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30 May 2009

John Ashbery

An article by Nick Laird in today's Guardian Review begins with Raymond Chandler and ends with John Ashbery. My kind of article, then. It's a bit unfocussed and wandering but examines the role of metaphor in poetry. The pullquote caught my eye:
A reader faced with a difficult poem often tries to solve it, to frisk it for meaning.

which is fine, but I think the difficulty of poetry can go beyond the use of obscure metaphors. The article quotes a study on consciousness, which suggests that pattern-recognition is not just innate, but that we (and other animals) can recognise patterns in a platonic way, amd may prefer a pattern that is closer to some ideal. (He doesn't make the reference to Plato, though, and I may be misreading him.) So, in his view, poetry goes straight to some inherent understanding (he refers to Yeats' idea of spiritus mundi, and Jung's collective unconscious). He finishes with the question
Does that explain the pleasure I get from reading John Ashbery, even though I couldn't paraphrase half of it?

I've had an intermittent relationship with Ashbery's Selected Poems for some time. My copy was published by Paladin in 1987. I think I bought it because I read that Celine and Julie Go Boating was one of his favourite films. Well, that fits. And if Nick Laird really can paraphrase half of Ashbery's work, he's doing very well.
Time for a short example, chosen almost at random for its shortness. This is called "A Love Poem"
And they have to get it right. We just need
A little happiness, and when the clever things
Are taken up (O has the mouth shaped that letter?
What do we have bearing down on it?) as the last thin curve
("Positively the last," they say) before the dark:
(The sky is pure and faint, the pavement still wet) and

The dripping is in the walls, within sleep
Itself. I mean there is no escape
From me, from it. The night is itself sleep
And what goes on in it, the naming of the wind,
Our notes to each other, always repeated, always the same.

To paraphrase this, one thing you'd need to know is who "they" are, and there's not a clue. I suspect that some of this would become clear from the wider content of Ashbery's work. But probably the answer is that it doesn't matter. Similarly, the idea of the "dripping in the walls" clearly refers to something unspoken. (And for me, there's an unfortunate second meaning for dripping.) Semiotically, then, what's going on here? Words have an unknown denotation; only the connotation remains. So we've moved on from traditional poetry, in which the language describes (denotes) a recognisable object, but the way it does so connotes something more. Here, we just have the something more. At its best - and I don't know if this is such a piece - it's as direct and indescribable as music.

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