Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February 8

John Ashbery

Today’s discussion was lively and fun, starting with definitions, such as offusqué (offended) and fakir -- Hindu ascetic (e.g., sadhus, gurus, swamis and yogis) as well as Sufi mystics. It can also be used pejoratively, to refer to a common street beggar who chants holy names, scriptures or verses. From Arabic, faqr (poverty).

Variation in the Key of C
A two-stanza poem which opens conversationally with “I don’t know, I favor a little more crispness/ in the attack (as in “attack”)." This opens up the subject of variation on meanings of words… and what should be a simple scale of white notes on the piano, without sharps, already daggers in an edge, which is confirmed with “wherever you go shivers you.” We enjoyed the confusion between the conversational tone and the poetic intervention of “rain is toothsome” the funny placement of “all” in the final “and you get all out of debt like that” which plays on getting all, but having nothing, like the Fakirs pursuing us, or clichés like “all out of whack (prepared by "day arriving with a thwack" in the first stanza.)
or “all out of joint”, and if sweeping reassurances that sunset calms, rain has a bite to it,
there is no logic for debt, whether forgiven or not… with a slant allusion to the Lord’s Prayer. I asked Jim to talk about Jazz, and he mentioned it is largely a question of “the ear of the beholder” and what he likes is jazz that has a harmonic structure. He told the anecdote of Leonard Bernstein listening to Ornette Coleman, and how he couldn’t follow a single note.

Ends on the notion of poetry which “dissolves in/brilliant moisture and reads us/ to us.//
A faint notion. Too many words,/ but precious."
Like the emperor saying to Mozart, “too many notes” and Mozart replying, “which ones would you dispense with” and Salieri saying, “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall”.
I brought up “preciosity” – that affectation of knowing something and the irony with which Ashbery uses the word “precious” both literally and in the pejoratively figurative sense.

And what is the title “uptick” referring to with the sound of a ticking clock? The definition is the ticket price going up; a stock market transaction (or sometimes, a quote) at a price higher than the preceding one for the same security.

The first stanza is like an upbeat, where “it” doesn’t dovetail: time/ -- which isn’t saying “time doesn’t dovetail” – but implies it – and that one minute running faster than the one “it catches up to” which gives a dizzying sense of velocity. And the idea of nothing wasted. Followed by the second stanza with the downbeat in a sentence with 3 commas, 6 lines, which compares viewing a painting, “half turning around, slightly apprehensive,/but it has to pay attention /to what’s up ahead: a vision. That same “it”.

These short poems beg to be repeated in their entirety, as you take out one note, and the structure does indeed fall down.

Alcove: from Arabic, al qubbah, the arch.

Again, two stanzas. Referring to Spring, seasons which "coagulate/into years". We all enjoyed the “mugwump of the final hour” – and slant reference to political indecision which entered American English in 1884. And the word "breathy" dropped in conversationally so we don't suffocate in the collapse in the hole dug in the sand. … and what and who we shelter, in a nook, where “breathing could be heard clearly.” And how to make sense of the final two sentences.
“Terrible incidents happen/ daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.”

Lorrie mentioned about Maine and how everyone there loves the idea of Spring –
“we love it because we’ve seen pictures of it.”

At this point, I quoted the NY Times review of Hoagland’s book “Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty”. “Any pierced undergraduate in a Baudrillard seminar can tell you that in contemporary America, “Nothing means what its says,/and it says it all the time.”
Which led into a discussion of Voice-Over.

6 stanzas and a delightful final valentine – a goodbye to a relationship…
and trying to find the subject of the verb “halts”, or is it a noun, resting lonely on one line.
How another person, in a great deal of trouble/signals enough has been done/already,/tells us how time has shrunk…

and in a matter of time
the comma, peels the tonsil
of the complete serenade.

But it IS a voice-over after all… someone else’s voice pasted over the situation…

And that last stanza:
We are the day of the book.
Knaves that came along,
fig-roasts in the fall
in film chatter came to the same
albeit difference conclusion.

