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Thread: Poem of the Week

  1. #31
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    I'm going to start by saying I don't think I fully get this poem. I get parts of it, but I'm not entirely seeing how it all comes together yet. I just don't have a feeling for it. Maybe I just need to read it a few more times. I've never read any of Ashbery's works, though I believe I've heard his name mentioned by my twentieth century colleagues.

    What I do know is that his mind seems absolutely saturated with Renaissance verse, at least in this poem. The title is, I'm sure, inspired by the Marvell poem "The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers." I sense that Ashbery is responding to that poem, and possibly others of the period as well. The themes of innocence and experience, troubled relationships, virtue, idealism and religion seem to be running through both poems in different and complex ways. I'll give the Marvell in full here for those who don't know it:

    The Picture of little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers.

    SEE with what simplicity
    This Nimph begins her golden daies!
    In the green Grass she loves to lie,
    And there with her fair Aspect tames
    The Wilder flow'rs, and gives them names:
    But only with the Roses playes;
    And them does tell
    What Colour best becomes them, and what Smell.

    Who can foretel for what high cause
    This Darling of the Gods was born!
    Yet this is She whose chaster Laws
    The wanton Love shall one day fear,
    And, under her command severe,
    See his Bow broke and Ensigns torn.
    Happy, who can
    Appease this virtuous Enemy of Man!

    O then let me in time compound,
    And parly with those conquering Eyes;
    Ere they have try'd their force to wound,
    Ere, with their glancing wheels, they drive
    In Triumph over Hearts that strive,
    And them that yield but more despise.
    Let me be laid,
    Where I may see thy Glories from some Shade.

    Mean time, whilst every verdant thing
    It self does at thy Beauty charm,
    Reform the errours of the Spring;
    Make that the Tulips may have share
    Of sweetness, seeing they are fair;
    And Roses of their thorns disarm:
    But most procure
    That Violets may a longer Age endure.

    But O young beauty of the Woods,
    Whom Nature courts with fruits and flow'rs,
    Gather the Flow'rs, but spare the Buds;
    Lest Flora angry at thy crime,
    To kill her Infants in their prime,
    Do quickly make th'Example Yours;
    And, ere we see,
    Nip in the blossome all our hopes and Thee.
    ~ Andrew Marvell
    Also, "aroint thee witch" is a quote from Macbeth in one of the scenes with the witches, and I believe it's used somewhere in Lear as well.

    I'll hold off further comment for now and see what others have to say.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  2. #32
    unidentified hit record blp's Avatar
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    Thanks, PL. I've always liked this poem a lot, without really understanding it. I know the Marvell and was going to post it shortly - thanks for saving me the trouble - but other than that, I don't know the references.

    To start with a simple game of compare and contrast, Ashbery is, in section III anyway, talking about a photograph of himself as a child (comparing himself, by the by, to fungus) and describing this as the 'comic version of myself', while Marvell is apparently making the portrait himself rather than describing one and, in doing so, depicting an idealised little girl.

  3. #33
    unidentified hit record blp's Avatar
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    It's quiet. Almost...too quiet.

  4. #34
    Registered User jackyyyy's Avatar
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    Should at least be some bats.
    Art is art.

  5. #35
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blp
    It's quiet. Almost...too quiet.
    Just now it seems to be just you and me and Jackyyyy, who's just brought a lot of bats with him for some odd reason.

    Quote Originally Posted by blp
    To start with a simple game of compare and contrast, Ashbery is, in section III anyway, talking about a photograph of himself as a child (comparing himself, by the by, to fungus) and describing this as the 'comic version of myself', while Marvell is apparently making the portrait himself rather than describing one and, in doing so, depicting an idealised little girl.
    Just to push the comparison a little farther, I think you're on to something when you bring out the word "idealised." I think the Ashbery is reacting to notions of the ideal, both in poetry and in life. Not only does he replace the "idealised little girl" with the fungus-like description of himself, but he also replaces the Petrarchan portrait of the future woman who will taunt men with her cruel chastity, with the more cynical portrait of the abusive/ gold digging relationship described in stanza one. His use of the word "clap'd" has some interesting ambiguities. Its primary meaning would generally be to strike or to hit. It also has connotations of having had sex with someone (which I'm assuming derives from "clasped" in some way, but I'll have to look up the etymology to be sure). The fact that "clap" is a slang term for gonorhea would also give this a particularly nasty turn, and "clap'd" can also be used to refer to having infected someone with the disease. So there seems to be a whole variety of possible nastiness held under the umbrella of that word, which she is putting up with for the sake of "certain handsome jewels."

