6 January 2019
I began the year with the old Viking Compass edition of John Ashbery’s Three Poems. I picked it out as one of my books for the bus trip down to New York to visit Amy in part because it didn’t feel like homework. Ashbery is so canonical (when I google this book and him, since that is part of my reading process these day, everyone kept talking about his winning of the Triple Crown, a way of saying that he won three giant poetry awards in rapid succession) and while I feel pressure to have read the canon, there is less pressure to be reading it (such that even reading canonical works can sometimes—I don’t want to overstate it—feel like, to borrow a phrase from Cixous, eating on the sly). And it’s from 1972 and not last week, and sometimes it’s good to swerve away from the desire to stay current.
I was about to say that I didn’t have a big history with reading Ashbery, but his work does span a lot of my reading life along the temporal axis. My first Ashbery was Girls on the Run [insert an image], which I think I picked up because because of the Henry Darger cover and the documentary In The Realms of the Unreal (2004) [link] had introduced me to the works of that artist.
I was so fascinated by the art that Jessica Yu’s documentary introduced me to. It’s not my intention to do a deep dive into describing Darger’s art. Suffice it to say that it seems like a house that he built himself to dream in because of the world’s awfulness. And, as everyone and their mother has noticed, the Vivian Girls are drawn as…well, much of the possible language around it props up ways of thinking about bodies that I don’t support, so I’m going to say, with Alexxa Gotthardt, that they are trans girls.
But Ashbery introduced me to difficulty, playful opacity that forced my younger self to wipe the surface of language with my sleeve until it finally dawned on me (I was always a late bloomer) to look at it as a substance for consideration as opposed to a medium for communication. Basic stuff, from my vantage now, but huge for me when I was first figuring it out.
That the book that did this for me was Girls on the Run is apt, because becoming, as a trans woman, and becoming, as an experimental poet, have always been more-than-adjacent processes for me. Braided? Inter-animating? As Zach and I are always saying to each other: the book is the body.
I also grabbed the Ashbery book from my shelf for the same reason I grabbed it at the bookstore last year: the proportions of it are delicious and it has that delicious paperback from 1972 musk. I sound like such a creep but I AM a creep for the sensuous pleasures of reading.
I felt a little silly for grabbing it but I had this inkling that I would like it and I did. It answered to a desire that Suzanne Leblanc’s The Thought-House of Philippa (Steven Seidenberg does this, too in his Situ, which he read from at The But Also—this should have a proper link to a proper page for house reading series Britt and I run) satisfied/increased for me recently: the book length philosophical works of poetry/fiction/hybrid genres. It seems incredibly hard to cultivate and sustain writing in this mode, but I’m drawn to it.
The three poems of Three Poems are “The New Spirit,” “The System,” and “The Recital.” Each is comprised of justified prose poems that infrequently irrupt into line breaks. Although each of the sections has its particular themes and flavor, they do tend to bleed together, since, in each of them, Ashbery layers clauses in a Proustian or Henry Jamesian way, differing in that he subtracts character (except in the form of an abstract I and an abstract You) and setting.
It is more appropriate perhaps to say that the setting is the mind and the characters are thought shapes, although Ashbery’s sensitivity to sound and rhythm, paired with the capacity of sound and rhythm and the textures of language to evoke other works, contexts, characters, and settings, create these qualities, but as epiphenomena, as microtones.