All posts by Heubusch

The Power Dynamics of the Evolution of Language in The Dead Father

Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father operates upon a series of amorphous spectrums across literary and social realms. Superficially, the text is driven by a voyage, throughout which nineteen sons and several other key progenies drag the massive, imposing Dead Father through an ambiguous landscape. The journey is allegedly motivated by their desire for the Golden Fleece, an object which would hypothetically restore the deteriorating health of the Dead Father; yet their true aim is to end his existence, as to gain the independence necessary to live in a self-satisfying manner. From the perspective of the children carrying out this powerful act of usurpation, the Dead Father signifies a complex amalgamation of oppressive hegemonic influences preventing them from attaining a sense of freedom. The patricide comments upon the modern societal rejection of antiquated, doctrine-propelled institutions; and as a work of metafiction, one of The Dead Father’s primary trepidations is with the evolution and nature of English language itself.

In order to even consider this interpretation, however, one must first examine the somewhat abstruse nature of the piece. Discussion of The Dead Father has toyed with various analyses. This has included strict emphasis upon thematic implications, such as the critique of Richard Walsh, who viewed “‘the idea of fatherhood [as] a more fundamental unifying principle in The Dead Father than any abstract allegorical formulation’” (Walsh qtd. in Asztalos 200). Others center their arguments around strictly technical stylistic elements. Indeed, the book, constructed as a work of post-modern metafiction, focuses largely upon ironic, mocking commentary, thus prompting many to examine the it by the terms of its self-referential literary form.  This perspective, as argued by Mára Asztalos, indicates that allegorical interpretation is almost entirely futile and must be virtually ignored, as “the critic or reader has to disengage the function of the brain that detects and decodes the possible allegorical and archetypal links ‘hidden’ in the text” (Asztalos 200). Truly, there may be no singular means by which to interpret the work, as it appears to exist in an nebulous state open to numerous subjective readings. This flexibility in interpretation further bolsters the argument for the book’s metafictional emphasis upon the practice and execution of language.

From the very beginning of the work, the strikingly mammoth size of the Dead Father is continually emphasized, as to give the reader a sense of the immensity and daunting nature of language relative those who depend upon it. The story’s exposition weaves together mysteriously dystopian imagery to form a concept of the Dead Father’s appearance. By one critic’s description, “the Dead Father is dead only ‘in a sense’: he is a human being, a granite monument, a gigantic ‘super-male with horns, tail, and a big penis snake’ … a strange, majestic, awe-inspiring object; a pathetic, dangerous, infantile, and paralytic old man; a figure who comes apart; a voice that takes up residence inside one’s head” (Zeitlin 199). The Dead Father’s inflated and strange appearance is not a natural construction; instead, it a fabrication resulting from the self-satisfaction that he gains from his manipulative practices, in the manner that language and its most lauded practitioners have swelled to legendary status. The Dead Father’s image of self is entirely inflated to the point where it has overwhelmed his sensibility; he remains swamped within his own perceptions, where he cannot distinguish reality from his distorted dream-like view, through which he remains seemingly omniscient.

Yet the Dead Father does not possess a truly infallible or indestructible existence. When he made a particularly critical insult aimed at Thomas, the latter is capable of felling him, while “Julie and Emma picked him up” (Barthelme 34). Though he is described as being 3,200 cubits long, these leaders of the group – whom the reader assumes measure at a standard size – are evidently capable of knocking him down and picking him up again with little struggle (4). This situation betrays how this subjectivity of perception affects the influence of the Father figure and how one interacts with him. To Thomas, Julie, and Emma, who are not intimidated by and are constantly defying his once-great power, he is of an ordinary size, perhaps even weaker or smaller than themselves. They stands in contrast to the nineteen members of the crew, who remain in awe of his magnitude as they drag him. Indeed, the crew is not in rebellion against the Dead Father but essentially work for him, later even becoming physically ill with sympathy and uncertainty as they question the ethical nature of the task at hand (91). Because they still hold him in a reverent light, their view represents an adherence to the norms of the English language, a hesitation to bring about (much less, accept) the death of an established institution.

By the very designation of his name, one may see that the Dead Father has already been condemned by those surrounding him. Though he remains mentally sentient throughout the journey and the process of his burial, his children have essentially marked him as an irrelevant entity unworthy of acknowledgement. He is “[d]ead, but still with us, still with us, but dead” (Barthelme 3). The children rebuff the Father’s once-lauded intellectual expressions and oratorical attempts, preferring to distract themselves from the tedious task at hand by their own forms of articulation, as are largely exemplified through sexual acts carried out between Thomas and Julie (159). Their vitality and shunning of the Dead Father suggests the rejection of the former tradition of language and social institutions which hinder their pleasure.

The highly metaphorical actions and imagery of Barthelme’s daunting father evoke those of a sacred figure made obsolete by his rapidly evolving surroundings, suggesting that the institutions once held in infallible regard are now being eschewed through the children’s actions. The Dead Father uses his accumulated might as an excuse to assume the characteristics of a deity-like figure who exploits his power in vengeful exhibitions of bitter hatred, which one may interpret as forms of highfalutin literary criticism disavowing the merits of innovative work in favor of works with classically-oriented composition. The Dead Father recounts, with great pride, his crude glory days, during which he would derive pleasure from formulating brutal punishments for those who disobeyed his strict edicts (Barthelme 9). He attempts to continue this tradition through brutal slayings: first of a series of musicians, then of animals, both of whom utilize forms of communication which undermine his linguistic power (11, 52). However, these attempts at assertion of his might only decrease his stature in the eyes of others even further.

