Peter
Stitt), "I myself will skip ahead several chapters, or read a little bit of this page and a little
bit of that page, and I assume that is what everybody does. I just wanted the whole thing
to be, as I have said, presentable; it's not a form that has a cohesive structure, so it could
be read just as one pleases:


It's only after realizing this for a long time

That you can make a chain of events like days
That more and more rapidly come to punch their own number
Out of the calendar, draining it. By that time
Space will be a jar with no lid, and you can live
Any way you like out on those vague terraces(As We Know 85)

For this, the poem "Litany" is one of perhaps thousands of examples of how John
Ashbery finds various aleatory means to avoid any teleological structure in his poetry.

Now I had walked the terrible byways for what seemed like too long.
Now another was following, insensately.
Would there be foodstuffs on the steps? How did that ladder point into/ nowhere?
(Girls on the Run 8)

And avoiding a magnetic teleology is one way that Ashbery avoids rhetoric.

Heightened with a sense of mysterious confusion, or completion,

the books in the library give off an odor of display, are about allegorical


or about the roads each of us takes, that crosses over each other
from here until the end, whichever arrives first.
(Girls on the Run 34)

remember you are free to wander away/as from other times other scenes that
were taking place (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 7)

This brings us back to the intersection of visual art and poetry, and it seems
Ashberys taste is for the free-of-teleology and this is his philosophy. It pervades his
poetry, visual art and prose. Ashbery once wrote in an article about the painter Pierre
Bonnard his paintings are unfinished, in the same way that nature is. They seem about
to change, just as light is always on the point of changing. That is perhaps the essence of
his genius. Of these lines of prose, David Bergman writes: The breeziness of tone hides
a discontinuity of ideas that is one of the hallmarks of Ashberys style. The analogy is
askew, yet the very spontaneity of the idea seems to preclude argument. It is wonderful
how Bergman comments on Ashberys prose style in a piece of art criticism as if the text
were a glass of wine or a poem: the carefree style imitates the subject: the
syntaxstarts with a conjunction and ends with an ellipsis, mirrors the ongoing process it
seems to assert, starting in medias res and fading to an unfinished conclusion. writes
Bergman. Yet what is most typical of Ashbery is the way he equates the unfinished
surface of the painting with the unending process of nature. (Bergman xiv)


I thought Id follow that street to the end/ but it was only the end of the
beginning, the rest was transparent/ and needle-pure. (your name here 39) His prose
poems that tempt crossing the aisle between story and modern poetry are always good for
exemplifying the scattered order that appears to readers as nonsensical. John Ashbery
told Peter Stitt during The Paris Review interview, "I think I consider the poem as a sort
of environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one's
environmentone can't, in fact. That is why it came out the way it did." A peek at the
volume, The Vermont Notebook shows how abstract the text can be: listing physical
observations that take on surreal dimensions, while the linear, black and white
illustrations focus on one aspect of the words on the page.
Older than Longinus's rubric, based on Hellenic poetry, that art should evoke a
sense of sublimity are the laws set about for poetry and dramatic art in Aristotle's
covenant between the philosopher and the poet, The Poetics. In The Poetics, Aristotle
stresses that all poetry must have a beginning, middle and an end. These are three crucial
parts that must be somehow connected in order for the dramatic poem to be complete.
The parts ordered as they may be must work magnetically toward an end, which
resolves the piece. Not so, modern poetry; and the poetry of Ashbery seems to poke fun
at such a rulebook: "He was tempted not to fulfilling order written down." (The Tennis
Court Oath 49) In Ashbery's poetry, the pieces do not lead magnetically toward an
ending but into an aleatory crossroads:"it all led rapidly to the crunch/ of where the
fuck do you think you're going? This is the frontier./ Beyond lies civility, a paradise of
choicesmaybe." (Flow Chart 134) Reading an Ashbery poem, one has the sense that
"The motion of the story is moving though not/ getting nearer." (Three Poems 12) Nearer


to what? Nearer to an ending, a point of resolution that will put sense into the other
sections of the poem. In The Vermont Notebook, Ashbery writes:

8 mi to Danbury (Charles Ives). Can I believe it that I am back on this same

freeway. What startles though is still the relation of the hills to the townstheir
nearness. Their completeyet benignlack of cooperation. Bit of Old Charlie
(The Vermont Notebook 45)

Actually, the lines seem to be stuck, permanently, in middle position. Always ready to
shift gears. "There is no profile in the massed days ahead. They/ are impersonal as
mountains whose tops are hidden in/ cloud. The middle of the journey, before the sands
are reversed:" (Three Poems 4) Ashbery told Peter Stitt, the interviewer from The
Paris Review that, "For me, my poems have their own form, which is the one that I want,
even though other people might not agree that it is there. I feel that there is always a
resolution in my poems." However, oftentimes this "resolution" is so esoteric, that it must
only exist in Ashbery's mind, for the "environment" created by an Ashbery poem contains
"ill-defined sidewalks" which "seem to lead nowhere" (As We Know 20).
Ashbery told Peter Stitt during the interview for The Paris Review, "The idea of
relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual
resolution of itself whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so
much depressing modern art makes me feel cheerful." Any sense of completeness in an

