"Our Days Put on Such Reticence": the rhetoric of the closet in John Ashbery's 'Some Trees.'
John Ashbery, "Some Trees"
But she, of course, was only an effigy Of indifference, a miracle
Not meant for us, as the leaves are not Winter's because it is the end.
John Ashbery, "Illustration"
With few exceptions, notably in the work of Harold Beaver, Thomas Yingling, Lee Edelman, John Shoptaw, and David Bergman, most critical writing about John Ashbery has not characterized any of the extensive eroticism in Ashbery's poetry as homoerotic, nor has it explored relationships between homoeroticism and Ashbery's celebrated disjunctive language strategies in sociohistorical terms. The term "critical writing," as I am using it here, is, in fact, somewhat misleading: Beaver's comments appear in a review of Shadow Train, Yingling's in a text devoted to a study of Hart Crane, and Shoptaw's in three places, one a 1991 biographical entry on Ashbery, the second an essay nominally about Ashbery's influence, and the third a comparative overview of Ashbery's and James Merrill's poetry. So far, Shoptaw's "influence" essay "Investigating The Tennis Court Oath," Bergman's chapter "Choosing Our Fathers: Gender and Identity in Whitman, Ashbery, and Richard Howard," and Edelman's "The Pose of Imposture: Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror'" provide the most extensive discussions on this subject in the critical vein.
In the present essay, I hope to extend the work begun by these writers by arguing that an inquiry into the ways sexuality is produced and policed in Ashbery's early poetry may reveal something about the postwar politics of literary production in general, as well as add another layer of context to the literary, aesthetic, and epistemological frameworks that most critics call upon when responding to the difficulties of Ashbery's poetry. In particular, I hope to show that linking Ashbery's disjunctive strategies to a notion of reticence, one specifically related to representations of sexuality rather than to variations on modernist and postmodernist conceptions of difficulty, as is usually the case with Ashbery criticism, may provide the grounds for productive new readings of Ashbery's poetry.
The general lack of critical attention to the homoerotic in Ashbery's texts may be partly explained by the fact that it is only relatively recently, since the appearance of important studies from Robert K. Martin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Moon, Yingling, and others, that inquiry into areas of meaning that emerge from articulations of homoeroticism in literary texts has been seen as a legitimate, vital area of critical activity. These writers call attention to the set of conditions which, up until the late seventies, enabled suppression of discussions about male homosexuality within the field of literary criticism. Sedgwick, especially, in Epistemology of the Closet, an important sequel to her groundbreaking study of male homo/heterosexual relationships Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, criticizes the academy for a know-nothing attitude she characterizes as "the core grammar of Don't ask; You shouldn't know":
Don't ask; You shouldn't know. It didn't happen; it doesn't make any difference; it didn't mean anything; it doesn't have interpretive consequences. Stop asking just here; stop asking just now; we know in advance the kind of difference that could be made by the invocation of this difference; it makes no difference; it doesn't mean.
Sedgwick's criticism here is directed against customary disciplinary devices that have been deployed by academic institutions in order to contain or curtail inquiries into representation of male-male sexual desire, especially in the works of canonical authors. In terms of poetry, Whitman remains a test case: Thomas Yingling has argued convincingly that Whitman's central position in the Americanist canon has come at the expense of the homoerotic body and its centrality to the poems. In so arguing, Yingling makes the point that interpretive practices must constantly be seen in relation to the materialist cultural politics which shape, restrict, and inform them, making it essential to identify and acknowledge what's at stake: "It is time to acknowledge . . . use of gay texts for gay readers. . . . What we are engaged in is a battle for the scene of persuasion in which the text of homosexuality will be interpreted" (23). This need to recognize that critical debate takes place within a politics of interpretation is still not always acknowledged in literary studies, with the result that some forms of interpretation can still be dismissed as "political" or "ideological" while others are seen as carrying more "objective" weight because they fit within the prevailing critical frame.(1)
In the case of Whitman, whose poetry has been so heavily associated with American democratic ideals, issues like these, involving the dividing lines for what will be institutionally recognized as "political," still have the potential for being especially provocative when applied to the interpretive practices surrounding the meaning and significance of representations of the male body. I might cite, for example, David S. Reynolds's essay "Of Me I Sing: Whitman in His Time," which appeared in the October 4, 1992 issue of The New York Times Book Review. Reynolds, in trying to place Whitman in a nineteenth-century historical context, seems to be invalidating subsequent interpretive contexts, specifically those which make a claim for the poems' homoerotic primacy. For Reynolds, Whitman's "poems bring to all kinds of love a fresh, passionate intensity" (29; emphasis added). His essay provoked this response on a flier from The Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts advertising two December 1992 performances of Jonathan Katz's Comrades and Lovers, which is described as "A Theatre Piece for Voices Focusing on Erotic Intimacy Between Men in Wait Whitman's Life and Work":
1992 marks the centennial of Whitman's death, and the academic establishment still insists that the sexuality of our greatest poet was polymorphous and undefinable: he was perhaps "bisexual," or a "secret womanizer," or occasionally "homoerotic," but certainly not "homosexual." As recently as October of this year, Prof. David Reynolds argued in The New York Times that because the word "homosexual" had not been invented yet, the passionate same-sex intimacy suggested in Whitman's poems cannot be understood as a sign the Good Gray Poet was the Good Gay Poet.
What this exchange underscores is Sedgwick's point in Epistemology about the ongoing potencies and problematics resulting from the appearance at the end of the nineteenth century of categories of "homosexual" and "heterosexual."(2) Sedgwick's book grows out of what she calls "the potent incoherences of homo/heterosexual definition" (2), about which she argues that "the historically shifting, and precisely the arbitrary and self-contradictory, nature of the way homosexuality (along with its predecessor terms) has been defined in relation to the rest of the male homosocial spectrum has been an exceedingly potent and embattled locus of power over the entire range of male bonds, and perhaps especially over those that define themselves, not as homosexual, but as against the homosexual" (185). Such an embattled site has consequences in the history of canon formation, as both Sedgwick and Yingling point out. Yingling, for example, attributes Hart Crane's troubled status within the modernist canon to decades of critical investments in a white, male, heterosexist literary tradition, a tradition in which, for much of this century, homosexuality has been persistently erased or marginalized.
Given this sort of intellectual climate where, well into the 1980s, male-male desire was generally considered an inappropriate or unproductive area for mainstream critical inquiry, it is not surprising that members of the critical establishment would find it convenient and/or proper to ignore or minimalize erotic implications in a poetry that from the start inscribes "reticence" as a poetic value, a source and a condition of its own idiosyncratic "composition as explanation" (to borrow a title from Gertrude Stein). It is only quite recently, for example, that Helen Vendler, a principal Ashbery advocate, has used the term "gay" in discussing Ashbery's work. In one passage in her 1992 New Yorker review of Ashbery's Flow Chart, she writes, "Here, in shorthand, is something about (so I gather) growing up among adults, and growing up gay, and changing by night (in one's own mind and perhaps in that of others) into a monster, and (another source of adolescent embarrassment) shooting up to over six feet" (75). And Charles Altieri, generally one of Ashbery's most astute critics, has so far refrained from even this minimal amount of specificity: in "Ashbery as Love-Poet," Altieri considers the generic problems of writing love lyrics and seeks out transhistorical "provisional constants" (8) from which to address the fluctuations in Ashbery's poetry. From this perspective, Ashbery's representations of love, measured against the general conventions of love lyrics, may be universally applied: "Perhaps we best acknowledge the singularity of a love by registering the ways in which it seems to become exemplary for us of something that extends beyond the particular" (10). Ironically, however, such stress on universal applications for love poetry has the effect of covering over historical actualities which have prevented homosexual love, once it is so named, from being associated with universal and/or exemplary categories. Examining the way Ashbery's poetry registers such actualities, on the other hand, might complicate our understanding of the way categories like the universal and the particular are applicable to the poetry, as I hope to show.