His insecurity contributes to his obsessively possessive, domineering nature. Most significantly, it causes him to “[control] what Thomas is thinking, what Thomas has thought, what Thomas will ever think, with exceptions” (4). This manipulation extends beyond this son to all other members of his infinitely-numbered offspring; but “with exceptions” indicates the loophole in power that will allow Thomas to think independently, beyond the typical constructs of the language. With extraordinary hubris, the Dead Father asserts his might by saying, “All lines my lines. All figure and all ground mine, out of my head. All colors mine. You take my meaning” (19). By this statement, those trying to manipulate the language in new manners are automatically associated with the precedent, and their works are frequently viewed as a decline from classical values and knowledge. This attitude, and the desire for a new era, serves as the justification of the children’s quest to permanently silence the Dead Father.

In spite of his irrelevance in the eyes of his children, the Dead Father continually tries to affirm himself and his laws. In the context of the metafictional, one may see that the children’s rejection of the edicts – those strictures upon the usage of language – is blatantly manifested through Barthelme’s text itself. Most consistently prevalent is the lack of punctuation throughout the work; dialogue possesses no quotation marks and is distinguished only by line breaks. Furthermore, the author’s choice of language is effective but largely selected with a primarily functional intent, particularly in the fragmentary description of settings. Complexity arises in the conversations between Emma and Julie. In observing their discourse throughout the book, one immediately notices an incredible degree of abstraction. A small portion of just one of their interactions demonstrates its bizarre nature:

Very busy making the arrangements.

Appeals to idealism.

Grocers wearing pistol belts.

It’s perfectly obvious.

I was astonished to discover that his golden urine has a purple stripe in it.

It’s no mystery.

A few severed heads on stakes along the trail.

Polished tubes carried by some of the men.

Not sure I understand what the issues are.

String quartets don’t march very well. (150)

This ostensibly nonsensical, somewhat absurd series of lines compiles fragments reminiscent of sound bite-like snippets, pushed together into juxtaposition for aesthetic purposes. The individual lines are attention-getting and intriguing, but they merely stimulate the senses, failing to provide substantive content. This bastardization of the linguistic institution portends the future of the language in the hands of the purported new leaders, given the world which they envision. Yet despite their apparent technical flaws, the abstract collage of words leads to an unprecedented originality and creativity strived for by the children.

The vision of the mechanization of language is furthered by the mechanical left leg of the Dead Father, an accouterment evidently added with the intent of modernization. When Thomas inquires as to the reasoning behind the mechanical leg, the Dead Father says, “Machines are sober, uncomplaining, endlessly efficient, and work ceaselessly through all the hours for the good of all … They dream, when they dream, of stopping. Of last things” (Barthelme 13). The Dead Father consciously decided to don the mechanical leg in an attempt to adapt himself to the newer standards of the time, as a rare act of altruism. Indeed, the leg serves as a confessional, in which “people are noticeably freer in confessing to the Dead Father than to any priest, of course! he’s dead” (4). Even though the confessions are routinely taped and then altered and scrambled to create a feature film for public viewing, the anonymous yet overtly projected nature of the process evidently supplies individuals with a strange sense of satisfaction and comfort. A current reading of the 1975 book, when held in modern context of technological innovations, indicates a prophetic vision of the gathering and often distorted sharing of mass quantities of personal information, as frequently manifested through language and carried through the Internet. This warped development provokes ominous implications in regards to the execution of language. As Santiago Juan-Navarro describes, “The semi-mechanical nature of the Father suggests the semimechanical workings of linguistic structures, but also the mechanization of culture, a culture where private life is of public dominion. Privacy in post-modern societies vanishes as a consequence of the obscene traffic with the other’s self” (91). In spite of his attempts at adaption, the Dead Father remains outdated, superseded by the values of the younger generation, a group desperate for change.

The Dead Father makes other efforts to retain his power over the generation of his children and assert his resiliency. In several amusing but pathetic endeavors, he tries to participate in sexually charged activities with the women; yet he is frequently condemned by Julie as “an old fart” and reprimanded by Thomas with a rap upon the forehead (Barthelme 10, 55). The Dead Father protests such behavior, proclaiming, “You should not rap the Father. You must not rap the Father. You cannot rap the Father. Striking the sacred and holy Father is an offense of the gravest nature. …” (55). These statements harken back to the notion of the Dead Father as figure once held in sacred, infallible regard, one who could not be swayed by even the mightiest storm. Yet his children ignore his declarations as they sit around the dinner table, and Thomas inquires after the mustard; they are weary of his egotistical, cruel nature. Their indifference stems from their knowledge that the Dead Father, from their perspective, has already died; and though this dreary journey must be continued, they already control the nature of what happens. As the controllers – arguably, the authors – of the journey, they have the already have the ability to sedate the Dead Father’s old customs, in favor of composing their lives through their own means of expression.

