Commentaries - February 2013

'It reads a kind of ecopoetics back into the poet’s auditory performance.'

In the spring of 2012, Christian Hawkey was invited to participate in a festival celebrating John Ashbery at the New School (called How to Continue: Ashbery Across the Arts). Each participant — poets, dancers, filmmakers — was invited to engage his or her work using a variety of media and disciplines, and Hawkey chose to explore his audio archives, or rather, the various recordings of John Ashbery that Pennsound has compiled over the years, beginning with his 1961 reading for the Living Theater

He became especially interested in listening to the room tone and background noise in all the recordings: the recorded texture of the room, the sound made by the recording device itself, and the non-vocal presence of Ashbery himself (a page turning, lighting a cigarette, sipping from glass of water and swallowing). Working with a friend, the artist Simone Kearney, Hawkey scanned the roughly 45 extant recordings on Pennsound to find, in each one, a clip of “silence” — a brief 3-to-7-second non-vocal moment (longer proved impossible to find) between poems, or between commentary and poems, or between title and poem. They then assembled the clips into one audio file.

It was surprisingly difficult to do this, they found, since most sound engineers remove as much dead sound and background sound as possible, or they snip off the silence at the beginning or end of a reading. Hawkey became increasingly fascinated with this project because it reads a kind of ecopoetics back into the poet’s auditory (and by extension textual) performance: what is normally elided in recordings (background, room tone, noise) is here entirely foregrounded, and Hawkey thinks this is analogous to, true to, aspects of Ashbery’s own aesthetic, where junk speech or everyday speech (that which is often censored from normative “literary” writing) is, in his work, front and center, foregrounded as sociolect, various vernaculars, ideolects.

Here is the recording.

Christian Hawkey, star of When You Think Of It, is the author of three books of poetry: The Book of Funnels (Verse Press, 2004), Citizen Of (Wave Books, 2007) and Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). He also co-directs, with Rachel Levitsky, OoRS

Here, in order of appearance, are the recordings from which the silences and other forms of ambience were taken:

1. Reading at The Living Theatre, New York City, September 16, 1963

2. Reading at the Washington Square Art Gallery, NYC, August 23, 1964

3. Interview with Bruce Kawin on WKCR Radio, May 5, 1966

4. Reading at YM-YWHA, with an introduction by Richard Howard. Episode #23157: "The Poetry of John Ashbery," March 27, 1967

5. Appearing at Poetry's 19th Annual Poetry Day, WFMT Chicago, November 17, 1973

6. The Songs We Know Best, 1973

7. Potpourri of Poetry Reading at the Naropa Institute, Summer 1975

8. Reading for WBAI-FM, Produced by Susan Howe, New York, May 14 and June 7, 1975

9. Reading in Buffalo, October 15, 1975

10. Reading at Sanders Theater, Harvard University, sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room, May 16, 1976

11. Reading at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, May 17, 1977

12. Appearing with Barbara Guest on P.E.N. Portraits, hosted by Anne Fremantle, WNYC, May 22, 1977

13. Segue Series Reading at the Ear Inn with Michael Lally, September 16, 1978

14. Reading at the Science Center, Harvard University, November 9, 1978

15. Lecture on Giorgio de Chirico at the Poetry Project, NYC, March 22, 1979

16. Reading at the University of Arizona, November 4, 1980

17. Reading at Harvard University as part of the Morris Gray Lecture Series, October 16, 1985

18. Reading at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, NM, November 20, 1985

19. WQXR Radio Program, New York, April 8, 1986

20. New Letters on the Air: a production of New Letters Magazine, University of Missouri, Kansas City, August 1986, Ashbery's Commencement Address to students at the Kansas City Art Institute

21. Reading in Boylston Hall, Harvard University, November 10, 1987

22. Recording for Radio Helicon, hosted by John Tranter, ABC, June 19, 1988

23. John Ashbery reads Eliot as part of "In Different Voices: T.S. Eliot at 100," organized by Richard Howard, Symphony Space, New York City, October 22, 1988

24. Reading at the Poets' Corner Vespers Service for the Induction of Wiliam Faulkner and Wallace Stevens, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC, October 22, 1989