One can only surmise at this point how much the critical reluctance to use the term "gay" or "homoerotic" in reviews or in critical texts, even in passing, has been in deference to Ashbery's wishes and how much has been due to larger cultural conditions which have affected what can get said and in what forums. What does get said by critics while a writer is still alive, however, must be viewed as part of a complicated field of insider-outsider relationships within the poetry "industry." Many of the critics who have written on Ashbery are poets themselves and/or have known Ashbery (and one another) either personally or professionally; in this respect, the critical trajectory for the poetry seems partly determined by the protocols that necessarily develop when critics have limited access to archival material and more access to the living author, who can, and in Ashbery's case, does, participate in setting the terms for discussion and circulation of his own poetry.(3) (One will not find Ashbery's poetry, for example, in two of the current major gay and lesbian poetry anthologies, The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, edited by Stephen Coote, and Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin.) But while it's difficult to fault critics for not delivering what amounts to a kind of literary "outing" in the face of Ashbery's emphatic insistence in interviews that his "poetry doesn't have subjects" ("Craft Interview" 117), reticence, as feminist and cultural critics have shown, is a concept which needs to be interrogated for the ways it articulates culturally imposed silences and stereotypes relating to race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.(4)
One needs to be cautious, however, in responding to the reticence that gets produced in both Ashbery's poetry and in his interviews. Keeping in mind that while there is debate within gay communities about whether gay men and women should stress difference or similarity in conducting relations with a dominant heterosexual culture, there seems to be some consensus that individuals have the right to control the definition and circulation of their sexual identifications within discourses of sameness or difference. And Ashbery, at least in the context of trying to clarify his poetic motives and methods, chooses to use vocabularies of similarity. When asked, Ashbery stresses that in writing poetry particular details or specific occasions are not what interests him; he is more interested in "trying to set down a generalized transcript of what's really going in our minds all day long" so that his poems "are about the experience of experience" ("Experience" 245). Love poems, in particular, are constructed for their universal appeal:
Well, if my poetry is oblique, it's because I want to slant it at as wide an audience as possible, odd as it may come out in practice. Therefore, if I'm writing a love poem it won't talk about specifics but just about the general feeling which anybody might conceivably be able to share.
("Interview" [Tranter] 102)
In the same vein, Ashbery has chosen not to discuss for publication the representation of sexuality in his poems except in a vague, general way. (When he does discuss love or sexuality, he usually avoids terms which are gender specific.) The following exchange between Ashbery and John Koethe contains what is probably Ashbery's most extensive comments in print on the subject of sexuality in his poetry; the reticence here should be read for its wry, subdued humor as well as for the ways Ashbery manages to both dismiss and verify the significance of the eroticism in his poetry:
KOETHE: . . . Even though your poems aren't love poems, they often seem to be poems with sex as their unofficial subject. At the very least there's a certain eroticism to the language, which tends to be sensuous in many ways. Are you conscious of this at all?
ASHBERY: No, I sometimes throw in a little sex just because you ought to have as many things as possible in a poem. There might be a lot of suppressed or sublimated eroticism in my poetry because, as I say, I write off of people whom I'm thinking about. Some of them are people to whom I'm sexually attracted. But I try to keep that quiet, not out of prudery, but just because it seems there are more important things, though I don't yet know what they are.
("Interview" [Koethe] 182-83)
This interview took place in 1982, six years after Ashbery won a literary triple crown (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award) for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. By 1982, Ashbery's disjunctive poetic strategies were pretty well established, so much so that already in 1980 at least one reviewer, Paul Breslin, could complain that "one has the sense of Reading Ashbery Again, rather than of reading a new poem by Ashbery" (43). The disjunctive strategies, however, which have generally been interpreted from abstract epistemological perspectives, introduce into the poetry an economy of reticence whose speech acts are at odds with the stress on similarity and general connectivity that one finds in the interviews. These dissociating poetic speech acts, structured by reticence, have active materialist implications. While Ashbery's poetry does, as Mutlu Blasing has cogently observed, "[take] on the larger formulas of articulation, dismantling the 'syntax' of their rhetoric" (200), it takes them on not in a private or public vacuum but in a specific historical domain. The poetry has a historical context, a context in which, as Eve Sedgwick argues, following Foucault, "modern Western culture has placed what it calls sexuality in a more and more distinctively privileged relation to our most prized constructs of individual identity, truth, and knowledge, [so that] it becomes truer and truer that the language of sexuality not only intersects with but transforms the other languages and relations by which we know" (Epistemology 3). "Coming out" of such a historical context, Ashbery's poetry, as I am going to argue, especially the early poetry of the 1950s, reflects, in part, some of the difficulties of articulating sexual difference in the face of repressive social and cultural prohibitions. These prohibitions produce for gay men and women a condition of social and cultural unacceptability that Ashbery might be responding to in one of his earliest mirror poems, "The Thinnest Shadow," from Some Trees (1956):
A face looks from the mirror As if to say, "Be supple, young man, Since you can't be gay."
Ashbery's use of "gay" in this poem is interesting on at least two counts. The first concerns the historical accuracy of the term as a synonym for "homosexual." Jonathan Katz, in his Gay/Lesbian Almanac, gives convincing evidence that prior to the word's appearance in what one might designate "official" cultural texts (for example, the first appearance of "gay" as an alternative for "homosexual" in the New York Times in 1963), the word "gay" was in active use in homosexual subcultures as a privately understood, self-designating term (15). Katz's documentation includes excerpts from Robert Duncan's "The Homosexual in Society" (see specifically Duncan's "It is significant that the homosexual's word for his own kind is 'gay'" [qtd. in Katz 594]), published in Politics in 1944, as well as a glossary of homosexual slang by Gershon Legman published in 1941 (see especially Katz 571-73 and 577). Also, according to Katz, one of the "earliest uses of 'gay' for homosexual documented in the United States" occurs with a "throwaway" line in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby: in a scene where Cary Grant is "Asked persistently why he's wearing that unusual outfit [a woman's nightgown], he finally retorts in exasperation: 'Because I just went gay all of a sudden'" (537).
Besides the references supplied by Katz, I know of four other relevant pre-Stonewall texts in which the word appears: in 1945, Tennessee Williams used it in two letters to Donald Windham (164, 167); in 1951, Donald Webster Cory discussed its function as an affirmative code word (103-113); in 1956, a scandal sheet called Tip-Off featured a homophobic piece entitled "Why They Call Broadway the 'Gay' White Way" (Duberman 220-23); and, in 1955, Frank O'Hara used "gay" in his poem "At the Old Place" (223-24; the manuscript of the poem is dated July 13, 1955 ).(5) The article in Tip-Off is one indication that by the mid fifties, if not sooner, the term had entered general circulation. The O'Hara poem is especially relevant because the poem tells us that Ashbery, who is referred to by O'Hara as "J.A." and "Ashes," is one of a number of men who go dancing with O'Hara at the "Old Place"; presumably, J. A./Ashes hears the "in-crowd" joshing (spoken by one member of the group) in which "gay" is used: "'I knew they were gay / the minute I laid eyes on them!'" (224). As O'Hara's poem was not published until 1969 (535), "gay" in "The Thinnest Shadow" may be an important early use of the word in an "official," that is, prize-winning, cultural text.
The injunction to "be supple . . . since you can't be gay" is important in another respect: these two lines might be described as a response to a "mirror stage" where socially acceptable conditions for self-definition doubly fragment inner and outer correspondences.(6) In a context where, from the perspective of legal, religious, and medical institutions, homosexuality is a crime, a sin, or a disease, a gay subject looking in the mirror doesn't just simply get a sense of a separate, individuated (if alienated) self; instead the subject looks and gets a sense of a severely separated, severely alienated sell one whose inner recognitions aren't supposed to be, in that they can't be legitimately spoken of or publicly enacted. If one's natural sense of self is thus appropriated by a culturally sanctioned "reflection," one way of counteracting such a division of self is to be "supple" (and subtle) in the way one responds to problems of self-articulation, by creating, for instance, a linguistic space which would both express and destabilize distinctions between prescribed definitions and behaviors and one's own. In the context of the poem (whose language strategies evoke the wit one finds in Edward Lear or children's poetry), the speaker, who figures himself as a thermometer, as a sort of gauge for the temperature of his and other people's social responses ("A tall thermometer / Reflects him best"), is conflicted about fracturing and filling this space: "All his friends have gone / From the street corner cold. / His heart is full of lies / And his eyes are full of mold" (43). As "mold" here can be read as "having the power to shape" as well as being a reference to an internalized process of negative cultural differentiation that has shaped the speaker into a vessel containing images of decay, the doubleness entertained by the word indicates a way the mold of socialization might be cracked, if not entirely broken. That is, if "supple" is interpreted as "adaptable" as well as "easily bent," the lines "Be supple, young man, / Since you can't be gay" can be said to be located at an initial stage of Ashbery's defining a "supple" disjunctive strategy which in its textual bending and adapting has enormous potential for subverting all sorts of imposed orders. Coupled with a parallel quest for poetic legitimacy and viability (along the lines of what new things can get poetically said), these disjunctive strategies create a space from which to enact a powerful, distinctive, and disruptive poetics. Such a poetics is at once rhetorically open and reticent; its poetic strategies enact a "rhetoric of the closet" which is initially a solution (one can enclose and disclose at the same time) to all sorts of problems of articulation (including those of sexual difference), a solution which in the later poetry becomes more and more "standardized" as its substance, so that, on the surface at least, these later poems' disjunctive, decontextualized investigations may seem primarily motivated by familiar aesthetic or epistemological concerns.