It may seem that, by burying the cargo they have dragged behind them for so long, they have disposed of their worries; yet the inclinations of mankind indicate that this is not the last time that such a burden will exist. The interposed work A Manual for Sons, originally a Barthelme piece published in The New Yorker magazine, is interwoven into the story by appearance of a strange character named Peter Scatterpatter, who presents the volume to Julie and Thomas (Juan-Navarro 93). The work operates as a guide for sons to realize how to tolerate the oddities and power-hungry natures of their fathers. The fathers prevent their progeny from advancing, as their strictures are indissoluble. The Manual states, “Fathers are like blocks of marble, giant cubes, highly polished, with veins and seams, placed squarely in your path” (Barthelme 129). Yet in spite of the hindrances, the Manual condemns patricide as an unnatural and serious infraction, “first because it is contrary to law and custom and second because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct: you are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide! – member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded” (145). A son cannot escape his heritage; in spite of any efforts to distance himself from his father, he will inevitably remain a derivative, “a paler, weaker version of him” (145). While Julie discontentedly rejects the book for its “relativist” approach, its message is clear: all humans will continue to behave in a manner similar to that of their predecessors and draw upon their influence (146). One may claim to reject historical practices; but the existing habits of greed, jealousy, and megalomaniac tendency will continue as long as gain may be obtained. Though Thomas executes the Dead Father’s will as merely a witness – thereby not allowing him to derive benefit from it – he has already asserted a position of superiority (164). Thomas, in spite of the fact that he seeks to distance himself from the Dead Father, has not merely deprived, but actually obtained power from the Dead Father. Throughout the journey, Thomas stripped the Dead Father of his identity, taking for himself “‘phallic objects’” that had composed the Dead Father’s dignity – a silver belt buck and “his sword, his passport, and, finally, his keys” (Asztalos 205). This gradual conversion asserts the inevitable transformation of Thomas into the Father. Though by disposing of the Dead Father through burial the children had hoped to relieve themselves of the struggles he imposed, nature and fate collectively bind them to experience such difficulty again. In spite of any progress or change that may be experienced after the disposal, there is only temporary respite. In social cyclicality, Thomas too will exhibit the negative characteristics of the Dead Father. Their problems may have been temporarily assuaged by the patricide, but they are not – and will never be – truly solved.

By this reasoning, the “father” of language itself will never be disposed of; and any efforts at revitalizing it will merely be reconditioned versions, perhaps even travesties, of the once-prevalent tradition. By this cyclical state of things, nothing has been avoided or evolved. The Dead Father acknowledges the need for the revitalization of knowledge; but while it employs a dark humor in the upheaval of an antiquated system, it also recognizes the inevitable circumstances of repetition which will continue to arise from human nature. Creativity through the transgressive overthrow of the Dead Father and his antiquated ideals, may be the only means by which to achieve some semblance of innovation. One journal quotes Barthelme as asserting, upon the idea of the “ineffable”: “If there is any word I detest in the language, this would be it, but the fact that it exists, the word ineffable, is suspicious in that it suggests that there might be something that is ineffable. And I believe that’s the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it” (Giles 638). This task remains daunting. Language should continue to be manipulated and experimented with as long as humans exist; but ultimately, the restrictions that it presents to artists and laymen alike tragically dictate that no work, no matter how groundbreaking, will ever achieve the prized ideal of true originality.

Works Cited

Asztalos, Mára. “Barthelme’s Twisted Fathering: On Donald Barthelme, The Dead Father.” AnaChronisT 12 (2006): 198-219. EBSCOhost. Web. 3 May 2014.

Barthelme, Donald. The Dead Father. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Print.

Giles, Paul. “Dead, but Still with Us.” Commonweal 118.19 (1991): 637-640. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 May 2014.

Juan-Navarro, Santiago. “About the Pointlessness of Patricide: A Lacanian Reading of Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father.” Estudos Anglo-Americanos (1990-1991): 88-102. Academia.edu. Web. 3 May 2014.

Zeitlin, Michael. “Father-Murder and Father-Rescue: The Post-Freudian Allegories of Donald Barthelme.” Contemporary Literature 34.2 (1993): 182-203. EBSCOhost. Web. 1 May 2014.

Honor Code

On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received help on this assignment.

 

VI – “Maggie” – A Recurring Manifestation of Resentment and Regret

Toni Morrison constructs her short story “Recitatif” as an amalgamation of five chronological descriptions of the stilted encounters between Twyla and Roberta, women connected by a handful of months spent as roommates in an orphanage during their childhood. In spite of the many years spent apart, each instance finds Twyla drawn back to reflection upon the definitive past and the friendship that the two young girls used to share. The first of the narratives is perhaps the most crucial, for it depicts the initial bond shared between them. Morrison depicts a connection defined primarily by circumstantial existence; the girls stick together by their shared hardship and difficulty. They face adversity in the forms of the abusive “gar girls” of the orchard and the uncertain world which lies before them. Throughout the story, a crucial remembrance of the mute “kitchen woman” Maggie brings about a point of particular contention. Maggie struggles to overcomes the obstacles of her infirmities, as her bowed legs further inhibit her ability to easily carry out the tasks she must complete. Yet in spite of her hard work, the disabilities become a central point of cruel ridicule exploited by the inhabitants of orphanage. In their own uncertainty and hardship, they select her as their scapegoat, a means by which to attack the brutal world by verbally and physically mistreating one of its most fragile inhabitants. Because Maggie cannot hear their calls and cannot fight against assault, she is the perfect target; her powerlessness is taken as consent, her inability to scream as indifference. This “justifies” actions in the minds of her abusers.

