‘a serpentine | Gesture’: The Synthetic Reconstruction of Ashbery’s Poetic Voice

By | 1 August 2017


In 1966, John Ashbery published Rivers and Mountains. The departure from the fractures of The Tennis Court Oath (1962) are immediately apparent: it is a return to a language still distinctly marked by Ashbery’s usual probing and misdirection, but without the direct dislocations committed to denotative meaning, form and syntax in the earlier book. Indeed, much of what would become Ashbery’s characteristic fluid, evasive and evolving later style(s), can be found in Rivers and Mountains. And though its final epic poem, ‘The Skaters,’ holds a central place in the canon of Ashbery’s poetry, and more pointedly his long poems, the speculative and living voice of his poetry can be seen to have to been launched into its perpetual shapeshifting in the marvellous penultimate poem of Rivers and Mountains, ‘Clepsydra.’

A ‘clepsydra’ is an ancient device that measures time by the regulated passing of water (or mercury) through a small aperture. Considering Ashbery’s vague, but pointed, statement about ‘Clepsydra,’ being ‘a meditation on how time feels as it is passing’ (Kostelanetz 101), it is an appropriate object for the work to be named after. One of the last poems Ashbery wrote while he was living in France (Gilson 502), he has said in interview with Richard Kostelanetz that he is particularly close to ‘Clepsydra,’ feeling in it a poetic unity that he hadn’t experienced before,1 noting in the same interview:

After my analytic period, I wanted to get into a synthetic period. I wanted to write a new kind of poetry after my dismembering of language. Wouldn’t it be nice, I said to myself, to do a long poem that would be a long extended argument, but would have the beauty of a single word? (101)

Of course, considering this is the poem that he believed moved him on from his ‘analytic’ to his ‘synthetic’ phase – terminology rooted in Cubist art criticism and history, which traces phases of artistic development analogously similar to Ashbery’s own early development as a poet – it makes sense to think of ‘Clepsydra,’ alongside ‘The Skaters,’ as the poem which illustrates the reconstruction of his poetic voice after its dispersal in The Tennis Court Oath. As Ashbery writes in ‘Clepsydra’:

                                                   We hear so much
Of its further action that at last it seems that
It is we, our taking it into account rather, that are
The reply that prompted the question, and 
That the latter, like a person waking on a pillow
Has the sensation of having dreamt the whole thing,
Of returning to participate in that dream, until
The last word is exhausted
                    (Collected 141)

One of the defining features of ‘Clepsydra’ is how it operates on various reversals of expectation and a persistent self-cancellation, darting from ‘Untruth to willed moment, scarcely called into being’ (Collected 140). In this sense, it truly is ‘The reply that prompted the question.’ John Shoptaw perceives this to be an essential drive in the poem: ‘that unforeseeable ends are somehow written into forgotten beginnings’ (89). The poem maintains its development on the back of this indeterminacy, digging so deep into itself in search of an answer – which will provoke another query – that the ‘sensation’ becomes one of a ‘dream.’ It is a ‘dream’ that will only disperse, maybe concretise into something more readily familiar, when ‘the last word is exhausted,’ which, as ‘Clepsydra’ unfolds, seems impossible. Notwithstanding the best destructive efforts of the irrational subconscious, there will always be another word, another meaning, especially as these things come into synthetic relation with other things. The intuition of the speaker, then, is clearly favoured in the near automatic, but ultimately controlled, musing of the poem. If The Tennis Court Oath aimed to ‘exhaust’ Ashbery’s ‘words,’ it was ‘Clepsydra’ that ‘anchor(ed) this new way of writing’ (Kelley). It is the ‘reply’ he purposefully sought in asking questions of his poetry that effectively opened it to new questions and explorations.

