A Dream of History

Lacustrine Engraving 114_jpg

When invited to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard, John Ashbery related that he “was somewhat in the dark about” why. [OT 1]

Naturally, I did have a few theories, however. The first one that came to mind was that, since I am known as a writer of hermetic poetry, in the course of lecturing I might “spill the beans,” so to speak: that is, I might inadvertently or not let slip the key to my poetry, resolving this vexed question once and for all. [OT 1]

 “Unfortunately,” he went on to say, “I’m not very good at ‘explaining’ my work.” [OT 1]

I’m unable to do so because I feel that my poetry is the explanation. . . . On occasions when I have tried to discuss the meanings of my poems, I have found that I was inventing plausible-sounding ones which I knew to be untrue. . . [OT 1-2]

Many years earlier, In 1966, Ashbery did hazard to explain a poem: for the occasion, an interview with Bruce Kawin, he chose These Lacustrine Cities, the opening poem of the exquisite collection Rivers and Mountains.

The poem begins: “These lacustrine cities grew out of loathing/Into something forgetful, although angry with history.” Ashbery walks us straight into a paradox: “lacustrine cities” might be somewhere specific, yet he endows them with contradictory—and human—emotions: how do cities grow out of loathing into something forgetful, after all?

“I will tell you a bit of what I was thinking when I wrote the poem,” said Ashbery. He qualified even this: “which of course doesn’t really bear on the meaning of it since no reader could ever know this.” He wrote the poem, it transpired, when “thinking about a trip I made to Zurich Switzerland. . . “. Zurich, he noted, was also near the place where the remains of the lake dwellers’ “civilization was discovered in the last century, and this might have had some bearing on my use of the word lacustrine.”

My mind traveled down a tangent of its own, calling up The Ruin, an Anglo-Saxon poem that begins:

Look at the elaborate crests chiseled into this stone wall
shattered by fate, the crumbled city squares,
and the hue and cry of giants rotted away. [WE 299]

As I imagined Anglo-Saxons, they were encased in their own present, yet here was a poem ruminating on a ruin in their midst.

and the stone courts stood upright
and the warming stream spouted its whole surge,
and a wall hugged everything to its bosom,
where the baths were steamy in its heart. [WE 301]

Civilizations come; civilizations go. Fortifications can’t defend them against the assault of time. Cities are built upon the ruins of cities.

Ashbery said, of These Lacustrine Cities, “What I think the poem seems to be about is a kind of dream of history. . .”

The ruins of lake-dweller villages were discovered near Zurich in the 1850’s, uncovered during construction of a harbor. A Zurich scholar, Ferdinand Keller, thought “lake dwellers built their villages on platforms above the water and connected them by means of bridges and walkways.” The theory has since been discounted, but a poet need not care; a poet can imagine anything s/he chooses.

Ashbery imagined a tower:

They emerged until a tower
Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back
Into the past for swans and tapering branches,
Burning, until all that hate was transformed into useless love.

Useless love, Ashbery said, is “a kind of emotion that I think is just waiting there to be transformed into something else as the individual or the city continues to progress through various stages which may reverse each other.”

Theories become facts, then non-facts when disproved. People lay claim to history, then are claimed by history.

Ashbery doesn’t refer to any poem as an influence on These Lacustrine Cities, but the critic Marjorie Perloff is of a mind that W.H. Auden’s Lakes “may well have been Ashbery’s model when he wrote” it. [PI 23]. Auden’s poem contains these lines

Lake-folk require no fiend to keep them on their toes;
They leave aggression to ill-bred romantics
Who duel with their shadows over blasted heaths:
A month in a lacustrine atmosphere
Would find the fluvial rivals waltzing not exchanging
The rhyming insults of their great-great-uncles.

No wonder Christendom did not get really started
Till, scarred by torture, white from caves and jails,
Her pensive chiefs converged on the Ascanian Lake
And by that stork-infested shore invented
The life of Godhead, making catholic the figure
Of three small fishes in a triangle. [PI 23-24]

As I read I thought, how rich the trail of associations to follow from and into Ashbery’s poem. Whether intended or not, it doesn’t matter: he sets the mind wandering through the poem’s territory at will. Then I thought, I’ve read almost nothing by Auden; I must correct that. Then I thought, those “three small fishes in a triangle,” were they a form of useless love, “just waiting there to be transformed”?

