Fetishism and Memories: Ashbery and Time

Akitoshi Nagahata


1. "Two Ashberys"

In an article on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Jerome J. McGann, having pointed out their closeness to John Ashbery, cautiously reminds us: "But there are certainly two Ashberys to choose from" (199). McGann divides Ashbery's career in terms of the political significance of his "postmodern stance" (200). His earlier career, according to McGann, covers the period of his "experimental projects" developed from The Tennis Court Oath (1962) to Three Poems (199), while in the period from 1973 to the present his work has moved along the lines that parallel the suburban and personal interests (200), that is, his poetry has become more "personal" and "localized" (198) after 1973. Characterizing Ashbery's career with this polarization, McGann sees in it a reflection of the history of American poetry after World War II; the political stance of American poetry writing between 1946 and 1973 was "unmistakably liberal left," while the period from 1973 to the present was the years of a "dramatic shift to the political right" (198), though, McGann adds, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing has attempted to be oppositional all the time. The shift in Ashbery's writing style, for McGann, thus typifies the change in the poetic trends in the post-war America.

As McGann points out, it is beside the point to argue whether or not Ashbery wrote experimental poetry to proclaim his own political radicalism, or to show his agreement to political radicalism in postwar America. It is rather a polarization in the Ashbery criticism that should be looked at. Indeed, some critics stress political implications in his experimental poetry, while others attempt a non-political reading, denying attention to his earlier experiments. The former, including Fred Moramarco and Richard Kostelanetz, in addition to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, value Ashbery's radical experiments in his early collection of poems, The Tennis Court Oath, for instance, and the latter, such as Harold Bloom, hear in his poems the echoes of the poets in the American Transcendentalist tradition, exemplified by Emerson, Whitman and Stevens. The reactions of these critics to some of the poems included in The Tennis Court Oath highlight this opposition in the Ashbery criticism. While Kostelanetz cites "Europe," one of Ashbery's most radical experiments, as his "favorite" (33), Bloom repudiates "Leaving the Atocha Station," the poem no less experimental as "Europe," with "outrage and disbelief" (52).

Keeping such opposing critical stances in view, I will attempt in this article to analyze a case of thematic conflicts in Ashbery's poetry, the one closely related to his stylistic polarity and its political meaning. As I will show below, Ashbery's poems have two opposing attitudes toward "time": escapism and confrontation. The first, which might be rephrased, using the concept Ashbery develops in "The System," as "fetishism of time," can be placed in the tradition of the theme of "lie against time." The other, which I call the spirit of "antifetishism" is a sentiment that tries to suppress such "fetishism." These two opposing attitudes toward time in Ashbery's poetic texts form an apt parallel of the opposing views in the Ashbery criticism mentioned above. However, I will not hasten to affirm or take sides with either of the two attitudes or the two opposing critical stances. Instead, I will pay attention to the way these two attitudes guide the reader of his poems to the Ashberyan impasse and then observe how the co-habitation of the temptation of fetishism and the unconscious desire to suppress fetishism simultaneously produces tension and enhances the intensity of his poems.


2 The Inability of Perception, the Sense of Alienation and the Labyrinth of Time

(1) Ashbery's Epistemology

One of Ashbery's central themes, often obscured by other themes, is the opposition of "reality" and its "representation." As is explained in his own words about poetic "intention," reported by Richard Kostelanetz, his poems have "no themes or subjects in the usual sense, except the very broad one of an individual consciousness confronting or confronted by a world of external phenomena" (33). The subject, familiar to us in the texts of such thinkers as Kant, Husserl, or Emerson, is that of the binary opposition of the self and reality, the consciousness and the phenomenal world, "ME" and "NOT-ME"; it is a subject that is often symbolized in a variety of literary texts by an act of perceiving, naming or writing the external world that is always evasive.

Ashbery's interest in epistemology, and especially in the difficulty of epistemology, is prevalent in the whole corpus of his poetry, but one of its most explicit and effective manifestations can be found in Three Poems, a text consisting of three prose poems, each of which seemingly assumes the style of philosophical meditation. For example, in "The Recital," the shortest of the three and placed at the end, the speaker exhibits Ashbery's interest in the epistemological dichotomy consisting of phenomenal world in change and the self that describes it, by highlighting the "enumeration and description" of the "new feelings" and "things in the new world" which one acquires when he grows up:

We embarked on a series of adult relationships from which the sting and malignancy of childhood were absent, or so it seemed: no more hiding behind bushes to get a secret glimpse of the others; no more unspeakable rages of jealousy or the suffocation of unrequited and unrealizable love. Or at least these things retreated into their proper perspective as new things advanced into the foreground: new feelings as yet too complex to be named or closely inspected, but in which the breathless urgency of those black-and-white situations of childhood happily played no part. It became a delight to enumerate all the things in the new world our maturity had opened up for us, as inexhaustible in pleasures and fertile pursuits as some more down-to-earth Eden, from which the utopian joys as well as the torments of that older fantasy-world had been banished by a more reasonable deity

