Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

'Whispers out of Time': The Syntax of Being in the Poetry of John Ashbery

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

'Whispers out of Time': The Syntax of Being in the Poetry of John Ashbery

Article excerpt

The meaning of a word is its use in the language.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (20e)

The poem is you.

- John Ashbery, Shadow Train (3)

In describing John Ashbery's poetry, Paul Breslin speaks of a contemporary attenuation of the sense of an occasion for poetry, "since all occasions are really only the one occasion of consciousness meditating on its own frustrations" (216). He continues,

As Ashbery writes in "The Painter," "Finally all indications of a subject / Began to fade, leaving the canvas / Perfectly white" (Some 55). With very few exceptions, Ashbery's poems are meditations on an epistemological blankness, portraits of the whale's forehead. (216)

But if Breslin is right about the blankness of the episteme, he is describing no more than the point (after the deconstruction of epistemology) where Ashbery's poetry - and all other postmodern literature - really begins.

If Hegel is, as Jacques Derrida claims, "the last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing" (Grammatology 26), John Ashbery is the last poet of the subject and the first poet of the free predicate - the link between The Waste Land, read as a postmodern poem (that is, as a polyphony of voices, rather than as a shoring of the fragments of the Great Tradition), and the Language poets - Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Leslie Scalapino - who shift the formal focus of poetry definitively away from the personal subject and onto language itself as culture's open book.(1) Ashbery's principal concern - a concern that mirrors its poststructuralist theoretical moment - is to explore the shifting configurations of subjectivity, which take place not only in, but as, language. Poetic thinking, for Ashbery, is reflection: the subject, as thinking being, reflects on his own subjectivity, and in doing so reflects that subjectivity - which is no more fixed or consistent than thought itself.(2)

Ashbery's language is characterized both by self-reflexivity and by an irreducible temporicity. Because of the formal, theoretical, and thematic centrality of language in his poetry, Ashbery's work cannot be understood outside the context of contemporary philosophy of language, and especially the work of Heidegger, Derrida, and Wittgenstein. For Ashbery, as for these other philosopher/poets, questioning subjectivity, questioning language, is something that we, as subjects of language, do.

Questioning subjectivity, in Ashbery's poetry, ultimately both avoids and becomes the more particular questioning of gay being. Although the problematic of gay desire appears and disappears in Ashbery's poetry, like the opalescent colors of a pearl - as though the poet were both willing and unwilling that it should be visible - it is a crucial, if subtle, illuminant among the polyphonic voices of his text.

Ashbery's subject has been explained by critics in various ways, as the timeless horizon of subjectivity ("the limit of the world - not a part of it" [Wittgenstein Tractatus 5.641, qtd. in Koethe 96]), as "primarily a function, not an entity - a function that is manifest in our assertions of desire or our investments in things" (Altieri Self 162), or as "the play of analogies organized by . . . artistic energies" (Altieri "John Ashbery" 82). The common element in each of these accounts is the lack of a self-sameness of subject and self-representation that would enable a full self-knowledge. The subject (or self, or agent, depending on the account) cannot directly know "himself," as subject, but only as object or, speaking more precisely in grammatical terms, as complement.(3)

Over and over in Ashbery's poetry, self-knowledge as constituted by a series of reflective glimpses, cinematic in their framed brevity, but lacking any governing directorial intention, gives rise to a sense of subjectivity as structural process, or syntax.(4) The thinking of the subject as syntactical process slides readily into the thinking of process as life. …

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