John Ashbery: The One of Fictive Music

By Geoff Bouvier

"Sometimes, I think the words get in the way of my poetry."

-- John Ashbery.


John Ashbery has engaged theoretically and compositionally with music throughout his poetic career, and yet there is a palpable gap in Ashbery studies regarding the connection of music to his poetry. This is especially ironic if you contend, as I do, that the widely heralded difficulty of Ashbery's work is directly related to its musicality, and to how his poetry "aspires to the condition of music." His is a poetry without a conventional subject -- no traditional lyrical content or lyrical "I" -- and makes no argument based on clear terms, but rather, it unfolds in time, requiring a listener or reader to participate in the meaning-making. Through purity of form and the lack of denotable content, music is the art which effortlessly achieves continuous expressivity. But what is music? And who or what might we say is music's proper "subject"? As elusive as music is -- and I shall attempt to compile a comprehensive definition -- the characteristic mode of John Ashbery's poetry manages to appropriate musicality, and to exploit this quality poetically, even despite poetry's fundamental "handicap" of being tethered to the cerebral, to meaning. Through his sound structures, holistic sense of non-linear narrative, tonal variety, expansiveness, syntactic flow, pronominal shifts, implication of the reader as complicit in the poetic moment, and a kind of utter inclusivity, Ashbery writes poems that work the way music works; his poetry seeks to train readers to interact with writtenness the way we interact with sound, a poem as a kind of playable score. The participatory and, indeed, performative techniques of reading which we learn from "playing" Ashbery's poetic "music" engender a heightened appreciation for the musical condition of all literature.

I am preceded in some of my ideas by John Shoptaw, and by J.L. Jacobs and Ronald Schleifer, who are among the very few critics who have enacted extended musical readings of Ashbery's poetry. Shoptaw begins his formulations by turning upon its head the old (and largely subconscious) poetic dictum that "sound, however expressive, does not create meaning; it only echoes it" ("Lyric" 223). Instead, he says, "poetic sound... helps produce poetic meaning, so that the sense seems an afterthought to sound" (223). Toward this end, a reader of poetry should engage in what Shoptaw calls "productive reading," which involves considerations of how poetic meaning is produced by sound. Shoptaw succeeds in conferring upon poetry some of the crucial elements of "the condition of music," and he also treats the reading of poetry as a kind of performance art. In discussing Ashbery, Shoptaw refers to the latter's "constructive music," and his "metrical practice of composing by both the metronome and the musical phrase" ("Measure and Polyphony" 249). I depart from Shoptaw’s enduring interest in Ashbery's "cryptography" ("secret writing") and how that somehow forms a sense of Ashbery as a homosexual writer, which reduces, and I believe errantly characterizes, Ashbery's achievements as a poet. My concern is rather with Ashbery's expansive musicality, and with how music theory can help us understand his work in ways that literary theory cannot.

In the case of Jacobs and Schleifer, because Ashbery's poems extend an "invitation to participate" (307), at the same time inviting "non-linear reading, as if one were unfolding a fan instead of pursuing predicates" (314), we should learn to read his poems "without weaving them into a developmental, 'harmonic' whole" (307). Such poetry demands a new kind of reader, one whose literacy is honed to the point that he or she can attend to the poems in what Jacobs and Schleifer call an "ambient" way (298). I shall expand upon the concept of ambient reading in the course of this essay.

Poetry seems to be always insecure and self-questioning, an art in need of defending, wondering what it's good for, whether or not it's appropriate after calamities, if it can matter. [1] The anxieties of poetry date back to long before Plato, and his already ancient and unfavorable comparisons between poetry and philosophy, which somehow inflicted the former with an amnesia about its own myth-making and religion-building capabilities. Regardless, to this day, poetry's genre envy has led it to lament its relationships to the sister arts, being less visual, less immediate, too intimate, too elitist, what have you. In the search for some exemplary aspiration, belatedly, poetry has contorted itself in every conceivable direction, but perhaps most notably toward music, at least since Walter Pater crowned the latter as the pinnacle of the arts, writing famously in 1893 that "all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music" (107). But what is the condition of music, and how might that help poetry?

For Stéphane Mallarmé, music is "the totality of universal relationships" (42). The composer Leonard Bernstein recognized music as the metalanguage that can "name the unnamable, and communicate the unknowable" (140). Ferruccio Busoni, to whom Ashbery gave the final word in his seminal short essay "The Invisible Avant-Garde," was a pre-modernist Italian composer and music theorist who wrote extensive music theory and compositions that explored a kind of middle route between the extremes of neoclassicism and what came to be known as abstract expressionism. According to Busoni, "invention and atmosphere compose the content" of music (Essence 4), and "(music), thanks to its neutrality... fits and adapts itself everywhere" (Essence 3). Throughout his writing, and especially in Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, Busoni is setting down succinct definitions of his art. "It is sonorous air" (4); it is "the most complete of all reflexes of Nature" (6); it is "a part of the vibrating universe" (13); and, "that is musical, which sounds in rhythms and intervals" (20). Franz Grillparzer, who, besides being one of the foremost playwrights of the 19th century, was also a noted music theorist, put poetry and music at odds, saying that music must "begin where poetry ceases" (quoted in Gordon, 553). Grillparzer placed music on a particular kind of pedestal, stating that it was "The only art which seeks no other end than itself; it is play even when it is serious" (554).