Ashbery poem is a sense of nothingness, a dissolving into some kind of porous

abstraction. "you realized the story had disappeared like water into desert sand,
although it still continued." (Flow Chart 84) The ideas in Ashbery's lines are not built on
ironies (although they exist), but on pure chance, or at least are designed to strike the
reader as so. "Things aren't supposed to happen according/ to plan and thus when they do
it's a small dislocation in the universe; clocks/ are delayed a millisecond and this causes
phenomena to run counter to their/ usual course,/ so I should be washed free of all
blame." (Flow Chart 147) Therefore, the structure of an Ashbery poem is aleatory and
manages to extricate the composer, as in the Keatsian ideal of Negative Capability.
"What happens is you get the unreconstructured story,/ An offshore breeze pushing one
gently away,/ Not far away" (April Galleons 81) "You knowI shot an arrow into the
air but I could only aim it" Ashbery told Peter Stitt for The Paris Review. The
resolution in an Ashbery poem is the realization by the reader that the language and ideas
do not actually resolve, have no definite path or roadmap. Instead, Ashbery's poetry is
meant to seem aleatory, seeming as if the writer himself has written random lines on
separate pieces of paper and mixed them up, then randomly put the pieces back together
to form the poem: So lucky/ Now we really know/ It all happened by chance:/A chance
encounter" (Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror 66). Not so. However, while it seems the
hints of teleology and sentence structure in John Ashbery's poetry is based on chance, it
is instead a planned effect. One author, William Burroughs, wished his novel, Naked
Lunch (1959), to have a fragmented effect; he wrote a story sequence and then cut up the
prose with scissors, sentence by sentence; he then attached the scattered pieces and it


accomplished for him the desired result: a work of fragmentary, aleatory ramblings. In
the book, After the Wake, Christopher Butler writes:

Reality, inside or outside the body, is seen as terrifying, and the effect is
nightmarish. But the cut-up technique surely makes inaccessible much of the
subconscious motivation and unspoken linkage that we can look for in most
connected stream-of-consciousness or even surrealist work, and which would give
it a coherent structure. Thus a typical paragraph (of Naked Lunch) runs:

Smell of cigarette smoke on a child trackProceed to the outerAll

marble streets and copper domes inside airSignature in scar tissue stale
and rotten as the green waterMoldy pawn ticket by purple fungoid gills
the invisible Siamese twin moving in through flesh grafts and visual
patternsexchanging weighton slow purple gillsAddicts of the
purposeFlesh juice vampires is no good

Indeed technique and psychological interest are inevitably in conflict here, as that
Gutenberg linearity of print which parallels the Jamesian stream is attacked, in an
attempt to 'rub out the world'. (Butler 104)


This approach was used by Ashbery only once early in his career to compose a poem
that was analyzed in the previous chapter. The New York School poet, Kenneth Koch,
once asked Ashbery, "You didnt use any cut-ups in writing 'Europe,' did you?" To
which Ashbery replied: "YesI think I might also have put in a few words from an
article in Esquire as well as a mistranslation of something I saw written by an automatic
toy in the museum." (Selected Prose 67)

An Ashbery poem has the tendency to "wander as it will,/ East or west, north or
south" (Self Portrait In a Convex Mirror 3) Addressing an audience at Harvard
University, Ashbery once said, "I'm mildly distressed at not being able to give a
satisfactory account of my work because in certain moods this inability seems like a limit
to my powers of invention. After all, if I can invent poetry, why can't I invent meaning?"
He continued: "If I'm not more apprehensive, it's probably because of a deep-seated
notion that things are meant to be this way." (That is, aleatory and open-ended). Notice
the phrase deep-seated notion: he does not tell the Harvard faculty that a reasoned
conclusion or even a time-tested conviction, but merely a prejudice he has never bothered
to challenge, is responsible for both the vagueness and the precisely crafted
contradictions in his verse: "it all boils down to/ nothing, one supposes." (As We Know


Devoured now by curiosity, can God

Let the eroding happen at all, since it is all,

As you say, horizontal, without

Beginning or end, and seamless

At the horizon where it bends

Into a past which has already begun? In

Truth, then, if we are particles of anything

They must belong to our conception

Of our destiny, and be as complete as that

(As We Know 43)

Perhaps, the resolution of an Ashbery poem is the moment in which the rhetorical shape
finally becomes shattered into abstraction. "just as the forms/ begin to float away like
mesmerized smoke, the resolution, or some resolution, occurs." (Flow Chart 81) The
"resolution" though does not resolve in a Hegelian harmony, built on the intersection of
binaries, but into an abyss, perhaps a zone of endless meanings; so that the end in an


Ashbery poem is a plateau of non-rhetorical confusion, reached only via a journey of

aleatory teleology: "But it doesn't/Take us out into the open sea/Only to the middle of a
river/Fumbling which way to go." (Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror 30):

Usually it's both farther and not as far as we imagine,/ i.e, taking a wrong turning
and then after a fretful period emerging in some nice/ place we didn't know
existed, and would never have found without being misled/ by the distracted look
in someone's eyes. (Flow Chart 83)

I was following the paths in the music./ Might as well have been patting myself
dry/ under a toadstool. (your name here 16) As mentioned previously, Ashbery's poetry
is such a fun exercise in aleatory teleology because the works rarely follow any kind of
linear path. "The old, old wonderful story:/ Grace and linearity/That take us up and bathe
us, changing /" (As We Know 51) The poems are made up of ideas, images, tropes,
scattered here and there: "So that's it, really. How all that fluff got wedged in with the
diamonds in the/ star chamber/ makes for compelling reading" (Flow Chart 168) This
is why Ashbery's lyric poses such a striking contrast to the classical and dramatic poetry
approached by Aristotle and Longinus, and for that matter, most of the art form in


general: "That there is a precise, preordained structure/ That has been turned inside out to
meet new personal needs/ And attract newer bonuses isn't the reply, it's the solution"
(April Galleons 6) Ashbery's non-representational, non-confessional lyric addresses the
tradition at large:

In fact it's the big problem one was being led

up to all along under the guise of being obliged to look out for oneself

and others: the place isn't hospitable, though it can support itself and one or

two others, but really it would be best to start all over again from the

beginning/and find some really decent area that reflects a commitment to


(Flow Chart 83)

In verbal imagery that is less porous, Ashbery addresses the theme of teleological
structure that moves magnetically toward a final resolution in the poem "Structures in


They still connect

(it still connects?)
the feeling of the middle of the evening
as it is overtaken
by its sides.
And then everything must be taken up
and washed and put back together again.

