Breezeway Homage No. 6, The Enthusiasts

The Enthusiasts, Susan Scheid (2015)

The Enthusiasts, Susan Scheid (2015)

The collage pays homage to John Ashbery’s poem “The Enthusiasts” in the volume Breezeway. Ashbery has an uncanny ability to interleaf the elegiac with wistful humor. Perhaps it’s nothing more than understanding life and living for what it is, a series of unaccountable moments that may add up to something or may not, but just the same combine to limn a life.

Listening List

Franz Liszt, La lugubre gondola (1882-85)

On Spotify (S200/1 and 2)

On YouTube

Ashbery’s poem includes a reference to “the lugubrious gondola,” more than enough to give rise to an association with Liszt’s late piano work:

It is December 1882, and another composer in his early seventies is staying with his daughter and her family in Venice. Richard Wagner, the son in law, is renting the entire principal floor of the Palazzo Vendramin, and though accommodation has to be found for the children, their tutors, the servants, and two gondoliers, there is room for Liszt. Familiar with Rome, Liszt is fascinated by Venice, and fascinated especially by Venetian funerals: the black-draped coffins ferried by gondola over the glugging gray lagoon to the cemetery island of San Michele. Perhaps alternating at the piano with Wagner, who has thoughts of turning from Parsifal to a symphony, he sets down a composition: La Lugubre Gondola. Two months later, Wagner will die in his Venetian palace, and Liszt will come to see the piece as a premonition, leaving us the possibility of Wagner having overheard, from another room, a foretaste of the final canal journey that was indeed to take his lifeless body from the palazzo to the railway station, for the return to Bayreuth.

There are three versions of the piece, of which La Lugubre Gondola II is the second, which might make sense, except that La Lugubre Gondola I is the third (and quite different). What Liszt originally wrote remained unpublished until recently; La Lugubre Gondola II is a revision, dating from January 1883 and published in 1885. An introduction in dialogue prefaces the main material, which is a death song heard in several transformations, finally as disintegrating melody without accompaniment. [citation]

The score of La Lugubre Gondola II (S. 200/2), a page of which is included in the collage, may be found here.


Credits: The text in the collage is the title of the Ashbery poem to which the collage relates. The image and underlying collage, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

8 thoughts on “Breezeway Homage No. 6, The Enthusiasts

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    My God those Liszt pieces are so beautiful! I miss so many of Ashbery’s cultural references.

    This poem is almost maddening when you try and figure it out–one of those that seems to invite deciphering and then resists it at every turn (any idea who Leonard or Mrs. Duvet might be, or are they just names?). Mainly it’s bursting with contrasts: young/old, experience/inexperience, inside/outside…. “Occupy it by dint of occupying it” seems to be key: get in there and live it; it’s the only way you’ll know anything. And then that heart-stopping sense of loss at the end, when an artful gondola to nowhere suddenly arrests movement (like all those petals falling off the flowers to the table below).

    I see something of the contrasts in the poem to your artists in the process of creation next to structures already in existence, the green on that tabletop a necessary note of something comestible, fresh, like that note of lemongrass–you see such notes often in these poems. That sense you often have in Ashbery’s poems that life is emerging and growing in so much unknowing and discovery amongst the already grown, already built and established.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I miss 99.9% of Ashbery’s cultural references, to be sure. I’ve no idea on Leonard or Mrs. Duvet, though the latter reminds me of a name one might find in a Britcom (I think of Mrs. Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, which she insists on pronouncing as Mrs. Bouquet). I absolutely agree with you about the centrality of “Occupy it by dint of occupying it”–the merit is in the doing, not the purpose, and how wonderful to use the word “occupy,” which, as often used, is so terribly purposeful. It is, perhaps, what we must do in reading the poem: simply be “in” it, recognizing that it will continually elude our attempts to decipher meaning.

      I found the contrast between the first stanza’s “single dream” quashing “outside solicitations,” and the second stanza, which takes us emphatically (italicized “This”) outside, stunning. A propos of that sense of moving from inside to outside I thought these particularly powerful lines: “It takes tools to deploy the core of your dream,/face a common ford others have crossed too” (those “artists in the process of creation next to structures already in existence”–or I might say artists in the process of creation in the face of all the art that has come before). Then, proceeding from those lines, meaning that seemed almost within grasp slips away again–for what are we to do with a line like “Bilingual bullying was on the next floor”?