It makes sense to speak of music as form without content, or symbol without referent (Duisberg 207). At the same time, music is expressive of something other than itself. The crucial distinction between music and language, considering expressivity, is that language is also denotative and music is not. This is to say that music is free of the binding of signifier and signified, and instead, the signification of music relates to feeling and meaning only in a metaphorical way. In other words, when music is "sad," it literally consists of a series of attributes -- perhaps "slow" "minor key" "muted strings" etc. -- but only figuratively is music able to convey sadness. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari acknowledge the non-denotative quality of music, but then wonder about the content that does correspond to music's expressivity, deciding that whatever it is, it is most certainly "something essential" that forms a pure becoming whose meaning derives solely from the repetitions of the refrain (299). To Wallace Stevens, music was the purely fictive, "feeling... not sound," and music more or less effortlessly meets the tenets of Stevens' supreme fiction: changing, being abstract, and giving pleasure. In his poem, "To The One of Fictive Music," Stevens regards the human condition as one in which people are "so retentive of themselves" that we require music's intensity (and here we read "music" as a metonymy for Stevens' comprehensive figure of "imagination") to help us "proclaim / The near, the clear" and "apprehend... an image that is sure" among "all the vigils musing the obscure" (87-88). To Stevens, the one of fictive music, being unreal, will "give back to us... the imagination that we spurned and crave" (88). This poem marks a powerful divining moment where Stevens is operating in his characteristic mode of calling out for a particular kind of ephebe. And is there any poet who is less retentive of himself than John Ashbery? Whether we consider the absence of self-retention as a kind of negative capability, or as a shift away from the personal to what John Koethe (in an essay on Ashbery) calls a "metaphysical subject," (87) regardless, Ashbery's continuous interplay of selves makes him seem like the one who makes good on delivering Stevens' fictive music of the imagination.

When we invoke music's condition, then, it seems that we are referring to an organized plastic non-corporeality that is abstract and inventive and atmospheric enough to boast the ability to endlessly elaborate and endlessly become, but that repeats itself in such a way that it holds a consistent form. Transferring such a definition into the realm of words, what techniques might a poet utilize to reach such a condition? When Stevens writes of "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is," locating a poetics in the relative absence and presence of what can never be absent or present, we must come to understand that whatever poetry is or isn't, it, like music, is most certainly something. "The best words in the best order" (Coleridge), a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Wordsworth), "the unofficial view of being" (Stevens), "not the record of an event; (a poem) is an event" (Lowell), "language pared down to its essentials" (Pound), an "escape" from emotion and personality (Eliot), and so on, until poetry seems to be able to become whatever one says it is. Indeed, poetry has often been defined in terms that hardly differentiate it from music: "emotion put into measure" (Hardy), "(it) set(s) up in the reader's sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer" (Housman), "(it) can communicate before it is understood" (Eliot), "the rhythmical creation of beauty in words" (Poe). It often seems, from reading about poetry and reading about music, that the only definable difference between them is that one is made with words and the other with sounds. For example, John Cage pithily defined music as the "organization of sound" (3), and said that poetry is poetry "by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words" (xxx).

Notably, Ashbery himself seems to communicate such a sentiment whenever he is interviewed. In a February, 2009 dialog with Travis Nichols in The Believer, Ashbery aligns his poetry with music, specifically with 12-tone experimental classical music:

...I was very attracted to Schoenberg and serial music when I first started writing, thanks to Frank O'Hara... I was taken with the idea that the tone row is a fixed thing that goes into music, that the music is organized around it, that the composer is not free to improvise, though of course a lot of them do, not taking it literally. That was sort of interesting to me at the same time I first tried to write a sestina, because there you're thwarted every time you try to write the next line. The form is always there, menacing you. But I don't like just that kind of music. I also like more conservative twentieth-century music. I guess my poetry is indebted to music because it's something that unfolds in a linear way and it's not something that can be taken in immediately, like a painting. As much as I love visual art, I've never felt it's been much of an influence on me. I love having it around, as you see. It's probably the idea of not knowing yourself what's going to come next, just as when you're listening to a piece of music you don't know what's waiting around the corner.