In speaking of a "rhetoric of the closet," I want to make it clear that I am not arguing for an essentialist reading which would limit the activity of Ashbery's texts. Rather I am aligning myself with Sedgwick's position that "the relations of the closet . . . have the potential for being peculiarly revealing, in fact, about speech acts more generally" (Epistemology 3). Because Ashbery's reticence is also what enables him to incorporate his awareness of the legitimating and delegitimating principles inherent in the constitutive nature of discourse, it is also the means by which he can actively engage with and subvert such principles. In this respect, the reticence which appears in Ashbery's texts often resembles, but is not always the same as, the silence which activates the gay closet, a concept difficult to pin down definitively, as Sedgwick's carefully worded definition indicates: "'Closetedness' itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence - not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it" (3). But though the reticence in Some Trees may accrue particularity in relation to any number of differentially constituting discourses - for example, the discourses of modernism and romanticism - it can also be seen as a speech act whose performance reflects the conditions of the closet. By almost requiring that readers take into account the ways reading is affected by discursive and historical contexts surrounding both writer and readers, however, the disjunctive strategies point to a way the silence of the closet can also be broken by "fits and starts." What follows, then, is a reading which tries to connect some of the textual instability of Ashbery's early poems to a kind of reticence affected by, in Sedgwick's terms, "the potent incoherences of homo/heterosexual definition" (2). These structuring incoherences, modulated through Ashbery's complementary search for poetic self-definition, become recognizable in the poems' built-in tensions between the universal and the particular, in their configurations of gender, and in their rhetorical responses to the prevailing punitive cultural conditions of the fifties.
The title poem of Some Trees helps establish reticence as an important conceptual underpinning for Ashbery's poetry:
These are amazing: each Joining a neighbor, as though speech Were a still performance. Arranging by chance
To meet as far this morning From the world as agreeing With it, you and I Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are: That their merely being there Means something; that soon We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented Such comeliness, we are surrounded: A silence already filled with noises, A canvas on which emerges
A chorus of smiles, a winter morning. Placed in a puzzling light, and moving, Our days put on such reticence These accents seem their own defense.
This poem seems activated by the very reticence it finds in its own acts of spatial and temporal representation. The doubleness of the key modifier "such" in the last stanza - "such" can refer to either degree or kind - alerts us to the possibility that the poem is both a self-referential illustration of reticence (that is, reticence such as this, inscribed above in the poem) and an intricate response to a larger, long-term manifestation of reticence outside the poem, a manifestation which characterizes the temporal condition of "our days." In ascribing agency to "our days" and thus minimalizing the agency of the speaker, reticence becomes not only a rhetorical unwillingness but an externally constituted near inability to explain. At the same time, the curtailment of subjectivity opens up a field for understanding (and for amazement) even as the poem minimalizes agency and distorts logical explanations within its enclosed space.
For the lovers in this poem, the "reticence" taken on by "our days" matches a basic condition of inexplicability set forth right from the beginning with the trees' projected "still performance." This "still performance" in turn functions as a correlative for the tentative first stages of love which make the boundaries of the perceiving and speaking self seem open and interchangeable with the wider world:
you and I Are suddenly what the trees try
To tell us we are: That their merely being there Means something; that soon We may touch, love, explain.
In these lines reticence (in the form of an ellipsis) disrupts logical expectations, destabilizes the traditional mind/world dichotomy, and creates a new (and minimalist, that is, reticent) perceptional field of cross-identifications: we are what the trees tell us we are, which is that their/our "merely" being there means something. Within this reticent rhetorical field the trees may promise an opportunity for explanation (here last in line in a hierarchy of promises), but the poem's internal logic of reticence requires that within the borders of the poem the explanation go unspoken ("soon / We may"). The gender of the lovers goes unspoken too, as does the context of the love affair and the need for other, wider contexts and explanations for "our days," but in terms of the poem's compositional relationships, relationships which emphasize displacements (such as those moving back and forth between the lovers and the trees), the lack of explanations is alleviated by the final, accomplished joining, the simultaneous metonymic substitution (the visual accents of the trees, the metrical accents of the poetry, the inexplicable accents of love) operating in the last line so that what we have is composition as explanation: "these accents seem their own defense."
That this poem wants to make some universal claims about the ways reticence can enhance the intimacy of love seems fairly clear. The poem's formal and rhetorical gestures accommodate the goals of a compositon which seems to want to exclude as much as possible time, specificity, and even desire. (The poem is more about perceptual transformations which are the secondary effects accompanying love, transformations which provide a means of describing love in terms other than those representing desire.) Ashbery, however, during the course of his career, has taught us to be wary of perfect closures, self-contained structures, and tight correspondences. In the light of Ashbery's subsequent work, "Some Trees" should be read as a poem whose reticence both supports and undermines its structures of coherence. One could go through the poem and point to internal instabilities which reflect external ones: "as though speech / Were a still performance"; "Arranging by chance"; "soon / We may"; and so forth, right down to the final conditional, "seem," and the not quite perfect equation put forth by the reticence/ defense rhyme. But indeed the internal threats of destablization in this poem seem minor compared to the immediate and literal external threats, for most of the poems which "surround" "Some Trees" seem to threaten it, beginning with the two most proximate, "Illustration" and "Hotel Dauphin," and moving on out through the rest of the poems in the volume. These poems are indeed "glad not to have invented / Such comeliness": they do not mean to present the reader with a mild "silence already filled with noises, / A canvas on which emerges // A chorus of smiles, a winter morning." Instead they mean to destabilize themselves and "Some Trees" with a narrative and/or rhetorical violence that seems directed against that poem's momentary calm, against its (en)title(ment), against its "accents [which] seem their own defense," against its formalizations of love. These "other" poems work out of different, more aggressive systems of the reticence/defense configuration found in "Some Trees."
In contrast to the "comeliness" which is an internal/external focal point of "Some Trees," for instance, "Hotel Dauphin" and "Illustration" take on death as one of their subjects, both maintaining at least a tenuous relationship to the conventional elegy. For the purposes of this essay, however, I am going to concentrate on "Illustration," first by grounding it within a more conventional reading and then, after digressing a bit to take up the issue of the universal and the particular in relation to Ashbery's poetry, by circling back to discuss how homosexuality is made intelligible through that poem's configurations of gender.(7)
"Illustration," like "Some Trees," is an attempt at "composition as explanation," but one whose motive for metaphor is much more indeterminate. It is about a "novice" (an initiate? a nun?) who commits a public suicide by jumping off a city building. (Actually the text says "she drifted softly downward / Out of the angels' tenderness and the minds of men" .) The death of the novice/poet/muse figure provides the unconventional, comic occasion for a serious meditation about poetic inspiration, apprenticeship, and form. Her suicide is performance, figuration, and ceremony ("For that the scene should be a ceremony // Was what she wanted. 'I desire / Monuments,' she said. 'I want to move // Figuratively'" ), and in a sense the poem could be said to be about (re)figuring the ceremonial and performative transgressions necessary to achieve poetic heights. (The poem both raises and deflates the possibility of such ambitions.) The poet/muse figure is a bit ridiculous: she wants adulation, propitiatory offerings (which she denies she wants), and high drama. The police just beg her to "come off it" (48), and after her climactic performance she drifts out of "the minds of men." If one interprets this poem allegorically, keeping in mind allegory's sense of textual belatedness, the poet/observer who appears in part 2 can be read as rejecting the kind of exhibitionist poetry (in the form of a "monumental" sacrificial romance) represented by the poet/apprentice/nun. Desiring Yeatsian ceremony and monuments, in this case, is the equivalent of poetic suicide; envisioning such desire from a skewed, comic perspective, however, is an "illustration" of poetic inspiration.
Like "Some Trees" (and many of the other poems in this volume), "Illustration" works off a rhetorical base of desirable and undesirable correspondences.(8) Part 2 states its case for going beyond correspondences, in particular, conventional correspondences (that is, metaphors, which are, in effect, like moths climbing into a flame and hence, like the nun, suicidal):
Much that is beautiful must be discarded So that we may resemble a taller
Impression of ourselves. Moths climb in the flame, Alas, that wish only to be the flame:
They do not lessen our stature. We twinkle under the weight
Of indiscretions. But how could we tell That of the truth we know, she was
The somber vestment? For that night, rockets sighed Elegantly over the city, and there was feasting:
There is so much in that moment! So many attitudes toward that flame,
We might have soared from earth, watching her glide Aloft, in her peplum of bright leaves.
