Ashbery presents interesting challenges for readers to negotiate their way through poetic texts Essay

Published: 2021-09-10 11:35:09
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As a post modern poet Ashbery’s style may seem demanding, unconventional or even perplexing, to a first time reader. He challenges the reader’s fundamental reading practice through the lack of apparent “meaning” and closure and impresses upon them the need to negotiate understanding with the text. Meghan O’Rourke went as far to say Ashbery wrote “poems that mostly didn’t rhyme, and didn’t make sense… poem that the critic cannot even talk about” He does this on the surface by withholding “meaning” in the classical sense as in the lack of digestible ideas and objective statements, often giving insights or fragments of “meaning”.
Yet as meaning is marginalized and the focus turns to the sheer pleasure of reading Ashbery’s texts require readers to be open and to excogitate the way his poems alter their perceptions. Ashbery is showcasing the haphazard nature of modern day America. The highly media influenced world, that is as vast and confusing as Ashbery’s mangled text varying from cartoons to Hollywood to banal household items. He might be is alluding to the fact that there is no set path in life and this is reflected in his poetry as not everything may seem comprehensible, logical or even rational.
We see in the title Daffy Duck in Hollywood Ashbery’s reference to the childish and comical world of cartoons and also the dreams and aspirations of stardom that make their way into Hollywood. Yet we are then overwhelmed with obscure language, surreal images and ever-changing diction. We are faced with a bizarre list of simply articulated dispositions juxtaposed against each other with “a celluloid earring, Speedy Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile Escritoire”. This stream of consciousness allows for moments of clarity and insight but then followed by times of intentional befuddlement.
As Ashbery does not confine himself within the constraints of traditional 20th century writing, the text may at times be perceived as banal or confusing. Yet there are still lines of aphoristic appeal which gives us a grasp of the “bigger picture”. Ashbery jumps from an surreal almost dream like image that we find hard to even perceive “the aura of a plumbago-blue log cabin” to a statement which imparts a moment of apparent lucidity or clarity “Enough vague people on this emerald traffic-island” and then to a mockery of a cliché “effectively equipped infantries of happy-go-nutty.
We see through the polysyllabic diction the text is not easily accessible; the poem’s rapid pace draws the reader into what appears to be a frantic and disjointed thought process. Ashbery has not confined himself to the “constraints” of conventional poetry. He is suggesting to us that the “artificial” structures of these texts remove from the experience and leave us with a “false” impression. By not following this he is able to express to us the need to enjoy the experience just like he did when writing it. The text at times cannot be interpreted in totality, but the language can be appreciated.
Ashbery breaks the mould when it comes to the use of language; In Daffy Duck in Hollywood we don’t see any apparent meaning or purpose. But Ashbery is showing us maybe language is not limited to meaning, but meaning is just one of its functions. He wants us to enjoy language the “experience of experience” and meditate on the beauty of language and the emotions attached. We see this through his elusive yet rich imagery throughout the text such as “some quack phrenologist’s Fern-clogged waiting room” or “a shower of pecky acajou harpoons” and “a plumbago-blue log cabin”.
We are encouraged by the text to feel and experience rather than interpret, and analyse. Perhaps the mood evoked by the text is of greater importance than the underlying ideas. The opening lines of Daffy Duck in Hollywood can be said to be typical of Ashbery’s style. We see the use of Ashbery’s “verbal collage” taking pieces of an overall impression and splitting them into fragments scattered throughout the opening. “Something strange is creeping across me,” Opens the poem, setting up tense, negative and almost eerie mood in the first sentence.
This already presents a contrast with the more cheerful, surreal connotations of the title. Perhaps this is the first hint of this dream becoming a nightmare. The next line is a direct reference to opera “La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars Of ‘I Thought about You'” Most readers would have limited knowledge of the topic yet would still be able to identify with the recognition of a song. Ashbery then bombards readers with a ludicrous, surreal and outlandish list. 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. The sheer scope of experience incorporated in this quote is almost overwhelming. The items on the list range from everyday goods found in kitchens to surreal images and undecipherable statements.
Almost “a kind of radio transistor through which many different voices, genres, and curious archaeological remains of language filter” . Perhaps by using this “verbal collage” Ashbery is trying to show the way our minds operate “It”s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really. ” Perhaps our minds are less structured than the conventional lives we try to lead. We are led to question and to draw our own conclusion. We each have a personal and subjective experience with the text and so our “understanding” is a result of our individual interaction and negotiation with the text.
We see in another one of Ashbery’s styles in “My Philosophy of Life” Ashbery’s satirical view on philosophy in general. The poem encapsulates what Ashbery wants to get across to the readers, that life itself in all its vastness and variety as explored in Daffy Duck cannot be resolved into a set of principles. But the way in which Ashbery presents his message is unique by not targeting the subject matter directly but using irony through his poem he challenges the reader to see the flaws within philosophy.
The register of the poem is quite conversational and demotic. The poem almost reads like a story, opening with the line “Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough for another thought in my head, I had this great idea –call it a philosophy of life”. The poem reads a lot like the begging of someone recounting an experience here. This is quite contrary to the firm theological title, the reader enters the text expecting a deep and substantial poem but is greeted with something that could be heard on a street corner.
The diction changes often much like Daffy Duck from “eating watermelon or going to the bathroom” an almost childish account to “I wouldn’t be preachy, or worry about children or old people” which is closer to a political outlook. Ashbery shows us how superficial and almost deranged philosophy can become with the inclusion of the ludicrous image of “He thinks of cushions, like the one his uncles Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him quizzically”. At the start of the second stanza there is yet another change in register “It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made” This statement is quite platitudinous a sharp contrast to the intellectual and perspicacious diction before. Ashbery uses these changes in register to expose the absurdity of finding a definite philosophy of life, instead of which we should enjoy the rudimentary things in life even if they seem more menial. In Late Echo Ashbery conveys a different message, accentuating a desire to disregard the narrow minded perspective that characterises a conventional, habitual lifestyle, instead pursuing a proper appreciation of the beauty of the environment and the world around us.
He shows this through “it is necessary to write about the same old things in the same way” criticising our repetitive nature and how we need “the colour of our day put in” that we take even the most basic things for granted. He talks of “the chronic inattention” of our modern day hectic lives and how we miss opportunities to enjoy our surroundings. He shows the depth and understanding that can come from attentiveness to our surroundings, “Ashbery’s free-wheeling strategy makes the reader fiercely attentive to the present” In conclusion the reading of Ashbery requires the reader to be open to the lack of apparent understanding.
Also emphasizing the need to analyse the way the text affects our perceptions and from there negotiate a more thought-out, profound and germane meaning. The way that Ashbery uses language to form a complex yet rational “crystallizations of a moment” shows the “whole orchestral potential of the English language” . His poems are not written to befuddle or baffle readers, but rather to push them to seek a greater understanding of the uses of language.

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