Introduction on Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston was not only a noted American Modernist, but her works were also of importance to the feminist movement and immigrants living in the United States. As a first generation Asian American, she knew the societal struggles of both being a woman in America, and being so close, yet so far from her own culture.

Born in Stockton California on October 27th, 1940, Kingston was the first of six children of her mother and father to be born in the United States. Kingston attended the University of California, Berkeley in 1962. It is here that she graduated, earned her BA in English, and found and later married a fellow classmate and father of her son. Kingston also spent most of her life in California, moving to Honolulu Hawaii in 1967 and teaching English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu for a few years, then moving back to California to teach at Berkeley around the 1980s.

Finding inspiration in other American Modernist like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Virginia Woolf, Kingston was also attributed to helping the feminist movement and civil rights in America with her works like The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and China Men. She however faced criticism, as many authors do, for tainting traditional Chinese myths and stories to please her audience. Despite the criticisms, Kingston still holds awards like a National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award under her literary belt.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s particular way of standing out from other writers is that it is classified as nonfiction, yet the stories hold myth-like features and somewhat fictional-like personal interpretations/memoirs. Since the story presented in No Name Woman is Kingston’s recollection of a story told by her mother, it is important to pay attention to the vividness, accepted beauty of language, themes, symbols, and any other importance of items that Kingston presents in this nonfictional work. Throughout, one may question the reality of the text, but one must also recall that it is classified as nonfiction.

Finally, bringing a quick introduction to the assigned reading, No Name Woman is Kingston’s retelling of a story her mother told her when she was “coming of age” to be cautious in her actions. The story within the story tells of how Maxine’s aunt (on her father’s side) got pregnant by someone other than her husband, and how the other villagers and family members of the aunt saw this as disgraceful and “gull.” It is important to note however that it is never clear if the child was a boy or girl or if the aunt willingly had illegitimate sex, although there is room for speculation of both that could go either way. In the end of the story within the story (although clearly stated at the beginning) the aunt jumps in the family well with the baby, committing a murder suicide to either save and protect, or escape the shame and solitude she and her baby would have had to face.

Revised Essay: Circularity of Time in Faulkner’s Was

At the core of “Was” by William Faulkner, is the sense that time is not an unbounded line composed of external moments, but rather a series of internal impressions which flow and infuse into one another. Faulkner believes that human experiences are not set against the backdrop of objective linear time, but are part of subjective circular time, as demonstrated by his use of parallel structure that causes the events in “Was” to move in overlapping circles, rather than chronological narration. For Faulkner, the pattern of history is cyclical—the past manifests itself into the present so that they are essentially the same, but with slight differences. The parallel structure in “Was” demonstrates the circularity of time, allowing us to sense the past, present, and future as one form.

Faulkner emphasizes the indivisibility of present and past by making part one of “Was” a fragment by itself, but an introduction to Ike’s listening of his cousin’s story from the “old time” (4). This is seen by the fact that Ike is not listening to McCaslin’s tale in the present, but remembering a memory of it:

“not something he had participated in or even remembered except from the hearing, the listening, come to him through from his cousin McCaslin” (4).

Ike, “past seventy and nearer eighty” (3), is our best glimpse of the present in “Was,” yet this present is largely dominated by past events. For Faulkner, the past is unavoidable—it’s something for the present to continuously redefine and contemplate, and in “Was,” this can be seen through the re-narration of the story by Cass to Ike, and through Ike to us. These characters reconstruct a past during the present, thus their past, present and future are all intertwined. Memories, then, are not really memories, but part of the present because they affect what a character does in the present. With the past constantly shaping the present, the two are the same, but with a difference—a testament to Faulkner’s circular time.

This subtle difference in parallel structure can be seen in the hunt motifs of Uncle Buck’s chase of Tomey’s Turl, Sophonsiba’s desire for Uncle Buck, and the fox races at the beginning and end of the story. The chase between Uncle Buck and his slave, Tomey’s Turl, is multi-layered not only because the slave is a “half-white McCaslin” (5), but because Buck too is the object of a hunt by Miss Sophonsiba, who hopes to trap him into marriage.  When Buck and Cass hear the fox horn blow, signifying that they are near Mr. Hubert’s house, they plan to catch Tomey’s Turl “before he can den” (17). The use of the word “den” indicates that Tomey’s Turl is being likened to a hunted animal, as “denning” is a hunting technique where an animal is driven and trapped inside its home. Although Buck does not manage to catch Tomey’s Turl, he does manage to enter the “den” of Sophonsiba, humorously referred to as a bear.