The "evening" may be used to represent the poetic structure. The same is true in the
following portion of "Litany":

the ending is too happy

for it to be life, and therefore it must

be the product of some deluded poet's brain: life

could never be this satisfactory, nor indulge

that truly human passion to be all alone.

and I too am concerned that it

be this way for you. That you

get something out of it too.


otherwise the night has no end

(As We Know 39)

According to Aristotle, the teleological structure assists the mechanics that create
catharsis. Why is that bird ignoring us,/ pausing in mid-flight, to take another
direction? (your name here 18) Furthermore, poetry is mimetic, and life contains a
beginning, middle and end. Not so, the poetry of Ashbery. Ashbery writes: "The
difficulty with that is/ I no longer have any metaphysical reasons/ For doing the things I
do." (As We Know 91) Catharsis, being the ontological affect and effect of poetry. In the
poem, "Structures in Sand," from Planisphere, Ashbery symbolizes the poetic structure
with the word "evening" and dissects an old rubric:

Why is that so?

True happiness
(which we cant have, while we are close to believing
in it) ordains it, depends on life that ends.

(Planisphere 105)


Endings do not necessarily depend on middles and beginnings according to Ashbery,

certainly not in order to evoke a didactic lesson, nor for that matter a cathartic mood:

Call it a
happy ending,
there is much praise in a decidedly mixed climate of coming-of-age films and old
bear masks, one would say, especially insofar as the current underlying it was
not having made up its mind yet.
(Flow Chart 90)

The ending, referred to here, in this clip from "Flow Chart" is indefinite, not part of a
mechanical or magnetic teleology. Ashbery once told Kenneth Koch, "ambiguity
seems to be the same thing as happinessor pleasant surprise, as you put iteverybody
wants the biggest possible assortment of all available things. Happy endings are nice and
tragedy is good for the soul, etc. etc." (Selected Prose 61) The actual ending of "Flow
Chart," the last line of the 216 page prose-poem is also open-ended: "It's open: the bridge,
that way." (Flow Chart 216) There is no rhetorical meaning, no order, and "It's all over if
we don't see the truth inside that meaning." (Shadow Train 134) In The Vermont
Notebook, Ashbery writes: Tobacco lands squaring off hilly landscapes hovered on by
piper cubs/ and always a bit of rainbow beginning. Why not ending? I dunno./ You said


it. No I didnt. You did too. I did no such thing. Now it is/ ending. (The Vermont
Notebook 33) In Ashberys world there really are no happy-endings and perhaps this is
because life, according to Ashbery, is not necessarily happy. "I am assuming that from
the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and
pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions." (Selected Prose 61) In
fact, he writes in the poem, "Love's Old Sweet Song," published in The New Yorker in
October, 1991: "True happinesswe can't have"

Rome was closer than Canossa,

the old king dead,
dangling from mistletoe.

Could these lines refer to poetics? Is the "old king" meant to be Aristotle? Longinus? The
remainder of the poem insists upon an aleatory teleology:

Breeze sends us back

to house.
Having been warned we strike
the new mission.
When are you returning?
(Planisphere 105)


The final line invites the reader to return to the beginning of the piece: "I say, the heck
with endings." While a circular design or an open-ended conclusion is common in
Ashbery's work, the point is that the pieces of a poem do not necessarily have to connect.
They may be moved around to no consequence, read in no particular order, and written
with this intension in mind. In the poem "Valentine," published in Houseboat Days, the
speaker hints to the reader:

The different parts are always meddling with each other,

Pestering each other, getting in each others way

Then the speaker poses a question to the reader, undermining the Aristotelian sentiment
that a teleological structure moves magnetically towards an end in order to create an
effect or instill a message:

So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leavingwhat?

A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness
(Houseboat Days 59)


Often, resembling indeed "a new kind of emptiness," John Ashbery's poetry in general
subverts the understanding implicit in any beginning, middle, and end sequence.
Therefore, the act of reading the poems can be a playfully, disorienting experience for the
mind: "How many snakes and lizards shed their skins/ For time to be passing like this,/
Sinking deeper in the sand as it wound toward/ The conclusion." Oftentimes, Ashbery's
poems are filled with "The intensity of minor acts." As Ashbery writes in the classic
poem, "The Skaters": "As skaters elaborate their distances,/ Taking a separate line to its
end. /Returning to the mass, they join each other" as if the teleological lines in
Ashbery's poems become distracted and separate. (Rivers and Mountains 37)

