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“Tinker not with that which runs apace”: Notes on a poem by John Ashbery

July 9, 2014
John Ashbery in 2010 (photo by David Shankbone).

John Ashbery in 2010 (photo by David Shankbone).

The Helsinki-born composer Robert Kajanus (1856-1933) wrote two works known, in English, as “Finnish Rhapsodies,” the first in D minor (1881), the second in F major (1886). John Ashbery made shorter work of it by writing two poems at once, also under the title “Finnish Rhapsody.”

Here is a poem that is at once itself and itself in other words, as if settling on the right and clarifying words were either unnecessary, or perhaps an exercise in which, for once, a poet might simply decide he’s not obliged to engage. Poets have been giving us single poems at once for millennia; many have revised, or overhauled, poems once written (and published) into other words (as Yeats, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell did). But if a weirdly stereophonic poem like “Finnish Rhapsody” exists, in which the lines come to us as though simultaneously in two channels (put on your headphones), I’m unaware of it (a signal exception: Ashbery’s “Litany”).

The effect is strange and funny. The second half of each line restates what’s said in the first half, often in higher (even preposterous) diction, sometimes in phrasings a bit more idiomatic, sometimes in terms that don’t differ much as to diction or idiom, and once in another language altogether (French). Not that “Finnish Rhapsody” is without some precedent. In John Ashbery and You: His Later Books (2007), John Vincent points out that the poem is “composed in paraphrastic hemistitches, a form borrowed from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish oral epic poems,” wherein “the first half of each line in a paraphrastic hemistich is paraphrased in the second half.” Borrowed, to be sure, but also adapted to quite different purposes, because as Mr. Vincent suggests, the poem may be meant to forestall, or simply make a mockery of, efforts to “paraphrase”—or make stolid sense of—Ashbery generally. A shot across the bow of the USS Vendler, say, or a surface-to-air missive aimed at that literary-historical balloonist nonpareil, Harold Bloom. Maybe. I’m not so sure.

Whatever the case, “rhapsody” once designated an epic poem, or long part of one, suitable (as the OED has it) “for recitation at one time.” The term also refers (again, as per the OED) to “a literary work consisting of miscellaneous or disconnected pieces; a written composition having no fixed form or plan.” This latter sense Ashbery may (mischievously) have in mind, with the ingratiating difference that nothing could be more evident, here, and better fixed, than the “plan” or “form” this poem takes: Ashbery has written a rhapsody that is also anti-rhapsodic. It is its own weird double, its own twin (neither identical nor quite fraternal); it is both phrase and paraphrase (and a parody of paraphrase). It’s a queer reflection of itself, not as in a convex mirror, but as in a fun-house one. Ashbery has written a “rhapsody” to end all rhapsodies, a rhapsody to finish rhapsodies (I’ll not say the title doesn’t double itself in a pun).

Given that “rhapsody” may also mean (the OED, again) “the joining together of miscellaneous unconnected literary pieces,” Ashbery may have written, here, his most exemplary, most Ashbery-like, poem. Most readers, with good enough reason—after all, Ashbery translated Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and his affiliations with the French symbolists are manifest and on the record;—many readers, as I say, properly regard his poetry as generally in this happily deranged line.

I’ll discuss in detail only the first two verse paragraphs, given that this entry already exceeds 5,000 words. Some may wish to read the opening fourteen lines of “Finnish Rhapsody,” scroll down for the commentary, such as it is, and then return to the poem for a complete reading. After I’ve had my say, I will print the two halves of the poems, so to speak, one after the other, for whatever that exercise may reveal. One more note: WordPress doesn’t like long lines of verse, and, depending on how your browser works, some of the longer lines may “wrap” as we’d prefer they not.

“Finnish Rhapsody”

He managed the shower, coped with the small spattering drops,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel, wiped the living organism.
Day extended its long promise, light swept through his refuge.
But it was time for business, back to the old routine.

Many there are, a crowd exists at present,
For whom the daily forgetting, to whom the diurnal plunge
Truncates the spadelike shadows, chops off the blades of darkness,
To be rescued, to be guided into a state of something like security.
Yet it falls off for others; for some, however, it drops from sight:
The millers, winnowers of wheat,
Dusted with snow-white flour, glazed with farinaceous powder,
Like Pierrot, like the white clown of chamber music;
The leggy mannequins, models slender and tall;
The sad children, the disappointed kids.