But she, of course, was only an effigy Of indifference, a miracle
Not meant for us, as the leaves are not Winter's because it is the end.
To achieve its figuration, the language in part 2 suggests movement in a direction that is predominantly up (with the exception of the poem's last four lines), so that beginning with the downward glide of the naked novice disrobed by the wind in part 1, the text contains traces of erotic suggestions that were not present in the love poem "Some Trees." Within this erotic context, the poet/speaker paradoxically (and therefore ironically) rejects the allegory of (poetic) desire even as he uses it as a vehicle for interpretation. (The poem, for example, concludes with a clever textual climax, one which anagogically, that is, apocalyptically, tries to level the form/content dichotomy by demonstrating what happens when allegory does, and therefore does not, achieve its object/goal, finish/end: "as the leaves are not / Winter's because it is the end.") Beauty (and the beauty of allegory, with its hopes for final possession of endlessly deferred meaning) must be discarded in order to attain a tenuous poetic growth, one sustained by unstable, provisional resemblances of metaphor: "Much that is beautiful must be discarded / So that we may resemble a taller // Impression of ourselves." This resembling a taller impression, in a sense, is what the nun is doing. But she is also like the metaphoric moth, self-destructively wishing to be the flame, the anagogic taller impression. These grand suicidal moths (and nuns), the text claims, do not lessen the poet/speaker's stature. (The speaker twinkles - flickers, glimmers, is amused - under the weight of his own indiscretions.) He can both claim and disclaim the rhetorical strategies of correspondence by substituting his own metatextual performance for the nun's. Within such a performance the poet can even imagine that he might soar in exhilaration launched by his recognition that there are numerous possible attitudes toward the flame (of inspiration). That is, he might have soared, but he does not. Of the many possible attitudes "toward that flame," he chooses one which excludes him, rejecting the potential allegory he has set up: "But she, of course, was only an effigy / Of indifference, a miracle // Not meant for us."
One might, of course, stop here. Stop, that is, by confining the interpretation of this poem to a discussion of the poem's own examination of poetic heights and grounds, rendering a typical reading which might go something like this: In this poem Ashbery uses allegory to deconstruct allegory, in order to interrogate and update the terms for poetic function.(9) In doing so he re-creates a sort of comic elegy whereby he offers a change of venue for modern poetic practice by rewriting the terms of both the visionary experience and its loss, a loss not quite like the one caused by the intrusive Calidore who, in trying to know more about the naked graces in book 6 of The Faerie Queene, causes them to disappear. (In Some Trees Ashbery evokes Spenser in another, but "madder," mirror poem, "Eclogue.")
Limiting the discussion to the "situation of poetry" (to borrow Robert Pinsky's apt title) is just about what Auden does in his rather unenthusiastic foreword to the book he chose as the winner for the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. In his introduction, Auden makes a distinction between the public and private functions of poetry and their connections to the sacred. For Auden, in the golden age of antiquity, the sacred was real and poetry could convey that sacred reality; while contemporary poetry may engage in the imaginative life, it's a life which is too particularized to convey universal sacred principles. In writing this foreword, Auden seems to want to caution Ashbery against an excessive subjectivity which neglects the universal, sacred, public function for poetry. He uses the subject of "Illustration," for example, to criticize indirectly the tendency toward the private that he finds in Ashbery's texts:
Further, a modern poet who celebrates his inner mythological life cannot escape asking himself: "Do I really believe in my mythology and, if I do, ought I to believe it?"
The subject of Mr. Ashbery's poem "Illustration" is a woman who acts out her private mythology and denies the reality of anything outside herself; that is to say, she is insane.
Even though Auden does not turn out to be a particularly perceptive first reader of individual Ashbery poems, he does perspicaciously foreground what will become an ongoing issue for Ashbery criticism: the question of whether the poetry is so private and particularized as to severely curtail its ability to communicate anything of significance to the reader. In response to such criticism, Ashbery has insisted on the universal applicability of his poetry: "What I am trying to get at is a general, all-purpose experience - like those stretch socks that fit all sizes" ("Experience" 251). This tendency, however, on the part of both Auden and Ashbery, to rely rather uncritically on convenient but tricky cultural formulations such as the universal and the particular is not without problems. It suggests, on the one hand, an apparently unrecognized (at least publicly) and/or unquestioned complicity with dominant cultural imperatives, imperatives such as those that Arnold Rampersad criticizes in his essay "The Universal and the Particular in Afro-American Poetry." In calling attention to, in this case, racist cultural assumptions on which universal standards of truth and beauty have been based, Rampersad writes: "In a colonial situation, an inevitable contradiction exists between the universal as interpreted by the dominant culture and the local as derived by the colonial out of the experiences of his own oppressed group. Historically there has been little to encourage the black writer to reconcile his experience of the particular with an understanding of the universal as advertized by the dominant culture" (5).
Rampersad's point about the difficulties of reconciling the universal with the particular for black writers could be extended to show that Ashbery's texts are not exempt from the materialist implications surrounding these culturally loaded binaries. One could argue, for instance, that the universal applications that Ashbery claims for his texts are inextricably linked to his privileged positioning in relation to culturally constructed categories of gender, race, and class, the latter two especially involving concepts and conditions which are never really the object of Ashbery's dismantlements (as the concept of culture is), but in fact are reinscribed in his poetry over and over again. Class, with its usual overtones of economic, social, intellectual, and artistic empowerment (as well as associations with one of the most entrenched gay stereotypes, linking gay men with high culture), is important for the way its particular discourses and others associated with the patriarchy significantly shape the reticence in Ashbery's texts. In minimizing the particular (if one follows Ashbery's characterization rather than Auden's) in his poetry and writing so abstractly, Ashbery exposes the logic (and illogic) of rhetorical and hence epistemological formulations, but in doing so, he also exposes the depths of his and any receptive audience's investment in maintaining and reproducing such structures, even if only for the purpose of keeping them continuously available for deconstruction.
This issue is no less fraught with confusions when one turns the mode of address to issues of sexuality. Sedgwick, who argues that the always unstable nexus of homo/heterosexual definition "has been a presiding master term of the past century, one that has the same, primary importance for all modern Western identity and social organization (and not merely for homosexual identity and culture) as do the more traditionally visible cruxes of gender, class, and race" (Epistemology 11), maintains that one of the contradictions internal to a twentieth-century understanding of homo/heterosexual definition involves a "contradiction between seeing homo/heterosexual definition on the one hand as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority (what I refer to as a minoritizing view), and seeing it on the other hand as an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities (what I refer to as a universalizing view)" (1).(10) While she obviously leans toward favoring the latter viewpoint during the course of her book, Sedgwick does not want to "adjudicate" between these two positions because "no epistemological grounding now exists from which to do so" (2). And what about Ashbery? Judging from the purposeful evasions and generalizations that take place in the interviews, it would seem that he is also caught between the contradictions of what Sedgwick calls "this conceptual incoherence" (86). On one rare occasion when he does write about homosexuality for publication, however, Ashbery relies on these contradictions to discredit rather vehemently an instance of homophobic exclusion, in this case the surrealists' condemnation of homosexuality. Writing for The New Republic in 1968, Ashbery appears to be aligning himself with the minoritizing view ("since homosexuality affects a relatively small fraction of humanity"), though his remarks contain grounds for deconstructing such a position:
As the Surrealist movement pursued its stormy course, exclusions, anathemas and even suicide followed in the wake of Breton's rulings and pronouncements. Sexual liberty, he proclaimed, meant every conceivable kind of sexual act except for homosexuality - a notion that would have seemed odd to the Marquis de Sade, the Surrealists' unimpeachable authority on matters sexual. This exception may seem unimportant, since homosexuality affects a relatively small fraction of humanity, but to restrict something proclaimed as "total" is to turn it into its limited opposite. And in this case one of the most brilliant of the Surrealist writers, Rene Crevel, happened to be a homosexual. His suicide a few days after a notorious row between Breton and Ilya Ehrenburg (who with his customary finesse had qualified the Surrealist movement as "pederastic"), at the time of an international Communist cultural congress in Paris from which the Surrealists were excluded, was a blow to Surrealism and to literature. Though Maurice Nadeau in his History of Surrealism avoids linking Crevel's suicide to this incident and calls it an act of "attempted affirmation" (of the irrational, apparently), it seems obvious that Crevel must have felt like an exile in the promised land he helped discover. And what is one to think of a vanguard literary movement that found it necessary to excoriate Antonin Artaud?
