I’m inclined to agree with both John and David [SEE below] here, though from yet a third Ashberian perspective: JA does present “myriad avenues” for us to explore, and the “expanses of his poetry” can often disorient, but Ashbery’s multiplicity/indeterminacy is both necessary and valuable because it so closely mirrors the structure (if “structure” is even remotely the right word here) of our lived experience in the world. And though some complain that JA’s mirroring remains too opaque or too “queer” to be of use, I would argue that this is precisely why it is of so much use — Ashbery pulls no punches, and his seeming estrangement of the world is actually quite the opposite: a non-representational representation of such striking fidelity that we refuse what it offers.
(Can I say “non-representational representation” without seeming pretentious? What about “non-mimetic mimesis”? Probably not…)
I can’t help thinking of “Self-Portrait” here, or perhaps of the intro to Foucault’s The Order of Things and the Velazquez painting Las Meninas. In both, the very possibility of representation is questioned, and (I think) pretty soundly rejected. But rejected only in its strict sense, as in the perfect/literal correspondence between life and art — a correspondence everyone would recognize and accept as “accurate.” And this is the beauty of Ashbery: his poems do, in fact, achieve a kind of literal correspondence between life and art, but not in a way that many want to recognize and accept. The poems’ queering of our expectations for the mimetic project results in their being deemed “surreal” or “avant-garde,” and we (again) refuse what they offer because they do not offer what we want. Ashbery says as much in “Self-Portrait”:
This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
I don’t read Ashbery as a poet of possibility; in its very open-endedness, such a reading appears to head off interesting conclusions before they’re even reached. I prefer to read JA as a poet of immediacy, of being “inside” the poem, of inviting readers to inhabit a space that opens up in myriad directions. David makes the connection to Deleuze here, and I’m actually presenting a paper next spring that will argue for reading Ashbery as a rhizomatic poet by way of an obscure George Oppen poem (“A Language of New York”) that develops the city/poem/language relationship in interesting ways. The “secret” may in fact be “too plain,” but Ashbery’s oeuvre presents us a nearly infinite system of avenues and boulevards down which to chase after the ghosts of whatever the secret might be.
I tend to think the secret IS the system, that, in the end, the rhizome is all there is. But this is no reason for melancholia or (even worse) nihilism; Ashbery may not be a utopian writer, but his poetry certainly posits its own ameliorative effect. The rhizomatic nature of Ashbery’s poetry ultimately affirms the value of life and art because its very structure (there’s that word again) entails an interconnectedness between and among words, lines, statements, acts, poems, poets, and readers. This system of interconnections is too vast to fully comprehend, but its existence counteracts existential angst and phenomenological uncertainty in a dance of mutually-reinforcing relationships: If we have one, we have all — the poet and the poem, the reader and the text, the world and the self.
As David says at the end of his post, “The poem itself, the act of writing it, reading it, perceiving it, thinking it, becomes implicated within and essential to the project of human emancipation.”
And as Ashbery writes at the close of “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
For me, reading Ashbery is about as close as we can get to reading ourselves, even if we are reluctant to (or even refuse to) accept the image he offers. His is about as “representational” as an art can be — even if, like Hamlet, he destroys our sense of the natural in attempting ” to hold, as ‘twere, the / mirror up to nature.”
[The old link isn’t working, so I’ve pasted David’s original post below]
Interesting post. The excerpted section is my favorite part, though I think overall positioning Ashbery on axes of decidable/undecidable is a dialectical move that doesn’t suit his poetry. Ashbery continues to break his own pattern, “the avoidance pattern” as he says in one of his later, brilliant poems, “Sonnet: More of Same.” Actually, pattern-breaking is a trope that pops up in several of his poems. In some ways, he is a great Deleuzian more so than Derridian poet, because of his insistence on simultaneity, beginning over and over again, and the simple fact of difference—this is how I read his catalogues and digressions. Also, I’m currently reading his book of lectures The Other Tradition, in which he talks about several “minor” poets to whom he turns when he needs a jumpstart in his own writing, and I’m realizing that what he looks for in work is what i find in his: fragments for their own incredible sake, self-conscious and self-critical (self-deprecating at times) digressions and parentheses, and—most importantly—a simple sense of a poem as a being-present, a moment in its own that unfolds and in which we are present through a relation to form (be that on the simple level of language, moving from word to word, or on the materiality of it, forced to reconsider the functions of reference—in this latter way Ashbery is extremely similar to the Surrealists but even more so to his touted influence Roussel, whom I haven’t read at all so I can’t comment on that connection except through Ashbery’s lecture on him and on what Breton says about Roussel in the manifestoes).
I think the difficulty with Ashbery is that having so many readings, being able to wander around in the expanses of his poetry, makes us uncomfortable. It’s easier to read something dense and overwhelming like The Cantos or Maximus Poems and inhabit the space of the undetermined and unclear because those poems are so forceful and uncompromising in how they approach the question of meaning, and because we know before we sit down to read that Pound is not going to be easy. That’s part of his mythos at this point. But Ashbery brings the very device of clarity into his fold as one among many rhetorical moves that enact the eternal play between absorptive and antiabsorptive within poetry, to borrow Bernstein’s terms. I’m not saying “Ashbery is secretly easy” or “Ashbery is better because he makes us feel weirder than Pound or Olson,” but I think Ashbery’s project puts indeterminacy and openness and possibility in such a sphere that his poems can’t be read with regard to an uncompromising Modernist vision. In some ways he creates a space for the personal in similar ways to O’Hara or Schuyler, but at the same time remains an aesthete the order of Barbara Guest, where the creative process itself becomes revolutionary because it allows us to put one thing next to another and see what happens. It isn’t “pure” poetry or art for art’s sake, because you don’t just read it and think, “how nice.” The Guest comparison is apt, and something warranting further study. Both Ashbery and Guest have serious epistemological and phenomenological concerns that prefigure Language Poetry in big ways. The poem itself, the act of writing it, reading it, perceiving it, thinking it, becomes implicated within and essential to the project of human emancipation.