Set 8, 2015

Notes on John Ashbery’s “For John Clare”

Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky. More of a success at it this time than most others it is. The feeling that the sky might be in the back of someone’s mind. Then there is no telling how many there are. They grace everything—bush and tree—to take the roisterer’s mind off his caroling—so it’s like a smooth switch back. To what was aired in their previous conniption fit. There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different. You are standing looking at that building and you cannot take it all in, certain details are already hazy and the mind boggles. What will it all be like in five years’ time when you try to remember? Will there have been boards in between the grass part and the edge of the street? As long as that couple is stopping to look in that window over there we cannot go. We feel like they have to tell us we can, but they never look our way and they are already gone, gone far into the future—the night of time. If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said.
     
There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope—letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier—if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one’s blood. Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside—costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. You can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay.
     
It is possible that finally, like coming to the end of a long, barely perceptible rise, there is mutual cohesion and interaction. The whole scene is fixed in your mind, the music all present, as though you could see each note as well as hear it. I say this because there is an uneasiness in things just now. Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it. The pollarded trees scarcely bucking the wind—and yet it’s keen, it makes you fall over. Clabbered sky. Seasons that pass with a rush. After all it’s their time too—nothing says they aren’t to make something of it. As for Jenny Wren, she cares, hopping about on her little twig like she was tryin’ to tell us somethin’, but that’s just it, she couldn’t even if she wanted to—dumb bird. But the others—and they in some way must know too—it would never occur to them to want to, even if they could take the first step of the terrible journey toward feeling somebody should act, that ends in utter confusion and hopelessness, east of the sun and west of the moon. So their comment is: “No comment.” Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.

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There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said. 

Yes, and the form itself is expansive, "spreading" out to a three-paragraph piece. Maybe a breath for us after two less wordy poems? 




Jenny Wren could be another Dickens reference (Ashbery's ModPo poem "Hard Times" might have referenced a Dickens novel with the same title), this time from the novel Our Mutual Friend.




Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.

Sounds like printed history, maybe one that begins with the letter A. Because A (and the number 4) would seem like a hieroglyph (or ideogram?) that both mimics and simplifies an image like the sail in order to involve it in language, rally it toward the encoding of history (which makes/defines history). We could be dealing with systems of meaning-making here, how perhaps the poetics in Ashbery's time differ from those of Ashbery in terms of language and logic though they seem to share the same form to every other printed text: one letter at a time, proceeding from the upper-left hand corner, on any given page.

(Or I could be stretching it as I often do with words. And would love to do sometime, with sails.)








Clare's "To John Clare" doesn't answer its first question. It's as if John's answer to his own question necessarily take him outdoors, to what he perceives there (so that "outside" is "home"). As if the answer to "how are you" is "this is what I see and hear and smell".

His identity already doubled by addressing and answering himself seems to extend to the bookman and the little boy. His real situation ("how fare you") lost or merged or (to use Susan's inspired word) fully immersed in somebody's experience of fiction.

With lots of pictures, and good stories too,
And Jack the Giant-killer's high renown.

Thank you so much for this co-poem.




They grace everything—bush and tree—to take the roisterer’s mind off his caroling—so it’s like a smooth switch back. To what was aired in their previous conniption fit.

Christmas tree! There are (at least) two types of sounds here: the caroling and the tantrum. Carols are done for both celebration and a little profit. Patronage, done in the same spirit. Poets sometimes refer to their poems as songs, but to specifically call it caroling in relation to Clare (or with Clare in mind) seems to emphasize the poignant economic conditions that attended (perhaps guided, even drove) Clare's poetry.

It's compelling, particularly if the roisterer (Clare?) takes his mind off his caroling while in the act. It's dehumanizing, I think, as if a stage were set-up, a whole season, with the purpose of alienating a man from his voice. And it might be doubly alienating if Clare's poetry is seen as caroling, something done to make ends meet, parceling the soul in packages of sound and image.

Something was "aired" in the tantrum, perhaps this was Clare breaking out, so that against the normal-functioning poet (roisterer, caroler) the depressive is seen not as anomaly but in fact the truer aspect of this "sweet man".



Cubism is my preferred entry point, maybe because it was exposure to Stein that informs my take on Ashbery. It's as if it's her "difference" in my lens that allows (or hinders) my view of Ashbery. Not entirely sure why this is the case, but the effect of it is that we see each sentence (or line, or phrase) as an aspect or facet instead of a narrative or logical development of the previous statements. Narrative and logical developments have been reduced to mere options (becoming richer too, in a paradoxical sense), but they're still there.

