Date: Fri, 28 Dec 2001
Subject: Re: Merbery / Ashrill

--- "K.Silem Mohammad" <immerito@HOTMAIL.COM> wrote:

> For example, many of his poems have lots of water
imagery, or sky imagery, or writing-poems imagery,

That's how I read post-John Ashbery/Language poetry: from the entire oeuvre downward to the individual word.

When somebody's worth it, I read and re-read their books, back to back, in succession. And I'm a marginalia FIEND. I have a good memory for what words I've heard --- I can usually remember, with uncommon words, the last time a person spoke them in a conversation or where I'd heard it --- so there's a sort of reflex or ding! that goes off for me when a word reappears a second time in a book or across a series of book. And a total Jacob's Ladder when it appears three or more times!

I mark those words off in the margin, often with symbols: my Susan Howe books use the Greek theta for the theme of thinking or thought; Greek mu (not my sainted cat's name, which was Chinese) for memory, remember, forgetting, etc. (For a long time, I've used Gk. pi for "poetry.") Then, by a sort of concordance method, I can re-examine the meaning of any cell by how it's transacted over the full scale. Meaning can also be re-diagrammed into a sort of symbolic equation, semio-algebraically.

David Buuck at Tripwire has the MS of the presentation I gave at the Barnard College Lyric Tradition vs. Language Poetry Women's Innovative Poetry conference, on Howe and this reading method, which I called "vertical reading." (I'm pretty sure Tripwire will thumbs down on it.) Theoretically, it's very sensible: with "asyntactical" poetry, the dérèglement (Rimbaud) has only been traced along the syntax, the horizontal level; the paradigmatic axis, or the chain of substitutions and iterations for any word/synonyms, remains untouched. Any poet's unconscious idiolectical drives to re-use the same words is quite personal and revealing. (There's a book on Wallace Stevens called Obsessive Images, I believe.) The associations are extremely subjective or private, and usually hermetic to anyone who doesn't intimately know the person: mere letters can become hieroglyphs for people or associations (the letters in the author's name, obviously), the way that Schumann tucked away his mistress' and Clara's names in the ASCH motifs.

The only catch is that, by vertical reading, words and word clusters do wind up meaning something, definitely, from macrocosm to microcosm, but it's often something completely different from the dictionary or standard meaning of the word. that in contemporary poetry recurrent words are often place-holders or "wild cards" that stand in for
private meanings.

An interesting exception, in John Ashbery, is his use of hapax legumenon (words that turn up only once), such as "jacaranda," e.g.

> Furthermore, as I've been suggesting, they
> frequently meet with a great deal
> of success

A critic's job is to impose a coherent template over any poetry, or object of study. (The opposite of that was Deconstruction, which took apparently cohesive texts and exposed their inconsistencies and contradictions, ... but ultimately Deconstruction received a great deal of negative backlash in America.)

I once went in during her office hours, with the art critic (diva!) Rosalind Kraus. (That I merely dared to go into her office left Ph.D. candidates pale.) I had found (David Hockney may have pointed it out, actually) a visit that Picasso made to the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, and I wanted to say (or Hockney had said) there was a link between Gaudi's broken crockery facade surfaces and Picasso's cubism; I wanted to say that the elongated figures in Picasso's Blue Period was El Greco (I am an ectomorph) . . . And Kraus became famously impatient with me, and said:

"It doesn't matter if it's true or not! It's about which *INTERPRETIVE GRID* you superimpose over anything."

The "trick", as you say, isn't John Ashbery's. It's the critic's. One is taught to "write through" a secondary critical work: I took classes where some post-structuralist was assigned almost randomly, and you had to find a way of writing about the artist via those ("unrelated") texts.

> So
> for example, "Self
> Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is on one level a poem
> of meditation about art,
> identity, etc.,

Sorry for the autobiographical reductivism,--- but he had also just lost his job (or was on the brink of losing it) as art critic for Art in America, whose ownership had changed hands.

(...what irritates me is what people won't say about "Self-Portrait", which should be so obvious: that it's about narcissism.)

> Ashbery's, however, are like reversible jackets you
> can wear to either Iowa
> City or Buffalo.

That's absolutely brilliant. He'd love it! I hope some List reader who's in contact with him mentions that.