This paper situates Ashbery in a certain New York 1970's, looking at the poems in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror through the lens of the uneasy tail end of the post-World War II Pax Americana. I read the poems in the book as an elaborate staging of the guilty conscience of a citizen of the global hegemon, both super-saturated with images and commodities, and at pains to keep off-stage the violence that sustains their flow. In order to resolve this contradiction between feeling party to hegemonic power and having no influence on it, Ashbery develops a poetics of minority, reflected both in his career-long devotion to what he calls "The Other Tradition" of eccentric, un-canonizable poets as models for his own work, and in Self-Portrait's recurring figures of what I call "optional apocalypse" ”" looming disaster that the poet believes he can simply choose to "wander away" from. This insistent minority, I argue, does not so much fit the received narrative of Ashbery's (and so-called "postmodern" poetry's) abandonment of the first-person poetic subject, as it suggests a kind of protection for it, a stashing-away of poetic personhood that represents a guilty, unstable and covert alignment of the hapless subject of the hegemon with other wanderers and vagrants, whom Ashbery locates elsewhere, "on the other side of the mountains."
John Ashbery's Optional Apocalypse
June 14, 2008
Poetry of the 1970s
University of Maine
My paper today is an attempt to place John Ashbery in the context of the 1970s. I'm hoping it will be a small step away from the recurrent themes of Ashbery criticism -- Ashbery as endlessly elusive, as a poet of perception, of the experience of time, of nostalgia, a poet laughing at us for trying to grasp meanings that aren't there, a poet who has secured his majority by way of an insistent minority ”" I'd like to step away from these themes of Ashbery criticism and read his key work of the 70's as trying to solve aesthetic problems that are the product of political conditions. I am especially interested in thinking about Ashbery in the New York City of the 1970s, the city that David Harvey has argued became a laboratory, like Chile in 1973, for what we would now call neoliberalism.
As Harvey and others have detailed (Koolhaas, William Tabb, NYC and the Urban Fiscal Crisis), New York in the 70s was the scene for a battle between capital and labor in which investment bankers and corporate leaders seized the opportunity of the recession of the day to unhitch the city from federal support and make it dependent on private financing. This is the crisis that led to the famous New York Daily News headline of October 30, 1975: "Ford to City: Drop Dead," and which brought municipal unions into line by forcing them to invest their pensions in city bonds, thereby making the secure retirement of their members susceptible to the threat of withdrawn corporate subsidy (Harvey 44-45). The flip side of this demolition of union militancy was the concentration and spectacularization of capital exemplified in the two towers of Minoru Yamasaki's World Trade Center, which at the time of its ribbon-cutting in 1973 had cost the Port Authority $900 million dollars, a vast flow of capital from public to private coffers. Harvey is especially persuasive in arguing that this consolidation of the private sector, and of the class power that subtends it, was a reaction to the upheavals of the 1960s, in which the actions of both unions and students were seen by the business classes as disruptive to the steady flow of capital. It is the period in which CUNY began to charge tuition for the first time (Harvey 45).
We can learn a little from the reticent Ashbery about his relation to this period in New York's history. In a 2005 interview in the UK Guardian, he recalls winning Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award for Self-Portrait: "Those prizes were very welcome. I think I was probably going to get fired from Brooklyn College as New York was retrenching but instead I was given tenure." This modesty is paired with a bit of mischief when he recalls his participation in protests against the Vietnam War: "I went on the huge Central Park demonstration against the war when we marched to the UN, although me and my friends did stop off at a hotel bar to have a few margaritas on the way" ("Parallel Lines," Sat Apr 23 '05).
I'm especially interested in this second comment, since it reflects something crucial to Ashbery's poetry of the 70's, which is his belief in what he calls "wandering away." Again and again in Three Poems and Self-Portrait, the poet describes scenes of spectacle, pageantry, and even apocalypse, which are made harmless by the poet's turning to face the other direction, or drifting in a different direction. But the two comments are perhaps best taken together, because the poet who wanders away from the great events, from the looming catastrophes and conflicts, does not want us to see him as imperious; he wants us to recognize his smallness, his minority ”" he wants us to know that he is in danger, like any of us, of being downsized.
This posture of minority is reflected in Ashbery's career-long devotion to what he calls "The Other Tradition" of eccentric, un-canonizable poets as models for his own work, but it is not only a puckish resistance to classicality. It also encodes a wish not to be party to violence, which shades into a wish not to be responsible for it, which shades into a wish not to know about it. This uneasy dynamic is especially vivid in figures of what I call "optional apocalypse" ”" looming disaster that the poet believes he can simply choose to "wander away" from. The insistent minority of Three Poems and Self-Portrait represents a guilty, unstable and covert alignment of the hapless subject of the hegemon with other wanderers and vagrants, whom Ashbery locates in an elsewhere he calls "the other side of the mountains."
