Monday, December 5, 2011

I have argued in a number of ways that John Ashbery's poetry has something to do with ecology. I'm beginning to think that that something may be objects. Now, Ashbery's poetry is poetry of consciousness, and consciousness is not an object in any conventional sense, but bear with me. Andrew DuBois writes that Ashbery’s “engagement with consciousness … implies engagement with the world and its objects.” And in the introduction to the Norton Lectures, Ashbery compares his preoccupation with “thought processes” to Williams’s “No ideas but in things”—“with the caveat that, for me, ideas are also things.”

Ashbery descends from Gertrude Stein, and in a review of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation he writes, “These austere ‘stanzas’ are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as ‘where,’ ‘which,’ ‘these,’ ‘of,’ ‘not,’ ‘have,’ ‘about,’ and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” While he doesn’t come right out and say it, he suggests that for Stein, an orange is equivalent to an Albert. Later in the review, he writes that Stein’s poems leave us in “the physical world, that collection of thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names.” Just as an orange is equivalent to an Albert, thoughts are equivalent to flowers, weather to proper names. All of these are equally real: “it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.” Like others, I take many of Ashbery’s remarks on other artists to reflect on his own art. He concludes, “The poem is a hymn to possibility, a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.”

Take these lines from Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”:

Something strange is creeping across me. / La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars / Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from / Amadigi di Gaula for everything—a mint-condition can / Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy / Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile / Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged / Stock—to come clattering through the rainbow trellis / Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland / Fling Terrace.
This is not collage, exactly, although Ashbery owes a debt to Surrealism. However, one element of collage—the collapsing of “high” and “low”—is apparent in many of Ashbery’s poems. Yet this is only one collapse among many, including the collapse of particular and general, foreground and background, inside and outside, and of “I,” “you,” “he” and “she,” “they,” and “it.”

This list—a can of baking powder, an earring, a cartoon character, “the latest” from an author of historical romances, and a bundle of pornographic photographs—along with the other specifics of the passage—“La Celestina” (the title character in a fifteenth-century Spanish dialogue), “I Thought about You” (a jazz standard), Amadigi di Gaula (an Italian opera by Handel), a “rainbow trellis,” “Pistachio Avenue,” and “Highland Fling Terrace”—add up to something like what has come to be known as a “Latour Litany,” a list evoking the rich diversity of reality (Ian Bogost), including not only objects but people, ideas, and things we might not think of as real, like Daffy Duck. If thoughts, flowers, weather, and proper names are all equally real, then thought, dream, perception—everything we associate with Ashbery’s poetry—are no more (and no less) real than a mint-condition can of Rumford’s Baking Powder or Speedy Gonzales.

In a recent essay, “Here Comes Everything” (a fitting title, perhaps, for a study of Ashbery’s poetry), Tim Morton singles out a passage in Graham Harman’s 1999 talk, “Object Oriented Philosophy”:

But beneath this ceaseless argument, reality is churning. Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball strikes green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
Morton observes that this passage “revels in dislocation, not location.” Harman’s writing is not “nature writing,” in that it lacks an observing subject. Harman’s is “a world without reference to a subject” (Morton). Such a world appears in Ashbery’s poem “Grand Galop”:
Hugely, spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing / In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against / The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
Many Ashbery poems appear to be about, well, everything. In an interview, Ashbery reflects, “I think I consider the poem as a sort of environment, and one is not obliged to take notice of every aspect of one’s environment—one can’t, in fact.” The difficulty of thinking about all of an Ashbery poem, even a relatively short Ashbery poem, is not unlike the difficulty of thinking about environment, or better, ecology—the difficulty of “thinking everything at once” (Timothy Clark).