“All right; you were a grown man and you knew it was bear-country and you knew the way back out like you knew the way in and you had your chance to take it But no. You had to crawl into the den and lay down by the bear” (21).

While Sophonsiba is technically referred to as the animal, it is really Uncle Buck who is viewed as trapped game. Once Buck is caught in Sophonsiba’s room, he must gamble for his freedom and for the slaves, according to the bet made between him and Mr. Hubert. After having “won” Sophonsiba through losing the card game, Buck must send for his brother Uncle Buddy to help him escape from the threat of marriage. Meanwhile, Buck starts to act like a slave himself, telling Cass that “if they pushed him too close…he would climb down the gutter too and hide in the woods until Uncle Buddy arrived” (24). The same way Tomey’s Turl hid in the woods from Uncle Buck (14), Uncle Buck is threatening to hide from Sophonsiba. With slight differences, we see the events in “Was” circling and metamorphosizing into each other.

Continuing this idea of circularity is the foreshadowing at the end of “Was.” Although Uncle Buddy does win his brother’s freedom, the ending suggests that in the future, Buck will be caught by Sophonsiba. When they return home, the dog “Old Moses” is found with the fox’s crate around his neck (28)—perhaps a symbolic prediction of Sophonsiba eventually placing the yoke of marriage on the other old dog, “old Buck” (12), as Tomey’s Turl calls him. But if Faulkner’s view of circular time holds true, this also forecasts that once again Uncle Buddy will come to Uncle Buck’s rescue, as “old Moses was still wearing most of the crate…until Uncle Buddy kicked [the crate] off of him” (28). Even though “Was” is a story of the past, we can see bits of the future, which is all still in the past if we take the “past seventy” Uncle Ike to be in the present. Thus the past, present, and future can be seen as one entity.

To complete the circle of time, the story ends and begins with the same fox race (4, 28), albeit with a subtle difference. Faulkner cleverly uses the word “treed” (5) to demonstrate how the fox uses the mantle to escape.  “Treed” refers to a hunted animal being forced to take refuge in a tree, thus the mantle serves as a metaphorical tree. Later, Faulkner brings this metaphor back when he describes the fox as “scrabbling up the lean-pole, onto the roof.” This time the race refers to the fox and the pole, and the pole is referred to as a tree “…the tree was too quick” (28). In both descriptions of the fox race, Faulkner uses a tree metaphor to tie them together.  The use of parallel structure in the events of the various chases, as well as inside the narratives, demonstrates the circularity of time in “Was.”

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original:

“As Parmigianino did it, the right hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises” (Ashbery 524).

Deformed:

As Parmigianino did it, the left hand

Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer

And swerving easily away, as though to protect

What it advertises.

 

In the deformation I simply substituted “right” to “left.” For it is not Parmigianino’s right hand in the forefront of the painting, but his left.  By claiming the hand to be the right hand, Ashbery employs several layers of perception and a metaphysical mode is implied. First, Parmigianino observes himself in the mirror. With his left arm against  the glass, and reflected directly in front of itself, the Painter begins his work. The painting locks Parmigianino’s image in a way that is perverse.  Looking at oneself in a mirror is an experience of the individual. By painting this image, a second observer is struck, much like how Vasari observed, “Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”” (524). Without knowledge of the painting being a mirror-study, the painting should appear as an ordinary portrait with the painted right hand opposite of the observer’s left, and left from the right.  But this is not actually the case.

Ashbery observes Parmaginino as appearing “glazed, embalmed,”  historically immortal within the painting. But that’s just it, he is inside the painting, trapped as an image in that convex mirror. That convex mirror that is perpetually ballooning outwards with Parmaginino’s true self. “That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther Than your look as it intercepts the picture” (524).

