Tuesday, October 10, 2017

John Ashbery's "Listening Tour"---A Reading

I tried, but forgive me John, if I can’t write about you without also writing about myself….

In her brilliant and moving tribute to John Ashbery, Kimberly Quiogue Andrews writes:
“But at the same time, we’re all trying a little bit to get out from under our various elitisms.
Ashbery’s later poetry tries almost too hard to do this, revels almost too much in its “gee willikers!” performance of nonchalance. It’s why a lot of the excerpted bits of verse you’ll see in our collective mourning will be from the ’70s and ’80s, those earnest decades in which Ashbery’s poetry hummed with a desire to crack the code of itself.” I certainly will not quarrel with the many celebrations of Ashbery’s earlier work, which has been a profound influence on my own, but reading his later poetry leaves me with the feeling that perhaps we just haven’t caught up with it yet.

In his review of Breezeway (2015), Dan Chiasson writes, “the finest lyrics in this book rank with Ashbery’s best short poems.” One of these poems, according to Chiasson, is “Listening Tour.” Here’s the first stanza of this two stanza poem:

We were arguing about whether NBC
was better than CBS. I said CBS
because it’s smaller and had to work
harder to please viewers. You didn’t
like either that much but preferred
smaller independent companies.
Just then an avalanche flew
overhead, light blue against the
sky’s determined violet. We
started to grab our stuff but
it was too late. We segued . . .

Of the many ways that this poem can be read---Susan Schultz reads it in light of recent American politics and Hillary Clinton’s listening tours---I currently favor an interpretation in which the “Listening Tour” is not a politician’s, but, rather, Ashbery’s own.

In an interview published in the New York Times on May 7, 2015 (not long after Breezeway was published), he said: “I’m told that my poetry has influenced a lot of younger poets, so it’s nice to find someone who might have absorbed it at second hand and be trying to shake it off — nice, that is, for showing me how to shake off my own influence.” This is a beautiful short description of the kind of (anti-essentialist intersubjective) democratic mutuality the later Ashbery finds and encourages in the process of reading and writing, as if to strip away the hierarchy clothes and one-sided narratives of “anxiety of influence” and such that may put up barriers between a famous poet and acolytes, imitators, the so-called “small people”—but, rather, see if what they have to say, their concerns, etc., can maybe influence his policies, or platform, I mean poetry, and at the same time save him from becoming a cliché immured in a not-so-divine sepulcher of a mere signature style. Or, you could say, in contrast to contemporary politicians, Ashbery may, sometimes at least, campaign in prose, but he governs in poetry.

Ashbery does not simply listen, but actively engages the “you” on his listening tour. The argument that starts “Listening Tour” is cordial, chatty, and seemingly gentlemanly enough (even if it may fall short of being a marriage of true minds). The “you” doesn’t necessarily disagree that NBC is worse than CBS, and the “I” doesn’t necessarily disagree that “smaller independent companies” are better…. Furthermore, Ashbery obviously did his research, for indeed CBS did have to “work harder” than NBC/RCA (CBS, incidentally, was born around the same time Ashbery himself was in 1927).

The poem invites the reader to cast his or her self into the role of the “I” or the “you,” but, as is often the case with his later work, I find it uncannily easy to identify with the “you” of this poem, as if Ashbery and I had the same thought at the same time, or perhaps that he had seen an essay I wrote (and if, so, it’s hard to avoid an embarrassment that he could be “slumming” it in my writing, like a negative muse).

Of course, this argument about networks may not be that important at all (abstracted as it is from body language), but is really more of a set-up for what happens next: the avalanche!

The avalanche suggests a clean break----“and now for something completely different” (as Monty Python would put it), as we must bow down before necessity, perhaps, or confront mortality……but it’s no ordinary avalanche…. for what kind of avalanche is it that flies (not falls) overhead? Can that be properly called an avalanche? It doesn’t seem to be cutting the very ground out from under us, but rather inspiring awe; it didn’t destroy us, but passed us by, maybe even waving and smiling. This avalanche, you could say, went over our head (spared us), and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that this avalanche that didn’t hit us is a virtual or vicarious avalanche, an avalanche we wouldn’t know about without the network airwaves (to say nothing of today’s wireless networks). Could this perhaps be saying something about the over-saturation of pop culture? Or have we left such trivial debates behind?

Is the “avalanche” like that moment when you’re on a long walking/talking date with a fast-talking New Yorker and suddenly s/he snaps you out of your logorrhea and says “look at that bird” and that could humble you into the kind of shared silence that has to happen before the kiss? Or has even a word as powerful as “avalanche” lost its power to rouse the reader out of complacency or the triviality of overdosing on culture-criticism and media studies from the perspective of a poet who (as Chiasson writes in his New Yorker review of the book) “has gone further from literature within literature than any poet alive?”