But as the days and years sped by it became apparent that the naming of all the new things we now possessed had become our chief occupation; that very little time for the mere tasting and having of them was left over, and that ever these simple, tangible experiences were themselves subject to description and enumeration, or else they too became fleeting and transient as the song of a bird that is uttered only once and disappears into the backlog of vague memories where it becomes as a dried, pressed flower, a wistful parody of itself. Meanwhile all our energies are being absorbed by the task of trying to revive those memories, make them real, as if to live again were the only reality; and the overwhelming variety of the situations we have to deal with begins to submerge our efforts. It becomes plain that we cannot interpret everything, we must be selective, and so the tale we are telling begins little by little to leave reality behind. It is no longer so much our description of the way things happen to us as our private song, sung in the wilderness, nor can we leave off singing, for that would be to retreat to the death of childhood, to the mere acceptance and dull living of all that is thrust upon us, a living death in a word; we must register our appraisal of the moving world that is around us, but our song is leading us on now, farther and farther into that wilderness and away from the shrouded but familiar forms that were its first inspiration On and on into the gathering darkness is there no remedy for this? It is as though a day which had begun brilliantly in the blaze of a new sunrise had become transfixed as a certain subtle change in the light can cast a chill over your heart, or the sight of a distant thin ribbon of cirrus ebbing into space can alter everything you have been feeling, dropping you back years and years into another world in which its fragile reminder of inexorable change was also the law, as it is here today. You know now the sorrow of continually doing something that you cannot name, of producing automatically as an apple tree produces apples this thing there is no name for. And you continue to hum as you move forward, but your heart is pounding. (TP 108-109)

This passage describes a situational change from one's unhappy childhood to his joyful adolescence, which then turns to a frustration. In terms of the epistemological viewpoint, the passage might be summarized into the following seven stages: (1) the expansion of the phenomenal world (as one grows out of the dark, unhappy childhood into adulthood, he possesses new things and feelings that seem almost infinite); (2) the difficulty of naming (yet, as time passes, the task of naming the things newly acquired becomes strenuous); (3) the loss of immediacy in experience (as a result, the experience of touching things with one's own hand and tasting them on his own palate is given up for the act of enumeration and description; the experience of a thing is now possible only in the memory or afterimage of the thing, that is, in a representation, a text; the sense of immediacy between the self and the phenomenal world, which left no room for doubt in childhood, is now lost and the sense of separation from the world is dominant); (4) the effort of vicarious experience (one's whole energy is now devoted to the effort of revitalizing the experience in memory, of re-experiencing the original in terms of its representation); (5) the rupture of textualization (yet one's effort to retain all the experiences he has by registering them in memory is ruptured because of the extraordinary quantity and limitless variety of these experiences; the velocity of change or of the genesis of the phenomenal world dominates the task of textualization and representation in terms of memory); (6) the rejection of totality and the origin (thus it becomes necessary to be selective, for now it seems impossible to enumerate all of the experiences one goes through; the task of representation of the original experience in memory is now ineffective for the purpose of vicarious experience, and the attempt of restoring all the experiences is given up); (7) the unhappy consciousness (the representation of the original experience retained in memory now begins to leave behind the phenomenal world that was to be restored through the very representation; one is now unable to know what he is doing or why he is doing it and gets the sense of alienation as he continues the task he does not understand but has to do).

The theme of consciousness in search of the lost immediacy with the outer world has been familiar in the poets in the Romantic Tradition. As reflected in their preference for the mirror symbols and the quest motifs, the poets in this tradition have the epistemological interest in the core of their poetics. One notable example in this century is Wallace Stevens, one of Ashbery's "favorite poet[s]" (kostelanetz 20). In his poems Stevens repeatedly takes up the issue of the relationship between the self and reality and of the difficulty of unmediated representation of reality. In "The Man with the Blue Guitar," for instance, the man committed with artistic representation, which is symbolized by "the blue guitar," laments over his inability to capture "things as they are" or the phenomenal world without mediation:

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero's head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.


The opposition of the consciousness and the world to be represented is clear here and in the whole of this poem. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," another poem featuring poetic representation, the epistemological binary structure is exhibited, with slight echoes of mysticism, as the opposition of the singer/poet and "the genius of the sea" (128) or Nature. Unlike the guitarist in the lines quoted above, the singer in "The Idea of Order at Key West" is symbolically presented as a "capable poet," who is expected to bring an order, or a meaning of the world, by giving it a poetic form ideally and perfectly conceived. However, the last stanza of this poem shows the speaker of the poem himself highly moved by the strong desire for order which he sees in this ideal singer, and thus shows the epistemological predicament that besets the man with the blue guitar--the loss of immediacy and the sense of alienation--likewise resides in the poet who, as a lesser poet, cannot but observe the singer, the capable poet:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.



