Drifting with Ashbery into "The Business of Darkness"
By David Bowen
The poem As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat is another inaugural reiteration of John Ashbery’s perpetual mooring of starting out, as well as a new morning for the poet, beginning another book. It is another preparation in readying the poet to achieve an incandescent breakthrough by going nowhere, merely by emptying himself out and finding what’s left.
I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
This is the opening of that first poem in Ashbery’s 1975 volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. It is not easy to begin writing about any work by Ashbery. What will I be writing about his work? Will it be a commentary? Criticism? An exegesis? Perhaps, closest to this last, but also I want to think of Ashbery’s own intentions in reading and writing: what is it, he wants us to ponder, that is going on around us? What’s happening? And how is it happening? Foremost, how do I receive the event? In that process, of receiving and perceiving, what else happens? Thus, the flood-gates open: a line in Ashbery is a smouldering trail of cognitive gunpowder. Associations will be made according to thresholds of memory and sensibility, not as accords the realm of logic or analysis.
Thus, as a reader of Ashbery I must subordinate the latter to the former faculties, indeed, to the liminal experiences at the varied limits of sensation and memory. It is not that I must know Ashbery’s personal history and the memory that might accord with it; nor must I feel what he feels. Rather, I must read each poem as it stands, and later, in relation to other poems, Ashbery’s or others’, foremost the canonical ones. First, within each poem one can perhaps understand how and why the poet used the figures he did in the way that he did. I don’t need to know Ashbery’s biography to know his poetry. I will be practicing a personal reading. The test for my strength as a reader is to successfully understand a poem based on my own present ability to make aesthetic judgments.
From the Ashbery line quoted above, the reader is already given to understand that the poet is already a master, and still quite ambitious. As his friend Frank O’Hara remarked, Ashbery always appears to be attempting to marry the ‘whole world,’ which means the widest possible range of cognitive and affective experience in the world and the greatest potential for filtering that experience in a supremely artful manner. As a poetic practice, this will necessary fail to succeed much of the time. “I tried each thing,” and indeed, Ashbery has displayed by this time, 1975, two decades of vast formal and informational (philosophical and emotional and cultural), experimentation. He has sought out, and continues to seek, as many modes of diction as he can think of. He is the supreme democratic poet along with Whitman. Neither of these poets morally judge their sources; rather, they make aesthetic judgments and practice much quiet irony in order to order the words of the world.
Ashbery will not tell us which things “were immortal and free.” He doesn’t need to, and what’s important is not whether some things were such and such. Rather, we want to know his experience of these objects, which become subjects in the poet’s experience which is the subject of his poetry. Thus, only some of his moments were immortal and free. That is what matters to the poet and to us, those of his world. Only at moments are some of us sometimes immortal and free; or perhaps, at there are those moments in which we might think and feel we are thus.
Already, from the poem’s title (the first line of Marvell’s Tom May’s Death), we are given a sense of friendly decadence. The large packet-boat, the French paquebot, both in the Old World and the New, stately shuttling back and forth regularly between ports, could provide commodious lodging for passengers. One might also historically associate the vehicle with gambling off-shore, meandering down wide, mellow American rivers. Or perhaps such a boat would be making its slow-motion odysseys on a still, wide lake in high Canadian summer.
Indeed, our poet’s titular, analogic passenger was perhaps known as a gambler. It doesn’t matter whether Tom May of history or Marvell’s poem was or not, really. Ashbery’s motivations in this regard will remain enigmatic, yet we know at least that Tom May died drunk, and, in Marvell’s poem, he entered the afterlife in like manner, dazed, drunk. In other words, the world had been made for Tom May a little harder to see because he was dead and thus at a remove from his previous life, an uncertain shifting, perhaps without anchorage.
The poem’s direct subject, if there could possibly be one, is of course not necessarilly drunk, but rather in this self-estranged state of perhaps feeling disembodied, as if dead, in fact. The poet’s subject, or the state described, is feeling incapacitated or dazed in a remove from the ordinary and banal particular of the given world. Finally, ‘the packet-boat’ is only in the title although it’s associative aspect touch on above is implied throughout the body of the poem. The displacement, often radical in some existential way for Ashbery, of vehicular travel is a major subject of the poet’s experience: the perspective of the train passenger at the window; the state of passage, suddenly coming upon a place and leaving it at once, forever; cars, trains, planes and automobiles. This is a very American theme as all Americans are aware.
Despite, or rather because of, this awareness of an existence that is to some extent quite transient, Ashbery unemphatically emphasizes a tone of relaxation and passive sitting or strolling. In As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat,
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come.
This is after each thing has been tried by the poet, and this is the morning after a long journey, a journey far from over. Although the poet’s subject isn’t necessarily sitting, even sitting while in a moving boat, the current experience is akin to a soft, low-energy state; nothing harsh or sharp or hot is occuring; there is feeling of an expansion of vision as in a restful waiting, an attentive expansiveness, a feeling of drift leading to a clearer perception of one’s surroundings. This is America: in motion, in transit, in expectation of an arrival. Is this feeling of “elsewhere” also of the “immortal and free”? Is this moment of the cusp, and thus both an instant of the afterlife as well as the instance before a new life?
