I was thinking recently about John Ashbery. As I say in my post about my poetry highlights of 2012 one of my most cherished memories of last year was discovering a poem of Ashbery’s I had not seen before and returning home to find it had been on my shelf all along.
The poem in question was ‘A Train Rising Out of the Sea’, from As We Know.
I first read ‘Down by the Station Early in the Morning‘ in The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler (Faber and Faber, 1985). I seem to remember not having a clue what it was about but liking it very much indeed. It seems to me it might be one of the most beautiful poems ever written by anybody. It also seems to me very close to nonsense. That it inhabits the uncertain territory between dream and meaning is one of my chief pleasures when reading it.
I love it very much indeed.
There are reliable tropes of frustration, loss and melancholy: things ‘wear out’; a ‘dark rainy afternoon in fourth grade’; the ‘perpetual dysfunction you’ve been carrying around for years’. A ‘wrecking ball bursts through the wall … scattering works of famous authors’. It all seems very sad and dispiriting. And yet the tone is matter of fact, sunny even.
For what it is worth, my reading of the poem is this.
Abjuring the notion of the lyric as a trustworthy record of events, it seems instead to be an investigation into the reliability of the words we use to name the world around us. This is used, I think, to question the accuracy of the feelings we implicitly associate with them, and by implication the validity of using such source material –Venice in the early morning; going through fourth grade; ‘the rasp of silk’– in poems that pertain to be personal.
I think the real action in the poem is away from those beautiful images of lighthouses and ‘the glottal stop in your voice’ and so on, but resides instead in words such as, yes, ‘instead’, ‘but’, ‘even’, ‘and’, ‘only’ and ‘as’, in other words, the most basic connectives of all. These are used to create a kind of revolving door of images, metaphor seeding metaphor, until the self-doubt which is the genesis of the poem (‘I can never believe me, though others do’) in line 2, is forgotten.
I’m tempted to say the poem’s final image, of the lighthouse protecting as it pushes away, could serve as a message to readers wanting to detect an autobiographical impulse, what the poem calls ‘mere reportage’, behind Ashbery’s project. I could be wrong of course. I probably am. I don’t really care. I invite others to come along and add their ‘extraneous babble from the street.’
Down by the Station Early in the Morning
It all wears out. I keep telling myself this, but
I can never believe me, though others do. Even things do.
And the things they do. Like the rasp of silk, or a certain
glottal stop in your voice as you are telling me how you
didn’t have time to brush your teeth but gargled with Listerine
instead. Each is a base one might wish to touch once more
before dying. There’s the moment, years ago in the station in Venice,
the dark rainy afternoon in fourth grade, and the shoes then,
made of a dull crinkled brown leather that no longer exists.
And nothing does, until you name it, remembering, and even then
it may not have existed, or existed only as a result
of the perceptual dysfunction you’ve been carrying around for years.
The result is magic, then terror, then pity at the emptiness,
then air gradually bathing and filling the emptiness as it leaks,
emoting all over something that is probably mere reportage
but nevertheless likes being emoted on. And so each day
culminates in merriment as well as a deep shock like an electric one,
as the wrecking ball bursts through the wall with the bookshelves
scattering the walls of famous authors as well as those
of more obscure ones, and books with no author, letting in
space, and an extraneous babble from the street
confirming the new value the hollow core has again, the light
from the lighthouse that protects as it pushes away.
John Ashbery, from The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry
Michael Murray has written a splendid piece on John Ashbery on his blog which you can read here