In another interview, this time with Craig Burnett, in a September 2004 issue of Frieze Magazine, Ashbery says,

I never felt as engaged by the visual arts as by music. I think of music first and poetry second. I think of the space in my poetry as a kind of musical space... You're waiting for the next sound to happen and following it as it unwinds, which is unlike the immediate confrontation with a work of art. Visual art is not a linear unfolding in time the way music is, or cinema for that matter, which is also an influence.

In Ashbery's intro to O'Hara's Collected Poems, he describes how both he and O'Hara were "tremendously impressed by... John Cage's 'Music of Changes,' a piano work lasting an hour and consisting, as I recall, entirely of isolated, autonomous tone-clusters struck seemingly at random all over the keyboard. It was aleatory music... [W] hat mattered was that chance elements could combine to produce so beautiful and cogent a work it was a further, perhaps for us ultimate proof not so much of 'Anything goes' but 'Anything can come out." And finally, in The New York Times Magazine in 1976, Ashbery said, "What I like about music is its ability of... carrying an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of the argument remain unknown quantities... I would like to do this in poetry."

What is shown at the very least by this digression through Ashbery's own words regarding music and poetry is his profound alignment with both art forms, and how he has turned to music throughout his career for guidance, inspiration, and formal cues in crafting his poetry.

Writing on Gertrude Stein in Poetry in 1957, Ashbery used a description of Stein's work that could stand as the credo of his own, observing that her writing "gives one the feeling of time passing... not events... rather... their way of happening'... a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars" (250). Ashbery then goes on to compare Stein to Henry James, saying that both of them "seem to strain with a superhuman force toward 'the condition of music,' of poetry" (251). Ashbery then develops his sense of "the condition of music of poetry" by saying that "the endless process of elaboration which gives the work of these two writers a texture of bewildering luxuriance... seems to obey some rhythmic impulse at the heart of all happening" (252). Music's condition as an "endless process of elaboration" echoes the previously mentioned Deleuzian sense of music as a mode of pure becoming whose only content is the refrain (Deleuze 299). Superimposing Deleuze's and Ashbery's ideas about elaborative becoming, we observe that music's changeable nature renders its essence as ever-becoming, but with repetitions that create rhythm and musical phraseology. As such, a musical poetry must flow, deterritorializing along multiple lines of flight, periodically repeating tones, notes, and motifs, but never coalescing into the defined edges of a fixed "meaning." A musical poetry, then, would seem to be synonymous with an elaborative poetry of becoming. As Ashbery writes in "Grand Galop": "All things seem mention of themselves / And the names that stem from them branch out to other referents" (Self-Portrait 14).

If we grant Stein and James, then, a kind of musical expansiveness, then surely Stein (and Beckett at his most abstract, perhaps?) is also an exemplar of musical content. There is very little "there" in Stein or later Beckett besides invention and atmosphere (echoing Busoni). Ashbery, however, seems to pull back from a Snowman-like "nothing not there" in his poems. His own strategy, instead, seems to be a kind of piling on of content which achieves a similar effect: there's so much there, it's as though nothing were. For an example of this, here is the first stanza of a later Ashbery poem, "Gladys Palmer," from Can You Hear, Bird:

Do not go into Hawaii.
Even the price tags are afraid.
A bunch of wetsuits slapped a utility pole.
Something like a pupil
accosted me across from the mill.
The new wave of hijackings
resembles the others only in intensity. Otherwise, forget it (53).

Hawaii, price tags, wetsuits, pupils, and hijackings are given an equivalency which arises from their common status as nouns. Yet each specific "something" points the reader outward into new territories of meaning, where some things are personified, some things aren't what they are, and everything seems to resemble everything else, "otherwise, forget it." Whereas the classic "crisis lyric" takes us from a present event into the reverie of the poet and then back to the event with some kind of enlightened insight, the Ashbery lyric compresses that trajectory, often into the space of a single line or image. Either that, or he jettisons the model altogether, flattening and proliferating the classic poetic hierarchy of observation, sense-making, and insight. This accordion-like quality plays itself out in the poems on the level of the subject (through his notoriously slipping pronouns) and the object (where the "things" of his poems seldom remain fixed or in place). Some critics, like Marjorie Perloff, liken the slippage of subject to subject and object to object to a kind of dream logic, but I would call it more of a "music logic," where the nouns and pronouns in an Ashbery poem are treated like notes and chords in various keys. But how can we encounter a musical logic such as the one in "Gladys Palmer" and determine what the poem is about? Or is "aboutness" even the right question?