25. Reading at 92nd Street Y with James Schuyler, November 11, 1989

26. Reading for the Modern Languages Auditorium, University of Arizona, Septeber 12, 1990

27. "Poets Reading in the Village", April 25, 1991

28. Reading excerpts from Flow Chart on WBAI Radio, New York. April 25, 1991

29. Reading and interview on The Book Show, 1992

29. Reading of "Syringa" for WNYC's 50th Anniversary, June 13, 1994

30. 1996 Lyrikmagasinet Reading; May 15

31. Reading for Wednesdays @ 4Plus, University at Buffalo, October 12, 1996

32. Appearing on BBC Radio 3, Contemporary American Poetry Program, July 24, 1999

33. From The Voice of the Poet, 2001

34. Reading at the Kelly Writers House, March 25, 2002

35. In discussion with Al Filreis, March 26th, 2002 must switch (this is before Kelly writer’s house)

36. From The Key West Literary Seminar, 2003

37. John Ashbery, Yale Collection of American Literature Reading Series, Beinecke Library, September 20, 2006

38. Mo Pitkin's, New York, June 6, 2007

39. Reading Pierre Martory at "Poets in the Sheep Meadow Fold, AWP, New York, February 2, 2008

40. Reading at Haverford College, February 19, 2008

41. Reading and Forum at The New School, April 15, 2008

42. from State of the Union: a Poetry Reading, at the CUNY Graduate Center, October 30, 2008

 43. New York Review of Books Podcast, 2009

 44. Reading at St. Mark's, Introduced by Charles North, New York, May 14, 2009

 45. Reading for the Tibor de Nagy Gallery 60th Anniversary Program at The New School, New York, January 31, 2011

In the past two months I've systematically re-read every poem John Ashbery has published, from earliest to current (Quick Question, 2013), and in the second half of that time I've taught (or, rather, led discussions with my students on) several hundred poems. For whatever it’s worth (I don't suppose much), here is my list of 64 poems I deem indispensible to a whole understanding of Ashbery’s writing. Note that six of these 64 “greatest” are from his newest book.

Some Trees (1956)

The Instruction Manual

The Grapevine

The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers

Some Trees


The Tennis Court Oath (1962)

The Tennis Court Oath



Rivers and Mountains (1966)

These Lacustrine Cities

Rivers and Mountains

Into the Dusk-Charged Air

The Skaters

The Double Dream of Spring (1970)

Soonest Mended

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape

Three Poems (1972)

The System

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975)

Forties Flick

A Man of Words

The One Thing That Can Save America

Tenth Symphony

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Houseboat Days (1977)

Street Musicians

Business Personals

Saying It to Keep It from Happening

Daffy Duck in Hollywood

And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name

What Is Poetry

As We Know (1979)

My Erotic Double

Shadow Train (1981)

Paradoxes and Oxymorons

Hard Times

A Wave (1984)

At North Farm

Just Walking Around

Purists Will Object

April Galleons (1987)

Forgotten Sex

Posture of Unease


Disguised Zenith

October at the Window

Sighs and Inhibitions

Hotel Lautreamont (1992)

On the Empress’s Mind

And the Stars Were Shining (1994)

Well, Yes, Actually

Can You Hear, Bird (1995)

A Poem of Unease

Operators Are Standing By

Sleepers Awake

The Problem of Anxiety

Wakefulness (1998)

Like America

The Dong with the Luminous Nose

Your Name Here (2000)

This Room

Memories of Imperialism

Crossroads in the Past

Where Shall I Wander (2005)

Annuals and Perennials

Planisphere (2009)


The Later Me

They Knew What They Wanted

Quick Question (2013)

Quick Question

The Short Answer

How I Met You

Auburn-Tinted Fences

Not Beyond All Conjecture

Iphigenia in Sodus

The utilisation of digital computers in the deconstruction and reconstruction of writing

Mr Rubenking's Robot
Mr. Rubenking's Robot

“History works through hindsight; and the spectacles of hindsight are tinted with irony. The model of art versus disorder was renovated early in the Industrial Revolution in the service of a Romantic idea: the construction of a role for the author as a unique creative presence rescuing spiritual value from chaos — the aristocracy were dead, God had fled, and Nature was covered with factories — and whose job it was to certify the value of a literary work on behalf of its consumers, the bourgeoisie. The project has seen strange and powerful acids attack this central role as the twentieth century progressed, until the structure is now almost reversed — it’s now the reader who validates the work which constructs the author — if she’s lucky.”

