Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ashbery's exponential fancy

John Ashbery's linguistic playfulness can be seen as the natural extension of that oldest of poetic ploys: metaphor. Take for example, the poem 'A Kind of Chill' from the collection A Wordly Country (2007): it begins ...

He had a brother in Schenectady
but that was long, long ago. These days, crows
punch a time clock on a forgotten tract of land
not far from the Adirondacks. ...

The image of crows on a tract of upstate New York land is jammed together with the human blue-collar routine of punching a time clock. The lines operate in the standard manner of metaphor: as Pound pointed out in his notes on the 'ideogrammic method' it is where the images overlap that the second-order meaning emerges.

But Ashbery proceeds with a metaphor on a metaphor:

not far from the Adirondacks. They keep fit
and in the swim with lists of what to do tomorrow.

Now we have X is like Y is like Z ... the chain is indefinitely extendible and in the manner of the game Chinese Whispers - known as 'Telephone' in the US, I believe, and significantly the title of Ashbery's 2002 collection - this can lead meaning into remote regions.

Ashbery's raw materials are ready-made phrases from a wide range of contemporary usage - "keep fit", to be "in the swim", "long, long ago" - and he rearranges these elements in fresh ways. The development of the ideas and images is primarily through association, and is in this way musical. The approach fits with Coleridge's definition of Fancy ...

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

Ashbery piles fancy upon fancy, and rather than 'theme and variations' we get variations on variations on variations. His beginnings never know his ends.

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