The evolution of the story behind Maggie evolves in Roberta’s mind. Starting with the third vignette, Roberta begins to twist the story against Twyla’s remembrance. A blunt snub at the Howard Johnson is contrasted by this conversation, in which Roberta skates over the issue of the previous encounter by assuming a warm air. Yet the memory in which Maggie merely fell in the orchard becomes an incident carried out by the vengeful, unforgiving spite of the gar girls (1411). Roberta further causes Twyla to doubt herself as Roberta vacillates between open amiability and opposition. Yet the fourth encounter, in cold blood, turns Roberta against Twyla during the protest – as she accuses Twyla of helping her beat Maggie, who is now recalled in Roberta’s mind as an African-American woman. This intensified allegation almost manipulates the memories within Twyla’s mind – until she realizes that “I didn’t kick her; I didn’t join in with the gar girls and kick that lady, but I sure did want to. We watched and never tried to help her and never called for help” (1414). This sentiment, echoed by Roberta in the fifth vignette, displays an indifference and lack of action conceivably just as serious as the commitment of the action itself. Roberta is displayed as overwhelmed with guilt and regret that she has been taking out against Twyla for the past years. Though Twyla tries to comfort Roberta by assuring her that they cannot be held accountable for their childhood actions and sentiments, disproportionately violent imagery of the first section of the story may be recalled. As Twyla had faced embarrassment at the actions of her mother Mary in church, she said, “All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed” (Morrison 1407). Just a few lines later, “I could have killed her” makes an appearance. While her bitterness may be attributed to youthful overreaction, it comes across not humorously, but perturbingly. What a twisted place the world can be; for as children remain malleable to the influence of their elders, they learn the means and pleasures of cruelty, the effects of which haunt one throughout the rest of her life. A final, despairing cry: “‘What the hell happened to Maggie?'”

(I apologize for the lateness of this post. Posted at approximately 10:55 pm on April 6th.)

Revised: Cyclical Despair and Redemption in “Spring and All”

Cyclical Despair and Redemption:

A Close Reading of “Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams

             The season of spring often connotes beauty and vitality; but perhaps the temporality of the season exudes tragedy as opposed to romantic optimism. William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” depicts the dawning of springtime as it enters and struggles against the incumbent, oppressive winter. The strong use of metaphorical device that radiates throughout the work indicates a human condition stretching beyond the seemingly descriptive landscape. Indeed, William’s stylistic and linguistic choices depict an element of futility in life, suggesting frustration at its ad nauseam cyclicality and inevitable mortality.

Williams utilizes  the language to create a boldly dire exposition of the winter landscape, as demonstrated by the following passage:

… Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water (“Spring” 4-7)

Descriptive words such as “waste,” “muddy,” “brown,” “dried weeds,” and “fallen” all convey the desolation and stagnancy that permeate the locale, a place described as “[b]y the road to the contagious hospital” (1). The road is leading to a place of supposed healing; and yet illness, despair, and death dominate over the salubrious potential. The road is almost too direct, too certain – and its surroundings suggest its unavoidable destination. The immediate declaration of such a linear path reinforces the notion of Williams’ depiction of nature connecting to human life, as one frequently associates the imagery of a road with the depiction of the journey of one’s existence. Williams sets the destination with finality, for “to the contagious hospital” does not suggest that it serves a mere stop by the wayside of an infinite path, but instead is the end destination.

Contagious may further be developed to reflect the nature of the imminent emergence of spring through the rapid spread of symptoms as “It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf” (22). The seasonal components infuse the barren landscape in somewhat of an ironic matter. Disease corrupts and wears away an infected body, subjecting the physical form to nefarious effects; yet the decay is already present within the manifestation of nature Williams presents. Spring appears as an opportunity for rebirth, perhaps for even a more sustainable renewal. It enters into a bleak, faded landscape of “reddish” and “purplish” hues, set amongst “twiggy” shrubbery, “dead, brown leaves,” and “leafless vines” (9, 10, 12, 13). All are suggestive of absence – of something that once was brilliant but that has since passed away into decay.

Though one may associate spring with new life, Williams portends its demise as immediately as he recognizes its entrance. An essential, decisive line break indicates this:

leafless vines –

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches – (13-15)

This transition from the description of the dying earth to the entrance of spring foreshadows the fate of the naïve season; for the pairing of the lines places them in a shared physical space within the text, bridging the two notions together into what was and what will be. Spring enters tentatively, not exuding hope, but instead becoming an object of sympathy in its “naked,” “uncertain of all” existence (16, 17). By the process that clarifies “outline of leaf,” there is a hesitant shift from the abstract uncertainty from which the season forms. It is pregnant period, which in turn transitions to emergence, the process of definition emulating the birth of an infant being. The vulnerability of spring in this fledgling form makes it susceptible to the world’s cruelty. The expectation of death encompasses what should be joyous proceedings; by the very condition of existence, one begins to die the very day one is born.

Thus, the spring is not pretentious or presumptuous of the beauty it might bring; its unknowing innocence ultimately translates into naiveté that allows the world around it to overwhelm its elements as it later “begins to awaken” (27). This awakening indicates not only the profuse burst of diverse flora and activity of fauna, but also is a somewhat dreadful occurrence; for its entrance comes with “stark dignity” that recognizes the ephemerality of its beauty (24). This intrinsic transience will cause it to shift into a darker state of being, into that inevitable decay which surrounded its initial growth. The “profound change” serves as merely a distraction from the overwhelming reality of death (25). Vitality is fleeting, ethereal; it transitions into the lethargy of mediocrity. Though vitality dissolves, the product of decay is accumulated and left to rot.