Whatever the case, it passes suddenly yet almost unnoticeably with “Harsh words spoken,” but I feel that the comma after ‘spoken’ is meant to inform us that the following line is not a background setting of those uttered words. Rather,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
This figures another of the poem’s analogies in so far as the sudden presence of harsh words enacts such an affective state like as the sun on the cusp of early autumn yellowing green leaves toward the withering fall. There is also a sensation of the green identity of the leaves, separating out these vital entities, becoming softly and shimmeringly sublimated into the light of the sun, but I will settle for unsettled levels of meaning and sensation at play here.
Thus, the reader is being moved from summer to autumn, but also from morning to noon. Although we would associate afternoon with the end of summer and the autumnal, in either case above we feel the on-rush of time. I believe Ashbery intends such unsettled meanings; and if not, this sort of paradoxical play still makes for a richer reading. “Harsh words are spoken,” and the poem’s “we” are no longer simply as sitting and waiting in the softness and vagary of a new morning. Instead, we feel as if time has started up; we are lightly jarred from this “elsewhere” and then moving on toward our dissolution and eventual fall once again.
Yet, in the meantime, there will also be rising self- expectations from the poet to rouse himself from a previous diffidence. In Three Poems, Ashbery had succeeded to turn profound misgivings within himself into a great achievement. Even if Emerson would roll in his grave, Ashbery has triumphed over American diffidence in the very emptying out of himself. The old Transcendentalist might have been proud, as well as scandalized, at once. The test then, for Ashbery, is what comes after Three Poems? As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat is an attempt to take a new grip to recommence the redemptive evolution of Ashbery’s self and soul, the poet and his spark of being.
The ellipsis that ends the first stanza leaves out the ensuing seasonal or temporal changes. Ashbery’s poems are often written, as diaries unto themselves, over long periods of time. The process of poem-writing is inconstant and disjunctive; in Ashbery, we are made to feel the laborious process of achieving poetic success.
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up.
As John Hollander has noted, metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan’s release of inner light is rather inconstant, perhaps even dim, next to Ashbery’s persistent “stirrings of new breath,” reinvigorated pneuma. Of course, there are lags and lulls of inspiration hidden away, and the poet tells us his bare, winter writings “smelled like an old catalogue,” or perhaps they had merely descended into fusty cataloguing with no aim, no accent, no revelation. Again, we could also read this as the narrative sequence of a day’s evolution: a momentary lull in mid-morning has been defeated, and we return to the poet’s re-charged resolution.
Here, we read of these new spring stirrings, this fresh air to breath, the rarefied air past misty morning and the urging toward the culminating time of Ashbery’s poetic act upon the day’s heights.
But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.
The poet has written himself into a preparatory mode before the deeply fulvous and plenary high noon, making ready for his great happening. Yet “the summer was along,” meaning there is a certain, sublte anxiety about what the poet has already set down, the little he has given which, in the mean time, has become a promise, a promissory note, for an event yet to come, some act expected of him, himself being in the highest expectation of himself. It is at such a moment that the banal workaday body of the poet, his accepted, daily persona begins making demands on its own aporia, or necessary blind-spot in regard to itself. This is the soul, necessarily the unknown, alien distance so intimately nestled within every known being, however close.
The poet has now laid his expectations on a heralding from this undiscovered country from which he has made a career of seeking his life’s redemption by creatively retrieving those moments of self-defeat. Ashbery has called on “you,” his soul, ever-changing through in taking form as new poetry. Both his “I”(the poet) and “you”(the muse-of-the-soul-cum-poem) interaction result in the dynamic of Ashbery’s decades-long poetic weave. His poem-by-poem corpus is even a sort of record of the soul’s growth or defeat, perhaps one and the same in his success personally measured in the mode of self-deprecation.
The poet has experimented so widely for this reason: his writing is at every moment a tracking, a tracing, even a winnowing, to go beyond the given cliches, the preconceived images and notions, to wade through the chaff, and retrieve his soul, his redemption, from the refuse pile at the ends of modernity, where all individuals are born self-defeated in the dump-heap of belatedness. This is the definition of poetry in the wake of Ashbery.
Concerning summer’s “mid-point,” is it a silly expectation for the reader and even the poet to expect so much of the turning point of cyclic time? Perhaps we both know, but don’t want to admit just now, that we will indeed simply pass through that full moment, darkened and dense, as we pass through all lesser moments, all lesser matter. Still, the old self-fulfilling expectations die hard. This self-promising is, if quietly anxious, at least pragmatically self-commanding, subtly so: the poet puts on himself the dark weight of expectation in order to “no longer wander away,” and we too fall under this beatific demand of heavy atmospheric conditions. There is a feeling of a gathering all around and in the sky, a movement of conditions that silent, and perhaps awe, also the most coarse, mean, base and noisome among the rabble. There is a sense in this passage which implies the poet is setting upon himself the task of becoming a legislator of the world, his second nature, his poet’s world. There are indeed unruly aspects of his own self, which are the coarse and the mean, the detrimentally drifting and the dissolute. He is gaining for himself, in this middle passage of the Voice, a rage to order the words of the sea. The second stanza ends with the poetic act immanent. Although perhaps this is Ashbery’s grand irony: he’s really gearing himself up from his own quiet self-defeat. Still, we must thus take his tone somewhat seriously: we must take the possibility of achievement seriously.
© David Bowen