    The question of the ideal also seems to be central to the second stanza with its seeming attempts to define virtue and goodness. I think this is probably the stanza I'm having the most trouble getting a handle on, though I think its opening lines,
    So far is goodness a mere memory
    Or naming of recent scenes of badness
    are central to the meaning of the poem as a whole. The questions of what we call good, what really was good, and whether good exists at all seem to prevade the work. We create an ideal world in the past in our memories, but that world wasn't ideal at all, we've just re-named "recent scenes of badness." Virtue is invented. Genevieve "durst not seem to take offence" for the sake of the jewels and so by not seeming offended her relationship with Dick seems good. The boy in the picture may not have been his "true self" but he's going to call him such in retrospect. We may pass through "even these lives," which I take to mean flawed, tainted lives, to be blessed because we can invent virtue in hindsight for ourselves. Anyway, I think they're key lines.

    My favorite lines in the poem, however, are quickly becoming
    In a far recess of summer
    Monks are playing soccer.
    There's something delightfully absurd (in the best sort of way) about the monks playing soccer in some utopian "far recess of summer." I'm not sure I can yet fully articulate what it is that's drawing me to these lines though. They're a little like his whimsical, and yet slightly cynical (not the right word perhaps? --ironic?) use of archaic diction. Playful and complex.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  6. #36
    unidentified hit record blp's Avatar
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    Nice reading.

    I love the lines about the monks too. Perhaps the word for them is wistful. Perhaps - though the absurdism is definitely there too. I sort of imagine them in miniature through the cloisters in some larger painting by a Flemish master. They're the lines that always stick with me - along with 'releases thoughts like little hats', which seems to be a bit of out and out surrealism, slotting itself in remarkably comfortably among the archaicisms. I started wondering today what the monks could be doing there and decided they were providing some much needed, peaceable and rather timeless counterpoint at the end of a section that seems full of sex, violence and commercial considerations. That said, Dick and Genevieve also seem as if they could be kids, probably brother and sister, having a spat. The pyjamas give particular weight to this idea and it fits the childhood theme that runs through the poem from the Pasternak quote to the photo.

    I agree about clap'd - gonorrhea's the first thing I thought of too, though I also thought it could mean simply 'saw' - as in 'clapped eyes'.

    We get two references to witches and it's not clear if they're the same ones. 'Witch' in Dick and Genevieve's tiff could just be a term of abuse. I'll come back to the second. The word 'virtue' also appears twice, both times treated rather sceptically, giving weight to your anti-idealisation reading: 'So far does each invent his virtue' and 'Virtue is really stubbornness'. Stubbornness against what? Reality in general? Anyway, the virtue having been invented, some beauty of a sort is allowed the inventors of it, music sparkling 'at the lips of many who are Beloved.' except that immediately, these same beloved become 'dirty handmaidens to some transparent witch' dreaming of a knight on a charger, which rather seems to belie their status as beloved. Still, another line I like a lot 'Time shall force a gift on each'? What could that be about? I'm stumped.

    After that, two more lines I love:

    Quote Originally Posted by Ashbery
    That beggar to whom you gave no cent
    Striped the night with his strange descant.
    Another couplet coming at the end of a section and seeming to provide some counterpoint. The strange descant seems to contrast directly with music sparkling at the lips of the beloved and the 'no cent' comes directly after time forcing a gift on each of the beloved. I wondered, could this be a reference to Ashbery himself, especially since it comes just before the only obviously autobiographical section?

    And there, I'm not sure the decision to see the comic version of himself as the true one is quite as arbitrary as you say. It might be an attempt to get beyond the kind of idealisation that seems to be happening in the second section, just as Dick and Genevieve's comic spat might be a foil to Marvell's idealised picture of childhood in little TC.
    Last edited by blp; 05-26-2006 at 06:22 PM.

