The Poet is Dead: John Ashbery’s Talk on ‘The New York School’

The Poet is Dead: John Ashbery’s Talk on ‘The New York School’

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. . .” (Eliot, Hamlet, 1919).

Given the flavors of Individualism and Surrealism steeping the tone of John Ashbery’s talk, the residue of Enlightenment (à l’Eliot) doesn’t translate well into Modernity. Key words being: “formula,” “facts,” “must terminate,” it’s no mind-bending surprise that an avant-garde artist in mid-century of the “Now” would reject his being pinned down by a label that would suggest his job as Creator to be otherwise. According to his talk “The New York School of Poets” (at the National Book Awards symposium, 1968), there is one thing that he can be certain of: “I feel that [poetry] should be anything that it wants to be.” First of all, that rings of a pillar in a Modernist Manifesto, (certainly not unlike Marionetti and the rest of the Futurists of the early twentieth century–Pound’s “Make it new,” has indeed been percolating through the artistic ecosystem for half a century), but even more strikingly, he shifts the agency of creation from himself to his poetry. In other words, it is not ‘his’ making poetry whatever he wants it to be, it is the nature of the poetry to assume an agency over the role of the author. (“The plume leaps in the hand” (line 9, “Le Livre est sur la Table”).)

This is not to say the author has given up all traditional and Classical agency. Given his varying and unique structures to his poems to those of Frank O’Hara’s and other members of the New York School, there is a creative stroke, or several, that goes into the construction of each line, (with the exception of many-an-O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, where spontaneity, pop culture, and a disdain for conventional punctuation are resounding reverberations within the echoing structure of his pieces). Though despite these hard-earned strokes of arduous creativity, mentions of John Cage, Jackson Pollock, and a “fringe involvement” with the artists by the same name, the New York School draws inspiration from cultural structures that are not entirely of themselves. John Cage composed many of his paintings, as well as orchestral pieces (a term I’m using loosely in his case), using the i-Ching and thus inviting chance to compose the piece. Furthermore, Jackson Pollock wanted to demonstrate the ‘action’ of painting, thus his drips are driven predominantly by chance. Lastly, to claim “fringe involvement” to the painters’ school, Ashbery claims his last non-claim of dominant agency in composing his own works. Be this the first proverbial nail in the avant-garde author’s coffin, (because Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author” (1967) and Roland Barthes “The Death of the Author” (1977) are soon to shove the author’s agency over off the cliff), but perhaps the nature of being free in your poetry, as painters are “free in their paintings,” means the poet is free ‘of’ their poetry.