The book consists of 35 poems, including the title poem. Each poem includes lines and figures which are individually striking and often beautiful; but the poems cannot be read discursively. The diction shifts markedly in the poems from the solemn to the profane. There are sudden shifts in person and in tenses. Frequently, lines or sections are clear enough, but a poem as a whole will appear opaque.
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The poems unfold at their own pace, in their own time. The casual diction is one of someone speaking, even when it moves toward abstruse thoughts. But to whom? I have sometimes thought that the experience of reading a poem by John Ashbery is akin to riding in an airplane. The engine goes smoothly on, its drone uninterrupted and invariable, while the air outside is by turns turbulent or calm, the view a vast blue, or obscured by pressing clouds; the light brilliant, mottled, or ink dark, punctuated by floating stars.
Inside the cabin things happen; the cabin is crammed with persons and their belongings and with various devices that make us think we are still in touch with the other, outer, world.
It is not always clear we have bought the right ticket; we thought we were heading for Miami but the plane has veered off to Iceland. We thought we were inside a tidy compartment a poem but it is suddenly wet and cold and there are strangers flying beside us like a flock of seagulls. Time is in relation to other time. As he writes: The times when a slow horse along A canal bank seems irrelevant and the truth: The best is its best sample Of time in relation to other time.
I hate to fly, as did John. Well, he said, perhaps I could come if I can stay at the Ritz. We managed to find the necessary funding, and indeed, he stayed, with the very young David Kermani, at the Ritz. It is in their room that he read to a small group of us, one evening after dinner, from a manuscript of new work.
As is well known, Ashbery also had an aversion to explaining his poems; he thought they were their own best explanation, and he was no doubt correct.
The explanation of what? Of my thought, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled.
On occasions when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue. Thought is certainly involved in the process; indeed, there are times when my work seems to me to be merely a recording of my thought processes without regard to what they are thinking about.
For John Ashbery, poems and thoughts, or ideas, are things; I would add that for him, language was also a kind of thing, if we mean that it has certain material qualities that we commonly associate with things : weight, color, density, shape. The word and its referent are in a shadow play rather than a transparent window. Ashbery lived in Paris, from on a Fulbright, and then again from , and I have wondered how deeply he was engaged with the philosophical and poetic conversations in those times.
I wish my French were not rudimentary, so I could speak a little about this profound engagement with your writers, but I am conscious of how little he seemed to be drawn to the philosophical thinkers who we so present when he was writing Self-Portrait.
I never heard him mention Derrida or Barthes or Deleuze. A poetics of what Deleuze would later call pure immanence. I would say that he saw that the world is not divided into oppositions and dualities, but is fluid, a flow chart, made up of countless images and events that generate forms of disparate inclusivity. He made the syntactical membrane between subject and object moot, or at least blurred, so that what might be considered internal or subjective fuses with the external or objective.
In fact, he seems to have wholly rejected the harsh dualities that are so obdurate in post-enlightenment thought: good, evil; true-false; man-woman and so forth. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves often in the liminal world of dream, but dreams free from their psychological, Freudian baggage. Sentences, in English, begin with the subject which, in the predicate, finds its object.
This is what we are taught in school, or what we were once taught in school. But in an Ashbery poem, this separation is often confounded. Ashbery undertakes to explore the self as a sequence of responses to the world; the poems are fields of attention that unwind or unfurl along paths of astounding variety; paths that lead nowhere in particular, except into the next path.
The poems in Self-Portrait could be construed as a series of questions about the relation of the self to the other that constitutes a self. This is announced on the very first page of Self-Portrait: A look of glass stops you And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived? Did they notice me, this time, as I am, Or is it postponed again? Everyone is along for the ride, It seems. Besides, what else is there? The annual games? He writes: Only waiting, the waiting: what fills up the time between?
It is another kind of wait, waiting for the wait to be ended. Nothing takes up its fair share of time, The wait is built into the things just coming into their own. Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait Invests everything like a climate. What time of day is it? Does anything matter? That Ashbery wrote about visual art for many years has affected our sense of his poetics; his attention to the visual was acute, informed and informing. But he knew, also, a great deal about music, in particular the dissonant music of radical modernity — Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, — as well as more lyrical composers — Satie, Berio, Delius.
I have long believed that it is this aspect of his knowledge gave his poems their peculiar pacing, tone and narrative complexity. Just as there are few intact stories in his poems, there are few pictorial scenes; rather, there are glances, fragments, some more lasting than others, but mostly we feel we are always moving toward or away from something, just as in a piece of music; and as we move along the past, or previous, notes are joined by other notes; at times, as in chamber or orchestral music, we hear many notes simultaneously.
