Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Meaning & Obscurity in Poetry (AKA, Leave John Ashbery Alone!)

It drives me nuts when people trot out John Ashbery as the default example of meaningless obscurantist poetry. Mark Edmundson did it in his idiotic Harper's piece, and I'm not going to bother to list a hundred other examples because I'm sure you've seen it too. The thing is, there is poetry that is essentially meaningless by design, so why use Ashbery as the go-to for poetic gobbledygook when most of his poems are built out of coherent sentences with beautiful Patrician syntax?

Calista (@stuffedowl) just tweeted this poem from a 1977 issue of Poetry, and I had my usual Ashbery experience: reading it several times in awe, wondering why I don't write poems like that, wondering why I bother writing poems at all, etc. First, here's the poem.


Although I mean it, and project the meaning
As hard as I can into its brushed-metal surface,
It cannot, in this deteriorating climate, pick up
Where I leave off. It sees the Japanese text
(About two men making love on a foam-rubber bed)
As among the most massive secretions of the human spirit.
Its part is in the shade, beyond the iron spikes of the fence,
Mixing red with blue. As the day wears on
Those who come to seem reasonable are shouted down
(Why you old goat! Look who's talkin'. Let's see you
Climb off that tower—the waterworks architecture, both stupid and
Grandly humorous at the same time, is a kind of mask for him,
Like a seal's face. Time and the weather
Don't always go hand in hand, as here: sometimes
One is slanted sideways, disappears for a while.
Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous
Clouds appear above the lawn, and the rose tells
The old old story, the pearl of the orient, occluded
And still apt to rise at times).
                                                        A few black smudges
on the outer boulevards, like squashed midges
And the truth becomes a hole, something one has always known,
A heaviness in the trees, and no one can say
Where it comes from, or how long it will stay— 
A randomness, a darkness of one's own. 

Now, some thoughts on meaning and obscurity in poetry.

~ Despite its syntactic rightness, one could fairly say that this isn't an "easy" poem; it begins with an in-medias-res-ness and the "it" of the first sentence has no clear antecedent. If you're Mark Edmundson you're going to pound your fist and stop reading. But you have to read poetry with trust; you have to trust that this interesting opening is going somewhere even though there's a big fat undefined variable in the equation.

~ Obscurity is built into the form of poetry. Turn the obscurity down to zero and a text won't look much like a poem anymore. How much obscurity is too much? That's up to the reader to decide, but here's the reason you can't pit meaning against obscurity: obscurity is where much of poetic meaning happens. Clarity of language is like the resolution of a photograph; more definition leaves less room for interpretation. We experience poetry as art—as something that makes us think, and therefore makes us smarter—in part because the language of poetry does not have perfect clarity. Meaning blooms in the fuzzy parts. This is why people often find poetic meaning and beauty in randomly generated "nonsense," like spam emails.

~ Note all the rhyme and near-rhyme (concentrated toward the end), the attention to line as unit. People who don't read Ashbery must assume he doesn't use these devices, since he's always held up as the exemplar of poetry's descent into formlessness.

~ Another big thing that makes a poem a poem and not something else is the tension between the line and the sentence. "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous clouds appear above the lawn" is a fine sentence, but before you get to the clouds, you are forced to pause a moment and concentrate your thinking on the partial sentence: "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous." We don't yet know that the clouds are rapturous, and so we assign the adjective back to "time." In poem-space, "rapturous" does refer back to time, just as much as it refers forward. Ashbery's choice to break the line there makes the referent ambiguous, so it's a blooming moment.

~ Remember the anecdote about the guy who said he liked Ashbery, then was challenged to quote a line? (The implication being, Ashbery lines float out of your head as soon as you're done reading them, as opposed to, say, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad.") The very exercise is whatever, because I can't think of a line from Seamus Heaney, not because he doesn't write memorable lines, but because I don't care about Seamus Heaney. But what's more quotable than "The truth becomes a hole, something one has always known"? And you can't forget the ending, because it rhymes.


  1. I think it was Sebald who said that every sentence should have meaning. And I think Ashbery's sentences are meaningful. But why should we look for meaning in a poem as a whole? What are we? Twee poets?

    Anyway, I used to know Ashbery's "This Room" by heart (from, I think, _Hotel Lautreamont_). And it has quite a phenomenal first line "This room I entered was the dream of a room. / Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine." Okay, now I need to go read Ashbery again.

    1. It is phenomenal! I never sit down and read a whole book of Ashbery, I tend to just get lost in a single poem and then not read him for a while. For this reason he would make a good Desert Island Poet.

    2. How do I +1 this comment? Come on, Google!

    3. You should be able to +1 ANY individual element on the page....

  2. The Hayes anecdote seems quite odd -- I'm lousy at accidentally memorizing anything, but single Ashbery lines stick in one's head as much as anything does (much of "Worsening Situation," e.g.).

