John Ashbery: Love and Remembrance


Funny the way the sun can bring you around to her.
– John Ashbery, Flowchart

John Ashbery would admit in the preface to his Charles Elliot Norton lectures published in Other Traditions the difficulty of “transforming a lecture into an essay, the spoken language and the written one being subtly at odds with one another”.1 He would add that it might have been even harder for him since the “spoken language is the one I use when I write poetry”.

It was their choice, after all, that spurred us to feats of the imagination.
……….– Hotel Lautréamont, John Ashbery

As history would have it John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuler would form the nexus of a timeworld that seemed to connect New York and a specific mindset later to be described as the New York School of Poets. As David Lehman will describe it this era would define a generation, and bring the friendship, artistic collaboration, and the fervent impetus of a maximum creative and intensive explosion that would not only define an era but would become the last authentic avant-garde movement of the twentieth-century. (p. 1) As he reports it the “liberating effect of their writing became increasingly evident in the passionate, experimental, taboo-breaking” movement of the mind chronicling its own estranged relations in a virtuosity that would efface the world and replace it with the tones of wit and irony, jest and calibrated prankishness. (p. 2) Escaping the New Critical idioms they explored the strangeness of the new in their own way, creating a poetry that absorbed the Real of a revitalized modernity – that like the Beats, crossed pop-art with a hyperaesthetic appeal and, yet, thumbed its poetic nub at polite decorum; but unlike them the New York School was not exactly apolitical but rather not overtly political in the Beats sense; instead theirs was more of an undermining of the linguistic straight-jacket imposed on poetry of the era by the New Critical idioms regulatory systems of rhetoric and rules, and a breathing back into the life of the streets once again a poetry where language once more spoke as people speak rather than in the false and artificial tones of some refined and rarefied aesthetic snobbery.

So much that happens happens in small ways
That someone was going to get around to tabulate, and then never did…
– Someone You Have Been Before, John Ashbery

Ashbery’s oeuvre is so large and prolific it would be unsound to plumb its depths in one essay. I wouldn’t even try. No. I just happened to take up one of my favorites, Flowchart this morning because of its seeming natural patterns of thought and remembrance. As he will remind us in part V “Nothing is required of you, yet all must render an accounting.”2 If it’s not required then why must we all render this accounting? Who requires it? There being no God to judge us, who else requires the mind’s accounting of its life, its history? The mind itself, history? As if history were itself some formidable judge, a sort of anonymous angelic thought of time (History? Benjamin) that holds all the sanctioned facts of knowledge deep within its textual menagerie; some stone slab of marble marked out by its slow and methodical erasure of the non-necessary? (But isn’t everything necessary and fated in history?) And how does one give an account anyway? Narrative, fragment? A pure transcription of the brain’s neuronal record? Or some filtered artistic expression brokered by certain aesthetic marmalade, an iconic artifact hiding the allegory of the soul like some dark enchantment that must be deciphered layer by layer?

One might like to rest or read,
Take walks, celebrate the kitchen table,
Pat the dog absentmindedly, meanwhile
Thinking gloomy thoughts…
…………– Ostensibly, John Ashbery

Is this a hermetic art or realist, a bare reckoning of facticity or iconic embellishment? A reckoning that would absorb the mind’s own accounting, tabulate or compute the carefully weighed and sorted gold of the mind itself? A sort of cost analysis of one’s depleted thought, the amnesia of one who has lost so much, the drift of days spent mindlessly moving along some hidden line or trajectory, a line of flight from the mind rather than into its darker chambers? An entry into the Abyss of a vast labyrinth where the brain’s synapses trace the narrow corridors of a ‘space of thought’ without a center or periphery? But of course to render an accounting or reckoning is to restore or yield up something that has been excluded, hidden, covered over; to repeat again what was once so vivid and pertinent, to bring back that moment of time’s secret rendezvous where the iconic images of one’s life floated among the shadows; those patterns folded in some neuronal knot like so many memories waiting in silence, prisoners of time that have been locked away in a chest in the Mind’s Attic like so many ghosts or specters awaiting their blood gift: those ancient festivals of the dead in ancient Greece where the old ones returned to life, and were celebrated in feasts of plenty where Dionysian libations abounded and psychotropic leaves of hawthorn were chewed.

What kind of mentality
causes men to commit suicide in their air-conditioned glass boxes?
………..– Korean Soap Opera, John Ashbery


Or maybe like of one Giorgio De Chirico’s metaphysical period pieces its a shadowy veiling, a revealing of something that must be “happening beyond the point where they turn and become mere fragments”; a framing or enframing of the world as if seen through a window in a passing train. A glimpse of the hidden life that is never complete but always in movement and process: a narrative stream of the mind’s own secret quest as an endless dialogue among the fragments of a life between the boundaries of the seen and unseen Real.

In the real world things were going along about as well as could be expected, that is, not quite satisfactorily.
– Flowchart, John Ashbery

Like that shadow image of the young girl playing hoops, traveling between worlds of light and dark, her body dematerialized into the night bound formlessness shocks us as it arises from the sun fright of an emptied world. Is she traveling into this world of light; or, is she making her way toward the shaded comfort of oblivion? The geometries of silence move into the distance taking the eye with it as if to imprison our mind along a line of consistency that is also a flight from the shadows out of which the framed vision is surmounted; a flowing into a seamless wall of night from which there is only the knowledge of nothingness and endless blackness. Off in the distance a figure falls into the light like some forlorn god, a shade of a shade, shadowed by the sun’s weight as if gravitas were instilling a heaviness and density into the world, enforcing its rule of death before the solitude of light. Above is the green horizon shading into darkness as if it were a lid, a black eye folding the scene in its forbidden gaze. Is this not the Cosmocrator’s realm, the Demiurge who traps man in his shadows proving that only semblance moves through the silences and the violence of this world of light that is pure darkness where blackness begins to seep into the emptiness of things. A world riven of mind, born of a heaviness that pulls one into the entropic void of a labyrinth without outlet where shadows speak only to their images in a realm where communication has become absolutely inhuman, devoid of both meaning and purpose. A realms where light is no longer a negation of the night, but a night without light, a darkness on darkness where the abyss radiance shines within its own blight and degradation, the unreal becomes irreal and the dance of the void begets nothingness as a subtraction of nothingness. This is the place of darkening thought’s limit, the fractured boundary zone of the unknown and unknowing darkness where nonknowledge stirs below the threshold of being… abyss radiance!

What would we have said?
That we confronted the monster eyeball and blinked first but only after a decent interval had elapsed and were then excused from completing the examination before defenestration became an issue?
– Flowchart, John Ashbery

Or maybe it is as simple as turning around and absorbing or being absorbed by the “shock of hearing the truth told, once more, on an unforgettable day in early June, which shall be all we need ever know of hearing quarrels inside out and then reversing them so the abstract argument is pure and just again, a joy to many” (p. 36).

  1. John Ashbery. Other Traditions. (Harvard University Press, 2001).
  2. John Ashbery. Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems. (Harper Collins, 2008)

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