Just a personal door, that's all. It's probably a misstep to enter here rather than the explicit reference: surrealism and Chirico. Some of the lines seem to quite literally describe the source painting. Let's have the first one:

Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky.

Neither the dummy nor the white figure seems to be saluting. There's a giant inside the sketch that's at least looking up (the earth on its feet, as in Antaeus or Atlas?). Perhaps the easel, the frame (inside the frame) itself is doing the saluting,on its wooden feet, the painting (and the act of painting) both an extension of the earth and a manner of depicting it (as well as the sky). "Kind of empty" could refer to the dummy and figure's respective (non-)gazes, perhaps its a comment on surrealism itself (or to John Clare, as had been mentioned), or again literally, it's the inside frame (or dream) which is skeletal at best, a collection of perspective lines and squiggles that could either be seen as an unfinished aspect of a complete thing (which then characterizes the whole to which it belongs) or as a whole in-itself, an it-is-what-it-is; it's not a sketch of something that's about to be, it's no foretaste, it's done and in that way it could be a repudiation of the larger whole to which it belongs.

It'll be interesting to see something like this problem of placement play out in terms of the two major poets in this poem: sender and addressee, subject and object. Is Ashbery's poetry sitting beside Clare's, running after it, towering over it, or cooling in its shadow? Is he depicting it, appropriating it, or allowing himself to play some sort of belated part in it?







Will there have been boards in between the grass part and the edge of the street?

For some reason, this line takes me back to an issue I once read Hass tackle (a few beats before the Bate biography came out) about Clare's lack of punctuation and how some editors choose to punctuate the poems while others let the poems stand the way these were set in Clare's hand, before these were sent to the printers (see correctors versus the leave-alones). According to Robert Hass: "there is evidence that [Clare] expected the help of his editors with regularizing punctuation and spelling."

As long as that couple is stopping to look in that window over there we cannot go.

And this line makes me think of the disputes regarding the copyright to Clare's work. Or perhaps it could refer to the editors (Robinson and Summerfield maybe?), or all the middlemen (and profiteers?) between poet and reader.
















Will there have been boards in between the grass part and the edge of the street?

I attempted to read this by setting country images against those of the city. But aside from a building, and how this is a street instead of a road, there's too little of the city mouse to see. It's possible I can salvage this framework by not being so vulgar about it and look more closely at the nuanced differences in the way a John Clare contemplated the landscape and the manner in which a contemporary cosmopolitan would later regard a similar scene, but now with Clare and Clare-as-history figuring as inextricable components of it.

Your parenthetical is intriguing. I'll search a bit to know more about these specific evils. Hope I'm on the right track.




The way Ashbery shuffles his scenes and references makes me think that he's intending it for John Clare as offering, missive, criticism, see how far we've gotten because of you, and/or see how far apart we are. These, and perhaps more. Maybe it's a poetic annotation of John Clare's poems and positions, as had been suggested a few times above.

My usual take on Ashbery is akin to my view of Stein: a cubist at heart, taking in a lot of POVs and positions simultaneously, making possible the belief (if only for a moment) that all the positions have been considered, the best snaps presented in the most enticing possible way without reverting to the abandoned hut of the singular perspective.

I applied it to this poem, but it might have been the wrong thing to do. Let's consider the YOU statements and see what's in there.


1ST PARAGRAPH

You are standing looking at that building and you cannot take it all in, certain details are already hazy and the mind boggles. (Could be referring to Clare, could be talking to Clare, convincing him of his limits. Or my limits, a reader of his poem. Or the general "You", as in "One is standing looking at that building..." which could therefore be any possible person, including Ashbery. This is complicated by the possibility that Clare or his corpus is that building, giving rise to doublings, mirrorings, all the delicious permutations that might be, indeed, impossible to take in.)

What will it all be like in five years’ time when you try to remember? (He could be simultaneously talking to Clare, the reader, and himself. It's fascinating if he's sort of dear-ghosting Clare, telling him about his memory and mental state. Hmm. That would make Ashbery Clare's ghost of christmas future... and A Christmas Carol is another string from Dickens so...)

2ND PARAGRAPH

Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope—letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier—if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one’s blood. (If the appositive is to Clare, then it's as if he's telling him how to be better suited to poetry, perhaps to life. Clearly a criticism. But how can anything be clear in Ashbery? I'm also taking this as a guide of sort to reading Ashbery's poems, maybe also Clare's.)

