Saturday, December 04, 2010

20th Century - Ashbery - Armantrout - My Philosophy of Life

BEING and TOTALITY were mid-20th Century master narratives, and we’ve come away from them shaken. What is art to aspire to after that? (The same things as it always has.)

If our time is “in the shadow of” 20th Century art and philosophy it’s because the art and philosophy of the 20th Century were totalizing, and our time is one of contraction, of a counter movement rather than a redirection or revision.

The error of our age is when we treat occurrences as instances. Not all walks to the mailbox are fraught with the weight of history. Usually it’s just junk mail.

If 20th Century master narratives are cages, 21st Century competing narratives are shadowboxing. Either can yield great as well as forgettable art.

There are some things we do not want to say so we remain silent. We are social.

Because in the artwork the instance must emerge, the experience of time is disrupted by attention.

In art, time is less sequentially monadic and more prismatically nomadic. Obvious examples: think of the structure of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Terrantino’s Pulp Fiction. You can even find this tension in Wordsworth, if you must. It’s always been this way. But it gains currency in the early 20th Century.

It will be a long time before we’re done dealing with the early 20th Century.

And we have the idea of time layered in Ashbery, where the poem often advances by shifting horizontally, geographically, one time to another—an accretion of middles of instances culminating in a panorama, the visual representation of the previous disparate occurrences. Armantrout, my other go-to example from our time achieves a similar effect by shifting time not across individuals and instances, but down the line of instances vertically, organized by one consciousness. Where Ashbery can appear as montage, clustered instances, Armantrout uses montaged, sequential absences.

The art object exists as an encounter its perceiver constructs alone. It is less a presence than a prompt. It is difficult, therefore, to agree to criteria for excellence, for whatever excellence one sees in art is really an encounter one is having with oneself.

How can one succeed, then, in convincing someone that a poem is worthy of praise? (When all parties are being honest and not cynical, we're like the priest, the rabbi, and the Imam on a lifeboat comparing mythologies.)

Arguments about art, necessary as they are (or appear to be), are necessarily beside the point.

When one is saying a poem fails, one is saying that it has failed to prompt that person into an encounter with her/him/self. The operation of that failure doesn’t necessarily reside with the poem in question just as it doesn’t necessarily reside with the perceiver. None of these are givens.

It’s always as much about form as it is about content. Form is about content.

Art need not be a representation to be an ecstatic presence.

Art is not social. In this way, art contends that every wedding you attend is a wedding of people you don’t know. Call it a philosophy of life . . .

My Philosophy of Life
John Ashbery

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they're made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one . . .


At 12/04/2010 9:03 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

These are elegant, thought-provoking notes, John. It's probably a bit unfair to pick one passage out for comment, since I realize the entries are of a piece, but it got me to thinking on something I've been wondering about. You say:

>There are some things we do not want to say so we remain silent. We are social.

Very true. But it's curious how the "social" and its pressures on "saying" can be so variable. I'm thinking about the poetry field, in this instance. Here's something I wrote to someone just the other day, and it's a bit off-the-cuff, but maybe clear enough to get across what strikes me as odd. I wrote, speaking of pointed satire and its current near-disappearance from our poetic sub-culture:

"You know, it's an interesting question: Why is it perfectly acceptable (and widely considered as healthy to the social body) that political satirists can do this stuff (though at a much higher and meaner pitch--think Stewart, Colbert, Maher, for current examples), but it's such a No-No to do satire in the poetry field? I've always wondered about this."

Just to throw that out, and in possible relation to the post below.


At 12/04/2010 9:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


How funny. I was thinking just about the very same thing when I was writing that.

The bumper sticker post, because it came from someone else, was fairly easy for me to post (it wasn't me saying those things, after all). But when people started commenting, I wanted to try writing some, and instantly I censored myself.

Jon Stewart (his name is here standing for all political stirists) has a category difference from those he's satirizing (less so as time goes on, which so far hasn't affected him much, but that's a different conversation). We don't. To satirize other poets, even mildly, can make for some uncomfortable moments at readings or some residency or whatever poets do these days. AWP, I guess?

Who would want that? It's the same reason (right?) why poetry reviewing is in such bad shape. We're social. We don't want to say someone's book is a failure (as we see it) and then have to have dinner with them.

At 12/04/2010 10:20 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Not so sure this fully explains the difference, John. Else, how account for other periods in poetry when satire, and of the decidedly in-your-face kind, was ubiquitous and avidly gobbled up by readers? In fact, most great ages of poetry have been golden ages of satire, haven't they? There was tight-knit literary culture in Elizabethan and 18th century England, too, for example. There wasn't an AWP, I guess, but poets had dinner and sherry with each other all the time. Coffeehouse culture, it came to be called. Or goodness, what about Fleet Street? The Romans, you know, would scream vitriol at each other on parchment and then have wine and olives together in the square. Not that things didn't sometimes get hairy, I'm sure.

And, too, it's not really the case that the contemporary political realm doesn't engage in auto-satire. What is it, the annual National Press Corp banquet, where politicians get up and skewer each other in ways absolutely unimaginable at an MLA or AWP or Orono dinner table. In ways, in fact, that make the bumper sticker slogans below quite tame in comparison. Or the English Parliament, say! They're on CSPAN, if you haven't watched them. Those folks still have to chat around in the hallway afterwards.

No, I think the matter is more complicated, more interesting, than just the convenient need to avoid awkwardness at this or that "dinner occasion." The power structures, cliques, self-serving alliances, and sundry institutional dynamics that exist in the poetry world are not qualitatively different from those of the political sphere. The difference is that in the latter they are open, acknowledged; in the former, they are hidden and sublimated beneath the rituals of obsequiousness and good manners.

At 12/04/2010 10:56 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Speaking of which, what the heck, I'll go ahead and say it, why not: I wrote half of the bumper stickers in the post yesterday...

They seem pretty mild and lightly amusing, to me.

It's curious to think of it: The venerable, canonical Martial, were he with us, would have all his bumper stickers deleted from the blogs! And Catullus? Oh, he wouldn't last long on the Listserves, either.

At 12/04/2010 11:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yikes. Now another anonymous organization has to fire Kent Johnson!

At 12/04/2010 11:04 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The difference is one of power and publication. In the past, say prior to the 20th Century, publication and such was not at the hands of other poets. It was patronage, right? I think that speaks to a lot of it. Now the "patrons" are university and stand alone small presses mostly run by poets. That changes things profoundly.

At 12/04/2010 11:17 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

So you're saying our poetical climate of caution, the generalized reluctance to openly critique, IS importantly rooted in a culture of self-serving interest? Of a deeply assimilated, esoterically ritualized obsequiousness, as I said?

Well, all the more need and urgency for satire, I'd say!

At 12/04/2010 11:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, on the other hand, in can be as much in someone's self-interest to create satire as much as it is to avoid its creation.

At 12/04/2010 11:39 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Still, there's a nagging-something vis a vis your case about this historical shift of "publication and power" that should be considered:

20th century avant-garde formations, from Zurich in the teens to the East Village in the
sixties, have been largely "self-publishing," auto-dependent communities. And yet healthy cultures of satire--directed very much both outward and inward--flourished just dandy.

So again, not sure your argument is totally convincing. I would say you're leaving out the main problem: the rapid professionalization of the poetic field--its absorption, across the aesthetic spectrum, into the institutionalizing functions of the Academy. In other words, it's impolite and nigh suicidal, if you're going to have a career as a Poet, to rock the structures and hierarchies of the habitus!

At 12/04/2010 12:17 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I should say, you know who did some very determined, biting, and cleansing satirical work back in the 60 and 70s? Good old Robert Bly! We could use a few more like him these days. He looks a lot more avant from here than the Silence-in-the-Snowy-Fields American Hybrid scene does, that's for sure.

At 12/04/2010 12:44 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Forgive me for so much activity, it's unlike me, but since we're on the topic of satire in the poetic field, some might be interested in these two reviews of the brand new _Works and Days of the feneon collective_. When the feneon collective [Unified Body] had its blog (now mysteriously vanished), Ron Silliman was actively deleting comments from various people who were writing in to praise the works there (I mention that just to offer another anecdote about the attitude towards satire within our "radical avant," I guess):

and here's a link to the just-yesterday reactivated book page (disappeared for a fortnight and a half, in an appropriately feneonesque turn of events), for those who may want to order the book:

At 12/04/2010 1:18 PM, Anonymous Ryan Sampson said...

