Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not. — Geoffrey Hill
There seems to be a school of thought that says a poet will lose brownie points if he doesn't make his readers work a bit. A reader with any sense knows he's going to have to work a bit to get anything from a poem. Poems by their very nature contain layers of meaning. They are not equations, however; things to be solved.
‘Whoroscope’ is a long poem (98 lines) in which the philosopher, Rene Descartes, waits for his morning omelette of well-aged eggs, while meditating on the obscurity of theological mysteries, the passage of time, and the approach of death. There is no rhythmical pattern, and the poem’s mannered colloquialisms and oratorical informalities give it an aura less of poetry than of desultory chatter. Samuel Beckett uses minor and sometimes intimate details of Descartes’s life that he found in a biography of the philosopher written by Adrien Baillet.
There is no doubt that ‘Whoroscope’ is a difficult poem. It comes with 18 notes from the author, for goodness sake. What it is not is an impossible poem. There is a difference. With study one can learn what Beckett is referring to. The facts are out there. You could read Adrien Baillet’s biography for starters. Beckett learned the facts and we could learn them to. Now whether the effort involved in learning those facts makes the poem worth reading is another matter, but the bottom line is that a reasonably clear understanding of what Beckett was trying to convey is possible.
There are other poems where I can guarantee that you will never work out what the author intended because the author had no clear intent. He has left that entirely with his readers. I have poems written years ago that when I look at them now I wonder what must have been going through my mind. I just can’t remember, so even if you did sit me down and give me your interpretation of my work, I wouldn’t be able to say yea or nay. The best I could say would be, “Well, that sounds plausible.”
It is in the nature of words not to adhere to rigid definitions. Even a simple word like ‘cat’ will mean so many different things but most of us define a cat based on personal experiences of cats we’ve known. My mother had cats all her life and so my own definitions are based on years of interactions with those cats. I never think that a cat in the street is going to leap at me and try to claw my eyes out and yet some people are terrified of cats. And some are just dog people.
And that’s just a word. The more words we string together the harder things get.
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get to the other side
Everyone’s heard that. But what does it mean? It means the chicken wanted to get to the other side of the road. No? Or does it mean that the chicken was trying to kill itself so it could get to “the other side”, a popular euphemism for life after death? (See the notes on the interpretation of Beckett’s radio play All that Fall.) Without context your guess is as good as mine.
Poems frequently lack context, especially the very short ones. No one thinks of a haiku as especially complex but most of them are. They can be read superficially and so often seem to be obvious but that’s the difference between glancing and seeing. To see you need to look. And most people don’t think they have the time for that.
One of things people often ask poets to do is explain their poetry. What does it mean?
Seems like a reasonable question.
John Tranter: I remember buying a book called Singular Voices by Stephen Berg: it was an anthology where each poet contributed a poem and then wrote an explanatory article to go after it. Berg mentioned in his introduction that you had declined to provide a poem and an explanatory article, and that you were going to write an essay about why you’d declined. Did you ever write the essay?
to which he replied:
John Ashbery: No, I never did it, and at some point he stopped asking me about it so I guess he realized that I didn’t really want to do it. It just seems that people will do almost anything rather than read a poem and try and come to terms with it, you know. A statement from the poet about what he meant in the poem is considered to be very helpful, but my point is that it really isn’t going to help anybody since it’s just a paraphrase, operating at some distance. And it’s rather annoying to be asked to do something like that, especially by a poet, who should know better. — italics mine
Poets write about life, real life, the kind of real lives that you and I live. Sit down one of these days and try and make sense out of your life and you’ll realise that it doesn’t translate into words so easily. So why should poems be easy? Because that’s the job of the poet; they’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t they?
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
and then asks:
So, what's all that about? You learn quickly, reading an Ashbery poem, that the word "about" isn't exactly the right tool with which to evaluate it. However, you also find that, once started, an Ashbery poem is hard to put down or dismiss. You might not understand what he is saying, but he has a tonal directness, an almost conversational charm, which makes reading him a pleasure.
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
In a review of the collection from which this poem comes Ramez Qureshi had this to say:
The pace slows down for that famous Ashberyian climax of the final humanizing line, in this case both a note of erotic pathos and an address to the absent reader. Consider the beginning: the room is a dream of itself. We are alerted to Ashbery’s quasi-surrealist influences in Roussel and Reverdy. The room, because it is dream, becomes the place for poetry, “the scene of writing” in Derrida’s phrase, from which Ashbery can address his reader, from which “something shimmers” yet is “hushed,” a description of Ashbery’s voice.