«Brekdown» is a text analysis and text generation program written in Turbo Pascal for IBM-compatible personal computers, devised in 1985 by the San Francisco programmer Neil J. Rubenking.
First published in «Meanjin» magazine, Vol 50, No 4, 1991

Published on the early internet in September 1992 at
More in Jacket 4 at

Featuring Chris Alexander

who is never not on twitter

“How It Works” is a column where I ask contemporaries for new ideas and terms to help us describe and analyze writing happening now. For my first guest I've invited Chris Alexander, my partner, the esteemed author of Panda, CEO of United Plastics, and co-editor, with me, of Truck Books, is a poet, professor, and graphic designer who reads a lot of German Media Theory, and also works on Robert Duncan. First, a little background on my assignment for him.

A few years ago, there was serious talk of creating an anthology of critical essays on conceptual writing. A number of people started essays, but then many aspects of the project were abandoned by different people for different reasons, and the anthology was not made. Then, last summer, Steve Zultanski was asking anyone who wanted to write collective manifestoes about contemporary poetry. These were both useful exercises for many of those who participated, but ultimately I think what emerged was the realization that few of us agreed on much, that people were coming from all manner of position on what was important, and that having emerged from different traditions gave us very different frameworks for imagining the situation. This difference is useful and good for learning and dialogue, not so good for group definitive statement-production.

In our household, this process ultimately left us with little desire to name, explain, or otherwise concoct one framework to account for everything happening in poetry. First, it kept not working; second, it seemed to invite lots of arguments we didn’t want to spend our time on; third, after awhile it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be. But we learned a lot in the effort. One concept we have been discussing in analyzing recent poetry is Rosalind Krauss' notion of "technical supports." Chris found this term a few years ago, and every time we find our conversation back on the big, overarching, epistemic description end of things, we come back to this: maybe we should just write about specific works and their technical supports. I asked him to write a “How It Works” for us concerning technical supports. Here’s what he did.


So let's tentatively accept a few propositions. First, there's Frederic Jameson's description of the diffusion of "the aesthetic" as a category of experience under the regime of flexible accumulation (so-called late capitalism). For Jameson, the present era is defined by the mutual collapse of culture and economics -- a transformation that coincides with the post-war boom and (as Harvey also notes) the rise of computational media. Where modernity was characterized by an uneven overlap of everyday life and capitalist production, with whole spheres of communal and cultural life remaining outside the market, we now live entirely within the market and its derivative forms. This is true where money changes hands, for example in the requisite shaping of personal and group identity thru the choice of consumer goods. But it's also true where no money changes hands, for example in the logic of web 2.0 communications platforms, which are essentially markets driven by an economy of attention. (If you add to this the further "monetization" of attention thru data aggregation and advertising sales, you begin to see the mobius-like relationship Jameson is trying to describe.) Culture has become an extension of economics. But this collapse has also led to a reciprocal inflation of culture -- and specifically, of aesthetic experience, which is no longer confined (as in the modern era) to discrete spheres of cultural enrichment such as the appreciation of the fine arts. Instead, the mantle of "the aesthetic" falls over everything: "no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, [it] is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in the various often televisual forms of leisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products." (You can see this, for example, in the prominence of the connoisseur and the curator as figures of the age.) Economics has become an extension of culture. Under these conditions, Jameson observes, aesthetics as such resides everywhere and nowhere: "the traditional distinctiveness or 'specificity' of the aesthetic (and even of culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether."

