Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sometimes Clouds Just Disappear

"One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here." (Tony Tost, IB, p. 46)

"If it is any consolation, we admire the early work of John Ashbery./If it is any consolation, you won't feel a thing." (Ben Lerner, LF, p. 59)

The question on the table is whether the desire for solidity is more moral than the desire for (or acceptance of) brokenness, fluidity, fragmentation. The extra credit question is what bearing this has on the work of John Ashbery. I think it is safe to say that contemporary American poetry is situated willy-nilly in the anxiety of this question. Indeed, it may mark the "crisis" that the lyric faces today. I don't really know, but by putting it in these terms, it becomes possible to deal with question as part of my attempt to understand Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading.

Sandra and I have been talking not so much about anxiety as phobia, but they are surely related. The question can be put as follows: does the strategy that allows Amber, and not Sandra, to get on a plane without fear resemble the strategy that, not only gives Ashbery's work its distinctive voice, but also continues to favour him with a long life? Like Laura, I'm not at all sure that "the idea that Ashbery somehow has allowed the fluidity of his language to keep him afloat" is the key to understanding his work or his longevity. But Bloom does say that "Ashbery's mingled strength and weakness, indeed his deliberate pathos, is that he knowingly begins where Childe Roland ended, 'free to wander away' yet always seeing himself as living 'the history of someone who came too late' while sensing that 'the time is ripe now'" (MM, p. 205-6). He says that "Ashbery's turnings-against-the-self are wistful and inconclusive, and he rarely allows a psychic reversal any completeness" (205). Finally, he speaks of Ashbery's "heroic and perpetual self-defeat" as his "finest achievement" (206). Ashbery is certainly no paragon of solidity, but Bloom is right to suspect him of immortality. 

Let me now make the presumptuous and premature assumption that Tony Tost is struggling with Ashbery's influence in a productively anxious way. (I don't actually think Ashbery is the best candidate for a precursor, but it's probably not totally off the mark. And it seems likely that the greatest poet of Tony's generation, which Tony may yet turn out to be, will be great in some measure as he measures up to Ashbery.) In the context of our discussion about the fear of flying, the following passage from Invisible Bride is quite striking:

Some folks are unable to talk on the phone in a noisy office or airport while others can make a call from anywhere. Some folks break the phone because they are afraid it will ring. My father feared the ferry-boat that took us to our summer vacation home; when the horn blew he would throw himself on an imaginary sword. During my lifetime, I've made at least 200,000 observations. For example, often clouds just disappear. (IB, p. 35; also in Story South)

Here the anxiety of 200,000 observations, which may be weighed against the "120,000 playground injuries" on page 3, setting the nervous energy of phobic experience against the objectifying gaze of governmentality, is resolved in the fact that, sometimes, clouds simply vanish, and we may recall here, too, that on page 3, the poet, "like a cloud", is said to "serve a large population".

"I have seen the greatest minds of my generation ..." vanish into anxiety, histrionic in a naked insistence on no-self. I'm not altogether without compassion (empathy even) but I am not sure that it's the direction poetry and the polity are going. We must simply remember to be here, if that's any consolation.

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