I find it to be no coincidence that the bumper stickers which seemed to me most cutting and interesting, those posted under the surely pseudonymous name Sergio, were the only ones specifically flagged for removal and removed. It goes against the democratic nature of the blog to remove them: wouldn't it be more interesting to keep them up, and then initiate a discussion as to why they were so offense to Chuck Johnson, M.D. (which also seems pseudonymous - who has ever had a doctor named Chuck?) and to you, John? I suspect it's because Sergio's bumper stickers were much more specific and much more sexual, which makes us uncomfortable (perhaps rightly). But if this forum is good for anything, particularly in relation to your dialogue today with Kent, it seems we should ask ourselves WHY our impulse is to turn away from satire of Sergio's sort, rather than just judging it offensive and removing it.

Ryan Sampson
MFA Candidate
Indiana University

At 12/04/2010 1:24 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

The moon looks like the sound
made when a shepherd
places a cold glass of milk
on a gravestone to free his hands
so he can tie up his long gypsy hair.

- de Luna

At 12/04/2010 6:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Ryan,

You have a good point. And that is my tendency, as I've left up all sorts of comments that get pretty edgy. What bothered me about them (after I got three private emails from people and the Chuck comment) was what seemed to be simply foul for the sake of being foul.

In the end, I couldn't see anything about them that called for productive conversation. For instance, here are a few back:

Give Me Head, Sylvia, Not the Oven!

(So Sylvia Plath was a suicide. Her head went into an oven. So the joke is that she should perform oral sex instead?)

Have You Fucked Jorie Graham Lately?

(Why this is a joke at all misses me. I guess it's because people have said she gives awards to former students? And because of that we should all be having sex with her?)

Carl Phils-Up My Tank

(This one, as well, completely misses me. I guess it's directed at Carl Phillips? And a play on "Phillips" and "Fills Up"? But why should one's tank be filled by him? It has to be sexual, I guess, but why? Does he have a reputation for having a lot of sex? If so, I've never heard it.)

I Love Copper Buttcrack Press

(A joke about Copper Canyon, where Canyon is replaced by "Buttcrack"? What's the point? A canyon is like a butt crack? So? That the press "stinks" or something? that it only produces shit?)

Perloff My Shirt and Fuck Me!

(So Perloff replaces "peel off"? Other than that, what's the point? Is she supposed to have had a lot of sex too? Or that she likes shirtless people?)

So really, though an argument can be made to allow such things, I thought that since the blog is a fairly, well, ephemeral place, why let these things stay there? I felt like my leaving them up became some sort of endorsement. I've been accused of such things in the past by leaving somments up. I just wanted to avoid the conversation, as it didn't feel to me to be productive.

But here they are, back. Yikes.

At 12/05/2010 6:10 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


That's a good comment. I agree it would have been better to not delete those and just respond to them, as John has now done. But I agree with John that a number of those by "Sergio" seemed to use "sexual" references in a somewhat gratuitous way, more or less canceling any sense of critical slyness or irony in the epigrammatic commentary. Not that there isn't a tradition of frontal (and rear kind, too) personal insult in the poetic tradition! Some of it is in the anthologies, and it spans some 2500 years. And that kind of vitriol, often obscene, has sometimes been integrated, to productive effect, into larger gestures of institutional critique. But one has to work that up and "earn it," as they used to say at Iowa back in the 80s (maybe they still do?). One needs some detectable backdrop of cultural point and polemic. Without such context, things like the one on Carl Phillips, for example, strike a meaningless homophobic tone. And outbursts like the ones on Graham and Perloff ring as little more than misogynist. So there is a sense of care that one should take--not in the interests of politeness and protocol, but in that of productive critique. Often that care might mean that the agent of the satire will acknowledge how he or she is fully implicated, too...