As such, ‘Clepsydra’ is important for laying the groundwork for later works, like the perpetual argument, sentences and motions of Three Poems, the evasive sense of a just out-of-grasp meaning in ‘Litany,’ and the long lines of poems like ‘A Wave’ and Flow Chart. Nonetheless, it still looks back to The Tennis Court Oath in the indeterminacy of its grammar and syntax – it is still of Ashbery’s self-proposed ‘French’ period (Kelley) – albeit in a manner no longer at the service of exposing the fractured nature of the poem’s objects, so much as creating a continual, sinuous, shifting and prosodically elegant link between them. ‘Clepsydra’ is hinged on a concessional language that lends it a sense of constant and correcting momentum, its words encountering and portraying a sense of time as an unresolved, contradictory and unexplainable entity. Nothing in the poem is fully present, except for the text itself, and thus it is in need of the reader to directly engage it in an, often troubling, attempt to bring it to presence; not necessarily to ‘make sense of it,’ but to understand the kind of aesthetic sensation of ‘time’ that Ashbery is endeavouring to provoke. In essence, they are responsible for bringing the poem to ‘life’ – ‘this crumb of life I also owe to you’ (Collected 145) echoing the apparent appeal to multiple readers (or lovers, though for a poet what is the difference?) in ‘A Blessing in Disguise’: ‘I prefer ‘you’ in the plural, I want ‘you,’ | You must come to me’ (Collected 139). This appeal toward, and acknowledgement of, his readers is vital for Ashbery’s future poetics, particularly in the sense that he still refuses to grant them anything particularly easy. In fact, the work’s difficulty is its invitation.

This sensation is comparable to the ‘unanalyzable transcendental claim’ proposed by Kenneth Rexroth in his essay, ‘The Cubist Poetry of Pierre Reverdy’ (1969),2 where the reader is lured into the world of the poem to recognise it not as something ‘other,’ but as an additive to the world already known. Or, correlatively, in Maurice Blanchot’s discussion of Surrealism:

Surrealists understand, moreover, that language is not an inert thing: it has a life of its own, and a latent power that escapes us. Alain wrote that one must always verify where ideas are – they do not stay in their place, that is why they cannot be on their guard. It is the same for words: they move, they have their demand, they dominate us. That is in part what Brice Parain called the transcendence of language (‘Reflections on Surrealism’ 88-89).

‘Clepsydra,’ then, through the slippery vagaries of how its language freely develops into a poem, plays insistently on notions of presence and absence, seeing them not necessarily as opposites, but as active and parallel corollaries in pursuit of an idea of existence and selfhood – ‘light sinks into itself, becomes dark and heavy’ (Collected 144). It opens with a seeming promise of illumination, but is always circling back to contrast this with darkness, noting near its conclusion that ‘because everything is relative’ in the poem – opened to a kind of Cubist simultaneity – it is impossible to grasp any ‘more than groping shadows of an incomplete | Former existence’ (Collected 146). Ben Lerner argues that Ashbery uses ‘time’ to pin the reader ‘to the moment of reading,’ effectively frustrating ‘retrograde interpretive strategies that would stop the flow of language at its source’ (203): its ‘incomplete | Former existence.’ This is a particularly apt way of looking at ‘Clepsydra.’ The poem is present in ‘the moment of reading,’ but is guided by a speaker who nonetheless attempts to lead its busy language to absent itself from the breadth of its connotations as it emerges on the page, is consumed, then dispelled in this moment. The extensions of the lines in ‘Clepsydra,’ and the hint of it arriving at a point that is always skipping away, establish a sense of time as the simultaneous creation and fulfilment of the work by writer and reader – the moment of reception in the ‘shadow of | Your single and twin existence’ (Collected 146). Its words are always moving, creating a patchwork of themes and images that read back and forth, with no firm indication of their import or even beginning; of where retroactive reading should occur; of where the self can actually reside. To read ‘Clepsydra’ is to experience ‘time passing’ in the sublimations of its voice wrestling with the inevitable grinding forward of time itself, as the voice or poem attempts to know itself in a present that is always threatened by the presence of the past.

