I’m just getting around to reading Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon, which was selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series and published by Harper Perennial in 2007. It’s pretty remarkable. By stacking up big, vague, abstract Latinate terms, he creates complex sentences that appear to be rich with meaning and knowledge, but upon inspection, mean almost nothing, because none of the terms are well-defined. The near-meaninglessness of the prose poems on the recto pages is highlighted by the true meaninglessness of the fragments (erasures?) on the verso pages – each open page looks like this (click the image to enlarge):
As such the poems become pure syntax and vocabulary, sentences for the sake of sentences, with the ideas seemingly just beyond view, obscured by the foliage. For example: “What example doesn’t contain the blooming topography of its own terminology?” Or: “The grand narrative the end of narratives had had had had no grandiose ending.” This is very much how Ashbery’s poetics work. And, as in Ashbery, the fog will break and reveal the occasional moment of crisp truth. (“By definition, actors are interchangeable.” Or: "The world's not weirder than we think, but weirder than we can think.") In fact, reading Novel Pictorial Noise, I feel that I better understand Ashbery.
Here’s one in full, to better see their diagrammatic beauty:
If you see the straight highway before you is permanently closed, then a picture is conjured to fix ambiguity. Although a rope doesn’t ask for its knot, any expression is merely detour dressed with intention, a side road muddied from constant use. Why should a thread understand a carpet? Unimportant that my arrows point anywhere, accidental that an actual wind moves them. As always, this road ends behind us. Why should a machine be anything other than a picture of itself, when meaning and purpose read as vestments of design and one has the burden of officiating doubt on one’s mind?
(The poems usually end on a rhyme, a funny little “yes, this is poetry” flourish that reminds me of Bach.)
Funny story: I learned recently that Noah Eli Gordon has confused me for years with another person, namely a woman that John dated on and off before we met. Once, this woman, who was also blonde but otherwise looks nothing like me, met NEG at the Boston Poetry Festival and told him she was a fan of his work. A few months ago, he recounted this memory to me, and I had to admit he was thinking of someone else.
I wonder if this false memory had any influence on the way he read my poetry. In any case, NEG taught The Self Unstable in his class at UC Boulder last semester, and I visited the class to do a reading and Q&A. We had a few minutes to spare beforehand, so we hung out in his office, and he gave me copies of all his books. He remarked that he thought I’d find Novel Pictorial Noise to be similar in interesting ways to my book. And yes, of course, I do. I’ve remarked before that I often lament I can’t write more like Ashbery, or perhaps it’s just that I don’t; when I sit down to write, Ashbery is not what comes out. But in Novel Pictorial Noise, I see a link between my poetry and Ashbery’s, suggesting we have a common ancestor after all.
I’ve been thinking a lot about influence lately. The only real anxiety in my influence is that I don’t have (m)any influences, at least not intentionally – I’m not good at imitating my “heroes,” and I don’t really believe in heroes, literary or otherwise. People, even heroes, let you down. But who knows how these things work? I was reading a lot of Anne Carson in college and grad school, and would have loved to have someone compare me to her. Nobody did, with good reason. Instead they compared me to Frank O’Hara. Now that I’m not reading Carson, people are saying The Self Unstable reminds them of Short Talks. It’s like the “watched pot never boils” theory of literary influence: only when you’re not trying.