Thursday, October 04, 2012

Fairfield Porter’s John Ashbery

Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975

Claustral and nonce is the day, sense of being shuttered up with my druthers. (Oh, for the simple horse badorties to say something affably jive like—James Schuyler, in a letter to John Ashbery, 14 October 1968—“maybe I’ll rustle up a batch of Chewy Noels, as featured in Fanny Farmer.” Or garrulous and bode—Kenneth Koch, in a collaboratory piece “To James Schuyler” writ c. 1956 with Fairfield Porter—“my inspiration needs a Frank.”) I think of Emerson’s glum tidings (“Experience”):
      It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us.
No objects but in books, their collateral means, disseminatory and abrupt. My wordless critique.

William Arrowsmith, out of a review of “Nine New Poets”* (The Hudson Review, Summer 1956):
      I could make very little headway in understanding Mr. John Ashbery’s Some Trees, the latest volume in the Yale younger poets series, and I take some comfort from what I take to be Auden’s similar difficulties in the Introduction. Whether Mr. Ashbery is, as Auden suggests, in the tradition of Rimbaud and bent upon a new rhetoric, I cannot say for sure; but Rimbaud is here complicated by Stevens at his most opaque whimsical, and, whether or not there is a new rhetoric, Mr. Ashbery certainly strangles any normal rhetoric or syntax of English poetry. At least apart from two or three poems in the customary idiom of English poetic communication, I have no idea most of the time what Mr. Ashbery is talking about or being, beyond the communication of an intolerable vagueness that looks as if it was meant for precision. What does come through is an impression of an impossibly fractured brittle private world, depersonalized and discontinuous, whose characteristic emotional gesture is an effete and cerebral whimsy. (“He is sherrier / and sherriest. / A tall thermometer / Reflects him best.”) Of the poems I can claim to understand (“The Instruction Manual,” “The Mythological Poet,” “Illustration”), I can report a good, though dry, ear, a nice discrimination with language, and a sensibility typically concerned with the liens between public and private, though the liens are normally the more tenuous ones of nostalgia, regret, loneliness, and a half-spoofing whimsical sense of not belonging. Whether these skills are sufficient to sponsor the devotion necessary to tracking Mr. Ashbery into his private lair, I doubt; my own patience at least wore out after several weeks of trying.

Fairfield Porter’s 23 July 1956 letter to William Arrowsmith concerning the review of Ashbery—out of the Ted Leigh-edited Material Witness: The Selected Letters of Fairfield Porter (2005):
Dear Mr. Arrowsmith:

      As an admirer of John Ashbery’s poetry, I look for all reviews of his first book, and as in a way I “understand” it. (I also do not understand it). I am impelled to write you about your review in the summer number of Hudson Review. I think Auden, in his introduction to the volume, though he writes interestingly, does somewhat miss the point of his poems. You say it seems to you that he had similar difficulties to your own. By the way, I understand Ashbery’s poetry about as well as I understand any poetry—it is all rather mysterious to me—it is a question more of liking.
      If rhetoric means the forceful and elegant use of language, then I do think that Ashbery does have new rhetoric. I think from your reviews and from the sort of poems you print in Hudson Review, that you like poetry that has something outside of itself that it refers to, and which you approve of. Perhaps it is lazy to make comparisons, but it is a way of explaining to you my pleasure in Ashbery’s poetry.
      Richard Eberhart, a poet whom you presumably admire, is to me a man with strong generous feelings, whose inarticulateness is, though doubtless a sign of sincerity, not a guarantee that what he writes is poetry. I think of “For Evan,” with its refrain, if I remember correctly, “I wanted to give him a gift.” I did not get from his expression of grief anything that he might not have expressed more vividly and poignantly in a prose letter, and I think his strong feelings do not always correspond to poetic necessity. I think of the lines you quote from Louis Simpson, for me accurately characterized by you as looking almost flat, with an unnecessary spinning out of the obvious. He has a good heart, but there is no surprise; and why is he so indirect about his opinions? Opinions not in themselves surprising, nor unusually expressed: in what you quote there is no sense of something created. I think of John Holloway’s “Life and Death of the Heroic Mr. Clubman” which for all of its satire, seems to me academic.
      These last two poets impress me as self-conscious and indirect. You speak of tracking Mr. Ashbery into his private lair, which would be possible to do, though I doubt its relevance, I think that what his poems mean follows from the poems as written, much more than it comes from what the poems come out of.
      I will write about the first poem in it the volume [sic], which is the one that I do not claim to understand, as you use the word “understand.” (I do claim to understand, besides the ones you say you do, “Pantoum,” but the line, “That is why a watchdog is shy” eludes me, “The Orioles,” “The Young Son,” “The Thinnest Shadow,” “Some Trees,” “Hotel Dauphin,” “The Painter,” “And You Know,” “The Meditations of Parrot,” “Pastoral.” I do not like all of these. Among my favorites are: “Answering a Question in the Mountains,” and the sestina that begins “While we were walking under the top.”)
      I will write about my pleasure in “Two Scenes.”** For me the pleasure in the first three lines “We see us as we truly behave / From every corner comes a distinctive offering. / The train comes bearing Joy,” is in the surprise of the sequence of words—there is, as it were, space enough between the nouns, modifiers and verbs; one does not know ahead of time what is coming; but one is convinced by the words when they appear. There is a fresh listening on the poet’s part to phrases, which may or may not be ordinary, there is delight and irony in the phrase and in its distortion and its context. “We see us as we truly behave” has an ironical reference to “we see what we believe” and by referring to it includes it. The train bearing joy is childish and the sparks that illuminate the table suggest Christmas, (a toy electric train) and the distinctive offerings are the child’s confidence in Christmas. There is an elliptical jump to “destiny guides the water pilot,” from something brought to something guided, but they come from different corners, and their distinctive offerings include, again elliptically, the distinction between a present and a quality that is characteristic, which is in a sense offered (as one offers oneself) and distinctive in its difference from a material gift. The idea of destiny leads to the succeeding pleasures, as the child grows, of sensuality (the day was warm and pleasant) and finally an erotic relationship: relationship expressed by the fact of the last two lines being in quotation marks, as if spoken by and to someone.
      The next stanza, which, as the title suggests, and the Roman numeral II marking it, is more than another stanza, starts with another accurately “elliptical” line. (I use quotes, because I am not sure that this is ellipsis.) I like the progression from fine rain to anoints to canal machinery. These are possible, but funny—the juxtaposition of such a hand-made and earth-bound thing as a canal with machinery. Canal machinery does exist, but one doesn’t think of it: it comes as a surprise, and the surprise of recognition that it does exist equals accuracy. The following lines associate not in the unconscious sense of “free association” but consciously, from the meanings of the words—the ordinary meanings, which Ashbery by partly ignoring, makes fun of—and from the off-rhymes following the off-meaning, which makes a progression. The surprising first line is followed by two cliche lines—not poetic cliches, but prose or speech cliches used to make part of the poem. These lines are followed by two lines that contain, first, a half cliche, next, a suggested cliche; the poem moves from cliche to fact. The “Though the fumes are not of a singular authority” has a cliche in the last two words: “fumes” is surprising with them. As to the next line, I am reminded of something that I cannot recall now, which poverty is commonly compared with: “dry as poverty” recalls dimly: something as poverty, some cliche, or else it looks like one. Then the poem goes into the specific; the old man, the paint cans with their blue shadow, to the most specific kind of sentence possible, namely a quoted remark. The quotation refers to a cliche, but being a remark of laughing cadets, (cadets are young: they laugh at rather stale jokes) it loses some of its fuzzy generality, without ignoring the general reference. This poem makes a great deal of language in a most compressed way; it plays with language wittily (like Lewis Carroll’s juxtaposition “admiration mingled with contempt”) and it makes images of a clarity, that is, without muddiness, without blurring, without redundancy in that each word counts at its fullest by being given its fullest space; a clarity that prevents a startlingly bright picture.
      In Ashbery's poetry there is a kind of music new to poetry. It is not a matter of prosody as I think I understand it, which is an analysis of the sequence of sounds abstracted from the sense—from the phrases; in his poems it is the phrase itself that is the musical element. Chekhov’s plays are musical in this way, consisting of a weaving of themes spoken by the different characters. It is consistent with this approach to “music” in poetry that the sestina is Ashbery’s favorite traditional form. I heard John Wheelwright say, “It doesn’t matter very much what sort of noise a poem makes.” The few analyses of “music” in poetry I have seen have usually been an analysis of this noisiness: either a matter of stresses in a regular or irregular pattern or of qualities, as in some translations of Greek poems I have seen, for instance translations of Sappho in an old number of the Quarterly Review: or in Michael Hamburger translations of Holderlin, where the rhythm goes from full to short: the stresses being on the long vowels. But Ashbery’s music is not like this. The words he chooses and the phrases he chooses seem to me to come from the poet’s close attention to the spoken and written language.
      There is a way of communication which I believe to be peculiar to poetry. This is close to the kind of communication that one gets from music: a communication that is sub-conscious, of the body: a cry, like the communication one gets from Chekhov, that makes one doubtful, when a play of Chekhov is well-acted whether it is funny or sad. It is expressed in Swann’s Way: “But ever since, more than a year before, discovering to him the riches of his own soul, the love of music had been born, and for a time at least had dwelt in him, Swann had regarded musical motifs as actual ideas, of another world, of another order, ideas veiled in shadows, unknown, impenetrable by the human mind, which nonetheless were perfectly distinct one from another unequal among themselves in value and significance.” Ashbery’s verbal phrases are to me ideas in the way musical phrases may be so considered. There is this sort of communication in the sestina with top, lamp, peace hair, waiting sky.*** The words waiting, sky and peace have emotional ambiences that are impersonal, and this is the way they are used: and also, of course, the personality of the poet inevitably comes through. I think you do not read these poems with your ear enough: you do not give in to them and let them take over: you try to place them before you have started. I like a poem to transcend its “meaning,” meaning its references outside itself. The best poems in this manner are, as it were, self-consistent. There is no waste. There is a lot of waste in Louis Simpson. To have no waste is to be direct. Ashbery is direct; he says what the words lead him to say; he follows the detail. I know of no more skillful craftsman. As to what he says, he says what he can, which is limited by his maturity. Who says more than what he can? Maturity comes or does not come, also to engineers; and the man who has mastered his craft is a man who expresses it best.
      I think I have made as clear as I am able my admiration for Ashbery’s poetry.

