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