Here is an exemplary passage from "The System," the second of the three prose sections that comprise Three Poems; it is the passage from which Ashbery's phrase "other tradition" derives:
There wasn't too much of any one thing. The feelings never wandered off into a private song or tried to present the procession of straightforward facts as something like a pageant: the gorgeous was still unknown. There was, however, a residue, a kind of fiction that developed parallel to the classic truths of daily life (as it was in that heroic but commonplace age) as they unfolded with the foreseeable majesty of a holocaust, an unfrightening one, and went unrecognized, drawing force and grandeur from this like the illegitimate offspring of a king. It is this "other tradition" which we propose to explore. (TP 55-56)
The passage is part of a long and very beautiful gloss on the experience of aesthetic adequacy, on the feeling of rightness and capacity and generativity that comes when one feels able to write. But notice how that feeling is conceived. First it is a kind of ratio, "There wasn't too much of any one thing"; then it is a right relation or happy medium between public and private, it "never wandered off into a private song," nor became a "pageant" ”" the feeling of rightness is simply a set of "straightforward facts." Where, then, does the art come from, since that's what the poet is reveling in? This is when the conception of this rightness changes from ratio or average to a figure of relation and medium, the "fiction" that develops like a "residue" alongside what's classic, what's heroic. It is a kind of minority, then, that houses or facilitates this ease and this adequacy; it takes place in the shadow of the classic, the heroic, even the holocaustal ”" which brings us to that interesting phrase about "the classic truths of daily life," which the poet says "unfolded with the foreseeable majesty of a holocaust, an unfrightening one."
What is an unfrightening holocaust, exactly? In the early 70's it was still possible to use the word "holocaust" without its first connotation being the murder of European Jews; it seems more often, until the middle of the decade, to have conjured images of nuclear destruction. In either case, the phrase encrypts something important to Ashbery's poetry of the time, which is the wish that the majority to which his own writing is minor, the great events, the pageantry of public life ”" the wish that all these need not necessarily add up to mass violence. Or, that's not quite right; Ashbery seems to be saying that the ever-present danger of mass violence need not, should not, prevent writing from happening. Writing, in relation to such events, is by definition a kind of minor activity, and it needs what he has called a "neutral climate" in which to thrive.
In a letter to The Nation written after the death of Frank O'Hara, Ashbery praised O'Hara for not having become a doctrinaire poet even though he had lived in ideologically supercharged times; for these remarks he was chastised by Louis Simpson, who felt Ashbery was praising political apathy and non-engagement. James Longenbach has uncovered Ashbery's response to this accusation, which also appeared in The Nation, and in which Ashbery says this:
All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn't poetry, and it stops being poetry when it is forced into the mold of a particular program. Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest. I believe in both forms of action. (Nation 29 May '67, in Longenbach 104)
So on the one hand we have an appealing insistence that poetry is a kind of anti-violence, and on the other we have a bracing reminder that poets, whatever their dreams of prophetic legislation, are minor, even minute, players on the contemporary political stage. In this argument, poetry is political simply by virtue of not being war; and poets are able to do what they do best when they are under no pressure to be "political."
But this argument is too easy; making oneself minor, though it preserves a "neutral climate" for poetry, does not remove you from the scene of violence; indeed it is against the small, the minor, to whom violence is most often done. And Ashbery knows this. In a short poem from Self-Portrait called "Foreboding," he renders the problem as a schoolyard scene, in which we find
A big ugly one
With braces kicking the shit out of a smaller one
Who reaches for a platinum axe stamped excalibur
The poet, witnessing the scene, can't undo the violence; he writes:
I feel as though
Somebody had just brought me an equation.
I say, "I can't answer this ”" I know
That it's true, please believe me,
I can see the proof, lofty, invisible
In the sky far above the striped awnings. I just see
That I want it to go on, without
Anybody's getting hurt ...
The spectacle of bullying, which can only be halted by solving an equation whose "proof" remains invisible in the "sky," is part of an array of aerial figures in Self-Portrait, in which the sky as scene of judgment is nervously contrasted with the weather that alters it, or with the humble, minor action on the ground, or with the ability to turn away. The poems fret over whether Judgment Day is coming, but then startle themselves with relief that somehow the poet was off-scene when it came. Here are some lines from "As You Came From The Holy Land":
... your house is built in tomorrow
but surely not before the examination
of what is right and will befall
not before the census
and the writing down of names
remember you are free to wander away
as from other times other scenes that were taking place ...
it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest
were happening in the sky
but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it
["As You Came From The Holy Land," 72]
Lines like these are part of a tissue of self-delusion in Self-Portrait, about which the poet is quite sheepish: he knows he is staging arbitrary rescues of himself from the implications of mass violence; he knows he is kidding himself to think he is "free to wander away" from "that thing of monstrous interest," and he knows he is protesting too much when he insists that he just doesn't want anyone to get hurt. He believes in earliness, in potential, before it is dragooned into action, since action may bring violence ”" he often figures his preference in language of morning, evening, and night, sometimes crossed with the language of the seasons. The most famous instance of this is the end of the opening poem from Self-Portrait, "As One Put Drunk Into The Packet-Boat," where Ashbery writes
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.
