Set 4, 2017

Notes on John Ashbery’s “The Template”

was always there, its existence seldom
questioned or suspected. The poets of the future
would avoid it, as we had. An imaginary railing
disappeared into the forest. It was here that the old gang
used to gather and swap stories. It
was like the Amazon, but on a much smaller scale.

Afterwards, when some of us swept out into the world
and could make comparisons, the fuss seemed justified.
No two poets ever agreed on anything, and that amused us.
It seemed good, the clogged darkness that came every day.


[ The Times Literary Supplement ]


These are often “greeted” with derision, most interestingly I think by those in search of something new, something else. Ashbery’s closing here strikes the same set of notes as Rumi’s line, at least for me, both seem to embrace what we customarily fear: darkness, pain.

In philosophy they ask, “What is the color of an orange in the dark?” In linguistics there was some curious play when Chomsky said “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” but in physics, Schrödinger had us thinking of a cat inside the box with some trap or radioactive bit, then asked us if the cat was alive or dead. When it was asked, it was suddenly us who were “in the dark” (definitely not in the same darkness that the cat was, and I’m now considering the Reinhardt variants as proposed). Was the cat dead or alive? The answers yes and no come, but neither and both also become thinkable, and so this cat plus darkness plus our multiplying answers (also, inadequacies) result in a state called superposition.

I think that’s what we’re embracing here, what’s clotting: the multiplication of possibility that only happens when we engage (as opposed to flee, or fight—as in your encouraging regard of fear) the darkness. And the magic of it is, we do something like it all the time, when we read and think, when we speak to each other: forming opinions about things we don’t fully comprehend, answering half-baked questions, finishing each other’s sentences.

His school seems to come alive in the amusement in the second stanza. Would love to see that explored. I remain partial to the clotting wound reading (nursing one at the moment, minor gardening mishap, and because of “The wound is the place where the Light enters you”), but your post remains a favorite spot on this thread. Light enters it.

Based on your edit, are we looking at catharsis here? I’ve been wondering about the source, where’s the conflict that got us to the wound and to the clotting? Did trying to fit into the template harm us? No two poets agreeing, that sounds like a whole forest of debaters, so much agon and agony: are each of the issued arguments in fact wounding? (If so, then there might as well be a hint of desperation, and this is maybe why I’m drawn to your use of lifeline).

Add to those, his pantoums.

Looking now at how he cut the first line at “its existence seldom” and it seems as if the these “templates and railings” flicker in and out of the world. As if they’re really only there when we question and suspect them, and maybe only as communities, conventions in the truest sense of the word.

“No two poets ever agreed” okay, but the amusement is shared. That’s the (new?) template begotten by the all the fuss over traditional forms and custom styles.

This portion of the thread takes me to the root of template, a temple, as it is an open, consecrated place, associated with what is solemn, calm, in search of order and a force.

That imaginary railing seems to come out of that tennis court without a net. That it leads to a forest, wow. It’s like the template preceded us, was ancient, or an ancient need. We’re in that discourse where the world is a jungle and the poem is something of a preserve or a garden, but if the form came before anything else, then it seems to me that poetry takes us to the wilds, is the closest thing we have to it, and that our everyday lives merely derive from this. Clot signals a wound, perhaps day is that wound. Or light, or reason, or civilization. It inverts Genesis where Yahweh also found that “it was good” but referred to what ensues after light.

Now that you mentioned it, that sort of railing lines up right between questions and stories. I remember that thought experiment about a tree falling in the forest without anyone hearing it.

What there might be some sort of template for is the “storytelling” in the clearing. Someone tells the story one way, say Petrarch. Then others follow suit, so it’s a Petrarchan series. Someone says it another way, keeping some of the oldspeak, putting in some novel spins and turns. Let’s call them Elizabethans. Soon others follow, after many nights of this, we have people like Dickinson and Williams and Stevens giving it a go, often refusing to tell it any way other than theirs, but they’re still taking a place among the others, in the wilds, dead of night.

I would love to see how that that plays out. Will it be like milieu but on a cellular (bodies, antibodies, templates, anti-templates), evolutionary level?

I’ve been thinking about your sense of railing. That invisible railing as a structure seems like an internalized restraint, akin to the missing tennis court net. Railing as complaint or set of charges seem to me unrestrained, an spilling out of anger into outrage. Kept in only by the domain of speech, but almost always a mere breath away from physical violence.

      There it was, word for word, 
      was always there, its existence seldom

      Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged, 
      would avoid it, as we had. An imaginary railing

      Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds, 
      used to gather and swap stories

      Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion: 
      was like the Amazon, but on a smaller scale

      Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea, 
      and could make comparisons, the fuss seemed justified

      The exact rock where his inexactnesses 
      seemed good, the clotted darkness that came every day.

Yes it is! And thank you for bringing this mountain here, it fits. Actually, it supplants, it overwhelms, it might yield if we ask nicely, but I do think that these two (as with all of us here) might be brought to speak to each other. Though Ashbery in this case would seem the more sociable guy, but I’m sure they would soon be lost in each other’s landscapes.

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