Rachel Barenblat came up with this:
Although ‘This Room’ is short, it pulls me through a range of emotions. With Ashbery, I leap from seeing that there is something at the core of a dream/life that is unspoken (or unspeakable) to a line about quail that makes me think of Alice in Wonderland. And then, at the end of the poem, my laughter turns sad as the narrator wonders aloud why he speaks.
Moira Egan said that someone by the name of
Professor Bacigalupo ... mentions the thing that I said on the radio interview, that, if you read Ashbery’s ‘This Room’ (Questa Stanza!) as a kind of ars poetica, some of the lines function as well as any definition of poetry that I know.
Sy Dedalus’s thoughts:
Such loss in these lines. The dedication "For Pierre Martory 1920-1998" in Your Name Here suggests a specific "you," but there is never a specific "you" in Ashbery. And of course, the absence of "you" does not only imply death; "you" could be in the next room – the next compartment of memory, since this is a poem primarily about memory. But how suddenly those last lines come, with all their weight. That is Ashbery's genius: making the ordinary heavy and meaningful, and thereby reinscribing meaning in throwaway statements like "Why do I tell you these things?"
John Ashbery is Geoff Klock’s favourite poet. Here are his thoughts on ‘This Room’:
Ashbery is a strange poet: many of his poems feel like dreams. "Stanza" — the poetry equivalent of a paragraph — is an Italian word that means "room," so Ashbery suggests that anything he talks about in his poetry is likely to be a dream version of a real thing. A major theory about dreams (from Jung I think) is that everything in the dream represents a part of the dreamer, so Ashbery identifies all the feet as his and the portrait of the dog as himself. In a dream, as in Ashbery's poetry, you can barely tell what is going on, though what you glimpse always seems very important: what he says in this poem is true of his style generally: "Something shimmers, something is hushed up." The problem with seeing poetry as a kind of dream is that a dream is an essentially private experience; John Stuart Mill said that while prose is written to communicate with others, the poet speaks to himself, and is "overheard" by readers, who are not directly a part of what is going on. Ashbery is thinking of this as he offers us a strange statement on food which seems important to him but means nothing to us, and then wonders why he bothers. The poem sets up the volume, in which we glimpse, but never quite see, the personal experience contained in the poems.
Lera Auerbach had a good crack at it:
It is a beautiful short poem that exists on polyphonic levels and floats freely between them. The beauty is in its simplicity — the domestication of a dream. Yet the poem takes the reader to that deliciously fragile place, where “something shimmers, something is hashed up.” Some of the most defining moments, when life reveals itself as is, can only shimmer on the edge of consciousness. One can only glance at it sidelong, but never directly. You can’t stare at the sun; you can only squint through your half-closed fingers.
The first line connects to René Magritte’s thought provoking painting ‘La trahison des images’
featuring a pipe with a sign “This is not a pipe”. The words only appear to contradict the image, but are, in fact, correct: the painting itself is not a pipe.
What is reality? What is an idea of reality? Where do dreams end?
All these feet on the sofa and the oval portrait of the artist as a young man, pardon me, as a dog, (my own life as a dog has been over-stimulated by the smell of that quail) – seduce the reader to smile inwardly.
Again this child-like unpretentious simplicity where time and generations melt. (Of course that portrait had to be oval! Don’t you just see it in its slightly ornate dark-wood frame? And the greenish old wallpaper on the wall on which it hangs?)
The passive voice in the line about the quail makes it sound like the quail gave permission to be served for lunch. The combination of the past tense and passive voice is a recipe for a disaster in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ashbery, with a mischievous smile, creates magic with it.
The most striking line is the last line of the poem. Just like the poet is missing from that dream of a room (yes, the dream goes on forever in some other realm, different from the one in which he is writing the poem), so is the reader, the “you” is missing from the reality-room-space of the poet. The ghost visit of a poet in this dream of a room is parallel to the ghost visit of a reader in the space of this poem. Yet both ghosts shimmer and can somehow sense each other’s presence (or absence). Similarly, the independent voices of a fugue can intervene and briefly cross each other’s horizontal paths while making perfect sense harmonically (thus vertically).
Tim Thornton cuts to the quick:
This I love, but I can hardly begin to fathom why.
John Ashbery was once asked why the Germans in particular loved his poetry so much, and he replied “They never said.” Another time he said:
I think my poems mean what they say ... There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing.
