On Not Bringing His Christmas Stocking Out of Storage

(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

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22 Responses to On Not Bringing His Christmas Stocking Out of Storage

  1. I would argue further that those who attack post-modernism today are sometimes really interested in blasting away all vestiges of modernism. They really want to go back to a pre-modern world, a classical world.

  2. ManicDdaily says:

    Hey Mark–I certainly agree with your comment–people are fighting very old battles indeed, it seems to me, and i agree with Schwitters and Ashbery too. (IN fact, I find I should be more careful with the visuals or objects I put with poems, as often I am just using something I have or made or that is not controversial and it is always incredible to me how much it slants people’s readings.)

    Anyway, I would note that we just took down our tree last weekend. Ha.

    I do not know how much artistic battles matter, though I do think depictions of fish and red bows matter–I find that the outer criticism is harder for me– Your buttered toast comment, however, reminds me very much of Terry Pratchett’s test for malignancy in the world–when all the slices of toast land butter down–randomness being gone, and some evil spirit abroad–in his case the evil spirits are the Auditors. k.

    • My parents once left the tree up until Easter–no kidding. To this day that memory gives me a sickening, embarrassed feeling. Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, and I would bet most of them have a memory they can associate with Ashbery’s title.

      I am sometimes taken aback at the old–very old–battles I see intelligent people fighting, battles that I had thought were long over. it’s amazing. Currently there seems to be a lot of antagonism stretched over a broad area toward post-modernism. And that’s fine. No philosophical system has ever been sufficient all by itself. But why throw out the good with the bad? If the post-modernist approach has taught us anything, it’s that picking and choosing what you want throughout all of history is very helpful.

      Anyway, I like the way you pair photos to poems. As for misunderstandings, I think you can expect that, for no other reason than visual processing is different than the process of reading a poem.

      • ManicDdaily says:

        Thanks. I also am in the unfortunate position that my own drawing tends to the cutesy (which is okay–I’m not really a visual artist, but really make children’s illustration)– and my poems are only sometimes cutesy–so there is a real disconnect. Anyway, thanks. k.

        ps – my main problem with Warhol is that he just got so commercial and involved with fashion–but I have had a chance recently to see a very old one–pre-Campbell’s soup–in a private collection that was just beautiful–it was kind of a still life of a counter–tuna! k.

        • Warhol is a conundrum and a mystery, and for that reason he endlessly fascinates me. I’ve seen a lot of his works in person and in books, and in most cases I don’t like what I see. Yet I find thinking about him is rewarding, so I think of him as a conceptual artist.

  3. angela says:

    Not had time to read link to criticism of Ashbery. Must say I remain in the camp that poetry does serve as a catalyst for thinking – not just to be fed what the writer wishes you to hear. It is exactly that reason why Ashbery’s writing is rich as it is frustrating – he does not allow us a free pass, he creates the framework yet refuses to suggest the rood line ergo we remain open to the possibilities. Though I shall never be a poet scholar- it is the line that may trouble many “surrealist fish…that allows me to strive to write better, more philosophically for in that line there are many lines and it is my freedom to think offered by the author an ability to see the worlds clash in hypocrisy. I do not claim to understand Ashbery’s meaning, but to me, that line itself with the breaking of bread the next, makes me cry out to the text – yes, I see..even if I do not with his eyes

    • As soon as I get the feeling a poem is talking to me, rather than inviting me into the creative process, I’m outa there. Art is a conversation.

      On that note of frustration: too many of Ashbery’s poems of the last 20 years are too loose, too open for my taste (that’s why I’m sympathetic to Smith’s contention with this poem, but I can’t accept where he goes with the argument). I have the same problem with de Kooning’s paintings in the 70’s, once he started getting so wild I couldn’t find a way in anymore. But Ashbery is prolific (as de Kooning was). There are hundreds of poems to choose from, and some of his books are–well, I still think of him as the finest living writer in our language.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark, Angela: I came to Ashbery much later than Mark, so my vantage point, I suspect, is very different. This isn’t by any means a point of argument, but just to note that there are many poems in Quick Question that speak incredibly directly to my particular place in time. As just one example, here is a passage from Homeless Heart: “Where are you now, homeless heart? Caught in a hinge, or secreted behind drywall, like your nameless predecessors now that they have been given names? Best not to dwell on our situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing.” This passage speaks to me with unmediated force.
        I often wonder how I would perceive Ashbery’s work, and what volumes would speak to me most, if I had come upon him earlier.

        • angela says:

          Mark and Susan ~ I do offer an apology for my own above nonsense….it seems my first step today was surreal (reading Mark’s post while on a bike trainer trying to wake) and remained that way thru day. I do not recant my statements, but realize now that they need to be redirected crediting the author of a poem I greatly appreciate as Mark. Now, having read both links, I agree that it is not one of Ashbery’s stronger poems and that Mr. Smith has a very large axe in which he should hack at the chip residing on his person. What is even more interesting is to visit his blog’s smattering of linked poems which are fine, but read (to me) rather lyrical and sophomoric – not that I could do better, but I expected much more grandeur after such an attacking post – was he perhaps ranting to rant…? There you have it – as always, Mark, I appreciate your patience with my comments ~ a (oh, and now I need to and Schwitters to my list – danke)