Friday, February 4, 2011

This one isn't about weather, just some thoughts on procedural poetry and ecology. Procedural poems are often labeled "projects," as in carefully planned undertakings, like those laid out in Jackson Mac Low's enormously detailed introductions to some of his works. At a panel on "poetry games" at last month's MLA conference in LA, I learned that the poet Dorothea Lasky recently came out against project poetry. Her objection, in a nutshell:
I don't think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and the mind and work from the ground up. That is to say, I think a poet intuits a poem and a scientist conducts a "project." ... The notion of a poetic "project" may actually be very toxic to poetry.
For me this raises the question, are project poems somehow "unnatural"? I'm interested, in part, because I love procedural poetry, at least when it's done well. And, selfishly, I want to work on it, and I work on poetry and ecology, so I wouldn't mind if there was something to say about procedural poetry and ecology. There must be. For one thing, so many poetry projects make use of writing about nature, or environment, or ecology. (For the moment I'll use "nature" because it's vague and suggestive and roomy--unless I mean ecology.) Think of John Cage's "writings through" Henry David Thoreau, or all the material Lisa Robertson "lifts" from natural history, or Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather. Then there's Tina Darragh and Marcella Durand's recent project Deep eco prĂ©, which takes as one of its sources Michael Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future. So is a poem (or performance) made from nature writing a nature poem (or performance)? Or is nature merely incidental to it?

We might call Lasky's poem, a poem that emerges naturally from ground or earth, the "poem-as-flower," as in an "anthology" or collection of flowers. Project poetry we might call the "poem-as-machine": the project poet assembles the poem and sets it going. Procedure denatures poetry. Mac Low used random number series from a book published by the RAND corporation: the poem-as-war-machine. Then there is the (near) absence of the human subject, the lyric "I" that stands at the heart of the poem-as-flower. Project poetry is inhuman.

But the thing is, the poem-as-machine isn't really new. I don't just mean it's a couple of hundred years old, but that every form is a machine for making poems. A sonnet, for instance, is a machine for expressing a single thought: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I wouldn't have an easy time writing a sonnet, but I've been told by several people that once you get use to writing in iambic pentameter, a sonnet will "write itself." John Ashbery compares writing a sestina to riding a bicycle down a hill: your feet don't push the pedals, the pedals push your feet. Even the (primarily) free verse poet (and writer of nature poems) William Carlos Williams calls a poem a "machine made of words." So form does some, maybe even a lot of the work.

Project poems make explicit what is always true, that writing is enmeshed with other writing. In a broad sense, this is what Jed Rasula means by the "compost library." So I'm not convinced that producing poetry according to chance inspiration as opposed to chance operation is any closer to the earth. I'm thinking here of Tim Morton's recent piece in the Oxford Literary Review, in which he remarks, "All the way down to the sub-DNA level, evolution is a set of algorithmic processes. That is the disturbing thing about 'animals'--they are vegetables." The poem-as-machine is an algorithm. (And in fact so are flowers.) "Our prejudice about vegetables is that they're beings that only do one thing--grow." This is Lasky's prejudice about project poems, too. Of the poem-as-machine, Morton reflects,
The poem seems strangely self-aware. Is it artificially intelligent? Are we? Is sentience this recursive algorithmic process? Maybe meaning and even "intention" are in the eye of the beholder. Whether they are pro-AI or anti, science and philosophy claim that consciousness is intentional. What if intentionality were an effect of performance? What if it was "over there," in language itself, not "in here," inside me, my most precious possession?
The poem-as-machine seems to say that "intention" (for Lasky, intuition) is "over there," in language. This is what makes it, not natural perhaps, but ecological.

That it is "toxic" makes it ecological, too. As Tyrone Williams remarks in an interview in Brenda Iijima's )((eco(lang)(uage(reader)),
I will insist that the introduction of synthetic compounds into the environment is, on some levels, structurally analogous to the ongoing development of life per se. That is, the development we call evolution is itself marked by disruptions, hostile encroachments, viral flare ups, and catastrophic events (volcano, eruptions, floods, etc.). That these are natural--as opposed to synthetic--events is probably little comfort to those on the losing side of history. I understand the crucial difference--that we have some say so over synthetic or manmade events--and this difference must continue to be upheld as an ethical duty to the living and the lives we imagine extending beyond our own. But I think it is imperative to recall what this may mean: that in taking the side of life "as we know it," we may be taking a stand against a form of life we would never recognize as such.
It is, admittedly, a problematic comparison, but by taking the side of poetry as we know it, I think we take a stand against a form of poetry we would never recognize as such. And I want poetry to keep changing, or evolving, even (perhaps especially) if what emerges is "toxic" to the poem-as-flower.