And for these few, to this small group
Forgetting means remembering the ranks, oblivion is recalling the rows
Of flowers each autumn and spring; of blooms in the fall and early summer.
But those traveling by car, those nosing the vehicle out into the crowded highway
And at the posts of evening, the tall poles of declining day,
Returning satisfied, their objective accomplished,
Note neither mystery nor alarm, see no strangeness or cause for fright.
And these run the greatest risk at work, are endangered by their employment
Seeing there can be no rewards later, no guerdon save in the present:
Strong and severe punishment, peine forte et dure,
Or comfort and relaxation, coziness and tranquillity.

Don’t fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it away.
There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.
One wonders what roadblocks we’re set up for, we question barricades:
Is it better to time, jot down the performance time of
Anything irregular, all that doesn’t fit the preconceived mold
Of our tentative offerings and withdrawals, our hesitant giving and taking back?
For those who perform correctly, for the accurate, painstaking ones
Do accomplish their business, get the job done,
And are seldom seen again, and are rarely glimpsed after that.
That there are a few more black carriages, more somber chariots
For some minutes, over a brief period,
Signifies business as usual, means everything is OK,
That the careful have gone to their reward, the capable disappeared
And boobies, or nincompoops, numskulls and sapheads,
Persist, faced with eventual destruction; endure to be confronted with annihilation someday.

The one who runs little, he who barely trips along
Knows how short the day is, how few the hours of light.
Distractions can’t wrench him, preoccupations forcibly remove him
From the heap of things, the pile of this and that:
Tepid dreams and mostly worthless; lukewarm fancies, the majority of them unprofitable.
Yet it is from these that the light, from the ones present here that luminosity
Sifts and breaks, subsides and falls asunder.
And it will be but half-strange, really be only semi-bizarre
When the tall poems of the world, the towering earthbound poetic utterances
Invade the street of our dialect, penetrate the avenue of our patois,
Bringing fresh power and new knowledge, transporting virgin might and up-to-date enlightenment
To this place of honest thirst, to this satisfyingly parched here and now,
Since all things congregate, because everything assembles
In front of him, before the one
Who need only sit and tie his shoelace, who should remain seated, knotting the metal-tipped cord
For it to happen right, to enable it to come correctly into being
As moments, then years; minutes, afterwards ages
Suck up the common strength, absorb the everyday power
And afterwards live on, satisfied; persist, later to be a source of gratification,
But perhaps only to oneself, haply to one’s sole identity.

The first verse paragraph works as do all that succeed it, the inaugural foray gets itself off in such a mode as characterizes the motive principle of its progeny. As I say, this is a highly patterned and planned “rhapsody,” which is to suggest (again) that as a rhapsody it is neither here nor there, both at one with itself (it’s wilder vagaries are certainly rhapsodic), and at sixes and sevens with itself (no “rhapsody” worthy of the name would be built with such transparent machinery).

Anyway, here’s the first paragraph, un-twinned:

He managed the shower,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel.
Day extended its long promise,
But it was time for business.

He coped with the small spattering drops,
Then wiped the living organism.
Light swept through his refuge,
But it was back to the old routine.

The stanza’s first version of itself is straightforward enough. Its second version of itself is slightly bizarre and, without its twin, partly unintelligible: we don’t know, for example, that it describes a man taking a shower, and of course it may not, or anyway may only appear to when joined to its more demotic counterpart. The second half of line one (taken whole) is a slightly obscure paraphrase of the first. “Coped” stands in for “managed,” though its connotations differ; “small spattering drops” opens “shower” out into something much less precise. “Rubbed himself dry with a towel” is as prosaic as “wiped the living organism” is not. The latter has a faux biological air about it, and wiping and rubbing, though in the same denotative bin, stand quite apart. You wipe to clean something up, you rub to dry or polish. On the other hand, “it was back to the old routine” seems at first simply a jaunty way of saying “it was time for business,” but then, at second glance, not: both are perfectly idiomatic, of course, but they do not mean the same thing. “Time for business” means “time to stop fooling around” (which “Finnish Rhapsody” never does—unless). And then, with line three, we find two very different things indeed. “OK. Get out of bed, shower up, and then consider the day’s long promise, as you turn to your business.” But “light,” though of the day, is not identical with it, and the shower from which you emerge, after towelling down, is no “refuge” (though the house of which it forms a part may be). The first visitation of the four lines is coherent, in diction and in theme, the second visitation is not, wavering, as it does, from what seems like bad writing (“wiped the living organism”), to something Paul Chowder (narrator of Nicholson Baker‘s The Anthologist) might slap his thigh and say (“back to the old routine”), to something that seems to ANNOUNCE itself as “poetic” (“light swept through his refuge”). Each line is a swinging double-door the right half of which comes unhinged as we pass through it. The method isn’t at all mad, but the results are often madcap.