As the second observer, Ashbery cannot see Parmigianino as Parmigianino saw himself.  “Words are only speculation,” the footnotes cite speculation as originating from the latin for mirror, it is important to also recognize speculation as a theory formed without true knowledge (525). Ashbery makes aware  the fact that his experience with the painting is relative, and thus limited. This Kantian notion is dually enforced by the following imagery of the hand, “One would like to stick one’s hand Out of the globe, but its dimension, What carries it, will not allow it. No doubt it is this, not the reflex To hide something, which makes the hand loom large As it retreats slightly” (525 ).  Illustrated here is the effort and failure of Parmigianino to transcend. Painting himself in a mirror study was an attempt to observe on different levels.

By asserting that the hand in the foreground of the painting was the right arm, Ashbury prompts us to recognize these layers of observation. By reading his poem, we are the third observer. No one observer knows the truth of the other, it is all speculation.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original Passage

“That is the tune but there are no words

The words are only speculation

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

We see only postures of the dream.

Riders of the motion that swings the face

Into view under evening skies, with no

False disarray as proof of authenticity

But it is life englobed. ”

Remove the word “word”

“That is the tune but there are no

The  are only speculation

They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.

We see only postures of the dream.

Riders of the motion that swings the face

Into view under evening skies, with no

False disarray as proof of authenticity

But it is life englobed. ”

When the word “word” is removed from the passage selected, a great deal of ambiguity arises. To me, the passage appeared to be a description of some sort, especially something related to writing. When “word” is removed, the passage could be describing an entirely different concept. Namely, painting/illustrating.

When unaltered, the passage appears to speak on the dichotomy of the concept of writing. The passage states that writing is “only speculation” and is unable to “find the meaning of music”.  Ashbery appears to be rueing the inability of words to always capture the truth and image/concept desired. However, the pure truth is not necessarily always desired. It is important to note that imaginative writing is a significant part of Ashbery’s style. The line “we see only postures of the dream” further creates an image of only a  broad, general outline being visible of a more sophisticated, detailed whole. Ashbery may be asserting that words alone are not precise enough to create a vivid image. The line, “with no False disarray as proof of authenticity” adds another interesting dimension opposite to the list of shortcomings of writings that has developed over this section. The notion that authentic/realistic things (anything really) are inherently flawed in some way is relatively common. Ashbery begins his support for writing with this line, as it can be inferred that the words do not have false disarray, but true disarray, an indicator of authenticity. Lastly, he adds that it is “life englobed”, and encompassing. In summary, Ashbery praises and denounces both the factual and fictional parts of writing, but appears to claim that the summation of each portion is what really matters.

The previously described characteristics can be applied to painting/illustrating, or other forms of art. When “words” is omitted, and the subject of the descriptions become ambiguous,  art becomes a fairly good fit. It can be imaginative (abstract) or factual (still life, portraits, etc.), and reflects many of the aforementioned qualities affixed to writing.

It is possible to speculate that Ashbery believed that art and writing were not so different, perhaps even that they were equivalents. By describing “words” with features that are also characteristic of art, Ashbery reflects on the similarities between the two: especially how the blend of fact and fiction truly encompasses their overall value.

 

 

Deformation of Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

And we realize this only at a point where they lapse

Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up

Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.

The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty

As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.

Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since

Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?

Something like living occurs, a movement

Out of the dream into its codification.

 

Distortion:

and we realize this only at a point where they lapse like a wave breaking on a rock giving up its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape the forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty as they forage in secret on our idea of distortion why be unhappy with this arrangement since dreams prolong us as they are absorbed something like living occurs a movement out of the dream into its codification

When a dream or vision is brought to be in reality, as when an artist attempts to execute his vision, he often finds that his attempt to match the form he has created in his mind results in something entirely unlike what he intended.  One of the most important aspects of this passage is the idea that a wave gives “up its shape in a gesture that expresses its shape” (528).  Similarly, a work of art or literature breaks away from the intended idea by imitating the form of the idea.  In this act of imitation, it is transformed into something entirely different.

This passage calls attention to the importance of the form, which also draws the reader’s attention to the structure of the poem.  The removal of punctuation and line breaks emphasizes the role of these choices within the original text.  Ashbery’s choice to split sentences between lines as he does may be likened to the text “breaking on a rock” as the waves do in this passage (528).  In the deformed version, the text continues without disruptions, but Ashbery’s breaks in the original create waves which signify the move from the dream or idea to the realization of the dream.   The distorted passage, without the pauses provided by punctuation, seems to read as a stream of consciousness, as it is a direct reflection of the artist’s intentions.  The original text, however, features a structure that was established during the act of creation.  Ashbery calls attention to these breaks, which is especially evident in the line break that immediately follows “lapse.”  He creates a physical lapse to draw attention to the lapse between the ideal and the actual.  Because the line breaks in the original text occur at points which seem to be unnatural, they almost read as if they were a mistranslation of an original piece of text, which further emphasizes this idea that an artist’s original vision and the resulting product are not identical.