Confronting the problem of what comprises a poetic content, the question arises whether a poetry couldn't be too musical. Perhaps it's a question of taste, but one might argue that elaborations which are overly elaborate (too many somethings? or somethings not quite one thing enough?) might bore the reader, a claim, for instance, levied all too often at Stein, and at another Ashbery favorite, Raymond Roussel. Poetry is, after all, a cerebral and corporeal art, and to aspire away the logical and physical attributes from poetry might raise esthetic questions that go deeper than taste. Ashbery himself seems to combat such problems, and thus provide poetic pleasure, by anchoring his elaborations in humor and in the trappings of narrative and colloquial expression; at any given point, there is much to enjoy in Ashbery, even if we aren't sure where his expansiveness is expanding. On this front, Busoni, who was a precursor and early theorist of 12-tone modernist classical music, lamented both the Romantic, simple, popular classical music of his time on the one hand and the chaotic freedom from all musical constraint enjoyed by composers like Schoenberg on the other. Ashbery's championing of Busoni as an artist who "alone managed to avoid... extremes by taking what was valid in each and forging a totality" ("Invisible" 291) is surely an instance of "the critic's words apply(ing) to his own art as well" (Reported Sightings 314). The middle ground Busoni sought, wrote about, and composed music within, was an esthetic balancing of limitation and freedom quite similar to Ashbery's own "fence-sitting raised to the level of an esthetic ideal" (Double Dream 18), where he negotiates his own desire to "put it all down" by tempering that with "another, and truer, way" (Three Poems 3).

Ashbery's poetic methodology -- and in this respect at least, he follows Wallace Stevens -- is to write in a form that is its own content, and to use symbols that have themselves as a referent. His is a poetry, then, that is largely about itself, and about its own process of making. Likewise, if music is "form without content" and "pure becoming" that achieves "transference of affect" through an "endless process of elaboration," then Ashbery has gained in musicality throughout his career. By the time we get to Flow Chart in 1991, when Ashbery is 64, the poetry is constant in its breaching of the fourth wall, reminding readers that they are the players of a text that, as composed, is unfixed and ever-changing as it flows before each new set of literate eyes. On seemingly every page, Flow Chart is either referring to itself as a "book" (5), a "novella" (6), a "casual voyage into the promiscuity of dreams" (6), a "massive transcription" (7), or to the reader, "you know what I mean?" (7), "oh my friend that knew me before I knew you" (7), or to both itself and the reader at once (with a beautiful sonorousness, no less), "is this, I ask you, a mute entreaty on the part of some well-intentioned / but shy deity" (13). Such meta-gestures in Ashbery are pervasive, and instill the impression that the poems -- like music -- can mean whatever one wants them to mean, but whatever else they mean, they also signify themselves.

As cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky observes, "Something has a 'meaning' only when it has a few; if we understood something just one way we would not understand it at all. That is why the seekers of the 'real' meanings never find them" (quoted in Duisberg 209). Indeed, it must be abstract. Ashbery confronts (and characteristically evades) the subject of poetry's polysemy and reflexive indefinability in his early mid-career poem, "What is Poetry," turning the question of poetry's essence back on itself, "trying to avoid ideas" (Houseboat Days 47). Then, in his next book, he simplifies poetry's definition elegantly: "the poem is you" (Shadow Train 3). We must recognize, in this context, that music is the art without a subject, in both senses of the word "subject." For instance, what is Eine Kleine Nacht Musik about? And who can we say is the "I" of that tune? When I listen to it, it's about me. Somehow, Romantic classical music came to be representative of transcendent universal subjectivity, and the subsequent challenges to the scales and tonal structures of that eventually dogmatic music challenged such hegemonies, all of which is to recognize that music can't help but become its listener. Or perhaps we overly anthropomorphize music when we locate its subject anywhere outside of itself; perhaps the music is always and only its own "I." There is a way in which an Ashbery poem itself speaks to us as though it were its own lyric "I." It is possible -- as I will demonstrate at the end of this essay -- to read Ashbery's poems as though "I" were the poem, and "you" were either the reader or Ashbery himself. This situation rather mimics the effect of a musician playing a piece of music, where the music "speaks" through the player. Perhaps it is really a musical subject that John Koethe recognizes as a "metaphysical subject" in Ashbery's work, composing perpetually within a "durationless now." Such an expanded conception of subject-hood is what Ashbery achieves with his pronoun slippage and "one size fits all confessional" poetry that serves as "everybody's autobiography" (Tranter 1).

But how does one define "everybody" when the subject is deterritorializing itself out of existence? Music is universal in a way that poetry can never be, in the sense that music requires little more than silence from its passive interlocutors. Music only ever alienates the deaf, and even they can feel its pulses. But writing requires literacy, a learned discipline, a specialization. And poetry requires another level of literacy still, almost to the point that the active reader of poetry must employ literacy, and also perform a poetic composition, in the same way that a musician employs an instrument and performs a musical one. The lyric poem is, after all, named for the lyre. A certain molecular relationship is necessary to the enjoyment of the condition of music -- composer, music, player, listener -- that poetry can never duplicate -- writer, poem, reader -- since each reader, even if the poem is read aloud, must play the poem for himself or herself.