        • Oh, but you’ve quoted from one of my favorite poems! I have a way of marking the table of contents in each of my Ashbery books. A circled title means that poem knocks my socks off. ‘Homeless Heart’ is the only poem I’ve circled in ‘Quick Question.’ By comparison I probably circled about a dozen in ‘A Wave’. I think one can talk of an early, middle and late period in his body of work. The early period is just the first 2 books and I would mark the middle (of which I am a diehard fan) up to ‘And the Stars were Shining’. He began to write more poems at that point that were more difficult for me to appreciate. Though I’d have to write a detailed essay to explain it, it does have something to do with a looseness of meaning or rational order. I think Hedgewitch is on the right track by mentioning a childlike quality. That has always been there, but it’s showing up more in recent books in a really nice way. His next book, out later this year, is called ‘Breezeway’–great title. I think maybe he’s getting to be very relaxed in his writing, and maybe the reader (this one, anyway) should do the same.

          • Susan Scheid says:

            Mark: I remember your method! In fact I’ve adopted something like it as a direct result (though I’m not very methodical). Remember the list of your favorite Ashbery poems? In the books I have of his (I’m missing some and holding out for hard copies), I’ve marked “MK” next to each poem you noted.

            I’ve been thinking about the “looseness” you mentioned–and I think I might know something of what you mean. I agree that Hedgewitch is on to something–I have this feeling sometimes that, the older he gets, the more pronounced is the twinkle in his eye, and he’s at play more than ever before, as in these lines from A Voice from the Fireplace:

            . . . The balloon is ascending
            above ferns, teacup chimneys, striped stockings.
            So long training wheels. I’m gone for three weeks at a time.

            (Just went back to your post on Quick Question, and indeed, I quoted these same lines there, but more to the point, I was reminded of this great observation of yours, a la what Hedgewitch has said here: “And it’s hard not to admire how lighthearted his late poetry is. Ashbery is a little boy at heart (a little boy with the literary brain of a genius), and I love that.”)

            It’s hard for me to say why any given JA poem “lands” for me or doesn’t. It’s interesting to pursue them in a discussion–everyone brings a different angle, and makes even poems I reacted to as less interesting enjoyable to read. There seems always something to be gained in a JA poem, and sometimes, in the poems that don’t quite work for me, there seems a way to get “inside” his process a little further as he makes his way along. (Just as an aside, what do you think of Musica Reservata in Hotel Lautreamont? The last line is now one of my all time favorites: “That, at least, is my hope.” Suitable for almost any occasion . . .)

            Breezeway is indeed an enticing title, and I’m curious to see what’s in that book. I’ve not been particularly struck by the couple poems I’ve seen posted here and there, but I think it will be interesting to look at each poem once they’re brought together in the book.

            • Susan Scheid says:

              Just one more thing: In your post on Quick Question, you note “It may be that the way to such a brilliant short poem has been difficult for Ashbery, who has always excelled at long poems,” and that strikes me as a good point to consider. I wonder if the long poem isn’t, by now, behind him, really, just too much to take on, and part of reading JA now–for me too, is that both reader and poet need to “adjust” to a shorter form. Of course he’s written short poems all along, but as readers, perhaps the short poems can feel as if they literally stop too soon–not offering the opportunity to ride the waves and get wonderfully lost in the swirls and eddies of the poem.

            • Yeah, that’s really beautiful, isn’t it? I’ve always thought of ‘Hotel Lautréamont’ as a kind of transitional book between the ‘early’ and ‘late’ poetry (it’s the first volume in which he dispensed with capitalizing initial words of lines)–there are poems here that look to the flavor of the later work, while still having the feel of the early work, and ‘Musica Reservata’ is a great example. It’s funny how it’s almost a response to this conversation we’re having. He seems to be wondering out loud about how much of his work will be appreciated, not neglecting to throw in an oddity like, “Our desires are extremely simple: a glass of purple milk…” Purple milk? Dunno if I want any. But the way he hopes the ride of these “odd little jiggers” is stirring to the reader is certainly appealing to me. What a strange and wonderful poem.

              • Susan Scheid says:

                Mark! So right. I wasn’t so sure about that purple milk, either, but his open-armed desire that we join in conversation with his poems has me there with him throughout. It’s as you wrote, “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.” What could be better than that?

  4. hedgewitch says:

    ““meaning” is but one factor in the play of poetry. ” Yes! I get really angry with people who make the argument that everything should be not just explained, which is ridiculous in itself in poetry–just write Cliff notes then, for godsakes– but by default, explainable. Speaking from the frame of personal reference, my own writing is not intellectual, though I try to give it some intellectual oversight–but comes from wherever it comes from to the page as it sees fit. I’m not going to ask that it be shaped so it is blindingly meaningful to others, that’s not the point. I’m not a freaking sign painter. Anyway–I am ranting off at a tangent here–I enjoyed your discussion, (especially where you make the point about what the reader brings) and your poem Mark, as well as reading Ashberry’s, which I found rather pleasantly child-like even as it was far from simple or direct–children aren’t either, but they have truth most of us have lost.

  5. Susan Scheid says:

    Mark, this is brilliant, and I intend to share it far and wide. “Your name here, Ashbery says. The poem isn’t finished until it’s read.” Every line here is a gem. While my first response was, why bother with this misguided criticism of Ashbery, what you’ve done, from that meager spring board, is to offer a stunning exegesis of Ashbery’s work and worth. And to bring in Schwitters as well is genius!

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