The worst is not over, yet I know
You will be happy here.

Somehow, now and again, an individual prevails. Not immutably, not as a god might, but on a human scale.

You have built a mountain of something,
Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.

Ashbery said,

Well, again you have two conflicting things, three really, disappointment and tears kind of combining to make something rather beautiful and pleasant to look at, like a rainbow, in other words a final contradiction, which is one of many which this poem is made up of and which life and history are made up of.

Mark Kerstetter is always on my mind when I read These Lacustrine Cities: he’s the one who introduced me to the poem. When he moved to Tampa Bay, he “sometimes wondered if [he] was making a disastrous mistake.”

I’d come home and read that poem every day. It helped me see not only beauty in my situation, but hope. And I survived. You know, we have the most beautiful double rainbows here….

Ashbery said, “I think I just wanted to keep referring to conflicting or contrasting forces and build up a kind of impression of them balancing each other in what turns out in the end to be a single monument.”

Life meanders; it resists explanation. Perhaps living needs no explanation. Much like a poem by John Ashbery.

Or a double rainbow.

John Ashbery

John Ashbery

To read These Lacustrine Cities, click here. To hear John Ashbery read and discuss the poem, click here.


Listening List

Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich composed monumental music in impossible times. The two symphonies included here provide examples of their astonishing achievements.

For a Spotify Playlist, click here.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 (1937)

 . . . the better part of the audience seemed to identify strongly with the symphony’s assertion of will—what Maxim Shostakovich called “the determination of a strong man to BE.” Many listeners had already lost friends and relatives to the Terror, and were in a numbed, terrified state . . . . The Fifth had the effect of taking away, for a little while, that primitive fear. One listener was so gripped by the music that he stood up, as if royalty had walked into the room. Others began rising from their seats. During the long ovation that followed, Yevgeny Mravinsky, the conductor, held the score above his head.

—Alex Ross, [The Rest is Noise 258]

Prokofiev Symphony No. 6 (1947)

The [Sixth Symphony] was premièred by Eugene Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic on October 11, 1947, and for that occasion Prokofiev prepared a program note that suggested a specific inspiration: “Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds which cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. This must not be forgotten.” The audience, which had come expecting another symphony on the heroic model of [Prokofiev’s] Fifth, found the Sixth a great deal more somber and gave it only a restrained welcome.

That reaction, however, paled in comparison to what followed four months later. In February 1948, Stalin’s ideological pointman Andrei Zhdanov convened the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Composers, the aim of which was to bring Russian composers into line and to enforce the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which demanded that music appeal to a mass audience and be inspiring. Prokofiev–along with Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and others–was attacked for writing “confused, neuropathological combinations which transform music into cacophony,” music that “dwells too much on the dark and fearful aspects of reality.” The Sixth Symphony was singled out for particular censure, and performances were banned, an edict that remained in effect until after Prokofiev’s death in 1953.

—Eric Bromberger


Credits: The quotations indicated in the text may be found where indicated below:

OT: Other Traditions, John Ashbery (This book contains Ashbery’s Norton Lectures. The lecture from which the quotations were taken is that about poet John Clare. To hear Ashbery deliver the Clare lecture, click here.)

WE: The Word Exchange

PI: The Poetics of Indeterminacy

Lake-Dweller Villages

Mark Kerstetter (To hear Mark Kerstetter read These Lacustrine Cities, click here.)

The quotations from Ashbery’s explication of These Lacustrine Cities are from my transcription of the interview. The interview may be found on PennSound here.

The quotations accompanying the listening list may be found at the links provided.

The images of the Lacustrine Village engraving and of John Ashbery by David Shankbone may be found here and here.

19 thoughts on “A Dream of History

  1. T.

    Thank you for this, Sue. I love Ashbery and Shostakovich. I wish I could say something more profound, but I am at a loss for words. Please know that you have my deep appreciation. I have bookmarked this post and I look forward to reading it again.