Roland Barthes differentiates between "two musics... one you listen to, one you play" (261). We must never forget that whenever we hear a piece of music, it was composed by a person who wrote mere dots and lines on a page, and the enjoyment we derive from those signs is being translated to us by a specialist: the musician, the player. In what sense do poems also require a kind of "literary musicianship"? Charles Olson's theories about prosody were seminal to mid-century avant-garde poetics, and helped to bring about the further musical conditioning of poetry. In 1950, in "Projective Verse," Olson states, "A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself, all the way over to the reader" (1). This echoes the rhetorical question of the great American composer Leonard Bernstein, concerning the transference of musical expressivity: "(are there) intrinsic musical meanings that move us so deeply, or is there a transference of affect, via the notes, from the composer to the performer to the listener?" (135). Busoni defined performance as "emotional interpretation," wherein the player must "resolve the rigidity of the signs into the primitive emotion" (Esthetic 16). Olson's breathy rhythms were meant to recapitulate a kind of corporeal and emotional transference, a physical sharing that causes feeling, and an altogether common effect for musicians, who must embody notes to give them sound. Essentially, Olson aimed for the poem to become a score that each new reader could play. Robert Duncan expanded upon Olson's poetics with his concept that "all parts of the poem (are) polysemous, taking each thing of the composition as generative of meaning, a response to and a contribution to the building form" (ix). In Duncan's formulation, we must learn to pay attention to "the resonances in the time of the whole of the reader's mind," as opposed to the mere "chronological sequence" of words on the page (ix). Lyn Hejinian expands this further with her ideas about "open text," which include "the process of the original composition" as well as "subsequent compositions by readers" (Closure 368), encompassing a collective reflexivity of the text as originally written, and then "played" again and again, whenever it is read. It is not that interactive reading strategies didn't exist before open and polysemous and projective verse -- Hopkins' sprung rhythms certainly give any virtuosic reader the opportunity for a fully physical performance -- but instead, we must recognize that such methodologies of reading did not become explicit and generative as a strategy until the turn toward postmodernity in the 1950s.

In Ashbery, where the signifier/signified relationship is less monolithic and more holistic, less one-to-one and more pluralized, we readers are invited to re-create the poem's "meanings" (I use the term broadly) by any "means" necessary: corporeal, intellectual, auditory, sensual, and the work thus engages the reader as an active participant in the flowing structures of the text. Barthes goes on to name an achievement of bodily presence within vocal music as the "grain of the voice" (261). Ashbery's grainy and signifying poetry "exists in a sphere beyond the reach of interesting ideas" (a phrase of Ashbery's own regarding Giorgio de Chirico), and, because Ashbery's poems encourage a reading strategy that is both experiential and participatory, his work engages an active reader in precisely the way that music engages an active listener. As Alfred Corn wrote in a book review, Ashbery's poems "find a poetic equivalent of music -- a kind of abstraction of argument and theme in which the reader follows a constantly evolving progression of mood, imagery, and tone" (Corn 224). From time to time, Ashbery will deal with these concepts within the content of his poems:

That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music (Self-Portrait 69).

But more often, this meaning-seeking speculation is the formal shape in which his poems breathe and move. Ashbery's imaginative landscape is,  as David Chinitz notes, in an essay on Kenneth Koch, "made strange in the same way that chromaticism in music blurs, without effacing, still-identifiable harmonies" (314). Because Ashbery's poems freight their sounds and rhythms with ambiguities pointing in multiple directions, the virtuosic reader attunes to the sound and rhythm, and undergoes a holistic poetic experience, picking up and putting down a multiplicity of meanings along the way. Contemporary composer and Ashbery collaborator Charles Wuorinen has observed: "there’s a deceptively colloquial quality to the poetry that makes you think you know what’s going on" (Brown 1). And paraphrasing Busoni, again: there is a certain "counterpoint of attention" (Essence 13) that music demands. Following the "ambient" counterpoints and multiple goings-on, but not pursuing any one of them at the expense of the others, is perhaps the most productive process of playing/reading Ashbery.

 Does what I have been calling the "musicality" of Ashbery's poetry make that poetry easier to set to music? Or, conversely, does it render such treatment superfluous? Beginning with Elliott Carter's "Syringa" in 1978, Ashbery's work has found classical collaborators, with decidedly unusual results. It would seem that traditional musical melody does not mesh cleanly with the digressions of Ashberyian syntax. What Lawrence Kramer admires, in an essay concerning the Carter / Ashbery collaboration, seems to be the ways in which Carter's music is, in a sense, supra-musical, and Ashbery's poetry is supra-poetic. That is to say, each of these artists aspires to make his art form operate in new ways, such that their collaboration becomes a novel blending of poetic music and musical poetry. Kramer calls this pluralizing overlap an "aesthetic of simultaneity," observing how Carter's music achieves an "independence of parts" playing "at different tempos, in different meters, and with different thematic material," which is an accurate allegory for the kinds of "polyvocality" that we find in Ashbery (256). (Not to digress, but all of these considerations of musical aspects in poetry must hint at the possibility of poetic aspects in music. And what would a poetic music be? A sound composition that somehow achieves a psychological occupation of physical space? Beethoven's late quartets? John Cage's "4:33"? The post-tonal thinking that creates 12-tone music?)