"I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free"this line begins the first
poem in the 1972 volume, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The line sounds as if it could
be either the conclusion or the beginning of a strange essay. "And often, too, the
beginnings went unnoticed" (Shadow Train 132) With the second line of "As One Put
Drunk Into The Packet-Boat," Ashbery shifts the focus, ensuring that no sense has been
made: "Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight/ Filters down, a little at a


time/ Waiting for someone to come. The following stanza once again opens as a
conclusion: "So this was all, but obscurely", and once again in the succeeding line, the
rhetorical rhythm starts up again as if it is a final line preceded by a beginning line: "I
felt the stirrings of new breath in the page / Which all winter long had smelled like an old
catalogue." And then, yet again: "New sentences were starting up." In the rest of the
stanza, the speaker continues to tease the reader, hinting that he understands the
teleology, even if the reader does not: "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/to watch the thing that is prepared to happen." (Self Portrait in a
Convex Mirror 1) The poem finishes, wondering what exactly is this "thing that is
prepared to happen." It sounds like a new beginning, teasing the reader: "It is meant to be
the beginning/Yet turns into anthems and bell ropes." (As We Know 77) Just when the
reader anticipates a rhetorical sequence, the speaker grabs the wheel and spins it
randomly, "waiting for the expected to happen/ according to a preordained system of
its own devising" (Shadow Train 129) It as if the reader of the poem, trying to follow
the speaker is just wandering aimlessly, "Just Walking Around," as in the namesake of
another Ashbery poem:

you realize once again

That the longest way is the most efficient way,

The one that looped among islands, and


You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.

And now that the end is near

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange. (A Wave 146)

The Thief of Poetry:

to rise again
in new

in explicit

drowns the hum

of space
the false point

of the stars
in specific


new way of happening

no one remembers
the day you walked a certain distance

along the beach

and then
walked back

it seems
in your tracks
because it

was ending
for the first time
yes but now

is another way of
spreading out
toward the end


Similar to "Just Walking Around," the experience of the reader, seeking some sort of
teleology is likened to one taking a walk. In the following portion of the "Thief of
Poetry," Ashbery realizes the poetic process and addresses the tradition:

the linear style

is discarded
though this is

not realized for centuries

another way of living had come and gone

leaving its width

now the tall cedars

had become locked into

the plan
so that everywhere

you looked
was burning



interior space
not for colonies
but already closed
(Houseboat Days 55)

The "interior space" that is "not for colonies" are portions of Ashbery's lyric that
resemble sequence and order. They lead the reader into thinking that there is some kind
of teleology happening, but alas, the reader expecting a pattern, is fooled. Ashbery's
words, for instance in Like a Photograph, are comparable to "smallish/ houses that start
to climb a hill, then fumble/ back to the beginning as though nothing had happened". (A
Worldly Country 11) Clouding up again. writes Ashbery in The Vermont Notebook,
Certain days there is a feeling that whatever we/ arrange /will sooner or later get all
fucked up. (The Vermont Notebook 93) The lines move in one direction: "They dream
only of America/ To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass/" and as soon as
the reader thinks they catch the speaker's flow, the direction abruptly changes: "This
honey is delicious/ Though it burns the throat." (The Tennis Court Oath 13) Observe the



you hang up the receiver allowing others to get through: in your garden
there may have been much confusion but also attentive things growing, now cut
floundering for lack of direction from you. (Flow Chart 177)

In these lines, it seems as if the speaker is addressing himself in the second person,
talking to himself. But instead, it refers to the lack of aim in the poetry. In an article she
wrote for Slate Magazine in March 2005, the poet and critic, Meghan O'Rourke explains,
"Ashbery becomes a kind of radio transistor through which many different voices,
genres, and curious archaeological remains of language filter, so that the poems are like
the sound you would hear if you spun through the FM/AM dial without stopping to tune
into any one program for long. This is a great way to describe Ashbery's approach toward
or away from teleology. Observe for instance the poem "Puff Piece: "And when I
pulled it out of my pocket I thought surely/ all this has been done before." The first line
attends to the ennui of the tradition, as if the speaker is pulling an old poem out of his
pocket. The following line continues the theme of addressing the tradition, then abruptly
switches directions, "And my smirched muse/ answered, wholly in secret: What are apron
strings for?" The following lines seem especially non-rhetorical: "Your comment-clad
walls feign disinterest/ and sixes or sevens more, yet the petering out of rivers will always
call up terrible if tangential/ echoes from foremost among us. Oh sure. /" Then, exactly as
if someone is turning the dial of a transistor radio, we hear new and ideas and even
conversations leak through: "And he wants us to believe that and in how we came here.


Well, Sarge, count me out. Im heading for a clean-named place/like Wisconsin, and mad
as a jack-o-lantern, will get there/without help and nosy proclivities. So it was on my
street the bells rung and said it was time to take an interest/in the new nuisances,
wherever they might be./" Again, the radio dial changes, this time the speaker is writing
in the first-person: "And I stood,/ tall in the saddle, requesting information, or data, from
other echoes, and how many rascals did impeach me here,/ or, of the rest of our race,
implore me now/that heavens on the line too, mother god or drug: such a follow-up,
because who knows when thatll be?" The poem manages to avoid making any rhetorical
sense by skipping from thought to thought abruptly, sans segue. It does not actually make
a statement. John Ashbery once told Kenneth Koch, "When statements occur in poetry
they are merely a part of the combined refractions of everything else." (Selected Prose
55) This is congruous with the idea that Ashbery's poetry evokes moods rather than
whole images and ideas. Another example of such fragmented writing is the poem, "The
Large Studio," originally published in The New Yorker in May of 1992 and again in
1994s Hotel Lautramont: "say, do you think I could? Smell the roses?/ Live like it
was time?" Here, the punctuation rather than the syntax is used to fragment the language:
"Lo, it is time./ He raised the horn to his lips./ Such an abundance ofdo you mind if I
stay,/ stay overnight?/ For the plot of the morrow/ is needed to sort out the pegs in,
meanwhile enough of me/" the phallic imagery of the homoerotic poem continues in this
stop and go rhythm, not allowing the establishment of any complete idea: "lasts to give
us the old semblance of a staring, naked truth,/with drinks, that we wanted, right?/And
because a gray dustman slips by/unnoticed, a thousand cathartic things begin to happen."
(Hotel Lautramont 14)