Several elements of the poem remind the audience of its own mortality and vulnerability. These include the aforementioned image of the road to the hospital, as well as other imagery that personifies the season of spring. For example, qualifiers like “dazed,” “naked,” and “uncertain,” as well as verbs such as “approaches” and “awaken” may be associated with human forms and actions (15, 16, 17; 15, 27). This allows the season, the natural surroundings, and the human observer to converge into one state of being. This poem seems to suggest that ultimately, humans are highly intellectually developed animals which have electively distanced themselves from their natural origins through separatist mindset and mechanical developments. “Spring and All” reminds the human race of the carbon which comprises all life, that which all are essentially formed from and shall one day return to.

A distinct theme of cyclicality is present in the piece. Williams’ prose held within the volume Spring and All substantiates this idea. In Chapter VI he states, “Through the orderly sequences of unmentionable time EVOLUTION HAS REPEATED ITSELF FROM THE BEGINNING” (804). Williams appropriately titles Chapter XIX – which immediately precedes the poem “Spring and All” in the book – as “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism”. Williams cites parallels throughout the earth’s existence. Perhaps there has been some hint of progression, but nature has essentially never truly changed, having only gone through a series of cyclical processes that have led to little revelation as to meaning of existence or even hinting to the direction in which one should aim to move. The poem essentially carries this theme forth by emphasizing life’s futile struggle towards beauty and the inevitable decay and destruction of everything prized. People continue to make the same mistakes: there is love, hate, war, poverty, misunderstanding – most feelings and actions remain calculable. This pattern of existence has not evolved; there is yet to be a revolutionary shift in human sentiment or in the functions of the world, except when artificially implemented. This in turn indicates a stagnancy in existence, effectively instilling futility into the concept of being.

Though this pessimistic notion may be perturbing to realize, there is also a great dark splendor contained within, for it inspires one to consider the expanse of the universe and the consistency with which it operates. Is not the clockwork magnificent? “Spring and All” dwells upon fatalistic beauty of nature; yet the dualism of the phrase “This too shall pass” rings throughout its lines. Indeed, “Spring and All” may further stimulate – as opposed to stifle – the desire for distinction and individuality; for while the brilliance proffered by the idea of spring may rapidly fade, its audacious attempt at existence offers the crucial hope that the weary extant world lacks.

Introduction to John Ashbery

John Ashbery - http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ashbery.php

 

 John Ashbery is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and influential poets of the 20th century. His unique means of defying literary norms, exhibited through his poems’ bold structuring and experimental bent, challenge readers to reflect upon the act of writing itself.

Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York on July 28, 1927. According to an article in Slate, Ashbery wrote his first poem at age eight: “The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds / These are the fairies’ camping grounds” – a testament to the standardization he would later eschew. As an adolescent, he aspired to be a painter, taking classes for four years at age eleven (Wikipedia). He attended the all-boys Deerfield Academy and graduated from Harvard University in the class of 1949. His education was continued as he earned his Master of Arts from Columbia in 1951, then moving on to study in France under a Fulbright scholarship (520).

Ashbery’s work draws parallel with his passion for art. Ashbery contributed to numerous art journals throughout his career through coverage of exhibitions and composing pieces of criticism. He worked as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune’s European Edition and covered shows for Arts International and Art News. By 1965, Ashbery had become the executive editor of Art News, a position he retained until 1972 (520). He has been associated with the “New York school” of poets, a collective of creative writers that included Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch (520). The informal school of the 1950s and 1960s consisted of a grouping of artists in the city practicing composition in different forms, including painting, dancing, and music (Wikipedia). The poets were largely inspired by movements such as Surrealism and certain modern art movements, such as the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. They worked to adapt styles of works such as the action paintings of Jackson Pollock to inspire their freeform literary tactics, writing in “an immediate and spontaneous manner” (520, Wikipedia). However, in an interview published in the Winter 1983 issue of The Paris Review, Ashbery distanced himself from the group by stating that “‘This label was foisted upon us by a man named John Bernard Meyers, who ran the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and published some pamphlets of our poems’”; he also points out that he was living in France at the time of the School. He strikes a casual connection amongst the members, stating, “We were a bunch of poets who happened to know each other; we would get together and read our poems to each other and sometimes we would write collaborations”.

Ashbery’s style is controversial yet fresh, but he has had many imitators over the years. His influences include the American Romantic tradition (Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens), the aforementioned New York School, and various French surrealist writers, for whom Ashbery served as “critic and translator” (Poetry Foundation). His first book was Some Trees, published in 1956. It achieved notoriety by the award of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. According to the Poetry Foundation website, W.H. Auden (a poet whom Ashbery greatly lauded and admired) served as judge to the competition; but Auden “famously confessed later that he hadn’t understood a word of the winning manuscript”. His most famous works include the radically experimental The Tennis Court Oath (from the Paris years in 1962), Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), “Houseboat Days” (1977), and the book-length Flow Chart (1991) (520). Later works have reflected upon themes of mortality, as demonstrated by collections such as Girls on the Run (1999), Where Shall I Wander? (2005), and A Worldly Country (2007) (Poetry Foundation).

An incredible number of awards have been bestowed upon Ashbery for his pioneering work. He has received multiple particularly prestigious American prizes, including for his poetry collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the namesake poem of which we are examining. The book garnered the celebrated Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award (Poets.org). He has further been acknowledged through the Brusselian Grand Prix de Biennales Internationales de Poésie (for which he was the first English-language poet to win), as well a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant (Poets.org).

