Set 12, 2015

Notes on John Ashbery’s “Light Turnouts”

Dear ghost, what shelter
in the noonday crowd? I'm going to write
an hour, then read
what someone else has written.
You've no mansion for this to happen in.
But your adventures are like safe houses,
your knowing where to stop an adventure
of another order, like seizing the weather.
We too are embroiled in this scene of happening,
and when we speak the same phrase together:
"We used to have one of those,"
it matters like a shot in the dark.
One of us stays behind.
One of us advances on the bridge
as on a carpet. Life—it's marvelous—
follows and falls behind.

*



Could O'Hara be the ghost then? His confinement/haunt temporal (noonday, during lunchtime) rather than spatial (mansion)?

But your adventures are like safe houses,
your knowing where to stop an adventure
of another order, like seizing the weather.

The phrase "like safe houses" apply equally (though differently) to Ashbery's poems as well as to O'Hara's for me. The enjambed middle makes perfect sense, a demonstration of indeed stopping where it is most meaningful to stop. And there seems to be something in it about both writing and reading, living as well as relating.



Ballet within its groove. It's why we keep coming back, I think.

Light Turnouts. Turnouts as results, outcomes possibly? (It's also lovely in that it still preserves the idea of the easier phrase.)

Perhaps a poem (or a poem written in a certain way) is a light turnout. Or more literally, that a ghost is a light turnout (only somesuch percentage remaining) compared to the life from where it was derived.



One of us stays behind.
One of us advances on the bridge
as on a carpet. Life—it's marvelous—
follows and falls behind.

Maybe the conceit here's how lightly he can take a subject matter as loss without demeaning it or resorting to farce. The last lines have that guess-who? and I think Ashbery preserves this moment/puzzle for us, no pronoun confusions as in other poems.

Who stays behind? Living poet or the addressee ghost? And where is "behind"? There is only this liminal space, this bridge and only vague ideas of what sits on either end of it.

Initial reading: Life (the living poet) follows the ghost, keeps calling it, pitching poems at it, never (as yet) becoming it, always something else except dead. In that sense, he's the one on the bridge, loitering, just walking around.



what someone else has written.

Most fitting! Much darker, and somehow the tone means everything. It's like JA absorbed a debate between Shakespeare and O'Hara, and had been of course, charmingly light-handed and biased:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, (Dear ghost,)
To the last syllable of recorded time; (the same phrase together:)
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools (the noonday crowd?)
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (advances on the bridge / as on a carpet. / an hour,)
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, (vs Life / marvelous / follows and falls behind.)
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, (vs knowing where to stop an adventure)
And then is heard no more. It is a tale (vs adventures are like safe houses,)
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing. (vs it matters like a shot in the dark.)




Brings to mind a holy sonnet from Donne:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Which seems a sort of answer to WS's 146. And is (possibly) fruitful to contemplate in the case of "Lights Turnout" in that the poet here, tarrying as he does on the bridge (as on a carpet), attended by a ghost (real or conjured), seems to me a picture of immortality-in-the-moment, of being in touch with past (life), present (poetry, "the scene of happening"), and future (death) all at once.







Could very well be that. And if so, it's Ashbery's feat to somehow turn it all out lightly without shedding its gravitas, reassigning the roles maybe to nostalgia, longing.

Thanks for the O'Hara and the Perloff. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to pair off parts of Ashbery's poem that most closely resonate Frank O'Hara's lines for me:

it’s also pretty hard to remember life’s marvelous (Life—it's marvelous—)
but there it is guttering choking then soaring (an adventure)
in the mirrored room of this consciousness (like safe houses, / what shelter)
it’s practically a blaze of pure sensibility (like seizing the weather.)
and however exaggerated at least something’s going on (this scene of happening,)
and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected ("We used to have one of those,")
will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat (a shot in the dark. / follows and falls behind.)































Agreeing that we play around with the idea of ghost a bit more. The JA spirit seems to allow that sort of thing. Dante has been mentioned above. Ginsberg summons Whitman. Macbeth was faced with the ghost of his old friend, Banquo.