(2) Ashbery's Epistemology and Time

What is characteristic of Ashbery when he refers to the loss of immediacy is his emphasis on the temporal element in the process of alienation from the phenomenal world. Not only does he portray discontinuity between the consciousness and the world in the synchronic space, but he also stresses from the diachronical point of view the fact that the phenomena to which the consciousness is directed are always in change. Thus in Ashbery's poems the discontinuity between the consciousness and the external world is often manifested as "the changing World and the self being left behind," as seen in the passage from "The Recital" quoted above. Time dominates the human faculties of perception and understanding, and this recognition of time's power gives his poems the sense of being in a "temporal labyrinth" in which the self becomes unable to locate itself:

The problem is that there is no problem. It must awaken from the sleep of being part of some other, old problem, and by that time its new problematical existence will have already begun, carrying it forward into situations with which it cannot cope, since no one recognizes it and it does not even recognize itself yet, or know what it is.

(TP 107)

* * *

knowing as the brain does it can never come about
not here not yesterday in the past
only in the gap of today filling itself
as emptiness is distributed
in the idea of what it is
When that time is already past

(SP 7)

* * *

Just time to reread this
And the past slips through your fingers wishing you were there

(SP 8)

* * *

[B]ut the true terror is in the swiftness of changing, forward or backward, slipping always just beyond our control

(W 49)

In these lines, we can find what Richard Jackson calls a "nomadic time," which is "a time that is characterized by perpetual displacement, that abandons its origins, an idea that is itself too mobile to be understood in any language but that of the emulsive poem" (147). It is a time in which the present becomes the past the moment it is perceived and understood as the present, and thus forces the self in search of presence a perpetual repetition of dissatisfaction and displacement.

It is here that the theme of temporal disparity of inside and outside in Ashbery's poems is linked to the traditional theme of "Devouring Time": for underlying Ashbery's nomadic time is a sense of immutability and irreversibility, which is a theme repeatedly taken up in the tradition of English poetry. As shown in Shakespeare's sonnets, Donne's meditations, and Herrick's poems with the carpe diem theme, time in English poetry has been imaged as that which shakes the darling buds of May and brings death to every being alive. Time, thus seen, is a metonym of Fate, and hence of Death, which is often personified as a skeleton carrying a scythe


3. Memory as Text and Escapism

Presenting the situation in which the consciousness is severed from the world in change, and is beset with the sense of alienation, Ashbery's poems propose reliance on memory to restore the lost immediacy with the world that has gone into the past. As is exhibited in the passage quoted earlier from "The Recital," memory, as a re-presented text of the original, serves for a kind of vicarious re-experience. But because of the inordinate variety and quantity of the experiences one goes through, this means of a vicarious re-experience comes to be ineffective, and unable to restore the original experiences any more; finally it becomes necessary to be selective. What this necessity of selection implies is none other than giving up the idea of complete re-presentation of the original, and acknowledging authenticity in its copies. Ironically, however, relieved of the imperative for complete re-presentation of reality, the remembered narratives are now conducive to an imaginary realm free from the pains and pressures contingent to the original experiences.

This shift from the imperative for complete re-presentation to the lenient selectivity in Ashbery's lines on temporality leads to what Octavio Paz calls "the consecration of the instant" (167). Just as Frank Kermode distinguishes "Chairos" and "Chronos" (Ch. 2), a time of plenitude and a time without meaning, Paz also makes a distinction between "the privileged instant of poetry" and "the temporal current" (169). And yet the power to evoke such an instant is not limited to poetry, for one can witness the same privileging of the instant in other examples referring to time: Wordsworth's "spots of time," Eliot's "still time," Proust's "madelaine" episode and Joyce's scenes of "epiphany," all of which bring about the privileged instant and the promise of bliss.

In spite of euphoric connotations of this privileged instant, however, we should not overlook what is excluded from this consecration, or privileging. Jurgen Habermas' remark on the avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century is insightful. According to Habermas, this avant-garde movement had "a longing for an undefiled immaculate and stable present" in its aspiration for an as yet unoccupied future (5). In other words, the avant-garde's aspiration for a future time is not a positive extension of the present but a denial of the (for them) degenerate present. The future for them means purity, but it is in truth a rejection of the present.

It is not difficult to see an element of escapism in this aspiration for futurity in the avant-garde movement, as well as in the consecration of the instant in general. Ashbery is no exception. When a complete re-presentation of reality is given up, an interest in and a will for maintaining a meaningful relationship with the outer reality becomes weak. The epistemological implications in the dichotomy of the consciousness and the outer world is now lost, and reality is merely regarded as an oppressive force. Representations, or images of reality now form an independent sphere which provides the self with a cozy resting place, and seduction into such a sphere sounds soothing and sweet in his poems.

The escapist longing for this non-time is often revealed in his metaphors of representations of various kinds. That of a film is one of the most recurrent. The following is excerpted from "The System":

But only focus on the past through the clear movie-theater dark and you are a changed person, and can begin to live again. That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures; we can live as though Ae had caught up with time and avoid the sickness of the present, a shapeless blur as meaningless as a carelessly exposed roll of film.