There is a final analog between music and literature which we must contemplate, before we can venture to read an Ashbery poem as though it were music. For a fresh perspective on the poetry/music analogy, I shall turn to musical theory. Heinrich Schenker is to traditional musicology what the Russian structuralists are to traditional literary theory. For nearly a century, Schenkerian analysis has served as an influential, if subjective, method for interpreting the underlying structure in tonal music in terms of its "tonal space." Tonal space is a holistic sense of an entire piece of music, but reduced to a two-voice counterpoint between a fundamental line (the melody) supported by the bass (harmony). The fact that all tonal music can be understood in terms of a structural background is perhaps no great insight, but what makes Schenkerian analysis useful and significant is its ability to demonstrate how each work uniquely elaborates its fundamentally simple background, determining its "meaning." To Schenker, all musical content, such as it is, can be derived from "artistic delaying," because any and all manners of dramatic reading might be applied to the "obstacles, reverses, disappointments... distances, detours, expansions, interpolations... and, in short, retardations" of a particular line of music (Schenker 5). The idea of meaning in music has been developed recently by musical semiologists, notably Jean-Jacques Nattiez, who divide the musical symbol into two parts (the esthesic and the poietic), explaining that musical meaning is the result not of a process of communication, but of the dual processes of creation and reception, wherein the player or listener must reconstruct a message. (Nattiez 17). Contemporary music theorist Fred Everett Maus writes of how listeners often anthropomorphically regard "musical events... as gestures, assertions, responses, resolutions, goal-directed motions, references, and so on," which in turn can form "musical plots" (6). Unfolding this analogical line of thinking, we should remember how Ashbery has referred to music's ability to "carry an argument through successfully to the finish, though the terms of the argument remain unknown quantities" ("Difficult" 29). Maus echoes Tristan Todorov in describing music's plotting as "repeated attempts to reach a satisfactory state of affairs that requires no further action" (13). And then Maus delivers this caveat: Because "(n)arrative theory abstracts from individual narratives in somewhat the same way that instrumental music abstracts from everyday human action... (o)ne could almost claim that music is more like narrative theory than it is like narrative" (15). Likewise, the fleeting scraps and lattices of narrative structure upon which Ashbery hangs his poems is more like narrative theory than it is like narrative. But there is almost always narrative structure and plotting in an Ashbery poem, which differentiates him from much of the work of other, even more "musical writers," like Gertrude Stein, for instance. As Page Richards oberves, in a recent review of Ashbery's 2000 book, Your Name Here, "Language is both see-through (narratively associative) and self-contained (lyrically meaningless)" (173). And by capitalizing upon this paradoxical state of affairs, Ashbery associates with and through his own self-containment in much the way that music seems to, until the termless argument of each new poem requires no further action, and the poem, like a piece of music, ends.

Let us now approach an Ashbery poem as though we were musicians practicing a musical score: attuned to sound, rhythm, and expressivity, ready to experience the animated contours of what need be nothing more (content-wise) than a mere passage of time. "Meanings" will come and go along the route of this short, shared experience, as "the polyphonic speech situation creates a communicative possibility, (and) the text challenges (us) to participate in constructing meaning" (Siltanen 2). To read Ashbery musically, we must try to duplicate his own extraordinary somatic sensitivity to the textures, tonalities, and multiple bandwidths of language, and we must engage the poem somatically, cerebrally, temporally, visually, and formally, thus bringing our most virtuosic literacy to the experience, in essence, to "play" the poem. What Emerson called a "meter-making argument," in Ashbery is more of a meter-making attentiveness, an open-texted invitation to participate on multiple and often simultaneous linguistic levels. Recalling Jacobs and Schleifer, a reader apprehends the "musical arguments" of Ashbery's poems, and thus attends to them with an "ambient reading," by taking in the work "sporadically, even backwards, letting the words enter the eye and the mind in order to 'rupture' habitual experience" (298).  Here, in its entirety, is "Homecoming," the final poem in the 1988 collection, Wakefulness:


Weather drips quietly through the skeins
in my diary. What surly elision is this?

