What is Poetry?

A friend and I are discussing Ashbery's What is Poetry? and I think conversations like these are effective in jumpstarting thoughts that I've long since put on the back burner.

Back in college, I was friends with this guy who always has this tendency to discuss to me his plans about his research paper, or any paper, due next morning. From my perspective, it initially sounded like sheer ranting, to the point that I've grown tired of hearing his plans. It turns out that he's well aware of this, but that he really is the kind of person who thinks it's essential to lay your cards on the table in front of another person. Sort of performing a magic trick to yourself and, well, discuss the logic behind it.

A while ago I felt like some really awkward guy discussing Ashbery to another friend, and I had this thought that maybe I was ranting in the same way my old college friend used to do on Facebook, during those wondrous hours of cramming. Judging from how absorbed he is with his plans, I even thought that he wasn't reading anything during our chat.

I guess this is the logic behind writing workshops. Most often we never really talk largely about theories or fiction, as we usually focus on the smaller details. But come to think of it--I always get this good kind of headache just by hearing everybody in the circle discussing, countering each other's points. I often arrive at a certain conclusion with lengthy footnotes and paragraphs supporting claims, good enough for an essay.

Moving on.

Ashbery's What is Poetry? is his "answer" (or an answer posed as a rhetorical question, at the very least) on what poetry means, and what its predefinitions are in the reader-writer relationship. Ashbery has been controversial ever since the publication of his masterpiece, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) because of his non sequiturs and his penchant for anti-climactic lines. His poetry is described as postmodern, but only to some aspects: for instance, this particular poem's metafictive style of addressing itself as a poem, along with non sequiturs, are very much his style. In his interview in The Paris Review, Ashbery said that one of his inspirations are overheard phrases (the line also appears in this poem):
In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: “It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?” I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.
In this poem, he starts with a classical image; a medieval frieze. But how random to couple with the next line: the sound of "Nagoya", and the idea of boy scouts becoming a frieze, are amusing. I like how he wants us to fall for a beautiful idea only to fool us that it wasn't such a beautiful, complete idea.

The poem becomes self-reflexive:  "The snow / that came when we wanted it to snow?" This reminds me of that cliché on TV shows and films: it almost always rains when the protagonist feels lonely, or isolated. Is the weather sympathetic to the protagonist's feelings? Is poetry always about loading meaning on each and every word? Should poetry be about "medieval friezes" and "beautiful images"?

Whereas the "traditional" poem would be sentimental over the fact that it snows, Ashbery wants us to reconsider the reason behind its penchant to associate certain sentiments towards objects--sometimes over and over again, exhausting the association--to the point that readers feel sick about it. These lines become clichés, and eventually, the emotions it elicits become on cue, canned, cheapened.

From this point, the joke dissipates. "But we / go back to them as to a wife, leaving" is something grave; this time it's about our (the "we" is probably the reader and the writer) departure from ("them") meaning that would bring us back to meaning again. The poem started from a laughable image--a medieval frieze of Japanese boy scouts--but the poem dared us, line after line, to break free from meaning, only to find ourselves on similar terrain.

The poem likens our relationship with meaning as ambivalent as that to choosing between the wife and the mistress, as something inevitable. That very line is indicative of the tension: "go back" shares the same line with "leaving". This line conjures the sort of interplay meaning has casted upon us, that irresistible spell to shed light on something, to choose one meaning over the other, to go for depth than surface meaning, the confusion the way we verbalize dance steps--step, no, step.

From there, meaning is finally present again. "Now they / will have to believe it / As we believed it." We, the reader and the writer, who were formerly convinced and unconvinced, are convinced that there is meaning, and that we've extracted it from and exhausted it (as in "All the thought got combed out") through repeated discussions, translations, interpretations.

The end starts with conclusive statements: "What was left was like a field." But the poem relents on having assigned meaning to everything, that the poem feels like a snow globe without the snow. I think of the field as an eerie place devoid of objects, as if it was cleaned by a gigantic vacuum cleaner. There is contentment, but not much as before we have extracted everything from it.

This is metafiction in its finest: now that I've written this, the poem feels like that field. Reading it becomes as mechanical as prose, without the wonders of poetry. No slow reading. No observance of line cuts.

All throughout the poem, the question mark nags us, insists us to answer it before proceeding to the next line until the poem finally closes (open-endedly?): "Now open them on a thin vertical path. / It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?" It is unsure if it has struck a chord at all.


This was a May 4, 2013 draft. I thought this was still a work-in-progress.