And, of course, the aesthete in me loves the color combination, as if this represents the “shared view” beyond argument, the sunset perhaps, but does the personified violet keep our mind off the argument, or does it tell us something about either the “I” or the “you” (who are having, or being had by, the argument) with which the poem started (I.e.—one is more “light” and the other more “determined”), and why would this flying light blue avalanche in twilight time make us want to start “to grab our stuff?”

And why was it too late? Was the avalanche going to hit us after all? Were we, was “the we,” too busy enjoying the beauty of slowing down time, of seeing the disaster as a kind of bird in flight, lost in wonder, or what some would call “a zone,” that it become too late to save “our stuff?”Oh, horrors; is Chiasson right, and this is the moment of death? The questions proliferate…

But wait,
too late for what?
I mean if it can be proven
there is no death but seque
… and ellipses….
as if somehow surviving
a disaster proves
it wasn’t a disaster?
Can we fuse—ourselves--
with death—
in a breezeway
or planisphere--to see?

Is it really posthumous, or just post us having lost “our stuff”? And what is “our stuff?” Maybe looking at the second (and final) stanza, can help explain:

And in another era the revolutions
were put down by the farmers,
working together with the peasants
And the enlightened classes. All
benefited in some way. That was
all I had to hear.

So, given the contrast between the two stanzas, what do you make of the elliptical segue, or the transition between them?

On one level, you could read it as death (as Chaisson, apparently, does), but it could also be time travel back to another era, presumably earlier than the present in which they’re arguing about 20th century radio (and television) networks, a less urban and suburban, but more rural, era, perhaps before electricity (or in a so-called “underdeveloped” country), a more placeless and vague time, a prelapsarian, and perhaps apocryphal, utopia.

What Susan Schultz calls this “bizarre take on revolutions” may deserve further investigation.
In this poem, all (both manual laborers and intellectual laborers) benefitted from the putting down of a revolution. There’s two questions to ask: did such a thing happen (descriptive assumption) and would it be a good thing if it did (value assumption), but since both “revolutions” and “enlightened classes” are what we could call “loaded terms,” vexed terms (that have been used by both left wing and right wing, the proles and the corporatists), in order to know whether putting down a revolution does more harm than good, or whether it has positive or negative connotations, we may first have to define revolution is.

Long before I learned of the tradition in poetry in which “revolution” is what Wallace Stevens calls “the pleasures of merely circulating,” my first memory of the term revolution had positive connotations, torn between some romanticized notion of the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, and the failed (or yet to happen) revolutions that Marx, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers and Gil Scott Heron spoke about. Even though both are touted as democratizing, in many ways, they are on opposite sides (the American revolution, which by some definitions was really just a regime change, not only didn’t deliver on its promise to free the slaves, but actually increased slavery). So, the word could have as many negative connotations as positive---and in the poem (on first reading at least), it seems to have negative connotations (as if a revolution can keep everybody down!)

The American Revolution is also contemporaneous with the “Scientific Revolution” or “The Enlightenment,” a paradigm shift that coincided with the rise of “the enlightened classes” that parallels the advance of capitalism, the slave trade, the Enclosure Acts that harmed the majority of farmers and peasants, and paved the way for “industrial revolution” and the subjugation of nature by “enlightened man.” But doesn’t the word “enlightened classes” make you cringe? Would it be better to say “intelligentsia,” “public intellectuals” or “culture workers?” Does the phrase itself imply hierarchical snobbery (peasants and farmers can’t be enlightened)? And does this argument have anything to do with the argument about CBS, NBC and the indies? I suspect Ashbery is up to something else here, but before we get into what that might be, I think it’s important to shift our attention (back to) the poem’s relational “framing device.”

In this second stanza, you may notice how both the “I” and the “you” (and even the “we”) are entirely absent in the first two sentences (or 5 lines). Now, let’s pause, or at least slow down, to consider what the transitional line unit (as opposed to the sentence unit):
                                       “benefitted in some way. That was”

feels like the first time you’re reading it before the next line closes the sentence. At first, you may think it’s a continuation of the same argument about the revolution, as if he’s going to say “That was…..a better time” or, in the plural, join Edith and Archie or Mary Hopkins, in singing “Those were the days.” The re-emergence of the “I” in the next line, however, is jarring, especially considering that the “you” has not re-emerged. While it’s possible that the “I” survived the avalanche that the “you” died in, it seems more likely that the last two sentences retroactively changes (or at least contextualizes) the meaning of the first five lines by suggesting that they were spoken by the “you,” and that, despite the avalanche, they’re still continuing the argument, as if there are invisible quotation marks around the first five lines. If it’s the same “you,” is it possible that this coalition of farmers, peasants and the enlightened classes is to the “smaller independent companies” what the revolution is to NBC!