      Your comment, “that heart-stopping sense of loss at the end,” is beautifully put. Where one places the emphasis in reading the last passage “He was/just standing over there,/talking to them” seemed to me significant. At first I read it as simply a descriptor, and then I realized how it could be read as a wistful remembrance of someone no longer alive. Add to that associating to Liszt’s pieces and listening to them alongside, the expression of loss became palpable as never before.

  2. shoreacres

    It seems to me that this poem is tighter than the others you’ve presented. At least, the structure seems clearer.

    For example, the first line, “That building has won over everything” finally is given a referent near the end, where we find, “the heart’s buildings — simply ripping.” In like manner, I can’t escape the feeling that

    “You could live like a girl of thirteen
    in a single dream,
    quash outside solicitations,
    go back to sleep every time…”

    is nicely paired with “Go smack into Mrs. Duvet.” I don’t think Mrs. Duvet is a person at all, but a thing: specifically, a duvet. The phrase “a duvet day” denotes a day when an employee can phone in and say, “I’m not coming to work,” even without the excuse of illness, or whatever. In short, it’s a day when you can crawl back under the covers and not face whatever’s out there.

    It feels to me as though engagement with life has been sandwiched between adolescent ennui and adult avoidance. How to cope? Maybe those Saratoga waters are meant to represent the healing mineral waters of Saratoga Springs. Who knows? I certainly don’t, but I did like this poem.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: You are, I am not surprised to see, a very fine “close reader” of poems. (I am not.) I love the “duvet day” association–a new one for me, and that reference does indeed provide a great counterpoint to the young girl dreaming. There does seem to be a definite arc to this poem: we start with a building (inside and dreaming/avoiding the outside), then we venture outside, as we must (“This is outside, and remiss:/It takes tools to deploy the core of your dream,” but into the bargain we receive rich rewards (“the entire breeze,/right on the tabletop here,” perhaps my favorite moment in the poem). The poem then wends back indoors (“Get IN and learn something”) to the heart’s buildings, and even further indoors, to “lock yourself in/the lugubrious gondola.”

      Most of all, it’s “simply ripping” to have you here as part of this conversation.

      1. shoreacres

        I have to confess I didn’t have a clue what “close reading” might be. I’ve seen the phrase here and there, but never explored it. I finally did. I confess I laughed. Back in the day, I think we called it “reading.” If I’m a good close reader, it’s thanks to my teachers in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of what I read about today’s close reading techniques reminded me more of dissection day in the biology lab than engagement with a text. I could be wrong, of course.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          shoreacres: Your analogy to biology lab made me laugh. I’d never heard the term “close reading” until I took the ModPo course. I like the approach there–the readings are a group effort, so lots of different points of view, and it’s fascinating how many different takes there are on even a single phrase in a poem. Far different from the dry academic approach that can indeed seem like dissection day!

          1. Steve Schwartzman

            If you’ll permit a casual reading, my initial reaction is akin to Linda’s, and I’m inclined to treat the phrase “close reading” as one more example of the semantic equivalent of grade inflation. For example, you now rarely hear about a group making a decision, but rather a final decision. On most websites that require a log-in, when you sign out you won’t be told that you’ve logged out but that you’ve successfully logged out. In around 1980 I criticized a piece in The Mathematics Teacher which, short though the piece was, unnecessarily inserted the word actively in front of four verbs (and notice that I didn’t just write “four different verbs”). In a similar way, it seems that increasingly many speakers nowadays unnecessarily stick actually in front of a verb, even when they’re not contrasting that verb with anything else. I could give many more examples, but you get the point.

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              Steve: Love your casual reading! I know what you mean about semantic inflation. I try hard to avoid it, but am sure I fall foul of it sometimes. The term “close reading,” though, doesn’t ruffle my semantic feathers, as it’s a term of art used to identify a particular technique for reading poems. Though I’m not much good at it, I enjoyed participating in and watching videos of collaborative close readings in ModPo. I got a lot out of it, and it was fun to see what different people saw in any individual poem.

Comments are closed.