In those beautiful lines, night brings relief from glare, from public life and its compulsions. Elsewhere in Self-Portrait, though, Ashbery repeats their cadence in self-critical tones:
Morning is for sissies like you
But the real trials, the ones that separate the men from the boys, come later.
["Grand Galop," 96]
But even this self-accusation misses the point: the poet is minor not because he is a sissy instead of a hero; he is minor because he lives in a system of divided labor in which can never play a decisive role. Again, he tries to imagine this problem as merely a matter of choice; in "Poem in Three Parts," he writes,
There are so many different jobs:
It's sufficient to choose one, or a fraction of one.
Days will be blue elsewhere with their own purpose.
["Poem in Three Parts," 104]
But this notion of the division of labor as a problem of choosing a job, as something that happens under the reassuring autonomy of the wide blue sky, is a deliberate and feeble misreading of the problem, and the poet knows it. It's just that fully acknowledging the problem makes writing much harder to get done. In lines that read like the obverse of the passage I read you from Three Poems, where "There wasn't too much of any one thing," Ashbery describes feeling completely overwhelmed in "Grand Galop":
As long as one has some sense that each thing knows its place
All is well, but with the arrival and departure
Of each new one overlapping so intensely in the semi-darkness
It's a bit mad. Too bad, I mean, that getting to know each just for a fleeting second
Must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole,
Like some pocket history of the world, so general
As to constitute a sob or wail unrelated
To any attempt at definition.
["Grand Galop," 90]
Ashbery experiences this overstimulation, which distorts the happy proportion of "each thing," as a problem of labor for the minor subject, which might be phrased as, well what am I supposed to do? Elsewhere in the poem, he writes,
And the minor eras
Take on an importance out of all proportion to the story
For it can no longer unwind, but must be kept on hand
Indefinitely, like a first-aid kit no one ever uses
Or a word in the dictionary that no one will ever look up.
The custard is setting; meanwhile
I not only have my own history to worry about
But am forced to fret over insufficient details related to huge
Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point
Of being, with or without my help, if any were forthcoming.
["Grand Galop," 92]
Once again he is unable to help, and hopes instead that the cyclicality of the movement of morning into afternoon and afternoon to evening, its perpetual promise of more time, will solve the problem, even as it seeps in around the edges of the day. This is also from "Grand Galop":
And so from a day replete with rumors
Of things being done on the other side of the mountains
A nucleus remains, a still-perfect possibility
That can be kept indefinitely. And yet
The groans of labor pains are deafening ...
["Grand Galop," 96]
There is lots more to say about these issues in Ashbery, about how acutely he feels the link between violence and the division of labor, about the many shadings of feeling with which he returns, again and again, to what he knows are false hopes of simply being able to maintain a "neutral climate" for writing, false hopes that no one will get hurt in the process by which the great spectacles become spectacular. I think the poems in Self-Portrait provide us the contours of an exemplary speaking subject for the American 1970s, the guilty subject of the hegemon who knows that violence is being done elsewhere, in his name, but who cannot figure out a way to get in right relation with those about whom he frets and so willfully forgets, the subject of the spectacle who nervously tracks the increments by which aesthetic experience and gorgeous writing add up imperceptibly to "a thing of monstrous interest," somehow curving from delight to horror with no visible sharp turns, like the arc of a convex mirror. And in response to this he kids himself, and kicks himself, and kids himself again.
Is Ashbery elusive, as we have been taught to read him? Certainly, but not because he has no distinct subject; rather because he distributes it, and his worries about it, across many poems, obliging us to read at the level of the book, or across books, rather than generically, at the level of the individual poem (see also John Emil Vincent, John Ashbery and You, U of Georgia P, 2008: 4-5). Are his poems about time? Of course they are, if we acknowledge with Guy Debord that "The social appropriation of time and the production of man by human labor develop within a society divided into classes," (Debord, Society of the Spectacle para. 128). Are his poems about writing? Abundantly, if we acknowledge that, as a technology of both communication and specialization, writing at once links and separates social actors. Do his poems enact a mischievous wandering away from our interpretations at every turn? I don't think so, though I think they are all about wandering in the sense Richard Halpern, Celeste Langan and others have suggested, the historical sense in which images and narratives of vagrancy accrue to the English-language poet not only because of the example of the troubadours, but because of the history of enclosure and displacement that obliged singers and players to wander the English countryside, perpetually in danger of being on the wrong side of a rapidly mutating law. The scruffy minor Ashbery, getting toasted on the way to the demonstration, is a bit a put-on; however much he might like us to read him as a trickster, I think he's better understood as a guiltily buffered witness to the consolidation of new forms of power right under his feet, further downtown than his downtown, rising toward the sky. He keeps hoping that he will simply be able to choose to walk out from under their shadow, but he also keeps tracking how those shadows lengthen. As he puts it in the title poem of Self-Portrait,
What should be the vacuum of a dream
Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams
Is being tapped so that this one dream
May wax, flourish like a cabbage rose,
Defying sumptuary laws, leaving us
To awake and try to begin living in what
Has now become a slum. (212)