Turning yesterday’s post on its head less than 24 hours later, I’ve been reading John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, and am forced to admit, once again, that there isn’t just one poetry. There are whole swaths of people who get things out of poetry that I don’t care all that much about. And that’s a wonderful thing — I’m firmly opposed to the balkanization of poetry.
Here’s the second poem in the book, “They Dream Only of America”:
They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
“This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.”
And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily–
The lake a lilac cube.
He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before
We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.
Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.
“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.
And I am lost without you.”
You need a decoder ring and a lot of time to figure it out, or maybe just a love for this kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure the poem is a homoerotic lyric, a love poem wrought with the pain of having to keep your love in the closet. (Ashbery fans, correct me if I’m wrong.) It took me about a half an hour and a couple dozen reads to come to this conclusion.
Lines like the second, “To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass,” are undeniably brilliant. Here the most obvious allusion is to Walt Whitman, himself a homosexual poet, but the leaves of grass becoming instead “pillars” at once reveals the first phallic image among many in the poem, and also references Lot’s Wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom (which, of course, is where the word sodomize comes from). Being “lost among the thirteen million” expresses the desire to be both hidden and open about one’s sexuality — to be hidden in plain sight — and I also wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that thirteen million is an estimate on the number of gay men in America in 1957, when the poem was written.
All this in one line.
Once you find that key, the rest of the fractured narrative starts to make sense — all the seminal fluids and phallic objects (the honey, the key, the cigar, and so on), the dark barn and the bedroom, dandelions and the lilac cube*, the “Please.” (“Now he only cared about the signs…” — are all the signs, now, Freudian?)
But “They Dream Only of America” is more than just an occluded love poem. “There is nothing to do/ For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” After oppression, even freedom is a horror. And there it returns to Lot’s Wife — she turned to salt only when she looked back. Ashbery wrote the poem when he was thirty, living in Paris, the city to which he’d fled from the sexual restrictions of America — so Ashbery himself is looking back, turning to salt as he does. But there’s more to it, even, than that — there’s a hint of Stockholm Syndrome, there’s the thrill of the secret, of impossible love losing its luster in fact, and so on.
This is complicated stuff — and I think there are also references to the French Revolution as well, which I haven’t even mentioned (The Tennis Court Oath itself is the moment where the French people “came out of the closet” to form the National Assembly). Or smaller things that I’m less sure of — is “ash tray” a reference (even visually) to “Ashbery”?
The point is, though, that I don’t care about this stuff. Or, rather, my enjoyment of this poetry is entirely other than the enjoyment I get from what I consider to be great poems, the poems that work like spells. The pleasure in Ashbery is the pleasure of a Rubik’s Cube — the text is a puzzle to be solved, which happens to be constructed in the music of language. It’s more than just a Rubik’s Cube, because even when you come to an interpretation of the poem, there’s an indescribable mystery to it, that pang of unexplained epiphany. Even the riddle’s answer is more than you can wrap your head around. This is art. You can’t argue that it isn’t poetry — but it’s not my poetry.
All this to say — yesterday’s definition was too narrow and personal. There are really three kinds of poetry, and I can contort their categories enough to call them the Three E’s:
- Exclamatory — The artful and didactic expression of preconceived sentiment. This is greeting card and occasional poetry. The kind your aunt who never reads likes you to send her. What George Orwell referred to last week as “good bad poetry,” and what Elizabeth Alexander read last month. This is actually by far the most popular, though we wish we could show the masses what they’re missing.
- Experiential — The poetry-as-spell I described yesterday. The poem is an incantation, a rhythmic shaping of the breath that uses the body as a medium and so recreates an emotional or mental experience for the reader. This is my kind of poetry, and I believe the most popular among so-called “poetry users.”
- Exegeses — (A hard word to say, even harder to turn into an adjective…exegeian?) The poetry of analysis, poetry-as-puzzle. This is the poetry of the academics, emphasizing condension, allusion, subversion, lexography, and etymology, among many other tools. The least popular, but the most critically acclaimed.
A cynic would say that exegesis poetry is only popular, even in academia, because it justifies the position of the professor (or critic) as a conduit to the God of Poetic Truth. When the dean comes around, you can show how much work you’ve been doing, because the students books are filled with marginalia, all the allusions they wouldn’t have noticed without you.
I’m not so cynical, though. Breaking down “They Dream Only of America” was fun tonight. Just not kind of fun I prefer to receive from my poetry. I want an experience, not a challenge — unless I’m really in the mood for it.
But I think poetry is done a disservice by having only one name for itself. In high school you’re taught to analyze poems, to look for all the hidden meanings and allusions in your CliffsNotes so you can write an essay about them, as if all poems are about the exegesis. So you miss the joy of just experiencing the kind of poems that don’t need to be broken down. On the other end of the spectrum, “Hallmark verse” gets called poetry, too, and so we have to feel embarrassed as poets that “Roses are red” is considered the same art form. It’s not — these three categories of poetry are entirely different — they operate on different parts of the mind, and they have entirely different goals. The only thing that unifies them is the superficiality of how they look on the page.
Earlier I said I don’t support the balkanization of poetry, but maybe that’s not true. I think if we started looking at them as separate entities, it might be easier to appreciate each one for what it is and is trying to do.
* It’s worth noting that Ashbery was born in Rochester, NY, and grew up in the small town of Sodus, about an hour’s drive to the east. I was born in the same place, and my first memories are of Sodus, where I lived from ages 2 through 5. The two flowers mentioned in this poem are of especial interest to locals. The annual spring celebration in Rochester is called the Lilac Festival, and the University of Rochester was built on a field of dandelions — the yellow weed, I’ve heard, becoming the school mascot for nearly a century, until students started taking exception to the “dandy” image on their chests, and changed the nickname to the much more manly Yellowjacket. Could Ashbery have been referencing this urban legend? I have no idea.