John Ashbery’s Humane Abstractions

By | 1 May 2018


In reconstructing Ashbery’s poetics of dislocated space, one needs first to notice what the poetry declines. In so far, that is, as it articulates a poetic space, so the book implies and carries with it the image of space it refuses to inhabit. This has something, perhaps, to do with the double-ness of The Double Dream of Spring. The significance of The Double Dream, in other words, lies as much in what it declines as in what, however provisionally, it asserts, and what it refuses most categorically is an idea of settlement.

Such a refusal to settle is written into every line of the book. It is primarily apparent in what David Trotter, in The Making of the Reader, called Ashbery’s poetics of ‘spate’.1 What Trotter’s term ‘spate’ points to is the speed of Ashbery’s poetry, the rapidity with which, syntactically, the writing shifts from one kind of ground to another. What makes that momentum a matter of settlement is that as it advances so also the writing declines to establish a certain kind of reference. This is not to say the poetry doesn’t refer; it is an aspect of its ‘spate’ that it refers all the time. In making its references, however, what it declines to presuppose is any particular association with the referent in question. What we encounter are environments we recognise but don’t, in any strong sense, know. The measure of this is the poetry’s defining lack of specificity, its habit of referring us not to things with which we (or somebody) might have special familiarity, but to things that any inhabitant of the environment might manage to name. ‘Sunrise in Suburbia’ registers simply tundra, rivers, mountains, roads, offering no identification beyond these rudimentary topographical categories. One could construe this as a linguistic deficiency, a failure to arrive at le mot juste. The point, however, is to recognise such non-specificity as a decision, a decision that amounts to refusal. This is a poetry, in other words, whose presentation of space is not predicated on long acquaintance.

Such a rhetorical refusal of the implications of settlement, of the linguistic relation to an environment settlement implies, is coupled, in The Double Dream of Spring, with a running commentary on the idea of home. This is most vivid where the poetry is at its most comic, witness the manifest bathos of the coupleted section of ‘Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’:

But of all the sights that were seen by me
In the East or West, on land or sea,
The best was the place that is spelled H-O-M-E

Now that once again I have achieved home
I shall forbear all further urge to roam

There is a hole of truth in the green earth’s rug
Once you find it you are as snug as a bug. 
(DDS, 26)

‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ performs a similar reduction, Ashbery’s Popeye sestina refusing the allure not of home this time, but of country, as in ‘my country’:

                                                  He scratched 
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.” 
(DDS, 47)

Excruciating as it is, this is purposeful comedy and as such carries one toward more strenuously formulated moments of The Double Dream of Spring. Really what’s at issue, then, is not ‘home’ as Ella Wheeler Wilcox might have imagined it, but home as a principle of writing, a principle variously and consistently refused by The Double Dream of Spring. The expression of such refusal can be complicated, as in ‘Definition of Blue’:

In our own time, mass practices have sought to submerge the per-
By ignoring it, which has caused it to branch out in all directions
Far from the permanent tug that used to be its notion of “home.”
(DDS, 53)

Here, as elsewhere, the multiple ironies of the poem’s address make all straightforward identifications difficult. Whoever is speaking has a complicated thing to say such that the tone of the utterance is difficult to nail down. We can’t say with any certainty what view the poem takes on the mass practices it names. What one can say is that in the face of such complications the poetry declines to take refuge in the ‘notion of “home”’.

Such a refusal of what ‘The Bungalows’ calls the ‘dream of home’ – ‘They are the same aren’t they, / The presumed landscape and the dream of home’ – was the refusal of a prevailing narrative (DDS, 70). To give it a name, the narrative in question was the narrative of origin. To locate that word, it was in Cid Corman’s Origin magazine (‘A Quarterly for the Creative’) that Olson published both early Maximus poems and such crucial statements on poetics as the letters that comprised Human Universe.2 It was notably in Origin, in other words, that Olson worked through the double concept that by 1960 Allen took to be dominant in postwar avant-garde American poetry, through his researches in Sumerian and Mayan culture and, as his project found its focus, in his archival reconstruction of Gloucester.

The strength of the Olson-Corman Origin project lay partly in the fact that it had an analogue in philosophy. The analogue was Heidegger, whose own account of the postwar condition was quite quickly absorbed into New American poetics. Denise Levertov’s statement of poetics, ‘Notes on Organic Form’, for instance, though formulated in correspondence with Robert Duncan, has its most conspicuous debt to Heidegger’s image of the poet: ‘open-mouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience’.3 Likewise, as Peter Nicholls has documented, a reading of Heidegger was integral to George Oppen’s compositional process.4 Speaking to the organisers’s title for the season’s series as a whole, ‘Mensch und Raum’ (‘Man and Space’), and taking its departure from postwar crises in housing, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ draws on the etymological fact that in both building and thinking one has a trace of the word dwelling.5 As Heidegger notes, the modern English verb ‘to dwell’ retains this resonance nicely, its history including the Middle English dwellan, to ‘remain in a place’. A ‘dwelling’ then, in both senses, is that which remains in a place, a meaning, as Heidegger argues, that we begin to hear fully only as we dwell on language itself. As we dwell, as we really contemplate the words we are using, so language, as Heidegger argues, voices its original nearness to place.For Nichols’ detailed account of Oppen’s reading of Heidegger in translation see George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), 65. As Nicholls observes, a full account of the translating of Heidegger is to be found in Miles Groth, Translating Heidegger (New York, Humanity Books, 2004).

