Ashbery’s poetic cosmopolitanism
I seem to remember a French writer admitting that Rimbaud was never in
Brooklyn, but kind of wishfully thinking that he might have been. Which is very funny. “Rimbaud in Brooklyn”: there’s a project for someone — John Ashbery
John Ashbery, who passed away this September at the age of 90, is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century. His opaque, disjointed and ironic style is viewed as radical and subversive by many critics because of its implied challenge to conformity and to established ways of writing and perceiving. But appreciating Ashbery’s brilliance and legacy requires us to assess his complicated politics and his work’s examination of both the subversive and the conservative strains of the 19th century avant-garde, strains that he carried into the 21st. Ashbery’s stay in France in the 1950s and 1960s moved his style closer to the early French Surrealists, particularly Arthur Rimbaud, who Ashbery translated and for whom he felt deep affinity. During this time Ashbery developed a particularly urban and cosmopolitan sensibility, formed in partial sympathy with Rimbaud’s own readings of Paris. Through Rimbaud, Ashbery learned how the variety of cultures, sexualities, and classes in cosmopolitan cities can stimulate an energetic, fragmentary poetic voice. But Rimbaud and Ashbery were also conscious of drawing from cities at moments when war and empire had placed them into crisis. While the dissociative qualities of their work take inspiration from moments of urban unrest, both poets also held a deep pessimism about social change, ultimately turning away from the city and the revolutionary possibilities of urban life. Ashbery’s last works were deeply aware of this contradiction, and while maintaining his signature dissociative style, also produced a kind of elegy to the tradition he championed. Because fragmentation still defines contemporary poetry, it may be time to understand — as Ashbery himself may have suggested — whether this line of the avant-garde has been exhausted, and whether the 21st century requires a new strain.
If Rimbaud had lived in contemporary Brooklyn, as Ashbery once mused, it is worth speculating what he would have made of it and how it might have viewed him. One could imagine there would have been mutual suspicion. Rimbaud was a self-styled revolutionary, but his sense of freedom is self-consciously limited to poetic expression over political possibility. His work is inspired by urban difference but also overcomes the varied texture of urban life, in the same way that empire encounters difference and also subsumes it. An early though emblematic poem for Rimbaud’s relationship to the city is “The Parisian Orgy or Paris Repopulates.” In it the poet addresses the capital which drew him from the provincial suburban life into heady artistic and political currents. Its view of Paris combines celebration and execration:
….although one has never made of a city
An ulcer more foul-smelling on green nature,
The Poet says to you: “Your beauty is magnificent.”
There is love-hate here, and a sensuality that brings love and hate together “in one body and one soul,” as Rimbaud wrote in the climatic language of A Season in Hell. What is loved and hated at the same time? In part, it is the very variety of urban experience:
The Poet will take the sobs of the Infamous,
The hate of the Convicts, the clamor of the damned:
And his rays of love will scourge the Women.
His stanza will leap forth, this is for you, bandits!
The poet, in Rimbaud’s view, encounters the full spectrum of urban types, from convicts to bourgeois women. Rimbaud’s Paris is full of cleavages. The force of the raw and the new, the spirit of outlaws and outsiders, are Rimbaud’s inspiration and his model. The poet addresses the city’s divisions, to side with the forces of disorder against propriety. But Rimbaud takes in this variety of experience in a particularly violent way – binding the cries into a scourge that punishes the women.
Rimbaud’s Illuminations also presents the city as object of inspiration and denigration. Take the opening of “Metropolitan” (here translated by Ashbery):
From the indigo strait to the seas of Ossian, on the pink and orange sand bathed by the wine-colored sky, crystal boulevards rise up and intersect, immediately populated by poor families who shop for groceries at the fruit stands. Nothing posh – the city!
The city is both lush and sparse, mythical and sociological, as the passage moves from enchanted pallets (the seas of Ossian) to the presence of the poor going about their way. But this motion has the effect of flattening urban inequality into the building blocks of consciousness and sensory perception – of making people into colors. They are objects, and not living subjects. This aestheticizing and dehumanizing operation occurs also in “Cities” (II):
The official acropolis beggars the most colossal conceptions of modern barbarity…. I attend art exhibitions in spaces twenty times vaster than Hampton Court. And what painting! A Norwegian Nebuchadnezzar commissioned the staircases of the ministries; even the flunkies that I was able to glimpse are more haughty than Brahmas and I shuddered at the colossal aspect of the caretakers and construction officials.
In Rimbaud’s account of the city, all peoples converge on Paris: Greeks (through mention of the acropolis), English (Hampton Court), Norwegians, Persians (Nebuchadnezzar), and Indians (Brahmas). Rimbaud’s vision of urban diversity – as one might call it after the fact – is a grotesque museum. The poet acts as ring-master to this side-show of nations, even as he is revolted at its vulgarity.
Avant-garde poetic circles have often taken Rimbaud’s political virtue as an object of faith, going so far as to compare his disjointed style with the construction of the barricades erected to defend the Paris Commune. Because barricades were made by tearing up streets and combining paving stones with whatever materials were available, so Rimbaud’s bric-a-brac style is seen an homage to the city and its defense. But in pieces like “Parisian Orgy” and Illuminations, Rimbaud’s poetry feels closer to Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal project for Paris than to the barricades. Barricades draw the real (pavement, furniture) in their unadorned entirety. Haussmann destroyed houses to create wide avenues, in part to help the circulation of troops in the event of future revolts. Rimbaud’s sympathy feels more for those who would transform the city, who would take its different parts and subsume it in an eros of domination, than for those who would defend its diverse actors.
