Quote handout for Ann Lauterbach’s lecture on John Ashbery

1. And out over the ocean
The wish persisted to be a dream at home
Cloud or bird asleep in the trough
Of discursive waters.

Teasing the blowing light
With its ultimate assurance
Severity of its curved smile
‘Like the eagle
That hangs and hangs, then drops. “Absolute Clearance,” pp.11-12

2. The times when a slow horse along
A canal bank seems irrelevant and the truth:
The best is its best sample
Of time in relation to other time. “Absolute Clearance”

I’m not very good at ‘explaining’ my work.… I am unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. The explanation of what? Of my thought, whatever that is. As I see it, my thought is both poetry and the attempt to explain that poetry; the two cannot be disentangled. . . . On occasions when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue.
For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought. Thought is certainly involved in the process; indeed, there are times when my work seems to me to be merely a recording of my thought processes without regard to what they are thinking about. If this is true, then I would like to acknowledge my intention of somehow turning these processes into poetic objects, a position perhaps kin to Dr. Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things,’ but with the caveat that, for me, Ideas are also things.
John Ashbery, 1989-90 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard

4. The light in the old house, the secret way
The rooms fed into each other, but all
Was wariness of time watching itself
For nothing in the complex story grew outside:
The greatness of the moment of telling stayed unresolved
Until its wealth of incident, pain mixed with pleasure,
Faded in the precise moment of bursting
Into bloom, its growth a static lament. “Scheherezade”

5. it is finally as though that thing of monstrous interest
were happening in the sky
but the sun is setting and prevents you from seeing it
out of night the token emerges
it leaves like birds alighting all at once under a tree
taken up and shaken again
put down in weak rage
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 time it is
when that time is already past “As you Came from the Holy Land,” p. 7

6. A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” p.1

7. Some day I’ll claim to you how all used up
I am because of you but in the meantime the ride
Continues. Everyone is along for the ride,
It seems. Besides, what else is there?
The annual games? “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” p.3

8. Only waiting, the waiting: what fills up the time between?
It is another kind of wait, waiting for the wait to be ended.
Nothing takes up its fair share of time,
The wait is built into the things just coming into their own.
Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait
Invests everything like a climate.
What time of day is it?
Does anything matter?
Yes, for you must wait to see what it is really like,
This event rounding the corner
Which will be unlike anything else and really
Cause no surprise : it’s too ample. “Grand Galop,” p. 14

9. New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness.
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”

10. The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limped, dense twilight comes. “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”

11. Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact. “As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”

12. The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed in the corner of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.
“As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”

“It . . . seemed perfectly natural that the subject of my remarks would be myself, or my poetry, since they — we — are what is getting honored here, though normally I go to extreme lengths not to talk about either of us, because I don’t really know that much about us.” Ashbery, accepting the Robert Frost Medal in 1995.

14. The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

15. “ a wave breaking on a rock, giving up/Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.”

16. … its gaze …
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small and fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

17. That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin, speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

18. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

19. And the vase is always full
Because there is only just so much room
And it accommodates everything. The sample
One sees is not to be taken as
Merely that, but as everything as it
May be imagined outside time — not as a gesture
But as all, in the refined, assimilable state. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

20. “a perverse light whose/Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its conceit to light up”

21. “a dozing whale on the sea bottom/In relation to the tiny, self-important ship/On the surface.”

22. Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

23. “A sliver of window or mirror” that reflects the weather which, he remarks,
“in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole.” “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

24. “The surface is what’s there/And nothing can exist except what’s there”.

25. “Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, /Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.”

26. It doesn’t matter
Because these are things as they are today
Before one’s shadow ever grew
Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

27. “Of course some things/Are possible”
“we will try /To do as many things as are possible”
“Even stronger possibilities can remain”
“what is promised today”
“To keep the supposition of promises together” “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

28. Perhaps an angel looks like everything
We have forgotten. I mean forgotten
Things that don’t seem familiar when
We meet them again, lost beyond telling,
Which were ours once. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

29. What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn’t yours. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

30. The picture is almost finished,
The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

31. … to constantly swerve away from “the momentum of a conviction that had been building.”
But we know it cannot be sandwiched
Between two adjacent moments, that its windings
Lead nowhere except to further tributaries
And that these empty themselves into a vague
Sense of something that can never be known
Even though it seems likely that each of us
Knows what it is and is capable of
Communicating it to the other. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

32. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, to far
For one to intervene? “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

33. This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

34. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time. “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

35. And then you sail past in your effortless bravado, the sky
A blue wind of ease, wings outstretched on a continuous
whim, as if there were no time, and there isn’t,
but the rest of us pause, watching as you go, you go on by.

Ann Lauterbach, epigraph to <em>Spell</em> (Penguin, 2018)

Leave a Reply