Ashbery continually places a bold ultimatum before the reader, challenging them to toss aside previous presumptuous notions of poetry in favor of exploring the spontaneous experience of a work, setting him outside of the typical boundaries of language. He has been quoted as stating that his aim with his work is “‘to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about’” (Poetry Foundation; Slate Magazine). This results in a style described by the Poetry Foundation as “self-reflexive, multi-phonic, vaguely narrative, full of both pop culture and high allusion”; and yet, ultimately, Ashbery states, “My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”

——————————————————————————

I have given some cursory citations to the information for referential purposes. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the following pages:

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3014/the-art-of-poetry-no-33-john-ashbery

I only had a chance to read a section of it, but this is a 1983 interview with Ashbery published in The Paris Review that seems really neat.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-ashbery

http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/238

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_highbrow/2005/03/the_instruction_manual.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ashbery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_School

Deforming: “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”

Distortion: 

They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.

A red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths.

To do something very common, in my own way.

The piece “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” encompasses the sentiment of impending loss; and yet it ultimately is not a loss but a gain of forthright character and statement of creative freedom. I decided to isolate the three single-line stanzas separating the three longer stanzas of the poem. The poem is structured by the following pattern of lines per stanza: four, one, five, one, six, one. Indeed, the original poem’s physical construction is indicative of intangible themes running throughout the piece. The single-line stanzas serve as bridges between sections, linking their ideas together. By choosing to unite the bridges through such a distortion, one does not fully comprehend the poem in its entirety; but he or she may certainly glean essential components of its composition.

The second stanza (the first of the distorted selection) is one of the few full sentences not chopped by line breaks. The “drug that slowed the healing of wounds” is one that extends sentiment longer than natural. The wounds become more raw with time instead of healing, as her craft forces Rich to draw upon memories of pain repeatedly throughout her compositional career, as to create genuine, raw passion and complexity within her works. Perhaps one day the wounds will heal; but for the moment, she must find a morbid pleasure in the tortured expression they inspire. The slowed healing further suggests the addition of lines to each stanza, from four to five to six. This literal expansion through the lengthening of stanzas slows the poem, makes it take longer to complete reading, extending and drawing out the memories and sentiments.

Complications arise in the interpretation of the “red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths”. Rich does not specify the nature of the plant – has it been cut and laid at a tombstone, or does it continue to grow within the ground? Regardless, it provides a point of contrast against the backdrop of the plastic wreaths, the artificial needles of which remain plastically still amongst the cycles of nature surrounding them. This imagery of the cemetery further suggests a mortality to come, as is linked with the fifth stanza of six lines through the initial first words: “A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor” (12). Rich explains metaphors in the terms of the expanse which she means: the landscape as the entity of time, a trip as a representation of the infinite. As an author, she admits, “I could say: those mountains have meaning / but further than that I could not say” (16-17). The forced metaphors come unnaturally; for indeed, sometimes a mountain is intended as… well, a mountain. The artificial wreaths indicate a frustration with the insistence upon dragging out metaphor to point of nonsensicality and absurd generalization. As Rich had stated in the third stanza, she desires to pass upon the wisdom acknowledging the shortcomings of the literary scene, such as “the failure of criticism to locate the pain,” which suggests too great a critical focus upon structure and a lack of subjective human emotion in the consideration of an author’s work (8). “[R]epetition as death” points to the monotony of continuous practice; for if one is stuck within a cycle of the same, there is no life to be lived; it is a state of existence which lacks all dimension and thus is robotically generated, rendering it meaningless in its numbness (7). The red plant thereby offers an escape from the monotony, standing as a bright triumph and expression of passion, blood, vital experience.

The final stanza, “To do something…,” affirms her determination to execute her work in a way that retains her individuality; and though the masses might take part in the art, she remains steadfast in her attempt to distinguish herself and to inspire others to do the same (as suggested by the third stanza: “I want you to see this before I leave:” [6-7]). It is the death of expectations of composition, as the attacking grammar, stress-inspired themes, and empty notations mentioned in the first stanza have entirely overwhelmed and killed any sense of structured creative expression. As “A Valediction” is distorted through its contraction, it highlights essential themes but critically misses the very expressions of execution that Rich prizes.

Futility in William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All”

The season of spring often connotes beauty and vitality; but perhaps the temporality of such a season is more tragic than romantic. William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” depicts the dawning of springtime as it enters and struggles against the incumbent, oppressive winter. The strong use of metaphorical device indicates a human condition stretching beyond the seemingly descriptive landscape. Indeed, William’s stylistic and linguistic choices help to depict an element of futility in life, suggesting frustration at its ad nauseam cyclicality and inevitable mortality.

Williams utilizes distinct language to create a boldly dire exposition of the winter landscape, as demonstrated by the following passage:

… Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water (“Spring” 4-7)

Descriptive language such as “waste,” “muddy,” “brown,” “dried weeds,” and “fallen” all convey the desolation and stagnancy that permeate the locale, a place described as “[b]y the road to the contagious hospital” (1). The road is leading to a place of supposed healing; and yet in this place there exists great illness, despair, and death. The road is almost too direct, too certain – and its surroundings suggest its destination. The immediate declaration of such a linear path reinforces the notion of Williams’ depiction of nature connecting to human life, as one frequently associates the imagery of a road with the depiction of the journey of one’s existence. Williams sets the destination with finality, for “to the contagious hospital” does not suggest that it serves a mere stop by the wayside of an infinite path, but instead is the end destination.

