The Riddle That Proposes Us: John Ashbery's Flow Chart (1996)

REPRINTED FROM 1996 COMMENCEMENT ISSUE

 

An Entertainment of Doubts

 

T. S. Eliot (whose symbolist poetics and whose feeling for desolation, though not whose dour humor, John Ashbery seems to have inherited) once said that Henry James (whose anfractuous syntax the omnivorous Ashbery has likewise picked up) that James had a mind too fine to be violated by any idea. The same must be said of Ashbery himself, whose entire career has been an exercise in the evasion of certain certainties in favor of an attention to exquisitely, unrepeatable specific: “The moment a monument to itself/ No one would ever see or know was there,” as an earlier poem has it. Ashbery has a slippery but unmistakable poetic manner (you can always see the same hydra-headed Mr. Nice Guy smiling and pouting at you through the haze of his lines); it is a farrago of that Eliotic imagery, that Jamesian syntax, and whatever else you care to think of, evoking, in Flow Chart, as Helen Vendler says, “the entire orchestral potential of the English language.” “Perhaps no other recent lyric poet has so swallowed the entire range of the spoken and written language of his time,” Vendler writes in her essay on the poem: “Ashbery has taken the modernist experiment to its end point: to boilerplate, advertising, doggerel, obscenity, technology, media talk—the subliterary of all kinds. At the same time he adds … archaisms, the dated language of flappers and lounge lizards, quotations from the canon, ancient children’s books, nursery rhymes.” Did she mention the kitchen sink?

Not only is the vocabulary all over the place, but Ashbery’s style refuses to hold on for long to any single topic, narrative, argument, or tone. Even a consistent use of the personal pronouns is refused. (Frank O’Hara once famously claimed that the paradigmatically obscure and inviting Ashbery line was “It wants to go to bed with us.”) Ashbery’s first long poem,“The Skaters,” describes well the feeling of reading him:

 

the carnivorous

Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving

Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we

know involves presence, but still…

 

The way of Ashbery’s lines has established nothing so solidly as the sense that, for him, the crystallization of image and idea that is the staple of so much poetry is but so much falsification. Proteus will not be bound and made to blurt out the truth; this is what the critic must have meant who complained that Flow Chart was too much flow and not enough chart.

Indeed, as its first critics noted, one would be hard pressed to say just what Flow Chart is about. We can locate the poem’s beginnings: in December 1987 Ashbery’s friend Trevor Winkfield suggested that Ashbery write a 100 page poem about his mother, who had died in January of that year, and finish it on his birthday. By July, 1988, sixty-one years to the day after his mother gave birth to him, a draft of the poem was complete. This pre-established deadline has a special aptness for Flow Chart, charting as it does a stream-of-consciousness whose only limits, moral and arbitrary, are the body’s own. Ashbery’s 100-page typescript (“Of course, it’s not about my mother,” he has said) became, edited and revised—and accidentally missing page 33 of the typescript—our 216 page poem. So we can locate the ending of the poem as well. But its conclusion? On page 214: “I have seen it all, and I write, and I have seen nothing.”

Whatever subject Flow Chart sets its eyes on, it dissolves in a corrosive, if genial, skepticism. The self, the past, morality, love and friendship, even the world of objects—none of our most crucial coordinates withstands Ashbery’s entertainment (for it’s a hilarious poem) of doubts. At, yes, 216 pages of “absurdly long lines” (Vendler again), Flow Chart is Ashbery’s longest and most doubt-ridden meditation, rife with the implication that the longer you think about anything the less tenable, and rosy, become your beliefs: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a draw, a decent one at that/ if you keep your mind off it.” The trouble is that in Flow Chart Ashbery can’t keep his mind off anything.

 

The Music of Wha-What Happened?

 

Whatever else life is about, it is about how it feels as it passes. Alongside and hand in hand with Flow Chart’s skepticism—“the casual/ whirlwind that vaporizes moods and intensity of expression”—runs a persistent sense of temporal discontinuity and the irretrievability of lost time. The ephemerality here of scene and topic and character—any one of which is no sooner sighted than it vanishes again—by itself implies how little Time seems, to us, to admit of habitation. But Ashbery often enough takes up the problem explicitly. “It’s impossible to keep abreast of the times,” he says. Impermanence, indeed, is the stock gag of clownish Time: “Then the next thing explodes,/ like a cigar or a vase of flowers. Left in the rubbery wake one still keeps/ meaning to be around both before and after, not necessarily during,/ since there is no fruitful rest there . . . .” And here is a passage that ascends, after the muses clear their throats, to a different and particularly lovely statement of the theme, showing that Ashbery understands how difficult it is to be there during as well:

 

Yet it would be nice to think that afterwards one might have

a good laugh about it.

and that assurance is precisely what we lack today. The fact

is that one even cares

what it’s all about. They see only shoe-leather

thinning into the future, and the inexorable dawn

shading into dusk, and know that’s what they’re made of,

like it

or not. That’s what everybody’s made of,

and it comes as no shock to find that the present is, after all,

brittle

as glass in a burning conservatory. Listening to the dance

music from outside

is all that matters. Really. Stockings are of secondary

importance.

 

The attractive rationalization that, whatever goes wrong today, eventually “one might have a good laugh about it,” depends on a solid sense of the future—that the fifth act’s turning out tolerably will confer the sense of comedy on all that went before. But “that assurance is precisely what we lack today,” since for us contemporary folk the temporal middle-distance which shows how the present might become the future has been abolished. “For us,” Fredric Jameson has written in one of his recent essays on post-modernity, “time consists in an eternal present and, much further away, an inevitable catastrophe, these two moments showing up distinctly on the registering apparatus without any overlapping or traditional stages.” It is as if we see, and are made of, only the threshold hours of dawn and dusk and have no notion of how, by way of daylight, one state becomes the next; we consumers can hardly see past our feet or at least past the mayfly duration of footwear fashions, “only shoe leather thinning into the future.” This temporal discontinuity renders the present “brittle as glass in a burning conservatory” (with a pun on conserve, no doubt), an instant the succeeding moments do not annex into a cohesive development but which, so different are they, they shatter “the sparse,/ shattering seconds,” as Ashbery says earlier.

 

Life Sentences

 

Stories do not hold up well in this amnesiac climate. Though Flow Chart contains many passages of great thematic consistency, the longest sustained narrative I could find carries just from page 111 to 112, and concerns, aptly, the visiting of a haunted house, since in Ashbery scenes so quickly acquire the fugitive, immaterial but undeniable, quality of ghosts. “It was the cutest darn house you ever saw,” as if there has come to be something naïve and countrified about any narration at all.

But the story line isn’t the only thing that’s impossible to follow. So are the sentences. And, while Ashbery’s line breaks are hardly arbitrary, “the dominant measure of Flow Chart . . . is not the line but the sentence” (John Shoptaw). It’s not that as with James or Proust or Faulkner you sometimes have to reread these sentences. It’s that certain sentences, such as this particular doozy—

 

I would assemble

landscapes from insect-tunneled wood and go live in a hole

somewhere

lest pleasant anomalies impose bumptious charades promot-

ing peace to others and to all comers,

seal it in a chest, rip it open, scatter the powder of life on the

dead sawdust

to watch it blink, and then pound with my fists as hard as I

can on the saga of

the sheep girl and her friend the pelican merchant: how they

became friends long

after ceasing to know each other, when both were blind and

living in unfatally dingy

circumstances somewhere near Clapham Common when

autumn flickers, curves in

on the unfinished lunch, may it rest established early.

 

can, I think, no more be re-read to the point of clarity than rotating a kaleidoscope can ever give us a truer idea of the light. Moreover, what we witness in sentences like these is the end of the sentence as a single unit of thought. If in “some of Beckett’s narratives . . . a primacy of the present sentence in time ruthlessly disintegrates the narrative fabric that attempts to reform around it” (Jameson), here coherence has been lost within the sentence itself.

The effect is of thinking several things at once, a kind of grammatical perspectivism. To take a fairly bountiful instance:

 

So it goes, and my

goodness, I don’t see how we are expected to live with it, but

the fact of the matter

is we do and might even consider ourselves improved in

respect to the way we were

quite recently, if only we could remember how we looked

even this morning, forget

last year or even two more years ago, so quickly do they pass

even in the formal chronologies and chronicles, I’m

not even talking about the sloppy kind of record-keeping

that goes on all the time

without anyone there to be aware of or compliment it.

 

Here, as so often, Ashbery implies the possession of perspectives whose possibility he at the same time denies. How can we tell that our past selves are improved upon if we can’t remember them? Is it then knowledge or memory that we lack? If no one is aware of the “sloppy-record keeping,” how is it mentioned here? And does its very sloppiness deserve a complement because it allows us the freedom to re-invent ourselves that a stricter account could not? What does it matter, anyway, that it’s sloppy if no one is aware of it? Is this situation worthy of lamentation (“if only . . .”) or praise? I suppose this perspectivism of the emotions is what we call ambivalence.

