John Ashbery’s Humane Abstractions

By | 1 May 2018


Viewed historically, as poetry written in relation to the spatialised moment of Olson, what The Double Dream of Spring allows us to configure, in our own geographically fraught condition, is a language of space in which movement, not belonging, is the principle of articulation. To get at this formation of space we need to consider the volume’s title. What that takes us to is Giorgio de Chirico, and especially to the great period of his painterly invention, the metaphysical period of 1911-1918, ‘The Double Dream of Spring’ (1915) being an entirely characteristic work of that moment. Ashbery’s poetry is full of such allusions; it helps to get them, but it is not imperative – or is certainly not made to feel imperative – that one does. Like the references to elements in the topography, the Ashberyan allusion does not presuppose familiarity. In the case of de Chirico, however, it is important to the poet that we know where the title of his book comes from. Exceptionally, then, he tells us, in one of the Author’s Notes at the back of the book: ‘“The Double Dream of Spring”’ is the title of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York’ (DDS, 95).

De Chirico mattered to Ashbery. In 1966 he reviewed the painter’s novel Hebdomeros (a section of which he translated for Art and Literature) observing that the work would be ‘of great interest to writers today who are trying to extend the novel form’.1 In 1967 he reviewed an exhibition called ‘Space and Dream’ in which de Chirico (in Ashbery’s assessment) took centre stage. Writing later, in 1982, in response to a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, he confirmed his estimation of de Chirico’s standing. Such was his contribution to modern art that he should be considered equal to if not more important than Picasso and Matisse. De Chirico’s work, as Ashbery puts it, should be placed in a ‘special elysium of its own’.2 It is a rare claim, one that distinguishes the critic as well as the artist, and what it rests on is the artist’s handling of space.

Ashbery is precise and emphatic when writing about space in de Chirico. It is a subject, unmistakably, in which he has an investment. As he put it, in his review of the ‘Space and Dream’ show:

De Chirico’s earlier metaphysical paintings are not a phenomenon isolated from the mainstream of modern art, but an attempt like Cubism to enlarge the artist’s space of action by changing the rules of space. For those “days of supreme happiness” to occur one had to discover a mechanism no longer ruled by the compass, where potentialities could become facts merely through being evoked by the artist.3

The ‘days of supreme happiness’ take us back to Hebdomeros, where, as de Chirico conceives it, ‘the sense of north, south, east and west – all sense of direction, in fact – was lost’.4 It is precisely this that Ashbery values in the painter, the fact that he conceives a space not governed by the compass, that in his extraordinary compositions he changes the rules of space. In Ashbery’s de Chirico space is susceptible to re-imagining; we can think it again, ‘potentialities could become facts’. In his later review, of the 1982 retrospective, Ashbery dwells less on the principle of de Chirico’s reconfiguration than on the detail of the performance:

vast perspectives and strangely empty colonnades were enlivened only by an occasional tiny figure in the distance and the slightly sinister presence of a train releasing a puff of white smoke into a demented blue sky.5

There are the makings of an Ashbery poem in this, of many Ashbery poems: in the play of scale, in the sudden shifts from vast perspectives to tiny figures, in the empty and unexplained presence of human constructions; in the sense, conjured by the artist and then reproduced in prose by the critic, of a space that doesn’t gather towards a locale. Ashbery, that is, found space configured in de Chirico in ways that he came to emulate in his poetry; an emulation that became a kind of staple, the basic topography of an Ashbery poem. Consider this, for instance, from ‘The Bungalows’:

They are the same aren’t they,
The presumed landscape and the dream of home
Because the people are all homesick today or desperately sleeping,
Trying to remember how these rectangular shapes
Became so extraneous and so near
To create a foreground of quiet knowledge
In which youth had grown old, chanting and singing wise hymns that
Will sign for old age
And so lift up the past to be persuaded, and be put down again. 
(DDS, 70)

One could quote at greater length, or one could sample passages from many other poems: this is what space is like in Ashbery. The foreground is oddly close, the human constructions, the bungalows of the title perhaps, are strangely ‘near’ and ‘extraneous’, the disparate elements are held together in such a way that none can quite be said to fit. The effect is of the grammar of a de Chirico painting, according to which the elements of the composition refuse to settle, rendered in the shifting syntax of an Ashbery poem. It is for this reason he points the reader to de Chirico in his note at the end of the book: because de Chirico stands behind the poetics of space he arrives at in The Double Dream of Spring. At the end of his review of the 1967 show, Ashbery stepped up the rhetoric:

So one ought to approach the Knoedler show not as a collection of lovely antiques from the 1920s, but as the declaration of independence on which our present democracy (“the Republic of Dreams,” in Louis Aragon’s phrase) is based. The space of dreams – deep, shallow, open, bent, a point which has no physical dimensions or a universal breath – is the space in which we now live.6

This is a grand statement, comparable in its dimensions to the kinds of statements by which Olson had established himself, articulating, as it does, independence, democracy, space and the republic. But if the terms are the same, and if democracy, as Ashbery has it here, depends on a way of configuring space, the form of that configuration is radically different. Whereas Olson sets himself down, positions himself, for all the scale and mobility of his vision, in a specific locale, Ashbery’s de Chirico is a figure much less comfortably placed. What matters, in fact, is precisely de Chirico’s anxiety:

(T)he major metaphysical masterpieces, whose arcaded squares and dreamlike spaces have been paradigms – like Kafka’s fiction – of twentieth-century anxiety.7

Here again the rhetoric is compelling: what de Chirico’s presentation of space speaks to is twentieth-century anxiety; it is precisely this, to recapitulate Ashbery’s earlier claim, that makes the painter the equal (at least) of Matisse and Picasso. It is an anxiety Ashbery relates directly to de Chirico’s own biography:

Like Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire and others who played vital roles in the astonishing ferment in Paris on the eve of World War 1, de Chirico was a displaced person.8

For Ashbery this is the point; not the stand alone fact that de Chirico was a displaced person, but that in the work of his great metaphysical period he formed a vision of space commensurate with that fact. De Chirico, that is, like Kafka, arrived at an artistic vision for the Twentieth Century predicated on the person who is thrown out.

  1. John Ashbery, ‘The Decline of the Verbs’, Book Week 4:15 (December 18, 1966), reprinted in John Ashbery, Selected Prose, ed. Eugene Richie (Manchester: Carcanet, 2004), 88-92.
  2. John Ashbery, ‘A De Chirico Retrrospective’, Newsweek (April 12, 1982), reprinted in John Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, ed. David Bergman (Manchester, Carcanet, 1989), 403.
  3. John Ashbery, ‘Space and Dream’, ArtNews (December 1967), reprinted in Ashbery, Reported Sightings, 11.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ashbery, Reported Sightings, 403.
  6. Ibid., 12.
  7. Ashbery, Reported Sightings, 402.
  8. Ibid.
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