Here is verse-paragraph two, un-twinned:

Many there are
For whom the daily forgetting
Truncates the spadelike shadows,
To be rescued.
Yet it falls off for others:
The millers,
Dusted with snow-white flour,
Like Pierrot;
The leggy mannequins,
The sad children.

A crowd exists at present
To whom the diurnal plunge
Chops off the blades of darkness,
To be guided into a state of something like security.
For some, however, it drops from sight:
Winnowers of wheat,
Glazed with farinaceous powder,
Like the white clown of chamber music;
Models slender and tall,
The disappointed kids.

The first phrase here, with its inversion (“Many there are”), lends the paragraph, as it opens, a slightly aphoristic, I’m-about-to-make-a-point sort of air, as with index finger raised (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”).  Its double (“A crowd exists at present”) puts a stop to that at once, and occasions some wonder at what, precisely, distinguishes “are” from “exists,” other than that the first is copular, the second simply intransitive. “Many there are” has the sense: a lot of people are simply like this. “A crowd exists at present” suggests (a little oddly) that we have to do with fewer people (since it indicates nothing like a classification of people, a type of person): in any case, those for whom sleeping and waking (the diurnal cycle) is a particular kind of experience (whether a forgetting or a plunge) are now time-delimited (“at present,” but not always) rather than characterised. A great many people are like this all of the time; a crowd of people are, at the moment, like this. “The daily forgetting,” as a way of talking about sleep, is familiar enough (in the first paragraph a man gets up and readies himself for the day). “The diurnal plunge” is something deeper—and more watery, and in ways quite different from the “shower” our man “manages” (or the “small spattering drops” he “copes” with). Behind these lines somewhere, as lines both heard, or heard only to be judged impertinent) are, I think, Wordsworth’s “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” from the “Intimations Ode,” and the best-known speech in The Tempest, Prospero’s “We are such stuff /As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” And who knows? Maybe Emerson, too, in the great opening paragraph of “Experience,” itself suffused (vaguely) with echoes of The Tempest:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

Waking, sleeping, forgetting, “spadelike shadows,” “blades of darkness”—the whole dreamy diurnal passage is somehow engaged in the opening lines of “Finnish Rhapsody,” maybe in the whole of the poem, which is both itself and a weird dream of itself, where phrases double and distort themselves as night does day, or as shadow does light, or unconsciousness, consciousness. But no sooner do I catch myself hearing such resonances as these (Prospero, Wordsworth, Emerson) than I must add that the extravagance of the language, as the doubled phrases proceed, is often goofy, and lands us in the Commedia dell’Arte. “Truncates the spadelike shadows” is certainly close to “Chops off the blades of darkness”; “chops off” and “blade” have the effect of awakening the cutting, garden-variety sense of “spade” (which stylized shape is, of course, black in a pack of cards, where “spade” derives from words in Italian and French for “sword,” and through them to words of similar meaning in Latin and Greek, as the OED affirms, and as anyone who’s ever shuffled a pack of cards knows).

Note that verse paragraph two hinges on a familiar argumentative structure: assertion followed by qualification. “Many there are, and yet . . .” The sheer familiarity of the structure, as I experience it, makes me feel as if I’m in the presence of good sense. In fact, it sends me back to two passages in “The Stream of Thought,” from William James‘ classic The Principles of Psychology:

Usually the vague perception that all the words we hear belong to the same language and to the same special vocabulary in that language, and that the grammatical sequence is familiar, is practically equivalent to an admission that what we hear is sense. But if an unusual foreign word be introduced, if the grammar trip, or if a term from an incongruous vocabulary suddenly appear, such as ‘rat-trap’ or ‘plumber’s bill’ in a philosophical discourse, the sentence detonates as it were, we receive a shock from the incongruity, and the drowsy assent is gone. The feeling of rationality in these cases seems rather a negative than a positive thing, being the mere absence of shock, or sense of discord, between the terms of thought.

