John Ashbery and the arts
While painting occupies a primary place in John Ashbery’s sense of the arts, his poems also have to do with the possibilities he has gleaned from individual artists in nearly every medium. In “Jane Freilicher,” an essay on the painter and his close friend, he writes:
We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage’s music, Merce Cunningham’s dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone. I could see all of this entering into Jane’s work and Larry’s and my own. And then there were the big shows at the Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection alone was stimulation enough for one’s everyday needs. I had come down from Cambridge to catch the historic Bonnard show in the spring of 1948, unaware of how it was already affecting a generation of young painters who would be my friends, especially Larry Rivers, who turned from playing jazz to painting at that moment of his life.
Poetry and painting are set in an interlinked relation of the arts, with music, dance, movies, theater, and literature, all feeding new aesthetic questions as they come into being.
With these overlapping affinities in mind, we went about assembling “John Ashbery and the arts” wanting to explore how artists across genres respond creatively to Ashbery’s poetry. Our most exciting revelation was how much everyone here fashioned work by reading himself or herself into Ashbery’s. That is to say, contributors created their pieces through reading their own sensibilities into Ashbery’s, and not the other way around.
The distinction is as subtle as it is generative. We discovered that the house of Ashbery is generous and catalytic: were many of the artworks published here to be gathered under other circumstances, they might not seem to have much in common. But instead, they roam through dance, theatre, poetry, music, translation, and essay, in styles so divergent, they push at the outer description of the word while still tracing correspondent lines to Ashbery’s work.
One of Ashbery’s particular strengths is how he accommodates so very much. His dexterity with tone allows for compositions into which he can place almost anything — movie titles, comets, skaters, abstract painting, and comics — and make them work. More precisely, perhaps, not so much “work,” as mystify, surprise, open language in ways that would be nearly impossible to anticipate.
Ashbery has discernibly influenced a number of poets. But the word “influence” here is much too confining to convey the impact he has had across genres and art forms, or the rich the impact that all the arts have had on him. His effect amounts more to a permission writ large: a permission to range widely, to experiment mightily, to be not like Ashbery, but to be allied in a deep sensibility of possibilities of the avant-garde and “this thing there is no name for.”
It is as though a day which had begun brilliantly in the blaze of a new sunrise had become transfixed as a certain subtle change in the light can cast a chill over your heart, or the sight of a distant thin ribbon of cirrus ebbing into space can alter everything you have been feeling, dropping you back years and years into another world in which its fragile reminder of inexorable change was also the law, as it is here today. You know now the sorrow of continually doing something that you cannot name, of producing automatically as an apple tree produces apples this thing there is no name for. And you continue to hum as you move forward, but your heart is pounding. (John Ashbery, “The Recital,” in Three Poems)
A conference companion
This feature is a companion to Poetry Communities and the Individual Talent, a conference that took place at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania on April 13–14, 2012. The feature includes versions of papers that were given as part of the conference, reviews and commentaries related to the conference, as well as articles, reviews, and interviews that relate to poetry and community more broadly.
In designing this conference, we wanted to bring together advanced graduate students with early, mid-career, and established scholars to discuss what we see as a discrepancy between how poetry gets taught to undergraduates and how we talk about poetry communities in our criticism. Our CFP read: “Twentieth-century poetry is often taught through the lens of poetry communities: Imagists, Black Mountain, Language Poetry, etc. These poetry communities, for better or worse, also shape how scholars think about and write about poets and poetry in their research. Some poets are studied mainly to demonstrate their membership in a school or movement; others are treated in isolation to exaggerate their influence. Recent attempts to bridge these divergent approaches include focuses on friendships, collaborations, careers, and reception. This conference seeks papers that respond to questions such as: How are schools and movements identified? What role do friendships and collaborations play? How do publishers, editors, scholars, and publics create poetry communities? How do editing, production and marketing affect individual careers? What is the role of reception in entrenching or altering reputations? How do identity politics affect claims to representation? What are the similarities and differences between local, national, and transnational communities? How should scholars understand eccentrics, loners, or individualists? How do manifestos form group identity? What are specific communities of reception? How do major and minor communities work? What is the validity (or not) of common community designations or labels?” Many of these questions were addressed in some form or another in the papers delivered at the conference, which can be viewed at PennSound. Now that the conference is over, we are in a position to discuss the primary themes that were addressed during the conference more fully.