Now here's a second (and not unrelated) proposition: American poetry has entered -- in a handful of sites, and maybe temporarily -- into a post-medium condition. Contemporary writers have turned away, variously, from the specifically literary techniques, materials, and modes of distribution that figured in the work of most writers of previous generations. The "human scale" of utterance, whether spoken in a tone of intimate confidence or picked up in the street; a certain authenticity of voice, however coy or coyly deconstructed; the line, the breath, the tone-leading of the vowel sounds, the syllable; torque, the disruption of normative syntax, semantic forms of disjunction; poetic prosody and reader-centered paradigms that rely on close reading; the book as a platform for collecting and presenting separate, previously-composed poems -- all of these techniques and more besides have been tweaked, troubled, abandoned or forcefully rejected in various quarters of contemporary writing. In their place, we find the embrace of nonliterary forms and sources (Kenny Goldsmith's use of broadcast media, Vanessa Place's engagement with the system of law, Joey Yearous-Algozin's use of online databases giving the names of deceased persons), nonliterary strategies for the genesis and organization of works (Tan Lin's use of the RSS feed in Heath, Simon Morris' computationally-randomized Rewriting Freud), nonliterary platforms and modes of distribution (Tan Lin's recent use of PowerPoint, J. Gordon Faylor's mazelike click-thru Marginal Contribution Twin, Chris Sylvester's Tumblr- and YouTube-based work) or disruptions of distribution networks (Holly Melgard's Black Friday, an all-black book designed to exceed the limits of on-demand printing facilities) -- with these extra-generic elements sometimes occuring in dense layers within a single project. 

"Poetry" has become a place-holder for other kinds of activity that include highly attentuated forms of writing, but also, increasingly, other things. At the outer edge, one thinks here of pieces like Kieran Daly's Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF's 36 (missed by two), a ZIP file that decompresses into a folder whose subfolders appear to divide the work into stages suggestive of the chapter headings of a book or the acts of a play, yet whose contents -- PNG image files, MP4 movies -- are presented nonsequentially (though sortable by the date and time of their last modification) because of the nature of the GUI file folder and are simultaneously accessible because of the nature of the multitasking operating system. An ambiguous relationship is established between two comparable and familiar, yet deeply dissimilar systems: the table of contents in a printed book, and the digital "folder." Add to this the fact that although most of the heading-like subfolders are empty (thus functioning purely as headings, not as containers), two are not. The third, "Lipogram; Field Guide," is especially disturbing as it contains a series of TXT files and a PDF of a field guide to Texas wildflowers -- that is, an entire other "book," and one with a particularly complex indexical structure -- thus dramatically breaking the effect of mimesis. As for the "content" of the files, besides the field guide we find blank text boxes suggestive of unused paper, inert images of click-boxes containing computer error messages, and movies that depict greenhouse gas sampling and low-fi handheld footage of a carpet and desk respectively. This is one of my favorite pieces of "writing" from the past two years. But what does it mean to "read" it?

One concept that may give us traction on some of these works is Rosalind Krauss' notion of the "technical support." Krauss arrives at this concept in the course of a career-long resistance to the purported dematerialization of art (cf. Lippard) that stood in part as the framework for conceptual and installation art of the 1960s and 70s. Responding to the dissolution of Greenbergian categories of the medium -- the turn away from discrete "medium specific" practices such as painting and sculpture -- and the explicit devaluation of Greenberg's thought, Krauss sought to reassert the category of artistic medium by seeking out "another avant garde" that preserved that specificity in a changed form. "Mediums are specified by the material support they supply for artistic practice: the way canvas and stretcher support the images of traditional painting and plaster wall those of fresco, or the way metal armatures support the material of sculptural volume. The artists I observed persevering in the service of a medium had abandoned traditional supports in favor of strange new apparatuses, ones they often adopted from commercial culture."