The Greeks had a lot of ghostly activity, some heroes straight down Hades to converse or commune with ghosts (katabasis). Aeneas went to see his father; Orpheus to retrieve Eurydice. Odysseus also sought a ghost for advice, spilling blood at the mouth of a passage to attract Tiresias. This nekyia is closer (I think) to "Lights Turnout" in that there is a crowd (the crowd of other ghosts that Odysseus attracts, some of them he knew from Troy, but whom he did not address as he did Tiresias).

The conversation between Ashbery and his particular Tiresias sounds casual but also intimate. It seems a case can be made for this poem as a nekyia, perhaps the poem itself is making a case for poetry as a way of breaking bread with the dead, communing with the fact of dying.





Take one down, pass it around
99 stanzas of beer












Digression via Taraxippus (or, what happens when you stable ghosts)...















And dying is such an insult. After all   

(wow)

You're right, Waldman seems more ghostly than Frank here, less substantial, less alive. I like that Frank keeps singing (almost typed "keeps bursting into song" which was how it was in my head while reading this), and it sounds to me like a reversal of the Orpheus-Eurydice roles, the dead pushing the living back out into life.



This is wonderful. Sounds like "Howl," and has that incantatory effect. My favorite lines were around 2 minutes in:

as they rise like buildings to the needs of temporary neighbors
pouring hunger through the heart to feed desire in intravenous ways





I think enjambment should also be on the priority list when discussing sound, particularly because Ashbery might have been calling attention to it at the beginning of the second stanza. Here are the enjambed (or at least the awkwardly stopped) lines:

Dear ghost, what shelter 
in the noonday crowd? I'm going to write
an hour, then read

your knowing where to stop an adventure

One of us advances on the bridge
as on a carpet. Life—it's marvelous—

There's something missing between the first and the second lines, could be "is there for you," "can we find," "should we consider establishing for business purposes," etc. But the elision is rhetorical so it sounds like a sentence though it's a fragment. The ghost is syntactical: the verb absented.

We could also look for "for" after "write" but this elision opens up the possibility that the hour is not merely the duration but also the topic (which could lead to this poem being itself that hour of writing / that hour written).

This hour stays with "read" on the same line, curiously enjambed, but leading to "what someone else had written." Could it be that whatever he writes is attributable to someone else, a loved one, literally, literally also a ghost writer (which could be weird if the ghost writer writes in behalf of someone writing to a ghost, which could be the ghost writer himself), or a literary influence, an imaginary friend or friend-like somebody (Lautreamont), a muse or djinn, a kindred spirit.

Stopping on "bridge" prevents passage, allows us to dwell there indeed "as on a carpet." And while stopping at "Life" would have been enjambment, putting in "—it's marvelous—" complicates it, makes an end-stop out of it (stopping it by judging it, by appreciating it) but the appositive is our way in prose to produce a sort of enjambment in usual speech, to disrupt the flow without cutting it.

Placing greater attention now to "—it's marvelous—" as it is the poet's addition, perhaps the product of his interaction with the ghost. Not only life, it's his annotation to life that matters (his use of life to justify one more hour of it).















Loved your alepoem. And this stanza, where I kind of like "adventures" being its usual nounly self, but also somehow venturing into verb territory.


















Not exactly a ghost: phantom of the opera? These lines in particular bring him to mind:

You've no mansion for this to happen in. 

it matters like a shot in the dark.
One of us stays behind.





Barthelme says in an interview: "One of the beautiful things about words is that you can put words together which in isolation mean nothing, or mean only what the dictionary says they mean, and you put them together and you get extraordinary effects. Ashbery does this all the time."

We saw this while working on the title of the poem. And now you see this type of "extraordinary effect" on the idiom "a shot in the dark." Because it happens in the context of speaking with a ghost, of already having gone through the motions, the phrase gets charged with the terror you speak of. It doesn't lose the usual meaning which is an attempt to get something you have no prior information about. But now it's begun to sound like this something you have no prior information about is also out to get you.

















That is the reason we're having such fun. Rereading "Light Turnouts" now, Susan. And keeping your annotations handy while considering the possibility of "Dear Ghost" as Ashbery addressing his mother...











Will  have to read up on this Baudelaire-Lautreamont connection. And after that, walking over to Susan's Walser. Many fine hours of "what someone else has written" ahead of me.