(Reported Sightings 6)
"But to restrict something proclaimed as 'total' is to turn it into its limited opposite": by exposing the exception that negates the rule, Ashbery demonstrates just how easily a universal/particular binary collapses. This attack on the surrealists' exception also implicitly calls into question the delimiting premise about homosexuality that precedes it and, in doing so, leaves open the possibility that homosexuality touches more than the "relatively small fraction of humanity" who identify themselves as gay. Crevel's death, for starters, "was a blow to Surrealism" and, presumably, to anyone interested in surrealist writing or art. It's possible to go from here and produce an ever widening circle of affected persons; more immediately relevant to my discussion of Ashbery, however, are the various and sometimes conflicting ways parents, friends, and relatives of gay men and women are affected by a loved one's sexuality. The reactions of these individuals may be positive, negative, indifferent, or mixed, but invariably they are reactions that return to the gay subject; in the case of Some Trees, many of the poems seem shaped in response to a nonsupportive, even hostile, familial and social environment. Any of these poems' gestures toward universality or particularity therefore are marked by the destabilizing permissions and prohibitions emanating from oppressive social contexts.
The instability of the universal/particular gestures in the early poetic texts becomes apparent when one looks at the scene of instruction provided in one of Ashbery's most accessible poems, "The Instruction Manual." Briefly, the speaker, a sort of voyeur in the land of his own imagination, daydreams about a "City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!" (14). Instead of working on the manual that he is supposed to be writing "on the uses of a new metal" (14), the speaker imagines himself observing some of the people in his city. He focuses on people in twos: a mustachioed man and his wife; a young man and a young girl; a mother and the picture of her son; a father and a daughter. The poem can be (and has been) interpreted as a dramatization of the romantic imagination's inability to sustain its visions - at the end of the poem the speaker has to turn his "gaze" back to the instruction manual - but there is another sense in which the speaker, if he remained in the Guadalajara of his imagination, would be, like Crevel, "an exile in the promised land he helped discover."(11) If one pays attention to the economies of inclusion/exclusion, completion/limitation at work at the end of the poem, as well as to the mock tour-guide tone (artificially upbeat, matter-of-fact, curiously childlike) that pervades most of it, one might get the impression that for the person behind the persona this place would not be utopia:
How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!
We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.
We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.
What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.
The narrator's vision in "The Instruction Manual" is as determinedly "rose-colored" as J. Alfred Prufrock's is determinedly fragmented and fog-bound. (The poem mischievously alludes to its predecessor at about the halfway point: "Let us take this opportunity to tiptoe into one of the side streets" .) But in describing this excursion into the land of heterosexuality (can, after all, three representations, of young, married, and parental love, work as universal stand-ins for other possible expressions of love?) as contradictorily limited yet complete, and then rejecting it (one might invoke Ashbery's comments on the surrealists here), the poem exposes the heterosexist assumption lurking behind a universal interpretation of the speaker's gaze. It exposes it, that is, if one looks. What "The Instruction Manual" teaches is not simply something about the limits of the romantic imagination, but something about the limits of seeing from a universal perspective automatically defined from a heterosexual norm. This also applies to the other poems in Some Trees, but I might cite as a specific example the poem "And You Know," which I read as a companion piece to "Illustration," since it involves another escape from a "scene of instruction." The poem is a sort of a mock "valediction eliciting mourning," but if read from a perspective other than "heterosexual," the suffocating atmosphere of the "humid classroom" (58) takes on many overtones of a closeted text. The gender references particularly become destabilized if one recognizes that the poem could be drawing on a gay male practice of subverting gender codes for protection and/or parody (in straight or gay contexts, respectively) by referring to other gay men as female ("The girls, protected by gold wire from the gaze / Of the onrushing students, live in an atmosphere of vacuum" ). In this respect, the impulse to escape confinement multiplies the contradictions found in the poem's "rite of passage" motif; the poem prefigures the "coming out" process evoked in one of Ashbery's most important early poems, "How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher . . ." from The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery, of course, is an expert at maintaining a destabilizing multiplicity of vision; consequently one misses much of the richness of his poetry by not multiplying one's reading of it, in this case, by including a perspective in which homosexuality could become, if not the norm which subsumes the heterosexual, the historically contingent category which contests the primacy of heterosexuality as a fixed, unproblematized, definitive term. One could go even further and argue that in the world of the poems, especially the later ones, the norm for representations of desire is homosexual.(12) At this point, however, I need to return to my discussion of "Illustration."
One might begin (again) with a question: Why is the figure of the nun in that poem described as "the somber vestment," "an effigy of indifference," "a miracle not meant for us"? To answer such a question, one would do well to turn attention to the single question posed in the poem: "But how could we tell / That of the truth we know, she was // The somber vestment?" (49). Contradictions abound. The exotic nun, who is "naked // As a roc's egg" (a roc is a fabulous bird of prey), is also the "somber vestment." The question "how could we tell" (know? explain?) sticks out because of its inclusion of the words "truth" and "somber" in the middle of textual fireworks. The argument thus proceeds by inversion and oxymoron: the exotic nun is the "somber vestment" - the metaphor - for the version of "the truth we know." On the level of metaphor, the text is not at all reticent about this truth that "we know": "Illustration" is about the desire for figuration ("I want to move // Figuratively, as waves caress / The thoughtless shore") and it means to illustrate the logical, futile consequences of trying to follow through with that desire. The text, however, makes its case by doing just that - that is, moving figuratively - and it obviously takes pleasure in, in fact, takes every opportunity to underscore, the contradictions such figurative movements provide. How then, is the nun "only an effigy / Of indifference, a miracle // Not meant for us"? Of the "many attitudes toward that flame," why choose this one? I am going to suggest that one reason for the incoherence that appears at this point in the text resides in the fact that representations of poetic inspiration are conventionally gendered female. In Spenser, particularly in book 6, the muse figure, no matter how endlessly she is (allegorically) displaced, is viewed by the poet (and the poet's surrogates) as an object of desire; it is through her role as both source and object that she in fact "engenders" the poem. In Ashbery's text, however, this female figure represents a double impossibility. It is not only the desire for figuration that she represents that doesn't work, but the specific, conventionally gendered representation of desire that doesn't work. In this sense, the nun expresses what the text is reticent about: she cloaks "the truth we know." (It should be obvious at this point that the "we" here, as well as in many of Ashbery's other poems, is not necessarily a universal or all-inclusive "we.") While the nun has been the occasion, this time, for poetic inspiration, she can't be a true source or object for poetry. Like the leaves which can't be possessed by winter "[just?] because it is the end," as "a miracle // Not meant for us" she necessarily has to drift out of "the minds of [some] men."
Unlike Eliot, who in early poems like "Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," and "La Figlia Che Piange" has trouble separating his am-bivalence about women from his ambivalence about his poetic vocation, Ashbery here establishes the female as both "an effigy of indifference" and "a miracle not meant for us," thus escaping the entrapping formulations of Eliot's misogyny. This is not to say that it isn't possible to find disquieting muses in Some Trees. The opening lines of "Popular Songs," for instance, read:
He continued to consult her for her beauty (The host gone to a longing grave). The story then resumed in day coaches Both bravely eyed the finer dust on the blue. That summer ("The worst ever") she stayed in the car with the cur. That was something between her legs.
Interpreting this poem, whose gestures toward "coherence" depend primarily on our recognitions of its minimal references to the mechanisms of plot, is something of a comic magical-mystery ride. That the poem's images of woman occur in the context of something called "Popular Songs" should be a clue: the first section of the poem mixes up discourses from several genres (elegies, popular songs, children's stories, historical romances) as well as from everyday speech and strips them of their contexts in order to disrupt conventional narratives of desire (and conventional desires for narrative), such as those one might find in the popular songs of the fifties. Finding something or not finding something between a woman's legs has different resonances depending upon the way an individual experiences desire; that the poem is going after the conventions of compulsory heterosexuality and replacing them with its own textual erotics seems clear when one considers that it is the heterosexual male who is expected to find and take advantage of the nothing between a woman's legs. (Shakespeare, of course, was an expert recorder of the numerous confusions that could come from associating sexuality with the word "nothing.")