(TP 103)

The present here is imaged as something uncanny which causes "sickness." We can live only if we can avoid that sickness, if, that is, we can take the fictional world on the movie screen as our true lives, and stay away from the present by escaping into this comfortable sphere which these past memories provide as if they were present. The metaphor of "a shapeless blur" of "a carelessly exposed roll of film" at the end of the passage is highly effective, for it suggests a chance reminder of the fictionality of our imaginary present which we take as real.

It is not only the escape into the past through memory, it should be reminded, that guarantees a consecrated moment in Ashbery's poems. Dreams, fairy tales, stories, and songs--more or less transformed representations of reality--also evoke a privileged and transcendent moment which enables an escape from reality:

In the meantime, back to dreaming, your most important activity

(RM 53)

* * *

You must remember that certain things die out for awhile
So that they can be remembered with affection
Later on and become holy

(AWK 85)

* * *

There are still other made-up countries
Where we can hide forever,
Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,
Sucking the sherbets, crooning the tunes, naming the names.

(SP 33)

The "dream," "memory," and "made-up countries" are rendered "sacred" because they allow us to "hide forever" in a space that is safe and distant from reality, from the world of "eternal desire and sadness."

It seems to be understood in these lines that poetic writing too is a task of creating such a space, a made-up country, not only for the readers but also for the poet himself. Indeed, in an interview published in San Francisco Review of Books (Nov. 1977), Ashbery himself admits that he "read[s] and write[s] for escapist purposes" (11). He then adds the following explanation:

I don't know what my life is, what I want to be escaping from. I want to move to some other space, I guess, when I write, which perhaps was where I had been but without being fully conscious of it. I want to move in and out of it, while I'm writing. (20)

However, being conscious of one's own longing for an escape into "some other space" does not mean that he approves of his own poetic disposition. Indeed he is not unaware of the negative implication that such an escapist attitude toward temporality has, as shown below.


4. Temporal Fetishism and "Anti-Fetishism"

(1) Fetishism

An attempt to evade the flow of meaningless time, whether through a day-dream, a memory or a song, invites a comparison with a behavior induced by "fetishism," a term familiar to us in Freudian psychoanalysis. In "Three Essays on Sexuality" (1905) Freud defines "fetishism" as cases in which the normal sexual object is replaced by "another [object] which bears some relation to it, but is entirely unsuited to serve the normal sexual aim" (VII 153). He gives for an example "some part of the body (such as the foot or hair)" or "some inanimate object which bears an assignable relation to the person whom it replaces and preferably to that person's sexuality (e.g. a piece of clothing or underlinen)" (VII 153). In the footnote to this essay written in 1910 he adds a new idea to this definition of fetishism, proposing that fetish stands for the missing penis of the woman--a "phallocentric" theory of fetishism, which is further developed, in "Fetishism" of 1927, in relation to the notions of "castration complex" and "narcissism."

Fetishism, however, is a concept that had been discussed even before the time of Freud. According to Keizaburo Maruyama's Bunka no Fetishizumu [Fetishism in Culture], the term "fetishism," or "fetichism," has been used in three disciplinary fields: religion, economics, and psychology (36). Kant, for example, considered fetishism in the context of religion. He theorized that it occurs "when a worshiper labors under the illusion that he possesses an art of bringing about a supernatural effect through wholly natural means" (165). In the field of economics, Marx put forth the idea of "fetishism of commodities." By Maruyama's paraphrase, it is a mechanism in which "a currency establishes a centrality in a system of relations governing commodity producers or commodities, and brings forth an illusion which, concealing the true relations, attaches a seemingly substantive and self-sufficient value to each commodity" (37). Meanwhile, David Simpson considers this concept in an epistemological framework. "Roughly speaking," he says, "fetishism occurs when the mind ceases to realize that it has itself created the outward images or things to which it subsequently posits itself as in some sort of subservient relation" (xiii).

In spite of the diversity in the field in which this term is used, following Simpson, one might say that "fetishism" consists in regarding fictional image, or a representation of reality, not as a substitute for the reality but as the very reality itself. Simply put, it is assuming a mere substitute for the original and the authentic. As this simplification shows, it is important in our discussion that the basic feature of fetishism is, in Maruyama's words, "metonymy with a part symbolizing a whole, or synechdochic symbolism" (36).

(2) Ashbery's Fetishism of Time

Ashbery refers to fetishism in the prose poem "The System" in Three Poems:

Most people would not consider it in its details, because (a) they would argue that details, no matter how complete, can give no adequate idea of the whole, and (b), because the details can too easily become fetishes, i.e., become prized for themselves, with no notion of the whole of which they were a part, with only an idolatrous understanding of the qualities of the particular detail.