So Ashbery fends off the violation of an idea whenever one threatens. It is a vertiginously telescoped dialectic, theses and antitheses overlaid to no end; or one gets the impression, as sometimes with deconstruction, of someone sitting on a branch he has just sawed out from under himself.

 

The Leopard Man Himself?

 

Very naturally this incoherence of narration and temporality and even at times the sentence brings about the disintegration of a recognizable ego, as one can no longer square life’s details with the image of a certain self: “I don’t see how/ a bunch of attributes can go walking around with a coatrack labeled ‘person’ loosely tied/ to its apron strings. That blows my mind.” Obsessed with the incoherence and multiplicity of one’s selves, Ashbery’s fractious monologue descends in this from the novels of Proust and Beckett. As Beckett says in his monograph, Proust, acerbically explicating his master:

 

We are not merely weary because of yesterday, we are other,

we are no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday. . . .

The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for

today’s. We are disappointed by the nullity of what we are pleased

to call attainment. But what is attainment? The subject has died—

and perhaps many times—on the way. For subject B to be disappointed

by the banality of an object chosen by subject A is as illogical as to expect

one’s hunger to be dissipated by the spectacle of uncle eating his dinner.

 

Not only this, but other people—physically other people; for the moribund gallery of Beckett’s Three Novels demonstrates what a crowd a single skull can pack in—other people are as little help as introspection is. In a passage reminiscent of Keats, who claimed that walking into a crowded room threatened his self with dissolution, Ashbery writes:

 

I don’t know where this one came in—but wait,

it is of myself I speak, and I do not know! But the looks I got

convinced me I was someone

else as I walked in, not at all sure of myself or (rightly, as it

turned out) of

the reception I would be getting.

 

Later on (in the poem, at least) “some quite close friends . . . accused me of being ‘the leopard man’ who had been terrorizing/ the community by making howl-like sounds at night, out of earshot/ on the dance floor.” With friends like these, who needs enemies to give you trouble in shoring up the boundaries of your identity? In The Divided Self, his classic study of schizophrenia, R. D. Laing (himself fond of quoting Beckett) tries to set down the basic elements for the preservation of a coherent self; one fo these is that people see us roughly as we see ourselves, that my interlocutor “recognizes me as to be the person I take myself to be.” And if they say you are the leopard man?

 

“Of those so close beside me, which are you?”

 

One of the social parts of the Ashbery complex is the impossibility of true society, one’s inability to know or be known by other people. Presumably the same conditions of subjectivity—the same sort of diremptions, slippage, contradictions, mysteries—obstain for thee and for me, and i it is so difficult as it seems in Flow Chart to know thyself, how much more so to know other people. Here is Ashbery on who to know and how:

 

But remember, one isn’t obliged to love everything

and everybody, though one ought to try. One way is to

accept the face they

present to you, but on consignment. Then you may find

yourself falling in love

with the lie, sinister but endearing, they fabricated to win

acceptance

for themselves as beings that are crisp and airy, with an un-self-

conscious note of rightness

or purpose that just fits, and only later take up the guilt behind the

façade

in the close, humid rooms of whatever goes down in their struggle

(or hundreds

of struggles) against fate, and perhaps buy that too someday

when their manners are out of the way. I have obtained gratifying

results in both instances

but I know enough not to insist, to keep sifting a mountain of

detritus

indefinitely in search of tiny yellow blades of grass.

 

This is another instance of Ashbery’s chatty brutality: an acquaintanceship progresses by “sifting a mountain of detritus” for the “tiny yellow blades of grass” that are someone’s worthiness; and even should intimacy result, it is intimacy only with the “guilt” that lies behind the gilt “façade” the poor wretch shows to the world. Nor does Flow Chart spare us an image of romantic love: “Once two were saddled with each other’s lies which became as a sacramental trust/ for them. They listened, they put forth feelers, they pouted on cue, but in due/ course banshees exploited the situation. And once the climate of trust is destroyed/ only lust for vengeance can take its place . . .” Worstward Ho! for not only is the “sacramental trust” made of theatrical lies (“they pouted on cue”), but even so shoddy a product as this falls apart, as “lust for vengeance” replaced lust of the other variety.

