- "Render unto Caesura":Late Ashbery, Hölderlin, and the Tragic
There are few things more theatrical than death, one supposes, though one doesn't know.John Ashbery, Chinese Whispers
Readers of John Ashbery recognize one of his most characteristic lyric gestures to be his speaker's recovery from loss and the consolation to be found in a mood of nostalgic resignation. While this basic tone permeates Ashbery's work, it finds its fullest expression in his poems of the seventies, in which it seems that such loss and such yearning are the condition of lyric, the mode most attuned to the time in which things pass away.1 As much as lyric struggles for reconciliation through acceptance and resignation or fierce resistance and rage, its wisdom may amount to little more than poignant articulations of feelings that seem designed to skirt a larger dimension of the experience of mortality. While Ashbery remains a fundamentally lyric [End Page 180] poet, he also marks the limits of lyric in many ways that cannot be reduced to irony, though humor, irony, and multiple forms of indirection are his most characteristic strategies for remaining both lyrical and also aware of the limits of lyric. But these gestures respond nonetheless to a loss so fundamental as to be immeasurably stronger than Ashbery's usually ironic stagings of nostalgic yearning, which are symptoms of a lyricism that finds its own available modes intolerable. The lyric impulse of his work measures itself not only against his characteristic irony and parody, but also against a more powerful force that appears only in the stubborn refusal and anger it provokes in the speakers of his poems. Once this other tone is heard in Ashbery, the wry irony of his lyric mourning will sometimes unleash and sometimes suppress the more powerful force of a melancholic refusal that belongs not to a particular person or speaker, but to the very institution of poetry.
In spite of its many ironies, Ashbery's work is solidly grounded in the lyric tradition. However, it is also characterized by its often jarring or disorienting use of generic and modal tags or markers, which serve as if to indicate the boundaries of lyric, a point beyond which lyric leaves an excess of feeling, affect, and mood that its imagined situations and agents cannot fully work through. Rather than a generic indeterminacy, however, the result is a lyric poetry riven and interrupted by other genres and modes rather than mastering and containing them (as in, for example, a lyrical ballad or a lyrical tragedy). While I cannot provide a comprehensive account of the modes and genres that intersect in Ashbery's work, I want to consider one genre that I will claim has become more prominent in his late work: the tragic.2 While the ground that modern poetic practice [End Page 181] keeps opening is always lyric, underlying it is a conflict or struggle of forces that exceeds what lyric can represent, though lyric is nonetheless fundamental to the representation of the conflict. Lyric emerges against the ground of tragedy in Where Shall I Wander as a mode suited to the experience of mortality, but not to finitude: while lyric has perfected the forms of grief, it has nonetheless "lost death" (Blanchot 34).3 The experience of finitude is not accessible to the lyric because it is a mode shaped by the belief that Freud attributes to every subject: "in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality" (77). Reflecting on his mortality and his poetic career, Ashbery discovers that while lyric grieves things that pass away and a present that never is, it encounters its limit when the death of the poet is among those things that can never be present to the poem.4 Focusing largely on Ashbery's recent book Where Shall I Wander, I argue that the tragic makes visible the larger context that conditions lyric's concern with—or as Ashbery says in "Syringa" (Houseboat 71), its "regret" for—mortality. The tragic appears in Ashbery's work specifically through a series of allusions to the work of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770...