Her mainstay example is Ed Ruscha, whose photo-books present banal features of the American roadway in repetitive serial form, often shot from the habituated perspective of the driver. According to Krauss, Ruscha had adopted the automobile itself as the "technical support" of his work: "His books, such as 26 Gasoline Stations, and 34 Parking Lots, as well as Every Building on the Sunset Strip, acknowledge the car as the underlying matrix of his production." As with traditional artistic media, technical supports generate their own rules thru the virtualities (possibilities and prohibitions) inherent in their physical composition and conventional usage, taking on a share of agency in the production of art works. Krauss gives the example of Ruscha's 26 Gasoline Stations, explaining that the precise length of the series was suggested by "the number of refills necessary between California and Oklahoma and thus referred to the demands of driving and the exigencies of the car." In my reading, another example would be Kieran Daly's use of the digital folder in Tentatively nullpropriated: designed and conventionally used as a container in graphical user interfaces, the folder's list view nevertheless superficially approximates a table of contents; it has a liminal status, not quite an object and not quite a text. In taking up the folder to make  a "book," Tentatively nullpropriated takes up this ambiguity, which is only available thru the use of this support. 

Krauss' resistance to conceptual art (and her sustained polemic against Donald Judd) might seem out of place here. But since contemporary writing has largely moved away from Kosuth and LeWitt's identification of the work with the idea of the work, there is no framework of "dematerialization" to contend with. Under conditions in which the material qualities of nonliterary forms are emphasized, Krauss' defense of the artistic medium zealously overshoots the mark in a way that makes it useful for delineating the layered complexity of these forms of writing, like someone left shouting when the song ends. "If the car can become a medium, then anything might be pressed into such service. It only needs the set of rules that will open onto the possibility of artistic practice."

Take Rob Fitterman's Sprawl, a book in the form of a mall directory whose contents are pieced together from online user reviews of the franchises included there. Although the book has a standard table of contents listing the sections of the work and relevant page numbers, the directory itself, printed in isolation near the beginning of the "Indian Mound Mall" section, quickly takes over its function as the index and main structural element of the work, listing the stores and their locations in the imagined space of a shopping mall. (Although Indian Mound Mall purportedly exists and can be visited at 771 South 30th St. in Heath, Ohio, Fitterman's directory is partially fantasized, a composite of the many similar directories that can be found online.) Strangely, the spatial cues the directory gives us ("Bose F119 / Banana Republic N134 / Bath & Body Works E119") are irrelevant to the organization of the piece: instead, it's arranged according to the order of the list, with Bose preceding Banana Republic, followed by Bath & Body Works, etc. An ambiguous relationship is established between two comparable and familiar, yet deeply dissimilar systems: the table of contents in a printed book, and the mall directory as the index to an architecturally disorienting commercial space.

The directory presents a problem for reading: because of its structural position, it can hardly be called "content" -- just as the table of contents itself is rarely considered to be part of a work, figuring instead as paratext. Yet the directory isn't exactly the table of contents, either, since the book already has a table of contents in its paratextual apparatus --  which even lists the directory as a part of the book's contents. More importantly, the residual impression of spatial relations that comes from long habituation to the mall directory (at least, for those of us who grew up in the midwest) is disorienting in relation to the book as a platform; the locative elements ("F119.. N134") that stand in for page numbers call on a variety of training that quite different from that of reading. As a reader, I find myself reflexively slipping into spatial thinking (three dimensional, multi-directional, proprioceptive) as opposed to the sequential order (word by word, sentence by sentence) that normative reading calls for.  This quasi-textual, quasi-technical quality -- is it content? is it structure? is it text? is it object? -- corresponds to what I'm trying to describe as a technical support. Sprawl can only arrive at this set of contrary sensations thru the use of this specific support: by adopting the mall directory as the structure of a book. 

There's a lot more I could say about Sprawl -- for example, how Fitterman's use of the online user review in the context of a finding aid from commercial architecture suggests a shift, under the regime of flexible accumulation, from shopping as discrete activity to a state of limited perpetual shopping (corresponding also to the rise of preemptive time-sharing in CPU scheduling and the attendant dawn of intensive multitasking in human users); or the relationship of so-called avant garde writing to commercial forms (Stein's not particularly famous "Evian water is very good"); or the role of planned obsolescence in the Crabtree & Evelyn product line. But anyway, this is what's been on my mind lately: how to read.

Follow Chris Alexander on Twitter as @hedorah55 or check out his Tumblr, Everythings Okay.