(TP 67)

An attention to the synechdochic relation in which a part substitutes for a whole and an allusion to "idolatry," which suggests the original context in which the term "fetishism" was engendered--the Judeo-Christian inhibition of idolatry--clearly shows that Ashbery's understanding of this concept is not limited to the discipline of Freudian psychoanalysis; it is more comprehensive, with religion and cultural anthropology in view. Yet what is more important is that Ashbery's lines above not merely point out a synecdochic reversal in fetishism--a part taken for the whole, the derivative for the authentic--but also present a critical stance toward such reversal.

The examples of criticism of fetishism--or "censorship" of fetishism, to borrow Freud's term--are not abundant in Ashbery's poems, but they are not limited in the above passage quoted from "The System," either. Most often they appear in the period of his career in which he wrote Three Poems and Self-Poetrait in a Convex Mirror. The poems written in this period, though complex in surrealistic inconsistency and ambiguity, reveal Ashbery's concern for fetishism, often in his use of synecdochic framework:

But most of all she loved the particles
That transform objects of the same category
Into particular ones, each distinct
Within and apart from its own class

(SP 9)

* * *

Too bad, I mean, that getting to know each just for a fleeting second
Must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole
Like some pocket history of the world, so general
As to constitute a sob or wail unrelated
To any attempt at definition.

(SP 16)

* * *

The many as noticed by the one:
The noticed one, confusing itself with the many
Yet perceives itself as an individual
Traveling between two fixed points.

(SP 34)

In all of the three examples of the synecdochic relation quoted above, the emphasis is on the importance of "particularity" or "individuality" that is threatened by "categorization" or "abstraction." In these examples, there is an understanding that generalization (or abstraction) inheres exclusion and suppression of the few; when certain features shared by many components of a species are generalized as the features of that species, at least some features are ignored. Though the concept "generalization" consists in a process of including "all, or nearly all, the parts of a specified whole" (OED "GENERAL"), this "all" is often no more than a part, or at least parts, of the whole; there should be a certain part or parts left out. In this sense, all generalization is fetishistic; like fetishism it is a totalization by substituting its part or parts for the whole, and it is fated with the exclusion of the few. Ashbery's lines above, filled with a longing for individuality that is easily lost, is a criticism of this exclusion inherent in generalization, and totalization at large, which includes fetishism. His criticism of fetishism is thus essentially connected with this negation of the totalizing tendency.

Ashbery's denial of fetishism, and especially of its exclusiveness, can be observed more clearly in his lines on temporality. As seen before, Ashbery contrasts an escapist longing for the past with a gaze into the meaningless present. Yet, interestingly enough, this opposition of the two attitudes toward time corresponds with his another contrast: fetishism and the sentiment that opposes it. In spite of an escapist tendency in their aspiration for a safe haven of non-time, his poems exhibit a moral consciousness that is distinct from and critical of escapism. Usually implicit, this critical attitude toward escapism has a moral sentiment reminiscent of one found in "an existential projection of an authentic Being-towards-Death" of Heidegger (304)--an attempt of projecting oneself toward future with the full knowledge of one's fate, and of the absurdity caused by the situation of being "thrown" in the world or time. For example, the speaker of the following lines is highly conscious of the way the world of past memories turns into a fetish, a "closed-in state," while he rests in it:

Perhaps, sinking into the pearl stain of that passionate eye,
The minutes came to seem the excrement of all they were passing through,
A time when colors no longer mattered
They are to us as qualities we were not meant to catch
As being too far removed from our closed-in state.

(SP 26)

As the past tense in the first two lines show, it should be noted, here the presentation of the increasing separation between the consciousness and reality is made with an underlying touch of anxiety and sorrow, in spite of its apparent calm.

Furthermore, when Ashbery says the following in the prose poem "The System," the negative tone attached to the word "fetishism" is unmistakable:

Fetishism comes into being only when there is a past that may seem more or less attractive when compared with the present; the resulting inequality causes a rush toward the immediate object of contemplation, hardens it into a husk around its own being, which promptly ceases.

(TP 70)

The memories of the past events are not considered here as an unquestioned realm of escape but as a field of danger that annihilates reality itself with fetishistic sclerosis. Here is a moral stance toward time which is in clear contrast to an escapist attitude toward time. And such denial of escapism suggests a doubly significant imperative; not only does it thematically suggest the importance of facing the flow of time in spite of its absurdity, but it also forces the reader to do so. His poems call attention to the way time passes, the way "one piece is added to another" (SP 38), yet at the same time, they embody this sense of the passage of time in terms of their poetic style, so that the reader must share it with the poet.