  7. #37
    blp,

    You picked out my two favourite images. The 'soccer playing monks' and the 'thoughts like little hats'. But I am having difficulty getting anything from this other than a string of absurdities - which is not necessarily a bad thing - the 'bad thing' is that I am not getting any sense of something hidden behind the absurd (or rather, not enough of such a sense for my personal taste.) I am starting to think Ezra Pound here - beautiful evocative images with such tenuous links that they can only be understood with the aid of a 'director's commentary'.

    You are quite welcome to call me old-fashioned, but I like poems to stand alone, without too much external knowledge being required (whether that is because the subject matter is fairly obvious, or whether because it is not required to appreciate the poem on its own merits, I am not too concerned about.) I am not convinced that either is the case here.

    It is interesting in places but a little too intentionally(?) vague for my liking.

  8. #38
    unidentified hit record blp's Avatar
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    Xamonas, I was waiting for the 'poems should stand alone' take on the Ashbery. I think it stands alone as much as any poem does. As I said, other than the Marvell, I don't know any of the references, but I love the poem. It's obvious to me that he's referring to earlier poetic language, but you don't need much more than a basic highschool education to know that, so, in that sense, it's not much more abstruse than a poem that uses a vaguely difficult word - like 'concupiscent' say. I assume you're not in the camp that would accuse Wallace Stevens of elitism for using that word in The Emperor of Icecream, so what's different about this? Aside from the fact that both PL and I knew the Marvell, which hasn't played that big a part in the discussion anyway, neither of us has really been calling on any great reserves of erudition to get to grips with this so far.

    Something hidden behind the absurd? I don't know. Have you read what we've had to say about it? There's the theme of childhood running throught it, the tension between idealisation and absurdity that PL pointed out. I know it's not easy, but I honestly think what's there to get is all there on the surface, not hidden behind anything. Maybe you're looking in the wrong place.

    Petrarch's Love, I see I misread the end of your post. You weren't looking for a word for the monks, but for Ashbery's use of archaic language. Not sure I've got one, but I wonder if the final couplet

    But only in the light of lost words
    Can we imagine our rewards.

    might provide some clue to his motivation, as well as, almost, a manifesto for Postmodernism. There's undoubtedly irony in this use of old fashioned poetic language, but maybe a sort of yearning for it too, even a sense of it as essential even as it begins to seem impossible.
    Last edited by Jay; 05-27-2006 at 05:54 PM.

  9. #39
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    I like the poem (the laguage especially) very much, although I too am struggling witht the meaning. I have not read much Ashberry, but (without doing an internet search yet) I seem to recall he struggled with depression and may have committed suicide. But I think he did live to be an elderly man. I just started on the poem today. I would think by the positioning of these words towards the end, he is arriving at some conclusion:
    so I am not wrong
    In calling this comic version of myself
    The true one. For as change is horror
    Virtue is really stubbornness

    And only in the light of lost words
    Can we imagine our rewards.
    I do happen to admire this particular stanza for it's beauty, especially alliteration:
    Everything, taking nothing,
    As though the rolled up future might stink
    As loud as stood the sick moment
    The shutter clicked. Though I was wrong,
    Still, as the loveliest feelings
    I do think I understand the third stanza (the disparity between his younger self with his current self and his reaction to it) but how the first two stanzas support this is vague to me.

    Notice he starts the third stanza with "But", which indicates a contrast. (BTW, "but" in all forms of writing is a very powerful word.) Could it be that the first two stanzas are portraits of his current self with a turn at the third stanza?
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  10. #40
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Actually the first stanza is a double entendre. It is like Petrarch suggests sexuality tinged witth gross connotation. But it's also a children's pajama party: "punch in the pyjamas," "witch," "thoughts like little hats", "clapped." Monks playing soccer has the feel of a summer camp.