The word for that nearness is ‘locale’. To work according to the idea of a ‘locale’, as he proposes it, is to constitute a meaningful relation with an environment, a relation that both opens and preserves the sense of a connection to a given place. His central example, famously, is a bridge, which, as he says,

brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighbourhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.6

It is, on the face of it, a most alluring image: the bridge, in responding to its environment as it does, draws that environment meaningfully into view. This, as he proposes it in ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, is the function of art: to respond to and (in so doing) to voice or articulate particular environments. It is an aesthetic of place, of neighbourliness, of nearness, or, as he puts it, repeatedly, of locale.

To break from the Heideggerean narrative a moment, it is worth observing that ‘stream and bank and land’ don’t work like this in The Double Dream of Spring; that in Ashbery environments precisely refuse to become locales. This is apparent on every page, but take the prose poem ‘For John Clare’, where, as the speaker puts it:

There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope – letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier – if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one’s blood. Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside – costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. You can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay. (DDS, 35)

As ever, given the writing’s ambiguities, its ambivalence of tone, there are many implications one might draw from a passage such as this. What can certainly be established, though, is that whereas according to Heideggerean topography one looks to experience a gathering of elements tending, as he sees it, toward a kind of meaning, in Ashbery the impulse is towards dispersal, a ‘spreading out’. Details do not, in ‘For John Clare’, take ‘an ingenuous pride in being in one’s blood’; we are not advised to dwell on them, but to ‘put them aside’. As the Ashbery narrative says, ‘You can do nothing with them’. In this poem, as elsewhere in The Double Dream of Spring, the environment refuses to become a locale.

The implications of that refusal are far-reaching. Through its orientation of poetry towards intimacy and nearness, Heidegger’s argument proposed a compelling counter to the intrusions of modernity. What a certain kind of postwar poet found there, accordingly, was a powerful validation: poetry as grounded, near-dwelling, or neighbourly voice. To dwell, to underline the point, is ‘to remain, to stay in a place’, to appreciate, linguistically not least, that ‘spaces receive their essential being from locales’. The critical question, however, is: what if a person doesn’t (or can’t) stay in a particular place? What if, in not staying, they seek leave to operate somewhere else? What does it mean for language, in other words, if the reality of ‘Mensch und Raum’ in the Twentieth-Century is to be found not in the condition of the locale but rather, as history proposes, in dislocation?

One should be wary, of course, of reductions. Given the affinities observed so far, affinities discernible in postwar narratives of origin, it could be thought that I take Olson to be straightforwardly a poet of place. He is not that, as I have argued elsewhere, not least because in his reconstruction of Gloucester he offers a dynamic and complex political geography; the Gloucester of The Maximus Poems is a geopolitical context formed out of extensive and deeply complicated historical relations to other settings.7 Olson himself that is, not least in the kinetics he proposes in ‘Projective Verse’, has a far-reaching way of articulating human movement. Even so, by the early sixties the Olsonian double concept had arrived at a poetry which, in its handling of ‘SPACE’ had come to settle, as its principal procedure, on the articulation of the dynamics of a given locale. The Double Dream of Spring offers an alternative poetics. Against the background of discourses that, one way or another, emphasise origin, Ashbery arrived at a language in which dislocation was a shaping effect.

  1. David Trotter, The Making of the Reader: Language and subjectivity in modern American, English and Irish Poetry (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984), 205
  2. Origin 1 (Spring 1951) begins and ends with Olson. Poems (‘I, Maximus’, ‘Adamo Me’, ‘The Story of an Olson’’ and ‘The Moon is the Number 18’) are interspersed throughout with ‘Letters to Vincent Ferrini’ as well as the importatnt prose statement ‘The Gate and the Center’.
  3. Denise Levertov, ‘Some Notes on Organic Form’, Poetry, 106:6 (September 1965); reprinted in Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World: New and Selected Essays (New York: New Directions Press, 1973), 8.
  4. For Nichols’s detailed account of Oppen’s reading of Heidegger in translation see George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), 65. As Nicholls observes, a full account of the translating of Heidegger is to be found in Miles Groth, Translating Heidegger (New York, Humanity Books, 2004). Implicit, this is to argue, in Ashbery’s refusal of the dream of home was the refusal of a well formulated and thoroughly established postwar poetics. Really to hear what is meant in Ashbery, in other words, when his poetry declines to settle, it is important also to hear the Heideggerean poetic narrative, to track the implications of the dispostion Heidegger calls dwelling.

    A central term in his postwar writing, Heidegger opened up the meaning of ‘dwelling’ in the first of the series of ‘Darmstädter Gespräche’ talks he gave in 1951.[13. The Darmstädter Gespräche’ were a series of symposia held intermittently in Darmstadt from 1950 to 1975, with each season of talks going under a thematic title. Heidegger’s series of talks ended with the lecture ‘Poetically Man Dwells’.

  5. In Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger, ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 1993).
  6. Heidegger, Basic Writings, 354.
  7. For an extended discussion of the dynamics of Olson’s changing presentation of place, see (redacted for anonymous submission).
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