Where was I?
—John Ashbery (from The Skaters)
If you didn’t know what was going to happen next would you live your life any differently?
—Charles Bernstein (from The Meandering Yangtze)
At the New York Philharmonic concert of Carl Nielsen’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, conductor Alan Gilbert said, with palpable glee, that the symphonies were “like life.” Composer Daniel Felsenfeld, in his pre-concert talk, said something similar: that the symphonies convey what it means to be human. He went on to say, of the Sixth Symphony’s final movement, that the only composer it reminded him of was Charles Ives: “things come in and out and they don’t really jibe.”
As it happens, since being lured by the siren call of historical and literary associations like the one at this link, I’ve been listening to Ives’ Concord Sonata. Ives wrote of Emerson (the namesake for the first movement of the Concord), that
As thoughts surge to his mind, he fills the heavens with them, crowds them in, if necessary, but seldom arranges them, along the ground first. . . . His habit, often in lecturing, was to compile his ideas as they came to him on a general subject, in scattered notes, and when on the platform, to trust to the mood of the occasion, to assemble them.
One might say of Ives that he does much the same. In fact, as Kyle Gann has noted,
It need not surprise us too much that we learn more about Ives’s composing process from his Emerson essay than we do about Emerson. Emerson was a remarkably good fit for the self-image Ives wanted to project, but not a seamless one.
I’ve only begun with my Nielsen symphonies and Ives Concord listening tours, and I’ve a long way to go with each, but I do know what prepared my mental ground: John Ashbery’s poems.
PARIS REVIEW: What gets you started in writing a poem? Is it an idea, an image, a rhythm, a situation or event, a phrase, something else?
ASHBERY: Again, all of the above. An idea might occur to me, something very banal—for example, isn’t it strange that it is possible to both talk and think at the same time? . . . Or certain words or phrases might have come to my attention with a meaning I wasn’t aware of before. Also, I often put in things that I have overheard people say, on the street for instance. Suddenly something fixes itself in the flow that is going on around one and seems to have a significance. In fact, there is an example of that in this poem, “What Is Poetry” In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: “It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?” I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.
This past, rainy week offered a welcome opportunity to go Ashberying once again, for ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) is in session, and the topic last week was the so-called New York School of Poets, of which Ashbery is a “member.” It all started innocently enough. I posted a link to the best essay on Ashbery I’ve ever read, The Meandering Yangtze by poet Charles Bernstein (the title is a phrase from Ashbery’s poem, Into the Dusk-Charged Air). Prompted by Eric Alan Weinstein’s suggestion that Bernstein on Ashbery would make a good topic for a discussion forum (or as we sometimes say, a thread), I followed up and started one. Well, it’s a good thing it was a rainy week.
As of Monday afternoon, the thread had garnered 270 posts, countless comments, and 815 views. Below are some glimpses of the effervescent and often hilarious conversation on the thread, accompanied, in the right-hand margin, by quotations from John Ashbery’s Into the Dusk-Charged Air. (Ashbery wrote the poem with the constraint of including the name of a river in every line, though Ashbery, being Ashbery, departed from the constraint from time to time.)
. . . You cannot like the Saskatchewan, nor refuse
The meandering Yangtze . . .
Mandana: “‘Into the Dusk Charged Air’ is one of my favorite Ashbery poems (not to say I’ve read them all). The meandering Yangtze DOES ultimately flow into the other rivers, and I like to think that in Ashbery’s world, there is a clearly personal topography that maps out his work and his connections . . . . We are asked to view different borders and boundaries, and make our own connections.
“More and more I don’t consider him offering us any ‘instruction manual’ – we write our own manual and though pieces of it – sometimes long and meandering pieces of it – relate to others, ultimately, like those trees, it is ours alone.”
. . . The Amstel flows slowly.
Leaves fall into the Connecticut as it passes
Underneath. . . .
Nathan Walker: “Rivers and Mountains Wind and Water and their courses and behaviors are some of the most frequent visitors to Ashbery Poems. They do not ‘mean’, they are. They move along and do things, and have form and a life-cycle, they stop and start. That is what Ashbery poems are too. . . . The poems are not descriptive of natural phenomena or features, they are natural phenomena, which move through and occur in the medium of the poet and flow out into the world.”
The Harlem flows amid factories
And buildings. The Nelson is in Canada,
Flowing. . . .
Eric Alan Weinstein: “Many of [Ashbery’s] poems lead me towards Levinas, via meandering paths of respectful engagement, recording, and play.
Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
REK: “Ashbery is to Emerson as Emerson is to Thoreau as Thoreau is to shrubs. All natural all the time, like life and death playing without a net. And, just to clarify the water I just spilled, ‘Yes, S, I, too, love not mopping up. Could It be any clearer, but then why drink?’”
If the Rio Negro
Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
The jungle flowers, the Tagus
Would still flow serenely . . .
T. De Los Reyes: “. . . another line that struck me in the Bernstein essay is ‘beholden to nothing and to no one, except perhaps the river at their feet’. He was speaking of the mountains, of course, but I also can’t help but think of readers. Not to say that we are towering creatures, but I quite like the idea of being beholden to something. Poems are rivers, and I can’t think of anything more wonderful to be beholden to.”
. . . The Theiss, stark mad, bubbled
In the windy evening. . . .
John Weems: “The man is one of the world’s great humorists. . . . I remember a great line in one of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet novels, ‘a little humor could have saved him.’ Ashbery was saved!”
The interminable Lena plods on
Susan Scheid: [about Ashbery’s poem Hotel Lautréamont] “Now, this is going to sound a bit earthbound . . . but I was (and am) fascinated by Ashbery’s choice of the pantoum form. What’s so amazing to me about this is that he’s working within a pre-determined constraint . . . . And yet, because of his choice of lines, the poem is quintessentially Ashberian in mode—he’s made the form work to his purposes, rather than the other way around.
. . . The Manzanares gushes free.
The Illinois darts through the sunny air again.
But the Dnieper is still ice-bound. . . .
Lowell Murphree: [about the Bernstein essay and Ashbery’s The Skaters] “. . . my initial impression is that the relationship between the analysis and the journey is that the journey embodies the ‘move through this as though you don’t know what is about to happen’ theme established in the first lines. We literally don’t know what is going to happen in the journey on the river just as we can’t know ‘Skaters’ as a predictable narrative.”
. . . The Madeira slavers
Across the thawing fields, and the Plata laughs.
Mary Manning: “Linear logic is no help here. It is the place where we got into trouble.”
The quotations from ModPo classmates may be found in the ModPo discussion forum entitled Charles Bernstein on John Ashbery (or, The River Makes Its Way Without Making Sense); with grateful thanks to each participant for granting permission to be quoted here. Anyone enrolled in ModPo has access to ModPo discussion forums. It’s easy to join, and it’s free. Click here for more information.
With thanks to Kyle Gann for setting me on the trail of the Concord Sonata.
Instrumentation/Orchestra: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum (finale only), xylophone (finale only), strings
Program notes on the Sixth Symphony are included here.
Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata
Jeremy Denk plays “The Alcotts” from the Concord Sonata
The Jeremy Denk CD containing the Concord Sonata may be found here. The performance is stupendous, and the liner notes are stupendous, too.
Carl Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony (The fourth movement begins at 23:00.)
Information on the Gilbert/New York Philharmonic Nielsen Project may be found here.
Credits: All quotations may be found at the links indicated in the text. The photographs are mine, all taken on the covered bridges route in western Connecticut. The route follows the Housatonic River, also named in Into the Dusk-Charged Air (“Few ships navigate/On the Housatonic”).