A deformation of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original (Pg. 533): “As philosophers have often pointed out, at least

This thing, the mute, undivided present,

Has the justification of logic, which

In this instance isn’t a bad thing

Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling

Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result

Into a caricature of itself. This always

Happens, as in the game where

A whispered phrase passed around the room

Ends up as something completely different.”

Deformation: At least as philosophers have often pointed out

This undivided present, the mute thing,

Which has the justification of logic,

Isn’t a bad thing in this instance

If the way of telling wouldn’t be

Twisting the end result didn’t somehow intrude

This always into a caricature of itself

As in the game where happens

Passed around the room a whispered phrase

As something completely different ends up.

 

The first five verses in the original quote of John Ashbery’s long poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror refer to “this thing,” which seems to point to the repeating image of time throughout the story. The time is “mute” because at present, it can no longer speak of the past. The present is “undivided” because every moment in time was at once the present; the past was present to those in the generation before us. The time, or the present moment, “has the justification of logic,” because time is measured in math, in number of hours and minutes past midnight or noon, designated by the position of the sun and the moon in the sky. However, the author conveys the message that the “telling” of time at any present in this logical manner actually twists proportions in trying to define them. Time can be conceived as an indefinite continued progress of existence or the events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. In this way, the present time is not something that can ever be told because it is never solidified. Time is a never-ending cycle of presents. In my “deformation” of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, I have attempted to reverse every verse in its phrasing by switching what comes before the caesura (the comma or logical breaking point) with what comes after. The first five verses of the deformation mirror the message of the first five verses of the original quote despite the switch in phrasing. The message is almost more clear in the deformation than in the original: “At least as philosophers have often pointed out this undivided present, the mute thing, which has the justification of logic…”.

The last five verses of the original quote state that in trying to define present time on a line, it becomes “a caricature of itself,” or a picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Then the author alludes to the game telephone in the last two verses, where someone starts with a word or a phrase and whispers it into the ear of another while that person then whispers it into the ear of another upon deciphering it. At the end of the game, normally played in a circle, the last person says what he has heard, and if all goes well (or terribly wrong), the word or phrase is not at all what it was at the beginning. The game is comical because everyone who plays laughs at what the word or phrase has become, as it is often very strange. Thus present time, happening too in a circle, becomes something that it once was not and the word “caricature” represents the comedy of this affair and others like it.

John Ashbery’s poem is an ode to the painting by the Italian Mannerist artist Parmigianino. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its exaggerated and artificial qualities. In Parmigianino’s painting, the hand of the man in the convex mirror appears much larger than the head. To Ashbery, this signifies that the artist of work does not intend his result; rather he is surprised by it because its present state doesn’t mirror what he had planned in the time of which he began. Hence, as Ashbery showed the caricature of the idea of present time, Parmiganio’s painting became a literal caricature instead of a self-portrait. The last five verses of my deformation shown in bold become completely illogical, for example, “As in the game where happens passed around the room a whispered phrase as something completely different ends up.” While it could be said that the deformation of these last five verses is not at all what the author intended in his original quote, the discombobulated art of them (“the end result”) actually conveys Ashbery’s overall message: the work becomes “a caricature of itself,” in trying to repeat itself. His message thus translates from the idea of present time to the intentions of an artist (Parmigianino) to the intentions of an author (Ashbery and myself) and the result is a kind of beauty.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery

Original text:

“The whole is stable within

Instability, a globe like ours, resting

On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball

Secure on its jet of water” (526)

 

Deformed Text:

Within instability, the whole is stable.

One a pedestal of vacuum, a globe like ours rests.

On its jet of water, a ping-pong ball is secure.

 

In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” John Ashbery writes about Parmigianino’s self-portrait of his reflection. It is conventional to depict oneself in a more realistic manner, but Parmigianino chose to fashion himself a self-portrait true to the nature of a convex mirror; the image is distorted, particularly his hand at the forefront of the image. Parmigianino relies on a physical representation of himself to draw his self-portrait, just as the reflection itself relies on him for its existence. By definition, a reflection is merely a representation of a real object; its meaning is derived from the physical, though it is itself just a likeness.