    The second stanza he even addresses the children (who is Dick and Genevieve?) in a blessing: "children / You may pass through to be blessed". I take that line as a completion of a right of passage. And what about this thing of "white". White as symbolic for innocence.
    ...Then these, as dirty handmaidens
    To some transparent witch, will dream
    Of a white hero’s subtle wooing,
    And time shall force a gift on each.
    Witch as symbolic of experience? Perhaps. So I take this poem as articulating a loss of innocence and reflecting back on it through the photograph, an instant of time frozen. A modern day picture on a Grecian Urn?
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  11. #41
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Virg.--The lines you cite about the witch and the handmaidens are still the ones that puzzle me most. I think you're right that there's something there about experience and the association of the color white with purity that will come as a rescuer.
    So I take this poem as articulating a loss of innocence and reflecting back on it through the photograph, an instant of time frozen. A modern day picture on a Grecian Urn?
    I think you're partly on to something here. The Marvell poem that this poem was inspired by is pretty clearly a tribute to an ideal innocence and a reflection on its eventual loss. I feel that the Ashberry in some way complicates this. The picture itself is not an ideal one, as we would expect in a poem reflecting on childhood innocence. He looks like a mushroom, and the moment that the shutter clicks is discribed as a "sick" one. As you point out, Dick punching Genevieve in the pajamas could be describing a childhood spat at a pajama party, but it also blends into a description of an unhealthy adult relationship. This blurring between the actions of childhood and adulthood seems to suggest that childhood itself was not as perfect as we might remember, that "the child is father to the man," so to speak. Not that we weren't more innocent as children, but that we weren't perfect either. I think that's part of what's going on with his emphasis on virtue as something invented, almost something we choose to remember for ourselves. So I think that Ashberry is talking about reflecting back at a past moment, but I'm not sure it's quite so straightforward as Keats' Grecian Urn and other poems of that ilk.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  12. #42
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    You may be right Petrarch, I'll give it some more thought tomorrow. I have yet to read the Marvell poem. I didn't want it to infleuence my initial reading of this yet. I'll do that tomorrow as well and come to some final understanding of this fine peom.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  13. #43
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love
    The Marvell poem that this poem was inspired by is pretty clearly a tribute to an ideal innocence and a reflection on its eventual loss. I feel that the Ashberry in some way complicates this. The picture itself is not an ideal one, as we would expect in a poem reflecting on childhood innocence. He looks like a mushroom, and the moment that the shutter clicks is discribed as a "sick" one.
    I don't know. Mushrooms can be cute. Sort of like a gangly innocence. I guess it could suggest something about the person he will become. I take your point, but I don't see anything else in the poem that would support that. "so I am not wrong / In calling this comic version of myself / The true one." When he says "invent his virtue", do you think he's referring to that of the children or the adult? I take it as after the children have "pass(ed) through" do they then invent their virtue. Virtue is an adult concept, is it not? I could be wrong, though.

    I admit there is more to this poem that I just can't quite grasp. We haven't even touched upon the quote underneath the title.
    Last edited by Virgil; 06-01-2006 at 10:37 AM.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  14. #44
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    I don't know. Mushrooms can be cute. Sort of like a gangly innocence. I guess it could suggest something about the person he will become. I take your point, but I don't see anything else in the poem that would support that. "so I am not wrong / In calling this comic version of myself / The true one." When he says "invent his virtue", do you think he's referring to that of the children or the adult? I take it as after the children have "pass(ed) through" do they then invent their virtue. Virtue is an adult concept, is it not? I could be wrong, though.

    I admit there is more to this poem that I just can't quite grasp. We haven't even touched upon the quote underneath the title.
    Mushrooms can be cute, but I wasn't so sure about a "pale gigantic fungus" there seemed to be something distinctly un-cute about that. Anyway, I agree that virtue is an adult concept. You may be right about this sense of not needing to invent virtue until adulthood. Still, though it may not be present quite so strongly as I suggested in my previous post, I don't feel that he's giving us an entirely ideal portrait. I still think there is much that I really don't grasp in this poem though, so I don't know if I can say with clarity what it is about it that seems so different to me than other poems that celebrate a past innocence. Maybe that's the point of the poem--that memory is faulty and it's impossible to recapture that childhood outlook "accepting/Everything, taking nothing." It's difficult to know even how much of what we idealize about the past was really there. The poem, like memory is elusive and muddled by subsequent knowledge. This is just the sense I'm getting about it at the moment anyway.

    As for the quote at the opening, I'm not really clear on how it connects with the poem. It makes me think of really precocious children who always seem to be ahead of things, but I don't quite see where he's going with that.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  15. #45
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    No one has posted for this week. Here's one to do more justice to John Mlton. It's one of my favorites:

    When I consider how my light is spent by John Milton

    When I consider how my light is spent,
    Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
    Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
    To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest He returning chide,
    "Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
    I fondly ask; But patience, to prevent
    That murmur, soon replies "God doth not need
    Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
    Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
    Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed
    And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
    They also serve who only stand and wait."
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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