It's not possible, of course, to settle the sexual orientation of this particular speaker, but the passage is one of the few occasions in Ashbery's early poetry where the female is "used" as a site from which to distinguish different configurations of male desire. Following the argument Eve Sedgwick puts forth in Between Men, I would suggest that any misogyny that may be detected here comes as a result of historical conditions which encode the female as the proper ground through which articulations of male homosocial bonding in the homophobic atmosphere of compulsory heterosexuality might appear. While it's not possible to recover "the plot" from this poem, most of the identifiable emotional resonances in the first section, with the exception of the comic "metatextual" comment of the last line ("Some precision, he fumed into his soup"), seem directed toward a presiding female figure: "He continued to consult her for her beauty"; "Alton had been getting letters from his mother / About the payments"; "on the / Blue blue mountain - she never set foot"; "Meanwhile the host / Mourned her quiet tenure" (10). The "solution" to this text will always remain unattainable (based as it is on multiplying notions of the lack alluded to in the beginning of the poem), but it's possible to argue that some of its pleasures come at the expense of the female: she becomes recognizable primarily as a mechanism of plot, and it is her presence (interference?) and not her absence which seems to be the occasion for the extended mourning ("The tears came and stopped, came and stopped") that takes place at the end of the first part of the poem. Of course, with a text this open and this reticent, it's important to remember that whatever happens in this poem happens on a complicated representational field; in terms of my reading, the poem's apparent disenchantment with women should not be seen as aimed at actual women but at the power of rhetorical and discursive formulations whereby women are made to serve as figures for coercive cultural dynamics which regulate structures of desire between and among genders.
While the textual disturbances in "Popular Songs" seem activated by the figurative presence of women, generally the textual impetus in Some Trees seems geared toward eliminating the figure of the female as a source of textual anxiety. Relinquishing the figure of a woman as an object of desire, a symbol of moral order, and a mediator between men would mean that women would not be part of the misogynist/homophobic circuit of male homosocial desire; it might also help clear the way for open expressions of homosexual desire.(13) None of this occurs in the book, but at least two of the poems at the end of Some Trees do pose questions about what would happen if this figure lost power or even disappeared:
What will his crimes become, now that her hands Have gone to sleep?
("A Long Novel" 64)
The gods worship a line-drawing
Of a woman, in the shadow of the sea Which goes on writing. Are there Collisions, communications on the shore
Or did all secrets vanish when The woman left? Is the bird mentioned In the waves' minutes, or did the land advance?
("Le livre est sur la table" 75)
The first poem doesn't really answer the question but rather cryptically has the muse/authority figure and the poet/transgressor operate in parallel but contradictory spheres enacting a sort of nascent "other tradition":
Except that, in a new
Humorous landscape, without music, Written by music, he knew he was a saint,
While she touched all goodness As golden hair, knowing its goodness
Impossible, and waking and waking As it grew in the eyes of the beloved.
("A Long Novel" 65)
The second poem, "Le livre est sur la table," the last poem in the volume, is interesting on several counts. It both imitates and rewrites Stevens; it begins with lines that could be read as indicating a privately felt sense of personal as well as artistic relativity ("All beauty, resonance, integrity, / Exist by deprivation or logic / Of strange position" ); it is a poem about poetry that resonates back to another poem about poetry, "The Mythological Poet," which also ends with a question ("Might not child and pervert / Join hands, in the instant / Of their interest, in the shadow / Of a million boats; their hunger / From loss grown merely a gesture?" ).(14) The last stanza of "Le livre," the stanza on which Some Trees closes, is the most interesting, for its two rhetorical questions, one about secrets ("Or did all secrets vanish when / The woman left?") and one about the threat of erasure ("Is the bird mentioned / In the waves' minutes, or did the land advance?"), underscore the thematic and textual reticence which lies at the heart of the book. Both questions point back to a pattern of reticence which can be traced thematically as well as rhetorically in many of the poems. Thematically this reticence often takes the form of brief allusions to information which could or should be given, or even which has been given, but the allusions are usually embedded in texts whose destabilizing rhetorical gestures suggest that such revelations are unwarranted or unwelcome. Some of the key terms are "true," "know," "honesty," "secrets," "denial," and "lies": "We see us as we truly behave" ("Two Scenes"); "This is perhaps a day of general honesty / Without example in the world's history" ("Two Scenes"); "There is no way to prevent this / Or the expectation of disappointment. / All are aware, some carry a secret / Better" ("Popular Songs"); "Slowly all your secret is had / In the empty day" ("Eclogue"); "Of who we and all they are / You all now know. But you know / After they began to find us out we grew / Before they died thinking us the causes // Of their acts" ("The Grapevine"); "I'll do what the raids suggest, Dad . . . / But the tide pushes an awful lot of monsters / And I think it's my true fate" ("A Boy"); "He / Couldn't lie" ("A Boy"); "We were lying, / We do not want to fly away" ("Grand Abacus"); "The screen of supreme good fortune curved his absolute smile into a celestial scream. These things (the most arbitrary that could exist) wakened denials, thoughts of putrid reversals as he traced the green paths to and fro" ("The Young Son"); "His heart is full of lies" ("The Thinnest Shadow"); "From all things sucked / A glossy denial. But look, pale day: / We fly hence. To return if sketched / In the prophet's silence. Who doubts it is true?" ("Errors"); "But how could we tell / That of the truth we know, she was // The somber vestment?" ("Illustration"); "My door is always open. I never lie, and the great heat warms me" ("And You Know"); "He is the liar behind the hedge / He grew one morning out of candor" ("He"); "Are there / Collisions, communications on the shore // Or did all secrets vanish when / The woman left?" ("Le livre est sur la table"). Once such references are viewed cumulatively, a "pattern that may carry the sense" ("Daffy Duck in Hollywood," Houseboat Days 34) begins to emerge as subtext, one which records a specific textual struggle to articulate a "secret" the speaker is not supposed to tell; the struggle for articulation necessarily forces a concomitant reevaluation of culturally inherited concepts of "lies," "authority," and "truth."
Some Trees, in fact, opens with such reconsiderations already in progress. The first poem, "Two Scenes," presents us with what will become a basic Ashbery premise: that abstract notions like transcendence, truth, clarity, and coherence are highly problematic, though seductive, concepts. The poem's first stanza offers a wry, pared down version of the romantic visionary script, one that eliminates the conventional narrative frame and focuses immediately on the structural fragments of a primary, unlikely "scene" of romantic epiphany: what we get is one totalizing visionary movement ("We see us as we truly behave") moving to another ("'We see you [the transcendent being?] in your hair, / Air resting around the tips of mountains'" ), though the latter partakes of a more transparently metaphoric, evanescent view. Despite the poem's authoritative tone, brought to us by that almost immediately troublesome "we," the text ironically never provides us with the logic behind its multiple strategies of departure and arrival, that is, behind its move from the opening perspective (with the world aiming at an arrival in the receptive mind) where "we see us" to the final one (with the mind ordering its perceptions of the world) where an embedded speaker says "We see you." In depriving us of an interpretive context, the text instead forces us to evaluate the visionary experience in terms of a generic encounter provided by structural elements which ironically inflate the visionary claim. Whereas we have been trained to expect as the aftereffects of the visionary experience a sense of letdown, disappointment, and loss, the first stanza doesn't follow through with the conventional romantic trajectory. Rather it stays at the level of hyperbolic claims, giving us a freeze-frame of the romantic imagination in overdrive.
The poem is not simply a send-up of its own and others' impulses toward visionary romanticism, however. In essence, the text parodies what it most wants: the second stanza rewrites its complicity with the visionary script by imagining a "day of general honesty" ("This is perhaps a day of general honesty / Without example in the world's history"). This hopeful assertion that truths can be told is reinforced by the poem's essential qualification that "the fumes" of honesty "are not of a singular authority / And indeed are dry as poverty." The qualification may be read as a continuation or discontinuation of hope depending upon what one sees as at stake in an alignment with or against "singular authorities" whose evocations of truth claims would be directed toward maintaining their interests or the interests of the status quo. The primary impulse up to this point in the poem, however, has been to negate any singular authorities as limiting: "We see us as we truly behave: / From every corner comes a distinctive offering" (emphasis added). The high generic spirits initiated in the first stanza begin to shut down, however, with the reference to the fumes of honesty paradoxically being both multifaceted and as dry as poverty. (It's hard enough to conceive of a general rather than a specific honesty without factoring in the abrupt diminishment and severity that the allusion to poverty implies.) But the primary contradiction comes from the poem's competing recognition that, paradoxically, destiny is of a singular, though mysterious, authority: "Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is." Thus one of the key tensions in the poem stems from its inability to keep truly separate the desire to eliminate singular interpretive authorities and the impulse to find out the predetermined and hence authoritative "schedule" which puts such interpretive systems into play.
