|John Ashbery [pic courtesy of This Recording]|
Those Lacustrine Cities
by John Ashbery
These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing
Into something forgetful, although angry with history.
They are the product of an idea: that man is horrible, for instance,
Though this is only one example.
They emerged until a tower
Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.
Then you are left with an idea of yourself
And the feeling of ascending emptiness of the afternoon
Which must be charged to the embarrassment of others
Who fly by you like beacons.
The night is a sentinel.
Much of your time has been occupied by creative games
Until now, but we have all-inclusive plans for you.
We had thought, for instance, of sending you to the middle of the desert,
To a violent sea, or of having the closeness of others be air
To you, pressing you back into a startled dream
As sea-breezes greet a child’s face.
But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.
The worst is not over, yet I know
You will be happy here. Because of the logic
Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.
Tender and insouciant by turns, you see
You have built a mountain of something,
Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.
what a simmeringly angry, threatening poem — we’ll make you Jesus fucking Christ!
Nor can one take short extracts from a given Ashbery poem . . . and treat these extracts as containing within themselves the "meaning" of the poem in question. . . .
in Ashbery's poetry, it is usually impossible to identify the citation, and, even when we do, such identification doesn't necessarily help us to understand the poem. . . . Indeed, in Ashbery, almost everything sounds like a citation, sounds like something we've heard before or read somewhere--but where? And that is of course one of the main features of Ashbery's poetic: living at a moment when one's language is so wholly permeated by the discourses that endlessly impinge on it . . .
vintage Ashbery in its refusal to make clear whether its "theme" is serious or comic or both. And that, the poet--a poet whose skepticism is finally much more radical than was Eliot's-- suggests is how life is. . . .
Bishop's drive . . . toward meaningful statement is characteristic of modernism in its late phase. But Ashbery's poem is doing something else — establishing, for one thing, a different relationship between writer and reader, a relationship that looks ahead to the poetics of "embodiment" as practiced by such later poets as Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, Maggie O'Sullivan and Karen MacCormack.
Civilization and Its Discontents [excerpt]
There is no longer any use in harping on
The incredible principle of daylong silence, the dark sunlight
As only the grass is beginning to know it,
The wreath of the north pole,
Festoons for the late return, the shy pensioners
Agasp on the lamplit air. What is agreeable
Is to hold your hand. The gravel
Underfoot. The time is for coming close. Useless
Verbs shooting the other words far away.
I had already swallowed the poison
And could only gaze into the distance at my life
Like a saint’s with each day distinct.
No heaviness in the upland pastures. Nothing
In the forest. Only life under the huge trees
Like a coat that has grown too big, moving far away,
Cutting swamps for men like lapdogs, holding its own,
Performing once again, for you and for me.
The discipline of the apostate is often stricter than the observance of the faithful, and Emerson is a case in point. There was a chastity about his intellectual style, and [Oliver Wendell] Holmes [Jr] emulated it. This is a side of the young Holmes’s personality it has proved easy to miss. Wendell Holmes was, of course, a child of privilege, and he was not a prig. He was sociable and well connected; he liked to banter; in later life, he made much of his taste for pretty women and for drink. But it is a mistake to discount — even when he was still a student — the severity of his character as an intellectual. Holmes was an unusually compartmentalized personality. He knew when to work and when to play, and he never mixed his occasions. Socially, he exhibited the gregariousness of his father; in thought, he cultivated the solitariness of his hero. Even at seventeen, he was a bookish young man who wrote poetry, collected prints, and debated philosophical issues with his father at the dinner table. And he treated those issues with a rare gravity. He felt his father much too disposed to split the difference between opposing views, or to fall back on conventional wisdom; he considered most of his teachers hidebound traditionlists. He was, in the context of his times, a student radical. . . .
There is a neurochemistry of battle. For the men who fought at the Bloody Angle the universe must have reduced itself that day to a place in which killing and being killed were the only things that made sense, a world in which any other kind of behavior lay outside the boundaries of the thinkable.
I hope Ashbery — that man is horrible, for instance — would mock Menand for that testosterone-soaked melodramatic bullshit.