But the summer Was well along, not yet past the mid-point But full and dark with the promise of that fullness. That time when one can no longer wander away And even the least attentive fall silent To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. Over and over, we are invited to anticipate or await an unnamed, never arriving, momentous something.
The fragment haunts late modernity as a trope of disintegration and ruin; for Ashbery, it begins to transform into a kind of humility, an acceptance of the partial as sufficient, if one pays sufficient attention to it. In our poem, summer is well along. The earliest poems in Self-Portrait were published in , when Ashbery, born in , was But, as we all know, Ashbery was not interested in writing about himself.
I am John. The poem continues: Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate As limped, dense twilight comes. Shifts in the atmosphere, weather and light, provide Ashbery with a continuous awareness of both setting and a change in that setting.
Are the children still at their games in the same place we were at the beginning of the poem? It is the same sun, but is it the same place? We were, in the beginning, waiting for someone to come. This tooting brings on a crescendo: Only in that tooting of a horn Down there, for a moment, I thought The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated, Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.
Here again, there is a suggestion of a great, important event that never fully arrives. Ashbery likes to rise to a sonorous or melodic consonance, and then to begin again in a new, unexpectedly dissonant key; a new mood. This return to a glimpse of the vernacular, this outtake from a scene, grounds the poem, keeps it from losing touch with the ordinary, even as it flirts with the extraordinary.
The final stanza of this first poem in Self-Portrait ends with yet another tone, one in which, I want to say, Ashbery gathers many of his most enduring and endearing characteristics: the pleasure of the catalogue or list, a diction that employs both simple and arcane words, an ability to say something profound without sounding profound — lightly, lightly —, all combined to register something like an ordinary sublime: The night sheen takes over.
A moon of cistercian pallor Has climbed in the corner of heaven, installed, Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth, The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much, But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes. I often had a sense that his mind was constantly scanning for new materials. He loved reading the local papers for the oddness of the normative.
I feel this was true also of John. He liked to be amused, and he liked to amuse. I told Olivier that I would not speak about the title poem but then I found myself lost inside of it, as if I had inadvertently wandered into a room in a museum I had no intention of visiting and found it was closing time when I finally left. So I shall spend the remaining time with you thinking about this most engrossing and kinetic ekphrastic meditation.
The first reminds us of Lucretius and the swerve of atoms that suggested to the philosopher the possibility of free will; and the many ways the idea of the clinamen has informed some thinking about writing since.
It also announces what we already know, that the poem itself will also protectively swerve. It is a typical Ashberian gesture to choose words that are both ordinary and unexpectedly fresh in their usage. The time of day or the density of the light Adhering to the face keeps it Lively and intact in a recurring wave Of arrival.
The soul establishes itself. The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts, Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul, Has no secret, is small and fits Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention. The swiftness of the shifts in these lines is unnerving, as we move from the affective register of tenderness, amusement and regret to the sudden, anguished contraction.
This is one of the very few moments in my reading of Ashbery when the calamity of recognition occasions bleak sorrow : hot tears spurt. The entire spiritual realm collapses into the small hollow of a room.
A fleet, agonized, reduced, containment. There is a sense of attenuation, as if suddenly there is only one instrument playing its meagre tune; perhaps an etude by Eric Satie. The poem continues: That is the tune but there are no words. The words are only speculation From the Latin, speculum, mirror : They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
As the doubt about the possibility of finding meaning arises, so too the image of the globe is introduced: But it is life englobed. Here, as elsewhere, these questions revolve around singularity — a self, fragment, or sample, and wholes, or sums.
And the vase is always full Because there is only just so much room And it accommodates everything. The sample One sees is not to be taken as Merely that, but as everything as it May be imagined outside time — not as a gesture But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.
We might note here that Ashbery elides not only the subject-object divide, but he avoids most of the harsh dualities of our divided and divisive world. He likes the in-between, the almost, the not quite, the twilight. In Ashbery, as in Stevens, there is a continual juggling of the materials of the sensorium — what we encounter in the world of objects — as they meet the objects of mental interiority on the surface of the poem.
You all have read this poem and do not need me to keep reciting from it.
Poem of the week: ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery
A breeze like the turning of a page Brings back your face: the moment Takes such a big bite out of the haze Of pleasant intuition it comes after. Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains The white precipitate of its dream In the climate of sighs flung across our world, A cloth over a birdcage. When I saw the painting in Vienna, I was rather disappointed. Like a celebrity who looks taller on television than in person, the canvas is surprisingly small, its subject matter unexciting.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror