Hul 16, 2015

Notes on John Ashbery’s “A Blessing in Disguise”

Yes, they are alive and can have those colors,
But I, in my soul, am alive too.
I feel I must sing and dance, to tell
Of this in a way, that knowing you may be drawn to me.

And I sing amid despair and isolation
Of the chance to know you, to sing of me
Which are you. You see,
You hold me up to the light in a way

I should never have expected, or suspected, perhaps
Because you always tell me I am you,
And right. The great spruces loom.
I am yours to die with, to desire.

I cannot ever think of me, I desire you
For a room in which the chairs ever
Have their backs turned to the light
Inflicted on the stone and paths, the real trees

That seem to shine at me through a lattice toward you.
If the wild light of this January day is true
I pledge me to be truthful unto you
Whom I cannot ever stop remembering.

Remembering to forgive. Remember to pass beyond you into the day
On the wings of the secret you will never know.
Taking me from myself, in the path
Which the pastel girth of the day has assigned to me.

I prefer “you” in the plural, I want “you”
You must come to me, all golden and pale
Like the dew and the air.
And then I start getting this feeling of exaltation.


Possibly, the poem itself is speaking, the conceit being its possession of soul, life, an I. “You must come to me, all golden and pale” reminds me of Corman’s “It isnt for want”.

       I feel I must sing and dance, to tell
       Of this in a way, that knowing you may be drawn to me.

I get from this a way for a poem to mean things, this poem’s particular way, which is emotive, seeking immediacy (like Whitman). That line containing “knowing you may be drawn to me” could mean a couple of different “ways” depending on the which word takes emphasis. Again, these accents are their own defense... (or, in this case: disguise)

Let me submit a candidate for a paraphrase of those lines. That our “slant” of light, our personal angle, brings to the poem something neither anticipated nor imagined by the poet (or the poem). What’s amazing here is the tone, it could be matter-of-fact (ex: you always have a way of thinking about these things). Could it also be celebratory? Maybe not as explicitly as Whitman’s. In the end, we’re projecting ourselves into all these lines. The poem doesn’t demean that I think (doesn’t say: you’re just telling me I am you), but it doesn’t go all out Whitman either (What I assume, you shall assume).

So this is just me (as “always”) projecting my desires and anxieties onto / alongside / prompted by the openness of this poem.

Upon rereading, that considered shift from expected to “suspected” jumps out.

Exactly how it is for me too. The lines that take me there are “I pledge me to be truthful unto you / Whom I cannot ever stop remembering” and “Which the pastel girth of the day has assigned to me” though it’s still as puzzling as ever, yet something I accepted, as the “wings of the secret never to be known.” I mean sure, okay, as long as we’re flying there.

And we do.

“Remembering to forgive. Remember to pass beyond you into the day” Recalling Janus now as old Rome’s marker between wartime and peacetime.

Colors. I was thinking that the poem could be referring to things other than poetry (prosaic things perhaps, following the Dickinson exploration), the other things that preoccupy us. Colors might mean visual enticements. Might also mean allegiances, as in flags.

It hums well with the play of light throughout the poem, and the room with all those weirdly oriented chairs. Makes me think of the stained-glass that adorn cathedrals.

Props to versatility. He has very short ones too (found a handful), gems of wit and whimsy. That compare and contrast thread sounds like a good idea, but then I don’t think you’re capable of a bad idea. Ashbery’s curated by deft, able hands in these halls.

Today’s rereading of the poem, along with your comments, yield me a sense of contentment. To feel the presence of something deeper and unsayable, but also to be at peace with the fact that you'll never ever know, never ever see.

Perfect! And Gillig does mash-ups. Thanks!

Your comment on Ashbery’s plural “you” takes me back to Whitman’s large, multitudes-I. 

“A Blessing in Disguise” seems a direct response to “Song of Myself”. The title of one can be written over the other, blessing-as-song / song-as-blessing (an understanding of the Whitmanian project: generous offering, promise of plenitude, illumination), self-as-disguise, disguise-as-self (a re-appreciation of “the persona” or masked-I that Whitman overtly wished to strike against, strike off, trying to eliminate the you/I distinction—resulting however, or perhaps it was Whitman’s design all along—in increasing I/I distinctions, creating a great many selves that “contradict myself”).

I found some references to grass (the image elected to serve for/as Whitman’s conceit). Following the light downward “inflicted on the stone and paths, the real trees / That seem to shine at me toward you” I see “you” as the grass.

“The pastel girth of the day,” the sun's halo or its effect, which for the I seems to be illumination but for the you, age and decay, as in the beauty of leaves of grass wilting, "“all golden and pale”.

So perhaps our Ashbery has found a way (or ways, or guises, or poetics) toward Whitman as one who “most honors” him, one “who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

Hi. The lines were from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

       I am the teacher of athletes,
       He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
       He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

A really strong passage regarding influence. He’s making a contest out of it. Even if one of his athletes (Ginsberg, Ashbery, Pessoa, Pound) were to best Whitman, their feat would only serve to prove the worth of their teacher.

Ashbery asserts himself, registers “despair and isolation,” but also (I think) expresses his gratitude, singing and dancing his “I” to show how much he had learned.

Thanks for the opportunity you opened. When the Buddha was quoted, I remembered Freud’s reflection on Oedipus where a young man’s passage into manhood was seen as an elaborate rite of killing his father. The father’s shadow threatens the growth of the boy, a sense I get from these lines:

       And right. The great spruces loom.
       I am yours to die with, to desire.

Yes, that whole (grand!) Greek business of sons killing fathers, fathers eating sons. If only an opt-out were possible. Maybe JA was attempting something like that here.

I don’t wish to reduce Ashbery to Whitman (as Whitman already seems ever eager to absorb everything into Whitman), but let me see how far I get reading with everyone here taking WW as my slant of light.

(Which is just my way of saying please don't get too annoyed.)

So perhaps “they” here refers to grass, all the colors they wear through the various seasons (JA: “golden and pale”) but also all the colors they absorb by way of earth and decay (WW: “among black folks as among white, Canuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff...”). Therefore, “they” might echo all those multitudes within Whitman large I.

JA's second line seems an assertion of itself (of the poem) “But I, in my soul, am alive too.” When WW says “I loafe and invite my soul,” he’s inviting the reader, but the reader who has at least partially accepted being of or with WW’s “I”. But while JA seems willing to loafe (even fly), he also wishes to retain his self, his soul.

This, in spite of WW’s (forgivable) claims upon him.

Yes and yes to you. This is happy work for me too. Glad you brought up Crane and Rimbaud. These I shall now read (with amatory Martory) alongside our JA.

       Let’s keep knotted kisses to ourselves for a long time
       Until another day erases
       The trace of each passing.

Hello, Martory! Glad to make your acquaintance.

Yes, and more:

       the clear distances of the city the factories without smoke
       bathed as at their birth stammered
       a trial hello
       that only ended however
       in this word round as a doubloon
       placed on the edge of that day
       by a considerate friend
       the sun on your arms naked against my cheeks


Yes, we found a lot here that could also go to the context/culture thread The many accents of his French connection, JA’s friendships, his translation work. I also found a link or two here from you and Jon for those who’d like to read more articles about him.

A good new image to work with. Perhaps the learning to be done’s waiting outside?

Snake in the garden? I like your point about his phrases too, stuff like

You see,
or suspected, perhaps
And right.

And I wonder how essential they are to his poems. These seem like the kind of phrases you’ll be asked to cut out in poetry workshops. But they contribute to a tentativeness, a sense of the open path, we can walk whichever way our feet might lead us.

Delicious. And I hope that my last thought before the first night of this new year will be an imagination of these mighty, unperceived trees.

Mention was made of isolation and despair. Those could be the trials we’re looking for. Or those could be consequences of those trials.

Backtracking to the Greeks, we have Prometheus presenting two packages to the gods. These were proposals, two prototypes, one of which would decide the type sacrifices man would thereafter be required to burn to earn divine favor (ie, blessings). Wiki has it:

Prometheus slew a large ox, and divided it into two piles. In one pile he put all the meat and most of the fat, skillfully covering it with the ox’s grotesque stomach, while in the other pile, he dressed up the bones artfully with shining fat. Prometheus then invited Zeus to choose; Zeus chose the pile of bones.

Blessing in disguise here could be the nourishing meat secured in the “grotesque stomach,” which could be a way of looking at the human lot. Or, at poetry as a thing to be unwrapped, laid bare, consumed.

A take on the question of intent, though I don’t think it’ll be answering any of the questions above except for “What do you think?”

Attracted to poets who are concerned with opening their work, making sure it is intrinsically many things for many people and many things also for one very studious reader. Maybe because this poet is in touch with the fact that the making of a thing (poem, Nobel’s dynamite, rice cake, treatise) does not arise from only one cause but from many, that the process perhaps partakes from even her smallest desire, her secret anxiety.

This is what I love about Dickinson and Stein, Niedecker and Perelman. If, at the outset, the intent is for a poem to mean in many directions, then we’re cool. A poet might very well react to a reader’s surprising (brain-beyond-the-groove) reading with lines like Ashbery’s:

       You hold me up to the light in a way
       I should never have expected, or suspected, perhaps

Most of the writers I know are prosaic in the sense that the work must mean one thing (often referred to as “the main idea”), must get us to the point in the shortest, most memorable route possible, and yes, it’s an indispensable way of composing. It runs industries, assembles the broiler, constitutes nations, etc. But it would be impoverishment were that the only way to do poetry.

For writers like that, one-track and fabulously so, I try to honor them by getting their intent and nodding my head repeatedly. But for others like Ashbery, I can really just walk around. That’s his gift. I could try to get his intent without that having to be the point, like a game of chess in the context of a wide-open afternoon, so winning is not the thing, the sunset is.

Even when Ashbery tries to explain a poem of his, he words it carefully so that it sounds as if he’s just one reader of the poem (just so happens he’s also the writer). He just got to the poem before everybody else, but we can all have a look-see. And it’s poems like his “These Lacustrine Cities” and “A Blessing in Disguise” (charged with the writer's intent, but welcoming of the reader’s intent and—paraphrasing you in the webcast—moment and temperament) that make possible such northern lightly, quantum physical, mystically humming threads as these.