Contagious may further be developed to reflect the nature of the later emergence of spring through the rapid spread of symptoms as “It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf” (22). The seasonal components infuse the barren landscape in somewhat of an ironic matter. A healthy body infected with disease is corrupted and worn away by the illness’s nefarious effects; yet within this form of nature, the decay already is present. Spring appears as an opportunity for rebirth, perhaps for even a more sustainable renewal. It enters into a bleak, faded landscape of “reddish” and “purplish” hues, set amongst “twiggy” shrubbery, “dead, brown leaves,” and “leafless vines” (9, 10, 12, 13). All are suggestive of absence – of something that once was brilliant but that has since passed away into decay.

Though one may associate spring with new life, Williams portends its demise as immediately as he recognizes its entrance. An essential, decisive line break indicates this:

leafless vines –

 

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches – (13-15)

This transition from the description of the dying earth to the entrance of spring foreshadows the fate of the naïve season; for the pairing of the lines places them in a shared physical space within the text, bridging the two notions together into what was and what will be. Spring does not exude hope, but instead becomes an object of sympathy in its “naked,” “uncertain of all” existence (16, 17). By the process that clarifies “outline of leaf,” there is a shift from the abstract uncertainty – a pregnant period – to definition by life via a transition of emergence, reflecting birth. Yet its vulnerability makes it susceptible to the world’s cruelty. Death encompasses what should be joyous proceedings; by the very condition of existence, one begins to die the very day he, she, or it is born.

Thus, the spring is not pretentious or presumptuous of the beauty it might bring; its innocence ultimately translates into naiveté that allows the world around it to overwhelm its elements as it later “begins to awaken” (27). This awakening indicates not only the profuse burst of diverse flora and activity of fauna, but also is a somewhat tragic occurrence; for its entrance comes with “stark dignity” that recognizes the ephemerality of its beauty (24). This intrinsic transience will cause it to shift into a darker state of being, into that inevitable decay which surrounded its initial growth. The “profound change” serves as merely a distraction from the overwhelming reality of death (25). Vitality is fleeting, ethereal; it transitions into the lethargy of mediocrity. Though vitality dissolves, the product of decay is accumulated and left to rot.

Several elements of the poem remind readers of their own mortality and vulnerability. These include the aforementioned image of the road to the hospital, as well as other imagery that personifies the season of spring. For example, qualifiers like “dazed,” “naked,” and “uncertain,” as well as verbs such as “approaches” and “awaken” are typically associated with human forms and actions (15, 16, 17; 15, 27). This allows the season, the natural surroundings, and the human observer to converge into one state of being. This poem seems to suggest that ultimately, humans are highly intellectually developed animals which have elected to distance themselves from their natural origins through mindset and the mechanical developments. “Spring and All” reminds the human race of the carbon which comprises all life, that which all are essentially formed from and shall one day return to.

A distinct theme of cyclicality is present in the piece. Williams’ prose held within the volume Spring and All substantiates this idea. In Chapter VI he states, “Through the orderly sequences of unmentionable time EVOLUTION HAS REPEATED ITSELF FROM THE BEGINNING” (804). Williams appropriately titles Chapter XIX – which immediately precedes the poem “Spring and All” – as “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism”. Williams cites parallels throughout the earth’s existence. Perhaps there has been some hint of progression, but nature has essentially never changed, having only gone through a series of cyclical processes that have led to little revelation as to meaning of existence or even hinting to the direction in which one should aim to move. The poem “Spring and All” essentially carries this theme forth by emphasizing life’s futile struggle towards beauty and the inevitable decay and destruction of everything prized. People continue to make the same mistakes: there is love, hate, war, poverty, misunderstanding – most feelings and actions remain calculable. This pattern of existence has not evolved; there is yet to be a revolutionary shift in human sentiment or in the functions of the world, except when artificially implemented. This in turn indicates a stagnancy in existence, effectively instilling futility into the concept of being.

Though this darkly pessimistic notion may be perturbing to realize, there is also a great splendor in it, for it inspires one to consider the expanse of the universe and the consistency with which it operates. Is not the clockwork magnificent? If taken suitably, “Spring and All” should further stimulate the desire for distinction and individuality; and though perhaps “This too shall pass” rings true, there is genuine, lasting beauty in the effort to live the very best life that one possibly can.

Comparing Ellison’s “Battle Royal” to Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was … I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (Ellison 1211).

“At certain times I have no race, I am me” (Hurston 941).

The struggle for identity permeated the African-American community throughout the twentieth century. An American society still rife with racism and intolerance persisted long after the abolition of slavery; and in such an environment, creative forces sought to define their role within and apart from the whole. Two black writers of this era included Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, whose writings embody this societal complexity. Ellison’s 1952 “Battle Royal,” excerpted from Invisible Man, and Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” each approach the conflict with different styles. Ellison, who allegedly “insisted on being a writer rather than a spokesman for a cause or a representative figure,” creates a narrative form that utilizes strong simile and seems to possess allegorical notes (1209). By contrast, Hurston’s 1928 essay, while employing vivid metaphorical language, conveys a distinctly individualistic attitude that radiates a definitively present, if somewhat circumspect, optimism.

