Thoughts on the writing of John Ashbery

Posted: January 5, 2013 in Parameters

from my kindle book, Parameters:

The timeplace: early 1950’s America; New York area specifically. The atmosphere: smoky, grimy, isolationist: B-movie hell with its WW2 legacy.

Think McCarthy, film noir, Kinsey. Think, you just graduated from college, everything before you: comfortable background, expectations high, good education, talented, contacts secured, the exploding art world beckoning. And you’re gay. But you’re not gay, you’re ‘homosexual’, for which, read ‘psycho-sexual pervert’, some kind of shameful disease. Kiss of death to your ambitions, of course.

You have friends, lovers; you do not have some weird mental ‘thing’. But there is a normalcy denied you by contemporary mores. And you have the gift of the gab, you know, with care, you can wing it. The challenge is invigorating. The secret a kind of acquired indeterminacy: not to allow yourself to be pinned down; and the fun of the slight twist, the unseen subverting of the rigidity of the straight.

Things are not in your favour, however: from the other side of the world reality slams home. The Korean War. They’re recruiting, and now you are eligible. You despise the war, its politics, its consequences, and its impact on your world. The only way out is the social and career-suicide of declaring yourself publicly a ‘psycho-sexual pervert’. This is reality; it’s no longer a game. You do it. Everything stops for you, the hi’s on the phone, the invites with gilded edges. Go abroad, young man. So you skip out, to Paris and the ‘over there’ European art world.

Coming to terms with all this: squirming on the needle of your time, like a bug under a microscope… Not just finding a way out, but wondering: into what? Sham of your life, sham of post war society, sham of the polarized and narrow constructs of a cold-war world. Does any of it stand up to scrutiny? You are on the outside looking in, and what you see is… laughable really.

To negotiate your way through requires a careful weighing of connotation, denotation, of word and phrase, of the expectations set up, and the onrush of language.

To experiment: Litany from ‘As We Know’ (1981) has two mutually dependent columns to be read together, whilst retaining each’s distinct character. Designs on your consciousness: can you dissociate, can you become two (three) points of awareness at the same time, can you ease open your ‘you’ sufficiently to allow the other voices equal status?

Is it possible to democratize language to such an extent that all experience, all tones of voice, all voices, have equal status: homosexual, heterosexual, ‘other’?

John Shoptaw’s excellent On the Outside Looking Out, (Harvard U P 1994) makes an attempt to uncodify Ashbery’s language techniques:

“ … lyric markers formed from sonic, visual, associational misrepresentation

                     eg  “it all came/ gushing” (crashing) “down on me…”

                           “the pen’s screech” (scratch)

           ‘…dropped, added or substituted letters

                     eg   “signs of mental” (metal) “fatigue”

                       “screwed into palace” (place)

                       “Time stepped” (stopped)

                       “long piers” (periods) “of silence”


The fortuitous accident.

Once rumbled like this, Ashbery twists and twists again: indeterminacy as a way of life.

His writing of the 1970s perhaps has something of the quality of Ericksonian writing. Milton Erickson was the foremost exponent of hypno-therapy techniques. Grinder and Bandler developed Neuro Linguistic Programming from his bases. It is possible to present information within a seemingly nonsensical verbal exchange.

As we have seen with Litany Ashbery has had designs upon our awareness, as many an avant-garde: John Cage’s ‘silences’ were constructs for inveigling supposed Zen-like states (Emersonian ‘quietism’?) into what is thought different in Western consciousness. The fortuitous accident technique is quite at home here, amongst the mind explorers. It is, of course, a standard Freudian analysis technique as well. So what we have here in effect, and I would suggest intended so, is a subverting of Freud’s techniques.

We’ve had all the ‘subliminal suggestion’, the pseudo-psychological advertising techniques, and none of them are really much cop. The mind is too complex.

This is really Ashbery’s main subject: the mind’s experiencing of itself. The best description of his technique so far is that he writes thought, all thought, any thought, bizarre thought, mundane thought: our thought.

It may not amount to much in the long run, but then, do we? This is everybody’s gamble: the ultimate democracy.

Milton Erickson’s great hypno-therapy proficiency found the participant/client could provide from their own life-experience the solution to their particular problem. There need be no hierarchies; and no professionals and subjects. The appeals here to Ashbery’s democratic sensibilities are obvious.

A reading by Ashbery amazed me: there were phrases, or more correctly, variations on phrases that I had not found readable on the page before; he gave them tones of voice so they instantly made sense. American (New York?) phrasing and emphases can articulate American (ditto) mind-states, not seemingly accessible on the page, and to the non-speaker. All this is grist to the primacy of language over writing  advocates. And the ‘technique’ of indeterminancy could also prove a link with Derrida’s emergent works in the Tel Quel magazine and elsewhere in Paris at the same time as Ashbery’s sojourn there.

There is a book, The Writer’s Desk (Jill Krementz, Random House, 1997), of photographs of writers and their study’s. Ashbery’s photo shows an old Remmington manual typewriter: one cannot correct easily on a manual; it is a matter of re-typing the piece from scratch. You can guess here an origin of the fortuitous accident: the body-(fingers)-knowledge contending with what the mind intends. Freud, of course, worked this up into a major tenet of his psychoanalytical techniques: the ‘accident’ that is maybe not an accident but a ‘tell’ (think of Auden, and his ridiculous ‘liar’s quinsy’). Faced with such a force as this one can either go into it, or subvert it (both?). At any rate the end product is a coded missive from the liminal lands. Add to this the encoding of gay lived and ostracized experience – and you have quite a complex mix.

There is also a developing personal sense of aesthetic; we see in the opacities of the early Tennis Court Oath not only a referencing the French Revolution’s emerging Third Estate, of proletarian concerns becoming a political force, a democratic centredness, but also a willfull disregard of such referencing. This ambiguity of seeming to suggest great political and cultural concerns, yet denying the import of them in the writing, are all hallmarks of Ashbery’s work.

The sound of an Ashbery poem is also a unique facet of his work. There have been articulate commentators who have described his work en mass as ‘bland’. This is, I think, because all rhythms are smoothed into the euphonic flow of the thought/text; there are no sharp dissonances as such. This all helps us realise that what we take as the essence of expression is in fact technique, that language is, by definition, rhetoric: it is to persuade us that what it imparts is valid, if not truthful; worthwhile, if not essential.

If any of this does fit Ashbery’s profile then I would be very pleased. His greatest virtues are his all-consuming sense of wonder, humour, and personal charm.

  1. […] Michael Murray has written a splendid piece on John Ashbery on his blog which you can read here […]

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