Now, the one on Copper Canyon I can't tell why John objected so much, unless he is hoping to one day get published by them...

At 12/05/2010 6:32 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was trying to avoid, with the most of what I deleted from the comment, just this conversation of homophobia and misogyny. Alas. There we are. Such things take us down bad roads on the Internet (as someone [who appears to be a straight white male] always rises up and gets all over the place with hostility).

As for Copper Canyon, well, I saw when I posted it back up that there was more of a real comment being made. So sure, maybe I shouldn't have deleted it. I would be pretty shocked if Copper Canyon ever wanted to publish anything I wrote, and even more shocked if they decided not to because of some lame comment from someone on my blog.

I prefer Martial, by the way. Wm Matthews did a wonderful translation right before he died of 100 of the epigrams. It was really mean and fun. These just seem mean.

At 12/05/2010 12:05 PM, Blogger tgraves said...

Do you teach '20th century-ashbery-armantrout-my philosophy of life' to students? All this stuff about 'being' and 'the 20th century is where it all began!' and 'cages' and 'layered time' and so forth. It's 1) vague and 2) needlessly complex, such that I'm sure it hinders learning. On a blog, OK, but, with all due respect, I hope you don't teach this! --T Graves, Blog Scarriet

At 12/05/2010 1:13 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi T Graves,

Well, the easy answer is no, I don't teach this, per se, but I think you're underestimating the capacity of people to have a conversation regarding lineage and what the work of one period means to another.

If it's vague and overly complex, that's all to the better, I think. I'd hate to seem rational talking about art. I'll save the clear and simple for tomorrow. We get to talk about budget.

At 12/05/2010 1:59 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Daniel Nester on the bumper stickers in post below. His designs are great.

At 12/05/2010 2:21 PM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

Could I speak from the depth
Darwin must have known, I would.
From his notebooks, I would.
From his drawings, and even
deeper from his drawings,
from the fins of massive
mammalian fish long extinct,
deeper yet, from their fins
corrugated like the tin-
roofed shacks of fishermen,
deeper, from the reason
morphology changes, not
from this morphology itself.
Please dear God not from the body.

- de Luna

At 12/06/2010 6:05 AM, Blogger Johannes said...


Assuming I've understood your point, I totally disagree with your claims about "arguments about art." They are not "beside the point" because they influence not just which texts you choose to read, but also the way you make sense of them.

Nobody's ever convinced you to like something? I find that difficult to believe. It happens to me all the time. It seems sad to think that we're born with some kind of innate Taste that then never changes? From birth? From what you first learned in high school? Mystical experience in the "woods"?

I also disagree that arguments about art are solely evaluative. Very few times have people convinced me to read something based on a set of values; usually it's through a reading I find interesting.


At 12/06/2010 6:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I can concede that point easily enough. Maybe it's just the mood I'm in from people continually asking me to "justify" Ashbery to them, and then I talk to them for what seems like days, and then they say, eh, nope, still think it's inchoate rubbish. I feel their questions are disingenuous or that their pre-formed opinions are set in stone.

It IS the interesting reading that does it when people have "convinced" me to like something, not the argument of "importance" or "value." But I hate some readings, especially the sort of close readings that make everything seem like a three lock box. Why on earth would I want to play THAT game?

So my point is maybe 50 percent correct. Maybe 45 percent.

At 12/06/2010 6:59 AM, Blogger Johannes said...

Yeah, that seems like a hopeless place to start any discussion from.


At 12/06/2010 8:12 AM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

The stars arrows hanging
in the air for an impossibly
long time, for an impossible
to understand reason, not
out of any mercy, but out
of a kind of turning towards
something that, in awe of,
stills them in their falling,
as when Christ, for a moment
and in a moment that has gone
unrecorded in the Gospels,
turned away from His Father
and towards the thief
crucified to his right
and said, "Shit, brother."

- de Luna

At 12/06/2010 1:41 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Johannes wrote:

>Nobody's ever convinced you to like something? I find that difficult to believe. It happens to me all the time.

and then he wrote:

>Very few times have people convinced me to read something based on a set of values; usually it's through a reading I find interesting.

