John Ashbery’s Humane Abstractions

1 May 2018

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This anxious sense of space is what de Chirico allowed Ashbery to contemplate in The Double Dream of Spring. The question in turn, the question posed at the beginning of this essay, is what does the poetry of The Double Dream of Spring allow us to think? What, this is to ask, does Ashbery bring to de Chirico’s vision? To which the answer, straightforwardly, is language. Or to be more precise: in its syntactical rendering of de Chirico’s spatial grammar – his rendering of the space, as Ashbery puts it, ‘in which we now live’ – what the poetry of The Double Dream of Spring enables us to think about is what a language shaped not by belonging but by displacement can look like.

This claim takes us to a second of the ‘Author’s Notes’ with which Ashbery concludes his book. The note relates to the short series of poems titled ‘French Poems’. As Ashbery says:

I wrote the group of poems called “French Poems” in French and translated them myself into English, with the idea of avoiding customary word patterns and associations. The French version was published in the review Tel Quel, No.27, Autumn 1966, Paris. (DDS, 95)

It does not force the point, I think, to suggest that in this further framing note Ashbery presents a group of poems that has, in a quite literal sense, been dislocated. Before they appeared in English in The Double Dream of Spring, the poems in question were written in another language and published in another country. At the level of utterance there has been a displacement. The question, in so far as ‘French Poems’ are concerned with dislocation, is what do they tell us about that condition? What, from that point of view, do they bring to the language? The note is explicit on this point: the idea was to avoid ‘customary word patterns and associations’. To arrive at such a form of expression is to configure utterances which decline the implication of near-dwelling. It is to configure a language whose sense of its relation to space is not predicated on the idea of a locale.

There are different ways we might think about this. In the rhetoric of the late sixties, the rhetoric of ‘Space and Dream’, we might say that the republic Ashbery glimpses in de Chirico’s vision of space calls for no prior acquaintance, that it places no premium on custom and practice. Read in the light of the present moment, what the poetry of The Double Dream of Spring can also be seen to propose is what we can call a broken English; a version of the English language broken from its historical ground. It is this broken quality, its interest in breaking with association, that explains the poetry’s steadfast refusal to be placed. It can’t be placed because it declines to trade in familiar markers, but situates itself, instead, among geographically non-specific sites. Consider the closing verse paragraph of the fourth of ‘French Poems’:

Everything is landscape:
Perspectives of cliffs beaten by innumerable waves,
More wheat fields than you can count, forests,
With disappearing paths, stone towers
And finally and above all the great urban centers, with
Their office buildings and populations, at the center of which
We live our lives, made up of a great quantity of isolated instants
So as to be lost at the heart of a multitude of things.
(DDS, 39)

In Ashbery’s ‘French Poems’, not different in this respect from the other poems of The Double Dream of Spring, the built environment resists the draw of meaning. There is not a gathering here, as Heidegger proposed, but a dispersal, ‘a great quantity of isolated instants’, such that ‘we are lost at the heart of a multitude of things’.

It is in these lines that Ashbery’s poetry of the late-60s presents its emotional burden. What, if we take our modernity seriously, are we to do about such lost-ness? Ashbery, taking a steer from de Chirico reads lostness not as loss but as displacement, where displacement is not the exception but the condition through which the Twentieth Century experiences environments. ‘The Task’ then, to take the title of the first poem of The Double Dream of Spring, a poem which itself deftly and brilliantly opens out into new geographies, is to arrive at a language which aims not to recover an imagined past but to negotiate the present. Ashbery, that is, looks to compose a language adjusted to the reality of the non-place. ‘French Poems’, accordingly, concludes with a truly risky proposition:

This banality which in the last analysis is our
Most precious possession, because allowing us to
Rise above ourselves, which would not be very much
Without the presence of a lot of friends and enemies, all

Willing to swear allegiance, entering thus
The factory of our lives.
(DDS, 39)

Ashbery, I want to suggest, is entirely serious in making this proposition, and in the corresponding estimation of what modernity implies. The question, therefore, is what does it meant to offer up banality as our most precious possession? One answer, I would suggest, takes us to a second and competing narrative of the postwar moment.

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