(3) "Anti-fetishism" and the "Style"

Inhibition of escape from the meaningless flow of time by living another time in the fictional world--of a movie, dream or memory--calls for a painful confrontation with this meaninglessness of real time. It is in a sense an act of voluntarily feeling the nausea induced by the Sartrean absurdity of the world in change. When a poet decides to put this moral stance toward time in his writing, he might choose to express it in terms of a linguistic message in his poetry or of a poetic style. Ashbery does both. He not only denotes this stance in a message, which is often highly ambiguous, but also conveys it to the reader by making him vicariously experience in his poems the act of concentrating on the monotonous and meaningless passing of one moment after another in real life. The poetic style effective for conveying to the reader this something about time, "which only a clock can tell you: how it feels not what it means" (HD 29) is one that forces on him a hardship comparable in any way to the pain caused by facing the passing time. Ashbery's experiments, especially those in The Tennis Court Oath, can be regarded as an attempt of relating the difficulty of reading with the pain of confronting the absurd time. Even though it is hard to assume his later poetry as stylistically experimental to the degree of his earlier poetry, the legendary difficulty of his earlier poems is certainly comparable to the pain caused by experiencing the absurdity of time.

One can also argue that his predilection for prose poems is an indication of this analogy between a poetic style and the painful monotony of time. Among other prose poems and poems partially written in prose--"The Young Son" of Some Trees, "The Ascetic Sensualists" and "Idaho" of The Tennis Court Oath, "Variations, Calypso and Fugue or a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox" and "For John Clare" of The Double Dream of Spring--Three Poems, consisting of three prose poems, is the most daring in his pursuit of the possibility of prose. In an interview with Richard Kostelanetz, Ashbery explains the composition of this volume in relation to the "ugliness" of prose:

I used prose because I'm constantly trying to think of things I haven't done yet, and prose poetry until that point, as in Baudelaire or Rimbaud, always seemed slightly askew and not quite right. It sort of sounds self-conscious and "poetic," which is a quality I dislike in prose. I was wondering: what about writing prose poetry in which the ugliness of prose would be exploited and put to the uses of poetry? And that was hard to do, of course, like everything. (26)

This remark exhibits Ashbery's strong ambition for a generic renovation. To him the prose poems of the French Symbolists, such as Baudelaire's and Rimbaud's, seem ultimately to be sublimated to the purely aesthetic realm of "poetry," even if they inscribe in their prose works some ugly and mundane items of the cityscape such as death, sickness, ennui and decadence. By contrast, Ashbery's prose poetry is intended to show the kind of ugliness that cannot be conveyed by the choice of motifs in a poem but by the choice of the style of the poem; for it is the ugliness of the world which perpetually repeats occurrence and extinction without any intrinsic meaning, not the ugliness of the things in such a world, that he is interested in. His attention to the "ugliness of prose" is thus an indication not so much of his purely aesthetic pursuit of stylistic possibilities as of his basic epistemological interest in the changing world. In addition, one can discern here the presence of a moral sense that hinders the evasive tendency in the very estheticism.

Ashbery's interest in the use of the "ugliness of prose" to exhibit the "ugliness of the world" in Three Poems is reminiscent of his interpretation of Gertrude Stein's poetry. As he admits himself, Ashbery is an avid reader of Gertrude Stein--"I've read her a lot" (Bellamy 16). He is also a reviewer of her collection of poems, Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems, published in 1956. Interestingly enough, in this review, titled "The Impossible" and published in Poetry, Ashbery points out that one of the prominent features of Stein's poetry is "monotony" (250), which he explains in the following passages:

These austere "stanzas are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as "where," "which," "these," "of," "not," "have," "about," and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about. (250)
* * *

If these works are highly complex and, for some, unreadable, it is not only because of the complicatedness of life, the subject, but also because they actually imitate its rhythm, its way of happening, in an attempt to draw our attention to another aspect of its true nature. (252)

Stein's monotony, along with her other stylistic features--such as "lapses into dull, facile rhyme," "over-employment of rhythms suggesting a child's incantation against grownups" (250)--is far from her technical immaturity. On the contrary, Ashbery suggests, her stanzas are intended to be a reading challenge which, with their monotony, makes the reader vicariously experience the monotony of the real world. Thus, "one feels that if one were to close the book one would shortly re-encounter the Stanzas in life, under another guise" (251).

Ashbery rephrases the monotony he finds in Stein's poems as "the feeling of time passing, of things happening, of a 'plot,' though it would be difficult to say precisely what is going on" (251). Indeed, under the influence of William James, Stein in the early period of her career as a writer repeated the experiment of putting down in words the process; of the occurrence and extinction of one moment after another exactly as it appears in her consciousness. And this difficult task of verbally representing the passage of time brought about the repetitive style of her prose as well as poetry. It is hard to read, but not without a reason. The following stanza, whose subject is exactly time's passage, is a good example of this double nature:

I wish now to wish now that it is now
That I will tell very well
What I think not now but now
Oh yes oh yes now
What do I think now
I think very well of what now
What is it now it is this now
How do you do how do you do
And now how do you do now
This which I think now is this (99)

The moment when the poet attempts to register the "now" in her consciousness, that "now" has already become a "then." The world is in change and cannot be controlled by our consciousness. And all the poet can do is imitate this inexorable passage of time in words, or register "the act of the mind" in pursuit of the true "now" that cannot be registered. The above stanza reveals this perpetual belatedness of the consciousness directed to the passing time by way of its thematic denotation as well as its style.