                        Yours sincerely,
                        Fairfield Porter
Surely one of the earliest, and finest, readings of Ashbery’s style. Printed, too, in a 1991 number of Boulevard. (One wonders if Stephen Burt’s hooplah’d essay “The Elliptical Poets” (1999, though a shorter, earlier version called “Shearing Away” appeared in Poetry Review (London) in 1998) mightn’t have found its beginnings here in Porter’s letter.)
* The nine: Friday’s Child by Wilfred Watson, The Hatch by Norma Farber, The Irony of Joy by Robert Pack, Good News of Death and Other Poems by Louis Simpson, Birthdays from the Ocean by Isabella Gardner, Some Trees by John Ashbery, Exiles and Marriages by Donald Hall, The Moral Circus by Edwin Honig and The Deaths at Paragon, Indiana by John Woods.

** Ashbery’s “Two Scenes”:
We see us as we truly behave:
From every corner comes a distinctive offering.
The train comes bearing joy;
The sparks it strikes illuminate the table.
Destiny guides the water-pilot, and it is destiny.
For long we hadn’t heard so much news, such noise.
The day was warm and pleasant.
“We see you in your hair,
Air resting around the tips of mountains.”

A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.
This is perhaps a day of general honesty
Without example in the world’s history
Though the fumes are not of a singular authority
And indeed are dry as poverty.
Terrific units are on an old man
In the blue shadow of some paint cans
As laughing cadets say, “In the evening
Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.”

*** Porter is referring here to Ashbery’s “Poem” in Some Trees. Opening: “While we were walking under the top / The road so strangely lit by lamps / And I wanting only peace / From the tradesmen who tried cutting my hair / Under their lips a white word is waiting / Hanging from a cliff like the sky . . .”

William Arrowsmith’s reply to Fairfield Porter’s letter. Dated 23 January 1957.
“Mr. Ashbery . . . seems to be frittering with language.”
(Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)