You can do nothing with them. (Jumps at me as if the general any-person You, but if it's John Clare who can't even offer payment, hmm. If it's the reader, perhaps its the non-poetic type, one who could do nothing with all the details and actors and costumes that attend daily, seen always as backdrop... if seen at all.)

3RD PARAGRAPH

The whole scene is fixed in your mind, the music all present, as though you could see each note as well as hear it. (This contradicts the first You-sentence in the 1ST PARAGRAPH. But how did that come about?)

Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it. (Quite possibly the reader or Ashbery before the poem was written, ie, before the poem forced him to "notice" John Clare. If John Clare's the YOU, then what's that something? Is this about the mental state again, leaving sanity behind? Is this about the belatedness of poetry, perhaps of all art, how hindsight throws all sorts of new light on the previous depictions?)

The pollarded trees scarcely bucking the wind—and yet it’s keen, it makes you fall over. (Yes, among many other things, it's an elegy. It brings John Clare's presence into the poem, has him wafting in and out of the "boards" between the words and scenes, makes him frame and figure and possibly co-reader and co-poet. If "pollarded trees" alludes to the subject matter and "scarcely bucking the wind" as well as "it's keen" brings to mind the effect of Clare's poetry, then who falls over in the last phrase? The reader? Or is it Clare... his vision clearly acute, but the cost of it more so?)




I was thinking of the WE statements some time after I tried reading the YOU ones. You were looking at the THEY statements, and some of them overlap with these WEs. I'd like to read them as any or all of the following expressions of solidarity:

1 WE JOHNS: Clare and Ashbery 

2 WE POETS: Something more inclusive, and could perhaps be closer to general metapoetic statements than if we look at it through the WE JOHN lens. Maybe these poets are the newer flock, as opposed to Clare and the earlier generations.

3 WE HERE: Ashbery and the reader

As long as that couple is stopping to look in that window over there we cannot go. 

"That couple" could be the THEY of the next statements. Whatever they are, they're keeping the WEs from the window. Or, from going anywhere, not necessarily to the window. It could be a case of looking at people who are looking at something, and maybe WE are enrapt, attending their attention.

These could be just the "usual" poetic voyeurism: poets looking at people, particularly at the way these people view their world. This has a self-reflexive aspect. The poet looking at people looking is paying attention to attention itself, his/her own looking included.

This becomes very fascinating for me if THEY are the older poets, their poetic vision an object of the poetic vision of WE newer poets. It's also a hindrance, in a way. An Ashbery cannot now look at a piece of the action without looking also at the way a Clare saw the same thing. And since that vision has informed his, maybe there's no way that the past might step away from any attempt to view the unforeseeable future.

Or maybe there is and Ashbery has figured it out. Maybe the keys are kept in the elusive way this poem is composed.

We feel like they have to tell us we can, but they never look our way and they are already gone, gone far into the future—the night of time. 

Assuming THEY are our predecessors, then the usual idea is that they've gone on ahead of us, the voice we hear's but the echoes of their life's work. They never look our way because they can't (being ahead of us), but the way it's said here implies an option, that old poets could speak to his or her expected followers or future readers. Maybe a critique of Clare? Or really, just some wistfulness and pining on our part?

If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are.

This line (along with the previous one) has me thinking of the figures in the Chirico dream. They do not merely tower, but seem also in motion, but since POV's being abstracted, framed, they seem to be going nowhere. Stillness (and silence) is the generic property of paintings (to paraphrase Berger), but perspective, line, and sometimes swirls of color try to depict motion. So really, nobody was ever going anywhere. But when you abstract perspective, make sure it's seen as a device, then the figures seem (at least to me) not merely still but arrested.

Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside—costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. 

Still assuming THEY as predecessors, seeing them as costumes seems an honest appraisal of our consideration. Whitman is ever only a part of a syllabus, and Clare is a book on the shelf. If we get Clare only through Ashbery, then Clare is further removed from us. Regarding the previous poets as "costumes" diffuses ownership. It's possible to take this as an image that degrades and/or democratizes.








So much in your world to enjoy now! You-who. Very happy for you. We'll have little hands soon too, by December, if elements align and we carry to term. I think it's important how you spelled things out. I'd like to take on poverty. Along with the histories you pointed out, some of the lines seem to go there. It's a sound way to begin reading something like this: There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Yes, it's metapoetic but it's also basically a question of property, of boundaries imposed. This might as well be an incomplete sentence upon which period is imposed, so much like a stone marker that tells you (perhaps unjustly) the limit of your land and labor.