But though the poem may see its evasion of particularity as essential for usurping singular authority, what this and the ensuing poems in Some Trees record is more than just a transhistorical difficulty with reconciling conflicting concerns, in this case, a desire for "general honesty" with a desire for finding out the terms (and the meaning) of "the schedule." The poems in the volume also reflect the specific conditions of their historical situation, one in which truth-telling about one's homosexuality, given the oppressive political and social context of the period when most of the poems in Some Trees first appeared (Kermani 71-74), would be not only "problematic" but dangerous and damaging. During these early years of the cold war, as John D'Emilio points out in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, gay men and women, like those individuals suspected of being communists, were considered to be serious threats to national security. Judged to be immoral in character (42) and innately dangerous as potential traitors subject to blackmail (43), homosexuals "became the targets of a verbal assault that quickly escalated into policy and practice" (41). In 1950, for example, charges of homosexual "infiltration" by prominent Republican leaders and a subsequent full Senate investigation provided unprecedented forums for widespread public vilification in the national press (41-42); in 1953 an Eisenhower executive order cited "sexual perversion" as sufficient "loyalty-security" grounds for excluding gay men and women from positions in the federal government (44).(15) State and municipal governments, the military, and private industries with government contracts followed suit with their own antigay investigations and dismissals (46). As D'Emilio notes, the language - "perverts, psychopaths, deviates, and the like" - used to condemn homosexuality "burdened homosexuals and lesbians with a corrosive self-image," and "many gay men and women internalized the negative descriptions" (53). Moreover, such demeaning, inflammatory rhetoric gave brutal permission for stigmatization at all levels, but especially to the police: "widespread labeling of lesbians and homosexuals as moral perverts and national security risks gave local police forces across the country a free rein in harassment. Throughout the 1950s gays suffered from unpredictable, brutal crackdowns" (49).
As D'Emilio indicates, the fifties also saw the beginnings of postwar efforts at gay community building and gay emancipation, most notably with the founding of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1951 (58) and the West Coast publication of the first issue of the gay magazine ONE in 1953 (72). Since the impact of these and other gay organizations and publications was at first small (Savran 86), it's not surprising that Ashbery's published recollections of the early fifties would be directed toward the oppressive conditions of cold war hegemony: "the period when we [the members of the so-called New York School] all moved to New York and found ourselves together coincided with McCarthy and the Korean war, which was a very humiliating and cynical period, a low point" ("John Ashbery" 22).(16) Nor is it surprising that the poems in Some Trees, many of which are retrospectively concerned with childhood, express negative, albeit oblique, reactions to the cultural double bind that would be automatically imposed on gay pre-Stonewall young adults and children. Brought up as any child might be to "tell the truth," a gay child or an individual coming of age in the fifties would have been even more forcefully enjoined by institutionalized moral and legal sanctions against speaking the truth about his or her homosexuality. Seen in light of this historical context, the poems should not be taken simply as "exquisite" intellectual poetic exercises. (One might cite Richard Kostelanetz's characterization of the poems as typical of what would become the critically accepted view that the collection is generally impenetrable: "Ashbery's poetry at that time was rather exquisite in surface technique, intricate in form, baffling in statement, indefinite in perspective, and disconnected as a reading experience" .) Rather, part of the impetus behind the disjunctive rhetorical strategies in Some Trees should be taken as coming from the need to represent the problems of articulating a personal sense of truth in the face of sanctions by a prevailing "singular" homophobic "authority." Though a majority of the poems may initially seem to acquiesce to homophobic restrictions by wrapping themselves in obscurity, they are neither as obscure nor as acquiescent as they first appear. Instead, they engage with personal, cultural, and poetic issues on terms commensurate with Ashbery's literary aims and the conditions of his personal and historical experience. Homosexuality may well be the "secret" behind many of the disturbances in these early texts, but its hiddenness dissolves in Ashbery's fracturing of poetic discourse and reappears in a language of protest and subversion which takes precedence over the language of guilt or remorse.(17) That is, by rhetorically dispersing the references to "secrets" and "lies" throughout the poems, Ashbery begins to find ways of emptying these and similar discursive structures of their overdetermined contents. In the case of Some Trees, the "secrets" and "lies" begin to be drained of culturally imposed homophobic prescriptions through a textual recognition of the inherently subversive nature of language.
This dispersal of the "secret" anticipates a process which will become characteristic of Ashbery's later poetics, one in which he repeatedly views social encounters, linguistic structures, cultural artifacts, and cultural formulations in terms of their potential for enclosure and disclosure. The process becomes a way of examining all forms of abstract and experiential structures, whose "secrets," like art and the soul in Ashbery's most famous poem, exist only because they are constructed by (and for) "our moment of attention":
But there is in that [Parmigianino's] gaze a combination Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful In its restraint that one cannot look for long. The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts, Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul, Has no secret, is small, and it fits Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
("Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," Self-Portrait 69)
In this passage the "double" dynamic between the portrait and the viewer's appropriating gaze (which gives the soul a room in "our moment of attention") typifies Ashbery's position that perspective is always duplicitous. Enabling and disabling, it is never permanent or definitive. Rather, it points to a "secret" located in an amorphous zone which can't be accurately fixed or described (though it is human nature to try). The "secret" is, in fact, its location, a constructed site whose time-based coordinates distort and destabilize it. As Ashbery says later in "Self-Portrait," "This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime is / The secret of where it [the drama of life, or possibly of love] takes place / And we can no longer return to the various / Conflicting statements gathered, lapses of memory / Of the principal witnesses" (78).
It is partly because of just such a conceptual fascination with the "secret" as both there and not there, a "secret" whose existence is determined by linguistic structures and its appearance as a place in time "never-to-be defined," that Ashbery's later poems neither reify nor systematically dismantle the entrapping codifications which formulate the closet. Instead the poems displace immediate material ramifications and choose to interrogate the discursive systems by which meanings and structures like the closet are made. In Ashbery's later poetry, particularly, such structures multiply even as the texts underscore the precariousness of thinking in such terms. The initial quotation from "Self-Portrait" indicates, however, that the act of draining away or denying a content for a particular secret does not mean that the secret or the structures formulated to maintain and/or disclose it are devoid of material power or emotional resonances. As the passage from the poem shows, "we" react to such "secrets," even if it is by means of a doubly directed tone, half ironic, half serious: "The pity of it smarts, / Makes hot tears spurt." "We" can even possibly deflect some of these secrets' discursive power by attending to them as constructions and, at least in the abstract, neutralizing them by refusing to let a delimiting "content" settle in. The risk is, of course, that in attending to the constructedness of "secrets," one could appear to be also dismissing the everyday material damage such structures impose. This is especially true in the case of the closet imposed on gay men and women, which, as Eve Sedgwick points out, "is the defining structure for gay oppression in this century" (71). In the early texts which I have been considering, however, especially those with the embedded references to "secrets," "lies," and so forth, the rhetorical strategies make it "plain" that Ashbery is acutely aware of the damaging prohibitions which surround his poems.
I wish to thank the poet Reginald Shepherd for several invaluable, illuminating conversations regarding many of the issues raised in this essay. I'd also like to thank Mutlu Blasing, William Keach, and Robert Scholes for their generous responses to the various stages of my work.
1. For a specific example of how this plays out in actual practice, see Ed Cohen's "Are We (Not) What We Are Becoming? 'Gay' 'Identity,' 'Gay Studies,' and the Disciplining of Knowledge."
2. For discussions of the history and ramifications of this appearance, see Cohen, Talk; D'Emilio, "Gay History"; Foucault; Halperin; Katz, Gay American History and Gay/Lesbian Almanac; Chauncey; and Weeks.
3. The critical reception of Auden's work could serve as an important paradigm for what I am calling the critical trajectory for Ashbery's poetry. (In an interview, Ashbery says he "particularly admired Auden, whom I would say was the first big influence on my work, more so than Stevens" ["Art of Poetry" 37].) According to Gregory Woods, Auden tried to dissociate his poetry from his private life, so that "Unfortunately, where sexuality is concerned, the critics have not found it difficult to act within the spirit of the ban on biographical revelation. Auden's reluctance to write openly about his homosexuality resulted in a corresponding reluctance, on the part of his commentators, to grant his sexual orientation any but the most limited relevance to his work. In a curious way, the 'discretion' (for which, read 'ambiguity' or 'obscurity') of the poems was accepted as a gag on any attempt to understand the experiences which were their source and often, indeed, their subjects. Critical perception of the poems has largely failed to reach what turns out to be a rich strain of interest in the nature of homosexual love and, thus, managed to distort Auden's view of sexuality, and of love in general" (169). In an accompanying footnote, Woods documents more than fifty studies which avoid any mention of homoeroticism or homosexuality (247-49).