 

“ . . . so that understanding may begin/ And in doing so be undone.”

 

Unless, of course, one ought to bid good riddance to such relationships. In Flow Chart, what might be called social epistemology—getting to know other people—recapitulates the ambivalent dynamic of Ashbery’s general quest for and avoidance of knowledge, and it is hard to know whether to be glad or sad that a love or a friendship has foundered. Like a scared animal between patches of cover, Flow Chart shuttles between the twin terrors of reification and its opposite, “the blooming buzzing confusion” of a total mental openness. On the one hand, it is attractive to have done with judgment and wondering, and to really, truly be somewhere: “One wants to to like, but to live in, the structure of things, and this is/ the first great mistake, from which all the others, down to tiniest/ speck, bead of snot on a child’s nose, proceed . . . .” On the other hand, don’t the certainties we inhabit come to imprison us? Best to stay on the run:

 

It wasn’t bad while one stood,

but as soon as you sat down you appeared vulnerable; issues

were raised; and from feeling

it all a mild annoyance but a mere formality, as when a

stranger stops to ask you directions

and begins asking pointed questions about your religion, it

quickly escalated

into a nightmare that waking would not heal. Retreat,

retreat!

 

How much of Ashbery’s poetics results from this simultaneous flight and pursuit! His marvelous fluidity—and with The Wave, April Galleons, then Flow Charts, as Christopher Benfrey says, “Ashbery’s recent titles have turned liquid”—escapes all containmnet, yet at the same time Flow Chart is a Domesday Book of contemporary America, a exhaustive if chaotic census of our forms of language and thought, carried out inside a single head. Flow Chart has encyclopedic dreams: “Sometimes one’s own hopes are realized/ and life becomes a description fo every second of the time it took.”

This vacillation between representation and the resistance to it distinguishes Ashbery from many of his more tedious postmodern contemporaries, for whom the world has perished and left the glad babble of texts in its stead: “Yet not one [of the words]/ever escapes the forest of agony and pleasure that keeps them/ in a solution that has become permanent through inertia. The force/ of meaning never extrudes.” But not because it, and Ashbery, isn’t trying, and this is what makes for Flow Chart’s immaculate ambivalence, its virgin “forest of agony and pleasure.”

 

“Of those so close beside me, which are you?” (Reprise)

 

After this detour through Flow Chart’s constitutive dilemma—as if it were not endless!—we now return to our previously scheduled programming. When we last left our hero among other humans, he was decidedly uncertain about how and whether to love or befriend them. Towards the end of the poem, he appears to reach some kind of understanding with himself:

 

And so I am never

off the hook; I look at others and reflect their embarrassed,

sheepish grin: all right,

 

can I go home now? But I know deep in my heart of hearts I

never will, will never want to,

that is, because I’ve too much respect for the junk we call

living

that keeps passing by. Still, I might be tempted

to love or something if the right person came along, or the

time were right;

I know I would. But I can’t be tempted, so far. I’m too

pure, like the nature

of temptation itself, and meantime fans stand back and

wonder what to admonish

the players with, and I sit here empty-handed, my breast

teeming

with unexplained desires and acrostics. I’ll go on like this…

 

The permanent dialectic continues. Love is courted but never consummated, for it is temptation that one wants, not its fulfillment, yet we must not tell ourselves so—the right person may yet come along, we must insist; or the time be finally right—lest desire lose its pretext. So hunger and solitude gorge themselves on the chimera of a social fulfillment, and sometimes happily mistake their privation for a certain meager satisfaction. “I’ll go on like this”—not a rousing conclusion, but not dispirited either. Flow Chart begs to be read in the light of the novel as well as the lyric, not only by virtue and vice of its prosaic quality, its copiousness, and its sheer length, but especially because of its commitment to portraying our life’s social dimension.

 

Soliloquy with a Bullhorn

 

A great part of Ashbery’s genius is to have found a voice that is both private and collective, “trying one’s hand at vanity in order to catch everything else.” As John Koethe has written, “The referential and temporal vagaries of his poetry are simply incompatible with this speaker’s being a real person in the world, with a particular, individualized biography.” Ashbery himself has said: “These are not autobiographical poems, they’re not confessional poems. . . . What I am trying to get at is a general, all-purpose experience—like those stretch socks that fit all sizes.” Yet Flow Chart’s wealth of obscure and misrepresentative details and its frequently occult association of ideas give it an insurmountable air of privacy. Few readers will not glimpse the heart of the matter in a given passage; but equally few will be convinced that they make of Ashbery what others do. We begin to suspect any situation that materializes out of the layering of metaphor of being itself just another metaphor—but for what?

