- “Whatever Charms is Alien”: John Ashbery’s Everything
If there’s one thing literary critics know, it is the value of making the known thing unfamiliar. For much of the past hundred years, writers and critics have associated the cognitive value of artworks with the process of defamiliarization. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Victor Shklovsky coined the term to describe how art disentangles things from cultural conventions and symbolic systems, and restores their perceptual immediacy, a vivid sense of their materiality. To defamiliarize, Shklovsky writes, is “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known.”1
While the sense of precisely why defamiliarization is valuable has varied from Russian formalism to Ezra Pound’s “make it new” to de Manian de-construction, the association of literary value with defamiliarization has proved remarkably consistent. This association seems capable of withstanding the most basic shifts in what we take literary value to be. If for Viktor Shklovsky the point of defamiliarization is to intensify perception, critics have recently identified defamiliarization as a literary technique that produces valuable social scientific knowledge. Bruno Latour, for example, finds a value in the defamiliarizing gaze, in which “even the most routine, traditional, and silent implements stop being taken for granted.”2 Defamiliarization brings to light the hidden agency of objects and suggests new ways of practicing sociology. Fredric Jameson writes that science fiction novels don’t “give us images of our future, but defamiliarize our sense of our present.”3 In this and many similar formulations, Jameson finds an elementary social value for writing. In giving us a view of things outside our conceptual scheme, defamiliarizing literature discloses the possibility that things might be different.
Make it new, make it strange, make our familiar conceptual and symbolic systems choke on it: writers, artists, and critics have wanted very different things over the past hundred years, but to a remarkable degree they [End Page 447] have pursued their different aims with defamiliarizing procedures. We know the value of making the known thing unfamiliar. In the following, I want to explore a different kind of value: the value of making the unknown thing familiar. I will argue that John Ashbery’s poetic career consists of a rigorous and sustained effort to take something you have never seen before and show you what it would look like if you had seen it every day of your life. This familiarizing procedure results in the invention of a new kind of aesthetic shape and a new kind of aesthetic value. The conclusion of my essay situates this new value, and the terms familiar and unfamiliar, in the context of the global, transnational, and transcultural horizon of current humanities scholarship.
In a 1977 essay on Raymond Roussel, Ashbery proposes a striking analogue for the kind of thing he wants to produce in his poetry. He writes that Roussel’s images “are like the perfectly preserved temple of a cult that has disappeared without a trace, or a complicated set of tools whose use cannot be discovered.”4 The artifact from another world,5 the tools of an unknown culture: these objects show up in Ashbery’s poems in a variety of registers. Sometimes they come from the past, as in the 2001 poem that finds the speaker “caressing the knocker, / a goblin’s face, that drew us back a hundred years.”6 Or consider this thing from the title poem of 2002’s Chinese Whispers: “Mute, the pancake describes you / it had tiny roman numerals embedded in its rim. / It was a pancake clock. They had ’em in those days . . . a hundred years ago.”7 Girls on the Run, a book-length narrative poem from 1999, inhabits the world of Henry Darger’s paintings and drawings, uncovering a “thighbone guitar,” a “pansy jamboree,” and “ice-cream gnomes.”8 The speaker of an Ashbery poem has a “money fish strapped to my thigh” (Whispers, 37); another refers to “Zombie set-tos, / the kind of thing.”9
Ashbery’s poems are elaborately constructed theaters where alien and unfamiliar objects appear as they would to someone who is familiar with them. I will attempt...