(an analogue to John Ashbery’s On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments and a response to Matthew Buckley Smith’s charge that the poem doesn’t make any sense)
Can you feel a sense of it
A package unopened
An entrance or blockage
An effort of will according to whom
What surrealist fish and what bright red bow
Two worlds have clashed and here we are, buttering a piece of toast
In years to come will any of this have mattered
As painted caves to children at play
I’ve no room for your sense in my chest if you hold the key
One has not long to wait for Christmas to be over
Matthew Buckley Smith’s laborious demonstration of its senselessness only proves what Ashbery’s poem, On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments, already concedes: that meaning or sense, in the way that Smith defines it, was not even a goal of the poem. Moreover, when he writes that,
Struggling through such lines may bring the reader some satisfaction, but there is a difference of more than degree between playful nonsense and artful sense. It’s bad faith simply to shrug and say that poetry is supposed to make you think, or that poetry is what you make it.
he ignores (or is unaware of) the possibility of a different sensibility, and therefore a different kind of sense than the one he is willing to recognize. It’s not a question of bad faith, but a lack of faith in (or ignorance of) a tradition that goes far into the history of modernism. In Smith’s catalogue of mistaken maneuvers one might add the common mistake of criticizing a work for failing to do what it never intended to do. True, Ashbery’s poem provides a very loose scaffolding to lay a poem on and one can easily understand why it’s too loose to satisfy all readers. The stones that one can step on in terms of a classical view of sense are indeed far apart, and I’m completely sympathetic to Smith’s difficulty with it. But that’s a far cry from suggesting that Ashbery’s influence is decisive in creating a state of contemporary poetry publishing in which the participants are willfully writing poems that aren’t even intended to be read. I’m not even interested in addressing that last cynical point. Let’s just discuss Ashbery’s poem.
It’s not a big poem, not a dramatic one, and, to be honest, not a very good one. It’s a modest poem, probably not worth a lot of analysis, but it functions to depict a kind of schizoid state familiar to a many of us in America. It’s a bit of bricolage that allows the mind multiple points of entrance and imaginative flight based loosely around a mood of prolonged lazy desultoriness. That, in broad outline, is its sense, which might even fit Smith’s criteria of sense, but I won’t press the issue.
The title is a given. It offers a situation so mundane it can be filled either with a personal experience or an easily imagined association. The elements of the poem are pasted together like bits of collage. Strictly speaking, the poem may or may not be a collage. We don’t know where the pieces came from, only that they are mundane enough to have come from almost anywhere in a world where Christmas ornaments can be left hanging. But that’s the point that Smith misses. We, in America, know this world. Ashbery is playing what we know, and a classical sense of knowing, off a modern sensibility that by now has become so routine as to be habit itself, even cliché. What surrealist fish? asks Smith. Exactly. Two worlds have clashed and here we are, buttering a piece of toast.
Let’s look at it another way. Ashbery worked as a reviewer of visual art shows for many years, and it’s useful to look at his poems with the lessons of modern visual art in mind. For example, when I wrote, the title is a given, we can compare this approach to that of Jasper Johns, who chose images that “the mind already knows”, such as shooting range targets or the American flag. Warhol gets us even closer. Warhol’s images were clichés, even vulgar, but he refused to either pass judgment on them or use them to convey his own thoughts. This refusal is central to Warhol’s art. And it’s well known that Ashbery isn’t interested in feeding the reader versions of their own experiences. Like Rauschenberg, he practices an art of cut-and-paste in which the juxtapositions are intended not to impose a story or tell you what to think, but to encourage you to bring your own associations to the poem or painting. The viewer or reader’s participation is not some quaint notion, and certainly not something to be shrugged off as bad faith. It is mandatory. The viewer, and with Ashbery the reader, is given clichés and a rudimentary scaffolding to begin with. You are expected to meet the painting, the poem, halfway, you are expected to do your part. The poem doesn’t do something to you; it doesn’t hit you over the head with sense. It begins with the understanding that you have some sense in your head to begin with, and it asks you, in the most pleasant way imaginable, to use your head.
Because he wrote poems as well as made assemblages, collages and paintings, Schwitters provides an even better basis of comparison. In Consistent Poetry, a text from 1924, Schwitters wrote, “Meaning is unambiguous only when the designated object is present.” In other words, unambiguous meaning is not possible in the language arts, because objects are never present; language is representative. When the object is not present, Schwitters continues, meaning “is dependent on the imaginative faculty of the observer.” He continues:
The association of ideas cannot be unambiguous, as it is totally dependent on the combinatorial faculty of the observer. Everybody has different experiences and remembers and combines differently…. Classical poetry counted on the similarities between people. It considered the associations of ideas as unambiguous. It was mistaken.
And in the text PIN, from 1946:
Language is only a medium to understand and not to
You prefer the language, when you understand by it things,
which everybody knows by heart already. We prefer the
language, which provides you a new feeling for new whiskers to
And let us remember that in the Merz text of 1920 Schwitters claims to “play off sense against nonsense”, and that “meaning” is but one factor in the play of poetry. His whole artistic enterprise, gathered under the general term Merz, was a form of bricolage in which he played one element off another by placing them beside each other. The artist’s primary act was one of choosing elements to place beside each other. “Meaning” was one element among others, the overall objective to achieve a new kind of aesthetic experience.
Schwitters stood at a crossroads in our thinking about the function of an art object, whether a poem or a work of visual art assemblage. He articulated and demonstrated a decisive move away from Classical art to Modern art as well as anyone else at the time. And Ashbery, the poet that Smith singles out as the contemporary kingpin of nonsense, belongs to this tradition. To be clear, Schwitters says that classical poetry was mistaken, but we needn’t even go that far. We need only recognize that it represented a different view of the role of language in the arts. These two views might be called biases, and one might say that poets lean towards faith in one or the other. I use the present tense because it is clear that one hundred years of modernism have not cleared classical views off the board, and we still see confusions and tussles between the two. And while Schwitters’ celebrated collages (remember, in 1920 it was radical to make art out of trash) uphold a classical approach to composition, we often find Ashbery playing in that highly charged field where classical and modern views crisscross, clash, throw sparks, mingle and fly apart.
Ashbery is not the problem with contemporary poetry. But those who maintain that his work is nonsense or even meaningless are simply trying to uphold their own view of what makes a poem meaningful. The fact is, the challenge that a poet like Ashbery offers to participate in the creative process is one that some readers do not welcome. Warhol, dead for decades, still has detractors. The contempt that some readers show for Ashbery comes from a similar place. They demand their poems do something for them that Ashbery’s poems aren’t structured to do, and they ignore, can’t see or don’t care about what the poems in fact do.
Your name here, Ashbery says. The poem isn’t finished until it’s read. If you already knew the poem beforehand it need not have been written. But you know things the poem doesn’t know, and this becomes part of the art experience. Activity is just getting started.
Quotations from Schwitters in Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics