Breezeway Homage No. 10, “We have to live out our precise experimentation.”

"We have to live out our precise experimentation." Susan Scheid (2015)

“We have to live out our precise experimentation.” Susan Scheid (2015)

This collage, the last in the series, pays homage to the title poem “Breezeway” in John Ashbery’s newest collection. One is always guided, if not controlled, by one’s materials. I had no red shutters, no Batman, and no whipped cream; there were scores of other things I did not have—but what I do have is the spirit of the poem to guide me. As I chose images and cut and pasted, it struck me that Ashbery is, at bottom, an optimistic man, with a head full of wonder, wit, and whimsy and a limitless capacity to create.

Listening List

George Frideric Handel, Il pastor fido (HWV 8) (1712)

On Spotify (complete opera, David Bates/La Nuova Musica)

On YouTube: Overture (Trevor Pinnock/The English Concert)

“He patted his dog Pastor Fido,” so saith the poem Breezeway. As it turns out, a fellow named Giovanni Battista Guarini (1538-1612) wrote a tragicomedia pastorale called Il pastor fido, published in Italian in 1590 and translated into English as The Faithful Shepherd in 1647. George Frideric Handel based an opera on the work, first performed in London in 1712. It was not a hit. “The opera diary of Francis Colman, a playwright and later Envoy Extraordinary at Florence, records that ‘The Scene represented only ye Country of Arcadia. ye Habits were old. – ye Opera Short’.” [citation] A contemporary reviewer asks (and answers) why we should listen now:

A maladroit libretto, a cobbled-together score, a poor reception: What, then, does Il pastor fido have to offer an audience today? First, there’s the fresh, lyrical charm of youthful Handel. The music of the first two acts is generic by circumstance, being mostly borrowed from earlier material, but it is also of high quality, while the third act achieves a dramatic stature that points clearly to the future. The orchestration is simple, but used with imagination. . . [citation]

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Credits: The text in the collage is from Ashbery’s poem “Breezeway.” The sources for quotations used in the post may be found at the indicated links. The image and underlying collage, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

16 thoughts on “Breezeway Homage No. 10, “We have to live out our precise experimentation.”

  1. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    I read the very interesting poem – and the interpretation of the Guardian, which I find a bit adventurous.
    Then I looked up the first thing that sprang to my mind – the Rolling Stones’ lyrics of “Suck on the Jugular” – “Keeping myself to myself” Mick sings, “My nose is clean// But I’m a man/ Not a machine”
    Well – I quote it because of the “Keeping myself to myself” – this seems to me an underlying tone of the poem – and the distance to all those people who believe they know exactly how to save the world- heroes like Batman. With “Alas it wasn’t my call”. maybe Ashbery mocks the simplistic view that some Gutmenschen and “peace beaters” (another variation of Batman’s clubbing?) have,
    I love your collage, Sue!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I chuckled at your word choice on the Guardian review, “a bit adventurous”–I feel I can hear a pregnant pause before the phrase. Even better do I love your own association to The Rolling Stones’ song, and your gloss on it, that “this seems to me an underlying tone of the poem – and the distance to all those people who believe they know exactly how to save the world- heroes like Batman,” comports exactly with my own view of Ashbery’s stance. Glad, of course, that you enjoyed the collage!

  2. sackerson

    A collage definitely in the spirit of an Ashbery poem – a poet I first read in “English and American Surrealist Poetry” (Penguin).

    And the poem in question reminded me it’s a long time since I ate baklava.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      sackerson: That baklava passage is priceless: “The mission girls came through the woods
      in their special suitings. It was all whipped cream and baklava.” I thought I’d see what came up if I “googled” “mission girls,” and this is what I found: https://youtu.be/ptxRrYvNAUw. It’s too new for Ashbery to have had it in mind, but I think it’s got its own sort of whipped cream and baklava–the sweetness and light in doing what’s right, maybe? I tried also to find the TOC for the Penguin book to see what else might be considered “Surrealist” American poetry, to no avail. It somehow seems off-kilter to me to put Ashbery in a “surrealist” box, or really any box, but what do I know? A wise poet-philosopher-artist, however, once said this, which I like very much: “For Ashbery, as for Lautréamont, the Surrealist techniques, particularly automatism, are never ends in themselves. One must dream lucidly.” http://nicelledavis.com/2010/02/08/mark-kerstetter-hybrid-locations/

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    I love that you found a musical reference to Pastor Fido, one I’m sure Ashbery knew about too. I never would have thought to look, and I’m so ignorant of the classics. The Trevor Pinnock English Concert is one of my favorite groups in any genre of music. To my ear no one does baroque music better; I just love them.

    This will be the last you say? Bummer. But ten is not a bad number. And this one, the title one, is like a banner, most flag-like with those vertical bands of color. There’s a very up-and-down, right-and-left I might call it a ‘criss-cross’ movement to this one. Funny how that cartoon bird comes out of the egg, looks right and left, goes back into the egg just behind the roofline of that human habitation. And there’s no breezeway in “Breezeway”.

    Skimming through the comments in the Guardian article that accompanies the poem I’m surprised Carol Rumens found anger and impatience. I don’t feel any of that. I agree with you, that “Ashbery is, at bottom, an optimistic man, with a head full of wonder, wit, and whimsy and a limitless capacity to create.” I find above all in his work joy. Yes there is sometimes melancholy, and sometimes great thoughtfulness, but above all there is joy, love, and positivity. Today I walked downtown through a parking area surrounded by a government building, an apartment building for the elderly, a school (children were in the playground) and a guy was using one of those annoying leaf blowers. I had to walk around the edge to avoid him, and there was a man sitting on a chair doing nothing and a woman on her balcony alone in a bright red dress doing nothing, and it was as crisp out as the English Concert. The poem “Breezeway” feels like that to me. It’s life. Each of us lives out our “precise experimentation”. And each moment in those lives is absolutely unique.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Believe you me, on Pastor Fido, that was pure serendipity. I had a hunch, followed it, and lo. I do love making little connections–and that it led to an English Concert performance of the overture was, shall we say, gravy (for the prisoners). I was actually a bit sorry to have to link Rumens’s comments in order to link the poem for those who don’t have the book; but then, folks can make of it what they want. I think she tries too hard to connect the dots, and, with you, I think she’s off the mark on “anger” and “impatience.” Indeed, I’d say Ashbery has the patience of Job (as they say), greeting adversity (“Batman came out and clubbed me) with a bemused shrug (“He never did get along with my view of the universe”) and, meanwhile, staying his course.

      You know, I like very much the idea of this particular collage as a banner, an homage not only to the poem “Breezeway,” but to the book as a whole, in a sort of celebratory final lap. As part of that final lap, your comment on joy takes me back to the beginning of my own walk with Ashbery. The epigraph for that first Ashbery post was from you: “His basic attitude toward language is joy. It amazes me how many people have a problem with that.” (from this great review of yours: http://nicelledavis.com/2010/02/08/mark-kerstetter-hybrid-locations/) And do you know, I’m just now realizing, the image I put at the head of that post was a collage, about which you wrote: “Now, will we be seeing more collages?” http://prufrocksdilemma.blogspot.com/2011/06/alice-in-ashberyland.html

      So many passages from Ashbery come to mind in this act of coming full circle (from Soonest Mended, say, “Making ready to forget, and always coming back/To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago”). Yet I think the lines I love most for the culmination of the Breezeway Homage project are yours, from your own walking around: “and there was a man sitting on a chair doing nothing and a woman on her balcony alone in a bright red dress doing nothing, and it was as crisp out as the English Concert. The poem “Breezeway” feels like that to me. It’s life. Each of us lives out our “precise experimentation”. And each moment in those lives is absolutely unique.”

  4. jennywoolf

    The collage to me goes very well with the Handel – I have not heard Il Pastor Fido before but I am slowly becoming a fan of little known, overlooked or forgotten operas. I need to hear more of them.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      jennywoolf: How interesting that the collage, for you, went well with the Handel! I can sort of see that, though I didn’t have it in mind at the time of creation . . . well, I take that back, as I did put in a dancing dog as a sort of loose stand-in for Pastor Fido (the dog in Ashbery’s poem Breezeway, to which the collage is my response).

  5. David N

    So pleased you found a link which let me read the poem – I like the idea that Ashbery lets his readers bang around in his wonderland and draw their own conclusions, or rather ideas. I’m fascinated to know how you ended up with puffins, glorious eccentric birds…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Such a quotidian reason for those marvelous puffins: We have a big stack of bird and nature magazines! Their glorious eccentricity (and I love your phrase there) seemed a perfect match for almost any Ashbery poem. I do like the idea of “banging around in his wonderland,” too, a wonderful way to put it!

  6. shoreacres

    Well, I come at this one with nearly twenty years’ worth of church life behind me, and I laughed all the way through. Think for a moment: what if Pastor Fido were, in fact, a pastor? They’re often patted on the head, after all.

    Now, start from the beginning. There’s, “I didn’t have a call or anything resembling one.” Congregations call pastors, and pastors are expected to have a call to ministry. And then there’s, “A breeze falls from a nearby tower…” Wind is a traditional metaphor for the spirit of God, and as for that tower — well, you live in the Land of Many Steeples. The Elias/Edsel juxtaposition? A mighty prophet vs. a lost-profit car. And those mission girls? All whipped cream and baklava? If that’s not a worthy symbol of certain Ladies’ Aid societies, I don’t know what would be.

    That leaves Batman, of course, and it ought to be pretty clear by how who he is. If it’s not, Ashbery offers a hint with that last, capitalized “Him.” “Is there a Batman somewhere, who notices us and promptly looks away…”? Quite a line, that. And, from my perspective quite a poem: darkly humorous, and perfectly pitched to capture the absurdities connected to human beings attempting to communicate divine realities.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Oh, la, you have outdone yourself (and that was already a pretty tall order) with this one! I’m (almost) glad none of this occurred to me at all as I was making my collage. It certainly would have looked a whole lot different (assuming, of course, I had appropriate materials). I will never think of this poem again without your commentary in mind. Priceless!

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        shoreacres: PS: Just struck me that, last round, you wrote you looked forward to the post even more for the collage than for the poem. What a difference a poem makes, eh? I’m so pleased you’ve come along “On the Road to Ashbery” (to borrow from your current post’s title) here!

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