The ‘long extended argument’ based around the significance of a ‘single word’ that Ashbery claimed was the aim of the poem, which it indeed pivots on, is an argument between the resistant, half-formed consciousness evident in ‘Clepsydra’ and the presence of time which insists on this consciousness’ continual renewal to arrive at individuality: the self. Although this self exists in the present, it cannot know itself in the present, only retrospectively in the moment just passed:

Each moment seemed to bore back into the centuries
For profit and manners, and an old way of looking that
Continually shaped those lips into a smile. 
                    (Collected 143)

Time, as he notes in the later poem, ‘Soonest Mended’ from The Double Dream of Spring, ‘is an emulsion’ (Collected 186): it is suspended in itself. The argument, then, is about the significance of past and present time, which ultimately cannot be rent apart. ‘Clepsydra’ is not even broken down into stanzas to perhaps lend some respite to the harried speaker, who pursues and evaluates point after point to only watch them shift away as the sentence or line extends and moves on. The voice of the poem, often adopting an almost legal or even academic rhetoric amid its flights of emphatic lyricism, attempts to bring together these disparate parts to form a whole, but finds itself thwarted by the onward and circular momentum of ‘Clepsydra’ – the never still and self-negating language enacting the sensation of a nonlinear time the self has little chance of reconciling, controlling or understanding. The argument and poem are lost to the presumably ‘white noise’ of a ‘recurring whiteness’ (Collected 140), leading to a ‘white din’:

                                                  But the argument, 
That is its way, has already left these behind: it
Is, it would have you believe, the white din up ahead
That matters: unformed yells, rocketings,
Affected turns, and tones of voice called
By upper shadows toward some cloud of belief
Or its unstated circumference. 
                    (Collected 140-41)

Whereas in Three Poems, Ashbery places his speaker in a state of Bergsonian ‘duration’ – even parodies it, or the Modernists’ appropriation of it, in the poems’ grandiose, seemingly infinite, never resolved extensions that similarly demand ‘wholeness’ – in ‘Clepsydra’ the sense of the eternity of the moment is muted, building via colons to an ‘unstated circumference,’ to examine instead how the self only really has the sensation of the passage of time, swirling around, de- and re-constructing the individual moment-by-moment in the midst of the ‘unformed,’ ‘affected,’ and disruptively blank ‘white din.’

As Ben Hickman writes, the poem is concerned with ‘becoming complicated’: ‘that is, both how things become complicated, and how becoming itself is a complicated matter’ (35). What it attempts, then, is to ‘represent … the movement and essential ungroundedness of moments of thought’ (37). The opening of ‘Clepsydra’ presents this indeterminacy, dropping the reader and speaker into a question only seemingly half-asked, as if it is ‘thought’ emerging without any clear notion of its beginning. Or as John Koethe writes: it is ‘a question in search of a subject.’ The question mark seems to indicate the following sentence is the question’s answer, even if, without the grammatical sign, it can be seen to syntactically follow the question – the question mark can feasibly be moved to be after either ‘dropped’ or ‘go’:

Hasn’t the sky? Returned from moving the other
Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of
That severe sunshine as you need now on the way
You go.

‘Clepsydra’ appears to use the ‘sky’ and ‘air’ to establish a sense of the poem’s desire for ambiguity and openness – the transparent spaces around its language, which even attempts to invade the language. Here, though, the speaker seems to be asking if they have done enough, if they have adequately performed their role. Has ‘the sky’ not given ‘you’ enough ‘sunshine’ to, suggestively, light up the ‘way | You go’? Will the poem be bathed in this early light to achieve some clarity? Evidently not, as it quickly goes on, and the reader is left to wonder what the ‘other | Authority’ is? Moreover, who is the second person in reference to? Who exactly is, or are, the ‘other | Authority’? The ambiguity of these four lines indicate the way in which ‘Clepsydra’ will unfold from this strange, but contextually apt, half-asked question: there is always doubt and evaporation, never a sense of being fully present: it’s all ‘half-meant, half-perceived’ (Collected 140).

  1. As usual with Ashbery, he has contradicted this statement in another interview, insisting instead on the importance of the title poem of Rivers and Mountains: ‘I always felt that the first poem in which I began to fit things together again was the title poem of my third book … which I wrote in ’61; that I think was the beginning of my sixties poetry’ (Ford 54).
  2. This essay served as the introduction to Rexroth’s superb 1973 translations of Reverdy.
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