Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

John Ashbery, _Flow Chart_

GIVEN THE MULTIPLE-UNIVERSES hypothesis, somewhere there is a world where one day each year is devoted to public readings of John Ashbery's Flow Chart, in its entirety. Excerpts are read at weddings and at funerals. It is the classic graduation gift, its distinctive square shape giving the secret away before it is even unwrapped -- Flow Chart is this world's Oh, the Places You'll Go!

I would gladly live on this world.

Marjorie Perloff, in the blurb on the back of my paperback copy, calls Flow Chart "a very long poem that recalls Wordsworth's Prelude," and yes, it does -- insofar as it seems autobiographical, only the autobiography may not necessarily be Ashbery's, and the speaker relates the story of his life as if to someone who knows the whole of it already and only needs the right triggering allusions (is Ashbery his own Coleridge, both the "I" and the frequently invoked "you" here?).

What do I most like about Flow Chart? The versatile voice, tacking from drily camp to painfully direct to Stein-ian impenetrability, sometimes in the same sentence? The final section, as powerful as the fifth and final movements of each of Eliot's Four Quartets in mapping the maker's relationship to his art and its audience, which interrupts itself to announce, "Excuse me while I fart. There, that's better. I actually feel relieved." The unfailingly persuasive rhythm, the wise sonorities that end in giggles, the nod and the wink as you are led to the abyss?

I give up. Let's just quote:

Once, a whale will be kind, and no other grief can exist after
that. (54)

Although we mattered as children, as adults we're somehow counterfeit
And not briefed as to what happened in the intervals to which this longing led us,
which turns out to be not so tragic after all, but merely baroque, almost functional. (77)

What right have you to consider yourself anything but an enormously eccentric though
not too egocentric character, whose sins of omission haven't omitted much,
whose personal pronoun lapses may have indeed contributed to augmenting the hardship
silently resented among the working classes? (150)

Excellent is the peach, and stirring the tales
of battle, the calls to emulation. But excellent also is the spat-out pit, the ideal
of zero growth, when it comes to that. (196)

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