Beckett said something very similar:
Beckett had been warning us all along about the meaninglessness — or the Lessness — of his work. Or as he put it himself in referring to the language of his novel How It Is, meaning is a "rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction". And elsewhere he emphasized that Language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there. — Raymond Federman, The Imagery Museum of Samuel Beckett
Whether we are aware of it or not, a function of our minds is to take in raw sensory input and discern patterns in it from which meaning can be derived. Art takes place in the space between raw perception and automatic interpretation and wakes us to fresh ways of seeing. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning is produced by the one who perceives, although under the guidance of clues embedded in the work. The interaction between the reader and the literary work is prompted and maintained by successive gaps or incongruities in the narrative structure which make interpretation necessary and grant the space in which to interpret the relation of the elements in the work. — Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr, Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning
Would it help if I said what I think or would it simply add to the confusion?
One of the reasons that many people don’t understand poetry is that they ask the wrong questions. It’s like the person who views a piece of Abstract Expressionism (and Ashbery’s work has been compared to abstract art) asks:
What is it supposed to be? Probably one of the best-known poems about reading poetry is by Billy Collins and he makes his point well in the final two stanzas:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
In his article What Poetry Can Not Say, Robert Peake concludes with this paragraph:
This push-pull relationship between the idea of the reader and the integrity of the intangible subject is what makes writing even a single poem that matters a remarkably profound pursuit. It is also what makes each attempt so immensely pleasurable, infinitely more so than simply living and thinking in ways unexamined and unexpressed. So let us praise not only difficult poetry, but the beautiful dance between what can not be said and how much we need to say it.
It’s a good way to describe the relationship between a reader and a writer, a poem standing in as the writer’s proxy. It’s not the place of the poem to give and give and give, the reader also sometimes has to give ground, change their perspective, ask the right questions and try and not get upset when the answers are now what they expected on wanted to hear.
Every poem I write is an experiment, an attempt to say one thing and mean something else. Wouldn’t it be easier if I just said what I meant? Yes, of course, it would but I don’t have those words and so I use the ones I have available at the time. Why am I telling you this? You’re not here. I don’t even know who ‘you’ are. I need to tell someone though and I guess you’ll do.
The shape of a poem encourages a certain mindset if it does nothing else. When you see a column of words on a page you think immediately, Ah, I'm going to have to think about this. There will be more going on that just the words.
Many people are not open to poetry but that's because they've encountered poetry that slams a door in their face. Bafflement, they believe, is part of the condition of modern poetry. Great poetry, as T S Eliot said, can communicate before it is understood. I'll be honest Eliot's meanings don't always jump off the page at me but I can't say they don't communicate. So, what is the difference?
E=mc2. There I have communicated something. Do you understand what I said? Yes, I said, “E=mc2,” but do you understand what that means? Most of you know that E=mc2 means “energy equals mass times the speed of light squared” but what does that mean? It means that energy and mass are the same thing under different conditions. But what does that mean? I know what the words mean but I don’t understand them. And the same goes for most poems. There’s not a single hard word in the John Ashbery poem. It’s no harder to read that the Billy Collins poem. Both require work to get to the deeper meanings that each poem contains.
To many Billy Collins is the anti-John Ashbery, well known for his accessible poetry but consider this statement by him:
I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty. The poem is not, as someone put it, deflective of entry. But the real question is what happens to the reader once he or she gets inside the poem? That's the real question for me, is getting the reader into the poem and then taking the reader somewhere because I think of poetry as a kind of form of travel writing.
I agree totally. Every poem takes you on a journey. You can drag your heels and not get very far or you can fly. It’s up to you. Let me leave you with a poem of mine which you can walk into without difficulty but what you do in its rooms (Italian: stanze) is entirely up to you:
A Poem is not an Empty Room
A man walks into
an empty room.
There is nothing there
and no one there.
That is to say no
one else is there.
He is all alone
with his own thoughts.
Entering the room
Being in the room
Where the room is
Who the man is
is not important.
What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though
while he's waiting.
Wednesday, 05 December 2007
 Interviewer: I suppose there are many things we might expect from a poet who has so strong an interest in painting as you do. Various critics have suggested that you are a mannerist in words, or an abstract expressionist. Are you conscious of anything like that — or perhaps of performing a cubist experiment with words?
Ashbery: I suppose the ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is a mannerist work in what I hope is the good sense of the word. Later on, mannerism became mannered, but at first it was a pure novelty — Parmigianino was an early mannerist, coming right on the heels of Michelangelo. I have probably been influenced, more or less unconsciously I suppose, by the modern art that I have looked at. Certainly the simultaneity of cubism is something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the abstract expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an “antireferential sensuousness,” but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that. When I was fresh out of college, abstract expressionism was the most exciting thing in the arts. There was also experimental music and film, but poetry seemed quite conventional in comparison. I guess it still is, in a way. One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience. — The Art of Poetry No 33: John Ashbery, The Paris Review