Which goes to show, I guess, that comment boxes are probably not the best places to try to convince people of something...

At 12/06/2010 3:34 PM, Anonymous Padmasambhava said...

What happened to those days when poets either killed each other or fucked each other? Now we just sit around nitpicking on blogs!


At 12/06/2010 5:08 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Padmasambhava,

Those binaries have been erased by contemporary poets' ability to multi task. We get all our killing and fucking done by the early afternoon, leaving us plenty of time to post comments on blogs as well as get a reasonable amount of sleep. The future is very glad we're here.

At 12/06/2010 5:40 PM, Anonymous Padmasambhava said...

My father is the intrinsic awareness, Samantabhadra (ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ). My mother is the ultimate sphere of reality, Samantabhadri (ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་མོ). I belong to the caste of non-duality of the sphere of awareness. My name is the Glorious Lotus Born. I am from the unborn sphere of all phenomena. I consume concepts of duality as my diet. I act in the way of the Buddhas of the three times.

At 12/06/2010 6:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I live in rural Missouri. Now and then I go bowling.

At 12/06/2010 6:37 PM, Anonymous Padmasambhava said...

Dear John,
Because I live everywhere and my essence is diffused throughout the universe, I also can say I live in rural Missouri. And because I do all things at once due to the fact that I understand the sources of stillness and of motion, I also do this thing you call "bowling." We are brothers, you and I. Love,

At 12/06/2010 7:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent, are you implying that the Feneon Collective is actually a bumper sticker?

At 12/07/2010 3:19 AM, Blogger bedava chat said...

something you are really a great article söyleyimmi friends mynet I suggest you all had a nice example of this site shares Enter admin for the count I'm sure many would work too, but thank you very much chat ve sohbet If you help me I would be happy to get out searches such as the every time you come to places you want to wish you continued success bedava chat I would be glad my yazımıda me happy sharing site will also publish chat arkadaşlık siteleri sohbet I'm sure everything is reciprocal writing and more beautiful things I wish to share çet almanya chat comments by the writings of friends who share a beautiful almanya sohbet I hope to see you again that I take care of yourself respects everyones greetings from Turkey

At 12/07/2010 6:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bedava Chat vs. Padmasambhava: who would win?

(the winner to take on de Luna)

At 12/07/2010 6:10 AM, Anonymous Padmasambhava said...

I would win. For anyone, man or woman, who has faith in me, I, the Lotus Born, have never departed — I sleep on their threshold. I sleep on bedava chat's threshold. I am in rural Missouri and Turkey simultaneously. Bedava chat is only in Turkey. He claims "I take care of yourself" but it is I who take care of you, Anonymous. And there is no competition for John's love because I myself am John.

At 12/07/2010 6:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, that about sums up the 21st Century right there.

Apologis for what the 22nd will have to deal with.

At 12/07/2010 7:21 AM, Anonymous Julio de Luna said...

When Dickinson was born,
she didn't cry.
Whitman wasn't born.
He walked out of a stand
of birches smooth as the thighs
of women giving birth
on Long Island, already
thirteen and singing
with a voice of singed
butterflies. Dickinson
was not a recluse:
she went for long walks
on the piano, trudging
through the difficult snow
drifts of the keys.
Whitman admired his own
anus, his head between
his legs where he stood
before a mirror
in the French Quarter.
And you, de Luna,
what will you do?

- de Luna

At 12/07/2010 4:57 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I'm with Padmasambhava. What happened to poets like Jonson and Marlowe, poets who murdered and got murdered? What happened to Verlaine and Rimbaud? Ever shoot your lover in the wrist or beat a photographer with a cane? You think those guys would get huffy about a misogynistic bumper sticker? Let's bring the old fighting and fucking back into poetry. Let's have a poetry reading at The Blue Boar, shout merde at one other's poems, kill one other in William Tell routines, expend our spirits in wastes of shame. Then stagger into the street and punctuate streams of consciousness with bullets. I'm for repealing restrictions on firearms. Let's shoot it out in the street. T.S. Eliot said civilization would end that way, and he was right, so let's commence the mêlée. We can't make our sun stand still, so let's make him run.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home