By deforming this passage of the poem, the concept of dependence is emphasized by restructuring the sentences to each follow an appositive. Appositives are set off from but add meaning to the sentence. For example, Ashbery states that a globe like ours rests on a pedestal of a vacuum. The globe relies on the pedestal to hold it up. Similarly, a ping-pong ball is secure on a jet of water. By setting what is being depended on apart from the rest of the sentence, the reliant nature of the relationships is emphasized. This sentence format illustrates the importance of having a firm base from which to build; however, Ashbery uses dependent relationships that are weak in nature. When one considers the fact that the earth exists with a vacuum, essentially floating in nothingness, the relationship seems a bit more precarious than the deformation would suggest. The appositive, however, is meaningless without the rest of the sentence, just as the earth cannot continue to exist without that which holds it in its place.

Ashbery further outlines the nature of dependence by describing the significance of Parmigianino’s reflection in the mirror. Ashbery depicts Parmigianino’s reflection as the embodiment of his soul, which is a “captive” in Parmigianino’s body as well as in the mirror (524).  The soul is “unable to advance much farther than your look as it intercepts the picture” (524). It is trapped within the confines of the mirror, as well as within Parmigianino himself. Though contained, the soul is able to thrive as long as it has a body to give it life. Containment can be necessary to maintain an entity, such as a mirror reflection, which only exists when the mirror allows it to do so.

Deformation of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Original text:

“The words are speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word from time…”

Deformed text:

words
speculation
speculum
mirror

weather
Le temps
time

The artistic process is often winding, taking turns in ways even the artist could never imagine. Many a time an artist’s finished product looks nothing like his or her original vision. Ashbury’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” explores the ways in which distortion, an element he sees in the painting, relates to the human identity. Just as artists explore the nuances of an idea throughout the creation process, so humans delve in and out of various understandings of life throughout their existences. The poem takes the reader on a journey of exploratory reflection over the self-portrait in the convex mirror, ultimately presenting the possibility that distortion is a subjective quality that human’s have no way of verifying due to their own constant, though often unintentional, use of distortion.

The deformation I chose to create focused on an early section of the poem. Early on, Ashbury attempts to describe the painting he is viewing. The reader sees Ashbury’s ideas develop throughout the poem. I chose to deconstruct two places where Ashbury’s language choices evolve. The first occurrence is when Ashbury is attempting to describe the nonexistent “words”. Beginning with “speculation”, Ashbury’s train of thought moves to the Latin word “speculum”, and, from there, “mirror”. Thus Ashbury’s original thought, “words”, changes to “mirror”. By exhibiting his process, Ashbury is demonstrating the art of distortion. Just as the convex mirror distorts the image of the Parmigianino, so Ashbury’s words distort his poetry’s meaning. The second place in which Ashbury’s words evolve is when he describes the weather. While initially describing the mirror as a gauge of weather, he quickly digresses to the French “le temps”. “Le temps” then changes to “time”. In this way, Ashbury transitions the mirror from a gauge of weather to a gauge of time, imitating his transition previous from “words” to “mirror”.

Ashbury’s own transitions exhibit how distortion progresses. Distortion by definition perverts something, but Ashbury asserts that distortion comes about when humans attempt to retell something, as when Parmigianino draws his self-portrait and Ashbury reflects on that self-portrait. Ashbury writes, “Or would it be, if the way of telling/Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result/Into a caricature of itself” (533). Ashbury asserts that man’s way of “telling” distorts that which he is attempting to tell. Given this assertion, man’s idea of distortion as an action must itself be distorted. By Ashbury’s complex reasoning, humans have no way of determining the distorted from the undistorted because humans distort everything. Through complex comparisons and long, winding descriptions, Ashbury demonstrates how distortion evolves, while simultaneously questioning humans’ ability to subjectively judge due to humans’ own consistent, though often inadvertent, use of distortion.

(Ironically, by deforming and analyzing the text, I am committing the same distortions that Ashbury commits when he writes of the self-portrait in the convex mirror, and that Parmigianino commits when he paints his own portrait.)

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.