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

1 August 2017

‘Clepsydra’ seems to refer to itself materially, rendered through the inexactness of its language:

                                                  when the landscape all around
Is hilly sites that will have to be reckoned 
Into the total for there to be more air: that is,
More fitness read into the undeduced result, than land.
This means never getting any closer to the basic
Principle operating behind it than to the distracted
Entity of a mirage.
                    (Collected 140)

The ‘hilly sites’ are nebulous and need to be ‘reckoned | Into the total’: made whole to establish some kind of presence in the poem, even as the speaker cannot get ‘any closer’ to the ‘Principle operating behind’ them, despite the argumentative, academic language in use – ‘that is,’ ‘undeduced result.’ These ‘sites’ only serve to produce ‘more air,’ and, perhaps, breathe more life – ‘fitness’ – into the poem. Yet, the ‘sites’ can only be understood as a ‘mirage’: something falsely present, absent in any space other than the observer’s mind – ‘an empty yet personal | Landscape’ (Collected 142). Appropriately, ‘Clepsydra’ is noticeably enclosed in its own language and the fancies of its development projected through the unsure consciousness of its speaker. In this awkwardly self-aware sense, the poem appears to be constantly calling itself to question – finding a seeming solidity to only phase it into transparency, transforming social practice into private introspection –

I see myself in this totality, and meanwhile 
I am only a transparent diagram, of manners and
Private words with the certainty of being about to fall. 
                    (Collected 145)

Without the sense of place – the nebulous ‘hilly sites’ – ‘Clepsydra’ finds its internal reality less in the utilisation and defamiliarisation of external objects, and more in the fluctuating uncertainties of its speaker attempting to control, or even un-control, the poem’s slippery meaning. Like ‘The Skaters,’ which can be read as one of Ashbery’s great ars poetica statements – and, indeed, considering its writing predated ‘Clepsydra,’ can also be seen to have laid the poetic groundwork for the latter poem to traverse – the voice of ‘Clepsydra’ is intently focused on the poem’s production, largely because this production gives it ‘being.’ The hesitations and flinching, evasive (un)certainties of the poem, then, enact the attempt by the speaker to locate themselves in the disparate parts of the stream-of-consciousness the poem occasionally seems to allude to and exist within – the impossible ‘totality’ of a moment. It cannot rest, for it needs to refuse such stability to ascertain a greater, albeit ‘mirage’ driven, ‘totality’: a shimmering wholeness that will emerge, and then shift on, as the world itself will never be entirely still.

As Ashbery aims to give a sensation of passing time and the self’s malleable place within this flow, ‘Clepsydra’ posits its arguments in terms of ‘moments’ – ‘Each moment seemed to bore back into the centuries | For profits and manners’ (Collected 143). It exists in the spaces and intensities of these moments’ unresolvable, seemingly contradictory tensions. The speaker lays claim to the immediacy of the poem’s presentation, exposing the dual presence of the writer and reader as the activating ingredient to give some semblance of sense to the work’s language, even though in breaking into such moments it refuses a linear connection that may grant it totalised meaning. In one of the most important, and prosodically supple, passages in the poem, Ashbery self-consciously reveals the very mechanics of ‘Clepsydra,’ its harsh swerve away from a stable, analytical frame-of-mind, to favour instead an organic poetic growth, while opening the poem’s meaning, problematic unity, even reality, to the subjectivity of the intuition letting the work sedately fly by:

                                                   Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
Only is the bounding from air to air, a serpentine
Gesture which hides the truth behind a congruent
Message, the way air hides the sky, is, in fact,
Tearing it limb from limb this very moment: but
The sky has pleaded already and this is about
As graceful a kind of non-absence as either
Has a right to expect
                    (Collected 140)