Reading Ashbery is often very, very often, like this. The vague impression afforded in his poetry that the words in them generally belong not only to the “same language,” but often to “the same special vocabulary in that language” (as here, with words and phrases having to do with, or implying, forgetting, sleep, waking, the diurnal cycle, and so on); the impression that the “grammatical sequence is familiar,” as it usually is in Ashbery; the perception, further, of such commonplace argumentative/logical structures as underpin verse paragraph two here (many are like this, yet others are not);—all these features of Ashberian poetry allow for the “practical equivalence” to “an admission,” as we read or listen, “that what we hear is sense.” And then there’s this observation, from the same passage in “The Stream of Thought”:

If words do belong to the same vocabulary, and if the grammatical structure is correct, sentences with absolutely no meaning may be uttered in good faith and pass unchallenged. Discourses at prayer-meetings, reshuffling the same collection of cant phrases, and the whole genus of penny-a-line-isms and newspaper-reporter’s flourishes give illustrations of this. “The birds filled the tree-tops with their morning song, making the air moist, cool, and pleasant,” is a sentence I remember reading once in a report of some athletic exercises in Jerome Park. It was probably written unconsciously by the hurried reporter, and read uncritically by many readers.

“The birds filled the tree-tops with their morning song, making the air moist, cool, and pleasant” is, let’s say, inadvertently Ashberian, though not in a strong sense: that birdsong could make the air “moist” and “cool” is nonsense that can pass for sense, go unchallenged as sense, until we wake from the revery that characterizes much more of our reading and listening experience than we usually acknowledge. One effect, if not purpose, of the sort of poetry Ashbery writes is to make this clear, as when a “sentence detonates as it were,” and “we receive a shock from the incongruity,” and the “drowsy assent” we give to Ashbery “is gone.” Let’s say that reading Ashbery is often like trying to recall a name we know we know. James again:

Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps. When I vainly try to recall the name of Spalding, my consciousness is far removed from what it is when I vainly try to recall the name of Bowles. There are innumerable consciousnesses of want, no one of which taken in itself has a name, but all different from each other. Such feeling of want is tota cœlo other than a want of feeling: it is an intense feeling. The rhythm of a lost word may be there without a sound to clothe it; or the evanescent sense of something which is the initial vowel or consonant may mock us fitfully, without growing more distinct. Every one must know the tantalizing effect of the blank rhythm of some forgotten verse, restlessly dancing in one’s mind, striving to be filled out with words.

That’s as good an account as I ever hope to find of what I so often experience when reading Ashbery generally, or, as here, when reading “Finnish Rhapsody,” right from the outset:

He managed the shower, coped with the small spattering drops,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel, wiped the living organism.
Day extended its long promise, light swept through his refuge.
But it was time for business, back to the old routine.

It would be very wrong to call this nonsense, at least in its operations, because it so keenly makes us aware of what it is like to experience “sense”; it is the gap that only Spalding can fill; it “[mocks] us fitfully, without growing more distinct”; it is “singularly definite” in the sense James means here, in that it can act “immediately so as to negate” the proposals we make about it. Right here, in the Era of Casual Fridays, I stand in the crowd that exists (at present), for whom the daily forgetting truncates the spadelike shadows, guiding me into a state of something like security. Or do I stand with those “others,” for whom the “daily forgetting” “falls off”?—with, that is, the millers, the winnowers of wheat? “Miller” is common enough, and they do “winnow wheat.” And yet, ever so slightly, “winnowers of wheat” carries a certain scriptural weight, so often does the English Bible depend on metaphors that hang about winnowing (the wheat, the chaff) or use it outright, as here, in Ecclesiastes 5:8-14 (the rhetorical organising principle of which is a little like “Finnish Rhapsody”):

Set not thine heart upon goods unjustly gotten, for they shall not profit thee in the day of calamity. Winnow not with every wind, and go not into every way: for so doth the sinner that hath a double tongue. Be stedfast in thy understanding; and let thy word be the same. Be swift to hear; and let thy life be sincere; and with patience give answer. If thou hast understanding, answer thy neighbour; if not, lay thy hand upon thy mouth. Honour and shame is in talk: and the tongue of man is his fall. Be not called a whisperer, and lie not in wait with thy tongue: for a foul shame is upon the thief, and an evil condemnation upon the double tongue.

The Book of John Ashbery is un-wisdom literature at its height.