1) We were happy that several people mentioned two obvious touchstones for our conference title, Marjorie Perloff’s “Avant-Garde Community and the Individual Talent” and Charles Bernstein’s “Community and the Individual Talent.” Of course T. S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” was a point of reference, but the title plays off of these more recent works as well. Understandably, several speakers expressed anxiety over a conference seemingly framed by Eliot. Aren’t we past having to root our practice, and lend justification to our scholarship, by referencing the Men of 1914? In a way, yes. In another way, no. Although Eliot’s reasons for defending literary value have fallen out of favor, the question of literary value, and of why we read and teach what we do, persists.
2) A general hesitance of using the term “community” without significant qualification permeated the conference. “Noetry Opportunities and the Unlocatable Anti-Genius” or “Poets and the Baggage of Communal Belonging” might have been more apt titles for our conference. Conference participants debated whether recent generations of avant-garde poets have been able to theorize poetic community in such a way as to redress its historical simplifications and blind spots, or whether all ideologies of poetic community are ultimately subject to the same problems.
3) A third overarching theme was the place of English in our understandings of poetry and communities. How we characterize poetry communities in an Anglophone or North American context is often quite dissociated from how we might characterize them in a broader context. The conference’s focus on American poetry, albeit with significant exceptions, compelled us to ask about the limits of studying poets and poetry communities without recourse to a comparative or transnational framework.
4) Lastly, we discussed the problematics of applying the concept of poetry communities exclusively to poets, publishers, and critics as compared to applying it to larger collectivities (societies, nations, etc.). While some argued that poetry necessarily reflects a community larger than that of the people who produce, circulate, and consume it, others depicted particular poetry communities as predominantly concerned with the exemplary or competitive nature of their own identity.
Although the conference explored numerous other topics that we cannot detail here, we believe the four topics mentioned above were especially important to conference participants and warrant further discussion. We hope this feature furthers discussion and debate about these important topics.
Recently the Canadian Caribbean poet M. NourbeSe Philip has begun to experiment with collaborative public readings of her book-length poem Zong! I had the good fortune of attending one of these readings at the end of May at the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies Annual Conference at the University of Waterloo. Handing out about twenty photocopies of Zong!, she provided the audience with page numbers and instructed us to read these pages along with her without worrying about staying in unison. A mesmerizing cacophony ensued, as voices moved under, over, and around each other. Zong! illustrates Philip’s ongoing commitment to poetry as a radical mode of historical inquiry and racial protest. This trans-generational lyric is made only of language taken from the Gregson v. Gilbert decision, a 1783 legal case resulting from the deliberate drowning of 150 slaves. At first I could only hear my voice through the torqued syllables of the poem, but eventually it began to fade as the sea of voices swallowed it up. This group recitation amplified the ritualistic dimensions of this watery text. By inviting her audience to participate, Philip destabilizes the equation of poetic voice with authorial presence fostered by the traditional format of modern poetry readings to navigate us to a different mode of utterance. For me, these collaborative performances form an essential part of the poem’s reading pedagogy, compelling us to read and discuss the dissonance together. The collection of exchanges in this feature takes up this challenge. As Philip acknowledges in her lyrical essay “Wor(l)ds Interrupted,” which forms the centerpiece of the conversation, she herself is still “trying to figure out what Zong! is” and she invites her audience to explore how to read the poem with her.
Published in 2008, Zong! has sparked a considerable amount of scholarly attention for such a recent text — heralded both as a radical work of conceptual poetics and as a spiritual lament for the unmourned dead. In “Wor(l)ds Interrupted, Philip reflects on the critical reception of Zong! and she discusses its relationship to her previous writing. Locating her work in the “swirling waters of the kari basin,” she explores how this space has been “postmodern long before the term was coined.” Characterizing the entire New World as a “site of massive interruption,” she proposes that the nonlinear and fragmentary qualities of poetic discourse are well suited to articulate the visceral effects of the interruptive experience of the Americas and to reclaim its disruptive potential.
Evie Shockley and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan both take up the pressing question of how to read Zong! in their responses to Philip’s “Wor(l)ds Interrupted.” In Sullivan’s commentary “‘Unsayable Secrets’ of Diaspora’s Bodily History,” she focuses on the gendered dimensions of Philip’s rupture to dominant histories through the tracing of black women’s bodily memories. Shockley encapsulates her position through her playful title, “Is Zong! Conceptual Poetry? Yes, It Isn’t.” She argues that Zong! provokes a reconfiguration of what conceptual poetics might become by loosening the divisions between body, mind, and spirit. This feature also includes a written version of the interview that followed Philip’s collaborative reading at the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies Annual Conference. Two Canadian scholars, Veronica Austen and Phanuel Antwi, invite Philip to reflect on the relationship of her poetics to spirituality, national identity, and contemporary politics. The interview builds on conversations that run throughout the feature and that embark on reading Zong! together.