Who faxed the folks news of my homecoming,
even unto the platform number? The majestic parlor car
slides neatly into its berth, the doors fly open,
and it's Jean and Marcy and all the kids, waving pink plastic pinwheels,
chomping on popcorn. Ngarrrh. You know I adore ceremony,
even while refusing to stand on it, but this, this is too inane.
And the cold anonymity of the station takes over,
reins in the crowds that were sifting to the farthest exits. No one is here.
Now I know why I've always hated the tango, yet loved the intimacy
secreted in its curls. And for this to continue we've got to
get together, renew old saws, let old grudges ride . . .

Later I'm posting this to you.
I just thought of you, you see, as indeed I do
several million times a day. I need your disapproval,
can't live without your churlish ways.

A traditional literary reading of the sound-aspects of "Homecoming" might begin with the ear-based figures of speech: alliteration ("who faxed the folks," "pink plastic pinwheels / chomping on popcorn"), assonance ("parlor car," "now I know why I've"), consonance ("intimacy secreted"), onomatopoeia ("ngarrrh"), and even traditional rhymes ("quietly" and "diary," "you" and "do"). However, such a sight-reading hardly begins to address what is going on in the poem at the auditory level, at a level where memorization might help a reader to feel what is going on. To musically "play" this poem by way of a pseudo-Schenkerian analysis and "ambient" reading style, where we recognize that the sound is generative of the sense, we should begin by memorizing it, and thus gradually noticing the particular refrains of musical tonality that appear, as well as where they appear, throughout. Three consonant sounds -- "l," "n," and "s," -- three vowel sounds -- "ee," "ih," and "uh" -- and a blending of the "r" sound and the vowel sound of the r-consonant, "ur," dominate the tonal structure of "Homecoming." Tellingly, all of these eight "notes" appear in the two-word phrase, "surly elision." Behaving like an arpeggiated, five-syllable, eight-note chord that forms the tonic "key" of the poem, "surly elision" is generative not only of the acoustic clusters in the poem, but also might be said to create its fragmentary, or "elided," yet consistent narrative structure.

A Schenkerian analysis proceeds from this fundamental counterpoint to trace the ways in which each sonic line (l, n, s, ee, and so forth) punctuates the other parts of the tune, keeping itself consistent as it crosses the subdominant sonic lines that are present, but not within the fundamental tonal structure. For example, an "f" is introduced quite prominently ("faxed" and "folks,") following the dominant chord, and it plays itself out through the words "fly" and "farthest," a literal line of escape. The "x" sound in "faxed" escapes as well; seven lines after it appears together with the "f" in "faxed, the "x" and "f" disappear together at "farthest exits." The "st" sound in "farthest" is interesting to consider also, as it does not occur until the ceremony upon which we will not "stand," and then "the cold anonymity of the station takes over" and then "farthest" in the very next line, thus giving the "st" a dominant role in the three lines precisely at the center of the poem. However, the note "st" does not appear before this, and it will not appear again until a single, final "posting" in the last stanza, a posting which reflexively refers to the publishing of this very poem. We can also trace a crypt sound (with a nod to Shoptaw) in our fundamental "surly elision" chord, and the resolution of this crypt sound plays a role in the poem's narrative structure as well. The second "s," the one within "elision," is more of a "zsh," a sound which appears nowhere else in "Homecoming," until it is modified into the "sh" of the penultimate word. Only a ghost of a "sh" appears anywhere but "churlish," disguised within the exact geographical center of the poem, in the word "station." As such, the hard "s" of "elision" eventually dampens into the shushed "s" of "churlish," and through the recoloring of this one note the whole piece might be seen as a 17-line, 240-syllable machine designed to dampen what is erased or elided into something ill-mannered, perhaps, but in the most alluring way.

We can speculate what it means to have the sound structure and narrative structure echo each other so fully, attempting to stand upon the ceremony, but as the poem's players we would do better simply to notice how these structures echo, and to continue playing the tune (however inane), adoring the "music." After a relatively metrical sentence that offers us a full rhyme ("Weather drips quietly through the skeins / in my diary"), and the introduction of our fundamental chord ("surly elision"), a single instance of high poetic diction ("unto") slides the last of the poetic scansion "neatly into its berth," and bears the rest of the poem away into the domestic, the vernacular, and the prosaic long lines of the mid-section. As doors fly open, and the poem's main characters appear within the narrative structure, the sonic structure is either leading the way or following suit, as the final note, the "n" sound, in our original tonic chord ("elision"), all but takes over. Pink pinwheels chomping on popcorn ngarrrh ceremony stand inane anonymity station reins no one now know tango intimacy continue renew. As the stanza ends, and the fleeting narrative elides / slides into the place where "old grudges ride," and an ellipsis carries us into a disjunction between the real time of the reading and the temporality of the poem ("later"), we shall encounter this "n" note only four more muted times in the poem's final 42 syllables. In fact, as the narrative gives way to the personal reflexivity of direct lyric address, in the final stanza, the tonal structure loosens into sounds related to the subdominant (and now wholly narratively important) "you," and its variant "your" -- posting to you thought of you you do your disapproval without your -- before the poem's finishing flourish back in the shadow of the dominant surly elision, "churlish ways."