This is a poetics perfectly adapted to an age in which just about all that feels collective and representative about us is our solitariness and atomization. In the “all-purpose experience” Ashbery devises, each person, thinking of himself, herself, confirms a prison: “weave, and it shall be unraveled; talk, and the listener response/ will take your breath away, so it is decreed.” Or: “I have the feeling my voice is just for me,/ that no one else has ever heard it, yet I keep mumbling the litany/ of all that has ever happened to me, childish pranks included . . . .” But our unity in isolation is spelled-out most clearly in one of Flow Chart’s most authoritative passages:

 

Although we mattered as children, as adults we’re somehow

counterfeit

and not briefed as to what happened in the intervals to which

this longing led us,

which turns out to be not so tragic after all, but merely baroque,

almost functional.

Yet there can be no safety in numbers: each of us wants and

wants to be

in the same way, so that in the end none of us matters, and in

different ways

we cannot understand, as though each spoke a different language

with enough cognates

to make us believe in deafness—their deafness—as well as in our

own reluctance

to dramatize, leaving our speech just sitting there, unrinsed,

untasted, not knowing us,

or caring to.

 

A baroque solipsism, the young Beckett once called it, and the phrase describes Ashbery’s work better than his own: “the grand regularity of the insides, spoilt by a profusion of ornament” is Ashbery’s term, “my main contribution to the history of sitting and licking.”

 

A Eulogy, I Confess

 

So you will find yourself, and find yourself all alone, inside Flow Chart. You will also find very much more than these notes have been able to indicate, much less explore. One might find any of ten thousand other things in Flow Chart; it often feels as if nothing is not there. But anyone who cares about what’s going on in American literature must sit down, sometime before the millennium, and read the poem through. One of the reasons that Ashbery is so obsessed with an irrecoverable past may be that he anticipates a time when he will have become unreadable:

 

My Collected Letters will I somehow

feel vindicate me but even there the onion skin cannot be split

and I’ll go on

being a postscript in invisible ink until some centuries from now

when they open a time capsule and enthusiastic fresh air will

rush out to inform

the world and one can rise from one’s nap in time for bed.

 

“Where,” Ashbery goes on to wonder, “are the children now who wanted to hear that story? Why the youngest of them passed away years ago . . . .” In 1988, when Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland was published, some critics worried that the novel’s enthusiastic appropriation of pop culture ephemera would render it incomprehensible to coming generations. While Ashbery’s canonization over the past twenty years assures us that he is here to stay, no one will ever be in a better position than we are to appreciate this poetry that rings the changes on all manner of contemporary idioms, many of which are, but for their presence here, thankfully poised for extinction. (E. g. “They were like super-gullible.”) Catch Flow Chart while you can. It is, as all the above must have suggested, a grim poem, but—“Nomenclature being its own reward,” as Ashbery writes in his most recent collection—the poem is also, and chiefly, a delight.

Still, Flow Chart is a poem to which not even its ideal reader can ever be adequate. For all it says so clearly and so well, its devices function as a kind of mute, spluttering deixis, and instance of “the hysterical sublime,” gesturing madly at everything at once. This is, in the strict, Kantian sense of the term—the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate—a large part of Flow Chart’s sublimity. The end and the beginning of the poem show Ashbery recognizing this function of his work: Flow Chart’s last words have him pointing, “that way,” and on the first page we read:

 

We know life is so busy,

but a larger activity surrounds it, and this is something

we can never feel, except occasionally, in small signs

put up to warn us and as soon expunged, in part

or wholly.

 

It seems to me (I who have “read little and understood less,” as Stephen Dedalus—who had read and understood a great deal more than I have—puts it to a fellow undergraduate), it seems to me that Ashbery’s long poem is—I think of it alongside Beckett’s trilogy and Proust’s continuous novel—one of twentieth century writing’s great testaments. I have mentioned Joyce, Proust, and Beckett not only because I think Ashbery belongs, by his greatness, in such company, but because he has set down here, as well as I imagine can be done, a up-to-date record of what has always been his great concern, “the experience of experience,” as he’s called it, and if our understanding can never be quite adequate to Flow Chart, then perhaps our admiration can be.