That night the wind stirred in the forsythia bushes,

but it was a wrong one, blowing in the wrong direction.
Thats silly. How can there be a wrong direction?/ It bloweth where it listeth,
as you know, just as we do/ when we make love or do something else there are no
rules for. (your name here 76)

A wonderful example of Ashbery's work having no beginning, middle and end is

observed in the work "by an Earthquake" from the volume, Can You Hear, Bird
(1995). The piece is written as a story, and the reader pays close attention to follow the

A hears by chance a familiar name, and the name involves a riddle of

the past.
B, in love with A, receives an unsigned letter in which the writer states
that she is the mistress of A and begs B not to take him away from
B, compelled by circumstance to be a companion of A in an isolated
place, alters her rosy views of love and marriage when she discovers,


through, A, the selfishness of men.

From this point, we may still follow the bits and pieces of a linear story:

A, an intruder in a strange house, is discovered; he flees through the

nearest door into a windowless closet and is trapped by a spring
A is so content with what he has that any impulse toward enterprise
is throttled.
A solves an important mystery when falling plaster reveals the place
where some old love letters are concealed.
A-4, missing food from his larder, half believes it was taken by a "ghost."
A, a crook, seeks unlawful gain by selling A-8 an object, X, which
A-8 already owns.
A sees a stranger, A-5, stealthily remove papers, X, from the pocket
Of another, A-8, who is asleep. A follows A-5.
A sends an infernal machine, X, to his enemy, A-3, and it falls into
the hands of A's friend, A-2.
Angela tells Phillip of her husband's enlarged prostate, and asks for
Phillip, ignorant of her request, has the money placed in an escrow


A discovers that his, pal, W, is a girl masquerading as a boy.

The strange work continues, masquerading as a rhetorical story and vaguely resembling
an algebraic equation. It is however, not an actual algebraic equation, nor is it a linear
story. In a review he wrote in 1957 of Gertrude Stein's "Stanzas in Meditation," Ashbery
stated that, "it is usually not events which interest Miss Stein, rather it is their 'way of
happening,' and the story of Stanzas in Meditation, is a general, all-purpose model which
each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars." (Shoptaw 3) Apropos to these
lines, you could say, it is no surprise, given this interest of Ashbery's that he emulates in
"by an Earthquake," an algebraic equation. As it continues, new characters are
introduced, both 'A' and 'A-2' are killed off, but return to life. The characters, of course,
are not developed: "we can never be described/ And would make lousy characters in a
novel." (As We Know 85) At one point, the speaker explains:

Elvira, seeking to unravel the mystery of a strange house in the hills,

is caught in an electrical storm. During the storm the house vanishes and the site on which it stood becomes a lake.


"Elvira" may be likened to the reader "seeking to unravel the mystery" and the whole
work is represented as a "strange house in the hills." The "house vanishes," and this may
explain the lack of teleology and continuous story-sequence, even where one suspects
that a sequence may be hiding somewhere around the corner: "Ildebrando constructs a
concealed trap, and a person near to him, Gwen, falls into the trap and cannot escape."
(Can You Hear, Bird 21) This poem is a good example of Ashbery's work. Usually the
lines flow, introducing fascinating ideas and thoughts in a transient fashion, so that when
the reader begins following the thoughts of the speaker in a certain direction, quickly,
"The wheel is ready to turn again." (Rivers and Mountains 16) While imitating algebra is
a wonderful tactic Ashbery uses to avoid teleological rhetoric, (the story sequence goes
nowhere), it reminds readers of a similar poem by Denise Levertov entitled, "Novella."
Levertov's poem also imitates algebra but her reason for doing so seems to be two-fold.
The algebraic variables in "Novella": x, y, and z represent both the story sequence as well
and reminds us of Aristotle's description of metaphors and figurative language which
indeed he illustrates in mathematical form. Levertov's poem is as follows:

In love (unless loved) is not love.

You're right: x needs,

with azure sparks down dazedly


drifting through vast night

long after

the embrace of y to even

begin to become z.

To x alone

Something else happens. Example:

a woman painter returns,

younger than she should be, from travels

in monotone countries

and on arrival, bandages of fatigue

whipped off her eyes,


looks, looks at whose shadow

first falls on her primed (primal) canvas

(all the soul she has left


for the moment)

At once light

(not the gray north of journeys)

colors him! Candle-gold,

yet not still, but shivering,

lit white flesh for her (who preferred brown)

and hair light oak or walnut

was mahogany on the dream-palette.

Setting to work, the painter

paints what she sees: the object

moves, her eyes change focus

faithfully, the nimbus



All one year she paints:

the works are known later by titles

'Fiery Clouds,' 'Alembic,' 'Du Bleu Noir,' 'The Burning-glass.'

Rectangles, ovals, all the landscapes are portraits,

x kneels at the feet of y, barbaric frankincense

enclouds her. But y, embarrassed,

and finally indifferent, turns

away. Talking (he is a poet)

talking, walking away, entering

a small boat, the middle distance,

sliding downstream away.

She has before her


a long scroll to paint on, but no room

to follow that river.

The light's going.

L'homme est un drle de corps,

ui n'a son centre de gravit en lui-mme,'

she reads, pages falling from trees

at need around her.