In this light, Ashbery is not telling us what he thinks about revolutions, but simply describing what a “you” he meets on his listening tour says. “That was/ all I had to hear.” could theoretically signify excitement, as if to continue, “and I was hooked,” but, as the final line makes clear, it signifies disgust, dismissal, contempt, even hurt…..as if this person the “I” meets on his listening tour could very well be like those folks wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, being interviewed (by small independent journalists, if not CBS or NBC), and when asked “when was America great the first time” can’t come up with a specific time in which “all benefitted.”

Indeed, while the argument about Networks could seem a little more relevant to the present, the argument in this stanza is even more vague and general than the historical shifts with which Ashbery starts “Definition of Blue,” from Double Dream of Spring (1970):

The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.
In our own time, mass practices have sought to submerge the personality
By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out in all directions
From the permanent tug that used to be its notion of “home.”

Somehow between the stanzas of “Listening Tour,” the argument became more one-sided, more monologic, and more impersonal. And the final two sentences makes it clear that the “you” has lost the “I” as if the argument the “you” proffers is like that avalanche flying over the head of the “I” and frankly of itself, as if the avalanche had bombed it back to the stone age….or puts up a Trumpian wall, as if the “you” needed to get the last word, and fell into what Paolo Friere would call “the banking model” of conversation.

If it is the sentence, “All/ benefitted in some ways” that triggers Ashbery’s disgust, the final “Whatever….” hits hard, as if you can hear him muttering beneath his breath the word “dude!” as in “whatever dude.” In this light, the line break “That was/ all I had to hear” can also be read as “that was was all I had to hear” (as if to say, “get out of the past, and help the present!”)
You could even say the word “Whatever,” in this poem at least, has more power than the “avalanche” did to shake one of habitual thinking. One reader (who prefers not to be named) told me that the didactic point of this poem was to contrast poetry with cultural criticism, but he’s not condemning all cultural criticism here, just particular ones with a tendency to make too easy generalizations about eras. His permissiveness ensures that the disgust is more with a particular kind of argument, not necessarily the person making it.

Furthermore, going back at least as far as “Definition of Blue,” Ashbery has over and over used poetry as a tool to rebuke the temptation for any sense of “the good old days” (that sometimes haunts his poems, for instance in Where Shall I Wander) in his relentless futurity (which even at age 88 had not abandoned him!). Reading this poem makes me realize how, in a history of radio and the record industry I wrote for RadioSurvivor.com,  I fell into the tendency to over-idealize at least one sector of what economists call “The Great Compression” (1945-1965) era, in an abstract way, being that I didn’t live through it. John, unlike me, did live through that period and certainly knew damn well that all didn’t benefit: Jim Crow, for instance, and Ashbery’s own lived experience of having struggled against homophobia in that normative closeted era.

In my essay about NBC, CBS and smaller independent radio stations and record labels, I was trying to master a rhetorical strategy one often finds in economists like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz, historians like Howard Zinn, or cultural and music critics like Nelson George: that the people’s movements that helped create the middle class paralleled the grassroots building of a cultural infrastructure in mid-20th century America, and took a stand against the corporatists (like CBS and NBC) who used words like progress to signify their “revolution!” My argument about the networks and the independents takes place in this mid-century context, and a sense of nostalgia informs it, and, as everyone knows, it’s easy to be nostalgic for a time before you were born.

In this essay, I make exactly the same argument the you of the first stanza of “Listening Tour” makes; I wrote this essay for a different audience in 2011, after the illegal corporate takeover of a local community radio station. I felt that somehow spending 6 months researching a “people’s history of radio and the record industry” in the 20th century would help me ground my argument to help in the fight to save KUSF!  It didn’t occur to me that John might read it, but it’s hard not to wonder, especially given the fact that he liked my old poetry, and even though I hadn’t seen him in a decade since I moved to California, he might have checked out what I’m up to (and this is the era of Google).

Given what he says about reading writers who are influenced by him and watching them try to shake off his influence to show him ways to shake off his own, I could flatter myself to say that, stylistically, this poem may be a tribute to the “careless brilliance” JA admired about my work: I’m pretty sure I have at least one poem that begins with “we were arguing.” One may also notice Ashbery’s use of (clunky) lines with feminine endings, which I’m told was part of my “signature style” (much to Marjorie Perloff’s chagrin). A Rock critic once wrote that Lou Reed’s Transformer was Reed trying to imitate Bowie who was trying to imitate him, but if indeed Ashbery is imitating his imitator here, it must clearly be said that “he does Stroffolino better than Stroffolino.” So any pride I feel, if flattered, is mixed with enough shame and embarrassment (was I a negative muse?) that the two may cancel out to leave a sense of futurity---and even though that final “Whatever” may hurt like a door slam shut, there’s always the ellipses…..the poem is a gift I cherish, even if I have to use the personal allegory to enter into it. Meanwhile, onto the next…..person? channel? .

In the end, I read “Listening Tour” as a poem about an argument, or conversation, that goes wrong. For, this isn’t ultimately a mere poetic flight of fancy, but a hard-nosed realist anti-utopian anti-nostalgia generalization poem….                                          

Chris Stroffolino

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