Stein's delineation of time shares with that of Ashbery this emphasis on the inability of registering the present. But this epistemological theme of ungraspable "now" is not all that Stein shares with Ashbery. Like Ashbery, she also exhibits a sentiment that refuses a totalizing and exclusive act of generalization or abstraction. As seen in the stanza quoted above, Stein treats all the "now's" equally in her attention to the present, in a way that recalls Ashbery's criticism of exclusiveness in generalization. One should also note that in her attention to the "now's" is hidden her refusal of privileging a certain part in a series or a whole--an attitude reminiscent of Ashbery's inhibition of a fetishistic consecration of a certain past moment over the present. The resemblance is heightened when the sentiment of anti-fetishism in Ashbery is compared with Stein's following remark on "composition," which, though not about temporality, is still remarkable with its attention to the synecdochic relation between the part and the whole:

Up to that time composition had consisted of a central idea, to which everything else was an accompaniment and separate but was not an end in itself, and Cezanne conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole, and that impressed me enormously, and it impressed me so much that I began to write Three Lives under this influence and this idea of composition (15)

It is true that unlike the sentiment of anti-fetishism observed in Ashbery's poems, Stein's attitude toward time, which might be called her "temporal egalitarianism," lacks an emphasis on the sense of pain, or nausea, induced by the confrontation with the meaningless flow of time. Yet her rejection of the loss of specificity as a result of abstraction, exhibited clearly in her theory of composition, relates her pursuit of the present and her verbal imitation of absurd time with the Ashberyan sentiment of anti-fetishism. It is this temporal egalitarianism, one might conjecture, that Ashbery learned from the experimental writings of Stein. It is true, as he himself admits, that in Three Poems there is a great deal of prose that is "pompous, awkward, self-consciously poetic" (26), like the prose poetry he was trying to get away from in the composition of this prose work; but his ambition for an "unpoetic" style displays his intention of representing the monotony and the ugliness of the world and hence, possibly, his sympathy with the Steinian "temporal egalitarianism."


5. Temptation for Fetishism and the Sentiment of Anti-fetishism

As seen so far, there are two contradictory attitudes toward time in Ashbery's poetry. One is a desire for evading the meaningless flow of time and escaping into a sanctified realm of past memories, dreams, play or a game--a desire we have associated with fetishism. The other is a sentiment which stifles this desire for escape and which we have called "anti-fetishism." These two sentiments conflict and cancel each other in Ashbery's poems about time. For example, the sentiment of "anti-fetishism" found in the remark on "fetishism" quoted above from "The System" (TP 30) is thwarted later in the same paragraph from which it is quoted. In this paragraph the "life-as-ritual," a life centered on merely going forward and passing each of the stages of the ritual or life, without "looking back" (TP 30), is seemingly proposed as a substitute for a fetishistic way of life but the narrator then points out its limitation:

But the ritual approach provides some matrix from which it sprang, the soul feels that it is propelling itself forward at an ever-increasing speed. This very speed becomes a source of intoxication and of more gradually accruing speed; in the end the soul cannot recognize itself and is as one lost, though it imagines it has found eternal rest. (TP 30-31)

In this prose poem written with the assumption that the self has lost the epistemological keys to the system of signification, that it can no longer locate itself in the enormous labyrinth of unfamiliar signs--"The system was breaking down" (TP 53)--two attempts have been proposed to rediscover the lost circuit. One is what is called the "great careers" approach (TP 69), that is, concentrating on the past experiences rather than the present. This approach is rejected, as seen above, for the reason that it easily yields to fetishism. The other approach is the "life-as-ritual" approach, proposed as the substitute for the first, but this is also renounced because, the narrator implies, even if the self fixes its attention to the present rather than the past, it can hardly understand instantly the meaning of the occurrence of the world, or the relation between itself and the world present or past.

Thus, not only the fetishism of time but also the inhibition of this fetishism arrive at the moment of negation. The two opposing sentiments on time, one stressing the pain arising from the Sartrean absurd and escape from it, and the other the epistemological need to grasp reality and hence confrontation with this absurdity of time, are both unable to achieve centrality in Ashbery's poetry; both arrive at the frustrating situation of the Ashberyan impasse in which the consciousness always finds itself after all the attempts for solution have proved futile. This impasse, or aporia, leads ultimately to the sense of misfortune or of ennui and indifference as seen in the earlier quotation from "The Recital," or in the following also quoted from this prose poem:

You cannot do without it and you cannot have it. At this point a drowsiness overtakes you as of total fatigue and indifference ... . (TP 84)

It should not be overlooked, however, that in spite of this ennui the tension between the lure for fetishism and the denial of this temptation in Ashbery's poems accomplishes intensity which makes the choice between the two approaches toward time almost meaningless. "The Task," in The Double Dream of Spring, is a representative case. Although it appears no more than a poem of consecration and fetishization of the transcendent non-time given in "play" and "dream," an underlying sentiment of repressing this tendency of fetishism, which counters the temptation of fetishism, gives this piece a tension and power:

It is the blankness that follows gaiety, and Everyman must depart
Out there into stranded night, for his destiny
Is to return unfruitful out of the lightness
That passing time evokes. It was only
Cloud-castles, adept to seize the past.
And possess it, through hurting. And the way is clear
Now for linear acting into that time
In whose corrosive mass he first discovered how to breathe.

