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    aesthetics & allegiances

    In 1990, John Ashbery gave a set of lectures at Harvard on six poets who he claims as influences, all lesser-known: John Clare, Thomas Love Beddoes, Raymound Roussel, Laura Riding, John Wheelwright, and David Schubert. These lectures have recently been gathered together and published as a nice-looking volume, Other Traditions.

    In this post, Ron Silliman sums up the central question of Other Traditions as "how do we know if some writing is great if it is also, at the same time, unintelligible? And what do we mean if we say that unintelligible writing is great?" These strike me as very "Ashbery" sort of questions, by which I mean: I'm not surprised to hear that Ashbery's contemplating these questions, because they're the same questions I contemplate when I'm reading his poems.

    The New Yorker recently ran a profile on Ashbery (PDF supplied by Josh W.), which writes eloquently about the experience of coming up against these sorts of questions:

    "Resisting the impulse to make sense, allowing sentences to accumulate into an abstract collage of meaning rather than a story or an argument, requires effort. But that collage—a poem that cannot be paraphrased or explained or 'unpacked'—is what Ashbery is after ... This is one of the reasons it's a pity that he has a reputation for being a difficult poet: a reader who likes difficult poetry will tend to concentrate fiercely and bring to bear all his [sic] most sophisticated analytical equipment in order to wrestle an explicable meaning out of a poem; and while he may well be able to come up with one, it is unlikely to be the sort of meaning that Ashbery was after."

    It's slightly disappointing (although not unexpected) that once having taken what I think of as the fundamental step towards a progressive poetics—the recognition that "sense" or "meaning" is not the only valid end of a piece of writing—our New Yorker writer does not pause to consider the larger implications of this somewhat radical observation (as Ashbery does in his Other Traditions lectures) nor does she suggest that this observation may lead to an appreciation of other poets doing similar work (in short, an aesthetic). Instead she rapidly back-pedals to safe ground:

    "It's true that verbal abstraction can be jarring and, in a literal sense, repellent, darting about with zigzagging syntax or hurling projectile nouns [?], but Ashbery's poetry is neither. Its transitions may be confusing but they are rarely abrupt. Its syntax is usually conventional. Its meaning is elusive but only just, like a conversation overheard while half asleep; it is not incantation, not sheer sound, not nonsense, not scat. It has an abstract structure but the smell of a story. He seems not to be smashing up meaning but, rather, to be gently picking up old pieces of meaning that he has found lying about."

    While this passage may reassure the dubious reader enough to give Ashbery a try (a valid goal), it also seems to redraw some battle lines: the New Yorker may be broadening their circle of approval so that it firmly includes Ashbery (a white upper-class New Yorker), but they're in no way broadening it enough to include the rest of the poetic rabble, engaged, as they are, in all that unseemly smashing and hurling.



    Tuesday, November 08, 2005
    2:03 PM


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