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      T.: How nice to hear from you! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post, and that you enjoyed it well enough to bookmark it to read again means a great deal.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    Just within the past 2 months something terrible and something wonderful happened to me, and life is always like that – these contrasting forces tugging and pulling. But summertime here is always beach time. Always at the end of a trip to the beach my body has let go of far more tension than I knew it had. Last night Victoria and I looked at a rainbow for 15 minutes, marveling that a sun so low in the sky and so obscured by clouds could produce such a rainbow. “Now it is fading,” we would say, but no, it was pulsating. Its beauty was so ridiculous we actually laughed, making comparisons to the cheesiest of painters, the intent of our joking being, really, that no painter could ever capture this, at least without looking like a joke. And only here can you see such rainbows.

    I might be mangling the context of the quote a little, but Ashbery was asked once in an interview why he didn’t make it easier on the reader by being more obvious or including more autobiography in his poems. He answered that he did not want to bore the reader with his versions of their own experiences. And even though I love his “explanation” of ‘These Lacustrine Cities’, you can see that here explicitly in his, “which of course doesn’t really bear on the meaning of it since no reader could ever know this.” What a poet was thinking when he/she wrote a poem might be a matter of curiosity to the reader, but it doesn’t necessarily have any bearing whatsoever on their reading. And the poet may be hesitant or even unwilling, depending on the poem, to divulge it. What he was thinking (or feeling) might be too personal, or the poet might think the matter(s) too distracting for the reading experience. I think its a sign of artistic maturity – at the very least it’s an aesthetic I embrace – to use one’s experiences in the writing of a poem without those experiences being necessary to an appreciation of the poem. Ashbery’s art is a triumph of this aesthetic, and his “explanation” here is a lesson in it.

    Thanks for this. It was wonderful to listen to Prokofiev while reading and commenting. P.S. I think you’ll enjoy Auden. I sometimes find echoes of one or the other while I’m reading them. Ashbery’s ‘Around the Rough and Rugged Rocks’ poem in ‘A Wave’ recalls the last stanza of Auden’s ‘Domesday Song’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I love your story of the rainbow on the beach and am so pleased you shared it here. It was a particular pleasure for me to go back to your Rivers and Mountains post as I thought about this one. wanderer is right, your rainbow “gets to the essence”–and your double rainbow even more.

      To your other comments here, and particularly, “or the poet might think the matter(s) too distracting for the reading experience,” I wondered whether listening to Ashbery’s “explanation” might have the effect of constraining my own reading of the poem. I was delighted to discover that it had the opposite effect, sending me off on yet more paths of associative thought. Prior to listening to him talk about it, I’d thought of “lacustrine” only as a descriptive term, not one with historical resonance, which I now see it clearly also has.

      What I treasure about Ashbery’s poems, apropos of your paraphrase from him “that he did not want to bore the reader with his versions of their own experiences,” is that very open-endedness, that permission to dream my own dream about his poems. At one point in his “explanation,” Ashbery talked about the writer of These Lacustrine Cities as “a kind of subject of the dream of history that’s going on around him he feels as possibly as though he’s the character in a dream by somebody else, a feeling I often have.” That speaks to me directly about the experience of reading an Ashbery poem.

      And thanks for the Auden/Ashbery connections. I’ll definitely be on the look-out for them.

  3. newleafsite

    Susan, I enjoyed this, especially the long stretch back in poetic history to include the Anglo-Saxons in your discussion. I do smile in anticipation, when you begin a sentence with a thought such as “My mind traveled down a tangent of its own…” Your tangents are usually unexpected and never disappointing. — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you were willing to go off on the Anglo-Saxon time-traveling venture with me. It is the first thing that came to my mind (what sort of mind is this, well you may wonder). There is nothing better than a pleasure shared, and I’m so pleased to share this pleasure with you.