The fusion of this poem's sonic trajectories and narrative trajectories demonstrates not only a musical condition, but also Ashbery's acute attentiveness to the multiple bandwidths upon which a poem might work, especially because he has designs to operate upon us in an expressly musical register, because he is a poet for whom the "words get in the way" of the musicality. We should note, with a nod to this fusion of sonic and narrative structuring, how "skeins" rhymes with, and "reins" is a homophone of, the elided "weather" that might "drip quietly." The removal into a musical realm is insinuated, even urged, by multiple examples of removal and distancing (esthetic or experiential or neither) that appear along each elided narrative thread. The writing of "Homecoming" is removed to the writing "in a diary," removed further into a "faxing," then finally a "posting." The "weather" is never named for being the rain it most certainly is. And the family that arrives in the station is revealed as not being there at all. Even the old saws and grudges are merely suggested, in the way that music, in its non-corporeality, is only capable of suggesting such things, the nothings that are not there tangoing with the nothings that are. And though this tango might go on forever, musical elaboration and becoming are merely possibilities for this particular short piece. Still, they are possibilities made explicit by the ellipsis that ends line 13. The word that follows this literal elision ("later") points to the possibility that the somethings that are not in this poem might have made the piece pages and pages long. But for this homecoming, our "Homecoming," such elaboration is indicated, perhaps adored, but will not bear standing upon.

Giving a nod, again, to the ways in which rhythm complements our analysis, we notice how the poem begins by trickling along in a beguiling series of little appoggiaturas, anapests and spondees, grace notes falling behind the irregular downbeats, syntactically and sonically recreating the effects of dripping rain, irrigating us in language-effects whose own sounds symbolize themselves:

Weather drips quietly through the skeins
in my diary. What surly elision is this?

Who faxed the folks news of my homecoming,
even unto the platform...

This reflexivity on the level of rhythm is recapitulated whenever the poem and lyric speaker address themselves. And where do we locate the musical subject? If the poem itself is its own homecoming, then "my diary" is the book in which the poem appears, "my homecoming" is the poem itself (referring to itself in the third person), and the expressivity of the poem swings between the poles of ambivalence regarding intimacy and the ways we celebrate and renew it. Ashbery is very fond of, and will often begin his poems with, words or concepts that suggest absent antecedents -- and therefore invite reflexive reading strategies -- such as "These decibels," at the beginning of "The Skaters," or "They are preparing to begin again," at the start of "The Task." Often, the "these" or "they" is qualified, at least somewhat, while still being left to indicate other possibilities, not the least beguiling of which is the suggestion to read the printed words themselves as the referents. Likewise with "Homecoming," where the opening phrase is (dis-) qualified as being an erasure, and a discourteous one at that. We are also faced with the question of whether this "surly elision" points forward (toward the faxing of line three) or backward (toward the diary of line two). As such, "Homecoming" foregrounds itself as being preoccupied with "this leaving out business," which Jacobs and Schleifer define as a "strateg(y) of 'erasure' that disrupt(s) discursive harmony and might reveal transcendental value within the immanent world" (315). The "surly elision" of "Homecoming" is a brusque omission or deletion that invites the reader not so much to fill in the blanks (the way Shoptaw would, seeking crypt words) as to discover routes toward transcendence, a metaphysical or perhaps musical layer within and beyond the merely physical. This operates upon us not solely through meaning, but by way of a harmonizing of kinds of attention. In the ambient and participatory poetics thus constructed, the virtuosity of the player/reader is invited to "fill in" what is "left out."

But if we are inclined to insert ourselves into the poem, where might we fit? We are implied in the rhetorical question that opens the second stanza, but the poem does not address us directly until very nearly the coda, six lines from the end, when it tells us that "we've got to / get together." And then, following this, the poem confesses diaristically that it has been thinking of us all along. In fact, the poem cannot live without us, its readers, its players, its writers and re-writers. "Homecoming" demonstrates, as so many Ashbery poems do, that it needs us, regardless of our churlishness, or perhaps because of it, and, once we join with the poem and take it into our bodies and minds, and as we play its notes with our voices and breaths, the poem will perpetuate and punctuate each moment of its playing, as though each new moment were a home to which we might return, again and again. The Ashbery poem is wholly itself, its own subject, its own "I," and when you take up its invitation and read it musically in the participatory way that it invites and demands, indeed, "the poem is you."

1This brief list, as well as many of the sentiments in the rest of this paragraph, refers directly to essays by Percy Bysshe Shelley ("A Defence of Poetry," 1821), Theodor Adorno ("An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society," 1949) and Dana Gioia ("Can Poetry Matter?" 1991), among others.

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