But to proceed. One of those moments where, as James has it, “an unusual foreign word be introduced,” or “the grammar trip,” or “a term from an incongruous vocabulary suddenly appear,” such that the sentence “detonates,” occurs here: 

The millers, winnowers of wheat,
Dusted with snow-white flour, glazed with farinaceous powder,
Like Pierrot, like the white clown of chamber music;
The leggy mannequins, models slender and tall;
The sad children, the disappointed kids.

Peirrot, as played by Paul Legrand (photograph by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1855).

Peirrot, as played by Paul Legrand (photograph by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1855).

“Farinaceous”: there’s a word you don’t see very often (unless you eat “farina” for your breakfast, better known by the brand name Cream of Wheat, and see at once how to make an adjective from the noun). And here’s where the lines really turn goofy, as winnowers stand in for millers; as Pierrot stands in for winnowers (his make-up is typically white powder, and in that sense farinaceous); as the “white clown of chamber music” doubles for Pierrot, a stock pantomime figure in the Commedia dell’arte (not in chamber music, unless composed by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich)—a form of theatre characterised by such antic improvisations as Ahsbery may be engaging in here; as leggy mannequins take the place of the white clown; as models become mannequins; as “sad children” stand in for them; and as “disappointed kids” now stand in for them all.
Pierrot, though a buffoonish figure in his 17th century and 18th century origins, is better known as the type of the sad, lovelorn clown (or, as our Wikipedians remind us, as a figure for the often alienated artist/poet, and the darling of many of the French symbolist poets whom Ashbery has read and translated, and also follows, in his New York City ways).
Google Ngram charts the fall of "farinaceous" since 1800. Click to enlarge.

Google Ngram charts the fall of “farinaceous” since 1800. Click to enlarge.

In any case, here we have a string of figures (from “millers” all the way to “disappointed kids”) who all bear a specifiable, and so in some sense “logical,” relation to Pierrot: whether by physical appearance (dusted with flour or white powder) or in mood (sad, disappointed).

Along the way, the stage character gives way to “leggy mannequins,” which may denote both a person who models clothes or a simulacrum of the same; the legginess of the mannequins brings to mind the fashion-show runway, a theatre or stage different from that of the Commedia dell’arte (though perhaps not altogether different). And at last we find our poignant, melancholy clown in the guise of “sad children” and “disappointed kids,” which latter phrase is as colloquial and commonplace as “farinaceous” is arcane. And here I’ll stop the play-by-play commentary, stand athwart the nagging blab, and say a few words more, before printing the poem in its two halves, as by some such surgery as might be used to separate two poems joined since birth.

Howard Cossell in 1975, photograph credited to ABC Television.

Howard Cossell in 1975, photograph credited to ABC Television.

Every reader will have a few favourites. Here’s one of mine: “Don’t fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,” where both halves of the line are in orbit around that hoary American saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (though the second half almost achieves escape velocity, while “tinker” seems rather homely, relative to what follows). This line is its own Howard Cosell. The entire poem is its own stoned Howard Cosell, its own high colour commentary on itself.

Another good run falls here. “The tall poems of the world” gives us “the towering earthbound poetic utterances,” which both “invade the street of our dialect” and “penetrate the avenue of our patois” (I’m laughing now), all while “bringing fresh power and new knowledge” and (I’m laughing even harder) while “transporting virgin might and up-to-date enlightenment.” It’s as though the first half of each line had been run through Google Translate into Japanese and then run back through Google Translate into English, with predictably imprecise results: fresh power=virgin might; new knowledge=up-to-date enlightenment.

I’ll not linger upon suggestions as to what the poem may be said to “mean,” as against suggestions as to how it operates. In fact, much of the poem seems quite deliberately banal, or commonplace, once we isolate it; and bits of it may well reduce to sentiments such as these (from the left-hand side of the poem, here cast as prose, and with little notes added in brackets):

Don’t fix it if it works, otherwise the wind might get it. [Whatever is is right. Don’t tempt fate.] There is no time for anything like chance, because the closing of our day is business. [Everything happens for a reason; and, yes, we all shall die, and a serious business it is.] One wonders what roadblock we’re set up for: is it better to time anything irregular of our tentative offerings and withdrawals? [Something like a day of judgment shall come, and what shall we have offered? Look to it.] For those who perform correctly accomplish their business and are seldom seen again. [Off to some sort of heaven they go!] That there are a few more black carriages for some minutes signifies business as usual [yes, the hearses come and come], that the careful have gone to their reward [in whatever there is of heaven], and boobies, or nincompoops, persist, faced with eventual destruction. [The tribulation, and then, the end.]