  4. wanderer

    No water, no life, and Mark’s rainbow gets to the essence – light through water. Berlin is surrounded by lakes. There’s a city piling it up on itself. And Susan the S 5th is one of my favorites, laced with irony (‘you will be happy’), and it’s kinda my ‘birth music’ for want of a better expression (though I’m more than a few years after ’37).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: And you’ve certainly got to the essence with your comment here! I didn’t realize Berlin was surrounded by lakes. It’s already high on our list of places to visit, and here’s yet another reason to get there sooner than later. (I hope sometime you’ll say more about Shostakovich’s Fifth. I’m certainly intrigued.)

  5. angela

    must dig into Ashbery again, Susan, thank you. Needless to say, I’m excited to see that an art book I started yesterday, The Object of Performance, (which has a kudos on the back from Perloff(still bought it )) talks a bit about Ashbery’s craft. I think I enjoy his work because he does not spoon feed the reader. This is a lovely arrangement, btw…a treat for the senses.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: You are brave, brave, to pick up that book notwithstanding the Perloff connection. Just finished reading her memoir, The Vienna Paradox–which I got through, wait for it: interlibrary loan! The Object of Performance sounds interesting, and I’ve added it to my ever-growing wish list, oy! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post’s arrangement on the page–a “bold” experiment for me. My inspiration for such things (of course my own effort is but a pale reflection) is a glorious essay by Charles Bernstein about Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains, and particularly The Skaters, which I think you might enjoy. It’s here: http://www.conjunctions.com/archives/c49-cb.htm

      1. angela

        Ironic, Susan, for The Skaters kept coming to mind while reading your post. Thank you for the link, though, now I wonder if I have read bits of it last year. I know that I stumbled upon the interview with Ashbery regarding his writing LC.
        Your bold experiment was wonderful – continue continue! As for Sayre’s book – it shall probably be years before I finish it….I don’t stay focused like you (so envious). I am intrigued by the intro, which is always a good sign.

  6. David N

    I confess I once again found myself barred from entering the Ashbery world, this time by the use of ‘lacustrine’ in a title (I like obscure words and see no reason why people shouldn’t go and look them up, but before you’ve got to grips with the main text?) Though it should have been obvious (‘olim lacus colueram’). My problem.

    My problem, too, re Shostakovich 5. We were introduced to the composer at school by the Kondrashin Melodiya LP of the Eighth, an incomparably greater work, so when I heard the Fifth I was disappointed, despite incidental beauties and the courage of writing it in 1937. 8 is the one that stands shoulder to shoulder with Prokofiev 6 for me.

    Hope that accounts for my eeyoreishness.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Ah, my dear eeyore, you are not alone in feeling barred from entering the Ashbery world, though I hope one day you’ll come down the rabbit-hole with me! In this case, so interesting to me that, whereas the title stopped you cold, once I had “lacustrine” in both its descriptive and historic senses in hand, I felt I gained entry into an even more resonant dream about the poem. (I wasn’t actually bothered by the first appearance of the word in the title—which here may actually be lifted from the first three words of the text, though I don’t know. Perhaps that’s because it’s been noted to me that the poem’s title should be thought of as part of the poem. In any event, I often find appealing resonances between the title and text of a poem.)

      Speaking of resonant references, yours to “Olim lacus colueram” (which I had to look up, and what a reference—to Orff’s Carmina Burana, and particularly to one helluva “swan song”: http://www.carnegiehall.org/Carmina_Burana_Texts_and_Translations/), I’ll never think of this or any other poetic swan the same again! In fact, come to it, we could probably go off on a trail of associations about swans from which we’d never come back. Just take a look at this from the Auden poem Perloff cites:

      It is unlikely I shall ever keep a swan
      Or build a tower on any small tombolo
      But that’s not going to stop me wondering what sort
      Of lake I would decide on if I should.