She continues

to paint what she saw:

y is a brushstroke now

in furthest perspective, it hurts

the eyes in dusk to see it, no one,

indeed, will know that speck of fire

but x herself, who has not

(in this example) even begun to become


z, but remains

x, a painter; though not perhaps

unchanged. Older. We'll take

some other symbol to represent

that difference a or o.

(Levertov 43-45)

Clearly, this poem makes more rhetorical sense, by way of the linear sequence than John
Ashbery's "by an Earthquake." In Levertov's "Novella," a poem published in the Fall
1970 issue of the journal, The Field, the variables x and y represent two lovers, and
perhaps the variable, z represents love or being in love. The use of the letters, x, y and z,
may also represent the various building blocks of chromosomes that are used to denote
gender. But to suggest that the use of algebraic variables literally and factually denotes
some kind of linear teleology is false. To suggest that Ashbery's work represents any kind
of structural system is absurd.

The system was breaking down.


(Three Poems 53)

In an interview he gave in 1977, Ashbery said there "is no systematic rationale or

systematic anything in my poetry. If it is systematic, its only in its total avoidance of any
kind of system or program." (Shoptaw 10) Still, there is more to be said of algebra and
Ashbery's poetry. The use of the algebraic variables remind one of a statement which
Ashbery once made during a 1982 interview, "What I am trying to get at is a general,
all-purpose experience like those stretch socks that fit all sizes." (Shoptaw 1) Still,
Ashbery's use of algebraic variable such as in "by an Earthquake" "exemplifies" as
John Shoptaw writes "what Marjorie Perloff has termed the 'poetics of indeterminacy.'"
This is because with the use of algebraic variables, perhaps even more so than Ashbery's
use of pronouns such as "you" and "we," forces the reader to raise certain questions, so
that there is a system but: "The system was breaking down." John Shoptaw reminds us in
On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry, what "Perloff says of 'Rivers and
Mountains,'" that "'the reader can invent any number of plots and locations that fit this
'all-purpose model." (Shoptaw 10)


Having no teleological structure is one of the poet's prerequisites for finishing a

work or so it seems so that no matter the longevity of a sequence that seems to be
rhetorical, "God will find the pattern and break it." (A Worldly Country 60) It was a nice
beginning for a story/ goes the poem A Man Clamored from the 2001 collection, As
Umbrellas Follow Rain: that might never end, so we chose a more careful/ one
instead (As Umbrellas Follow Rain 26) In the poem, "Finnish Rhapody," the speaker
alludes to the poetic structure, facetiously giving himself advice, as if the poetry did not
at least appear to be aleatory:

Don't fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,

Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it way.

There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,

Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.

(April Galleons 14)

Whereas in poetry, prose and drama that closely follows an Aristotelian rubric, there is
room for surprise, only after the inevitable pattern of a beginning, middle and end


sequence; in Ashbery's poetry, the only thing that is inevitable is a shattering or

disorienting of teleology.

The trail always sees whats up ahead,

which is resistance

There is no release in sight,/ in the works, down the pike. (Wakefulness 6) The poem
"Flowering Death" published in July of 1979 in Poetry Magazine alludes to a journey:
"Ahead, starting from the far north, it wanders" What does "it" represent? Could it be
the idea of teleology?: "You will have to deliver it./One gives pause to the
other,/or there will be a symmetry about their movements" The poem anticipates, er,
refers to teleology but there is none to be found:

It is their collective blankness, however,/ That betrays the notion of a thing not to
be destroyed.
In this, how many facts we have fallen through/ And still the old faade glimmers
there,/ A mirage, but permanent/ We must first trick the idea/Into being, then
dismantle it,/ Scattering the pieces on the winds
(As We Know 79)


Experience a portion of the "The New Spirit.":

But it is hard, this not

knowing which direction to take, only knowing that you
are moving in one, not because no rest was decreed for you
but because the force that shot you here remains through
inertia, and even while contemplating the globe of seeming
contradictions that grow out of your present standing you have begun to evolve in
that other direction
not included by the archer, a present time draped backward
over the past
(Three Poems 30)

As suggested in these lines, if indeed the poetry contains no magnetic teleology as a

method of remaining arhetorical, then it is mysterious how Ashbery's lines manage to
keep the reader's eyes glued to the page. "The beginning of the middle is like that./
Looking back it was all valleys, shrines floating on the powdered hill," (Chinese
Whispers 23).
Yet another keen example of Ashberys jumbled sense of teleology is found in the
poem, Just Whats There, from the 1994 volume, And The Stars Were Shining: The


poem opens with the line, Havent you arrived yet? and six stanzas later, the final line
of the poem is: The ushers will please take their seats.

Havent you arrived yet?

A sleepiness of doing dissolved my one
scruple: I lay on the concrete belvedere section
belabored by sun.
Nuts convened in the chancel,
a posse wheezed by in some oater: Chapter I, etc.

In the past I was bitten.

Now I believe.
Nothing is better than nothing at all.
Winter. Mice sleep peacefully in their dormers.

The old wagon gets through;

the parcel of contraband is noted:
a brace of ibex horns,
a scale worshipfully sung at the celesta.
We know nothing about anything.
The wind pours through us as through a bag
of horse chestnuts. Speak.


The orderly disappeared down the hall.

For a long time a sound of ferns rallied, then
nothing, only dumb snapshots of unknown corners
in strange cities. The tedious process
of fitting endings to stories.
Ground review. An obscurantists trick.

Once youve wheedled as many as are there

At a given time, theres a certainty of dawn
in the not-much-else-colored sky. A phone booth
pivots daintily in air. O crawl back to the peach
ladder. A comic-book racetrack breathes somewhere.

