Tuesday, July 28, 2009
JOHN ASHBERY b JULY 28 1927
AT NORTH FARM
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?
no modern poet has had the effect on me that ashbery had. i remember reading him for the first time. it was an very early volume of american poetry review & the poem was "lithuanian dance band." the final stunning stanza reads:
"For we are alone too and that’s sad isn’t it
Yet you are meant to be alone at least part of the time
You must be in order to work and yet it always seems so unnatural
As though seeing people were intrinsic to life which it just might be
And then somehow the loneliness is more real and more human
You know not just the scarecrow but the whole landscape
And the crows peacefully pecking where the harrow has passed."
i never found his poetry(especially the early work up to flow chart)to be particularly difficult. the tone was always wistful but playful, assertive but tenative. it was the voice of someone working out a place of themselves, a subject in search of objects & discovering the objectivity of words. ashbery's unstable lyric voice(all those pronouns adding up to one subject)could be hard to track if you started w/the assumption that the voice is addressing someone other than the speaker himself. reading ashbery is hearing an internal play of voices as each tries to make sense of where each fits in a singular consciousness(so that even when he addresses parmiaggino in "self portrait in a convex mirror, he's addressing that part of himself that identifies w/the artist, not the artist himself). surely, we've been here before w/beckett but ashbery makes it seem so reasonable, so natural.
which is where he took his later poetry which initially seemed so odd. the voices are no longer so eloquent or coherent but they're mode of address seems rational. the sentences flow quite naturally but only occasionally come together to generate several lines of sensible meaning, perfect punctuation & tone w/no line by line sense. the speaking voice starts & stops, start & stops until a few lines cohere or the voice speaks clearly but w/o the usual logic of sentences, almost as if he's being translated from another language altogether. it's always struck me that as ashbery got older, his language became more accessible even as his method became more problematic. i found a way of thinking about what he was up to in wittgenstein & his ideas about ordinary language & his language games:
"that is why our method is not merely to enumerate actual usages of words, but rather deliberately to invent new ones, some of them because of their absurd appearance."
the ordinary language & tone that ashbery uses might seem absurd in its exposition but the occasional breakthroughs of meaning at various moments points to his effort to re-charge language in a significant way. from the specificity of a subject marking out his/her territory to the general apparatus of language & its various forms of expression(& communication), ashbery has always seemed to me to be about a singular self making sense of itself in the world through the only means available despite the flaws in those means.
on & on we talk; when we stop, nobody knows.