The language, here, sorts well with—consorts with—most of our readily available, off-the-rack, moralizings; and if the poem makes them strange again, we needn’t claim it does so either to endorse or repudiate them. Better, then, to let such passages as this stand (wedded to their unruly better halves): oblique and queer in their relation to the language we all suppose we already know too well.

And really, what’s said is done, and what’s done is said, as here:

The one who runs little knows how short the day is. [Tempus fugit.] Distractions can’t wrench him from the heap of things: tepid dreams, and mostly worthless. [For such are our works and days, and even our dreams: utterly mundane.] Yet it is from these that the light sifts and breaks. [Somehow, from the utterly mundane, arises a certain splendour.] And it will be but half-strange when the tall poems of the world invade the street of our dialect, bringing fresh power and new knowledge to this place of honest thirst. [No one should be surprised—it’ll only be half-strange—when the shifting light that arose from our everyday heap of things returns to us in all its alienated majesty, as Emerson once said, as with poems that at once employ and renew our common speech.]

Well, so it is in “Finnish Rhapsody,” as in so much of Ashbery.

A closing request: Henry, Mark—don’t suppose me to have hereby pressed John Ashbery into the swollen ranks of our Emersonians, as with too strong an arm. Other people have done that already, and you know who.

≈   ≈   ≈

NB: Readers may visit the Ashbery Resource Center (Bard College), or hear a 12-minute lecture Ashbery gave on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Also of interest: the pages devoted to Ashbery at Modern American Poetry (University of Illinois); an interview with Ashbery printed in The Paris Review; recordings of readings he gave from his 2002 book Chinese Whispers; and the pages devoted to him at the Poetry Foundation.

John Vincent (mentioned above) has this to say about “Finnish Rhapsody,” in John Ashbery and You: His Later Books (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007):

The difficulty of parsing an Ashbery poem can be a characteristic of reading an Ashbery poem but isn’t an end point. Solely parsing Ashbery poems for sense makes the poems disappear, sapping them of their lyricism. In “Finnish Rhapsody,” Ashbery celebrates the other aspect of parsing—that it proliferates meaning instead of locating it. Paraphrasing, his paraphrastic rhapsody maintains, has as much to do with getting things wrong or simply fumbling with a poem as it does with making sense. The best readers bumble, and their awkwardness refuses the simple one-to-one, signifier for signified, setup that readers who insist on carrying on the “business” of sense blinder themselves with. Such refusal to read solely for sense in poems (represented in this poem as a kind of ontological position, an inability to carry on purposefully) allows poetry to vivify “moments, then years; minutes, afterwards ages.” In Charles Altieri’s terms, lyricism enables a poem to escape our current means of making sense of the world and our own psyches and, by its very inchoateness, offers an alternative to our accepted explanations and allows an exploration of new territory of feeling and experience.

I decline to say that “Finnish Rhapsody” (or Ashbery in it) “maintains” this or that argument, or even implies one (though it/he may well “entertain” one). But Mr. Vincent is good, here; and his book is engaging—a politely dispositive “No, thank you,” to those who would press Ashbery into that great gang of unacknowledged legislators, the Romantics.

Now for the bicameral poem, un-twinned, it’s left brain first, it’s right brain second.

“Finnish Rhapsody” (left-half)

He managed the shower,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel.
Day extended its long promise.
But it was time for business.

Many there are,
For whom the daily forgetting
Truncates the spadelike shadows
To be rescued.
Yet it falls off for others:
The millers,
Dusted with snow-white flour,
Like Pierrot;
The leggy mannequins;
The sad children.

And for these few
Forgetting means remembering the ranks
Of flowers each autumn and spring.
But those traveling by car,
And at the posts of evening,
Returning satisfied,
Note neither mystery nor alarm.
And these run the greatest risk at work,
Seeing there can be no rewards later:
Strong and severe punishment,
Or comfort and relaxation.

Don’t fix it if it works,
Otherwise the wind might get it.
There is no time for anything like chance,
Because the closing of our day is business.
One wonders what roadblock we’re set up for:
Is it better to time
Anything irregular
Of our tentative offerings and withdrawals?
For those who perform correctly
Do accomplish their business
And are seldom seen again.
That there are a few more black carriages
For some minutes
Signifies business as usual,
That the careful have gone to their reward
And boobies, or nincompoops,
Persist, faced with eventual destruction.