A pianola was offered:

astonishment on the third floor.
The nice whore mended her ways.
The breathing came fast and thick.
The ushers will please take their seats.
(And The Stars Were Shining 10)




As We Know, 12, 15, 17, 37, 59, 77, 79,

82, 83, 86, 91, 98, 107
Athens, 3
authoritarianism, 1
avant-garde, 26, 50
Beginnings, 6, 7, 10, 38, 87, 90
Brainard, 21
Can You Hear, Bird, 97, 99
cathartic, 33, 87, 96
Chinese Book of Changes, 46
Chinese Whispers, 38, 55, 56, 59, 69,
70, 71, 74, 108
Christopher Butler, 49, 51, 80
Christopher Norris, 2, 3


communication, 3, 10, 20, 21, 26

Conjunctions, 26
Cubism, 42, 44
cut-up technique, 80
Dada, 28, 31, 32, 38, 40, 46
Dada,, 31, 46

Europe, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 49,

Fantasia on The Nut-Brown Maid,
Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a
Landscape, 38, 39

Daffy Duck in Hollywood, 58

Faust, 73, 74

Das Judenthum in der Musik, 1

Felix Mendelssohn, 1

de Kooning, 27, 34

Finnish Rhapody, 105

Deconstruction, 2, 5, 31, 32, 61, 72

Flow Chart, 10, 11, 12, 16, 37, 39, 41,

Deconstruction: Theory and Practice,


52, 78, 79, 83, 84, 87, 95

Flowering Death, 106

Denise Levertov, 99

Foreword, 1

Double Dream Of Spring, 6, 7

French Revolution, 27, 28

Double Dream Of Spring 30, 6, 7

From Estuaries, From Casinos, 76

Double Whoopee,, 63, 74

G.E. Lessing, 19

Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, 74

German, 2

dramatic, 2, 32, 33, 38, 72, 77, 84

Germany, 1

dynamics, 15, 48

Gertrude Stein, 32, 33, 34, 98

Eliot Weinberger, 5

Giorgio de Chirico, 38, 39

Endings, 54, 87

Grand Gallop, 35

ends, 7, 31, 47, 73, 86

Harold Bloom, 26, 42, 44, 62

epic, 2

Hegel, 2


Herald Tribune, 59

John Ashbery, 4, 5, 26, 28, 34, 42, 45,

Homer, 62

46, 50, 51, 54, 63, 69, 70, 74, 76, 77,

Hopscotch, 47, 51

80, 89, 96, 103, 105

Horace, 12, 20, 21, 36

John Ashbery: The Charity of the

Hotel Lautreamont, 60, 61

Hard Moments, 26

Hotel Lautramont, 76, 96

John Cage, 46, 48, 49

Houseboat Days, 14, 21, 40, 58, 66, 89,

John Cage,, 46


John Hamilton Reynolds, 61

Houseboat Days, 89

John Keats, 61

How I Met You, 68

John Keats., 61

humdrum testament, 20

John Shoptaw, 104

hypothesis, 2

Julio Cortzar, 47, 50, 51

I Ching, 46, 48, 50

Just Walking Around, 91, 93

Imaginary Landscape (for 12 radios),

Just Whats There, 108


Kenneth Koch, 81, 87, 96

Jackson Pollock, 16, 50, 51

Klavierstuck XI, 49

Jacques Derrida, 5

Language poetry, 44

Jacques-Louise David, 27

Language poets, 4

jazz, 48

Laocoon, 19

Jean Arp, 40

Like a Photograph, 94

Jewishness in Music, 1

Like clocks out of control, 6

Litany, 12, 14, 16, 76, 77, 85
literature, 1, 5, 17, 26, 48


Little Gidding V, 22

opera, 2, 73, 74, 75

Longinus, 7, 10, 11, 12, 18, 22, 37, 77,

ordre deraisonnable, 40

84, 88

Otello, 74

Love's Old Sweet Song, 88

Other Traditions, 30, 33

lyric, 2

painter, 19, 21, 24, 25, 35, 38, 45, 100,

Mannerist, 42, 43, 44

101, 103

Marcel Duchamp, 46

painting,, 2, 45, 46

Marjorie Perloff, 4, 104

Paradoxes and Oxymorons, 22, 23

Mark Rothko, 73

Parmigianino, 43, 44

Mary Bloom, 59

Peter Stitt, 14, 42, 44, 54, 58, 76, 77,

Meghan O'Rourke, 16, 95

78, 79

Middles, 6, 7, 76, 87

Peter Stitt,, 54, 76, 78

Modern, 7, 45, 48

Peter Straub, 26

modern painters, 24

philosopher, 2, 77

Modernist, 7, 33, 45, 56, 62

Philosophy, 55, 61

music, 1, 2, 4, 16, 17, 34, 35, 42, 43, 46,

Planisphere, 37, 63, 86, 88

48, 49, 50, 56, 61, 73

Planisphere,, 86

Music of Changes, 48

Plato, 2, 7, 57

Naked Lunch, 80

Plato,, 7

National Book Awards, 5

poetics, 3, 7, 13, 20, 27, 28, 36, 42, 55,

New Criticism, 56
Nietzsche, 2, 3, 62
Novella, 99, 103

56, 88, 104

poetry, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17,
22, 23, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36,