(DDS 13)

When the day ends and the night begins, Everyman is on his way back from the transient "romance" (DDS 13) and "lightness," which enables him to "seize the past/And possess it." The poet-speaker is well aware that this brief period of remembrance of the past is no more than a stay in "Cloud-castles," a daydream. It is only children's diversion after dinner, the poet-speaker suggests. The third part of this poem thus starts with a mother's voice of reprimand that sobers them up from their timeless rapture which has been brought about by their after-dinner amusement:

Just look at the filth you've made,
See what you've done.
Yet if these are regrets they stir only lightly
The children playing after supper,
Promise of the pillow and so much in the night to come.
I plan to stay here a little while
For these are moments only, moments of insight,
And there are reaches to be attained,
A last level of anxiety that melts
In becoming like miles under the pilgrim's feet.

(DDS 13)

In front of the poet-speaker disguised as a "pilgrim" lies a long distance to be traveled, which refers symbolically to the years ahead to be lived. Only briefly, he thinks, he will take a rest from his travel and stay in the time of "romance," which is unreal but gives "insight," nevertheless. So thinking, this pilgrim takes a rest, in spite of the reprimand remaining in his subconscious. It is certainly easy to see an element of escapism here, in being drawn to a rest, disregarding temporarily the necessity of trekking the road that is at once malicious and treacherous. Yet, as suggested in the formal opposition of the emphasized phrases, "moments only" and "moments of insight," it is not a mere delineation of escapist tendency that is observed here, but exactly the balanced opposition of the escapist desire and the instinct that represses this desire for escape. The pilgrim does take the rest, as prophesied by Ashbery's declaration of escapism in his interview. But we must also pay attention to the echoes of antifetishism, or of the mother's reprimand, deep in the tone of this poem and in his poetry at large; for they are the voices of life itself, and their inclusion in his poetry is a demonstration that Ashbery's poems, despite their escapist tendency, still retain the link with the world that always seems to be moving farther away

* The original Japanese version of this paper was presented orally at the monthly meeting of American Literature Society of Japan, Tokyo Branch, in January, 1988.



1. The following abbreviations will be used in this paper:

TCO:The Tennis Court Oath.
RM: Rivers and Mountains.
DDS: The Double Dream of Spring.
TP: Three Poems.
SP: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
HD: Houseboat Days.
AWK: As We Know.
W: A Wave.

2. For the general history of the concept "fetishism," see Simpson and Maruyama.


Works Cites

Ashbery, John. "The Impossible." Poetry, 90 (July, 1950): 250-254.

___. The Tennis Court Oath. Middletown, Conn.: Weslyan UP, 1962.

___. Rivers and Mountains. 1962; Rpt. New York: Ecco, 1977.

___. The Double Dream of Spring. 1970, Rpt. New York: Ecco, 1976.

___. Three Poems. New York: Viking, 1972.

___. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York: Viking, 1975.

___. Three Poems. New York: Viking, 1977.

___. As We Know. New York: Viking, 1979.

___. A Wave. New York: Viking, 1983.

Bellamy, Joe David (ed). American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984.

Bloom, Harold. "The Charity of the Hard Moments." Figures of Capable Imagination. New York: Seabury Press, 1976. Rpt. in John Ashbery. Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985: 49-79.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey. 24 vols. The Hogan Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-74.

Haas, Robert Barlett. A Primer for ghe Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein. Los Angels: Black Sparrow Press, 1971.

Habermas, Jurgen. "Modernity: An Incomplete Act." Trans. Seyla Ben-Habib. In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, Wa.: BayPress, 1983. 3-15.

Jackson, Richard. Dismantling of Time in Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: U of Alabama P, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson. 1934; Rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. London: Oxford UP, 1976.

Kostelanetz, Richard. "How to Be a Difficult Poet." The New York Times Magazine. May 1976: 18-33.

Maruyama Keizaburo. Bunka no Fetishizumu [Fetishism in Culture]. Tokyo: Keiso-Shobo, 1984.

McGann, Jerome J. Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work. Harvard UP, 1988.

Paz, Octavio. The Bow and the Lyre: The Poem, The Poetic Revelation, Poetry and History. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: U of Texas P, 1973.

Simpson, David. Fetishism and Imagination: Dickens, Melville, Conrad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.

Stein, Gertrude. Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems. New Haven: Yale UP, 1956.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954.