In an even more revealing footnote, Woods quotes from a letter Auden wrote to Robert Duncan asking Duncan not to write about "the homo-erotic patterns in Auden's poetry" (247n6). Auden's request is grounded by concerns about both his livelihood and his credibility: "'As you may know, I earn a good part of my livelihood by teaching, and in that profession one is particularly vulnerable. Further, both as a writer and as a human being, the occasion may always rise, particularly in these times , when it becomes one's duty to take a stand on the unpopular side of some issue. Should that ever occur, your essay would be a very convenient red herring for one's opponents'" (247; Woods's source is Faas 195).
4. The issue of cultural and textual silences has been addressed from a wide range of theoretical, critical, and personal perspectives. See, for example, Macherey, Eagleton, Olsen, Rich, Kammer, and Moraga and Anzaldua.
5. For the references to Williams's and Cory's texts, I wish to thank David Savran and Bradford Robinson, respectively. For the evolving historical nuances leading to "gay" as a term of choice, see Chauncey 14-23.
6. John Shoptaw's reading of this passage is relevant: "The young Ashbery's response to this repressive climate was neither fight nor flight but a resourceful evasive action. In 'The Thinnest Shadow' the poet counsels himself (with a disturbingly paternal tone) to make himself a thin, moving target" ("John Ashbery" 5). I would argue, however, that Ashbery's early texts are more subversive than evasive, as I hope to show.
7. For an important, though from my perspective "discreet," introductory analysis of Ashbery's early poems, see David Shapiro, who notes that "Ashbery's early work is significant for the preponderance of dream imagery" (35) and that it "often explores sexual ambiguities in a fractured narrative" (36).
8. One might trace here the beginnings of Ashbery's "ironic" mode of thinking. In arguing against Emerson as the central, authorizing figure for an American poetic tradition, Mutlu Blasing proposes four structural tropes with which to differentiate the approaches poets take in representing their understanding of the relationship between language and the world. Connecting metonymic, metaphoric, and synecdochic thinking with poetic strategies of allegory, analogy, and anagogy, respectively, Blasing explains how the fourth, "ironic" or "anomalous," way of thinking (with its literalist poetic strategies) can be said to contest such structurings: "[Hayden] White observes that while the first three tropes are 'naive,' implying faith in the capacity of language to grasp the nature of things in figurative terms, the trope of irony is 'metatropological': it uses figurative language self-consciously, in order to question its claims to knowledge or truth" (5). For Blasing, Dickinson, Crane, and Ashbery use anomalous (ironic) strategies; Poe, Eliot, and Plath, allegorical ones; Emerson, Stevens, and Bishop, the metaphoric; and Whitman, Pound, H.D., Williams, and O'Hara the anagogic. In "Illustration," the allegoric, metaphoric, and anagogic are all seductive strategies, but these ways of thinking, while not quite discarded, begin to break apart under the pressure of the poem's ironies.
9. Donald Revell gives an interesting alternate reading (but one which is typical of current Ashbery criticism) of the latter half of this poem: "The phrases 'mean' by failing to add up, by congregating possibilities, most of them contradictory, but not synthesizing them. The particular (e.g., the effigy) and the general (e.g., the undetailed miracle) no longer function as categories in such a congregation because Ashbery refuses to allow them to refer to anything beyond themselves. As winter is the literal, intentionless end of nature, this passage represents the literal, unaggressive end of metonymy" (16).
10. In an important critique of Frank Lentricchia's antifeminist and heterosexist recuperation of the patriarchy in Ariel and the Police, Lee Edelman makes a similar point: "For like the question of feminism, to which it may never be entirely assimilable but from which it is never wholly separable either, homosexuality is indeed an 'all embracing issue' whose decisive effects in the shaping of modern ideologies of gender and sexuality can be traced in the strategic blindness at work in his own [Lentricchia's] cultural critique" ("Redeeming the Phallus" 45).
11. Paul Breslin sees this poem as "absolutely characteristic in theme though not in manner" of Ashbery's essential subject, which he describes as follows: "The Ashbery speaker, caught in his flat though comfortable world where nothing happens, and where all illusions have long since been investigated and unmasked, nonetheless cannot resist the dim intimation that amid all this exhausted familiarity, some transcendent revelation may flash upon him and change everything, if only he is attentive enough to receive it. Again and again, the moment seems at hand, but when his abortive epiphanies trail off into nonsense or banality, he keeps his balance and regards the puncturing of his latest illusion with urbane detachment" (Psycho-Political Muse 217).
12. In his review essay on Shadow Train, "The Dandy at Play," Harold Beaver seems to take this position: "For the nature of that desire, between that neutral 'you' and 'I,' is absolutely reversible, absolutely homosexual, like the glyph '69'" (60). For a controversial extension of the idea of a homosexual norm, see Richard D. Mohr, who wants to "try to advance tentatively an idealization of gay male experience - to position beyond mere tolerance, beyond acceptance, and even beyond aesthetic celebration. . . . I suggest that male homoerotic relations, if institutionalized in social ritual, provide the most distinctive symbol for democratic values and one of their distinctive causes. They will help stabilize the always teetering basic structures of democracy, by serving as a model for the ideal of equality" (139-40). For a slightly different, more theoretical proposal, see Gregory Bredbeck, who argues that a homosexual system of signification (such as that found in Frank O'Hara's poetry) provides a means of deprivileging the phallus (269). This idea of a homosexual ground or norm, whether in Ashbery's poetry or in a larger frame, is of course problematic, but it is not my purpose to debate its merits here.
13. For a more assertive reference to this motif, one with readily identifiable gay associations, specifically the Orpheus myth, see "Syringa" in Houseboat Days: "Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade; / She would have even if he hadn't turned around" (69).
14. This poem about poetic vocation begins as a Stevensian meditation on the conflict between ideas and "the world of things," but it turns into a not-quite-open manifesto against inscriptions of homophobia such as those spoken by the "they" in the poem: "We / Are sick, they said. It is a warning / We were not meant to understand" (35). If the first section of the poem seems somewhat distracted and out of touch in its staging of a conventional dialectic between a poetry of ideal forms and a poetry of sensory experience, the second part turns against a rarefied way of thinking which would deny the homoerotic body. According to the first stanza in the second section, for example, making the gay poet a bodiless receptacle for poetic inspiration is what actually renders him perverse, in effect "merely / An ornament, a kind of lewd / Cloud placed on the horizon" (35). The second stanza then provides a space which begins to take the homoerotic body into account by defiantly imagining "the mythological poet" as "Close to the zoo, acquiescing / To dust, candy, perverts; inserted in / The panting forest, or openly / Walking in the great and sullen square" (35).
15. For excerpted newspaper accounts, see Jonathan Katz, "1950-55: Witch Hunt; The United States Government versus Homosexuals," in Gay American History (91-105). Sample 1950 headlines from the New York Times include "Perverts Called Government Peril" (92) and "Inquiry by Senate on Perverts Asked" (93).
16. Ashbery has recently been much more specific about this period. Brad Gooch, O'Hara's biographer, writes the following account of a 1988 interview with Ashbery: "'I couldn't write anything from about the summer of 1950 to the end of 1951,' admits Ashbery. 'It was a terribly depressing period both in the world and in my life. I had no income or prospects. The Korean War was on and I was afraid I might be drafted. There were antihomosexual campaigns. I was called up for the draft and I pleaded that as a reason not to be drafted. Of course this was recorded and I was afraid that we'd all be sent to concentration camps if McCarthy had his own way. It was a very dangerous and scary period'" (190).
17. On this see Savran: "Like the official texts of the burgeoning homosexual rights movement, most American plays of the 1940s and 1950s, even those considered at the time sympathetic to the 'problem' of homosexuality, were written in the language of remorse" (87). Savran characterizes this language as "eschewing revolutionary rhetoric in favor of a guilty appeal for tolerance from the heterosexual majority and for the liberalization of oppressive restrictions" (86).
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CATHERINE IMBRIGLIO is a doctoral candidate at Brown University. Her dissertation is entitled "'The Pattern That May Carry the Sense': Re-Contextualizing John Ashbery's Poetry."
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