    1. Me too with accidental memorization! Also, lines from very popular canonized novels get quoted all the time, but generally after reading a novel you don't necessarily remember and quote any lines from it.

    2. I had a middle school English teacher who insisted that "themes" had to be directly stated in a text. That's almost never true. A theme (especially a complex and interesting one) comes from the interaction of different ideas, of conflict and tension that can't necessarily be summed up in a bit quotation.

    3. One of my high school English teachers used to literally have a copy of the Cliff's Notes sitting inside whatever book she was teaching ... remember this especially from the week we talked about The Scarlet Letter. Way to be a role model!

  3. I was blessedly spared from having to read The Scarlet Letter in school. Many years later, when I decided to try reading the book just on my own, I got so bored with it that I quit reading it about halfway through.

    Ashbery's poetry has never much spoken to me. I react sometimes more strongly, more viscerally than that, to his poetry -- on the rare occasions I've tried reading any of his poems, I've felt that I was shut up in a hot suffocating room, and wanted more than anything to get out. I don't often react so strongly to poetry, but I do now and then. I've responded similarly, sometimes, to poems by Robert Lowell and James Dickey.

    I'm not bothered by obscurity, as such, in poems, and I wouldn't necessarily or automatically describe Ashbery's poetry (or not all of it) as obscure (which is kind of a compared-to-what thing anyway). "Contrived" is a word that does come to mind sometimes when I think of his poetry.

    To put it another way: when I read a poem, one of the things I look for and listen for is some sense of a compelling moral or ethical reason, some essential experience, that has driven the poet to write the poem. This, even if the poem is a "small" one in scale or ostensible subject matter. In Ashbery's poetry, the little bit I've tried to read of it over the past three decades or so, I haven't yet felt a compelling reason for any of his poems (those that I've read) to be written.

    A few poets whose work I generally like, and whose work I might describe as (at least sometimes) obscure, include Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons), Vincent Ferrini, Hans Faverey, Homero Aridjis, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Olga Broumas in a couple of her more recent books of poems.

    The poems of Denise Levertov aren't always easy to make my way through, and I'm not always sure what's going on, but I generally like reading her. I've found something similar in some of the poems of Barbara Jane Reyes, whose work I really like. There are other examples I'm not thinking of offhand.

    1. I read little to no Ashbery before I was 25 or so ... now it really speaks to me. I think the "compelling reason" for his poetry is more intellectual than emotional, but nonetheless, I do get "feeling" from them, usually a kind of unrest or displacement or experience of disjointedness ... but "not without a sense of humor." He's really good at making me think.

    2. Circling back here now, was away from my computer for a few days. -- It makes sense that Ashbery's poems are driven more by intellect than feeling, at least generally. My usual way of connecting with people and the world, from day to day, is through intuition and feeling, and intellect tends to be one of the places I go for retreat. I don't mind poems that make me think, but I don't (mostly) seek them out.

    3. Vis-à-vis Ashbery and emotion: to me he has a natural, emotionally restrained or neutral, conversational tone comparable to Elizabeth Bishop and George Herbert. (I'm sure I read that comparison somewhere, but I don't remember where. In an interview with Ashbery?) Both of whom I like, though I'm more of a Plath and Donne type.

    4. I like Ashbery v. much, though there's something neo-classical about that emotional restraint, and in general Elizabethan and romantic sensibilities are more my cup of tea. Nothing neo-classical about Ashbery's obscurity, however.

  4. I'm thinking of something Alice Fulton said to me many years ago: "You're lucky if a reviewer understands a fraction of what you've written." Something to that effect. This from a poet who probably wasn't on anyone's list of obscurantists. I sensed the truth of what she'd said. Even when you're conversing, trying to convey ideas in the limpidest possible way, how well do your interlocutors understand you? How well do even your intimates understand what you do? Speaking of his own poetry, O'Hara said that the parts that were obscure to him were probably clear to readers, and vice versa. Maybe that's true of many of us. So don't worry about what the reader will understand, I say. Just talk to yourself. As Ashbery said, when you talk to people, they tend to ignore you. It's when you talk to yourself that they listen. So what if what you say to yourself isn't rational? How valuable is reason, anyway? What good has insistence on rationality done us? Look at the world.

    1. Kay Ryan said something about how language is always already ambiguous and mysterious and so you don't need to add MORE obscurity, you should be as clear as possible because of the veil that's already between you and the reader ... I don't really agree but it's an interesting idea.

      The people in power don't act rationally, that's for fucking sure.

  5. "reading it several times in awe, wondering why I don't write poems like that, wondering why I bother writing poems at all, etc."

    Sitting down to write a poem and pretending to yourself that you are John Ashbery writing the poem is the best way I know of to write poetry. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it results in the best poems I've written.