This very immediacy, presence through ‘non-absence,’ explains, at least partly, why Ashbery’s experimental early poetry mostly avoids any narrative continuity through realistic depiction, electing for the sensations of the felt rather than a representation of the real, a trait much like Gertrude Stein’s depiction of objects in Tender Buttons (1914). As time passes, and Ashbery’s poetry progresses, its ‘utterances’ can be read simultaneously as both ‘true’ and ‘false’ – ‘Clepsydra,’ true to the desire of Cubism to ascertain every side of the object and the Surrealist need to create ‘contact, unimaginably dazzling, between man and the world of things … and try to bring about the greatest number of such communications’ (Breton 40), appeals to and courts both these oppositions in presenting each without prejudice. The poetry, then, is a ‘serpentine | Gesture,’ modulating between its different stances, ironically hiding the suggested actual ‘truth’ of the work – its Blanchotian recognition of its reality through self-negation – behind a ‘congruent | Message,’ which, suitably, is as about as effective as hiding the ‘sky’ behind ‘air.’ The voice of ‘Clepsydra’ is also keenly self-aware of the sort of sentences Ashbery writes throughout the poem: long, winding, and ‘serpentine,’ they are immensely difficult to grasp.1 In the construction of this dense prosody, the speaker leaves the sense of the work open to the reader: it is laid bare, disguised flimsily only by the language it directly presents itself in, which destructively tears apart, ‘limb by limb,’ the certainty of its direction, looking back to the ambivalent first line of the poem in noting that the ‘sky’ has already mysteriously ‘pleaded’ its case in the poem, setting the unknown terms for the vague argument to follow. ‘Clepsydra’ slides through these very inconstancies and appears to curtly tell the reader that this is about as ‘graceful’ as it will get in perhaps explaining itself, as if the ‘creator who has momentarily turned away, | Marrying detachment with respect’ found that he could not give up too much information. ‘Respect’ – for the reader, perhaps – can only be found through ‘detachment.’ Ultimately, these moments are ‘the pieces’ that ‘Are seen as parts of a spectrum, independent | Yet symbolic of their staggered times of arrival’ (Collected 140). This ‘moment’ in the poem, ‘staggered’ and broken at its time of ‘arrival’ though it may be, relates broadly to how the rest of ‘Clepsydra’ will advance; how it will interact with its other moments as they emerge and dissipate, maintaining the ethereality of the consciousness at work, as if hidden, but truly unveiled, only by a hazy ‘air.’

In these brief moments of seeming, albeit challenging, clarity – moments looking back to the various utterances of the speaker, moments demonstrating the dynamic nature of time, moments directly reflecting on the autonomous poem itself – ‘Clepsydra’ refutes Harold Bloom’s assertion about it ‘being a beautiful failure … a poem that neither wants nor needs it readers … (it) sits on the page as a forbiddingly solid wall of print’ (110). The kind of quasi-hostile, or at least nonchalant, poem that Bloom describes would surely refuse what David Herd identifies as the ‘moments of relief’ that mark ‘Clepsydra’ (108), which prove even in ‘the miserable totality | Mustered at any given moment’ (Collected 141) there can still be some stability in the construction of the self. These may be brief and fleeting sensations of wholeness, of complex explanation, but their brevity is true to the work and the sensation of past and present time in ‘Clepsydra,’ heightened by the refusal of the flowing language to coalesce into something that might be considered whole. The presence, in particular, of enjambment throughout ‘Clepsydra’ operates mainly by breaking various lines’ intonational units, or at least elongating the subject of the sentence so that the reader is seemingly presented with sentences within sentences. What could be whole is rendered obsolete at the level of the line itself, let alone the looping and interruptive sentences. Thus, there runs throughout the poem a sense of dispersal and coalescence – which is ultimately its significance – what Ashbery presumably identified as its ‘unity’ – fluctuating through the grammatical corrections of the language itself. This is particularly evident in the persistence of the conjunction ‘but,’ which opens many of its sentences, and thus launches new topics and considerations for the voice of ‘Clepsydra’ to work into its arguments:

                                                  But the condition
Of those moments of timeless elasticity and blindness
Was being joined secretly so
That their paths would cross again and be separated
Only to join again in a final assumption rising like a shout
And be endless in the discovery of the declamatory
Nature of the distance travelled. All this is
Not without small variations and surprises, yet
An invisible fountain continually destroys and refreshes the previsions.
                    (Collected 142)

The poem’s moments are ‘timeless,’ elastic in their ability to stretch out and onward, existent still in memory as the self progresses through and by them. They are ‘endless’ in their crossings, separations and joining, always ‘traveling’ and moving in rhythm with the poem, the ‘nature’ of which is self-referentially ‘declaimed’ by the poem itself. Of course, as they progress, stretch out and sever, there will be ‘small variations and surprises,’ yet the gurgling of the ‘fountain’ – a symbol of the inherently circular nature of ‘Clepsydra,’ while being another image of water in motion to echo the ‘water-clock’ of the title – ensures the continuation of these moments as a matter of destruction, leading to a necessary reconstitution or reconsideration. The ‘previsions’ of the text’s immediate language are constantly refreshed to ensure their immediacy in reading does not slacken and become stale. Little reifies for long in ‘Clepsydra’; rather, it operates by temporary and ever-revolving illumination and renewal, slipping in and out of darkness.

  1. Jonathan Holden, in his essay ‘Syntax and the Poetry of John Ashbery’ (1979) has written perceptively on the prose-like construction of Ashbery’s syntax.
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