The one who runs little
Knows how short the day is.
Distractions can’t wrench him
From the heap of things:
Tepid dreams and mostly worthless.
Yet it is from these that the light
Sifts and breaks.
And it will be but half-strange
When the tall poems of the world
Invade the street of our dialect,
Bringing fresh power and new knowledge
To this place of honest thirst,
Since all things congregate
In front of him
Who need only sit and tie his shoelace
For it to happen right,
As moments, then years,
Suck up the common strength
And afterwards live on, satisfied,
But perhaps only to oneself.

 

“Finnish Rhapsody” (right-half)

He coped with the small spattering drops,
Then wiped the living organism.
Light swept through his refuge.
But it was back to the old routine.

A crowd exists at present,
To whom the diurnal plunge
Chops off the blades of darkness,
To be guided into a state of something like security.
Yet for some, however, it drops from sight:
Winnowers of wheat,
Glazed with farinaceous powder,
Like the white clown of chamber music;
Models slender and tall;
The disappointed kids.

And to this small group
Oblivion is recalling the rows
Of blooms in the fall and early summer.
But those nosing the vehicle out into the crowded highway,
And at the tall poles of declining day,
Their objective accomplished,
See no strangeness or cause for fright.
And these are endangered by their employment,
No guerdon save in the present:
Peine forte et dure,
Or coziness and tranquillity.

Tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the breeze might waft it away.
There is no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the bottom line is already here.
We question barricades:
Is it better to jot down the performance time of
All that doesn’t fit the preconceived mold
Of our hesitant giving and taking back?
For the accurate, painstaking ones
Do get the job done,
And are rarely glimpsed after that.
That there are a few more somber chariots
For a brief period,
Means everything is OK,
That the capable disappeared
And numskulls and sapheads,
Endure to be confronted with annihilation someday.

He who barely trips along
Knows how few are the hours of light.
Preoccupations can’t forcibly remove him
From the pile of this and that:
Lukewarm fancies, the majority of them unprofitable.
Yet it is from the ones present here that luminosity
Subsides and falls asunder.
And it will really be only semi-bizarre
When the towering earthbound poetic utterances
Penetrate the avenue of our patois,
Transporting virgin might and up-to-date enlightenment
To this satisfyingly parched here and now,
Because everything assembles
Before the one
Who should remain seated, knotting the metal-tipped cord
To enable it to come correctly into being
As minutes, afterwards ages,
Absorb the everyday power
And afterwards persist, later to be a source of gratification,
But haply to one’s sole identity.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 12, 2017 11:11 AM

    Ashbery has never particularly engaged or interested me as a poet. With one or two rare exceptions, his readers and critics end up talking about the poem’s poetry rather than about the poem. For instance, I notice the first third of your post is more engaged in a fussy definition of rhapsody than the poem itself. That’s to be expected when dealing with Ashbery. The problem, as you yourself state, is that the “second version of itself is slightly bizarre and, without its twin, partly unintelligible”, which safely describes Ashbery’s poetry in general—always without “its twin”. No writer has captured the trappings of poetry with greater success than Ashbery. That is, it’s said of Ashbery, by his critics, that his poetry is a King with no clothes, but I would strongly disagree. Ashbery is a master tailor. The problem is the missing King. The poor child, pointing at Ashbery’s poems, will forever point out that the clothes have no King. And, as might be expected, Ashbery’s legion of courtiers will forever sniff that the King is his clothes. And maybe they have a point?—as far as that goes.

    The most interesting facet of this “Rhapsody” is one you don’t mention, and that’s that it’s a kind of Rosetta Stone. It’s as if Ashbery has exposed himself—the process of his writing and imagination. The left brain poem, as you’ve labeled it, is just the sort of mundane, dull, uninspired droning that characterizes the vast majority of his generation. And then, to the right, Ashbery shows us what Ashbery does and sounds like. The King is just as dull as ever, but my!—what beautiful clothes he wears! And that, in a nutshell, is the genius of Ashbery. It’s what he’s been doing his entire life. And I wholeheartedly agree that the phrase: “Tinker not with that which runs apace” might turn out to be one of his most memorable lines. How ironic would that be?

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