37, 40, 43, 44, 45, 46, 51, 57, 58, 59,

sculpture, 2

61, 62, 63, 68, 72, 75, 77, 79, 82, 83,

Selected Prose, 4, 6, 13, 45, 81, 87, 96

86, 89, 95, 104, 105, 106, 107

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 32,

Poetry Magazine, 106

post-Formalism, 61
post-Formalist, 7, 29

36, 37, 80, 90

Self-Portrait In a Convex Mirror, 11,
59, 83

Postmodern, 7, 45, 57, 59

Shadow Train, 12, 23, 59, 61, 87, 90

post-structuralist, 7

Shakespeare, 62


Shiryauri Women's University, 13

literature, 1, 10, 40, 77, 80, 87, 106

Shoptaw, 4, 27, 34, 35, 98, 104

Quick Question, 63, 68, 75

Sigmund Freud, 45

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in

Slate Magazine, 16, 95

the Age of Media, 4

Socrates, 2, 3

Reminiscences of Norma, 55

Some Trees, 24, 25, 26, 34, 54, 56, 62

research, 1

Sonnet,, 62

rhetoric, 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 12, 20, 77, 99

Stanzas in Meditation, 34, 98

rhetorical, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 13, 16, 26, 29,

Stockhausen, 49, 50, 51

32, 33, 36, 56, 63, 64, 69, 71, 72, 83,

Structures in Sand, 84, 86

87, 90, 95, 98, 103, 105, 107

studies, 1, 6, 45

Richard Wagner, 1

sublime, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 20,

Rivers and Mountains, 26, 90, 99, 105

21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30, 33, 36,

Robert von Hallberg, 7, 50, 51

37, 39, 40, 62

Samuel Beckett, 33

Surrealism, 21, 42, 45, 59


Surrealist, 38, 45
Susan M. Schultz, 50

The Paris Review, 14, 15, 42, 44, 45, 54,

58, 74, 76, 77, 79

Susan Schultz, 7

The Poetics, 77

Susan Sontag, 30, 44, 56, 57, 62

The Skaters, 90

Syntax, 32

The Tennis Court Oath, 26, 31, 32, 33,

T. S. Eliot, 20

34, 35, 40, 41, 73, 74, 75, 78, 94

Taliban, 1

The Thief of Poetry, 91

teleology, 4, 6, 7, 51, 77, 80, 83, 87, 88,

The ushers will please take their seats,

91, 93, 94, 95, 99, 104, 106, 107, 108

The Art of Poetry No. 33, 45
The Big Idea, 70, 71, 72

108, 109
The Vermont Notebook, 21, 75, 77, 78,
87, 94

The Double Dream of Spring, 38

Three Poems, 72, 78, 104, 107

The Field,, 104

tragedy, 1, 33, 73, 75, 87

The Ice Storm, 40

Triston Tzara, 38

The Large Studio, 96

ublimity, 10

The New Spirit, 107

Valentine, 89

The New York Review of Books,, 61

Verdi, 74

The New York School, 44, 81

W.H. Auden, 33

The New Yorker, 88, 96

Wallace Stevens, 13

The Oath of the Tennis Court, 27, 28

What is Poetry, 14

The Painter, 24

William Carlos Williams, 13

World War II, 35



Table of Figures


Figure 1 "Laoocon and his Son" 25 B.C. White marble. Vatican museum, Vatican city.
( ................................. 27

Figure 2 Blake's Laoocon print. England. c. 1820. Blake's Laocon print, c. 1820.
( .................................................... 28

Figure 3 "The Tennis Court Oath, 20th June 1789" by Jacques Louis David. Paris.
1791. oil on canvas. ( 38

Figure 4 Giorgio de Chirico. "The Double Dream of Spring". MoMA, New York. Oil on
canvas, 1915.
( 53

Figure 5 "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror". by Parmigiano. c. 1524. Oil on canvas,

Kunsthistorisches Museum.
rtrait.jpg ) ...................................................................................................................................... 61

Figure 6 John Cage Music of Changes 1951.

( ................................................................. 68





End Notes

A Brief Guide to Language Poetry.


The Tribe of John Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. edited by Susan M. Schultz.

The Latin translation of the title of Longinus treatise on sublime art.

&id=82:h. Historical View of W.C.Williams': No Ideas But in Things

Essay, Ed Wickliffe. Not

Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself. by Wallace Stevens. Interview with

John Ashbery conducted by Daniel Kane.

manual.html. The Instruction Manual: How to Read John Ashbery. By Meghan
ORourke. Updated Wednesday, March 9, 2005, at 3:47 PM

John Ashbery: The Charity of the Hard Moments by Harold Bloom. Salmagundi. No.

22/23, Contemporary Poetry in America. pp. 103-131.


10 by Peter Straub.

CONJUNCTIONS:49, Fall 2007. The Oath Unbroken: The Tennis Court Oath (1962).



Double Dream Of Spring ( by

John Ashbery.



Works Cited

Auden, W.H. "Squares and Oblongs." The Modern Tradition. Ed. Richard Ellmann and
Charles Feidelson, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. 209-214. Print.

Aristotle. The Poetics. Tr. Stephen Halliwell. Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 1987. 1-197. Print.
Rhetoric. Tr. Rhys Roberts. New York: Random House, Inc., 1954. 3-218. Print.


Ashbery, John. "A Wave." Three Books. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985. 139-207.
A Worldly Country. New York: Ecco, 2007. 1-76. Print.
And the Stars were Shining. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994. 3-100. Print.
April Galleons. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984. 1-95. Print.
As Umbrellas Follow Rain. Lenox, Mass: Qua Books, 2001. 1-48. Print.
As We Know. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979. 3-82. Print.
Can You Hear, Bird. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. 3-175. Print.
Chinese Whispers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 1-112. Print.
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