The ultimate effect of this kind of poetic project, as Rimbaud understands, is not revolution but a tragic restoration of interiority, mirrored in the self-satisfaction of the poet. See the end to the “Parisian Orgy”:
Society, all is restored: the orgies
Are weeping their ancient sob in the ancient brothels:
And the gaslights in frenzy on the reddened walls
Flare up in sinister fashion toward the pale blue sky!
Order is re-established, but Rimbaud’s sense of the city’s sinister beauty also suggests an escape from the urban into aesthetic remove – into the glow of gaslights through a cinematic widening of perspective. In the end, Rimbaud rejects revolution because doing so would abnegate the deeply interior self which formed in churning counterpoint to the city. Instead of revolt, the poet shows a will to dominate and control, the hardness of the future gunrunner.
New York was capital of the 20th century, as Paris was capital of the 19th, and John Ashbery’s work is as indebted to New York of the 1960s as Rimbaud’s was to Paris of the 1860s. Ashbery absorbs urban energies in a far gentler fashion, seeing what for Rimbaud were violent contrasts as the grounds for tolerance and urbanity, allowing high and low culture to thrive together. Ashbery also appreciates the city’s ability to create new identities through its constant flow of impressions, allowing selves to refashion themselves in the shifting, refracted light. (Ashbery’s introduction to his translation of Illuminations highlighted Rimbaud’s formulation, “I is someone else.”) At the same time, Ashbery recognizes risks to this cosmopolitan experience of the urban. If the city creates new selves, it may also dissolve the self into inwardness and incomprehension, making communication, and therefore progress, impossible. And if the city allows an appreciation of art and culture, this delight may also distract from a focus on the city’s material improvement – an urbanity which exists alongside urban inequality.
Some of the beauty of Ashbery’s final books come from exploring the failures of cosmopolitanism – the failures of the prismatic self. A close reading of the title poem of a Worldly Country (2007) illustrates this forcefully. Urban history, real and imagined, is a subject of the poem: “If it occurred in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel / that was OK too.” The poem begins with a string of negations:
Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
not the fresh troops that needed freshening up.
The setting appears as a mash-up of Commune-era Paris and Looney Toons. Like Rimbaud’s “Parisian Orgy” or Illuminatons, Ashbery’s worldly city is perpetually unsettled, lurching between high and low, revolution and restoration. The loftiness of history – figured by the image of the “smoothness” of the “clocks on the square” – is brought together with its basest elements, the manure in the parterre, a French word suggesting both a garden and a stage. In this chaos, the politics of the city are also jumbled and, although they appear temporarily up for grabs, quickly resolve in a conservative direction. As the poem later declares: “In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon. / By evening all was calm again.” In its final lines:
As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: what had happened, and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.
So often it happens that the time we turn around in
soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.
Gazing on urban rubble is a kind of signature gesture for Ashbery, as both the presence and the absence of the urban is part of his style. Its presence is in the syncretic, bricolage of impressions: a stroll down busy streets, full of jumbled and alive impressions. Its absence is in his elusiveness: the awareness that we may not fully grasp the place behind these impressions. For Ashbery, whose work has been called “urban pastoral,” it is the nostalgic war between the urban and the pastoral – the effect of which is often to dissolve the urban – which conveys so much of his poetry’s melancholic tone. In this case, Ashbery moves from the city in “rubble,” to the sea and shipwreck, an image that is simultaneously an anchoring amidst the waves, and a loosening of ties to life. “The time we turn around in” suggests at once a revolutionary period (revolution means turning), and a time of personal reversals – a sense of hopes laid to waste.
Ashbery’s last works did not receive the critical attention they might, and they do not have always have the density of beauty, insight, or emotional resonance of works like Flow Chart – density being also a metaphor of the city, and standard of its quality. But they should be appreciated for the ways in which they consciously played out his poetic line to its logical conclusion. For the fragmentary style suggested by Ashbery and Rimbaud’s alignment – the line between New York and Paris – has endured since the 19th century, and while inspired by the city, ultimately distances itself from the urban experience and resigns its voice to aestheticization. Walter Benjamin, in writing about the French surrealists, identifies this interiority in the figure of the flaneur, which distances itself from the city so as to muse upon it while meandering through its streets. In the decades since the 1860s, the flaneurs have won, and their conquest has extended past the pages of poetry – see the contemporary incoherence of the Internet, a vehicle for isolation over genuine connection.
Urbanism is the direction of the planet, and the imperial cities of the 21st century risk generating more imperial cultures, even if these cultures are formed in dissent from empire itself. The next international figure to trace her or his roots through Ashbery and Rimbaud may be writing in one of the Asian megacities: Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, Dhaka; Mumbai. And it is uncertain whether s/he will be a writer whose love for cities will contend with her hatred for it in a way which sets appreciation of the urban and urbane against the city’s social and material improvement. Is there a form of expression, and of the expression of the urban, that does not simply mirror the divisions of urban and social space? Is it possible to resuscitate individual life within agglomeration of the many, an urbanism that exists outside of cosmopolitan diffusion, that explores whether it is possible for one life to meet the lives around it, effectively? If Ashbery brought a 19th century avant-garde into the mainstream of 20th century poetry, he also signaled a potential end to this line. Perhaps the poet from Shenzhen will read Ashbery and recognize in their own city not Paris, or New York, but the chance for a new urban strain.