Friday, February 23, 2007


This week the task was sentences. Short, clipped sentences. Long, meandering sentences involving many clauses, sentences that flow and dip and weave, picking up details along the way like so many twigs afloat on a swiftly moving current, bearing the reader along through no effort of his own, letting him glimpse the world, as it were, through the windows of a moving train where each sight registers itself on his vision like a new idea, a new feature added to those that have already accumulated; in both similes -- river, train -- the notion of accretion, of things adding up or adding themselves to what is already known and stored. Flowing sentences can also record with fidelity the stages of action, the precise sequence of activities in the relentless progress of the day -- or in the progress of thought: the shifts, the breaks, the resumptions.

It was a good week for the class. Some of the students did their best writing so far this semester. Which is good, as midterm is approaching.

It was also a week in which extreme cold gave way to some thawing, and, for me, a week of varied readings: in the group discussion of Against the Day, the sense that those few still keeping up are in for the long run (we've only reached page 318 in discussion) was appreciated as I found myself somewhat quizzical about some of the turns the book takes (and this is my second time through!); in the group discussion of Finnegans Wake, a smaller group was able to be a bit more leisurely on the opening of Book 2, where the children's pantomime for the parents is introduced, and the book, as it were, begins all over again; in the poetry reading group, some selections from Ashbery's latest, A Worldly Country, provided, as usual, the kind of delights that Ashbery regularly concocts: that sense of every word meaning something else, how is it achieved?

A low-grade fever install itself.
These were dancers once, with faces
and senses of humor. Which of course wasn't
too much to ask, and so she came through smiling,
good-natured to the end. The cakes that were served--
is there a record of those? Or leaves collected
in the hollow of a stump, something one
would wish to have included in the reckoning
even if it was never going to be reckoned,
or small sail breasting the apparent tide,
on and out of the forever harbor, just this once?

--"Autumn Tea Leaves"

Spending so much time in the world of prose where I expect students' words to create a scene, a definite effect, and where I even try to hold TP's flights of fancy to some kind of manifest plot (oh, I forgot to mention that I made it through the first 1/4 of Infinite Jest as well -- a book in which -- unlike TP -- the sense, generally not even the implication, of any passage is not in doubt, but in which the sheer overload of information and the glacial pace of depiction plays havoc with the notion of narrated time), or where, as in FW, I am at times able to read a story that is being told in many different ways simultaneously, I find in Ashbery's poems the refreshing aspect of poetry that sets the terms of what poetry should be: a speech 'as if.' As if the things said were adequate to the occasion of their enunciation. The occasion is never known for certain but the adequation is assumed; it "controls" the movements the voice will take. But any word chosen -- "fever," "dancers," "cakes," "leaves" -- might almost be any other word, is at least a word in quotation marks, as a term the world, not the mind, provides.

The mind has no words for its own interior thoughts and rhythms and so must make use of those the world provides. The small sail breasting "the apparent tide" -- a phenomenal thing, a thing possibly seen or envisioned -- "on and out of the forever harbor" -- a place that is encompassing (as a harbor surrounds) but also an ingress and egress, and also interminable, "forever" -- appears to "breast the tide" "just this once," a moment which, like leaves and cakes, faces and sense of humor, must be included in the reckoning, "even if it was never going to be reckoned." The pathos of the things that will be forgotten because never reckoned, and the hope that perhaps they will be reckoned ("one would wish") is what gives the force to that small sail as it beats on against the tide of time: poems are "leaves collected / in the hollow of a stump."

Bethicket me for the stump of a beech if I have the poultriest notions what the farest he all means.
--JJ, FW 1.5


Andrew Shields said...

Did I ever tell you that my friend Ulrich Blumenbach here in Basel is translating "Infinite Jest" into German? (Long ago, his first translation project, for a course in Berlin, was a section of FW.)

Donald Brown said...

An ambitious fellow! I wish him all good fortune and Godspeed!

Anonymous said...

Wow...he actually gave a likely interpretation to something Ashbery said!