We all have a measure in which our lives live out – whether noticed in doses supplied by Prufrockian coffee spoons or egg-timers, or not remarked at all, without a notion of time. But one thing is sure. We all know the end is the end.

This little book delighted me. Arranged alphabetically from Alcove to Zymurgy --
(that branch of chemistry which deals with wine-making and brewing, 1868, from Gk. zymo-, comb. form of zyme "a leaven" (from PIE base *yus-; see juice) + -ourgia "a working," from ergon "work" (see urge (v.)). The last word in many standard English dictionaries; but in the OED [2nd ed.] the last word is zyxt, an obsolete Kentish form of the second person singular of see (v.).

In the title poem, Planisphere the reader is jolted on a train ride “in the observation car of their dreams”. Indeed, nothing like putting off a journey/until the next convenient interruption swamps/onlookers and ticket holders alike."

"We all more or less/ ressembled each other, until that fatal day in 1861/when the walkways fell off the mountains and the spruces/spruced down."

So I dutifully look up 1861: the beginning of the Confederate States of America with Jefferson Davis as President and appointment of Lincoln as 16th President of USA.
The Battle of Bull Run… As for the spruces/spruced, I found an article about Roosevelt’s “tree army” turning Indian land into National Parks…

Ah… Helen Vendler finds meaning in Planisphere’s title. She notes that it comes from Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” sees that the book is dedicated to Ashbery’s long-time partner, and claims that its two-dimensional suggestion somehow makes it so that “the distant poles at last can touch.” another review reassures me… these poems, arranged alphabetically, tease us, but delightfully.

It makes sense: A planisphere is a star chart analog computing instrument in the form of two adjustable disks that rotate on a common pivot. It can be adjusted to display the visible stars for any time and date. It is an instrument to assist in learning how to recognize stars and constellations. The astrolabe, an instrument that has its origins in the Hellenistic civilization, is a predecessor of the modern planisphere

The Cabbage Rabbit (Jan. 10, 2010) says this: "But Ashbery puts platitude to unexpected use in unexpected places. Or he wrings something out of them, saying, for example, “There were two ways about it,” the missing “no” bringing “you and me” as well as sun and stars and hope and futility together. This is an old Ashbery trick, keeping his ear to the ground and hearing a stampede. He does the same thing with individual words, turning nouns into verbs, adjectives into nouns and pronouns into other pronouns.

What Ashbery’s done is invented a new use for language, a new way to communicate. Words sweat from working overtime. He pulls sound and symbol from them as well as layers of meaning, like onion skins, at a pace to leave us crying."

I read the entire book once, and couldn’t stop turning the pages… made notes,
selected poems to discuss. In typing up these notes, I re-discovered more, on the 4th reading of : Alcove, Uptick, Variations in the Key of C, Voice-Over. We ended with one that Kim enjoyed, Breathlike


Just as the day could use another hour,
I need another idea. Not a concept
or a slogan. Something more like a rut
made of thousands of years ago by one of the first
wheels as it rolled along. It never came back
to see what it had done, and the rut
just stayed there, not thinking of itself
or calling attention to itself in any way.
Sun baked it. Water stood, or rather sat
in it. Wind covered it with dust, then blew it
away. Always it was available to itself
when it wished to be, which wasn’t often.

Then there was a cup and ball theory
I told you about. A lot of people had left the coast.
Squirt conditions obtained. I forgot I overwhelmed you
once upon a time, between everybody’s sound sleep
and waking afterward, trying to piece together
what had happened. The rut glimmered
through centuries of snow and after.
I suppose it was trying to make some point
but we never found out about that,
having come to know each other years later
when our interest in zoning had revived again.

How does he do this – an entire book, threaded like a strange necklace, baubled by gems of all shapes and sizes, experimental jewelry pieces, and yet it all hangs together.

I will keep very happy memories of our discussion -- grateful for a book which delights in language, even if it irritates us by the nature of language which indeed has pitfalls created by it's elasticity to embrace so much more than what is "said". Our discussion confirms the need for many readers' ears, and the sharing of what was heard by each one.

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