On Ashbery's Greatness:

In my own mind, I come back to the critics. A post-modernist avant
la lettre, Ashbery foreshadowed, and later profited by, a style of thinking
which refuses to privilege meaning and structure, rejects hierarchies of
importance, saturates itself in culture and traditions but rejects the
values the traditions uphold. Hence, I think, the excitement his work held
for many people in the 1960s and early l970s. It seemed progressive, it
seemed to cast off the 'shackles' of comprehensible meaning, it conveyed
emotion without making clear what the emotion was or what it was about. It
had the air of culture, but required no work, neither thinking nor feeling,
of the reader. It was like the sort of political convictions that used to be
called radical chic: making various sorts of pretension, but having no goal,
finally, but to charm.

- DM Black, from Issue 32 of Poetry London

The above quote is actually a less forgiving piece of an otherwise very kind
critique of Ashbery's Wakefulness. I wonder whether we can say that
meaning and narrative are the same thing...Ashbery to me seems to throw off
the shackles of narrative in a way by using pieces of different narratives.
As it appears we shift from one narrative to another in his work we are
struck by a continuity of feeling but shifting subjects and objects. Is it
fair to say then that Ashbery refuses to privilege meaning, or is it merely
that he refuses to privilege narrative that is coherent only in terms of its
subjects and objects and settings?

From Girls on the Run (part III):

But the wounded cow knew otherwise.
She was at least sixty,
had many skins covering her own, regal one. So then they all cry,
at sea. The lawnmower is emitting sparks again,
one doesn't know how many, or how much faster it will have to go
to meet us at the Denizen's by six o'clock. We'd have been better
off letting the prisoners stage their own war. Now I don't know
so much, and with Aunt Jennie at my side we could release
a few more bombs and not know it.
Everywhere in the tangled schist
someone was living, it seemed to say, this is my doing:
whoever shall come afterward is a delusion. And I went round
the corner to say, Well, it sure looks like an improvement--hey,
why don't you tie your shoes, and then your bonnet will be picture-perfect?

For me the narrative in this passage has the coherence of dreams: constantly
shifting and always radically emotive. This is actually a quite meaningful
passage but one that eludes meaning in the "story/linear" sense of meaning.
We shift from land to sea and back to land, and our subject is a cow, then
ambiguous, then the lawnmower, then someone obviously familiar named Aunt
Jennie. There is the implication of struggle, exhaustion, confusion,
imagination, and doubt everywhere in this passage. And I think that's the
meaning that Ashbery as poet is trying to impart: that what Ashbery saw in
Darger's work was in a way representative of all of the struggles,
confusions, ambiguities and doubts in a life as a homosexual male before and
after it was life-threatening to be openly gay (in many ways of course it
still is dangerous, but perhaps nowhere as near as dangerous as, say, in the
1940s), recollecting his survival of the seeming holocaust of homosexuals (AIDS),
recalling his ways as a poet to speak of his ways in code, and the struggle
to open up with his way of writing. In this book the narrator seems also an
old man looking back at his own life, a remembrance provoked by witnessing
Darger's illustrations of little girls with penises (re: sexually ambiguity,
clearly not fitting into any oppressive male/female binary category, etc.)
run away from people bombing them, the girls retaining some innocence.
Perhaps the narrator sees all of this complexity bundled up into the work of
Henry Darger, a man who was nothing but an artist. Nothing but an artist in
the sense that Darger produced 25,000 pages of writing and illustrations and
otherwise was a recluse, living only for his art and for his daily trips to
church. The ambiguous sexuality, the suffering, the proliferation of one
man's work, the lifetime choices of the artist, and the anticipation of
death is all present in Girls on the Run. Obviously Ashbery was staggered
by Darger's work in a number of ways, as in it perhaps he saw his own doubt,
his own struggles, and his own end all right there, before him. And so
perhaps Ashbery uses Darger's own language, pieces of his narrative, in
order to convey his own broken difficult narrative and the jagged nature of
its recollection. Is this an avoidance of meaning or just another way to
deliver meaning other than storytelling?

Everywhere in the tangled schist
someone was living, it seemed to say, this is my doing:
whoever shall come afterward is a delusion.

It's as if this is the author himself now speaking, admitting he is witness
to a convoluted and layered life that reveals much about the present, while
other things are in doubt. Perhaps this is the experience of sensing one's
own forgetting in reflecting on the loss of past friends (much alluded to in
the book), and that the people that come after those fading memories,
including one's own present self, are as delusional as anyone's imagination.
But we pop back in and out of Darger's text here, and I dare say this is
rather typical of much of Ashbery's poetry.

I see Ashbery's greatness (capital G) in this work, because he is able to
employ divergent pieces of narrative in order to explain a set of complex
and difficult emotions and experiences that are only as coherent as a human
being can be. He pushes the boundaries of language through stretching and
weaving the tethers of narrative, and through that stretching and weaving we
are given a new universe, a new language.

Is innovation enough for greatness (provided this is an innovation on
Ashbery's part)? Or is it the seemingly flawless execution of such an idea?
Or is this really just meaninglessness?

Girls on the Run closes with the following words that might again fit my
discussion in a number of ways:

Does this clinch anything? We were cautioned once, told not to venture
yet I'd offer this much, this leaf, to thee.
Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting,
taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning.
The wide avenue smiles.

Indeed we are cautioned many times not to talk of greatness. We are perhaps
similarly warned not to try and nail down (even if we admit our
subjectivity, which is certainly wise) what we imagine Ashbery's poems to be
sharing with us. But here is life, the end of life, the dynamic in-between,
the witness of destruction of innocence, and the openings of opportunities
everywhere. But everywhere at least in Girls on the Run, there's more
than charm, there's the emotional oscillation of lives spiraling. That is
for me certainly greater than a great cup of coffee.

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