      Now, as for Shostakovich: I did have in the back of my mind somehow that Shostakovich’s 5 wouldn’t be your pick here to pair with Prokofiev’s 6th (and, by the way, thank you again a thousand times for the Prokofiev piece listing you offered on the Ruins and Memory post—yes, doesn’t it all still sound so contemporary, and gloriously so). As I often do, I searched around for commentary from you on Shos 5 when I put together the listening list on this post. While, as you note here, you’re not altogether negatively disposed toward Shos 5 (about which you wrote in this review http://www.classical-music.com/review/shostakovich-168), I’m very, very happy to be reminded of the Shos 8, about which you wrote so powerfully here: http://www.classical-music.com/review/shostakovich-167. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I wished, as I put together the listening list for this post, that I had David Nice liner notes for every piece under consideration. It’s not that I might always have the same response to a piece as you might, but you always enrich my ability to listen and discern.

      1. David N

        Your further poetic lines give me fresh wind, so off I go again on the Ashbery and Auden quest. Oh, the wonder of your eloquent and boundless enthusiasm.

        Curiously I’ve finally had to get round to writing notes on Shostakovich 5 for Cheltenham – how I wish I could have stayed for the Chetham’s [School] Orchestra performance after what I heard them do with Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – having just done ones on the quirkier 6 and 9 (both of which I prefer) for Salzburg. It did make me admire afresh how the composer gave his purge-stricken audience the chance to grieve in the slow movement, which is deeply felt whatever one may feel about its successor. I’ll email those notes since I know you’re sincere in what you say, as ever.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I’ve received the notes, and what a glorious gift they are! Thank you so, so much. I set sail here on the fresh winds you’ve given me, as I so often do. As for Ashbery and Auden, may fresh winds buoy you up, but, if not, no matter. I don’t really know why it is, in the end, that Ashbery “speaks” to me so completely. Somehow he frees my mind from its entrenched channels, setting me to wander shamelessly where I please–and now, having twice “met” him briefly in his advanced years, I see how unassuming he is, how whimsical, yet with the wisdom of that long view back. It’s how I’d like to be from here on out.

  7. Steve Schwartzman

    When I was young I had a history book from early in the century (the 20th, that is), and I remember an image of the dwellings of the lake people in what is now Switzerland. That book is long gone, and much longer gone are the lake people. Your tangents touching the past are fine with me, including the one that trails back to Anglo-Saxon. Old English poetry didn’t rhyme, but it used lots of consonant consonances, if I can say it that way. It was common for a consonant or consonant cluster at the beginning of a word to be repeated once or twice at the beginning of other words in the line, as you can see in the original:


    Some words survive, though in altered form. The Wyrde in line 1 are the Fates; wyrde has become our modern word weird. You can see that the burston in line 2 is now burst. Hrofas at the beginning of line 3 has become roofs. Fun, no?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Fun, yes! I am enchanted by translation, I don’t know why. I am attracted to the lack of certainty when moving from one language to another, I suppose. The link you provide is fascinating, so very different from Komunyakaa’s rendering of the original. Out of whatever our particular present is, we remake the past, don’t we?

  8. shoreacres

    It’s taken me a while to work through this entry, as I couldn’t find any point of connection. Still, something kept nagging at me, and finally it surfaced. I know of a lacustrine city, and Ashbery’s poem somehow captures what I imagine its inhabitants were feeling as they built their new city on the ruins of the old.

    The city? Galveston, after the Great Storm of 1900. In Cornelia Dean’s book, “Against the Tide”, she tells the story of Galveston rebuilding behind its new seawall. Here’s just a short bit of description.

    Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall. Everything inside – houses, churches, offices, trees, gardens – was raised by as much as 17 feet, and then flooded with silt. It was a plan that even in an era of engineering stood out for its size, cost and audacity…

    The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. In this way, 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.

    Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick’s Church, a three-hundred ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it.

    The process took years, and during it, people lived precisely as the lake-dwellers are described – walking from here to there on scaffolding many feet in the air, above a slurry of water and sand. I know there are better photos, but this is the best I could find just now. Raising Galveston.

    Can you imagine hearing these words, in that context? I can’t think of a more appropriate poem.

    The worst is not over, yet I know
    You will be happy here. Because of the logic
    Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.
    Tender and insouciant by turns, you see

    You have built a mountain of something,
    Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
    Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
    Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres, this is brilliant! Those lines will never read the same for me again. Fascinating about Galveston. Thank you so much for persevering. What you’ve come up with here is a treasure.

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