Hurston declares, “Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you” (941). Indeed, Hurston seems to indicate that mentality is the primary blockade preventing full understanding. She demonstrates this at the end of her essay, where she devises the metaphor of the colored paper bags filled with a mélange of contents – ostensibly establishing that we are all intrinsically similar yet unique beings (943). Misunderstanding is the only real difficulty to be surmounted. Yet Ellison highlights the ongoing subjugation through his portrayal of white men treating the black fighters and the white woman as objects of entertainment by cruel, animalistic means. The “leading white citizens” superficially assert their claims of domination by teasing the fighters with brass “gold” coins and relishing the spectacle of the struggle (1217, 1220).

Ellison’s style is personal and appropriately bias; yet what is perhaps most perturbing is the stoicism that the narrator displays. Ellison, through the grandfather’s dying words and the narrator’s speech, suggests that humility and understanding are essential to the wellbeing of society (1212). Yet even after witnessing and being victim of the atrocities, the narrator displays little suggestion of resentment or anger, as he would be entirely justified to feel; his stoicism borders upon indifference, almost acceptance. He still desires, even after the fight, even after the electrified rug incident, the chance to give his speech. Alas, as he speaks he must “[gulp] it down, blood, saliva and all,” showing no pain as the men in the audience heckle him and laugh (1219). The conclusion to “Battle Royal” contains the ultimate irony, as the narrator receives his refined briefcase and scholarship with great appreciation in spite of the disgusting nature of the men bestowing it upon him. This enthusiasm is only checked by the disillusioning dream involving the grandfather, who mocks the narrator’s lack of vengeful strength (1221).

Indeed, for Hurston, the search for identity as an African-American appears to be a primarily internal conflict, one to be handled with the attitude of adjustment. For Ellison, it is one of external conflict, suggesting that the path towards harmony necessitates an entire upheaval of behavior, a re-establishment and equal application of humane values.

“But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall” (943).

Zora Neale Hurston powerfully drives her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” with profuse, vivid imagery and throbbing emotion that comes alive throughout the piece. Hurston utilizes numerous techniques of form to accomplish a unique impression. One of the most prominent manners through which Hurston effects this is through her distinct style of sentence structure. The words flow together comprehensively; and yet they exhibit a certain free style, one that invokes a conversational tone directly addressing the reader through inquiries and pointed statements. She alternates long winded and semicoloned phrases with single words and simple sentences. Yet perhaps one of her most daring choices is to begin several paragraphs with sentences commencing with “But,” such as “But changes came in the family …,” “But I am not tragically colored,” and here, “But in the main…” (941, 943). In each circumstance, this allows for a distinct transition in tone to take place, to allow for Hurston to acknowledge the negative forces while asserting her strength (in spite of adversity and naysayers) and resolving to define herself by her own individualistic terms, as opposed to those of society at large.

The authoress here utilizes a thorough simile to convey a sense of her frustration with the artificiality of social constructs and assumptions. The use of prepositions within the sentence is noteworthy. “OF miscellany” implies that the brown bag is the surface, a container or carrier of sorts, but that her true being, her self, consists OF that miscellany. There are other bags of different colors present, but they too are all filled with a similar sort of “jumble of small things priceless and worthless” (943). Hurston proceeds to directly list the items, each item rendered useless by its brokenness, or by the fact that it has already been used and has nothing more to offer its owner. Hurston offers a merely cursory insight into the nature of the objects and gives detail with sparse, short adjectives. The descriptors and their nouns tumble out upon the page as the objects themselves would tumble upon the floor; each may hold some minimal significance, but it is their similarity in existence that is most crucial, for it indicates a shared human spirit. Further, “against a wall” suggests a lack of movement, a forced state imposed by hegemonic principles that offers limited directional movement.  The passivity of “propped” suggests that she did not prop herself there; another force, beyond her control, has resulted in this state. Hurston effectively postulates that the contents of each bag, no matter the color of the bag, are essentially similar; the world must learn to view each person as partaking in the common human essence while maintaining a unique individuality.

“Caress” (757)

The selection “Hands” portrays a man haunted by his past actions, for which he realizes and fears the consequences – but does not understand the erroneous nature of the causal actions themselves. Adolph is the figure who does not comprehend boundaries established by societal norms. With a shock of pain, cultural propriety forces Wing to entirely shift his perspective, to realize how his sensitive nature renders his extremities intrinsically dangerous by their potential to carry out dubious effects. His (supposedly) innocent caresses of the boys leads to accusations of sexual abuse, destroying his capricious existence. The “euphonic,”  spontaneous name Wing Biddlebaum is all that suggests the formerly overt warmth that he must now suppress through the crude exhibition of fists beating upon a table (756). He had envisioned his tenderness as a physical transmission of inspiration, a manifestation of caring. His hands, once the most visible and expressive aspect of his being through caress, must be confined as to avoid additional transgression.

“Caress,” the criminalized action, otherwise connotes a soft, languid movement of a personal, usually intimate, variety. This notion may be contrasted to the final image of the fingers “flashing in and out of the light,” as Wing rapidly picks up breadcrumbs from the floor. Such alacrity and nearly violent imagery reveal not only his desire to hide his hands from the light, but also reflect back to the alarming realization of how Wing “still hungered for the presence of the boy” (758). His fingers gather the crumbs ravenously, as eagerly and instinctually as he would reach out to caress George Willard’s shoulders (756). Biddlebaum’s struggles to contain himself divulge emotions silently yet exponentially building within him, yearning to be released through just another caress.