Thanks!




I'm joining in on the thanks, if you don't mind. Thank you for always returning us to each other. Now look who's back as well.



There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like.

Glad to see you again. Will be reading these links in a while. For now, this Ashbery line you quoted (pleasantly) puzzles me. That "like" kind of multiplies the space by a factor of ten, maybe much more. It has this weird vibe for me, it opens it all up with that (may I call it) gesture, and somehow also, I can't get past it. Maybe it (the line, this poem, Clare's poetry) doesn't spread out in the usual sense of "expansion" but in the sense that it always recaptures, draws you back into its space.



Yes, there's that! While I agree with the immersion in or deep cognizance of the present, I don't know if this is entirely ahistorical. I'd like to bring your two angles together.  I propose that there's actually a saturation of temporal perspectives (too much time from so many angles, evident even in the usage of the word "like" as an ancient simile cue, a sign of preference, perhaps withheld affection, maybe a lost dialectal mannerism, and yes the colloquial use) that the effect is that time becomes mere surface (time references), one cannot rely upon it for perspective (no single perspective more privileged than the other). One might come at Clare from the future (recalling an ancestor) or the present (dialogue with a co-poet), or maybe even the past (coming upon him as if a ghost)!

All the ghosts at once, Ebenezer! So how will they help you shape your life? You can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay. They're all speaking at once (all of them a Clare, all of them an Ashbery) So [in effect] their comment is: “No comment.”

All these amount to having a (relative) sense of origin ("starting in the upper left-hand corner") but no a clear sense of direction ("the whole history of probabilities is coming to life"). But the tone is light, disarmingly so. It feels liberating, as risky and wondrous as the open sea ("like a sail") particularly if viewed against Clare's rootedness to the land, his poetry and struggles square as they are on the ground.

There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. / like a sail.




We've thrown in our impressions about it, our interpretations or attempts at interpretations, and now it looks as if we try and assemble a mini-collage (within a collage) based upon the word LIKE alone. I thought to dwell a bit longer on the six times the word was used in the poem. Here's the most unusual use of it:

(A) There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. 

Of the five remaining instances, three used LIKE as one would AS IF:

(B) They grace everything—bush and tree—to take the roisterer’s mind off his caroling—so it’s like a smooth switch back. 

(C) There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different. 

(D) As for Jenny Wren, she cares, hopping about on her little twig like she was tryin’ to tell us somethin’, but that’s just it, she couldn’t even if she wanted to—dumb bird. 

All three has something to do with internal states. B seems the most certain about where the mind is (well, the speaker sounds certain, though we might not be quite so sure about what exactly is so smoothly switching to and from where). The second and third (C and D) seem to me not as sure: in the second case we're attempting to appraise the general reception while in the third we're guessing Jenny Wren's intentions. I think D is using LIKE as one would ALMOST AS IF. C might be doing so as well.

Meanwhile...

(E) What will it all be like in five years’ time when you try to remember? 

Here LIKE seems but an extension of BE, as in "how will things be / what will things turn out to be in five year's time?" But I'm fond of LIKE here, because it cues internal states again: memory, perception.The way it's phrased, there's a hint of possible causation. The seeming of things (be like) might be dependent upon the attempt to recall. "It all" might turn out to be something else altogether (or might not be anything at all) if you don't try to remember.

And in the last instance, LIKE cuing a simple simile in a sentence which possibly channels the articulation of the memory:

(F) Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail. 

In these last two cases, past and future are (con?)fused together. In E, someone (in the present) is wondering how the future will be (five years time) when it becomes someone's past as this someone moves forward (a more distant future, a bit or much more than five years time).

F unsettles. History is a record of something that has already happened. It's just one thing. (e.g. Either Clare was committed to the asylum or he wasn't. Either the patrons committed him to posterity or they neglected to attempt it.) We look into the future and see probabilities all the time. A "history of probabilities" looks at the past not only as it is but also as people hoped it would turn out, as people feared it might go, including perhaps all those ghostly byways that were both unforeseen and unrealized.



Yes! That turns it around a bit, history both as an articulation of probabilities and as something that could only be articulated by probabilities (weighed with and against each other)





It happens all the time, nature abused to the point that the abuses return to us as afflictions. I had been looking at pruning here as a decorative operation, as something that might reflect on poetry or the criticism (or use) of poetry, particularly as it applies to how Clare's poetry has been managed (and mismanaged) by him and those who have inherited (or appropriated) his "estate".